Below is a repost my contribution to the ongoing series of posts on public anthropology over at the Anthropology and Publicity blog, a special blog set up by Martijn de Koning for a seminar being held in the Netherlands,. Other contributors include names I think many of you will know, including Lorenz Khazaleh, John Postill, and Daniel Lende. In this piece I make reference to a collection of essays by Bourdieu Political Interventions. I have a full review of that book coming out in Capital and Class sometime next year.
The culture that Europe needs, for itself and the world, and particularly the world’s third estate, will not emerge from the negotiations of experts or the discussions of technocrats. The question is to make the rigorous use of reason, and thus of language, a political virtue, indeed the first of all political virtues, and thus to give intellectuals the sole power that they have a right and a duty to claim, that of exercising a ceaseless and effective vigilance against the abusive words – and grand words most of all.
– Bourdieu, Political Interventions. 2008. p. 219
Bourdieu’s statement is striking for two reasons. The first is that his notion of the power of intellectuals is remarkably circumscribed. Elsewhere in this posthumous volume of political writings he repeatedly attacks the notion of the “total intellectual” as embodied by figures like Sartre whom, Bourdieu felt, seemed to stand apart from the world, claiming a special status for the knowledge they produced. Bourdieu insists that intellectuals can best use their knowledge to attack “grand words” through the “rigorous use of reason.” At the same time, however, Bourdieu claims that this is not simply a “right” of intellectuals, but “duty” as well. It almost sounds as if Bourdieu is arguing that all intellectuals should also be bloggers!
Indeed there are a number of ways one can be a “public intellectual”: the more well known options are as an op-ed columnist in the newspaper, as a writer of popular non-fiction, as a TV pundit, or as a blogger. In these situations Bourdieu’s comments ring true. To the extent that we stray too far from his limits we cease to function as an “intellectual” and become just another talking head. Paul Krugman strikes me as one of the few public intellectuals who have remained effective in this regard, largely because he mostly sticks to what he knows. Of course, it helps that public policy discourse is primarily conducted in the language of economics.
It is not as easy for anthropologists to intervene when they must first deconstruct the primacy of rational choice theory. Nonetheless, there are still many areas where anthropological knowledge can make an impact. A nice example of anthropologists intervening in public discourse is John Borneman and Laurie Kain Hart’s 2004 op-ed on marriage. It would be nice to see anthropologists doing more of the same, and it is hard to tell if the fact that they don’t is due to the prejudices of the mainstream media or a reluctance on the part of anthropologists themselves.
But I think there is also a problem with Bourdieu’s conception of the public role of intellectuals, one which derives from a narrowness of vision. Bourdieu felt that “doing politics means exposing oneself to a loss of authority,” allowing one’s politics to be used as a means for discounting one’s academic work. But many academics engage in the public sphere not through the op-ed column, but through political action – including, at times, Bourdieu himself. I think this is particularly true of anthropologists, many of whom engage in local politics as partners with the communities they study.
When people decry the lack of public anthropology, I think of all my friends and colleagues who are engaging in collaborative anthropological endeavors at the local level. I believe the problem is not that these anthropologists suffer from a loss of authority, but that these local interventions are not seen as mattering as much as the op-ed pages of the major American newspapers. Anthropologists should be careful about letting the mainstream media define “the public” for us. There are many publics and the ones anthropologists are involved with matter as much, if not more, than the one inhabited by pundits and policy wonks. Still, anthropologists could do more to bridge the gap between these two worlds. Perhaps by blogging about their work so that more people are aware of it, anthropologists could bridge the gap between these two publics.