Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Pierre Bourdieu, bitchez

Pierre Bourdieu could. Or at least he could explain it.
Shorter David Brooks, "Getting Radical About Inequality", New York Times, July 18 2017:
Recently I took a friend with no more than a high school diploma to her name to listen to some music. Insensitively, I brought her to a well-known conservatory, where one of the faculty members was presenting all of the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier on the harpsichord. Suddenly I saw her face go dark and panicky as she looked at the program and its unfamiliar words like "prelude", "fugue", and "C major". Quickly, I asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and with a fearful gesture she assented and we went to the Pops, where they played Strauss's Beautiful Blue Danube
Well, not really. He doesn't refer directly to last week's "How We Are Ruining America With Our Filthy Elitist Capicollo Sandwiches" at all, in fact; but it's carrying on the same argument, about how people like him use a set of cultural signifiers to shut out the mob from their councils and amusements and he feels bad about it, I guess, but at least that proves there's no need to redistribute the money, we just have to redistribute the Italian delis.

Only in a different key, you see, appealing to the late, (sort of) cultural-Marxian sociologist Pierre Bourdieu ("I’m not in the habit of recommending left-wing French intellectuals, but..."), who, believe it or not, kids, turns out to think exactly like Brooks! I mean, except for the Marxian part:

His great subject was the struggle for power in society, especially cultural and social power. We all possess, he argued, certain forms of social capital. A person might have academic capital (the right degrees from the right schools), linguistic capital (a facility with words), cultural capital (knowledge of cuisine or music or some such) or symbolic capital (awards or markers of prestige). These are all forms of wealth you bring to the social marketplace....
For example, in his surveys of French taste [reported in his best-known book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, English version 1984], Bourdieu found that manual laborers liked Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” but didn’t like Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” People who lived in academic communities, on the other hand, liked the latter but not the former.
See what I mean? I'll get back below to the question of how well Brooks presents Bourdieu's views, but for now I just want you to notice that amazing parallel between cuisine and music you wouldn't have suspected, where fancy salami is to tacos as Bach is to the Waltz King. I mean it's obvious once we're told, but would you have gotten there without help?

I believe I also know how Brooks found out about Bourdieu; because of last week's column, or rather the nearly universal mockery with which it was greeted. Since although we all know David Brooks doesn't look at the comments, in the way our president never watches Joe and Mika or CNN, he actually does sometimes, and he's much better at concealing it than Trump is, but it's pretty clear that he has experienced some serious butthurt over that, which has been leading him to Google himself, looking for support. Which has in this case (I believe) led him to the blog of Peter Levine, Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life.

There was the blog, there was the Brooks column, and there was Levine writing in Brooks's defense that the only reason people laughed at it was that Brooks is that intrinsically funny thing, a conservative opinionist:
it occurs to me that if you make this argument as a pundit labeled as a conservative, you risk ridicule. If you make essentially the same points as a trendy French cultural theorist, you will find yourself cited by 566,786 scholarly articles, according to Google Scholar.
I refer to Pierre Bourdieu: “Cultural capital can be acquired, to a varying extent, depending on the period, the society, and the social class, in the absence of any deliberate inculcation, and therefore quite unconsciously. It always remains marked by its earliest conditions of acquisition which, through the more or less visible marks they leave (such as the pronunciations characteristic of a class or region), help to determine its distinctive value.”
And Brooks was all like, "You see that bitchez?" and started Googling some more about this dude Bourdieu, with increasing interest. (And without mentioning Levine in the final product, as is his habit.) So that's really all the column is about, Brooks's butthurt, and the unexpected brush with French greatness, and "How you like me now?" and you don't strictly speaking need to pay it any attention at all.

Although in fact it wasn't Brooks who was thinking like Bourdieu—Levine got that wrong—but Brooks's source for those paragraphs, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, and she wasn't thinking like Bourdieu as much as she was using his thoughts in the normal scholarly procedure, as she acknowledges on page 3 of the book Brooks was cribbing from. Brooks was just picking the stuff up like a magpie to decorate his 800 words.

Brooks's retroactive attempt to associate himself and his stupid salami column with the work of Pierre Bourdieu isn't really worth critiquing in detail. Suffice it to say that he doesn't understand the key concepts of habitus and field well enough to make the argument (and I really don't know enough myself to do the job tbh without a lot more work than Brooks deserves). It would be more interesting to analyze what he's doing as an example of symbolic violence, in Bourdieu's terminology:
Symbolic violence is the kind of gentle, invisible, pervasive violence that is exercised through cognition and misrecognition, knowledge and sentiment, often with the unwitting consent or complicity of the dominated. It is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals, and imposes the spectre of legitimacy of the social order characterised by masculine domination. Manifestations of symbolic violence give recognition to structural and direct violence.
In staking this claim on the fanciest of French critical theorists to readers who have barely heard his name, Brooks is intellectually inviting us to watch him eat stuff that's too rich and complex for us, as it were, beyond soppressata and capicollo to the rillettes and cornichons of a much more exclusive deli, to assert his dominance and its rightness in the kind but firm way the hierarchy is supposed to run. But, being Brooks and a little short of that intellectual capital, of course he's doing it wrong. (Especially since, while Bourdieu didn't articulate much in the way of ideas on politics in the sense of governance, his strongest view was opposition to Brooksian neoliberalism, the privatization of public goods and services, shrinking of government, and relying on market mechanisms for social welfare provision.)

Can't resist one trivial example—

Question to Radio Yerevan:

Is it true that, in his surveys of French taste, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu found that manual laborers liked Strauss's "The Blue Danube" but didn't like Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier", while people who lived in academic communities liked the latter but not the former?

Answer: In principle, yes. But
  • first of all, it was just one survey, conducted in the mid-1960s, and not so much a survey of taste as an attempt to correlate the consumption of cultural goods with categories of consumer and area of consumption—
    to determine how the cultivated disposition and cultural competence that are revealed in the nature of the cultural goods consumed, and in the way they are consumed, vary according to the category of agents and the area to which they applied, from the most legitimate areas such as painting or music to the most 'personal' ones such as clothing, furniture or cookery, and, within the legitimate domains, according to the markets-'academic' and 'nonacademic'-in which they may be placed
  • second of all, it didn't address the kind of community the participants lived in (I don't think France in the 1960s had "academic communities" as such, like the cluster of faculty apartments NYU maintains around Washington Square) but employment class and educational level, and those who chose "The Beautiful Blue Danube" were not only manual workers but also craftsmen, shopkeepers, and still more than either, the clerical and commercial employees; while it was indeed teachers (secondary and tertiary) and producers of art who chose the Bach, along with (at a lower rate) private sector executives, engineers, and professionals
  • and third of all, the survey didn't ask respondents to say which music they liked and disliked but which single work was their favorite in a list of 16 works, many of which few had even heard of; they didn't say they disliked anything—and their statements were not so much about aesthetic preference as about cultural capital and their recognition of what was valuable. Faced with questions about more popular music with which they were better acquainted, educated working class respondents had little difficulty choosing classy Georges Brassens over vile Petula Clark
    songs totally devoid of artistic ambition or pretension such as those of Luis Mariano, Guetary or Petula Clark
    while less educated persons of the upper-middle and upper classes picked Pet almost as much as their poorer equivalents.
Nobody dislikes The Beautiful Blue Danube (or Bizet's L'Arlésienne suites, or La Traviata, to fill out some of the category), for goodness' sake. But French stevedores and coal miners of the 1960s weren't exactly clamoring for waltzes, or Brindiamo, either. Like everybody else, they really wanted the Stones. You might think, in this context, that Bourdieu himself was betraying a laughably bourgeois bias in his own tastes (similar to Theodor W. Adorno condemning jazz and Bartók, but musically much less sophisticated), but this is very precisely to misunderstand what he's up to, as Eliot Weininger clarifies:
Bourdieu is routinely chastised for emphasizing the absolute primacy of a belle lettriste or “highbrow” form of culture which is now obsolete in France and which was never applicable to the United States and to various other countries. In fact, however, as Lane (2000, pp. 148-157) cogently reminds us, the analysis of the dominant class in Distinction clearly charts the eclipse (albeit in its early stages) of the paragon status attributed to “classical highbrow” culture, in favor not of the literary culture of the intellectuals, but the modernist one of the executives and managers. 
The music of the powerful isn't by definition the best music (even if Bach really is the best, but the category, which included completely different works such as Ravel's concerto for piano left hand, wasn't about that but about clout and cachet), but the music adopted for its symbolic value by the powerful. For Brooks, and Trump, with their Blue Danube tastes  (Brooks actually may fall more into the Rhapsody in Blue group) and Beethovenian aspirations, this distinction is incomprehensible. (Neither has any musical "capital", really, or gastronomic either, which doesn't stop them from exercising power in their different ways.)

No comments:

Post a Comment