The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math in Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline–an unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this farcical project, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1), Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because they are leading the life of the mind–why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu’s gloomy predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward journalism and entertainment.
Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and political issues, something he suspected couldn’t be done on a talk show. His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in everything from amateur photography to posture. It’s hard to think of a comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky’s academic work has no connection with his political activities, and it’s been decades since his byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.
Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself “to the left of the left”–that is, to the left of the ossified French left-wing parties and also to the left of the academic postmodernists aka antifoundationalists, about whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of habitus–the formation and expression of self around an internalized and usually accurate sense of social destiny–tends to make ameliorative projects seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, “discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such despair.” Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high culture readily available–in free museums and local performances–is all that is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today’s America, this fond hope marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of de Gaulle’s minister of culture, André Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way class shapes cultural preferences or “taste,” there is nothing automatic or natural about the ability to “appreciate”–curious word–a Rothko or even a Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. Typically, though, Bourdieu used this discouraging insight to call for more, not less, effort to make culture genuinely accessible to all: Schools could help give working-class kids the cultural capital–another key Bourdieusian concept–that middle-class kids get from their families. One could extend that insight to the American context and argue that depriving working-class kids of the “frills”–art, music, trips–in the name of “the basics” is not just stingy or philistine, it’s a way of maintaining class privilege.
Although Bourdieu has been criticized as too deterministic–a few years ago The New Yorker characterized his views, absurdly, as leading “inexorably to Leninism”–he retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, including much gathered by himself, a faith in people’s capacities for transformation. He spent much of his life studying the part played by the French education system in reifying class and gender divisions and in selecting and shaping the academic, technocratic and political elite–the “state nobility”–that runs France, but he believed in education; he railed against the popularization and vulgarization of difficult ideas, but he believed in popular movements and took part in several. In one of his last books, Masculine Domination, he comes close to arguing that male chauvinism is a cultural universal that structures all society and all thought; he is that rare man who chastises feminists for not going far enough–but the book closes with a paean to love.
Bourdieu’s twenty-five books and countless articles represent probably the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era. Nonetheless, he is less influential on the American academic left than the (to my mind, not to mention his!) obscurantist and, at bottom, conservative French deconstructionists and antifoundationalists. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that Bourdieu made academia and intellectuals a major subject of withering critique: You can’t read him and believe, for example, that professors (or “public intellectuals,” or writers, or artists) stand outside the class system in some sort of unmediated relation to society and truth. The ground most difficult to see is always the patch one is standing on, and the position of the intellectuals, the class that thinks it is free-floating, is the most mystified of all. It was not the least of Bourdieu’s achievements that he offered his colleagues the means of self-awareness, and it’s not surprising either that many decline the offer. His odd and original metaphor of the task of sociology holds both a message and a warning: “Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their spotlight on our blinkers.”