It is a decade and a half since Keith Joseph ordered that the Social Sciences Research Council change its name because there was no such thing as a social science. His ridiculous petulance, instantly complied with by the stooges concerned, provides a classic example of one of Pierre Bourdieu's axioms: that economic power battles to trump cultural power culturally.
Yet at a time when sociology has been so contemptuously put down in favour of homo economicus making his rational choices, there has never been greater need of a powerful sociology of interests, one which would match the horrible flowering of the day of money to the disagreeable human natures who found themselves so much at home in that sunny weather.
They do things differently in other countries, and over these years, better. The best, the most honest, doughty and intelligent of the scholar intellectuals in Paris, Florence, Berlin, Chicago, do not have to endure the implicit obloquy and explicit neglect which freeze their collaborators in Britain. A certain chiliastic delirium may have infected the Parisian pentecostals, but since the 1960s Pierre Bourdieu's terrific constancy has been there to hold us to the vision and divisions of criticism, detachment, reason, truth.
He has cultivated remoteness as a condition of carrying on his work uncorrupted by fame. One cannot doubt that his fellow metropolitans have hardly escaped that delicious poison. But as the magnitude of his project grows, so does our conviction that the undertaking has fallen into the hands of one of the few scholars and intellectuals in Europe with the probity, stamina and mind capable of carrying it through to a triumphant conclusion.
These new books are enormous additions to his vast architecture. Bourdieu's is a sociology which, like that of Anthony Giddens, refuses the conventional distinction between society-with-a-capital-S and life-as-earnestly-lived-by-individuals. For years, it was assigned to psychology in the academic divisions of labour to take over where social structure left off. For Bourdieu, however, as Richard Rorty puts it, "socialisation goes all the way down".
That socialisation is far from being the irresistible, vague determinant which old sociology would make it. Bourdieu coined his key concept, the "habitus", to name those motions of temperament which fasten on to selected bits of emblematic experience and practice, turning action into character and individuals into events.
Others have picked up "habitus" and turned it into a cliche with which to name rather than resolve a difficulty. Bourdieu pursues it down to the last little corner of its transformations as its particular embodiments in what he happily calls the bourgeoisie de robe confirm and strengthen their privileges while hardly ever acknowledging their duties.
His great subject is the grandes ecoles and their unbreakable grip on French power ever since their founders really fixed things up for themselves on the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Bourdieu presents by way of grandly theoretic exposition and extraordinarily full empirical endorsement a Davidian painting of the grandes ecoles as systemic, epistemic, omnipresent in every play of power, and irrefragably constituted by the fierceness of their own internal competition.
Bourdieu's project has a triple formation set deep in the great tradition of the French intelligentsia: he is heir, for sure, to Baudelaire and Zola, to Durkheim and Sartre. His massive framework is both empirical and structural (while disparaging structuralism); it is also linguistic. His key trope for grasping the competition is the chiasmus, the tension of which is maintained by the reversal in its second part of the key duality in its first. Thus, holders of economic capital compete with holders of cultural capital, each tensed in relative dominance and subordination. He makes vivid analogical use of field theory as borrowed from physics; the field of power has two poles at one of which economic capitalists dominate cultural capitalists, while at the other, dominance is reversed.
All universities fit this model. Over there, the managers cut the capital grants and the teaching staff, while over here the scholars and intellectuals successfully protest the primacy of mind and the universal value of the book (including theirs). In a splendid introductory essay, Loic Wacquant shows how very satisfactorily Bourdieu's model can be translated into analysis of the United States or, indeed, of anywhere the bourgeoisie has made itself so continually victorious, so very unlikeable, and has for a century and a half so rationed things out that social immobility is mistaken for choice and opportunity.
This is the crux. For Bourdieu is nothing if not a formalist, even when most a historicist. Power for him is quite undifferentiated. It is a zero-sum game. In this, as Clifford Geertz has put it, he lives "not in this century but in the last, possessed by fears of metaphysical ghosts". The way in which power works now is not just as it did for Flaubert or Emerson. It is a structure of action, an attitude danced. Through its peculiar forms we may read a constellation of ideas. These ideas give contemporary power its dazzling spectacularity.
One could hardly wish The State Nobility to be longer; for all its magnificence it has its longueurs. But one might read The Rules of Art as providing that missing realm, and dissolving mere power into the coercive making of mind and feeling. This is how art and artists (and, in a bold stroke, intellectuals) become what they are in the bombarding field of cultural self-representation. It has to be said that Bourdieu simplifies things a lot by excluding from art both film and television.
From 1848 onwards artists battled for a radical new self-definition which could only take the shape it did because of the high magnetic tension of alternative definitions. This cashes out as a kind of axiom. What others make of us, makes us, whether they are right or wrong. Artists made themselves into dandies; bohemians; antieconomic economists; antimoralists of sexual morality; free makers of transcendent visions; all this specifically in terms conceived as a negation of how everybody else thought and lived. Artists also are held in the chiasmus.
Then the chords of Dreyfus sound, and the great duet "J'accuse" brings intellectual and artist together on behalf of local versions of a universal picture of freedom.
Throughout both books one can hear Bourdieu wrestling with his commitment to an absolute objectification of the social circle in all its viciousness and a growing sense that a crisis supervenes which must be named. The autonomy of art and criticism as so heroically constituted in his history is now all but overwhelmed by money. Adorno saw it coming from Morningside Heights in 1947. Now it is here, "thoughtless thought" Bourdieu calls it, the reign of the "doxosophes" of the cultural chat shows. He ends with a call to arms. Intellectuals best defend human interests by defending their own interests.
Are our conventional weapons still sharp enough, I wonder, to wound the toadies, thugs and lickspittles of the state now so at home on the British campus?
Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Warwick.
The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of The Literary Field
Author - Pierre Bourdieu
ISBN - 0 7456 1152 4
Publisher - Polity
Price - £14.95
Pages - 410