28 01 07

Notes on Bourdieu

Gene Ray

It’s been five years since the French sociologist and activist Pierre Bourdieu died.  In Berlin, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the educational arm of the Leftist Party, marked his “death day” by putting on a two-day conference called “A Wide Field: The Left and Bourdieu.”[1]  (Does the day of his death mean something different than his birthday, as the occasion for an academic conference?  And if so, what?) In his last decade, Bourdieu became an energetic opponent of neoliberal economic policies.  His textual salvos, practical interventions, and effective organizing are impressive and inspiring.  Along with Noam Chomsky and a few others, he may be a last instance of that principled “public intellectual” targeted for extinction by market-driven structural adjustments in the universities.  Still, the affinities are obvious between Bourdieu and the Leftist Party, which more than others in the German parliamentary system has voiced a coherent opposition to the neoliberalist onslaught.  Presumably the aim of this conference was to explore how far these affinities extend to the large body of Bourdieu’s theoretical work and sociological research.  This is not a report on the conference, which I didn’t attend.  What follows is more like a supplemental contribution from the outside.  

A Theory of the Given

Anyone who has occupied “positions” and left traces of a “trajectory” in the contemporary art world will recognize a reflection of their own experiences in Bourdieu’s account of the logic and structure of the cultural field.  It’s immediately obvious that his elaborated conceptions of “field” and “habitus” have great descriptive and explanatory power.  And it’s hard to imagine now doing without his notion of cultural, academic, symbolic, and social “capital,” as a means to understand the different forms of power that are specific to the various sub-fields making up the “field of class relations.”  These forms of specific capital don’t simply or crudely reduce to economic capital, though they can often be converted into it.  However, all these specific forms of power share a common “economic logic.”  Bourdieu thus rejects the mechanistic base-superstructure model and reflection theory of what used to be called “vulgar” Marxist orthodoxy.  His theory and methodology - like those of the Frankfurt School – is a more subtle and (though he generally doesn’t use this term) dialectical form of materialist analysis.  Still, he claims that his “general science of the economy of practices” takes into account all the forces and forms of agency active in the social meta-field and, as such, is capable of analyzing “all practices, including those purporting to be disinterested or gratuitous, and hence non-economic, as economic practices directed toward the maximizing of material or symbolic profit.”[2] 

Bourdieu is always careful to situate different fields in time and place and to indicate their historical genesis.  But one is led to agree with the conclusion of one of his commentators, that for Bourdieu the competition for power and resources is a “universal invariant property” of all social fields - and thus a key aspect of every kind of cultural and political practice.[3]  Entry into any field is only granted to those who, demonstrating practically that they have learned the rules of the game, can accumulate sufficient specific capital to occupy a position and compete to accumulate more capital.  As an account of the given order - of the genesis, structure, and logic of the dominant parts of the capitalist world system – this amounts to a powerful theoretical description. 

What remains unclear is how far, if at all, Bourdieu’s work supports a radical push beyond this given.  We can read, and use, Bourdieu’s studies as an ideology critique of current reality.  But is it a critical theory, in the sense of a critique oriented to praxis, to the radical transformation of the given?  After working through five of his texts, including his major works on the cultural field, I’m still looking for the revolutionary horizon.  In this respect Bourdieu is probably open to the Frankfurt critique of positivism:  the rigorous self-restriction to the world “that is the case” ends in tautology and affirmation.  This must be an issue for any radical leftist or anti-capitalist appropriation of his work.

To be sure, this is how capitalism works: it interpellates (to use Althusser’s term for it) us into a game structured symbolically and materially as a war of all against all.  But the radical question is how to end this game and organize a new one that is not based on antagonism and domination.  For Bourdieu, the only alternative to entering a field and playing the game is accepting exclusion from both.  Exclusion, in his terms, means a kind of extinction:  participation is the condition of a “social existence.”[4]  It’s clear from his account of the emergence of a relatively  autonomous cultural field in the mid-19th century, that Bourdieu believes it is possible to alter the structure of a field in such a way that power is redistributed within it.  Such a “rupture” or “revolution” - he uses both terms in this context - resulted when Flaubert, Baudelaire, and others invented a new “position-taking” (pure art, art-for-art’s-sake) outside and against the two antagonistic positions that were then dominant (“bourgeois” or commercialized production, at one pole[5]; and social or politicized art, at the other).  Such internal struggles cannot be won in isolation.  Bourdieu points to the growing Parisian population of educated students and would-be artists and writers who were excluded from employment or compelled to do hated hack work.  This sector, he argues, supplied the rebellious agents who enforced the new values of pure art by militant interventions and generated the social pressure that secured its victory.[6]

Bourdieu does not exclude, at least not in anything I’ve read, a similar reorganization of the field of class relations, within which all the other fields are articulated.  But it would seem to follow from his conclusions that not even such a radical systemic revolution could hope to escape some new form of competition for power emerging as the dominant logic.  Even a radical reading of Bourdieu, then, comes up against a conception of power – similar to Foucault’s – that seems to foreclose any revolutionary passage to a new social logic based on non-competitive and solidaristic values.

In obvious ways, this problem is reflected in Bourdieu’s terminology, which takes over certain terms from political economy and displaces them into the theory and analysis of fields.  I don’t know the secondary literature on Bourdieu, but I would guess that this issue already must have generated much discussion.  It’s probably too late for such objections:  “symbolic capital” and “cultural capital” are already entrenched in the discourses of art theory and policy and are well on the way to full popularization.  “Cultural capital” in particular has become a keyword in apologias for neoliberal globalization.  As in advertisements to this tune: the cultural capital attached to international biennials and flashy new museums can give an aspiring world city a much-needed edge in the global competition for tourists and investment.  What, in Bourdieu, functioned as a neutral term of critical analysis becomes a self-valorized aspect of capitalism’s aura of power.  In putting Bourdieu’s work to more critical uses, it would probably be a good discipline and practice to refuse the term “capital.”  All the forms of specific power he analyzes can be discussed as exactly that: forms of cultural, academic, symbolic, and social power.

The Missed Encounter

It's always a miserable task to criticize a thinker's absent references.  We all have glaring gaps in our culture, for there are real limits to personal economies of time and energy.  No one can read everything – and especially not if they are engaged in activism to the extent that Bourdieu admirably was in his last years.  So it’s not to damn Bourdieu that I note his missed encounter with the Frankfurt School.  It’s more like regret, for such an encounter would surely have produced valuable results.

Bourdieu positions his research on the cultural field as a “science of artworks” that avoids the mistakes of both the “internal readers,” by which he means formalists, deconstructionists and all those who look to the text or work itself for the logic of its interpretation, and the “reflectionists,” those vulgar Marxists who believe that the social class of the artist or the intended audience is a sufficient explanation of a work’s meaning and function.  Bourdieu explains repeatedly why his scientific sociological method, elaborated in his theory of fields (including his whole toolkit of conceptual innovations: homology, genesis, habitus, disposition, position, position-taking, and trajectory) explains more than these other approaches while also avoiding their reductions.  Usually, Bourdieu has Lukács or Lucien Goldmann stand in for what he criticizes as naïve reflectionism.  In the five books I’ve read, Adorno’s name comes up only three times, and of these, he is twice associated with this crude reflectionism.[7]  From this it’s fairly clear that Bourdieu did not read enough Adorno to appreciate or have any real engagement with the Frankfurt School’s powerful and subtle dialectical approach to the relation between culture and society.  Whether or not this was a witting avoidance, it’s an understandable one: unfortunately for Bourdieu’s account of his own position, the Frankfurt School was there first. 

Very cursorily:  Bourdieu’s approach to the cultural field goes well with that of the Frankfurt theorists.  Both were dialectical, grounded in a materialist history, and characterized by a high degree of self-reflexivity.  Unsurprisingly, the results are more or less compatible.  The two poles of Bourdieu’s cultural field more or less correspond to the two social sub-systems that were the objects of sustained Frankfurt analysis:  what Bourdieu called the pole of pure art or restricted production is recognizable as the relatively autonomous sphere of capitalist art, and the pole of large-scale or commercialized production is what Horkheimer and Adorno named the culture industry.  Both approaches dig out the social bases and affirmative functions of culture under capitalism.  There are crucial differences, of course.  Despite the demystifications he carries out, Bourdieu tends to be more naïve in humanistically valorizing culture as such – anyway more than the utterly disenchanted Adorno of Negative Dialectics or Aesthetic Theory.  Nor did Bourdieu’s self-reflexivity go as far in questioning the forms of “scientism” and its progressivist assumptions.  But in spite of such differences, the resulting analyses are largely complimentary.  They also suffer from similar limits.  Both Bourdieu's reflections on art and the Frankfurt defense of modernism restrict their objects of analysis to production validated by the dominant conception of art under capitalism; as a result they both reproduce this dominant paradigm and simply miss the most radical avant-garde attacks on it.  In this regard both, powerful as they are, are defective as critical art theories.  As noted, Bourdieu did not explicitly orient his project toward a revolutionary praxis or aim.  In this sense it falls short of critical theory as the early Frankfurt School developed it.  However, as we know, the experience of revolutionary defeats and the rise of fascism produced a pessimism among the Frankfurt scholars that, in effect, amounts to the practical retraction of critical theory’s original revolutionary horizon.  If radical readers are compelled to read a revolutionary perspective into Bourdieu, they also are compelled to read Adorno against the paralyzing weight of his cultural pessimism.

The Ins and Outs of Criticality

If a radical reading of Bourdieu would have to supply a missing revolutionary horizon, more resigned and conservative readings can find everything they need to interpret the theory of fields as permission for accommodationism.  Not surprisingly, accommodationist readings often come from quarters purporting to be bastions of criticality.  Take for example the current tendency in art discourse that deploys Bourdieu to justify resignation before the power of the dominant art institutions.  Exemplary here would be Andrea Fraser, whose much-discussed essay “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” first published in Artforum in 2005, is now getting a second wind through republication in a number of anthologies on critical art.[8]  Gerald Raunig and others have pointed out some problems with Fraser’s essay.[9]  Here I just want to trace her argument back to two of her sources, in order to show how an accommodationist reading of Bourdieu unwittingly contributes to servility before established cultural power.

Fraser’s account of institutional critique, elegant and tightly argued as it is, aims to restrict this stream of art to critical practices sited within established art institutions.  To do that, she draws the borders of the category so as to exclude practices reflecting “mythologies of volunteerist freedom and creative omnipotence.”[10]  She cites the example of “neo-fluxus practices like relational aesthetics,” but it’s clear that her exclusions are really targeting contemporary practices that look back to the historical avant-gardes.  This is confirmed by her invocation of Peter Bürger as authority for the conclusion that the avant-garde project of integrating “art into life praxis” has decisively and irreparably failed.  In her account, the condition of institutional critique is the recognition of “that failure and its consequences.”[11]  This is a familiar repetition of arguments that go back to Adorno.  I’ve addressed this purported “failure” of the avant-garde and the problem of pessimism in Adorno and Bürger elsewhere.[12]  Here I only want to point out that it’s a necessary argument for Fraser to deploy, since the avant-garde project of redirecting critical practices to everyday life, beyond the restricted autonomy reproduced and policed by the art institutions, is indeed the greatest threat to her claims for the tamed criticality of an institutionalized institutional critique, as the best and only game in town. 

Bourdieu comes in, then, as the main authority for Fraser’s claims that we are “trapped in our field.”  I’ve already quoted the moment, in Rules of Art, when Bourdieu argues that “social existence” is conditioned on entrance into an established field.  In a remarkable passage, Fraser paraphrases Bourdieu in order to exclude all that lies beyond the borders of the field, ultimately in order to discredit avant-garde breakouts that seek to relocate critical practices to, precisely, that outside:

"There is, of course, an 'outside' of the institution, but it has no fixed, substantive characteristics.  It is only what, at any given moment, does not exist as an object of artistic discourses and practices.  But just as art cannot exist outside the field of art, we cannot exist outside the field of art, at least not as artists, critics, curators, etc.  And what we do outside the field, to the extent that it remains outside, can have no effect within it."[13]

Raunig has justly criticized Fraser’s variation on the mantra “there is no outside” as an example of “closure phantasms.”[14]  I would add that there is a legible slippage in Fraser’s argument, in the way she uses the term “institution.”  To begin with, institution functions more or less identically to Bourdieu’s notion of the “cultural field”:  not just the physical organizations, like galleries, museums, and art schools, but more expansively, as all the discourses and social relations that pass through them and, cumulatively, give the field its structure and logic.  But the practical effects of her conclusions have more to do with the artist’s relation to institutions in the more narrow sense of specific organizations and dominant accumulations of cultural power.  Institutions like Artforum for instance.  It may be true that for artists, whatever is outside the discourses of art is in a certain sense meaningless.  But it doesn’t follow that there is no (politically) meaningful outside to Artforum, or that artists are compelled to publish in that market promotion organ - and by doing so to acknowledge and reinforce the dominant nexus of cultural power in the capitalist art system.  Sharing the discourse of art, in other words, doesn’t force us to participate in or submit to the dominant institutions of the art system.

Fraser’s qualification – “we cannot exist outside the field of art, at least not as artists, critics, curators, etc. – makes her statement true but trivial.  One of the more radical effects of the avant-garde project she dismisses was to dissolve precisely this professionalized identity of artist.  Her version of institutional critique is clearly conditioned on the acceptance of this professional position in the established cultural field:  one can be self-critical about this identity, but only within accepted limits and without radically calling into question its own condition, the cultural field itself.  The Situationist International, to cite the counterexample that practically refutes Fraser (and Bürger, too), would represent a very different model of institutional critique.  Fraser’s deployment of Bourdieu to authorize the rejection of this model is possible because Bourdieu didn’t clarify or theorize the missing links between his research and revolutionary theory and practice.  Ultimately the goal is not to tinker around, finding and operating the loopholes in the rules of art.  The aim is to establish a different logic in the field of fields, so that the current competitive cultural field - with its social function of symbolically legitimating the given power - is no longer needed.  Without the revolutionary horizon, Bourdieu’s critique of capitalist art recoils into an apologia for opportunistic careerism - or, at best, into arguments, like Fraser’s, for a tamed and toothless criticality that leaves the art system and its larger social functions intact.

Exit, Please

It’s still possible today for an artist to develop criticality in a work.  Any dialectical understanding of culture recognizes that the political neutralization of art coexists with its relative autonomy.  The autonomous half of art’s double character ensures that a structural space for criticality remains open on the level of the individual work.  This is true of works of institutional critique, as well as of works that operate by the negative and sublime strategies favored by Adorno.  The problem is that on the level of art as a whole - of capitalist art as a social sub-system or cultural field – all such criticality is managed, domesticated, and politically neutralized.  As Bourdieu's analyses in Distinctin and elsewhere trenchantly show, neutralization is accomplished in a million ways, from social biases that shape audience composition to the structuring conventions of gallery spectatorship.  Taken as a whole, artworks are systematically absorbed and made to serve the affirmative social functions of art under capitalism.  It is important not to deny that in rare cases, a work can generate enough criticality to briefly break out of these limits.  Some of Hans Haacke’s notorious “artistic” interventions - And You Were Victorious After All, his 1988 installation in Graz, for example, or To the Population, his commissioned sculpture for the German Reichstag – are exceptional for having sometimes hit forcefully enough to generate some real public debate.  I hope I’m not understood to be denigrating or trivializing such efforts.  To be clear:  any criticality is far better than none at all.

But let’s remember that precisely these neutralizing effects of the art system’s affirmative social functions led the historical avant-gardes to break out of the art ghetto and return to everyday life by inventing new forms of struggle.  Their call for the generalization of art’s autonomy, its extension to everyone rather than its restriction as professional privilege, was a resolve to go beyond the production of critically affirmative art.  Far from failing, their attempts repeatedly posed the social question that art as a whole systematically suppresses.  How convenient to be assured by Peter Bürger and the other heirs of Frankfurt pessimism that this aim failed because bourgeois art still exists.  How convenient to believe that critical affirmation and “making do” with capitalism is the best we can manage.  We can at least agree with Andrea Fraser that the modest and mature kind of institutional critique she calls for does indeed have “the structure of melancholia.”[15]

Bourdieu has given us an admirable analysis of the conditions by which one is authorized to enter the cultural field and compete there for cultural and symbolic power.  However, he did not address or try to analyze what for some of us is the urgent problem today:  how to exit the field.  It may be that a certain renunciation of the given, consecrated social existence is a condition for the collective invention of a new kind of social existence.  This was already one focus of the classical avant-gardes and perhaps was first theorized explicitly by the Situationists.  Today, in much different conditions, Paolo Virno has compellingly re-posed this problem.[16]  It’s true that there is no pure outside, no space of unlimited freedom or absolute autonomy beyond the constraining parameters handed down by history.  The projection of such a space would be merely the obverse of “closure phantasms.”  But saying this is much different from claims that there is no outside at all or that, once admitted to the cultural field, we are powerless to operate beyond it.  Constraining parameters are not necessarily so once and for all; whether or not they are in fact (or still are) constraining can only be determined by continuously contesting them.  This is how revolutionary processes are kept moving - and sometimes how revolutionary situations open up when and where they are least expected.

Certainly exit - or exodus, or breakout – will not be easy to accomplish.  It may help to think of it as an ongoing collective project that over the last century and a half has fluctuated with and shared the fate of contemporaneous social movements and struggles.  It belongs to the (historic and continuing) search for a revolutionary passage beyond capitalism.  True:  that search has suffered defeats.  The inherited blockages that now hold it back will only be overcome by the qualitative inventions of new cycles of struggle.  But this is not “failure” as Bürger or Fraser paints it:  particular defeats reified into permanent impossibility. 

Exit is neither withdrawal into isolation and passivity nor the abandonment of creative activity and modes of living.  If anything, it would need to be an intensification of practices of invention.  And as many have discovered in previous struggles, it is better to invent new institutions - and new kinds of institutions - than to accept and acknowledge the power of the given ones.  It will never be enough to play double-games by or between the rules of the art system, especially now that the dominant institutions have learned to play those double-games as well.  To attempt no more than to take a position and compete for power in the given field: this remains accommodation by any name, including the name of critique.

[1] “Ein weites Feld: Die Linke und Bourdieu,” Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Berlin, January 26/7, 2007. 

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 183.

[3] Randal Johnson, “Introduction” to Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (Cabridge: Polity Press, 1993), p. 7.

[4] Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 27: [T]o exist socially means to occupy a determined position in the social structure and to bear the marks of it.”

[5] Bourdieu’s usage is different from that of Frankfurt theory here.  What he calls “bourgeois” production corresponds to what Horkheimer and Adorno called “culture industry”; what Bourdieu calls “pure art,” the Frankfurt writers called “bourgeois art.”

[6] Bourdieu, Rules of Art, pp. 54-69.

[7] Adorno’s name appears once in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 386; twice in Field of Cultural Production, pp. 162 and 180; and not at all in Rules of Art. The other two books re-read for these reflections were Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, trans. Richard Nice (New York: New Press, 1998) and Bourdieu and Hans Haacke, Free Exchange (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).

[8] Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” in John C. Welchman, ed., Institutional Critique and After (Zurich: JPR/Ringier, 2006).

[9] See Gerald Raunig, “Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming,” and generally all the contributions to the January 2006 issue of Transversal, titled “Do You Remember Institutional Critique?”

[10] Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” in Welchman, ed., Institutional Critique and After, p. 133.

[11] Ibid., p. 134.

[12] Gene Ray, “On the Conditions of Anti-Capitalist Art,” forthcoming in Left Curve 31 (2007); and “Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector,” forthcoming in Third Text, vol, 21, no. 3 (2007).

[13] Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” in Welchman, ed., Institutional Critique and After, pp. 130-1.

[15] Fraser, “What Is Institutional Critique?” in Welchman, ed. Institutional Critique and After, p. 307.

[16] Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext[e], 2004).

Gene Ray