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A Literature From Below | The Nation

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A Literature From Below

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The role of the public intellectual--and the moral onus, assuming that one exists--seems ever to thread the Scylla of celebrity and the Charybdis of marginality. In a conversation printed in part simultaneously in the French daily Le Monde and German weekly Die Zeit, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Nobel laureate Günter Grass discussed the role of intellectuals in society, stylistic practices in sociology and literature, neoliberal economics, the emerging world order and other topics. The following is adapted from a translation from the French by Deborah Treisman. Bourdieu is a professor of philosophy at the Collège de France, was founder in 1975 of the journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, and is author of, among other works: The State Nobility (1996), The Rules of Art (1996), On Television (1998), The Weight of the World (1999) and Pascalian Meditations (2000). Grass, a native of Danzig (now Gdansk), defines himself as a "citizen writer" and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. Among his works are The Tin Drum (1959), From the Diary of a Snail (1972), The Rat (1987), Dog Years (1989), The Flounder (1989) and My Century (1999).

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Pierre Bourdieu:

You have spoken somewhere of "the European or German tradition"--which is also, by the way, a French tradition--of "opening your big mouth." I am delighted that you received the Nobel Prize, and I am also delighted that you haven't been transformed by receiving the Nobel, that you are as inclined as you ever were to "open your big mouth." I am hoping that we can open our big mouths together.

Günter Grass:

It is relatively rare for a sociologist and a writer to meet in a German setting. In my country, it is more common for philosophers to gather in one corner of the room, the sociologists in another corner and the writers, all giving each other the cold shoulder, in the back. A communication of the kind we are undertaking now is the exception to the rule. When I think of your book The Weight of the World or of my last book, My Century, I see that our works have something in common: We are trying to retell History, as seen from below. We do not talk over society's head; we do not speak as conquerors of History; rather, in keeping with the nature of our profession, we are notoriously on the side of the losers, of those who are marginalized or excluded from society. In The Weight of the World, you and your collaborators were able to put your individuality aside and to base your work on pure understanding, without claiming always to know better: The result was a snapshot of social conditions and the state of French society that could easily be superimposed on other countries. I am tempted, writer that I am, to mine your stories for raw material. For example, the study of the young woman who came from the country to Paris in order to sort mail at night. The description of her job makes one understand the social problems without harping on them in an ostentatious manner. I was very pleased by that. I wish that there were such a book about the social conditions in every country.

The only question that struck me comes, perhaps, from the sociological domain: There is no humor in this genre of writing. It lacks the comedy of failure, which plays such an important role in my stories, the absurdity inherent in certain confrontations.

Bourdieu:

You have written magnificently about a certain number of the experiences we evoke. But the person who hears these stories directly from the one who experienced them is often wiped out by them or overwhelmed, and it isn't always possible to maintain one's distance from them. We felt, for example, that we had to exclude a certain number of narratives from the book because they were too poignant or too pathetic, too painful.

Grass:

When I speak of "comedy," I don't mean to imply that tragedy and comedy are mutually exclusive, that the boundaries between the two don't fluctuate.

Bourdieu:

Absolutely.... That's true.... In fact, what we aim to do is to make our readers see that raw absurdity, without any special effects. One of our rules was that there would be no turning of the stories into "literature." This may seem shocking to you, but there is a temptation, when one is dealing with dramas like these, to write well. The rule here was to be as brutally pragmatic as possible, to allow these stories to retain their extraordinary, and almost unbearable, violence. There were two reasons for this: scientific reasons and, also, I think, literary ones, because we chose not to be literary precisely in order to be literary in another sense. There are also political reasons. We felt that the violence being perpetrated at the moment by the neoliberal politics established in Europe and Latin America and in many other countries--that the violence of the system is so vast one cannot explain it through purely conceptual analysis. Our critical resources are no match for the effects of this political system.

Grass:

We are both, the sociologist and the writer, children of the European Enlightenment, of a tradition that has now been thrown into question everywhere--or, at least, in France and Germany--as if the European movement toward Aufklärung, toward Enlightenment, had failed. Many of its early aspects--we need only think of Montaigne--have been lost over the course of the centuries. Humor is one of them. Voltaire's Candide and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, for example, are books in which the social conditions described are equally horrifying. Yet, even in pain and in failure, the human capacity for comedy and, therefore, victory, comes through.

Bourdieu:

Yes, but our sense of having lost the tradition of the Enlightenment is tied to the complete reversal of our vision of the world that has been imposed by the neoliberal vision that dominates today. I think (and here, in Germany, I can make this comparison), I think that the current neoliberal revolution is a conservative revolution--in the sense that one spoke of a conservative revolution in Germany in the thirties--and a conservative revolution is a very strange thing: It's a revolution that restores the past and yet presents itself as progressive, a revolution that transforms regression into progress--to the extent that those who oppose this regression seem themselves to be regressing. Those who oppose terror come to seem like terrorists. It's something that we have both experienced: We voluntarily classify ourselves as archaic--in French, we are called ringards (old-timers), arriérés (outdated).

Grass:

Dinosauria...

Bourdieu:

Dinosaurs--exactly. That is the great strength of conservative revolutions, or "progressive" restorations. Even what you're saying, I believe, illustrates the idea. We are told: You're not funny. But the era is really not funny! Honestly, there is nothing to laugh about.

Grass:

I have never claimed that we were living in an amusing era. But the infernal laughter triggered by literary means is also a form of protest against our social conditions. What is peddled today as neo-liberalism is a return to the methods of the Manchester liberalism of the nineteenth century. In the seventies, in most of Europe, there was a relatively successful effort to civilize capitalism. If you believe in the principle that both socialism and capitalism are the charmingly spoiled children of the Enlightenment, then you also have to admit that they have had a certain way of keeping each other in check. Even capitalism has been subject to certain responsibilities. In Germany, we call this the social economy of the market, and there was a general consensus, which included the conservative party, that the conditions of the Weimar Republic should never be reproduced. This consensus broke down in the early eighties. Since the Communist hierarchies fell apart, capitalism has come to believe that it can do anything, that it has escaped all control. Its polar opposite has defaulted. The rare remaining responsible capitalists who call for prudence do so because they realize that they have lost their sense of direction, that the neoliberal system is now repeating the errors of Communism by creating its own dogma, its own certificate of infallibility.

Bourdieu:

Yes, but the strength of this neoliberalism is that it has been applied, at least in Europe, by people who call themselves Socialists. Whether it's [Gerhard] Schröder or [Tony] Blair or [Lionel] Jospin, these are people who invoke socialism in order to further neoliberalism.

Grass:

It is a capitulation to economics.

Bourdieu:

At the same time, it has become extremely difficult to create a critical position to the left of the Social Democratic governments. In France, there was the great strike of 1995 that mobilized a large portion of the population--laborers, office workers, etc., and also intellectuals. Then there were a whole series of protests. There was the unemployed workers' demonstration, the European march to protest unemployment, the illegal immigrants' protest and so on. There was a kind of continuous agitation that obliged the Social Democrats in power to pretend, at least, to be participating in some sort of socialist discourse. But in practice this critical movement is still very weak, for the most part because it is limited to a national level. One of the most important questions, it seems to me, in the political arena, is to know how, on an international scale, to create a position that is to the left of the Social Democratic governments and that is capable of having a real influence on them. But I think that any attempt to create a European social movement at the moment would be very unlikely to succeed; and the question I ask myself is the following: What can we, as intellectuals, do to contribute to that movement, which is indispensable, because, despite what neoliberalism holds to be the case, all social victories have been won through battle? If we want to create a "social Europe," as they say, we must create a European social movement. And I think--it is my impression--that intellectuals bear a great deal of the responsibility for the creation of such a movement, because the nature of political domination is not only economic but also intellectual; it lies also on the side of belief. And that is why, I believe, we must "open our big mouths" and try to restore our utopia; because one of the defining qualities of these neoliberal governments is that they do away with utopias.

Grass:

The Socialist and Social Democratic parties also believed somewhat in that idea, when they claimed that the downfall of Communism would also wipe socialism off the globe, and they lost confidence in the European workers' movement that had existed, mind you, much longer than Communism had. If one abandons one's own traditions, one abandons oneself. In Germany, there have only been a few timid attempts to organize the unemployed. For years, I have been trying to tell the unions: You cannot content yourselves with supervising only the workers who have jobs--and who, as soon as they lose them, fall into a bottomless abyss. You must found a union for the unemployed citizens of Europe. We complain that the construction of Europe is taking place on a purely economic level, but the unions themselves have made no effort to find a form of organization and action that goes beyond the national framework and has an impact across borders. We must create a counterweight to this worldwide neoliberalism. But, to tell the truth, most intellectuals today swallow everything, and it gives them nothing but ulcers. Which is why I doubt that we can count exclusively on intellectuals. In France, it seems to me, one speaks always, without hesitation, of "the intellectuals," but my experiences in Germany have shown me that it's a mistake to believe that all intellectuals are on the left. You can find proof to the contrary throughout the history of the twentieth century, the Nazi era included: A man like Goebbels was an intellectual. For me, being an intellectual is not a proof of quality. Your book The Weight of the World shows how those who come from the working world, who are union members, often have more experience in the social domain than intellectuals do. Those people are now unemployed or retired and no one seems to need them anymore. Their potential is lying fallow.

Bourdieu:

Let me go back for one second to the book The Weight of the World. It is an attempt to attribute a much more modest and, I believe, more useful function than one usually does to the efforts of the intellectual: the function of "public writer." The public writer--and I've witnessed this in the countries of North Africa--is someone who knows how to write and who lends his talent to others so that they can express the things they know, on one level, far better than the person who writes them down. Sociologists are in a position that is unique. They are not like other intellectuals; they are primarily--though not always--people who know how to listen, how to decipher what they hear and how to transcribe and transmit it.

Grass:

But that means that we must also call on the intellectuals who situate themselves in the proximity of neoliberalism. There are those among them who are starting to ask themselves whether this circulation of money around the globe, which eludes all control, whether this form of madness that follows in the wake of capitalism might not be about to collide with some kind of opposition. Mergers, for example, without purpose or reason, that cause the "redundancy" of 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 people. All that counts for stock-market valuations is the maximization of profit.

Bourdieu:

Yes, unfortunately, it is not simply a matter of opposing and thwarting the dominant discourse that claims to represent a unanimity of voices. In order to fight it effectively, we must insure that the criticisms reach the public. We are constantly invaded and assaulted by the dominant discourse. A vast majority of journalists are often unconsciously complicit in the process, and it is incredibly difficult to break down that illusion of unanimity. First, because, in the case of France, it is difficult for anyone who is not very established and very well-known to get access to the public. When I said, at the beginning of this conversation, that I hoped you were going to "open your big mouth," it was because I think that established public figures are the only ones, in a sense, who can break the circle. But, unfortunately, they are often established precisely because they are unquestioning and soft-spoken and because we want to keep them that way, and there are very few who make use of the symbolic capital their position gives them to speak out, to speak frankly and to make sure that the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves are heard. In My Century, you evoke a series of historical events and a certain number of them touched me very much--I am thinking of the story of the little boy who goes to the Liebknecht demonstration and pees on his father's back. I don't know if it is based on a personal memory, but in any case it shows a very original way of learning about socialism. I also very much liked what you said about Jünger and Remarque: you say, between the lines, many things about the role of intellectuals and their complicity in tragic events--even in those they appear to criticize. I also liked what you said about Heidegger. That's one more thing we have in common. I have done a whole analysis of Heidegger's rhetoric, which has had a terrible effect in France almost to the present day.

Grass:

What is important for me in that story about Liebknecht is that you have, on one hand, Liebknecht, the agitator of youth--a progressive movement in the name of socialism is just beginning--and, on the other hand, the father who, in his enthusiasm, doesn't realize that his son, who is sitting on his shoulders, wants to get down. When the little boy pees on his father's neck, his father gives him a fierce spanking. This type of authoritarian behavior later causes the boy to enlist voluntarily when troops are being mobilized for the First World War--in other words, to do exactly the opposite of what Liebknecht was hoping to inspire young people to do. In My Century, I describe a professor who reflects, during a Wednesday seminar, on his reactions in 1966, '67 and '68. At the time, his point of departure was a philosophy of high ideas. And he has come back to it in the end. In between, he had several spurts of radicalism, and he was one of those who publicly tore Adorno to pieces from the podium. It is a very typical biography of the era. In the sixties, I was caught up in events. The student protests were necessary and they set more things in motion than the spokespeople of the pseudo-revolution of '68 wanted to admit. That is to say, the revolution didn't take place, it had no basis, but society did change. In From the Diary of a Snail, I describe how the students yelled when I told them: Progress is a snail. Very few wanted to believe it. We are both now at an age where we can, I agree, be sure to continue to open our big mouths, for as long as we retain our health; but our time is limited. I don't know what it's like in France--I don't think it's any better--but I believe that the younger generation of German literature has proven to have little inclination or interest in perpetuating the traditions of the Enlightenment, the tradition of opening your big mouth and interfering. If there is no renewal of that, no changing of the guard, then this aspect of the good European tradition will also be lost.

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