Reading Guide to Bourdieu, P (1986) 'Postscript: Towards a "Vulgar" Critique of "Pure" Critiques', in Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste, London: Routledge.

by Dave Harris

Introductory Comments

This is a tough text to read and to summarize, and its main purpose is to set up the ingenious sociological explorations of categories of tastes and their connection with the social classes of which the bulk of the book consists. I find it intriguing and fruitful in explaining two more specific areas of interest of my own -- the writings of academic critiques of popular culture, such as the almost universally hostile denunciation of Disney, and the curious reactions of professional academics to student work. Both feature something approaching disgust for the more common sense offerings involved, both eschew any popular pleasures as demeaning, and both claim to offer their own work as pure and disinterested critique, although self justification and social distancing play a major part in both sorts of activities.

The discovery of the 'high' aesthetic contradicts fundamentally the tradition of philosophical or literary aesthetics, which argues for 'the indivisibility of taste, the unity of the most "pure" and most purified, the most sublime and the most sublimated tastes, and the most "impure" and "coarse", ordinary and primitive tastes' (485). As a result, pursuing the study in Distinction involves renouncing this tradition and all the pleasures that accompany it.

'"Pure" taste and the aesthetics which provides its theory are founded on a refusal of "impure" taste... the simple, primitive form of pleasure reduced to a pleasure of the senses... a surrender to immediate sensation' (486). The whole point of such aesthetics is to refuse the 'facile', 'the disgust that is often called "visceral" for... facile music... but also "easy virtue" or an "easy lay"' (486). The category includes anything which is simple, shallow, easily decoded, 'culturally undemanding', anything which offers pleasures that are 'too immediately accessible', which includes things that might be seen as childish or primitive. 'Vulgar' works are also seen as frivolous, or cloying. Such works involve an act of seduction, inviting the audience 'to regress to the most primitive and elementary forms of pleasure' (486).

These judgments are found in Platonic notions of the 'noble senses' (vision and hearing [nice and uninvolved]), or the primacy given to form, for example in Kant. Schopenhauer develops Kantian differences between the 'charming' and the 'sublime'. The distinction turns on immediate pleasures, or ones which are derived only from 'pure contemplation'-- thus still life paintings of food (charming) 'excite the appetite for the things they represent... thus pure aesthetical contemplation is at once annihilated and the aim of art is defeated' (Bourdieu quoting Schopenhauer, page 487). Such an aesthetics represents 'the ethos of the dominated fraction of the dominant class', for Bourdieu. 'Charming' pleasures threaten the autonomy of the subject, who is captured and deceived by the object. [An aside argues that audience participation is the crucial thing distinguishing popular entertainment from more bourgeois varieties -- in the latter participation is 'distant highly ritualised', even with jazz 'a bourgeois entertainment which mimics popular entertainment' (488)].

Pure taste refuses 'violence' [including the implied violence to the bourgeois subject], and demands respect and distance. Objects which do not display these characteristics are met with disgust, since they attempt to impose enjoyment. Disgust is 'experience of enjoyment extorted by violence, and enjoyment which arouses horror' (488), as subjects are lost in objects in an act of submission to the 'agreeable'. [Another aside analyses the grammar of Kant's 3rd Critique showing that it depends very much on a number of exhortations and demands. This 'allows the author to remain silent as to the conditions of realisation' (489) of these utterances].

An object which 'insists on being enjoyed' is particularly threatening to the human power of suspending judgment, and thus reduces us to mere animal experiences -- 'a sort of reduction to animality, corporeality, the belly and sex' (489). It also reduces the status differences between people, since these are qualities 'which by no means confer credit or distinction upon its possessor' [Bourdieu quoting Kant, page 489]. There is a more open reference to the social basis of the opposition between pure and vulgar taste too. Instinct alone, which we have in common with animals, once guided our choice of objects to enjoy or consume, but this total absorption by senses is confined to an early or primitive stage. Thus 'We recognise here the ideological mechanism which works by describing the terms of the opposition one establishes between the social classes as stages in an evolution (here, the progress from nature to culture)' (490).

In this way, the theory of pure taste refuses to discuss the psychological or sociological basis of the key distinctions, but refers to 'an empirical social relation' nonetheless (490). The distinction between culture and bodily pleasure is really based on the opposition between 'the cultivated bourgeoisie and the people', where the people represent 'uncultivated nature, barbarously wallowing in pure enjoyment' (490).[An aside follows some implications of this distinction, suggesting that works of art are particularly valued if they can show how vulgarity has been overcome, and Bourdieu suggests that Mahler or Beethoven display these tensions. Tensions between immediate and refined pleasures have also been explained as pleasurable by Freud, as a resolution is increasingly deferred. Thus the 'purest' form of pleasure can be 'an asceticism... a trained, sustained tension, which is the very opposite of primary, primitive [experience]' (490)].

Pure pleasure becomes a symbol of moral excellence, indicating the capacity for sublimation which defines us as truly human. 'Art is called upon to mark the difference between humans and non humans' (491). As natural impulses are overcome, humans approach divine experience. The world of arts therefore defies nature:  'gravity in dance... desire and pleasure in painting and sculpture' (491). People who are only capable of natural pleasures are not fully free or human, while those who are capable of dominating their natures assume the right 'to dominate social nature' (491). This set of associations is hard to resist except by  'a strategy of reduction or degradation, as in slang, parody, burlesque or caricature, using obscenity or scatology to turn arsy-versy, head over heels, all the "values" in which the dominant groups project and recognise their sublimity' (491), as in the Carnival.

This theory of beauty can also be seen as an 'occupational ideology' for artists from Leonardo to Paul Klee. It lies behind the Kantian opposition between 'free' and 'mercenary' art. It justifies the position of 'pure' or 'autonomous' intellectuals. It also explains the curious position of bourgeois intellectuals, between the common people and the courtly aristocracy -- page 492: it lies behind the characteristically German distinction between culture and mere civilisation (the mere 'simulacrum of morality'). The latter, in establishing a distance between itself and nature. tends to produce 'artificial desires... natural inclinations called luxuriousness' (Bourdieu quoting Kant, page 492). Only genuine cultivated pleasure attempts to improve the mind. Everything turns on the difference between the external forces and the internal ones responsible for moving human beings away from nature.

Hence pure pleasure, freed from all interest is opposed both to nature and to the social [aristocratic] refinements of civilisation -- a 'typically professorial aesthetic' (493). A disdain for historicism and sociologism among philosophers concealed the real social bases for this 'illusion of universality' (493). Formalisation encouraged it too. Such philosophical thought is ahistorical, and 'perfectly ethnocentric', based on the 'dispositions associated with a particular social and economic condition' (493). Thus 'the thinking of Immanuel Kant' got turned into 'the discursive schemes constituting what is called "Kantian thought"' (493). The real power of Kantian thought is that its formal categories 'enable social positions to be expressed and experienced in a form conforming to the norms of expression of a specific field' (494). This is not to say that we can reduce Kant's text to some crude ideology carving out a role for the intelligentsia between the aristocracy in the people, but nor is it a pure philosophy.

The analysis now turns to the reading of Kant's Critique of Judgment offered by Derrida. This exposes some flaws but maintains the basic structure. Derrida sees behind the formal opposition between beauty and charm, and sees the connection between the gross tastes of the people and the pure tastes of the bourgeoisie. He sees that disgust may be the origin of pure taste, and hints that the whole system might be reduced to the difference between free and mercenary art. However, these links are only suggested: Derrida's real purpose is still to formalise, and he cannot break with the notion of a 'philosophical text', which sits in opposition too all other 'vulgar' discourses (495). Derrida agrees to play the game of trying to pin down some pure pleasure, while remaining indifferent to the conditions of existence of such pleasure. As usual, the more unreal and indifferent the text, the more likely it is to be accepted as philosophy. As a result, Derrida can only arrive at philosophical truths, and he supports the overall game of philosophy, even while performing the occasional transgression --'the philosophical way of talking about philosophy de-realises everything that can be said about philosophy' (495

Even radical philosophers want to retain membership in the philosophical field. This field has been defined by earlier philosophers and has now become 'objectified', appearing as a 'sort of autonomous world' which limits newcomers (496). To question these definitions is to disqualify oneself as a philosopher, hence all would-be philosophers 'have a life-or-death interest... in the existence of this repository of consecrated texts, a mastery of which constitutes the core of their specific capital' (496). This prevents a radical critique. Even the most critical works still help preserve this stock of consecrated texts -- even the 'philosophical "deconstruction" of philosophy' is really a continuation, 'the only philosophical answer to the destruction of philosophy' (496). [An aside indicates that the technique of objectifying the tradition one belongs to in order to launch some critical commentary can be seen as a useful career move, which draws attention to philosophy and places 'the person of the [commentating] philosopher at the centre of the philosophical stage' (497)].

Such an objectification can never understand philosophy as a 'field' in this [Bourdieuvian] sense [one linked to particular historical and social circumstances]. Instead, philosophical objectifications can help the philosopher play games, locating themselves both inside and outside the game simultaneously, gaining both 'the profits of transgression with the profits of membership' (497). [Another aside points out that heretical readings must set themselves against orthodox ones, offering 'decentred, liberated and even subversive' readings, and thus unintentionally offering the occasional glimpse into 'social slips'-- which reveal the social origins of abstract categories].

An heretical reading may be more 'pure' compared to 'the ordinary ritual of idolatrous reading' (498), but it still wishes to be treated as a work of art in its own right. As a result, it emphasises the pleasures of the text, denying its intention to do social distinction, and appearing as a simple pleasure of play, via 'subtle allusions, deferent or irreverent references, expected or unusual associations' (498). Proust analyses this well, by demonstrating all the references alluded to in a particular text, all the associations and resonances, all the images of beauty conjured up by the reading (including his own recollection of visits to exotic places) . He admits that this pleasure may be based on 'egoistic self regard' a 'mingled joy of art and erudition' (Bourdieu quoting Proust, page 499). This gives the clue to cultivated pleasure as a matter of demonstrating these intertwined references [sometimes referred to as the  'richness' or 'depth', or even, as in Barthes, the 'textuality' of a text as opposed to that of a mere 'work']. This is always a '"society" game, based, as Proust again says, on a "freemasonry of customs and a heritage of traditions"' (499). It is addressed to those in the know, and accompanied by a refusal to explain to those who are not. It includes 'unending allusions that the vulgar do not perceive' (499) and an ability to decipher these solutions shows that you belong to an elite.

Thus, behind the most apparently disinterested pure tastes, lies the pleasure of making subtle forms of social distinction, enjoying the 'denied experience of a social relationship of membership and exclusion' (499). This is not openly asserted, but finds itself demonstrated in the exclusion of inferior activities and choices, including naive problems and trivial questions [Bourdieu includes such vulgar questions as 'Did Kant get it right?', or 'Is Derrida's reading better?']. Thus philosophy merely reproduces the 'visceral disgust at vulgarity', in this case the vulgarity of examining and assessing the social origins and determinations of philosophical texts themselves.

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