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Bourdieu on Intellectuals

May 28, 2009

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BourdieuI’m reading David Swartz’s valuable commentary on Pierre Bourdieu’s corpus, titled Culture & Power. I highly recommend it to those already familiar with Bourdieu’s work and to those new to Bourdieu. (The only substantial criticism I have of Swartz’s commentary is that many of his “criticisms” are pitched as if they were damning when in actually they merely show—correctly—that social relations are sometimes more complicated than Bourdieu admits.)

I want to quote some passages that contain an indictment of people like myself.

The alliance [between leftist intellectuals and the working class] is tenuous because it is … [not based on] a common experience of class subordination, that is, an identity of habitus. Intellectual professions of solidarity with disenfranchised groups, therefore, reflect a “sort of structural bad faith.”

Or how about this one:

Bourdieu is also critical of the propensity of intellectuals to usurp broader collective interests for the sake of their own vested interests in cultural and political markets. He suggests that the origins of their opposition politics lie more in their own fields of competition for political and intellectual recognition than in the broader interests of groups they represent. For Bourdieu, the false political consciousness of intellectuals lies in their tendency to conflate uncritically their own field interests with the broader collective interests of those they represent. [That is, my need to get ahead in my career by writing that paper on how capitalism exploits workers is not the same as the interests of those workers.]


It is the intellectual’s investment in idealism, spiritualism, intellectualism, or cultural pursuits, that makes it difficult for him or her to support any political strategy that is fundamentally concerned with making money. [That is, the critique of bourgeois materialism is often conflated with the critique of materialism tout court, which may alienate working-class interests.]

These strike me as powerful criticisms.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. bradcorban permalink
    May 29, 2009 11:33 am

    I’m finding these arguments of Bourdieu very persuasive…

    Random example of internal intellectual conflict: I try to encourage people not to buy things. I think we should simply buy less material goods. (Food and books are the prime exceptions, but food does not last, and if one eats in a particular way, such consumption is sustainable.)

    The problem (perhaps): Am I supporting putting people out of work by encouraging less spending? I don’t want to hurt the working class. I simply want to slow down the economy. Firstly, I want my rhetoric to persuade wealthy people to spend less money on themselves. Secondly, I want to the decrease in spending to cause wealthy people to make less money in general.

    So, I think I’ve been brainwashed by George W. Bush into guiltily thinking that if I don’t spend money, I’ll hurt the economy. Damn his fear-based initiatives…

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 29, 2009 12:18 pm

    Ha! I’ve had those exact same thoughts myself.

  3. Pamthropologist permalink
    May 30, 2009 11:44 am

    Just to muddle things up for fun. In your next subsequent post to this one, you comment on praising students and mention that one of the positive benefits is that students will take more classes from you. I assume this means that this solidifies your enrollments for some positive financial gain? Perhaps, the “intellectual left” does not have as false a consciousness as Bourdieau would think. Unless we propose to define intellectuals as only those with, say, firmly locked-up tenured positions? My point is that while I consider myself to be a leftist intellectual, I am, also, well aware of my position as a worker and my desire for more money/better working conditions. I think the false consciousness of the intellectual is in not recognizing that we intellectuals are, also workers, subject to their same desires for money and stuff. After all, are your admonishments not to acquire stuff to your students not, also, admonishments to yourself? Or do I only speak to my own shoe-lusting self?

  4. Pamthropologist permalink
    May 30, 2009 11:47 am

    That very last sentence should have a “for” instead of a “to” when referencing shoe-lust. Interesting slip there.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 30, 2009 12:05 pm

    Ha! That is an interesting slip!

    I think you’re right; when I was an adjunct I was intensely aware of the fact that my employment was “at will.” My job was to maintain enrollment in my courses and not rock the boat. I imagine my department chair thinking, “the best adjunct is a quiet adjunct.” I even hesitated to report students for plagiarism because I knew it made me stand out—possibly as a troublemaker. In that sense, I was definitely aware of my position as a worker, as you put it.

    On my post about praising students: in my present position I want students to take classes with me again for narcissistic reasons, not for economic ones. My school requires religion courses as a part of the general education program, so my classes fill up. I don’t presently have to worry about my enrollment numbers. If anything, I have to worry about them filling my classes to capacity and then extending the cap.

    On the other hand, I just had a post about blogging pseudonymously so that my employment is not threatened …

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