Loesberg, J.  (1993)  'Bourdieu and the Sociology of Aesthetics', in ELH,  60, 4: 1033 - 1056  [online] http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/elh/60.4loesberg.html

[This is an elegant criticism of Bourdieu's methodology in general, and his attempt to develop a sociology of aesthetics specifically. The piece is written for literary critics interested in using Bourdieu's work to politicise aesthetics ( Toril Moi is mentioned in particular). The methodology turns on a new way to understand practice, while the sociology of aesthetics takes the form displayed in Distinction, breaking with Kantian aesthetics to demonstrate a connection between social class and the categories of the dominant aesthetic. Loesberg argues that an aesthetics lies at the heart of Bourdieu's sociology, however, one that is not far from the Kantian categories that he wishes to break with. This is seen in his development of the key concepts  'symbolic capital' and  'habitus'. However the point is not to invert Bourdieu. As he recognises, aesthetic categories can escape class/economic determinations and yield critical insight and critical cultural politics. The academic categories of the education system offers an excellent example. Above all, Bourdieu's analysis offers the best example itself].

Bourdieu's method attempts to develop a sociological analysis of the categories of cultural and philosophical analysis. One root of the argument lies in the discussion about relation between practice and social theory (in the two books that he's written specifically about practice and its logic). Participants experience the world immediately and they cannot describe this experience directly to an observer without ceasing to be a participant. Structuralist analysis offers one solution to this problem by analysing experience from a different standpoint, above all attempting to explain the importance of elements of practice by connecting them with other elements in a  'relational mode of thought' (1035). However, this is a construction and it must not be confused with the ways that practitioners actually use rules to produce practice. There is a difference in intention: practitioners attempt to expend effort with maximum effectiveness, while structuralist analysis pursue a formal logical explanation.

Bourdieu intends to make progress towards sociological explanation in a different way, attempting to explain the way that practitioners' rules actually work by using statistical regularities to explain their coherence. While structuralists might explain the elementary structures of kinship in the conventional way, practitioners have to  'identify the sociologically matchable individuals at any given state of the matrimonial market' (citing Bourdieu's Logic of Practice)  (1037). The principles that practitioners use are not purely formally logical, but  'involve homologies,symmetrics and transferences familiar to readers of structural diagrams' (1037). The real break with structuralism comes with the deployment of particular concepts, however, those that are used to analyse culture in general  (which is how the more general work links with the earlier work on kinship). The key concepts here are habitus and symbolic capital.

Bourdieu uses the term habitus in a way which looks particularly useful for cultural critics who want to show how social structures affect individual actions, and thus to engage in political analysis. Bourdieu insists that the habitus is far more than a set of formal rules to make decisions. It features  'systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organise practices and representations' (citing Bourdieu's Logic...)  (1038). These permit concrete and specific decisions and actions to be taken in ways that are not necessarily conscious or explicitly known. As there are no rules, there is  'orchestration but no conductor' (1038). The concept of the habitus is intended to explain specific practical choices which gives it a much greater specificity than concepts such as discursive regime (or hegemony, to choose Moi's example).

However, the concept is the same as  'that most familiar of literary objects, the organic whole that operates purposively without purpose' (1039). A particular section in Logic...even seems to draw from Kant and his concept of beauty as  '"the form of purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose"' (1039). The habitus is therefore an aesthetic object, and can only be read using aesthetic interpretation. Indeed, practice itself should be seen 'in terms of the artistry of its patterning'  (1039), as Bourdieu himself goes on to confirm, in denying that the rules that govern practice are formal logical rules. [So the only alternative to formal scientific understanding is art or aesthetics?]

The habitus is connected to the workings of dominating and dominated classes. Bourdieu wants to argue that Kant's conception of disinterestedness fails to notice its connections with the elite. This connection arises both deliberately, and via the valorization of a notion of the pure gaze: thus any attempt to employ the aesthetic of disinterestedness must be an act of social distinction. It looks at this stage as if aesthetic theories are treated simply as  'practices determined by habitus' (1040). The habitus certainly naturalises such aesthetic concepts, enabling, for example, particular value to be placed upon what seems like a natural appreciation of or pleasure in culture. However, we have just seen above that the habitus can have no specific purposes, and cannot therefore lead directly to an interest in social discrimination.

The concept of symbolic capital and symbolic power also seems to promise a way into sociological analyses of literary works. It helps to move away from vulgar sociological determinism by explaining that which exceeds mere economic or social or historic causation. Here, this excess arises from aesthetic values, but these are not 'pure' and reflect this symbolic capital. Bourdieu's attempt to connect with marxism takes the view that this symbolic capital creates  'a social space in which the interests of the dominant class get legitimated for everyone' (1041), that is symbolic capital is analogous to economic capital. This is taken forward with Bourdieu's work on communication, which is always connected with social power. This argument lies behind Bourdieu's criticism of Heidegger and the abstract analysis of language he pursues. There is a correspondence between Heidegger's position (philosophical aristocraticism ) and real aristocratism: both value form and both want to preserve discourse as more than just the conveyance of [functionally or socially relevant] meaning (1043). Professional philosophers are drawn to this view because they are often socially mobile individuals themselves, and they need to  'validate the professionalism of academic philosophy' (1043). Thus even here, symbolic power is connected to real power in an obvious way.

However, symbolic power does not exhaust the possible aesthetic content of philosophy or any other literary work. Nor can symbolic capital explain cases where culture and art seemingly oppose economic and other forms of power. Even Bourdieu 'realises that the aesthetic... exists in a certain opposition to the concept, at least of economic power... a purer engagement in aesthetics... [can be]... a way of claiming freedom from an economic domination' (1043). Rebellious bourgeois youth used aesthetics in this way, as do bourgeois women: both are unable to cash in culture for economic power immediately. Artists can also resist, and a preference for art splits the dominant class between those with cultural capital and those with economic capital.

What gives symbolic capital its power in these cases? It looks as if the aesthetic dimension is being given autonomy. Bourdieu's later work solves this problem  'by making symbolic transfer itself the grounding act of value (of which economic transfer is merely another version)' (1044). In other words, symbolic capital does not always have to be directly cashed. Bourdieu refers to pre-capitalist practices here, involving say the exchange of gifts, where the economic significance and the labour involved must actually be hidden. This kind of thing can go on in capitalist societies too. Bourdieu takes this far enough to argue that even exchanges of economic capital have this symbolic significance. In this way, the symbolic or aesthetic significance of exchange becomes dominant.

Bourdieu's work on Flaubert refers to three possible positions that writers could take in nineteenth-century France: (a) 'social art' where Art is used exclusively for its social or political function;  (b) bourgeois art, which reconciled commercial activity with some claim about immediate communication between author and public;  (c) 'art for art's sake', an invented category based on distinction, leading to the modern professional artist prepared to subordinate art to nothing else. The non-bourgeois groups were actually engaged in creating value, apparently with disinterest as to the commercial or political world, but simply in order to pursue the aesthetic purpose  'to allow one to enter into a larger system of exchanges' (1046). At the very least, a mixture of the aesthetic and sociological analysis is needed. Although particular symbolic investments helped to create an actual object, the underlying 'grounding space... while not precisely interest free, cannot be calculated in terms of any form of external interest' (1048).  [We see here the same dilemma as with classical marxism attempting to understand modern cultural forms, and having to concede a certain ambiguous  'relative autonomy' to those forms].

Bourdieu pursues his project into a  'self-reflexive turn' that leads to studies of academic life itself. Such reflexiveness is also characteristic of modern aesthetics, although Bourdieu pursues a much more sceptical analysis. It is even possible to see parallels with Kant's notion of reflexive judgment as more than just connecting particulars and universals: the transcendental principles involved cannot be derived from outside but must be based on qualities that are inherent. The absence of universal laws and external determinants mean that this is an aesthetic judgement in Loesberg's terms.Kant's intention was to bridge a gap between understanding of natural laws and the development of moral laws, and something similar informs Bourdieu's self-reflection. He reflects on his own earlier anthropological materials, for example, in order to develop a fuller understanding of the logic of practice, a path which he recommends to all anthropologists. Later, this becomes the only way of removing distortions introduced by the attempts to produce theoretical knowledge [The Weight of the World , written after this article, indicates this procedure -- see the file on 'understanding'].

Self-reflection begins by considering how the French educational system produces theoretical practice.  Bourdieu argues that social origin still plays a major part in educational success, and will do so regardless of superficial attempts to change the position. This arises because of a particular misunderstanding on the part of students and professors. It is the basic instrumentalism of education that has to be misrecognized  [more or less as in the example of gift-giving above]. Students must see their own activity as some creative expression regardless of constraint, while teachers must  'see themselves as masters communicating a total culture by personal gift' (Bourdieu  in  The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1979). Both students and teachers need to misrecognise in this way in order to distinguish themselves from other occupations and organisations.

This moves beyond the argument that social distinction tightly determines these activities, and such misrecognition would still be important even in an meritocracy. In addition, such mystification indicates a culture-creating activity secondary to class differentiation. This mystification cannot simply be explained sociologically, as an ideology. However, self-reflection by an academic can break through the mystification and grasp the sociological effects.

This is important if Bourdieu is to avoid the charges of elitism that are levelled against other academics. Certainly, his work is not easy to read for members of the dominated classes! At the same time, any academics reading his work will be inclined to use it to reproduce the old elitist academic practices. However, accepting that there is an aesthetic dimension can increase reflexivity, precisely because it opens a distance from sociological effects.

The academic sociological habitus deliberately 'splits itself from social influence or effect'  (1052). The objects it contemplates are therefore relatively independent. This permits professional interest and analysis. If we accept that the concepts used -- habitus and symbolic capital -- are aestheticized, this gives us a necessary perspective to see sociological roots and effects. Bourdieu needs to be more accepting of similar analyses, especially Derrida's, (which is rebuked for validating and supporting bourgeois philosophical analysis as a kind of disinterested pleasure -- see file). Bourdieu comes near to  'obvious stylistic self consciousness' (1054) himself however  (in the bit in Distinction that says sociologists need a special language in order to break with ordinary experience -- same file). Loesberg suggests that the attack on Derrida involves a bit of separateness and distinction on Bourdieu's part.

Overall, Bourdieu's sociology of aesthetics is not capable of decisively rejecting aesthetics. However, the sociology of academic practices offers an unusually sceptical reading of the activities of professional literary critics. Nevertheless, that scepticism itself is still based on aesthetics. A fully political reading of aesthetics requires much more of a serious break.

back to reading guides
back to contents page