The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline--an unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this farcical project, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1), Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because they are leading the life of the mind--why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu's gloomy predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward journalism and entertainment.
Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and political issues, something he suspected couldn't be done on a talk show. His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in everything from amateur photography to posture. It's hard to think of a comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky's academic work has no connection with his political activities, and it's been decades since his byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.
Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself "to the left of the left"--that is, to the left of the ossified French left-wing parties and also to the left of the academic postmodernists aka antifoundationalists, about whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of habitus--the formation and expression of self around an internalized and usually accurate sense of social destiny--tends to make ameliorative projects seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, "discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such despair." Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high culture readily available--in free museums and local performances--is all that is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today's America, this fond hope marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of de Gaulle's minister of culture, Andre Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way class shapes cultural preferences or "taste," there is nothing automatic or natural about the ability to "appreciate"--curious word--a Rothko or even a Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. …