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  • The Double Life of Writers
  • Bernard Lahire1 (bio)
    Translated by Gwendolyn Wells

If Pierre Bourdieu seldom questioned the conditions under which literary autonomy exists or is maintained, it is obviously because he conceptualized the social worlds he was studying after the model of the scientific or academic field, that is, based on the example of institutionalized, codified, and (in the economic sense) professionalized social worlds that have largely resolved the question of this type of autonomy. These institutionalized universes,2 through admissions policies based on degrees, (competitive) exams, and appointments, as well as in the regulation of different “career stages,” offer real professions to the major agents in the field (researchers or teacher-researchers in philosophy, physics, mathematics, sociology, et cetera), who, out of professional obligation, can and must fully devote themselves to their work. These fields, which provide their members with “full-time” jobs and thus constitute their primary universe of social membership, are quite different from other universes, such as the literary universe, to which people are, most frequently, linked only in a secondary fashion, objectively speaking, even if some consider their connection to this world to be their principal connection. How does the writer who leads a parallel life as a teacher, librarian, job trainer, lawyer, journalist, physician, psychologist, business manager, or farmer, who “exists” in literature only intermittently or part time, compare with the physician, philosopher, business manager, lawyer, or farmer who engages in activities in his or her respective social universes in a complete and continuous manner?

By adopting a structural or even structuralist method, we may consider works of literature independently of who their producers are and what they do (“inside the field” and “outside the field”), and independently of the concrete social conditions of their production. Structuralism applied to literary works thus results in the erasure of the writer by the work, echoing the views of Paul Valéry, as recalled by Gérard Genette: “Valéry dreamed of a history of Literature understood ‘not so much as a history of authors and the accidents of their careers, or that of their works, than as a History of the mind, insofar as it produces or consumes [End Page 443] literature, and this history might even be written without the name of a single writer being mentioned.’”3

While it enables us to break with an internalist structuralism (focused solely on works as signifying structures), Bourdieu’s concept of field may be better suited to the study of the position and differentiated value of works and the publishing houses supporting them than it is to the producers of works and their conditions of production. Bourdieu is entirely right in considering works, both past and present, relationally, or in relation to one another, by considering the “literary field” as a universe of more or less autonomous reference that writers perceive as such. This means, concretely, that part of what determines the literary nature and specificity of a given work cannot be understood without taking into account the past and present state of the literary field and not just external factors such as the author’s social properties or the ideological context of the period. And, after all, just as certain theoreticians of social class have maintained that despite individual cases of upward or downward mobility (which account for the fact that part of the dominant class may come out of the dominated classes and, inversely, that the dominated classes may be partly made up of sons and daughters of the dominant class), the important thing is that the social existence of a class structure and class relations are not called into question by instances of mobility (individuals can move from one class to another without the classes themselves being threatened with disappearance), so, too, it is essential to bring to light the structures of opposition and power relations between the subfield of restricted production (the consecrated avant-garde and writers aspiring to it) and the subfield of large-scale production (with its oppositions between academic, mainstream, best-selling, and mass-market literatures) without asking who the producers of these works are and what they do.

But by disregarding writers as individuals, we nonetheless pass...


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pp. 443-465
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