The Lost Bourdieu Interview

By Glenn, Ian | Critical Arts, March 2010 | Go to article overview

The Lost Bourdieu Interview

Glenn, Ian, Critical Arts


I spent a sabbatical in France from July 1980 to June 1981. On 22 June 1981, shortly before leaving France, I interviewed Pierre Bourdieu in his office in the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in the Boulevard Raspail. I think it was somebody at EHESS who arranged this--probably Marie-France Toinet. I do remember Bourdieu and his manner very strongly. I was struck by the intensity of his reflection and the surprising warmth and intellectual openness. Perhaps he felt some sympathy for a foreigner, perhaps it was his admiration, as someone from the rugby-playing South West, for the Springboks (something he mentioned as he introduced himself), perhaps it was a chance to think through things with somebody far removed from the French intellectual field. There might also, on reflection, simply have been a generosity of spirit for someone out of his depth, doing what was clearly his first interview. (I seem to have managed to have the cassette recorder go off at key moments, something he managed to correct at least once.)

After the interview, he signed my copy of Questions de sociologie with a generous phrase: 'En temoignage de grande sympathie.' Before I left he pressed on me the file he was presenting to the College de France in support of his candidature (successful a few months later) and described, with grim relish, the process of having to make a social visit to all the current members as part of his own candidature.

I had spent the best part of my time in France trying to work on the sociology of intellectuals--spending some time in the seminar of Jacques Leenhardt, who had taken over from Lucien Goldmann. I was also working with Michel Fabre in a Centre for the Study of Anglophone literature outside Britain (CETANLA). I also got to teach a weekly English class to a few French students who'd got to one of the summits of academic distinction: graduates of the Polytechnique who were doing what was then the French equivalent of an MBA at the Ecole des mines.

But the shock of the year for me was reading La distinction--in French. My progress was slow and painful with the shock of resistance from almost everything 1 had been trained to believe as a provincial Leavisite. In June, I got to meet the person responsible for my upside-downed world and ask him some questions. My questions need to be read against my own preoccupations at the time, and cover a range of issues that may still have some relevance for anybody trying to use Bourdieu in a primarily literary or postcolonial or multilingual context. They also have some interest in view of Bourdieu and Wacquant's later sharp attack on cultural studies, and in gauging his relation to a Marxist sociological tradition of literary criticism in Lukacs and Goldmann. (2)

Interviews are probably best fresh, and so it is quite legitimate to ask whether it is worth resuscitating something which may be well past its sell-by date. (3) In my defence I can only say that I returned to South Africa with every intention of publishing the interview, but the response of the editor of the leading sociology journal to whom l proudly proposed an interview with Bourdieu was: 'Who?' Bourdieu was, in the early 1980s, not a figure known in South African social science, a heavily Marxist intellectual world where the French social thinkers who mattered were Althusser and Poulantzas, with Foucault the other figure making an impact later--and there is not much evidence that he has had much impact on the social sciences in South Africa since.

This interview certainly helped shape my own use of Bourdieu and, perhaps, at a push, intellectual currents more largely. (4) Sarah Nuttall argues that cultural studies in South Africa started in my then department, the English Department at the University of Cape Town, and in the enlargement of literary studies in optional seminars. (5) My own view is that this does not do justice to the Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (CCMS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, or indeed to the role of Critical Arts, but Bourdieu's influence may have had some role in helping provide an intellectual backing for a movement which had already started. …

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