Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Goldstone/Bourdieu, 9/29: Meeting Minutes

On Monday 9/29 Andrew Goldstone led a discussion of excerpts from Pierre Bourdieu's The Rules of Art. Many thanks to Dave Gorin for taking minutes, which AG has lightly edited. Corrections to AG's and DG's memorial reconstructions are very welcome, as are comments on the post! For the full minutes, follow the link to the full post.

Present: Emily Coit, Anne DeWitt, Andy Eggers, Colin Gillis, Dave Gorin, Langdon Hammer, KC Harrison, Gabriele Hayden, Susannah Hollister, Eugenia Kelbert, Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, Jordan Zweck.

AG: I realize I threw you in the deep end with the section on method. It's the hardest part of the book to read. He's not a very good writer, and the translation is very bad. The two sizes of type are Bourdieu's own device.

Let me take a second to give you an idea of what this is all about. Look at the graph on p. 6. This diagrams the social world of Flaubert's novel, and the entire book is about how this diagram came to be written. Why does Flaubert have this knowledge of his social world? That's what Bourdieu is trying to solve, and requires him to create a whole theory.

Background on Bourdieu: he's atypical among French theorists. He's not a Parisian but comes from the sticks, the son of a postal worker. Agreg in philosophy, but then he went to do fieldwork in his home village and in Algeria. He becomes a social scientist instead of a philosopher. And unlike thinkers of '68 like Lacan, Derrida, or Althusser, he is taken seriously in the American social sciences, though he's provoked plenty of dispute and frustration. He matters.

Some writers on Bourdieu: John Guillory (see "Bourdieu's Refusal" [Yale network only]); Michèle Lamont; Pascale Casanova.

Here's how I came to Bourdieu. The salient piece of my background here is Harvard poetry courses: I took them, and they made a big impact. When I came here, I believed in the primacy of form, I despised the heresy of paraphrase, and so on. I had planned a dissertation which more or less defended these Harvard poetry principles. Then Lanny Hammer suggested that I read this book. It's a theory of modernism and aestheticism put back in its historical context. Furthermore, I immediately applied it to my own academic development; watching Bourdieu describe the rules of art made me reflect on the rules of the academic world and to see myself as a participant in a field. A quick example: the hierarchy of publishers--some academic prestiges are much higher prestige or "symbolic capital" than others. And we all make use of our own implicit knowledge of the hierarchy of publishers--but suddenly I was aware of this. I started trying to "objectivate" the institutional space, thinking of it as an object of study and not just something to obey.

But Bourdieu is also an aesthete. He loves modernism and thinks of it as one of the essential historical events in modernity. There's a widespread misunderstanding that he stands for reductive approaches to literature. In fact he wants to understand what kind of world artists make for themselves in setting out the position of art for art's sake. That love of form, in the manner of Harvard poetry courses, is still there in Bourdieu, but in a less transcendental framework.

Last year we spent a lot of time talking about what it means when you use theory. I see 3 possibilities. The first: for a suggestive quality. The second: introducing a whole new subject matter. This is a typical use of queer theory, postcolonial theory, deconstruction. And I do use Bourdieu this way, for a thematics of autonomy.

But there is a stronger use: methodological. Theory can shape our procedures and disciplinary aims. The best example is New Historicism, which shifts the object of study from literary texts to literary texts in certain kind of contexts, with a strong emphasis not on the literary itself but on history and politics. Now Bourdieu's approach is related to New Historicism, but his procedures are very different from the principally anecdotal method New Historicism uses. Instead of putting a few texts (literary, cultural, political) in relation to one another, Bourdieu says to put texts in relation to entire fields.

I think this does imply the necessity of: statistics, hypothesis testing, falsifiable models, a determinist idea of artistic production. This is necessary for addressing problems with New Historicism--for more rigorous procedures of knowledge production.

Dave Gorin: I am skeptical of the rhetoric of liberation in the Preface.

Colin Gillis: Yes, look at the last sentence of preface. We get liberated into what? I didn't have the same attachement to aestheticism. I'm not breathing the air of art for art's sake. Why do we need to salvage that original appreciation as an impulse for criticism?

Anne DeWitt: I was also somewhat surprised by the move in the preface. I was not expecting Bourdieu to make that appreciative move. Was he doing this to reassure people who feel upset by his sociological approach?

AG: It's important to think of Bourdieu's book as intervening in a French literary culture that clings more to aestheticism than ours does. He does want you to take his credentials as an aesthete seriously.

CG: Whereas if you're writing for an American audience, you would say the opposite. Not: no internal reading without external analysis, but no external analysis without internal reading.

Gabriele Hayden: I was wondering of we could get to some of the questions DG was raising through questions about your critical practice, AG. I've looked at dissertations that go systematically through periodicals to show the existence of racial stereotypes at a particular historical moment. A lot of work. There's a question of scope; I already feel like I'm juggling the universe...

AG: There's a big gap between what I see as real standards of proof and what we can do, especially as dissertating students. But ultimately, yes, I think we're going to have to resign ourselves to verifying more rigorously the things that we already know.

GH: How do you articulate that move from the contextual to the internal? I'm interested in thinking about style itself as signifying things in a political framework. But how do you make those moves?

AG (with handout from a thesis chapter): It's hard. What you need is a relation between a whole field of literary practice and those political questions. Bourdieu's 19th-century French example is the poetic choice between free verse and alexandrines. That formal choice is political; the choice of free verse has a politically rebellious aspect. But that comes out of a whole matrix of relations between the political world and the aesthetic world, where the position of aesthetic rebellion is aligned with an anti-establishment bohemia, and that of aesthetic conservatism with the political establishment. In my thesis chapter, I argue that Barnes is developing a particular kind of writing, but she's also living in a certain way-- the American in Paris, flamboyant, bohemian, hard-drinking, a whole set of related characteristics of her life-- and I want to make a relation between the style of writing and her style of life. In the conventional account, modernist expats become experimental stylists because, having left home, they've defamiliarized their surroundings. This is a bit fishy--where are the causal mechanisms? So I use Bourdieu to make a different point: the defamiliarizing style and the lifestyle are all part of one enterprise, the enterprise of carving out an autonomous position as a professional modernist writer. My one piece of sociological evidence is the preface Eliot writes to Nightwood calling it purely an achievement of style: Barnes gets received as a practitioner of pure art.

CG: GH, you're talking about anthologies, and AG, you're talking about lifestyle. It's harder to use Bourdieu to talk about reception than it is to use him to talk about production. As critics, we talk about the life of texts in social worlds. You can use Bourdieu to talk about that, but it's complicated.

Emily Coit: Hard because you need to gather data?

CG: It's hard to gather data about the use of texts.

AG: Yes. For the present day, Bourdieu does fieldwork on people: surveys, interviews. For earlier periods, you have to do broad archival reading.

CG: For example, in the modernist period, people are putting together literature anthologies to legitimize minority experience.

GH: Right, aesthetic autonomy is being deployed for explicitly political means. African-Americans claim recognition and status because they can produce autonomous art.

AG: Notice then that the claim for inclusion is still on the basis of the "rules of art"--the claim to autonomy. But CG, you're right that Bourdieu's theory squeezes things down into categories of autonomous and not.

NSS: Why do you want us to head in the directions you suggested Bourdieu leads?

EC: The critical practice Bourdieu advocates is endlessly self-reflexive. We're talking here about Bourdieu's work on the perceived autonomy of art, but he also studies the perceived sanctity of academic endeavor. I'm asking a very personal question: in using his theory in your own work, do you ever find the self-reflexivity demanded by him paralyzing? Does it make you uncomfortable?

AG: It does get kind of tiresome, and not that interesting for readers, to always come back to the norms of the profession. I don't know how to get beyond that yet. As to the question of what it's all for...I think you need to separate questions of what scholarly work must be for from how to do that work.

NSS: It raised my eyebrows when Bourdieu speaks of forsaking the sensory for the intelligible. He's going to see what we can't reach at the level of anecdote. But when I read criticism, what I like is grounded in stories of what people actually did and their relations.

AG: It is threatening in that it forces you to see the sensuous way of relating as something you can only do as a participant in the world of art, and not as a sociologist.

GH: The penultimate sentence of the preface [notes unclear here--ed.] By stepping back, you're going to tally the specific instances and get the whole model. And the anecdotal approach can't do that.

NSS: That's helpful. Why do I feel that a story or anecdote is more useful than an abstract story about how they met?

AG: True explanations don't necessarily come from sensuous, specific details, despite the appeal of the latter.

GH: A lot of the poets we read in the Working Group on Contemporary Poetry seem to be addressing some of these problems of materiality and the autonomy of art, impurity, all these things that make us uncomfortable--and they're making awesome art about it. Art goes on.

AG: Art goes on, having migrated into the university--as Lanny Hammer's work discusses. It's not coincidental that university poets write about issues that are dear to us.

LH: In that statement at the end of Bourdieu's Preface, it seems like the important world is "human." The sentence is a kind of credo. You can think about Bourdieu in relation to Marx and Marx's wanting to turn idealism on its head. Bourdieu wants to provide a human theory of the work of art, turning Flaubert on his head. The emphasis, as in Marx, falls on the maker in a powerful way that gestures, with the idea of the buried universal (in the writer), to the human. The question I was going to ask was: does Bourdieu talk about "truth"? He talks about objectivity, but Truth?

AG: I am definitely conflating what Bourdieu calls objectivity with truth. I do think that for Bourdieu, he does have a classically Enlightenment-style, purist idea of why objectivity matters. He is a political activist, but at the end of his sociology is the goal of the disinterested pursuit of truth. What would objectivity be if not related to truth?

LH: What do you think objectivity means? One of the virtues of art is the way it objectifies social relations...

AG: I don't have anything deep to say about this, but we could at least say that objectivity makes things visible potentially to all human observers, instead of confining forms of knowledge to particular social strata.

LH: Which is how it hooks up with the idea of the universal.

AG: The universal is only grasped from your position, but is (optimistically) potentially available to all. Let's look at the passage on 108 [on Flaubert's "work on form" and the "anamnesis" of his knowledge of the field of power]. Do you buy this?

CG: It makes the critic absolutely central.

AG: Is it a plausible theory? How does this look to the economist?

Andy Eggers: Why do you want to know what Flaubert is carrying around in his head?

AG: Bourdieu is doing a kind of anthropology. He wants to know what it means to be a writer in his time, and this is his way of getting at it. Flaubert knows, in the practical way of a social agent, that there's a world of the powerful, then a world of bohemia.

AD: This is the idea of habitus: Flaubert knows, but doesn't know he knows.

SH: Is it important that Flaubert doesn't know?

AG: This gets back to Colin's point on the importance of the critic's ability to unearth the buried knowledge. Bourdieu actually goes so far as to say that the only way to be liberated is to get the objective knowledge of the situation that you're in.

CG: This is what the historian says to the literary critic: why are you interested in literature and not all historical documents? And we say that artists are particularly good at capturing the social reality. The Rules of Art argues that Sentimental Education is the best evidence for this. But if you change what evidence you're looking at, maybe you'll come up with an answer that proves that Flaubert was wrong about the social field. In the end, Bourdieu attributes a real genius to Flaubert.

EC: The emphasis on appreciation that you mentioned is another response to the historian's critique.

CG: How do we find which texts and artists have captured truth / the social field? He's talking about Flaubert, not Audre Lord.

AG: In a way The Rules of Art is Bourdieu's long justification for liking Flaubert. This is my impasse: this is so specific to Anglo-French modernism. You'd have to do all this work over again if you want to take this theory somewhere else.

GH: Now I'm trying to think about the baroque and a whole other genealogy of moderism. In Spain, you're not supposed to talk about modernism, but the baroque tradition and the neobaroque. And I think there's a lot you can take from Bourdieu about the relation between historical structures and style and politics. Is baroque style something that imposes hegemony or an opportunity for disruption? You could take some of Bourdieu's questions, and maybe get different answers.

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