The Canon: Les Regles de l'Art: Genese et Structure du Champ Litteraire. By Pierre Bourdieu

November 26, 2009

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) is perhaps best known for La Distinction (1979), but it is his 1992 work Les Regles de l'Art that in my view best sums up the themes he explored throughout his academic life. While it settles old and new scores with his contemporaries, the title echoes a key work by the one sociologist whose influence Bourdieu did acknowledge - Emile Durkheim's Les Regles de la Methode Sociologique - reflecting their shared methodological approach to "treat social facts as things".

It is described on the flyleaf as "Bourdieu's Flaubert" - his answer to Jean-Paul Sartre's monumental three-volume study L'Idiot de la Famille. Whereas Sartre offers an exhaustive analysis of the construction of Flaubert's project to become a writer, against the backdrop of his familial and social circumstances, Bourdieu undertakes a detailed examination of the literary field of the time in order to demonstrate the crucial role played by Flaubert in creating the "semi-autonomous field" of interaction between writers, critics and minority publics, that sealed the break between restricted and mass cultures.

It is through his struggle with form, writes Bourdieu, that Flaubert succeeds in transcending the limited perspectives available within the literary field and arriving at a quasi-objective understanding of his society. He attributes to Flaubert the qualities of a sociologist: ethical neutrality, accuracy, painstaking research and, through a comprehensive analysis of style, narration and character in L'Education Sentimentale, Bourdieu argues that the writer encapsulated in the novel the social and mental structures of his society and of the generation of young men born in the 1820s. Flaubert is, in Bourdieu's account, a heroic figure whose determination to obey only the dictates of his art is emblematic of the struggle to free the modern intellectual, cultural and scientific fields from external constraints, and is the precondition for the engagement of the intellectual exemplified late in the century by Zola.

In later sections, Bourdieu sets out his framework for the "genetic analysis" of artistic works, applying categories - habitus, field, capital - that he has refined over the years, and explaining their origin and their significance in his work. Pursuing his attack on rival theorists, he lays waste to structuralists and formalists, pillories Michel Foucault and Hans-Georg Gadamer among many others, reserving particular odium for the proponents of "pure aesthetics", who, through a double de-historicisation both of the work itself and of the emergence of the "disinterested gaze", perpetuate the myth of the createur incree.

Les Regles is a paradoxical text, though. In his explanation of the emergence of the restricted field of high culture, so much rests on the revolutionary, heroic stance of Flaubert that Bourdieu seems to be reviving the notion of the "sacred" role of the artist that he criticises so forcefully in others. It is, however, a highly significant text, offering a rare, detailed application of his theoretical and methodological approach to the analysis of a literary text. It is also a biography, indeed an autobiography: an exploration of the conditions that made possible the emergence of the modern intellectual - including, of course, Bourdieu himself.

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