Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Cultural Logic of Late Cynicism: Jameson on Bourdieu

Frederic Jameson's "How Not to Historicize Theory," in the Spring 2008 issue of Critical Inquiry, is primarily a critical response to the intellectual historian Ian Hunter's article "The History of Theory" (which I haven't read, though Hunter's response to Jameson's response in the same issue gives a pretty good idea of its contents). It's a pretty scattered piece, addressing itself both directly to Hunter and to all liberal critics of poststructuralist theory and Marxism. I won't go into the Jameson/Hunter controversy now, which honestly seems like old ground: liberal rationalist humanist Anglo-American empiricism vs. radical poststructuralist "Continental" Marxism. There are some good points scored on both sides, but essentially this is a case of two well-established intellectual traditions with no use for one another.

But, more interestingly for me, Jameson also takes the opportunity to assess, or rather attack, the growing influence of Pierre Bourdieu. (It seems a bit odd that Jameson waited to do this until Bourdieu was no longer alive; certainly the conjunction of the two would be more interesting than the pairing of Jameson and Hunter.) It's also a little surprising that Jameson dwells on Bourdieu at such length, especially since it seems clear that he is not intimately familiar with the oeuvre: he refers mostly to the very early Outline of a Theory of Practice, the very famous Distinction, and a handful of interviews, suggesting that he knows the "greatest hits" and the idée reçue of Bourdieu as the thorn in the side of the theoretical Left.

Jameson calls Bourdieu's work "the most complex rationale for anti-intellectualism today" and reads it as an attempt to "undermine and discredit all the ideologies in play in the intellectual market." I've noticed that Marxist critics tend to focus on the aspect of Bourdieu's project that's closest to their own: that is, the exposure of supposedly disinterested positions as determined by objective structures. What Bourdieu lacks, in their view, is a positive utopian program, or even a sociohistorical scapegoat like late capitalism. Thus he appears to them as a purely negative force, an exterminating angel who takes the Marxist decimation of liberal ideology a step further by applying it to Marxism itself. But Bourdieu doesn't want to "undermine and discredit all ideologies in the intellectual market," as Jameson suggests, though it sometimes seems that way (he is a pretty fierce polemicist). One could say rather that he wants to make us aware of ideologies — it might be better to say ideas — as something that can be thought of as being discredited, in part because they are not just ideas but products that circulate in a "symbolic marketplace," and which become commonly accepted not on the basis of logical, pragmatic or dialectical assessment alone, but also on the basis of a previously accumulated capital or prestige. This isn't in the service of undermining intellectual debate, but of making the conditions under which it is conducted more visible to its participants.

There are lots of other misreadings here. Jameson somewhat puzzlingly ascribes a very crude dualist understanding of society as composed of "two dichotomous social classes" (575) to Bourdieu, when in fact the latter's version of class structure is immensely complex, full of fractions, poles and cross-sections — indeed, his empirical and conceptual elaboration of the notion of class is one of the things Marxists should be happiest to take from Bourdieu, even if they reject everything else in his theory. Jameson also associates Bourdieu with "populism" (577) and "a sympathetic and even nostalgic evocation of the material lives of peasants and workers and, in particular, of their authentic relationship to their own bodies" (575), both of which would seem more germane to any number of Marxist critics (Raymond Williams, for example) than to Bourdieu, who despite himself was something of a cultural mandarin and who follows Lévi-Strauss in painstakingly recording the mystifications and inequalities of premodern agricultural societies.

Jameson also gets Bourdieu wrong on what he rightly calls "his most influential theoretical innovation, namely, the notion of cultural capital," a concept Jameson sketchily vulgarizes as "the social payoff for listening to Mahler rather than to pop classics like Tchaikovsky." This actually seems closer to John Guillory's underdeveloped idea of the American "ordeal of middlebrow culture" than anything Bourdieu has written. The point of cultural capital is not that people calculatedly acquire culture merely to use it as capital, but that culture, whether acquired consciously or unconsciously, happily or dutifully, inevitably refers back to its form of acquisition, which in turn works to classify us and determine our social ontology, whether we like it or not. (The related concept of misrecognition is crucial here: we think we have a mysterious connection with someone, when in reality we share the same habitus, the same class or cultural background.) The point Jameson presses home, though, is that Bourdieu's analyses overemphasize cultural capital "at the expense of the significance of the economic or of the infrastructure that serves as the base or tenor of the figure in the first place." Bourdieu was hardly inattentive to the operations of economic capital (particularly in his later, more directly politically engaged books like Acts of Resistance, which Jameson doesn't mention), but he didn't make them the basis of a historical theory, which is what really separates him from Marxism and what Jameson can't seem to get past. For Jameson, Bourdieu's emphasis on culture as a means of social distinction "tends to confirm so-called cultural intellectuals in their complacency about the significance of culture and to reassure them that to point to cultural capital is enough to exempt them from any further mention of capital itself" (576-577). Significantly, this is not really a criticism of Bourdieu himself but of his potential bad influence on other, presumably young and impressionable, intellectuals. This argument is strangely evocative of certain reactions to the current New Yorker cover scandal; it's as if Jameson were saying, "I mean, I get it, but what are the less enlightened going to think?"

There also seems to be a basic confusion about the historical dimension of Bourdieu's thought. Short answer: there isn't one. Jameson writes that "the emergence of a given champ or discipline must itself be theorized in terms of what [Niklas] Luhmann called differentiation, as a historical dynamic of modernity and capitalism, a process of the autonomization of specific differentiating practices and their emergent self-theorization; and in that sense Bourdieu's is only one of the numerous theoretical formulations that have sought to name and conceptualize this epochal development" (579). Except that Bourdieu, unlike Luhmann apparently, does not link his notion of autonomy of social fields explicitly to the rise of capitalism or to modernity, even while he borrows their terminology: he is, in fact, an old-fashioned Lévi-Straussian structuralist in his belief in deep social structures of behavior, among them the accumulation of capital and the desire for distinction, which are transhistorically present, behaviors which modern economic structures like capitalism can nonetheless either enable or control (and in Bourdieu's view they overwhelmingly favor the former). This foreign periodization is then extended by Jameson's reference to "the dedifferentiating movement of postmodernity [which] began to reverse this structural trend of modernism and thereby to throw a retrospective light on it. I want to suggest that in that respect theory is itself a form of thinking (and writing) that aims to focus the relationship-in-difference of the various autonomous fields" (580). Postmodernism (a term "rarely invoked in France," Bourdieu points out somewhere) is being made to do an awful lot of work here, and one questions whether the logic of late capitalism, if it exists, has really done anything to weaken the logic of practice, in practice.

Clearly Bourdieu is an unsettling presence for Jameson, as I think he is for many Marxists. Here's a passionately written but ultimately not very convincing portrait of the sociologist as knight of bad faith, which ironically might better serve to characterize Jameson himself:

An agonizing self-awareness shows up in virtually all of his works, nor is it redeemed by the incomparable reflexivity the sociologist brings to his situation, in 'distinction' from the relative detachment of his various garden-variety imitators. For populism is not an adequate squaring of the circle for confronting the Godel's law of social class (no foundational position outside the system) or of evading the ideological vision of society as one endless struggle for recognition that can never be resolved, a struggle that must last as long as human history itself, assuaged by no communist utopias let alone liberal Rawlsian ones. Such a conception of the social then ultimately condemns the sociologist to the same dilemma as that faced by the most implacable of social critics and satirists, namely, that of the satirist satirized, that of the position from which one is entitled to look down with glacial indifference at those interminable mortal struggles. It is a tragic sense of life Max Weber most memorably formulated when he characterized his own vocation in the words, "I want to see how much I can stand." (577-578)

I don't know about "agonizing self-awareness": "unwarranted self-confidence" might be more damaging as a description of Bourdieu's trademark tone. And Jameson's claim that Bourdieu fails to escape the contradictions of his position as an analyst of the social world, to be credible, would need to engage with Bourdieu's own concerted struggles with this dilemma (cf. Homo Academicus, passim). But again there's this sense of Bourdieu, and the sociologist in general, as an unfathomable nihilist, accepting the general Marxist critique of disinterested liberal reason but unwilling to drink the Kool-Aid on the dialectic. The real key here seems to be the phrase about "utopias," which I know is something Jameson's written a lot on recently, and the end of the essay attempts a reconciliation with Bourdieu (Hunter seems to have kind of fallen by the wayside), or really with the younger intellectuals Jameson feels he has influenced, by trying to see his empirical enquiries into institutions as a possible foundation for a new conception of Utopia, one that is relentlessly critical of commodification without imagining anything substantially different taking its place. Bourdieu's "cynical reason" is seen by Jameson as a "successor to Adorno's omnipresent positivism; perhaps we might say that cynical reason is a positivism with a mission, with a politics or even a metaphysics":

For if Adornian positivism was merely a taboo, an injunction to leave out the thinking of what is, cynical reason is a whole program for justifying this view of things. It consists in acknowledging that everything is a commodity; in viewing history, where it has any meaning at all, as a series of conspiracies motivated by interest; and finally in denying that anything else, any positive change, is possible (on the grounds of human nature). … The 1960s attacks on incipient commodification were powered by a vision of radically noncommodified social relations that seems to be unavailable today, rendering the critique of commodification at best a rather complacent affair and at worst a kind of implicit glorification.
But perhaps it is time, if cynical reason is somehow historically unavoidable, for a Utopian reading of it … This is to say that cynical reason forces us into a more complicated conception of interest than we were obliged to have in an idealist or spiritualist age and not least into rethinking collective interest in new ways (that also reinvigorate the older notions of ideology) … Indeed, with the onset of what we call postmodernity and globalization, institutions seem to have taken the place of individuals or at least of our illusions of individuality, at the same time dispelling all the older categories of success and revolt or ambition and alienation. The suspicion of institutions has traditionally turned, not merely on bureaucracy as something unremittingly felt to be legalistic and inhuman, if not corrupt, but above all very precisely on their inevitably conspiratorial procedures … The Utopian dimension of institutions is however their collective existence and structure. Insofar as conspiracy theory celebrates this collective dynamic and seeks to replace the categories of individual agency with collective ones, it mark a first imperfect step in that direction. Cynical reason, meanwhile, while seeming to strip acts and events of their appearance of disinterestedness, might well pave the way for some ultimate awareness of collective self-interest as such. (580-582)

This actually reads like Jameson tentatively stepping out from under the Adorno umbrella and towards Bourdieu's camp (or champ), albeit reluctantly and with much rhetorical display. It amounts to an admission that what Adorno's negative dialectics were to the academy of the 60s and 70s — the guiding spirit of nicht mitmachen [not playing along] which Bourdieu himself has spoken of feeling in those days — Bourdieu's "cynical reason" may be to the 00s and 10s, a shift Jameson deplores but is willing to work with as part of his commitment to actually existing intellectual life. I'm skeptical, as ever, about the claims for postmodernism (as a creative or critical ethos) or postmodernity (as a historical or economic or epistemological state), but I think Jameson's right about the turn away from ideological and towards institutional critique having potentially beneficial effects for our critical generation's collective political sense, even if it sacrifices a good deal — even all — of the 60s vision of "radically noncommodified social relations" Jameson is nostalgic for.

Anyway… I'd really welcome responses from those of you who know more about Jameson than I do. He can be very hard to follow on the sentence-by-sentence level sometimes, so I'm afraid I may have missed subtleties of his attack on Bourdieu that a more experienced Jamesonian could illuminate.