Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Agoraphobe

I am taking a critical posture towards Pierre Bourdieu's On Television (trans. Priscilla Ferguson, The New Press, 1998) not because it is passé–obviously it is, while at the same time it isn't inasmuch as the world wide web hasn't really changed everything and the fragmentation of the old media is not complete, such that the journalistic field that I know today resembles the journalistic field Bourdieu assaults–but rather because the antidemocratic attitude he expresses in this tract disturbs me. This variety of antidemocratic sentiment resonates with a set of antipopular sentiments that the academic classes direct not merely against television viewers, but against any expression of taste, opinion, feeling or indeed knowledge that differs from the expressions of elite intellectuals. I'm not going to win many friends by taking this position. Nobody's good taste will be validated, and at best we might be able to see limits of invalidation suggested by etiquette or eudemonia, though of course we are always free to question those. My position is neither anti-intellectual nor populist nor popular, but anti-anti-popular. I speak against a phenomenon of demophobia, and in Bourdieu's case acute agoraphobia with demophobic indications.

Naturally Bourdieu is aware of the charge of elitism. He has his defenses. He believes his position is genuinely democratic, that the people are best represented collectively; at stake, as he sees it, is the right to articulate the interests of dominated individuals. In his utopian world (he does in fact call his vision utopian) opinions deemed hostile to the interests of the dominated, for instance xenophobic sentiments, would never be allowed to be expressed and debated in the public sphere. For Bourdieu genuine political freedom means that sociologists–as positive scientists, for he would let positivists define his field to the exclusion of other voices–must determine what opinions and worldviews are inimical to the interests of the dominated, and what views are serve their interests, and must then ensure that these insights lead to action. I will let Bourdieu's own words make the case for esotericism, for it is a strong argument and oughtn't be lightly dismissed.

It is essential to defend both the inherent esotericism of all cutting-edge research and the necessity of de-esotericizing the esoteric. We must struggle to achieve both these goals under good conditions. In other words, we have to defend the conditions of production necessary for the progress of the universal, while working to generalize the conditions of access to that universality. The more complex an idea–because it has been produced in an autonomous world–the more difficult it is to present to the larger world. To overcome this diffuculty, producers in their little citadels have to learn how to get out and fight collectively for optimum conditions of diffusion and for ownership of the relevant means of diffusion.

(pp. 65-66, my bold)

Bourdieu appears blind to the notion that ideas might be formed in dialogue, between individuals and between intellectual worlds. His production model of intellectual life depends upon there being something like an uninitiated, uninformed, disempowered mass of people, people whose ideas couldn't possibly be complex and couldn't really be original because they have been planted in their heads through mass communications (p. 18). These masses are people in need of class enlightenment. A boutique model of intellectual exchange would be as alien and ugly to Bourdieu as an intelligent discussion about sports. The absolute disdain with which Bourdieu greets discussions about the weather (p. 29), as if phatic communion were a form of symbolic violence, reveals the depth of his antipathy towards other people, and also a sense of entitlement, as if people in his class should be entitled to put thoughts in the heads of the masses. After all, what is the purpose of having masses if they are not to be lead, and who better to lead the masses than those who have been charged with studying them, and indeed, mobilizing them?

Bourdieu puts his critics at a disadvantage. Apparently unaware of Godwin's law, Bourdieu points to a danger of collaboration among those who are not ensconced with an autonomous discipline. I will accept that risk. My position is heteronomous, which means that I am a "failure" (the quotes would be Bourdieu's) and am prone to certain self-deceptions about my intellectual capabilities. For the sake of argument I will accept Bourdieu's intellectual superiority and the superiority of his position, which he cherishes above all. It still strikes me as wrong to disrespect people for expressing popular tastes or opinions. Intellectuals kvetching about television is not as reproachful as teachers kvetching about students, but it can be unseemly. It often belies an emotional immaturity, and in that sense it represents a failure of academies of learning. It is difficult but I think necessary to be able to criticize the markets, the public spaces, without fearing and ultimately despising the people who participate in them. Despite Bourdieu's professed interest in liberating the masses, which might represent the sentimental outlook of a caring person, he is betrayed in his endeavor by his misanthropy and his agoraphobia.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:22 AM.


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