chapter  9
16 Pages

Habitus/habit: freedom/history

It is, on the face of it, an abrupt transition from the role played by the nineteenth-century concept of habit in mediating encounters across Australia’s colonial frontier to consider the relationships between habit and the account I offered in Chapter 8 of aesthetics as a form of ‘guided freedom’. And all the more so given that I shall pursue these questions by examining aspects of Bourdieu’s account of the relations between aesthetics, habit and habitus. I do so with a view to showing how the ways in which Bourdieu distinguishes habitus from habit opens up, in the habitus, a space for a certain kind of freedom, but one that needs to be guided if it is to be led to its proper end. I shall also argue that Bourdieu’s account of the uneven distribution of this capacity for freedom across classes is a sociologised variant of the ways in which philosophical aesthetics has, from the civic humanists onward, connected questions of taste to questions of governance. Equally, though, it is in his aspiration to broaden access to the capacity for a certain kind of freedom that has come to be coded into the aesthetic that we witness the respects in which, in spite of appearances to the contrary, Bourdieu’s work is subtended by a Kantian narrative of human self-realisation, albeit one that is given a distinctive sociological twist. I shall, in pursuing these lines of argument, aim to shift the register in

which Bourdieu’s key concepts are usually debated in order to bring to light those qualities that, although usually discounted as philosophical distractions from the methodological core of his empirical sociology, run throughout his work and have a crucial bearing on the forms of intellectual authority he sought to constitute and to exercise. My approach to his concept of habitus will thus leave to one side those concerns that interpret it, as Bourdieu did, as an alternative to the polarities of structure and agency, to focus instead on its less-frequently noted role in relation to the mechanisms of inheritance through which the accumulated history of the past is transmitted to the present and, in the process, creatively modified. This will entail an assessment of the points of entry into different architectures of personhood that Bourdieu’s concept of habitus opens up to the collective intellectual. Similarly, rather than following the usual emphasis that interprets Bourdieu’s critique of Kant’s account of the disinterestedness of the aesthetic as a mask for particular social interests,

I shall highlight the implications of those aspects of his work that reflected a continuing, but reformatory, commitment to some of the key underlying principles of Kant’s aesthetic. My focus will be on Bourdieu’s attempts to historicise and sociologise these principles and, in the process, to construct, in his conception of the collective intellectual, a form of authority that blends the competencies of the philosopher-aesthetician and the sociologist. Rancière’s comparison of Bourdieu to the sociologist-king – discussed in Chapter 7 – is, in this respect, misleading: the spaces between habit and habitus, between given tastes and those which are ‘historically universal’, which Bourdieu presents us with are ones within which collective intellectuals are to act as freedom’s guides. It is Kant, not Wolff, who provides the relevant point of historical and philosophical reference here. To consider Bourdieu’s work in the light of these registers is, in sum, to engage

with him as a liberal social and political thinker whose work belongs to that historical configuration of the relations between making culture, organising freedom and changing society that I discussed in Chapter 2.1 It is to suggest, moreover, that he operated within these relations in a Kantian mode. Bourdieu invites us to see his work in this light often enough. In elaborating his understanding of the principles of a reflexive sociology, he stresses that its role is to identify ‘true sites of freedom’ and thus to build ‘small-scale, modest, practical morals in keeping with the scope of human freedom’ (Bourdieu andWacquant 1992: 199). This scope, Bourdieu goes on to say, is not very large and can, moreover, only be won via knowledge of the determining force of necessity and thus of the limits to freedom and how, as a historical conquest, these might be overcome. It is, he says, ‘through knowledge of determinations that only science can uncover that a form of freedom which is the condition and correlate of an ethic is possible’ (198). When agreeing with Loïc Wacquant that such freedom is not the unconstrained freedom of a Cartesian cogito but ‘a freedom collectively conquered through the historically dated and situated construction of a space of regulated discussion and critique’ (190) – precisely, as we have seen, Kant’s interpretation of Enlightenment – what is most compelling about Bourdieu’s reply is how he immediately connects this question of freedom to that of the production of a ‘universal subject’ as ‘a historical achievement that is never completed once and for all’ (190). How is this historical narrative of freedom organised? What role does the concept of habitus play within it? What are its effects? These are the central questions I address in this chapter. I begin, though, by looking at what Bourdieu has to say about archaic

habitus. However much his concern may have been to extend freedom’s remit as far as possible and without restrictions, Bourdieu’s conception of the relations between history, habit and habitus also resonates with those that informed the nineteenth-century doctrine of survivals. A consideration of these questions will serve to show how, at times, Bourdieu’s formulations are awkwardly installed within the problem-space that was produced by the late-nineteenth-century rendezvous between liberal and evolutionary thought that was mediated through the concept of habit. This is not, though, particularly surprising if we


recall Bourdieu’s training as an ethnologist schooled in the Durkheim-Mauss tradition that, as we have seen, was itself awkwardly installed in the very same problem space.