Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Charmingly Mediated Alienation" (Notes on Twee #18)

"Precisely because it is lived as a private disposition which absorbs the world situation, the new cynicism is not as strikingly noticeable as would befit its concept. It surrounds itself with discretion, as we shall see, a key word of charmingly mediated alienation. The accomodation which knows about itself, having sacrificed its better knowledge to 'objective determinations,' no longer sees any need to expose itself offensively and spectacularly. There is a nakedness which no longer has an unmasking effect and in which no 'bare fact' appears on whose ground one could stand with spirited realism. The neo-cynical accomodation to the given has an aura of plaintiveness; it no longer is self-confidently naked. For this reason it is also methodologically difficult to render this diffuse, hazy cynicism articulate. It has withdrawn into a mournful detachment (Abgeklärtheit) which has internalized its knowledge, useless for attacks, like a curse. The great offensives of cynical impudence have become a rarity; ill humor has taken their place, and there is no energy left for sarcasm. Gehlen even thought that not even the English can be cutting any more because the supplies of dissatisfaction have been used up and the rationing of stocks has begun. The peevishness which follows the offensiveness doesn't open its mouth wide enough for enlightenment to take a step forward."

— Peter Sloterdijk, "Cynicism — The Twilight of False Consciousness," 194-195 (emphasis mine)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fractions and Feelings

Sasha Frere-Jones is just so good sometimes. I love this description of Sonic Youth circa 1986:

"If the bright, square notes of 'Into the Groove' came from a world of easy round numbers, Sonic Youth's music was made of intricate fractions. Each song was crammed with information. Moore swayed as if the stage were heaving, and he sang as though he were trying to calm himself down. Lee Ranaldo, a rugged kid from Long Island with a shaggy hair style, stood stage right, whipping his guitar through the air, now and then crouching to get a better purchase on it. Kim Gordon was center stage, bass in hand; she was the least seasoned musician onstage, and her playing was simple and relentless. Cool, blond, serene, she was like the lead in a movie who refuses to read from the script, more Marina Vlady than Brigitte Bardot."

— "Wonder Town,"
The New Yorker, June 22, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

From Foucault to Bourdieu?

From Foucault to Bourdieu?
Institutions of Social Theory in America

Paper delivered at the UCLA Southland Graduate Student Conference, June 5th, 2009)

The institution of American literary criticism — not only, but especially, that kind of criticism that attempts to take social institutions into account — owes an incalculable debt to Michel Foucault. Yet Foucault’s work has been so influential in the United States over the past forty years that it may fairly be regarded as a kind of academic institution unto itself — one potentially in need of radical questioning or reform. Such a desire, to reform the institution that is Foucault’s thought — or at least to view it from a slight distance, a new angle — may perhaps explain a recent turn in literary studies engaging with social theory, away from a Foucauldian framework and towards one more influenced by Foucault’s contemporary and friend, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

The two have much in common: both agregés in philosophy at École Normale Superieure in the mid-1950s, they are alike in combining careful scholarship with theoretical ambition, minute phenomenological reflection on the body with materialist historical explanations on a grand scale, and a resistance to the problematic of Marxism with eternal vigilance toward the effects of domination exercised by all forms of power and capital. Foucault, of course, has long been the more influential figure in America. For a few decades now — at least since the pioneering New Historicist work of the late 1970s and early 1980s — American literary scholars have been working through the implications of Foucault’s genealogical method, which seeks to trace the history of concepts central to our literature and our culture: sexuality, subjectivity, rationality, sovereignty, and many others. Literary scholars and critics influenced by Foucault are legion, but some of the most illustrious and illustrative names would include Stephen Greenblatt, D.A. Miller, Walter Benn Michaels, Frances Ferguson and Mary Poovey.

Bourdieu’s influence is more recent, and perhaps less familiar, so I’ll characterize it briefly here. Literary critics working under Bourdieu’s influence are interested not so much in an analysis of the labor that goes into constituting or constructing literature’s conceptual content, but in what happens to literature once it has been constructed: how it circulates, who is able to recognize and evaluate it, who profits by it, what social practices it makes possible or participates in. Rather than attempting to craft diachronic narratives of how particular, more or less philosophical concepts might have found their way into literature, Bourdieuvians tend to favor synchronic analyses of literary practice at particular stages of cultural and social development. The object of research, in other words, is not primarily the history of culture that brings about a particular work, but rather that work’s place within what Bourdieu calls “the field of cultural production” at any given historical moment: the economies (real and symbolic) in which particular literary works are embedded. Here, the concepts operating within literary works matter less than the concepts of literature (along with other social concepts) that allow works to circulate in society in a specific way (among individuals of a certain class, for instance, or within certain institutions, or between particular nations). Scholars and critics I would align with this roughly Bourdieuvian project include John Guillory, Franco Moretti, Janice Radway, James English, and Pascale Casanova.

We are talking, in other words, primarily about a difference of methodology: a difference of theoretical object. The Foucauldians wonder how literature and culture gets to us in the form it does; the Bourdieuvians wonder how it gets from one of us to another. These critical projects, though different, hardly seem irreconcilable. If work that explicitly combines Foucault and Bourdieu, genealogy and reflexive sociology, has been rare, perhaps it’s because the practical compatibility of their methodologies is obscured by the troubling tendency that each of these thinkers has to try to eradicate the other’s foundations. Think of the famously devastating last chapter of The Order of Things, for instance, on the emergence of the “human sciences”: “There can be no doubt, certainly, that the historical emergence of each one of the human sciences was occasioned by a problem, a requirement, an obstacle of a theoretical or practical order … the threats that, since the French Revolution, have weighed so heavily on the social balances, and even on the equilibrium established by the bourgeoisie, were no doubt also necessary before a reflection of the sociological type could appear” (345). Sociology, for Foucault, like all the “sciences of man,” comes into being with an anxious sense that the behavior of human beings need to be accounted for, that their discourses and activities need to be comprehended and classified — a development he associates with the historical rise of a “disciplinary society.”

Such passages provide some pretty powerful weapons of critique, or even of a priori dismissal, not only against Bourdieu, but any sociologist, whose very object, in Foucault’s view, is at best obsolete and at worst oppressive. But the game of criticism can go both ways; just as Foucault’s genealogical critique of the human sciences can be used to undermine Bourdieu and sociology, Bourdieu’s sociology of intellectuals offers a convincing deflationary account of many of Foucault’s most anomalous philosophical choices. In his introduction to the English translation of Homo Academicus, for instance, Bourdieu places Foucault among those “philosophers … [who] were caught in a dual relation with the worlds of philosophy and the social sciences … In their relation with the philosophical high priests of the Sorbonne … they appear like religious heretics, or, in other words, rather like freelance intellectuals installed within the university system itself … More or less totally deprived of, or liberated from, the powers and privileges but also the tasks and the responsibilities of the ordinary professor (examining the entrance examinations, supervising theses, etc.) they have strong connections with the intellectual world, and especially with the avant-garde reviews (Critique, Tel Quel, etc.) and with journalism (especially the Nouvel Observateur): Michel Foucault is no doubt the most representative of this position, since, until the end of his life, and even when he became professor at the Collège de France … he remained almost entirely bereft of specifically academic and even scientific powers, and therefore of the clientele which these powers afford, even if because of his fame he wielded considerable power over the press and, through it, over the whole field of cultural production. The marginal nature of this position … is obviously not unconnected with the fact that all these heretics with a vocation to become heresiarchs … share a sort of anti-institutional mood homologous in its form to that of a considerable fraction of students: they are inclined to react impatiently to the discrepancy between their already considerable fame in the outside world, that is, outside the university and also outside France, and the subaltern status which is accorded them inside the French university world, in collusion with their contempt and their rejection, by an institution which, when they were adolescents, had attracted and even consecrated them” (xix). Thus, from a sociological perspective — which is ultimately just as valid as a genealogical one —Foucault’s ferociously “anti-institutional” mood is largely an expression (albeit a brilliantly elaborated one) of his marginal position within academic institutional space.

Furthermore, for Bourdieu, Foucault’s method of genealogy, which he was able to present as a philosophical innovation, arises — genealogically, if you like — out of a latter-day contest of the faculties between philosophy and the social sciences. Bourdieu suggests that Foucault “finds in Nietzsche an acceptable philosophical sponsor for the socially improbable combination of artistic transgression and scientific invention that he achieves and for the screen-concepts which, like that of genealogy, help to provide a cover for an ambitious enterprise in social history or genetic sociology” (xxiii-xiv). So Foucault, far from making the social sciences — like all sciences of man — impossible, in fact comes out of the closet as a sociologist himself! In other words, Foucault’s turn to something like historical sociology, under the name of “genealogy,” is closely linked to his intellectual sublimation of the “anti-institutional mood” he’s put in by his marginal academic status. Ironically, in order to attack the institution, Foucault is pushed closer than he perhaps wishes to be to that science of institutions, sanctioned and made possible by institutions: sociology.

One may find this little critical circle satisfying or frustrating, depending on your investments, but it reflects a larger and more significant difference. Besides having different notions of the efficacy of their own critical methods, Foucault and Bourdieu also have a fundamentally different sense of how institutions influence history, and intellectual history in particular. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would like to formulate it like this: Foucault sees the institution as what gets in the way of history; while Bourdieu tends to see them as what makes history, or rather, as the site and original condition of possibility for the making of history.
Foucault defined his own scholarly interest, in a document prepared in order to advance his candidacy for the Collège de France, as “knowledge invested in complex systems of institutions” (Macey, 234). In a sense, Foucault came to the study of the institution reluctantly, as something he had to delineate in order to give full plausibility to his greater claims about the historical evolution of the categories of human thought. Attention to institutions was, as it were, a methodology imposed on him by the institution: it was not taken up as an end in itself, but as something Foucault had to do in order to legitimize his intellectual project in the eyes of his teachers.

A 1957 letter by Foucault to Stirn Lindroth, his Swedish thesis advisor at the University of Uppsala (quoted by Didier Éribon in his excellent biography of Foucault) makes this clear. Lindroth, a historian of science, had charged Foucault’s work-in-progress — an early draft of Madness and Civilization — with being too speculative and insufficiently rigorous. Foucault responded in his own defense: “my … great mistake was to prepare first the pages dealing with medical theories, whereas the realm of ‘institutions’ is unclear and would have helped me to be more clear in other areas. Since you are willing to allow me to do so, I shall show you what I did over the vacation on the subject of institutions … There we are in a realm that is far easier to define and one providing the social conditions of the beginnings of psychiatry” (84).

Leaving aside the irony that it was an institutional constraint that initially forced Foucault to refine his critical analysis of the institution (the very mode of analysis that would eventually make him so famous), we see here that Foucault’s view of institutions is articulated with reference to “theories”: the institution is what needs to be more fully described so that the theories developed within it can be better understood. Foucault admits that “the realm of ‘institutions’ is unclear” in his early theoretical work, but also “far easier to define” than theory: institutions, in other words, are the easy part. (Or so he thought in 1957!) Foucault’s early thinking on the institution is that of a frustrated post-Hegelian philosopher, who finds that he has to give his narrative of the development of scientific thought a complex and persuasive empirical background. Institutions, in other words, are interesting because they have produced this philosophical concept called man, which a recently effected epistemological break has led us to realize we no longer really need. Institutions thus function as a term in a larger argument, a source of error, but not as an object of inquiry in themselves.

Strangely enough, this changes at more or less exactly the same time that Foucault himself finally escapes from everyday institutional confinement: with his election to the Collège de France in 1970, he was essentially free to do whatever work he wanted, unmonitored by supervisors and unhampered by pedagogical or administrative duties (the only requirement was that he give a course of public lectures for five weeks out of every year). Given this freedom from exigent institutional demands, Foucault decided, somewhat perversely, to focus not on “knowledge invested in complex systems of institutions,” but more strictly on those institutions themselves, and the internalization of their demands that they are able to bring about in human subjects. Hence his mid-career masterpiece, Discipline and Punish, which brings the methods of institutional history that had been imposed on his earlier work to a new level of intensity and conceptual precision. Here the approach is further from intellectual history and is more thoroughgoingly materialist. Thought, knowledge, man, “the subject,” all the grand philosophical concerns of the earlier work, fall away in this book; what takes their place are new terms like “biopolitics” and “discipline,” the “technologies of the self,” the “microphysics of power.” It’s as if Foucault, by looking closer at the obstacles that prevented thought from moving dialectically forward, the traps that it got itself ensnared in, became so fascinated with the workings of the trap that he forgot what his original object had been. But while the focus is now on the obstacle rather than the object, he still regards it as an obstacle: the purpose of institutions, in Foucault’s work, is nothing other than to repress, to keep in check, to prevent.

(To indulge in a little sociological/biographical aside: it’s interesting to note that Foucault became so obsessed by the workings of institutions in the period when he himself had effectively left everyday institutional work behind, as his position at the Collège de France left him without administrative or pedagogical duties. Occasional wry remarks in his lectures of this period remind us of this: “You know that the institution where you are, and where I am, is not exactly a teaching institution … [T]he Collège de France now functions essentially as a sort of research institute: we are paid to do research … Given that we are paid to do research, what is there to monitor the research we are doing?” ("Society Must Be Defended," 1).)
Bourdieu, on the other hand, was interested from the beginning in the obstacles that the institution poses to intellectual autonomy. But, regarding the institution as a sociologist rather than a philosopher, he did not theorize them as obstacles: rather, for him, institutions are generative structures that produce thought as a phenomenon, by organizing intellectual activity as a social game. Where Foucault came to the material (or disciplinary) effects of the institution from the side of the ideal — of pure philosophical or theoretical inquiry — Bourdieu early on renounced the traditions of the philosophy of the concept in favor of a theory built up from empirical analysis of the social world. So Foucault starts out from the existence of pure philosophy — of thought, the ideal — and then looks closer at its actual history to see what material conditions distort and determine it. For him, philosophy always has to get through or around institutions, the constraints imposed by the apparatuses of disciplinary society.

Bourdieu, on the other hand, begins with the empirical fact of institutions, often focusing his attention on the seemingly ordinary and banal (the social factors determining students’ choice of majors, for instance) and develops from that a conceptual system of extraordinary sophistication and subtlety, which accounts for philosophy as merely one of the possible outcomes of this system. In other words, Bourdieu ultimately derives all of the traditional concerns of philosophical inquiry — concerns about politics, aesthetics, ethics, etc. — from the social effects of the institution: rather than seeing thought as something that must pass through or bypass the institution, and on its way either affirm or negate it, he sees thought as something always originally produced by some institution. For him, it simply can’t come from anywhere else. Foucault’s intention, in describing the institution, was always to eventually transcend it; Bourdieu, on the other hand, insists that any possibility of transcending the institution will be predicated on the effect and authority of the institution itself, on what the institution makes possible. We might say, to sum up: Bourdieu seeks to know what the institution makes possible; Foucault what it makes impossible.

The particular institution on which Bourdieu fixes his attention most closely is, of course, the French educational system: a system in which, unlike Foucault’s madhouse, clinic and prison, he was also a participant and in which he had an interested stake. This accounts for what some see as the excruciating self-consciousness of Bourdieu’s work, but it is also what makes him a particularly important role model for those who want to do academic work on institutions: that is, examinations of the role of institutions from within an institution. Even at his most radical and critical — for instance, his infamous 1970 study Reproduction, which argues that the school system largely serves to reproduce class distinctions from generation to generation — Bourdieu always remains, in his themes and style of argument, a homo academicus. Foucault, on the other hand, sometimes seems to imagine himself as some kind of fantastic mutation of the academic genus, one that is slowly evolving away from the institution and towards something new, whether this be anarchist politics or the literary avant-garde.

Foucault's desire to simultaneously transcend and transgress manifests itself most clearly in the literary dimension of his early work, greatly influenced by his association with the French avant-garde journal Critique, founded in the early 1950s by the dissident surrealist writer Georges Bataille. In an interview collected in the volume In Other Words, Bourdieu relates that he “was, doubtless for sociological reasons, less attracted than other people (for instance, Foucault) to the Bataille-Blanchot side of Critique. The desire for a clean break, rather than for some ‘transgression,’ was in my case directed against institutional power, and especially against the institution of the university and all the violence, imposture and sanctified stupidity that it concealed — and, behind the institution, against the social order. This may have been because I didn’t have any accounts to settle with the bourgeois family, as did others, and so I was less inclined to the symbolic breaks dealt with in The Inheritors. But I think that the concern to nicht mitmachen, as Adorno put it — the refusal to compromise with institutions, beginning with intellectual institutions — never left me” (4). From Bourdieu’s perspective, it seems as if Foucault breaks with those bourgeois social institutions, the school and the family — or, more precisely, transgresses against them — in part by attaching himself to another institution, that of the literary avant-garde.

So Foucault's desire to transcend, to transgress, or simply to develop beyond the academic institution is doubtless an enormous part of his charisma for academics — and also, it should be said, for good reasons: his intransigence remains a valuable example, and his resistance to disciplinary boundaries and constraints does offer a model of intellectual activity that produces truly interesting results. But I think there are as many lessons in Bourdieu’s embattled immanence as in Foucault’s frustrated transcendence: perhaps more, for those of us who want to both study and work within institutions. For even as Bourdieu stays with the institution, always within the institution, he consistently refuses to compromise with it or let it fully determine his critical discourse. The importance of Bourdieu’s work is that it allows one to objectivate and understand the effects that the academic institution has on those within it, and to counteract them where they need to be counteracted, without indulging in the wholesale negation, or ritual transgression, that Foucault arguably indulged in, and which is so easily incorporated into the oppositional, either-or logic of academic criticism.

So where does this leave us? A too-easy dichotomy would see Foucault as an anti-institutional revolutionary, and Bourdieu as an institutional reformer. Indeed, Bourdieu was a passionate advocate for reform of the French school system; his analyses of “cultural capital,” so often misappropriated by American academics in theoretical battles over the nature of aesthetic value, were designed to account for inequalities within the school system that allowed students from certain social backgrounds to succeed out of all proportion to supposedly “natural” differences in aptitude and ability. Whereas Foucault, after the events of May 1968 especially, inclined toward an anarchist politics that opposed (in theory, at least) the existence of any coercive social institutions whatsoever, Bourdieu remained, in a sense, in the camp of the old socialist Left, seeing May 1968, for instance, as an opportunity for extensive pragmatic social reform rather than revolution. The formulation is clearly inadequate, given that Foucault, in the 70s especially, was deeply committed to practical social reform: as he put it, “justice always must question itself, just as society can exist only by means of the work it does on itself and on its institutions” (269).

But there’s a certain utility to the formulation nonetheless. We might say that Foucault opposes the normalizing effects of the institution on principle; while Bourdieu takes an explicitly normative stance on that normalization, accepting that the institution normalizes but calling for that normalization to be radically democratized. In other words, while Foucault is inclined to see institutions as sites of total control, Bourdieu regards them as sites of perpetual conflict: for him, struggles over who is in and who is outside of the institution, what practices it institutes, what social fields and interests it intersects with, are part of the process that ultimately transforms institutions, and society as a whole. So, where Foucault is most concerned about subjection and domination, Bourdieu is most concerned about access and exclusion. What may at first seem to be due simply to a difference in their object of analysis (with the prison, what’s of greatest interest is what happens inside it; with the school, it’s who is kept outside) is also a deep-rooted philosophical difference, a contrast between Foucault’s basically Nietzschean foundation, which sees the individual will to power as blocked by the intermediary of the social institution, and Bourdieu’s basically Pascalian foundation, which sees the access to truth prevented by the social, but more through collective human blindness than any insidious effect of power. (As Bourdieu puts it in An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, “The fantasy of the conspiracy, the idea that an evil will is responsible for everything that happens in the social world, haunts critical social thought.”)
Foucault’s evident frustration with the institution, as a philosopher, is exactly what Bourdieu, as a sociologist, considers its saving grace: for all the tyrannical effects of domination the institution can impose, it also offers the most socially efficacious way of establishing the force of ideas. Thus the institution, for Bourdieu, far from impeding the progress of philosophy, allows philosophy to have some degree of social force in the world: allows ideas to be more than ideas, and material conditions to be meaningfully effected by the course of human thought. For Bourdieu, the institution is less cruelly oppressive than it is mercilessly selective: the final social fact to be rued (and changed) is not that institutions discipline our bodies and minds, but that they consecrate only a few of those bodies and minds; not that they construct subjects out of certain individuals, but that they fail to make anything at all out of so many others.

There is a philosophical commitment implied here too; Bourdieu's position should not be mistaken as simply a refusal of the enchanted discourse of philosophy in the name of responsible and respectable social obligation (though it is that, in part). For Bourdieu (as for his protegé Luc Boltanski), the question of the institution is closely bound up with the larger philosophical question of justification, and justice. As he puts it in Pascalian Meditations, in a surprisingly affirmative reading of the bureaucratic state: “what truly is at stake in this game, if not the question of raison d’etre, the justification, not of human existence in its universality, but of a particular, singular existence … It is the question of the legitimacy of an existence, of an individual’s right to feel justified in existing as he or she exists … [T]he social world offers humans that which they most totally lack: a justification for existing” (237-239). And a few pages later: “Rites of institution give an enlarged and particularly visible image of the effect of the institution, an arbitrary being which has the power to rescue from arbitrariness, to confer the supreme raison d’etre, the one constituted by the affirmation that a contingent being, vulnerable to sickness, infirmity and death, is worthy of the dignity, transcendent and immortal, like the social order, that he is given” (245).

One final remark. Even if we decide that Bourdieu and Foucault, as pure theorists, are fundamentally incompatible — and I think that in the final analysis, in many ways, they probably are — even if we feel we must “take a side” between Foucault or Bourdieu, there is much to be gained by reading both of them, whichever side one chooses to be on. And it is probably best, it goes without saying, to avoid slavishly imitating either one. One thing that Bourdieu shared with Foucault was a desire for his work to be seen not as an imposing theoretical edifice but as a practical “tool-kit” for researchers and political activists alike. In one of his last texts, entitled “How to effectively establish the critical attitude” (2000), Bourdieu reflected on this aspect of Foucault’s practice: “Concepts, he said, came from struggles and should return to struggles” (385). In this spirit, then, I think we should keep struggling with both of these thinkers, and letting them struggle with one another, in our work. If, in other words, it is concepts constructed by Foucault and Bourdieu that we have to struggle against, it is also concepts constructed by them that we have with which to struggle. Literary criticism, like literature, is an institution at once ideal and material — and we need all the perspective on that institution we can get.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Institutions: History, Practice, Method

The Southland conference schedule is now online. If "you" are anywhere near UCLA on June 5th, you should come see "me" talk about Foucault and Bourdieu.