Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Whither the intellectuals? A Critique of Pierre Bourdieu

I've been reading about intellectuals for all of my adult  lifetime.  In Ireland, to be called 'an intellectual' is a quasi-insult: composed half of grudging admiration,  and half of acidic revulsion at someone who is interested not only in the world but in thinking of it conceptually.  Irish literature and cultural life have mostly privileged the empirical and the expressive.   Two of the greatest Irish writers wrote devastating critiques of intellectual pretension in the eighteenth century: Burke's great counterblast at the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) argues that France's ailments come from its governance being taken over by the philosophes or their bastard brood, martyrs to abstraction who prefer to plan for a fantasy-rationalist polity than assist a real organic people or serve a venerable traditional authority whose appeal is inscribed in the hearts of human beings.  Swift, in Gulliver's Travels (1726), portrayed the 'projectors' of Laputa as desiccated, inhuman, and narcissistic, dwelling on an airborne island whose cloud-like condition reflects their vacuous inability to connect their ideas to reality or put them into practical usage.

The paradox, of course, was that Swift and Burke were themselves intellectuals: steeped in learning, supremely gifted writers,  capable of the most subtle thought,  and in command - whether by virtue of the Deanship of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, or membership of Parliament in London - of prominent platforms ideally suited to the dissemination of their ideas.  

My own reading was determined in particular, by my encounter - begun around 1988 and still underway - with the work of Edward Said.  Said was  most famous as, on the one hand, a brilliant literary critic, and on the other  hand, a powerful advocate for Palestinian freedom.  But his real concern, in many ways, which straddles these two areas, was the status, function, and moral-political responsibility of the intellectual.  For  all that  his most famous book, Orientalism (40 years old next year) was an erudite reading and critique of the philological, political, artistic, historical representation by the West of the Arab Middle  East since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, one of the book's underlying themes is the intellectual.   The movement of the book goes in two directions.   From Sylvestre de Sacy to Bernard Lewis, there is an accumulating and devastating reading of the established Western intellectuals and their discourse about 'the Orient', which is lambasted for the inhumanity hidden behind or secreted within its supposed humanism.  This is a long and trenchant naming of names, a scorching description of the trahison des clercs.  But within and parallel to, and because of this reading, there is the gathering coming-to-consciousness of the radical Palestinian intellectual.  Said quotes Gramsci, in the Introduction to Orientalism: 'The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is "knowing thyself" as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.  Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory'.  When Said then moves on to analyze the 'nexus of knowledge and power creating the "Oriental" and in a sense obliterating him as a human being', we realise that the whole book constitutes not only his effort to encourage his readers to 'unlearn the inherent dominative mode', but also his  own trajectory through the same process.

But Said's finest book is not Orientalism, not for me, anyway.  It is The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), an extraordinary collection of the essays he was publishing in the late 1960s and in the 1970s.  It is  not an exaggeration to say that this book stands, along with a few other lonely beacons such as Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Richard Ohmann's English in America, or Noam Chomsky's American Power and the New Mandarins, as a manual for academic-intellectual insurrection.  The  book's theme is intellectuals, but this time explicitly, and while it contains superb readings of writers as different as Conrad, Hopkins,  Mann and Massignon, the real undertow is the fate of putatively 'radical' criticism once it is institutionalised.  So we get tremendous manifestos for 'worldly' or 'secular' criticism or 'critical consciousness', or angry but insightful threnodies for the decline and emasculation of radical theory that seems to accompany its supposed refinement,  elaboration and adaptation into method.  Most powerfully, Lukács's great theory of reification-and-totality is followed from its beginnings on the streets of Budapest in 1919, as part of the weaponry of revolution, to its sad declension into a technical device in classrooms at the Sorbonne and at Cambridge in the hands of Lucien Goldmann, and even Raymond Williams - the latter a great critic Said  knew and admired.

With and through Said, I encountered a much wider literature on intellectuals - work by Chomsky, Edward Shils, Alvin Gouldner, Regis Debray, Julien Benda, Karl  Mannheim, Foucault, and Gramsci himself.  At the end of his life, Said's most frequent intellectual model was that of Adorno,  and I've often thought that the move from Lukács as rebellious exemplar to Adorno as resigned but recalcitrant is one of the major motifs of Said's intellectual career.   Final essays such as 'Travelling Theory Reconsidered', and the magnificent 'On Lost Causes' (both collected in Reflections on Exile) show how Minima Moralia gradually overtook History and Class Consciousness as the great motor of Said's project.

In the last decade of his life, Said, who had been one of the  most important American respondents to the new French thought of the 1960s and 1970s, became overtly and bluntly scornful of the pretensions of 'Theory'.  But one figure in the French pantheon with whom he struck up a personal friendship, if not an intellectual alliance, was the great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  Bourdieu wrote prodigious books and studies of various elements in French life - about education, maybe in particular,  but also about other strata or formations such as the civil service elite and the academic intellectuals.  He also wrote magnificent studies of the working poor of France - La misere du monde - and a wonderful sociology of cultural taste: Distinction, one of the most ruthless critiques of Kantian aesthetics to be found anywhere.   Bourdieu, in fact, wrote a great deal about culture high and low, and elements in his sociology of the cultural field, and of the positions and position-takings of activists in the field of culture bear comparison to Said's ideas of the worldly and institutional 'affiliations' which permit texts - even the most abstruse literary texts - to maintain their persistence as texts.  Bourdieu's arguments are in reality much more concrete and developed than Said's in this respect, and could be used to concretise and buttress Said's more Gramscian musings.

Bourdieu's sociology of French academics, translated as Homo Academicus, makes for salutary reading for those of us who grew up in the 1980s and were trained to revere and read the likes of Derrida, Lacan, and  Foucault, as the giants of French thought.  For Bourdieu showed us briskly that there was and  is a deep gulf between the intellectual prestige of 'French thought' as mediated through the Comparative Literature and  English Departments of great American universities, and the status accorded to those thinkers in their home country.  Derrida and Foucault, though admired and read, never attained the status in France that they did in America,  and other major French philosophers, with huge reputations in the Anglosphere - Deleuze is the obvious example here - were left in respectable  but hardly glamorous academic positions in the middle ranks  of the French scene.

Bourdieu was not a Marxist, though he was unquestionably a man of the Left.  He was bracingly sceptical of the Anglo obsession with French thinkers, even as he became lionised as one himself.   Here is a reading of him, posted on the superb new site set up by Jacobin.   Catalyst is a forum for more extended or scholarly treatments than what one normally sees in Jacobin - high as the standard of writing there  is.  For some of Catalyst's content, one must subscribe.   But this essay by Dylan Riley, professor of sociology at Berkeley, is free:

Bourdieu’s Class Theory: The Academic as Revolutionary


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