Top of the Class

Geoffrey Hawthorn

No theorist of what only a theorist would dare to call ‘modern society’ commands more attention in the anglophone world; no one is closer to the centre of the local ‘field of power’, as he would describe it, that is Parisian intellectual life. Pierre Bourdieu’s first book, his 1958 ethnography of the Kabyle of Algeria, was, it’s true, social anthropology done in the British manner: it talked of the social functions of ‘solidarity’. But even as he finished it, Bourdieu was being drawn to the very different theory of ‘practical ensembles’ that Sartre was directing against the orthodox Marxism-Leninism of the French Communist Party. His essays on Algeria in the early Sixties talked of a ‘solidarity’ fashioned in more adversarial circumstances. At the same time, Louis Althusser was trying to revive the Party’s materialism with his notion of the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ that did capitalism’s work with powers that were distinctively their own. Bourdieu was drawn by this, too. In 1972, he recast his thoughts on the Kabyle in a discernibly Althusserian Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique. Five years later, in a revised English edition of that book, he settled on the view of what shapes social practices that has since guided his writings on class, education, post-Romantic art and the theory and practice of sociology itself.

The idea, notwithstanding Loïc Wacquant’s ponderous Preface to this translation of The State Nobility, is simple. People pursue power by accumulating ‘capital’ in the ‘fields’ of economy and culture. (‘Culture’, the translator explains in her useful Glossary, should be taken to include ‘culture, Culture, education, upbringing, knowledge, learning, and all of the above’.) The two fields are sometimes in harmony, sometimes not. But even when they are, they are distinguished by the different styles, semantic, syntactic, sartorial, sexual, more generally semiotic, in which those who inhabit them behave, styles which both define and are defined by the relations between the fields. People at once ‘possess’ the appropriate practices and are possessed by them. Possession ‘truly happens when the categories of perception and action that [a person] puts into practice in the individual acts through which the “will” and the power of the institution are accomplished ... are in direct conformity with the objective structures of the organisation because they are the product of the embodiment of these structures.’ Institutions consist of the practices of their members, but are pre-formed by the imperatives of power and themselves ‘constitute’ the ‘objects’ who, as human subjects, enact the practices which ensure that the institutions will continue. ‘Habitus’, as Bourdieu has come to call the way which this or that kind or person behaves, institutionally speaking, is ‘at the basis of strategies of reproduction that tend to maintain separations, distances, and relations of order(ing), hence concurring in practice (although not consciously or deliberately) in reproducing the entire system of differences constitutive of the social order’. Other social theorists persist in asking how much of the social world we can make, how much we have to take. That, Wacquant tells us, is pointlessly scholastic. Bourdieu’s achievement is to have shown that what we believe to be our acts of ‘will’ are determined by real divisions that our acts serve in turn to sustain. ‘Tout se passe,’ he has often said, ‘comme si.’ It always has and, as he has repeatedly insisted (even to striking students in Paris in 1968), it always will.

The language is seductive. In cultural studies, indeed, every other person seems now to speak Bourdieu. The rhetoric of ‘field’ demarcates the subject-matter, although with the exception of a book on photography, Bourdieu himself has tended only to remark in passing on culture’s more popular forms; the rhetoric of ‘capital’ lends it power; and the elision of the ‘cultural’ and the ‘symbolic’ offers an agreeable latitude of interpretation. His middle-class readers have been delighted to see him show how the other members of their class unconsciously reproduce a habitus which they believe they’re actively sustaining. Bourdieu’s view of how all this actually works, however, is evasive. To stand back and ask how much people take in life, how much they make, may be scholastic, or simply naive, but one cannot help asking why this kind of social theory persists in presenting pre-emptive solutions to a problem over which the more fastidious agonise all their lives. The question about Bourdieu is why someone so intelligent should offer such solutions. From outside the trade, one might suppose that the answer lies in his biography. From the inside, one is obliged to suggest that it lies in a kind of sociology: Bourdieu’s cleverness in this book is to show that it does.

He does not do so with obtrusive vanity. Nor does he do so vainly. He sees, if he cannot ever bring himself quite to say, that the truth is in the facts. The barest of the facts in The State Nobility are derived from a scattering of published figures from the Fifties onwards and a postal survey of those who won prizes between 1966 and 1986 in the Concours Général, the competition in which students in France’s lycées are invited to compete each year for prizes and honourable mentions in a variety of subjects. The more detailed, and more dusty, come from questionnaires distributed for the most part through the student unions between 1966 and 1969 in 21 écoles, grandes and not so grandes, in Paris and the provinces, and information on 216 chief executives drawn from the top commercial and industrial firms and the larger public utilities. (Questionnaires, Bourdieu has more recently said, are the ‘democratising hermeneutic’.) Some of the most informative and, inevitably, most casual information is drawn from conversations, memoirs and other literary sources. The material is put together chaotically and at considerable length, but what it reveals, one should not be surprised to find, is clear. There is a ‘miraculous homology between the field of the grandes écoles and the field of power’.

The brightest and most finely educated children of parents with cultural capital go through one demanding grande porte to establishments like the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the rue d’Ulm (which trains teachers for secondary and higher education), and the Ecole des Mines. The brightest of those with capital of a more material kind go through the other, rather less demanding, grande porte to schools like the Polytechnique (which provides graduates for the higher ranks of the technical civil service), the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (the first and still the most prestigious of what would now be described as the business schools, founded in 1881), the lnstitut National Agronomique, the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, and the newest of these, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (founded by the conservative politician Michel Debré in 1945 to train people for the higher non-technical civil service and a career in politics). Those with less of either kind of capital, ‘doomed to exemplify properties that are often simply the lowly underside of a dominant property, whose very absence they invoke, properties such as earnestness, painstaking care, rigour and efficiency’ – ‘condemned’, that is, ‘to go on proving themselves forever’ – pass through the petite porte to the more lowly and generally more technical schools, and the universities.

The only marked institutional change since the Sixties has been the growth of what Bourdieu calls ‘sanctuary schools’ like the Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires, founded in 1958, which offer the children of the more prosperous a second chance. But exceptional young people, passing through a grande porte from a more impoverished background, were even more unusual in the Eighties than they had been in the Sixties. The two fields themselves, Bourdieu concludes, are more entrenched than ever, more sharply distinguished both from each other and from the fields without power. It is by what he describes as a process of Republican dubbing – a ‘dialectic of consecration and recognition’ – that the state recruits its ‘nobility’. Just as an impecunious noble in the Ancien Régime was still noble, so ‘the normalien or Polytechnicien continues all his life to profit materially and symbolically from the statutory difference that separates him from the common people.’ He or she does so indeed, Bourdieu concludes, even more effectively: ‘Few ruling groups.’ he asserts, with no evidence, ‘have ever brought together so many principles of legitimation of such diversity’: principles of high birth, achievement and public service, together with a cult of profit and – in those who can get others to acknowledge these principles – ‘the most absolute certainty in their legitimacy’.

The alleged certainties, however, have been changing. Examiners for the agrégation in the humanities in the Fifties could still remark on the simple vulgarity of so much of what they saw, ‘the effrontery of fashionable words and vulgar solecisms’, as one put it in 1959, ‘as unpleasant as the sight of imitation jewellery against dirty skin’. ‘How is it,’ this man asked, ‘that the most intelligent among our candidates are not themselves shocked? How, in their eyes, can the occasionally accurate and subtle thoughts they develop be expressed in such a grating and often so low a way?’ This examiner was no doubt a norm-alien, searching for that self-conscious purity of intellectual style that would express itself, as another graduate of the ENS fondly recalled, in the fact that ‘everyone’ (that’s to say, every graduate from the rue d’Ulm) ‘knows perfectly well’ that every night in the dormitory ‘one student will get out of bed and announce in a hollow voice that he hates himself; that another will as ever shout out the same, stupid, charming insult; that a third will let out the same delightfully awkward statement every time visitors come by.’ By the Seventies, however, this precocity and what Bourdieu tendentiously describes as ‘the intellectual values of “disinterestedness” and “freedom” ’ were under attack. Graduates of the ascendant ENA were tipping the ‘intellectual field towards a conservative disenchantment’. Technocrats, pretentiously claiming to exercise ‘a temporal power in the name of an academic guarantee’, were also claiming the right to exercise intellectual authority in the name of that power. To make their point, they put up Raymond Aron to take down Sartre. The most distinguished living symbol of the one école was publicly, and in Bourdieu’s view resentfully, set against the grand old man of the other. The remorselessly liberal author of The Opium of the Intellectuals, La Révolution introuvable and Marxismes imaginaires was encouraged to take what angry normaliens saw as revenge on the author of The Critique of Dialectical Reason, to resurrect the spirit of Tocqueville, sensitive to the ironies of ‘aristocratic’ and ‘democratic’ societies and forever sceptical, against that of Marx, and in so doing, Bourdieu observes, to press the claims of the worldly realist, ‘a new and more docile, if not more useful, figure of the cultural producer’, against those of the abstract critic. ‘In contrast to the oldstyle intellectuals,’ he says, and was to say again against the Juppé Government during the public-sector strikes in France in 1995.

who can only assert their existence, identified with their autonomy, by renouncing more radically and more ostentatiously than ever all compromise with the economic world (and its corresponding profits) and by exasperated declarations of their irreducibility, both on the strictly intellectual plane and on the political plane, there arise henceforth the managerial intellectuals, or the intellectual managers, who as holders of forms of cultural capital recognised in the economic field, accept the status of bourgeois employee, ready to satisfy a demand for a new kind of intellectual service.

The doyen of the ignoble employees himself, of course, took a different view. It was Aron who, over a créme de menthe, had introduced Sartre to German philosophy on his return from a visit to that country in 1932. Sartre, riveted by his old school friend’s phenomenological account of the drink in front of him, had gone on to put together Husserl, Heidegger and what he later heard of Alexandre Kojève in his dissident existentialism. Aron by contrast had been more drawn to the austerely Kantian Realpolitik of Max Weber. To the younger Bourdieu and other radicals in Sartre’s circle in the Fifties and Sixties, he was ‘Aron le réac’. (Bourdieu still hates Kant.) To the new liberals in the Eighties, he became ‘Aron le sage’. But Aron never changed his opinion of those who wrote as Bourdieu has done. It was they, not the realists, who were driven by resentment ‘In an age dominated by ideas of liberty and equality,’ he remarked in his memoirs in 1983, ‘the sociologists belong more than ever to the school of suspicion.’ Of course modern society reproduces itself; that is what societies do. But ‘whoever, blinded by “sociologism”, sees only a difference of degree between the ideology of the state in Moscow and “symbolic violence” in Paris finally obscures the fundamental questions of the century.’ It’s the sociologist, not the liberal, who is resigned to a false realism.

But this sociologist has his sociological reply. Bourdieu is the son of a postman from Béarn, served in the French Army in Algeria, and taught at the University of Lille and the Ecole Pratique des Hautcs Etudes in Paris before taking a Chair at the Collége de France. ‘If I was able,’ he once declared, ‘in a way that seems to me to be rather “exact”, to objectivise the field that I had just entered, it was undoubtedly because of the highly improbable social trajectory that had led me from a remote village in a remote region of south-western France to what was then the apex of the French educational system.’ If, he obliquely concedes in a note at the back of The State Nobility, he has chosen to cast his insights in the high style of social theory, this is because of ‘the effects of a homogenising and homogeneous socialisation’. ‘The poorest essayist is sure to meet with the approval of journalists and editors, not to mention philosophy or literature professors, as soon as he publishes anything on one or another of the canonical topics: determinism and freedom, structure and history, consciousness and unconsciousness. So-called “worldly” success stories are often based on this kind of perfect accord between texts and the academically constituted expectations of the tastemakers.’