Pithy, polemical and paradoxical

Nick Prior finds plenty to think about in a new translation of one of Pierre Bourdieu's last works

May 8, 2008

The figure of the intellectual treads a precarious path between celebrity and marginality. Few knew this as much as France's leading sociologist of the modern era, Pierre Bourdieu. On his death in January 2002, the French newspaper Libération declared Bourdieu "les champs du partisan", a "sociologue de combat" and "militant scientifique".

A leading figure in the radical movements that swept France in the late 1990s, Bourdieu had become synonymous with critical opposition to the vagaries of an increasingly naturalised neoliberal agenda. He would no doubt have balked at the perverse (but predictable) decision to place eulogies from Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac alongside pictures of the megaphoned sociologist demonstrating before his occupation of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1998. He was no fan of the media, famously dedicating a whole book, On Television, to an analysis of the unconditional submission of television and journalism to unfettered market pressures. He was, in any case, much more than his public effigy permitted, not least one of the most formidable thinkers of the condition of modernity, its institutions, ideas and experiences.

Engaged rather than enraged (curiously, the events of May 1968 seemed to bypass him somewhat), Bourdieu's political interventions span 40 years and are the subject of this fascinating collection of documents. The book is an English translation of Interventions 1961-2001, published in France in 2002. Ordered chronologically and thematically, it spans Bourdieu's early assessments of the Algerian experience during the ruptures of independence through to his damning critique of global economic imperialism. Middle sections document Bourdieu's critique of the education system, his role as adviser to state-ordained reports on pedagogy, diatribes against the collapse of the social welfare state and his vision of the collective European intellectual. All this is punctuated with regular commentary on tumultuous political events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the war in Kosovo, as well as pithy miscellanea, such as his feelings for Jean-Paul Sartre, against whose ideology of the free intellectual Bourdieu set himself. Most deep-thinking scholars are considerably more accessible in informal academic addresses, such as lectures and interviews, and this is certainly the case with Bourdieu, whose monographs can be dense and difficult to grasp.

Readers familiar with Bourdieu's work will find the short theoretical summaries less interesting than the scraps of polemic designed to inform and energise various political publics. These are the letters, statements, declarations of intent and interviews, some sourced from the archives of the Collège de France and published for the first time. Like the Communist Manifesto, these fragments cut to the chase with little modesty. They exhort the reader, often impatiently, to fight for a "realpolitik of reason" in which a restless critique of the "imperialism of universality" is married with a staunch defence of the intellectual instruments of reason. They also show Bourdieu wrestling with a striking paradox in which a compulsion to open his mouth and promote the political effectiveness of intellectuals is all the more effective if the autonomy of the intellectual from political and economic fields is optimum.

Up to a point, there is no coherent political programme here, beyond the accumulation of sociological knowledge that permits an understanding of knowledge as itself exercising an effect. Reviled by PCF, the French Communist Party, demagogues and right-wing apologists alike (his support for the presidential candidacy of the comedian Michel Coluche was seriously playful), Bourdieu's was always a devoutly sociological politics. By this he meant that it is sociological knowledge that is most effective at unmasking the fundamental mechanisms of sociopolitical order, because it deals with the deep structures and everyday experiences of the social world. If sociology is indeed a way of doing politics by other means, maybe our biggest loss will be the absence of a champion who did most to convince the world that a rigorous but committed sociopolitics was possible. Certainly, we are impoverished by his passing at a time when it is more necessary than ever to renew the strength of intellectual criticism.

Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action

By Pierre Bourdieu

Verso, 400pp, £65.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9781844671892 and 1908

Published 3 March 2008

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