Recent French philosophy has been most passionately loved and hated for its militant radicalism. Figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault defined it through an intoxicating blend of subversive theory and progressive praxis that deployed academic erudition to wage war and wield influence in arenas of social struggle far grander than those of campus politics. As Diderot and Rousseau had done two centuries earlier (inspiring the French Revolution), so Sartre and Foucault made philosophy seem not just daringly chic but socially momentous. Through stirring acts of philosophically inspired protest, widely reported by the media, they gave the lay public a concrete (if distortedly one-sided) idea of how exciting and politically potent the work of progressive philosophy can be. But the more Sartre and Foucault became familiar icons for radical causes and inspirational gurus for the lumpen ranks of oppositional culture, the more suspicious they became to philosophers honed on ideals of analytic rigor and academic purism. Even if one shared the same left-wing causes, one’s politics (as we learned at Oxford) should be kept separate from one’s philosophical work, which could only be corrupted by the vulgarizing effects of media attention.
Many, therefore, hoped the subversive wave of militant French theory had finally (even shamefully) consumed itself when Foucault, after shifting his focus to aesthetic self-fashioning and the celebration of consensual S/M, died of AIDS in 1984. Pierre Bourdieu has proved them wrong. Even from the most reluctant quarters, there is growing recognition that Paris has a new “master thinker” worthy of the militant mantle of Sartre and Foucault. While Jacques Derrida, François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze always seemed far too slippery and cryptic to have real political impact, Bourdieu has shown that he can mobilize trade unions and social movements, not just graduate seminars. His views on society command particular authority through his distinctive specialist expertise. Having supplemented his philosophical education by retooling himself as a social scientist (initially to explore the culture and political struggles of Algeria), Bourdieu now speaks as the chairman of sociology at the prestigious Collège de France, where Foucault also taught.
Bourdieu’s wide-ranging corpus spans the fields of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, aesthetics, linguistics and political theory. Densely written and replete with complex graphs and statistical tables, his major works make demanding reading for even seasoned academics. Refusing to compromise scientific substance for slickness of style, Bourdieu is equally reluctant to risk the claim to objectivity by combining his research with political polemic–at least in academic texts. Politics, for this Frenchman, requires other kinds of papers and audiences, those rarely imported by our university or commercial presses. But thanks to the publication of Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market (deftly coupled with the paperback issue of last year’s On Television), American readers can now be properly introduced to the political Bourdieu; they can even get an inkling of some of his major theoretical ideas (like “field,” “habitus” and “reflexivity”) without toiling through weighty tomes of academic writing. They can see, for example, how the “field” of journalism, as “a structured social space” constituted by power relations and the values these relations establish, implicitly instills these values into all ambitious members of the field, thus defining the basic perceptual habits that determine what journalists see as newsworthy. This habitual way of seeing (and not seeing) results in a form of collective, unconscious censorship that, in turn, poses a higher-level burden on intellectuals who want their research to be socially productive. They need to think not only of the knowledge they provide but further, more reflexively, of the means to anticipate, avoid and counteract its mediatic muzzling or distortion.