- La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement by Pierre Bourdieu
Editions de Minuit, 670 pp, £9.05, August 1979, ISBN 2 7073 0275 9
In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France – in the very chair occupied today by Pierre Bourdieu – Raymond Aron coined the word ‘sociodicy’: an apt term for the apologetic tendency of much contemporary social science, a tendency which has a long ancestry, going back to the theodicies of the 17th century. Within the theological tradition two ways of justifying evil emerged: pain and sin, which could be seen either as indispensable conditions for the good of the universe as a whole, or as inevitable by-products of an optimal package solution. The first was that of Leibniz, who suggested that monsters, for instance, had the function of helping us to see the beauty of the normal. The second was that of Malebranche, who poured scorn on the idea that God created monstrous birth defects ‘pour le bénéfice des sages-femmes’, and argued that accidents and mishaps should be understood as the cost God had to pay for the choice of simple and general laws of nature. In both cases, the argument was, of course, intended to explain that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds.
There is no logical reason why the best of all possible worlds should contain the best of all possible societies. Perhaps the miseries of human society are to be explained by the edifying function they have for the inhabitants of other worlds or the celestial spheres. Yet Leibniz in his sociological writings consistently applied the logic of theodicy to history and society: he justified luxury, for instance, as a regrettable but unavoidable side-effect of prosperity. It was left to Bernard Mandeville – the founder of the modern sociodicy – to argue more boldly that luxury, by creating employment, was actually a means to prosperity. The theme struck by The Fable of the Bees has been pursued for more than two centuries, by Adam Smith, Malinowski, Merton and many others. To cite just two examples: income inequalities are justified by their positive effect on savings, investment, average income and ultimately on minimal income; political apathy is seen as a functional prerequisite for modern democratic systems which would risk overload and breakdown if participation became widespread. Seen in isolation, poverty and political alienation may appear undesirable, but in the wider perspective one can argue that even the worst-off would be made worse-off by attempts to improve their situation.
Sociodicy as a legitimating device has been closely wedded to functionalism as an explanatory framework. Once it has been pointed out that certain deplorable phenomena have good net consequences, it is only a short step to the argument that the latter also explain the causes that produce them. Logically speaking, this argument has no validity unless one can also document the causal link from the effect to the maintenance of the cause, but few authors take the trouble to do this. There has been, and still is, an incredible sloppiness in much sociological work, which tacitly assumes that a social institution or a behavioural pattern is explained once its ‘latent functions’ have been identified.
It should not be thought, however, that this sloppiness is found only in bourgeois sociology defending the status quo. That functionalism can be dissociated from sociodicy is amply proved by the various strands of Marxist or radical social science. Marx’s case is especially interesting. He played like a virtuoso on two explanatory registers: social phenomena could be accounted for in terms either of their beneficial consequences for capitalism or their favourable effects for the transition to socialism. He explained social mobility by pointing out that it was useful for the capitalist class to attract the best minds of the exploited class; and he suggested that the business cycle could be explained as a means of keeping a combative class-consciousness alive among the workers. He was, indeed, obsessed with the idea that all social phenomena have a meaning – and correspondingly blind to the notion that there could also be sound and fury in social life, unintended consequences with no function or significance whatsoever. Later radical sociologists have mainly emphasised the functionality of institutions for the maintenance and entrenchment of oppression. Crime exists because society needs a scapegoat; mental illness because of social ‘labelling’; educational institutions prepare children for the capitalist work discipline; and so on in a dreary, familiar drone. It’s a school whose slogan could be that all is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. Or it could appropriate the label on a denim jacket I once bought in San Francisco: ‘Any defect or fault in this garment is intentional and part of the design.’ The proponents of this view offer an inverted sociodicy wedded to a frictionless functionalist mode of explanation.
In France the current supports – as some of them might put it – of this mode of analysis include Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. In a number of works Foucault has set out to explain madness, crime and sexuality in the light of the Machiavellian question, Cuibono? And he has invariably found patterns which serve the interests of the oppressing classes and are to be explained by the fact that they serve these interests. Consider a characteristic passage from his work on the penitentiary system, Discipline and Punish:
But perhaps one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison; what is the use of these different phenomena that are continually being criticised; the maintenance of delinquency, the encouragement of recidivism, the transformation of the occasional offender into a habitual delinquent, the organisation of a closed milieu of delinquency. Perhaps one should look for what is hidden beneath the apparent cynicism of the penal institution, which, after purging the convicts by means of their sentence, continues to follow them by a whole series of ‘brandings’ (a surveillance that was once de jure and which is today de facto; the police record that has taken the place of the convict’s passport) and which thus pursues as a ‘delinquent’ someone who has acquitted himself of his punishment as an offender? Can we not see here a consequence rather than a contradiction? If so, one would be forced to suppose that the prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate offences, but rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them; that it is not so much that they render docile those who are liable to transgress the law, but that they tend to assimilate the transgression of the laws in a general tactics of subjection. Penality would then appear to be a way of handling illegalities, of laying down the limits of tolerance, of giving free rein to some, of putting pressure on others, of excluding a particular section, of making another useful, of neutralising certain individuals and of profiting from others.
Observe the use of predicates which have only objects, never subjects. Althusser remarks of Hegel that he had the merit of seeing history as a process without a subject, but one may doubt whether this was really an advance when he also retained the idea that history was directed by a goal. A goal without a subject for whom it is a goal is an incoherent notion. I am reminded of Leibniz’s curt comment on the Neo-Confucianist philosophy: ‘je doute fort qu’ils aient la vaine subtilité d’admettre une sagesse sans admettre un sage.’ Similarly there is much vain subtlety in Foucault’s conception of a diabolical plan to which there corresponds no devilish planner.
Pierre Bourdieu has been engaged with a similar argument for a number of years, and in La Distinction it reaches its culmination. His earlier works, Les Héritiers and La Reproduction (both written with J.-C. Passeron), were influential during May ’68 and its aftermath, no doubt because they conveyed this image of a society systematically organised for the reproduction of inequality, even – or especially – through the institutions nominally designed to counteract it. In particular, Bourdieu argued that French academic institutions strongly reinforced traditional inequalities, notably by using an inaccessible and convoluted language. This critique of the mandarin language, however, was couched in a language no less esoteric. As will be painfully obvious to any reader of La Distinction, Bourdieu is a past-master of the opaque sentence, with nesting sub-clauses and parentheses. It could perhaps be said that by making no concessions to the reader, Bourdieu at least has not invited the easy popularity which has made much of French intellectual life into a battleground for charlatans. But I do not believe that the price needed paying; that clarity and simplicity cannot be achieved without superficiality. Moreover, it is not only the reader who gets lost in the page-long sentences: it is hard to believe that Bourdieu himself is not seriously hampered by his style. Inconsistency of thought easily goes undetected when embedded in such complexity of expression.
These remarks, however, are comments on style, not on substance, and Bourdieu has a lot of substance – indeed, his work overflows with it. La Distinction has many weaknesses: but it is impossible to deny the vitality, intelligence and sensitivity constantly displayed in its pages. Although Bourdieu often stresses the ‘scientific’ and ‘rigorous’ aspect of his work, its virtues are, rather, those of a good novel. For one thing, the use of photographs – from the everyday life of people of various social classes – is marvellously effective in conveying Bourdieu’s all-important notion of the ethos or habitus which characterises a social class or fraction of a class. He refuses to group people in terms of variables such as income or opinions, and insists that many of the real unifying and dividing features are such as to slip through the standard sociological net. Bodily posture or control, for example, are instantly recognisable as criteria of class, as is also the experience (or lack of it) reflected in facial wrinkles (or lack of them). The photograph of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing playing tennis is revealing, not simply because it shows a member of the élite playing the sport of the élite: it is, above all, illuminating because it expresses a tautness of control which reflects the habit of power better than any conventional criteria could.
Bourdieu has co-authored a book on the sociology of photography (Un Art Moyen), and is clearly very sensitive to the nuances of that medium. A striking technique employed in La Distinction is to ask people of different social backgrounds whether they think that a given object or event would be a good choice for a beautiful photograph. To suggest that an insignificant everyday object such as a cabbage could be made into a work of art reveals upper-class origins as surely as a preference for folk-dancing or sunsets indicates middle-class origins. The same ingenuity and inventiveness can be seen in many other observations. Eliciting evidence of the musical taste of various social groups, Bourdieu asked his subjects both about the musical works they could enumerate and about the works they personally liked. Both sets of answers are revealing, but in addition Bourdieu notes that the very fact of someone being able to cite a work which he does not like is indicative of upper-class origins. Bourdieu displays here imaginative insights which are the mark of the great novelist or the great phenomenological sociologist. At his – unfortunately, intermittent – best, Bourdieu can be classed with Georg Simmel as a master of the illuminating fait divers.
La Distinction is about symbolic competition, in arenas such as art, sports, newspaper-reading, interior decoration, food consumption, habits of language, bodily aesthetic and so on. Nobody would dispute that, in these areas, patterns and choices vary according to class, but Bourdieu makes the much stronger claim that the differences which emerge are also distinctions – i.e. choices made in opposition to those made by other classes. Invoking the linguistic notion of ‘distinctive features’, Bourdieu suggests that any given practice can only be understood diacritically, in its relation to other practices in the same arena. One may believe subjectively that one chooses, say, a given sport for the pleasure it offers, but according to Bourdieu the choice only makes sense if understood as the choice not to practise other sports which would appear demeaning or pretentious. For distaste is prior to taste. There is no such thing as pure and disinterested pleasure in the contemplation of art or in the practice of sport; or rather, such purity and detachment as may be observed can be explained by their efficacy in keeping rivals out. The non-instrumental always turns out to have an instrumental value that explains it; nothing succeeds like the lack of an intention to succeed. This last observation is also crucial to the marvellous work by Paul Veyne, Le Pain et le Cirque: but unlike Bourdieu Veyne makes it clear that the useful consequences of a disregard for useful consequences do not in any way explain that disregard.
To discuss what distinguishes whom from whom, Bourdieu employs as key notions the idea of ‘capital’, in a suitably generalised sense, and that of ‘strategy’, also in an extended sense. Capital comes in two main varieties, economic and cultural. These two forms of capital can, it seems, be added to each other and converted into each other, although these apparently quantitative notions are left at the stage of metaphors. The main class distinction, based on the global volume of capital, divides the economic and cultural élite from the working class and the petty bourgeoisie. Within the dominant bloc there is a secondary division on the basis of the structure of capital, opposing the classes with predominantly economic capital (the bourgeoisie) to those better endowed with cultural capital (intellectuals and artists). The latter are, as it were, the homologue of the dominated classes within the bloc of the dominant classes. The working class is seen as largely monolithic and homogeneous, whereas the petty bourgeoisie is divided into three main groups: the declining petty bourgeoisie, the ascending and the ‘new’. These differ from each other, not mainly according to their capital endowment at any given point in time, but according to their individual and collective trajectories over time. Bourdieu singles out for special, and vituperative, attention the new petty bourgeoisie, a subject on which he may perhaps be considered the world’s greatest living specialist. It’s a class that includes a number of pseudo-professions in publicity, marketing, social science research, social work, fashionable handicrafts.
Given a particular capital endowment, the agent has to adopt a strategy to make it yield maximal profits. In spite of the usual connotations of the term, strategies need not be consciously chosen for the purpose of maximising this profit on capital: indeed, they may be more efficient if there is no element of intentionality. Nor need they attach only to individuals, since Bourdieu makes a distinction (nowhere clearly explained) between individual and collective strategies. It is very difficult to understand what Bourdieu means by a strategy, but at the very least it would appear to be a behavioural pattern that has consequences which are beneficial, or even optimal, relative to other possible patterns, for the agent or agents adopting it. In addition, Bourdieu strongly suggests that these consequences explain the adoption of the behavioural pattern, whether it is consciously chosen or not. But, characteristically, the mechanism by which this comes about in the case of non-conscious strategies is nowhere spelled out. Since the point is of crucial importance, some examples are in order.
One of Bourdieu’s favourite expressions is ‘tout se passe comme si’ (‘everything takes place as if’): I counted 15 occurrences in La Distinction – others may have escaped me. The expression allows the speaker to suggest, almost to insinuate, an explanatory connection, without actually sticking his neck out to the extent of affirming it. Thus: ‘Everything takes place as if the probability of taking up the different sports depended, within the limits defined by economic (and cultural) capital and spare time, on perception and assessment of the intrinsic and extrinsic profits of each sport in terms of the dispositions of the habitus and, more precisely, in terms of the relation to one’s own body, which is one dimension of this.’ Or again: ‘Everything takes place as if the “popular aesthetic” were based on the affirmation of the continuity between art and life, which implies the subordination of form to function, or, one might say, on a refusal of the refusal which is the starting-point of the high aesthetic.’ This example is particularly significant, since it enables us to see Bourdieu making a crucial (and unwarranted) leap from the absence of a popular refusal of the continuity of art and life to a refusal of that refusal.
Bourdieu’s semi-conspiratorial, semi-functionalist world view also emerges in the following condescending remarks on evening classes: ‘It is not uncommon for the demands of personal salvation – evening classes or docility towards superiors – to come into conflict with the demands of collective salvation – union solidarity etc – for practical reasons and also because they spring from two totally opposed visions of the social world. Efforts at retraining or at internal promotion (competitions etc) would not be so positively sanctioned were it not that, in addition to technical upgrading, they also guarantee adherence to the institution and to the social order’ (my italics). Finally, a somewhat longer quote will help the reader to appreciate in full the flavour of his prose and reasoning:
In place of statistical boundaries, which leave groups surrounded by the ‘hybrid’ zone of which Plato speaks with regard to the boundary of being and non-being, a challenge to the discriminatory power of social taxonomies (Young or old? Rich or poor? Middle-class or lower-middle?), the numerus clausus, in the extreme form it receives from discriminatory law, sets sharp, arithmetical limits; in place of principles of selection, of inclusion and exclusion, based on a number of fairly closely interrelated and normally implicit criteria, it sets up an institutionalised and therefore conscious and organised process of segregation and discrimination, based on a single criterion (no women, or Jews, or Blacks) which leaves no room for misclassification. In fact, the most select groups prefer to avoid the brutality of discriminatory measures and to combine the charms of the apparent absence of criteria, which allows the members the illusion of election on grounds of personal uniqueness, with the certainties of selection, which ensures maximum group homogeneity.
It is hard to see what Plato has to do with all this. Had Bourdieu been writing this review, he would have dismissed the reference to Plato with the comment: ‘Ça fait littéraire’ (just as he would have explained the references to ‘capital’ and ‘strategy’ with the comment: ‘Ça fait scientifique’). My explanation is simpler: lack of discipline and control. This also holds for the conclusion of the passage, which seems to assert both that the members of the selective groups adopt a given arrangement because they prefer it and that they are under the illusion that it does not operate. If Bourdieu wants to argue that the system comes about because it procures greater satisfaction for the members of the groups than any alternative system would procure, even though they do now know this, then he owes us an explanation of the precise causal links that shape this happy outcome. If he wants to argue that the members engage in self-deception, then he should say so – and also sketch an account of that notoriously elusive phenomenon.
In Bourdieu’s universe there are only snobs, at least according to what I shall call his official view. Everybody is all the time looking over his shoulder, or at least tout se passe comme si that is what everybody is doing. Bourdieu appears to know all there is to know about one-upmanship, except that one-upmanship is not all there is to know. He is a great debunker, but carries debunking to ridiculous extremes. One can, however, learn from his shortcomings as well as from his insights. It is certainly true that intellectual and cultural life abounds in attempts to carve out niches by sheer extravagance of thought or conception: indeed, conceptual art may be a prime example. Like hyperinflation, it can be modelled on the following simple game: ‘All players are to write down a number. The one who has written the largest number is declared the winner.’ For another example, consider the following rather inconsistent characterisation of A.J.P. Taylor by Bernard Crick (Sunday Times, 9 November 1980): ‘Taylor is an admirable writer: not merely does he not pause to look over his shoulder at what fellow scholars may think; he actually enjoys shocking them.’ Crick imputes non-conformism to his hero, and goes on to describe him in terms of anti-conformism – which is, of course, just another kind of conformism. George Orwell, to take another of Crick’s heroes, is an example of a writer who did not play at being an enfant terrible; who genuinely shocked, because he was not out to shock. Bourdieu, to be sure, would say that the disregard for distinction is just another strategy for achieving it.
Sartre notes in Les Mots: ‘je n’ai pas l’admiration facile.’ This, as will be clear by now, is twice as true of Bourdieu. In fact, Sartre seems to be about the only writer to wrench words of admiration from him, on grounds of his ability, as Bourdieu puts it, to ‘call into question one of the most deeply buried foundations of the social order, Spinoza’s obsequium, the disposition of those who have “self-respect” and feel entitled to receive respect’. Sartre’s refusal of the Nobel Prize is referred to approvingly as a sign of his independence. Bourdieu shares with Sartre a salutary aversion to worldly acclaim – it is hard to see either of them becoming corrupted. But on his own terms Bourdieu is not allowed to say this. Surely nothing can be so distinguished as to be offered the Nobel Prize and then refuse it? Unless there is such a thing as independence of spirit, which impresses and yet is not designed, subjectively or objectively, to impress, Bourdieu cannot consistently praise anyone. In the worst of all possible worlds, nobody is innocent.
There is probably no social activity that does not have its ridiculous side: but it is ridiculous to think that this is all there is to all social activity. Bourdieu brilliantly makes fun of the debate about Françoise Dorin’s play Le Tournant, a boulevard comedy whose protagonist is an author of boulevard comedies who tries to make himself into an avant-garde writer. The opposition between the two kinds of theatre is reproduced as an opposition between two kinds of review of the play, from the left and the right respectively:
As in a set of mirrors, each of the critics in the extreme positions can say exactly what the critic on the other side would say, but in conditions such that his words take on an ironic value and denigrate by antiphrasis precisely what the critic on the other side praises. Thus, the Left Bank critic credits Françoise Dorin with the qualities she prides herself on, but in his columns, addressed to his readers, they automatically become derisory (so that her technique becomes a ‘big trick’ and her ‘common sense’ is immediately understood at bourgeois stupidity). In so doing, he turns on Dorin the weapon she uses against avant-garde theatre when, exploiting the structural logic of the field, she turns on avant-garde theatre the weapon it likes to use against ‘bourgeois’ chatter and the ‘bourgeois’ theatre which reproduces its truisms and clichés (one thinks of lonesco describing The Bald Prima-Donna or Jacques as ‘a sort of parody or caricature of boulevard theatre, boulevard theatre decomposing and going mad’).
This is as persuasive as it is brilliant. It expertly captures the peculiarly Parisian Left Bank stereotypes, turned inward on themselves as in opposing mirrors. But there is more to art than this battle of clichés. When Bourdieu suggests that ‘le style de vie artiste est toujours un défi lancé au style de vie bourgeois,’ or that artists are typically out to ‘épater le bourgeois’, he mistakes the accidental for the essential. Most artists most of the time create their works in order to convince fellow artists of the validity of their vision, although no doubt all artists some of the time and some artists all of the time struggle to liberate themselves from the preconceptions of their (largely bourgeois) environment. Again, for Bourdieu the ideal of simplicity in art can only be a strategy harnessed to the goal of distinction. When the bourgeois embrace a voluptuous and over-elaborate style of interior decoration in order to distinguish themselves from the artless poverty of the people, the avant-garde goes one better by returning to artful simplicity. This debunking of simplicity makes good sense in the case of Andy Warhol, but does it throw any light on the art of William Morris?
Bourdieu is generally very good on the aspirations of the petty bourgeoisie and the reasons they are rarely realised. The petty bourgeoisie are ‘trapped, whatever they do, in a choice between anxious hyper-identification and the negativism which, in its very revolt, admits its own defeat’. They tend, he says, to ‘en faire trop par crainte de n’en pas faire assez’. The reason for their defeat is summed up in a cruel and perceptive remark made by Mme de Sévigné: ‘Il y a de certaines choses que l’on n’entend jamais quand on ne les entend pas d’abord.’ Or, as Bourdieu puts it, to gain access to the legitimate culture ‘il s’agit d’avoir sans avoir jamais acquis.’ The petty bourgeoisie do not have that ‘assurance dans l’ignorance’ which enables others to walk in safety through cultural minefields. They show ‘un air de tension dans la détente même’ – the opposite no doubt applies to the upper classes. Bourdieu is even-handed in his scorn: the pathetic anxiety of the upward climbers and the lofty disregard of those who oppose their thrust are equally exposed to ridicule. But I could not help feeling that the pathetic desire to create states that are essentially by-products of actions undertaken for other ends might have elicited some compassion from him.
I could go on to summarise Bourdieu’s vignettes of the tastes and distastes of other social classes – the upper bourgeoisie, intellectuals and professors, the working class – but the reader should study the work for himself – I can promise insight and frustration in liberal quantities. I do, however, want to raise two general objections to the enterprise in which Bourdieu is engaged. First, the crucial relation between class difference and class distinction seems to me confused and badly worked out. Secondly, the materialist reduction of taste and preference to social conditions and social functions appears to be ill-founded and internally inconsistent.
Differences in taste between classes is an objective phenomenon, whereas the notion of distinction would seem to be a subjective one, requiring some consciousness of the difference – indeed, a striving for difference. This, I believe, is Bourdieu’s official view, as it were. In social life there is no substance, only relations: no en-soi (‘in-itself’), only pour-autrui (‘for-others’). All meaning is diacritical. The idea that distaste is prior to taste accords with this view, as does the statement that ‘it is not easy to describe the “pure” gaze without also describing the naive gaze against which it defines itself, and vice versa’ (my italics). Or again: ‘each life-style can only really be conceived in relation to the other, which is its objective and subjective negation’ (my italics). In both these passages it is clearly stated that popular taste can only be understood in opposition to refined or bourgeois taste – and vice versa.
However, there is also in Bourdieu’s thinking an idea that is at variance with the official view: viz. that the working class is en-soi whereas the other classes define themselves in opposition to each other and to the working class. Bourdieu at one point observes that ‘confronted with legitimate works of art, the people least endowed with specific competence apply to them the perceptual schemes of their ethos, the same ones which structure their everyday experience of everyday existence. These schemes, giving rise to products with an unwilled, unself-conscious systematicity, are opposed to the more or less fully stated principles of an aesthetic.’ In a footnote he adds: ‘The populist image of the proletarian as an opaque, dense, hard “in-itself”, the perfect antithesis of the intellectual or aesthete, a self-transparent, insubstantial “for-itself”, has some basis here.’ He also notes that, compared to the petty bourgeoisie, ‘the working classes ... are not concerned in this way with their being for others.’ And again: ‘the working classes ... have as perhaps their only function in the system of aesthetic attitudes to serve as a foil, a negative reference point, in relation to which all aesthetics define themselves, by successive negations.’ The working classes are what they are; the petty-bourgeois are above all not working-class and are also would-be bourgeois; the bourgeois are neither working-class nor petty-bourgeois.
Finally, there is a third view which ascribes both to the working class and to the bourgeoisie the mode of existence of the en-soi, while arguing that the être-pour-autrui is above all characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie. Bourdieu repeatedly invokes Berkeley’s ‘To be is to be perceived’ as a description of the petty bourgeoisie, opposed in this respect not only to the working class, but also to ‘the members of the privileged classes who, being sure of what they are, can be indifferent to what they seem.’ On this view the idea of distinction applies to the petty bourgeoisie alone: the other classes only differ objectively from one another. One may, therefore, characterise what I have called the official view as a generalisation to all classes of the specifically petty-bourgeois attitude to the world. If in Bourdieu’s universe everybody is spending his time looking over his shoulder, it is because everybody is conceived on the model of the petty bourgeoisie.
To be sure, Bourdieu has an answer to this objection. He would say that the distinction can be objective as well as subjective, and that a non-subjective distinction is yet more than a mere difference: in fact, he argues that sometimes it is crucial that the distinction be not intentionally and consciously sought as such. However, the difference (or distinction?) between a non-subjective distinction and a mere difference can be upheld only if one can show that the objective taste differences are shaped by the differential rewards which they procure for the members of the relevant classes. If Bourdieu were able to demonstrate a causal mechanism to this effect, he would be entitled to these ideas of ‘non-conscious strategies’ and ‘non-subjective distinction’. But he does not have even the shadow of an argument to this effect. Clearly, the way of life of the bourgeoisie is such as to make it difficult for an outsider to pass for an insider; clearly again, this is useful for the bourgeoisie. But it is an uncritical mind which then concludes that the bourgeois way of life can be explained by its efficacy in keeping intruders out. Max Scheler writes in Ressentiment – with Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, one of the main ancestors of La Distinction – that envy arises when ‘our factual inability to acquire a good is wrongly interpreted as a positive action against our desire.’ Bourdieu is engaged in a theoretical analogue of this operation.
Bourdieu argues not only that distinction can be subjective as well as objective but – inconsistently – that each of these modes is more efficacious than the other. In one context he states that ‘genuinely intentional strategies ... merely ensure full efficacy, by intentional reduplication, for the automatic, unconscious effects of the dialectic of the rare and the common, the new and the dated, which is inscribed in the objective differentiation of class conditions and dispositions’ (my italics). But later on, observing that violations of grammar can be used to defend the superior culture against would-be intellectuals, he adds: ‘Such strategies – which may be perfectly unconscious, and thereby even more effective – are the ultimate riposte to the hyper-correction strategies of pretentious outsiders, who are thrown into self-doubt about the rule and the right way to conform to it, paralysed by a reflexiveness which is the opposite of ease, and left without a leg to stand on’ (my italics). The last claim, incidentally, shows Bourdieu at his not infrequent worst; it is a perfect illustration of the fallacy denounced by Scheler. My purpose in quoting it here is to demonstrate the cavalier treatment of what should be a crucial issue of the theory, and Bourdieu’s ability to contradict himself within the space of a few pages.
Bourdieu’s main goal is ‘a materialist reduction of preferences to their economic and social conditions of production and to the social functions fulfilled by the most disinterested practices’. The phrase suggests two distinct ways of accomplishing this reduction. First, there is the functional explanation of preferences in terms of their consequences. Secondly, Bourdieu seems to suggest a causal explanation of preferences in terms of social background. The crucial notion in this context is that of amor fati, or ‘virtue made of necessity’: people like what they can afford. Let me discuss this second approach in more detail, and then offer my argument that these two modes of explanation are incompatible.
By way of introduction, it should be said that any action may be seen as the result of choice within constraints. The constraints represent the element of necessity, the choice the element of freedom in the action. Even though the choice may be said to be ‘governed’ by preference or taste, we do not conceive of this relation as a compulsive one. The choice is more, not less, free by virtue of being ‘in character’. Such, at any rate, is the standard view of human action underlying most of economics and recent analytical philosophy. I believe it to be broadly valid, but in need of important modifications. First, there may be an element of freedom in the set of constraints, if they have been deliberately chosen and shaped by the agent. Ulysses bound to the mast was constrained, but the constraint stemmed from his free choice. Secondly, there may be an element of necessity in the preference structure, if tastes are shaped by the constraints, as in the story of the fox and the sour grapes. These two modifications work in opposite directions, the first tending to extend the realm of liberty and the second to restrict it. For myself, I think both lines of argument valid and important. That Bourdieu, however, is hostile to the idea that men can follow Ulysses and shape their constraints is made clear in Le Sens Pratique; and La Distinction argues at some length that preferences are indeed shaped by necessity.
Once again, Bourdieu lapses into ambiguity. He suggests that the idea of amor fati applies mainly to the working class, and indeed his chapter on that class is called ‘Le Choix du Nécessaire’. However, he also claims very generally that ‘the true source of preferences is taste as a virtue made of necessity,’ and that ‘taste is the form par excellence of amor fati.’ And he certainly wants to be able to apply the Sour Grapes principle to his fellow intellectuals:
Not one of the professors’ choices (their preference for a harmonious, sober, discreet interior, for example, or for simple but agreeably presented meals) but can be understood as a way of making a virtue of necessity by maximising the profit they can draw from their cultural capital and their spare time (while minimising their financial expenditure). If the bourgeois never have the tastes to match their means, the professors hardly ever have the money to match their tastes, and the disparity between economic capital and cultural capital condemns them to an ascetic aestheticism (a more austere version of the ‘artist’ life-style), which makes the best of what it has, substituting ‘rustic’ for antique, Romanian carpets for Persian carpets, a converted barn for an ancestral mansion, lithographs (or reproductions) for paintings – unavowed substitutes which, like poorer people’s Babycham and leatherette, are the tributes deprivation pays to possession.
The passage is richly inconsistent, but I will say only that Bourdieu offers no evidence that professors actually prefer Romanian carpets to Persian ones, which is what would be required by the notion of amor fati. In fact, by saying that they do not have ‘the money to match their tastes’, he implies that they do prefer the carpets which they cannot afford. It boils down to the fact that professors buy the carpets they can afford rather than the ones they cannot – an observation that could not possibly sustain the idea that in buying Romanian carpets the professors are paying homage to the possessors of Persian carpets. Bourdieu is unable to make use of the valuable idea of ‘virtue made of necessity’, since he does not see that its cutting edge depends on the deprived actually preferring what little they can get to what is outside their grasp. His own generalised notion of Sour Grapes – you can only get what you can afford – enables him to explain all choices as born of necessity, but in a completely trivial way.
The basic difficulty with the principle of Sour Grapes, in any case, is that it is hard to see how it can be reconciled with the principle of Distinction. Symbolic action in Bourdieu’s view is explained twice over: first as the result of an insidious adaptation to necessity, and then as quasi-strategic and goal-directed behaviour. Once again I am reminded of Leibniz, who wrote that in nature generally, ‘ce sont comme deux Règnes, l’un des Causes Efficientes, l’autre des Finales, dont chacun suffit à part dans le détail pour rendre raison de tout, comme si l’autre n’existait point.’ But without a transcendent creator as the guarantor of this pre-established harmony, we have no reason to believe that everything can be explained twice over.
There is one interpretation that would make Bourdieu more consistent, while also violating some of his explicit statements. One might argue that working-class preferences are to be understood according to the principle of Sour Grapes, whereas non-working-class taste obeys the principle of Distinction. In ‘Condition de Classe et Position de Classe’, an article, published in 1966 in Archives Européennesde Sociologie, which already sketched the main argument of La Distinction, Bourdieu came close to adopting this view, when arguing that the behaviour of the ‘sous-prolétaires’ can be explained by reference to their class condition, while that of the middle classes can only be understood through their class position. In La Distinction, however, he claims complete generality for both mechanisms, and this can only lead to inconsistency.