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Bourdieu and Literature

John R. W. Speller


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1Bourdieu’s work on literature provides a wide-ranging and theoretically sophisticated framework for understanding the processes and patterns of literary production and reception. Bourdieu’s work on cultural tastes, education and his cultural policy proposals intertwine with his substantive work on literature to provide a view of literature’s place and function in French society. This is a model that can and has been used as the basis for comparison of literary production in other countries, facilitated by the re-application of Bourdieu’s concepts and theories. Bourdieu’s theory has, moreover, been extended to the transnational level of ’world literary space’, to take account of the relations of domination and subordination between different literary traditions. Bourdieu’s work on literature in turn has implications for cultural policy and politics. His account of how Flaubert and others broke free from subordination to the market, and of how Zola used this position of autonomy and authority to intervene in the political sphere, is a model that can be followed and extended. The broad historical panorama Bourdieu supplies of how literature became differentiated from other discourses, and of how the writer gained his prestigious place in French culture, can also help educators, researchers, writers, publishers and others with a vested interest in literature to understand the reverse process, which we appear now to be witnessing.

2Literary critics can learn from Bourdieu new concepts and methods for analysing literary texts and their social contexts. Several of Bourdieu’s notions have antecedents in established approaches. The concept of field, for instance, has similarities with the notion of a republic of letters, while the theory of habitus relates to questions more usually dealt with in biographies. The notion of cultural capital was anticipated by Paul Valéry, and Bourdieu’s starting point for his project to reconstruct the author’s point of view was a challenge bequeathed by Flaubert. Yet the originality of Bourdieu’s theory is not the individual components, but the way they are connected – and for this reason this study has also argued that a systematic appropriation of Bourdieu’s method is preferable to a pick-and-choose approach. The three key concepts of capital, habitus and field, for instance, only have their full explicative force in relation to each other: capital is a product of a field of individual habitus, of which the positions are defined by the distribution of capital, and so on.

3Teachers of literature can take away from their reading of Bourdieu a keener sense of purpose, and a clearer understanding of their role as guardians and guarantors of literary culture. Certainly, in his early work Bourdieu was a harsh critic of literary education, which was then dominant, and which he describes as a prime example of how the school ratifies social and economic differences. Rather than leading pious celebrations in the classroom, however, Bourdieu encourages teachers to treat literature as a store of expressive and ideational resources, and textual analysis as a way of training students’ critical faculties. Unequal distributions of cultural capital could find their remedy in the proposal for a core cultural minimum, which would provide to all students, regardless of social background, the foundation of skills and knowledge necessary to engage in literary and cultural life. And students from across the disciplines could be given a sharper sense of the diversity of forms of excellence, and of the analogies between different forms of knowledge, to counter-balance the now rising supremacy of science.

4Literary writers, publishers and booksellers can gain insight from Bourdieu’s work into their own activities, to position themselves and others in the field, identify and understand possible conflicts, and recognise shared interests. Reminding these crucial players in the field of the ’heroic’ times when the French literary field freed itself from domination by the Church, State and market could also give these actors courage to keep to those principles of autonomy which can now seem precarious, or even anachronistic. At a time when the value of literary culture is questioned routinely, and the differences between great works and mediocrities blurred, Bourdieu offers realistic arguments for the conservation of the fragile eco-system of specialists and enthusiasts, and a simple framework for action. Bourdieu argues for the State to help protect publishers and booksellers from direct commercial pressures, such as the rise of publishing giants and media megastores. And he led by example, founding the selfconsciously autonomous sociology journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, and the ill-fated literary journal Liber, to counter the disappearance of independent instances of consecration and transmission.

5Bourdieu’s work on literature can also inspire literary writers directly. Annie Ernaux, in particular, has found inspiration in Bourdieu’s writing on social inequality and reflexivity. More generally, aspiring writers may find in Bourdieu’s deflated image of the literary ’genius’ a more attainable, and arguably no less impressive, ideal.

6Yet Bourdieu’s work is not complete. He himself saw his sociology in general as only a ’work in progress’ (E, 90), and encouraged his readers to view the analyses in Les Règles as so many ’sketches’, which could be completed and revised by further research (RA, 303). His theory itself, Bourdieu insisted, benefits less from critical exegesis than from being put to use in new analyses, which could confirm its hypotheses, or prompt further modifications and refinements. The relation Bourdieu draws between works and their social contexts, in particular, needs to be tested on works less amenable to Bourdieusian analysis than L’Éducation sentimentale. And the differences between the notions of literary field, microcosm, institution and grouping should be defined to describe more or less loose or transient relationships.

7Bourdieu himself took inspiration from literary texts and writers as he developed his theory. He found solutions to problems in the reporting of interviews in Flaubert’s style indirect libre. He was inspired by writers who broke with traditional linear narratives, such as Faulkner and Robbe- Grillet, to look beyond conventional interpretations and accounts of life histories. And he found in the multi-layered prose of Proust, and in the polyonomasie of Flaubert, Joyce or Faulkner, techniques to help him describe the complexity of reality. Bourdieu’s key concept of ’field’ was, moreover, developed during his research into literature and culture. All this proves that literature and sociology, although opposed and at times conflicting, have much to learn from each other.

8Returning to the central allegations with which we began this study, it should by now be clear that Bourdieu by no means sought to ’reduce’ literary works to their social conditions of production. Indeed, his theory was developed partly in opposition to Marxist sociological approaches, which explained works directly in terms of their political or economic contexts – a sort of ’short-circuit’. Bourdieu keeps the notions of a ’space of works’ and the ’space of positions’ separate, and introduces the concept of a ’literary field’, to chart the complex mediations that relate a work to its social conditions of production. Then again, Bourdieu was equally critical of the post-structuralist tendency to discredit any and all attempts to analyse and interpret works as ultimately impossible, and even unethical. Instead, he developed an epistemological position that can be understood as realist (despite certain confusing and contradictory statements), in which theoretical models are taken to approximate reality, and tested on their heuristic and predictive power. While no model might ever match the complexity of the phenomenon it describes, there are degrees of accuracy.

9Secondly, although Bourdieu’s sociology can seem, at first, pessimistic and despairing, he was in fact highly optimistic about the ability of both literature and sociology to make a positive social impact. This is obvious in his efforts to found an international literary journal, Liber, which was initially distributed freely in national newspapers. It can also be seen in his efforts to reach a wider general readership by adopting a more literary style in La Misère du monde. Bourdieu believed that literature and sociology could help people to understand their own experience and that of others, and could help to counter-act a dominant ideology that was not in the interest of the common good. Literature, in particular, can be a space in which to imagine and act out alternative futures, which may even galvanise real political struggles. Indeed, Bourdieu’s optimism sometimes out-steps the bounds of the possible. This was the case with Liber, which soon lost its commercial backers and retreated between the pages of his sociological journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales; and also with his ambitious plans for the International Parliament of Writers, which were ignored. With these projects, Bourdieu was trying to institute a new position in the cultural field, that of a ’collective intellectual’, which could intervene from a position of autonomy, as Zola did during the Dreyfus Affair, but with the combined symbolic capital of a collective grouping.

10Finally, far from an ’attack’ on literary culture, Bourdieu’s theoretical work on literature was the basis of his apparently incongruous defence of literature as a ’universal’ culture. Bourdieu may have been a caustic critic of high culture’s universalist pretentions, and actual segregational effects. But this does not contradict his normative Realpolitik to universalize the conditions of access to works which could be, potentially, of universal value. Once the myths of ’immaculate perception’ and ’uncreated creators’ are shattered, then educators, policy makers, cultural producers and society at large could work together to sustain the social conditions in which intellectual (including specifically literary) culture can survive. This is what Bourdieu referred to in Les Règles’ final lines as a ’corporatisme de l’universel’, a recognition of the solidarity and shared interests behind apparent divisions and antagonisms, which could be the basis for collective and individual acts of support and co-operation.

11We can conclude by summarising these points as a sort of programme for applying Bourdieu to literary studies. On a theoretical level, Bourdieu’s works demand not only retrospective comprehension, but a productive or generative use, which would apply its empirical findings and the conceptual system behind them in new research, including in different national contexts. At an institutional level, Bourdieu’s work on literature also provides a strong rationale for developing closer interdisciplinary links between literature and sociology. From a cultural policy perspective, Bourdieu’s texts provide suggestive resources for individual classroom practice as much as for wider policy contexts. And in terms of cultural politics, Bourdieu reminds writers, researchers and the larger intellectual community of how they can reconcile the demands of autonomy and activism, and suggests new collaborative strategies in the pursuit of universal values. This programme cuts across not only Bourdieu’s individual oeuvre, but also across disciplinary and national boundaries, taking us necessarily ’beyond’ Bourdieu. And many of the concerns and problems it addresses, in theory, cultural policy, and politics, are no less pressing today. Two decades after the publication of Les Règles, and ten years since his death, Bourdieu’s work on literature remains a ’work in progress’.


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