- Bourdieu and the Sociology of Aesthetics
Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical project begins—not precisely chronologically, but with an intrinsic logic—as the attempt to formulate a method of sociological and anthropological analysis that mediates between simply reproducing the perceptions of the culture studied and a scientific codification of those perceptions that gives them objective shape, but not a shape that corresponds to anything in the workings of that culture. 1 Driven by the exigencies of that project, Bourdieu has ended up defining a series of concepts and concerns that has recently revivified among literary critics and theorists an interest in the sociology of literature. In particular, most centrally in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, he has offered a powerful explication of “taste,” in all its meanings from choices in art through choices in dress, furniture, and the like, to taste in food, both as a unified subject matter and as a method for producing and reproducing power differences among social classes. 2 In Language and Symbolic Power, he has focused the same analysis on the subject of language, claiming that meaning, both linguistic and literary, depends on the same activities of power and social differentiation. 3 And a series of articles on Flaubert in particular and aesthetics in general-which he promises as a next book—has again discussed aesthetics and aestheticism in nineteenth-century France in terms of the same sociological analysis.
All of these works explicitly contest formal theories of culture, of language, of aesthetics, of literature, with an analysis that argues the main force of these discourses as creating and maintaining hierarchies of power and domination. Bourdieu, himself, talks of this analysis as fundamentally transgressive, remarking in the English language preface to Distinction that, “although the book transgresses one of the fundamental taboos of the intellectual world, in relating intellectual products and producers to their social conditions of existence—and also, no doubt, because it does so—it cannot entirely ignore or defy the laws of academic or intellectual propriety which condemn as barbarous any attempt to treat culture, that present incarnation of the sacred, as an object of science” (D, xiii). This claim to transgress is fairly absurd. Bourdieu’s project is surely now a central one in literary studies. But the claim of his analyses upon our attention is not the novelty of thinking that literature, canon formation, [End Page 1033] culture and language have some connection to the manifestation of social power, rather the methods he has given for articulating that connection more clearly. Bourdieu, in other words, has said with theoretical detail and precision, something that literary critics have been looking for a way of saying for some time.
In working out the connections among the various aspects of Bourdieu’s theories in this essay, I do not really want to dispute this central sociological claim in the service of some reformulated formalism. Rather, I want to look at its dependence upon another aspect of my title, not the sociological analysis of aesthetics, but the kind of sociological analysis that aesthetics produces. Without trying to trump Bourdieu by showing that he reproduces the aesthetics he ostensibly contests, I will argue that at crucial moments, at the moments in which he most pointedly moves from the anthropological to the literary and in which he most clearly leads to the uses literary critics have made of him, hedeploys the aesthetics he simultaneously analyzes. This dependence shows not some formalist problem of infinite reflection, but rather that the politics critics want from Bourdieu’s analysis of culture can only be fully outlined through an analysis of the sociology that determines the turn to such discourse, an analysis that like Bourdieu’s is simultaneously aesthetic and sociological.
Both Bourdieu’s argument about how culture works and the mode of analysis he applies to culture and aesthetics to make that argument have their roots in the theory of practice that he opposes to anthropological structuralism. To understand the basis of Bourdieu’s cultural concerns, then, we must first understand the goal of that theory. He begins by proposing three modes of knowledge of the social world, which exist in a dialectical relationship...