Bourdieu + Foucault Spell Trouble For Us All

I wonder sometimes if one of the perverse consequences of the general dissemination of Bourdieu-style analysis of culture and habitus has been to inform and strengthen conservative attacks on public support for education, the arts, and so on. Especially when combined with Foucauldian understandings of power/knowledge. E.g., as many progressive intellectuals accepted in the “interior” of their scholarly work that education and culture were both expressions of social difference and did active work to create social difference, our public and outward-facing defense of education, the arts and culture was more and more obviously performed at odds with what our interior analyses said. In the meantime, we acted as if conservatives weren’t reading that “interior” discussion, or as if they couldn’t possibly apply it in support of their own forms of social advocacy. I think this was a greviously mistaken assumption. The post-Reagan right has been a great consumer of many simplified propositions derived out of postmodern thought, very much including the idea that public goods are really just tools for the reproduction of the habitus of a particular subset of the elite.

It might be that the performativity has run in the other direction–that most of us still really feel deep down an attachment to education and public culture that’s more in tune with late 19th Century social reform, with Dewey-era pragmatism or with a more lyrical kind of romantic liberalism. We may know intellectually that the case for a more critical understanding of the functionalist ‘work’ of education and culture in making power and difference has a lot of empirical as well as political validity, but in our heart of hearts we still believe that museums could be for everyone in an enlightened society, that a good book could liberate anyone lucky enough to turn its pages, that universities and hospitals aren’t just assembly lines for the reproduction of power. So we “perform” in our scholarship what we know is technically right but it isn’t what we really feel about ourselves and a whole range of existing (if fading) social projects.

It might be that we could do with a healthy turn back towards believing in ourselves even in the inner spaces of our scholarly analysis–to allow ourselves the luxury of a little faith in the things we have done, presently do and want to keep on doing? To give ourselves over more to a scholarship that’s about making, building, doing and less about suspicion and negation?

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4 Responses to Bourdieu + Foucault Spell Trouble For Us All

  1. Assistant Professor says:

    Hey, my scholarship (especially my monographs whose proofs I’m waiting on) is about as non-Foucauldian as one could want. Indeed, it’s got a fairly old-fashioned, empirical and non-theoretical focus.

    (I suspect that it’s not entirely coincidental that I teach at a low-ranked school and have never had a campus visit north of the Mason-Dixon line.)

  2. An emphatic “yes” to this.

  3. CarlD says:

    First of all, you’re right about the setting. I’m friends with an old school chum on FB, and our conversations go like this a lot. He and his newer pals have a heavy dose of the white-boys-in-STEM syndrome, but they’re also legitimately angry that in school they were constantly under attack for their self-serving privilege, by people whose power to deliver this attack they could see damn well and by the same analysis was no less privileged and self-serving. I’m inclined to think that at least some of the bewailed recent attacks on university funding and autonomy is these chickens coming home to roost.

    As for believing in ourselves, we may be coming around to that point. I’m seeing a little of that in a mellowing of some of the famously flaming academic blogs, for example. I think at least part of the problem was the slow process of diselitification of the schools, where several generations of working class kids / women / people of color / etc. infiltrated and eventually took them over. (This is also part of why the attacks, of course.) But if we could get clear on that fact, which is at this point obvious to everyone but us, we might get over all that impostor syndrome garbage that makes every failure to find fault feel like a failure of critical thinking. And then we could possibly even get less anxiously chippy and more generous about how we deploy whatever power the institution gives us.

    Whatevs, even though I think Bourdieu and Foucault were right about all of it, I also think teaching and research are magnificent occupations under all but the most extreme discursive restrictions, and I have a few people around me who are pretty clear on that as well, and for the most part we just go about it and let the other stuff burble away as it will.

  4. Mark S. says:

    As a social scientist, I see something of the opposite end of this spectrum. Large N Hypothesis testers, too many of whom eat away at the liberal arts because we now have the tools to find The Truth. I also don’t read Foucault for quite the same purposes (or maybe even quite the same parts of Foucault).

    Yet, I have to admit that I sometimes slip into a ‘will to power’ mode where ethical claims and public goods are just things provided by the powerful and I can’t do anything but claim mine are better (for me? For others? unclear…). Even my non-academic wife notices it and gets frustrated with me on it.

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