- Reintroduction of the Specialists
Of the French intellectuals who have arrived on American shores to transform the humanities in the last several decades, perhaps no one has received a more partial and limiting reception than Pierre Bourdieu. Compared to peers like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, and Lacan, whose ideas have attracted countless exegeses and attacks and who have inspired innumerable acolytes, Bourdieu’s experience in the American academy looks, despite his great prestige, almost lonely. In the humanities it is difficult to find many scholars who define their work as Bourdieuian. (The adjective, which is ready to hand for the major poststructuralists, does not even exist for Bourdieu, and he would undoubtedly oppose its invention.)
In contrast to those figures whose every work is exhaustively and patiently examined, Bourdieu is known in the American humanities mainly for one book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, in spite of a thirty-year career that has produced over twenty books in a sociological inquiry that is both enormously diverse and remarkably coherent. (In addition to the social origins of taste, Bourdieu’s topics range over the Kabyle society of Algeria, the French educational system, the artistic status of photography, the experience of museum-going, and the sociology of language, sports, intellectual life, and professional politics.) In this light, his recent book, The Field of Cultural Production, which collects essays on the dynamics of artistic creation published between [End Page 183] 1966 and 1988, looks like a good opportunity to assess the usefulness of Bourdieu’s methodology in relation to an area that is central to the concerns of American Studies.
It is not difficult to find reasons for Bourdieu’s relative neglect in the United States. When one seeks to describe his work what comes to mind is not the word usually associated with recent French thought—“theory”—but the comparatively banal term methodology. In comparison to the fascinations of intricate philosophy, Bourdieu can sometimes appear unexciting and—in his frequent reliance on graphs, charts, interviews, and statistics—mundanely empirical. Another way to put this would be to point out that Bourdieu’s work has lent itself to neither of the major intellectual fads in the United States that have drawn on Continental philosophy and that have defined the broad succession of academic trends in the United States over the recent decades: recondite philosophical speculation or cultural populism; put in more familiar terms, poststructuralism via Yale and cultural studies by way of Birmingham.
To understand what is particular about Bourdieu’s work, it is helpful to realize that he probably would regard these two major trends in the American humanities as strictly counterpoised academic directions and as complementary failures to live up to his demanding conception of intellectual work. From the perspective of his sociology, each approach stands out as a vanguardist strategy for accruing authority within the world of intellectuals. Whatever else it was, deconstruction was a movement of vast intellectual assertion, whose every aspect announced—sometimes as rigor, sometimes as unbounded freedom—the practitioners’ radical distance from the commonplace and the commonsensical. Cultural studies, by contrast, has gained its authority through a strategy of intellectual abasement. The aim now is not to stand apart from, but with, the popular. Thus, where literary critics like Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman underwrote their authority by associating themselves with the most consecrated works of philosophy and literature, Cultural studies intellectuals such as Andrew Ross typically concentrate on the products and fans of pop culture. Authority in this case comes not from intimacy with art or “language,” but from the attempt to serve as translators for the suppressed yearnings of “everyday life.” Where a critic like Hartman found a particular enemy in the vulgar form of the detective story, then, Ross declares that he cannot find the time for novels because he is occupied with glossy magazines. Moreover, each scholar legitimates these consciously radical positions by endowing them with important political functions. For critics like de Man [End Page 184] and Hartman, pop culture and popular consciousness represent dangerous forms...