Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Rosa Parks' Performativity, Habitus, and Ability to Play the Game

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Rosa Parks' Performativity, Habitus, and Ability to Play the Game

Article excerpt

The work of Pierre Bourdieu has not been widely considered in American "continental" philosophy apart from a recent collection edited by Richard Shusterman and as a subject of criticism in Judith Butler's Excitable Speech. At the very least, his work has not achieved the level of recognition of other French thinkers such as Michel Foucault or even Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Nonetheless his work does continue the trajectory of these thinkers, and his social ontology as well as his discussion of habitus is a valuable extension of discussions of identity theory. A philosophy has to be broad enough to answer the questions raised in connection with its claims. Discussions of identity implicate considerations of social ontology, which will explain how we are able to be produced in such a way that we are unable to identify that production.

In this essay, I will begin by briefly situating Bourdieu's work along the trajectory of French thinking by outlining Merleau-Ponty's influence on Bourdieu's work. I will then turn to relate Bourdieu to current discussions of the productions of subject identity. In order to do this, I will outline Judith Butler's concerns about Bourdieu's sociology of practice. Butler uses Rosa Parks' now legendary act of insurrection in 1955 Alabama in order to highlight what she takes to be Bourdieu's shortcomings. I will reconsider the case of Parks' performativity in order to show that Bourdieu's work explains her act, thus showing how Bourdieu has something to contribute to understandings of subjectivity after all. My overall aim is to consider the strengths of both views despite their differences, and to show the ways in which the two views, while functionally distinct, are different perspectives on the same phenomena. Ontology and discussions of the social production of subject identity could benefit from a consideration of the extent to which resistance is possible as well as the extent to which it is limited. This is precisely the philosophically interesting point, and the point in Butler's work to which Bourdieu's work is relevant.

Bourdieu's Position on the Trajectory

In many ways Bourdieu's work extends what is implicit or addressed preliminarily in Merleau-Ponty's work. In particular, Bourdieu echoes Merleau-Ponty's notions of bodily learning and the habitual body, as well as style and sedimentation of meaning. Habit, in Merleau-Ponty's sense, is not a mechanistic reflex, but would more aptly be described as proficiency. Habit has to do with movements learned at the bodily level, rather than through cognitive memorization. Thus our knowledge of them is embodied, not relegated abstractly to the mind. Merleau-Ponty points out that the body actually possesses memories of learned behaviors-in certain postures, gestures, and movements. "A movement," he says, "is learned when the body has understood it" (Phenomenology of Perception, 139). He says that:

The grasping of a habit is indeed the grasping of a significance, but it is the motor grasping of a motor significance.... [For example,] to know how to type ... is a knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made.... The subject knows where the letters are . . . as we know where one of our limbs is, through a knowledge bred of familiarity... Habit expresses our power of . . . changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments... . It thus elucidates the nature of body image .... It is a system that is open on to the world, and correlative with it. (Phenomenology of Perception, 143,144)

Thus the body is effected and can learn and understand without the mediation of cognitive processes. Moreover, there is a depth or a thickness to the body which builds up through repeated actions to become a storage of past behaviors, rendering our future behavior more predictable and therefore less and less contingent. Later he will develop this into what he calls personal "style," and also "sedimentation" of meaning (see Signs, 96). …

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