A Disconcerting Brevity: Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination
Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination is the English translation of La Domination Masculine (1998), which was developed from an article of the same name published in 1990 in Actes de la Recherché en Sciences Sociales. It articulates Bourdieu’s theories of gender construction and his analysis of the pervasive and insidious power of masculine domination, which is, in “the way it is imposed and suffered . . . the prime example of this paradoxical submission” through which “the most intolerable conditions of existence can so often be perceived as acceptable and even natural” (1). This domination is effected, subtly, through a form of what Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence, a gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims, exerted for the most part through the purely symbolic channels of communication and cognition (more precisely, misrecognition), recognition, or even feeling” (1–2). Despite Bourdieu’s reference to “gentle violence,” symbolic violence is the most powerful weapon in masculine domination’s arsenal, since, despite its virtual invisibility, it creates the conditions of possibility for other, more immediate and explicit forms of violence, whether economic or physical.
At one hundred and thirty-three pages (including notes and index), Masculine Domination is one of Bourdieu’s shortest books. This, moreover, is not the only way in which Masculine Domination is atypical. In books such as Distinction, Bourdieu has shown his ability to examine social structures minutely by producing and interpreting huge blocks of data. At its best, Bourdieu’s work is a potent mix of scientific analysis and literary interpretation, with each of these methods allowing him to reach those places where the other will not take him. A further strength has been his willingness to analyze every available position in the huge “fields” that he examines. In contrast, the sole “data” that informs Masculine Domination comes from anthropological information about the Kabyle society (a Mediterranean ethnic group) that Bourdieu gathered in the 1960s and a reading of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. By comparison with the thoroughness of his earlier work, Masculine Domination seems a brisk treatment of a subject that does not have Bourdieu’s full attention.
Bourdieu justifies choosing the “particular case” of Kabylia by pointing out that “the cultural tradition that has been maintained there constitutes a paradigmatic realization of the Mediterranean tradition,” and, further, that “the whole European cultural domain undeniably shares in that tradition,” a contention for which he offers as proof only “a comparison of the rituals observed in Kabylia with those collected by Arnold Van Gennep in early twentieth-century France” (6). Bourdieu uses this tenuous series of connections to establish Kabyle society as a source of examples of masculine domination that he refers to throughout the book. In using Kabyle society in this way, Bourdieu allows a confusion to develop between evidence and illustration. Furthermore, as Terry Lovell (one of Bourdieu’s most frequent and incisive critics) points out, “it is not always possible to know when [Bourdieu] is restricting his observations to the particular case of Kabyle society, when he is extending them to encompass the whole Mediterranean culture of honour/shame, including that of the modern period, and when he is offering universal generalizations” (20). It is therefore difficult to summarize Bourdieu’s analysis of Kabyle society, since he does not proceed in any systematic way. In fact, there are only a dozen or so specific references to Kabyle society throughout the book, many of which are very brief, as when Bourdieu simply states, without mentioning specific details, that it represents “the canonical form” of the masculine/feminine oppositions to which he wants to point (56). At other times, Bourdieu will describe a particular aspect of Kabyle society, only to leave it impatiently in an apparent extrapolation of his conclusions to universal circumstances. Asserting that “it is not exaggerated to compare masculinity to a nobility,” Bourdieu notes
the double standard, with which the Kabyles are very familiar, applied in the evaluation of male and female activities. Not only can a man not stoop without degrading himself to certain tasks that are socially defined as inferior (not least because it is unthinkable that a man should perform them), but the same task may be noble and difficult, when performed by men, or insignificant and imperceptible, easy and futile when performed by women.(60)
Bourdieu then points to “the difference between the chef and the cook, [and] the couturier and the seamstress” (60) that operates in our own society, apparently unconcerned that he has made no more than a vague reference to the specific tasks that are designated as male and female in Kabyle society.
Bourdieu can link such apparently disparate objects of analysis as Kabyle society and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse because he treats them in essentially the same way—as texts that he may pull down from the bookshelf when he wants to make a point and then quickly put back. His analysis of To the Lighthouse focuses mainly on Woolf’s portrayal of Mr. Ramsay, the patriarch of the Ramsay family, who is “a man whose words are verdicts” (70). Despite the masculine power that this would seem to suggest, Bourdieu sees Mr. Ramsay as “a pitiful being who is himself a victim of the inexorable verdicts of the real and himself needs pity” (77). For Bourdieu, Mr. Ramsay is an example of the way in which symbolic violence redounds on those who initially benefit from it, those who are “in Marx’s phrase, ‘dominated by their domination’” (69), who are granted “the double-edged privilege of indulging in the games of domination” (75). While men may enjoy the power that masculine domination permits them, they can wield this power only through a continual self-regulation, “the effort that every man has to make to rise to his own childhood conception of manhood,” in which his own weaknesses are carefully hidden from others. Sympathy for Mr. Ramsay, however, is available from Mrs. Ramsay, who “continuously humours her husband” in a “kind of condescending pity for the male illusio” (77). In Bourdieu’s reading, Mr. Ramsay exemplifies the way in which men are permitted to play games that, while they may grant tremendous power, also carry enormous risks; in contrast, Mrs. Ramsay exemplifies the way in which women are freed from these risks, but only so that they are rendered mere spectators who are “seen as frivolous and incapable of taking an interest in serious things, such as politics” (75).
Since its original appearance in article form in 1990, Masculine Domination has been heavily criticized by feminists (a fact that seems to have motivated the new “Preface to the English Edition”). While many of its flaws are immediately apparent, it wasn’t until my final draft of this review that I finally put my finger on what is often so objectionable about Bourdieu’s work here. Bourdieu’s complicated, yet oddly seductive, style perhaps blinded me to the fact that Masculine Domination is not primarily concerned with analyzing the exercise of masculine power, but rather with analyzing women’s apparent acquiescence to it. This often puts Bourdieu into the position of seeming to lecture “victims” of domination about their complicity in their own victimization.
I don’t want to accuse Bourdieu of suffering from the same malady that he so expertly diagnoses. His suggestions of women’s participation in their own domination are founded on his concept of the habitus, which has proven immensely important for feminist theory. Lovell notes that “habitus names the characteristic dispositions of the social subject. It is indicated in the bearing of the body (‘hexis’), and in deeply ingrained habits of behaviour, feeling, thought” (12). The habitus is thus “not a matter of conscious learning, or of ideological imposition, but is acquired through practice” (12). Bridget Fowler notes the usefulness of the concept of the habitus in collapsing the artificial distinctions “which are barriers to thought—between the dualisms of mechanistic thought and voluntarism, between mind and the body, between coercion and willed complicity.” According to Bourdieu, our social identities are neither imposed upon us, nor voluntarily chosen, but rather acquired as a result of the experiment of living (what “works for us”), an experiment that is not consciously undertaken, but is rather coincident with the practical matter of living in a society. In Masculine Domination, Bourdieu focuses on how “the division of the sexes” is not only present in “the objectified state—in things (in the house, for example, every part of which is ‘sexed’)” but also “in the embodied state—in the habitus of the agents, functioning as systems of schemes of perception, thought and action” (8).
Even as this description makes clear the value of the concept of the habitus for feminism, however, it should also expose the problems the concept raises. While Bourdieu’s work points to the dominated position of women in society as something not natural but rather naturalized, it can nonetheless be seen to counsel pessimism and political inertia. The negative effects of a dominated habitus cannot be overcome by will alone, since the habitus does not operate at the level of conscious thought but rather is reflected in the “embedding of social structures in bodies” (40). Thus Bourdieu is able to easily dismiss the “intellectualist and scholastic fallacy which . . . leads one to expect the liberation of women to come through the immediate effect of the ‘raising of consciousness’” (40). “The symbolic revolution called for by the feminist movement,” insists Bourdieu, “cannot be reduced to a simple conversion of consciousnesses and wills” (41).
I take Bourdieu’s point here, and in general, Masculine Domination is an important reminder to feminists of the strength and insidiousness of the obstacles to be faced. At the same time, there is something frustrating about the ease and briskness with which Bourdieu dismisses whole schools of feminist thought. Bourdieu remarks in a footnote that he “cannot avoid seeing an effect of submission to the dominant models in the fact that, both in France and in the United States, attention and discussion focus on a few female theorists, capable of excelling in what one of their critics has called ‘the race for theory’, rather than on magnificent studies . . . which are infinitely richer and more fertile, even from a theoretical point of view, but are less in conformity with the—typically masculine—idea of ‘grand theory’” (97n31). This might be seen as Bourdieu’s attempt to defend himself, however obliquely, from the charge that he has failed to engage the work of those “few female theorists” in Masculine Domination. However, Bourdieu’s claims that the great deal of attention paid to these theorists is due to their “conformity with the . . . idea of ‘grand theory’” and is an effect of “submission to the dominant models” can be turned against him. One could just as easily accuse Bourdieu himself of ignoring these theorists because, unlike the female authors he cites who stick to areas constructed as “feminine,” they have transgressed upon territory that the dominant model of intellectual pursuit tacitly reserves for men.
That Bourdieu anticipated such criticism is evident in the somewhat defensive quality of many of his comments. In one footnote, for example, Bourdieu refers to a passage in his The Logic of Practice, “if only to show that [his] present intention does not stem from a recent conversion” (3n2). This is to misapprehend the problem, however. What is at stake is not the duration of Bourdieu’s interest in the issue of Masculine Domination, but rather the time that it has taken him to give it the prominence in his work that it deserves. Now that he has finally undertaken this task, his refusal to deal with “those who already occupy the well-tilled ‘field’ of gender studies” is, as Lovell points out, “quite remarkable” (27n1). “Bourdieu’s decision to ignore almost all of this work [of feminist theory],” continues Lovell, “is surely no unwitting exercise of the symbolic violence he knows so well how to analyse” (27n1). Indeed, Bourdieu seems almost impatient with feminist thought. In a footnote to the original 1990 article, Bourdieu dismissed prominent feminist theorists Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray as “essentialist.” In the present volume their names are not even mentioned, as if Bourdieu could not even be bothered to expand or clarify his earlier remarks.
Throughout Masculine Domination, Bourdieu deals with important feminist problems by first invoking two “extreme” positions, which he presumably intends to signify the limits of the debate, and subsequently discarding each of them for their failure to confront the true social nature of domination. Here, for example, is Bourdieu on the issue of sexual harassment: “Because differential socialization disposes men to love the games of power and women to love the men who play them, masculine charisma is partly the charm of power, the seduction that the possession of power exerts, as such, on bodies whose drives and desires are themselves politically socialized” (79). He continues in a footnote: “This point is made against the tendency to classify all the sexual exchanges of the bureaucratic universe, particularly between managers and secretaries either as ‘sexual harassment’ (which is probably still underestimated even by the most ‘radical’ denunciators), or as the cynical, instrumental use of female charm as a means of access to power’” (79n44). And thus, Bourdieu impatiently dismisses an entire range of questions concerning power and sexuality in the workplace.
As Bourdieu himself notes, “the idea that the social definition of the body, and especially of the sexual organs, is the product of a social labour of construction has become quite banal through having been advocated by the whole anthropological tradition” (22–3), and, one might add, by a significant number of feminists. But, Bourdieu argues, “the mechanism of the inversion of cause and effect that I am trying to describe here, through which the naturalization of that construction takes place, has not, it seems to me, been fully described (23). Even if we take Bourdieu’s word that such a description has heretofore not been provided, we must then ask why he fails to provide it himself. Bourdieu’s opening remarks about “dismantling the process responsible for this transformation of history into nature, of cultural arbitrariness into the natural” (2) suggest a sociologically based study that will expose the workings of Masculine Domination throughout history, not a brief overview limited to a few unrelated sources of data.
Bourdieu’s decision to use Kabyle society as an object of analysis stems from his desire to extract “everything that knowledge of the fully developed model of the androcentric ‘unconscious’ makes it possible to identify and understand in the manifestations of our own unconscious” (54). Since the gender divisions and dominant practices that Bourdieu wishes to identify are so explicit in Kabyle society, by examining it he hopes to engender in the mind of “the unprepared reader” a form of “disconcertion, which may be accompanied by an impression of revelation or more precisely, of rediscovery, entirely analogous to that produced by the unexpected necessity of some poetic metaphors” (55). Eventually we gain “not the familiarity supplied by the acquisition of a simple knowledge (savoir), but the familiarity gained by that reappropriation of a knowledge (connaissance) that is both possessed and lost from the beginning, which Freud, following Plato, called ‘anamnesis’” (55). This complex explanation of Bourdieu’s methodology (which, in its reference to “poetic metaphors,” contains for me echoes of the “defamiliarization” with which the Russian formalists credited literary language) may be seen as Bourdieu’s attempt to solve provisionally the epistemological problem forever raised by his “reflexive sociology,” a problem that is especially relevant here. If masculine domination is as ingrained in our perceptions, thoughts, and actions as Bourdieu suggests, how may we perceive it? May we not be congratulating ourselves on recognizing some of its more obvious manifestations, only to pass over more hidden, and therefore more important, ones? It seems to me that what is required of “the unprepared reader,” after all, is a kind of intuitive sympathy that by definition partially escapes the more damaging effects of masculine domination. Readers who do not share this sympathy could simply argue that Kabyle society represents an extreme case that has little if anything to do with their own. Bourdieu could have overcome this objection by including in Masculine Domination the sort of detailed sociological data and analysis that is so characteristic of earlier works like Distinction. Instead, much of Masculine Domination takes place on the level of assertion. The universal expression of masculine domination throughout all times and places is simply taken for granted, and so Bourdieu need only make minimal effort to distinguish specific from general cases.
This is not to underplay the value of Bourdieu’s observations here. For example, Bourdieu recognizes that “male privilege is also a trap, and it has its negative side in the permanent tension and contention, sometimes verging on the absurd, imposed on every man by the duty to assert his manliness in all circumstances” (50), noting that “what is called ‘courage’ is thus often rooted in a kind of cowardice” since it springs “from the fear of losing the respect or admiration of the group, of ‘losing face’ in front of one’s ‘mates’ and being relegated to the typically female category of ‘wimps’, ‘girlies’, ‘fairies’ etc” (52). “Manliness,” Bourdieu points out, “is an eminently relational notion, constructed in front of and for other men and against femininity, in a kind of fear of the female, firstly in oneself” (53). Bourdieu, furthermore, incisively points out the way in which this relational notion is the operating principle that lies behind the series of oppositions that structure society, even though the specifically gendered nature of these oppositions may not always be fully recognized. The “fundamental opposition” between masculine and feminine is instead “‘geared down’ or diffracted in a series of homologous oppositions, which reproduce it but in dispersed and often almost unrecognizable forms” (106). Turning briefly to one of his favored topics, the academic “field,” Bourdieu points out “the opposition between the temporally dominant disciplines, law and medicine, and the temporally dominated disciplines, the sciences and the humanities, and within the latter group, between the sciences, with everything that is described as ‘hard’, and the humanities (‘soft’), or again, between sociology, situated on the side of the agora and politics, and psychology, which is condemned to interiority, like literature” (105).
In the present edition of Masculine Domination, Bourdieu has included a postscript on domination and love in which he poses the question, “Is love an exception . . . to the law of masculine domination, a suspension of symbolic violence, or is it the supreme—because the most subtle, the most invisible—form of that violence?” (109). In an uncharacteristically romantic and idealistic gesture, Bourdieu seems to suggest the first answer, calling attention to “the perfect reciprocity through which the circle in which the loving dyad encloses itself, as an elementary social unit, indivisible and charged with a powerful symbolic autarky, becomes endowed with the power to rival successfully all the consecrations that are ordinarily asked of the institutions and rites of ‘Society’, the secular substitute for God” (112). As Lovell remarks of this postscript, “it is difficult to resist a certain feminist cynicism here” since “men do not lay aside their male power when they love, as many women have discovered to their cost” (29n17). Bourdieu’s decision to include this postscript was ill-advised to say the least, since, coming at the end of a text so problematic for feminists, it cannot help but be seen as patronizing or as an attempt to “appeal to women [to] forbear to exercise such power as may fall to them in this manner” (Lovell 27n1). Bourdieu compounds this problem by further including an appendix titled “Some questions on the gay and lesbian movement” in which he credits homosexuals with being “particularly well armed to achieve this task” of destroying the principle of division and of being able to “implement the advantages linked to particularisms in the service of universalism, especially in subversive struggles” (123). Bourdieu’s remarks in this very brief section are particularly cogent, yet one cannot help but notice the generous ease with which he grants the gay and lesbian movement the freedom and ability to effect change that he so insistently denies the feminist movement. It is no wonder that many feminists view Masculine Domination with alarm.
Bourdieu died in 2002, and Masculine Domination is thus one of the final books of his career. Masculine Domination is not the sort of foundational masterwork that Distinction and The Logic of Practice have become. Yet Masculine Domination is useful to feminists as a concise statement of Bourdieu’s thoughts concerning gender construction and as (to use one of Bourdieu’s favoured terms) a “limit case” of social constructivist thought. Ultimately, however, Masculine Domination is most valuable for its status as a conceptual toolkit which feminists can use, as Lovell would say, to think with, against, and, inevitably, beyond Bourdieu.
University of Manitoba
Martin Wallace is currently completing his Ph.D. in Canadian Literature at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is also a part-time lecturer in composition at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has had a long-time fascination (and frustration) with the work of Bourdieu.