Bourdieu vs. “The Total Intellectual”

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.

5 thoughts on “Bourdieu vs. “The Total Intellectual”

  1. What worries me about this concern/debate over “public anthropology” – and I guess you are talking about “media” which, people may or may not read, watch or listen to, (remembering that many people have little to do with media or use very limited and specific types) is that it becomes some sort of indicator for effectiveness or relevance of anthropology; what? as a discipline, a religion, a corpus of comparisons, a university subject? A profession? Avenues of potential?

    Also, who decries the lack of public anthropology? What is public? Is public bureaucracy? Is it Japanese? Is it New York? Is it a cafe? A blog? An army unit? A village? A water project? A news item on TV? A presidential speech?

    Its as though you are not alive unless you are “mediated”? How ironic!

  2. Brett,

    With respect to how you came to that conclusion, I don’t think that the call for public anthropology has anything to do with the need for our work to be “mediated” to be valid.

    While I may not be up on the cyber-conversation as much as others, what I can share is the impression I have gathered from conversations with my fellow anthropology students and young professors. But let me first say that anthropology departments vary greatly across the country, so I am not talking about the whole generation of new anthropologists, just the communities I have come into contact with.

    The call for public anthropology that I have seen is coming from this newer generation of anthropology students (undergraduate and graduate) and young associate professors. We didn’t grow up in a time when anthropology was a public discipline. Unlike our sociologist and psychologist siblings, we are regularly defining our discipline to our families and friends (and reiterating that we don’t dig up dinosaurs). We joke about it, but only because questions like these are so common.

    But even more so, my young colleagues and I share a deep and abiding passion for the anthropological perspective and our faith and belief in its value. We see a world struggling with cultural conflict and know that the discussions we have in our classrooms and the wisdom in our readings would go a long way towards straightening things out. I personally have advocated and lobbied to include Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a required general education course in hopes that every graduate would have to learn at least the first rule of anthropology: how to notice your own ethnocentrism or what I fondly refer to as “how not to be an asshole”.

    When I talk about public anthropology, I often compare us to the hard(er) sciences. I say, “If scientists discovered the cure to cancer or created a clean and affordable energy source and kept it to themselves, we would condemn them.” But anthropologists keep our knowledge about the world within our academic circles, locked away behind a thick wall of jargon and books that are written to be read by only the other 20 anthropologists who share our obscure focus.

    I don’t think that this is a selfish act as much as it is the response of a discipline that has become self-conscious. We are scared of the impact of our knowledge based on the historic disasters of anthropology, and we should be scared. But much of the older generation has become almost frozen in fear. That is where we come in.

    We are hyper-aware of the past and the power we wield as researchers. We have been carefully taught to be cautious about conclusions (some of us are taught to avoid even making conclusions). But we are still excited about sharing what we learn. We want our work to matter to more than just the next generation of people who follow in our academic footsteps. We read about Mead and Benedict and get excited about living in a time again when anthropology is a household term and our work helps our people make sense out of their own lives. We want our work to matter to the world, to make things better. That’s the reason.

    Anyone who seriously studies anthropology with a passion loves the human race. You can’t focus on a subject with this much ferocity without feeling love. And if you love the human race, you want your time and effort to have an impact on the human race. At least, this is what I have seen in my own experiences and through conversations with students and professors at UC Santa Cruz and NYU.

  3. I don’t know what I can do to add to that excellent answer from Katie, but here goes:

    Who is decrying the lack of public anthropology? I am. And many of my classmates.

    On the one hand I find it discouraging that, when subjects that directly relate to anthropological concerns are discussed in the media, our voices are absent. This can be seen most clearly in discussions on gay marriage, where you will see political operatives, activists, or religious leaders making statements about what is or is not natural or universal in terms of human kinship. While anthropologists have been studying those very questions for well over a century, nobody thinks of adding our perspective to the conversation.
    (I don’t know if that’s entirely the fault of anthropologists – its also testament to how superficial public discourse is.)

    Why does that matter? I think that having someone who’s actually studied gender and kinship publicly contradict statements such as, “Throughout history all cultures have recognized marriage as the union of a man and a woman” would be a good thing.

    At the same time, I hear plenty of academics talking about publishing articles in small circulation journals that will probably only be read by people who already agree with them as struggling against capitalism, racism, etc. That isn’t to bash academic journals (where I hope to publish before too long) but most of us are aware that our work has political implications. Some of us are motivated by our passion for these issues. If you see your research as actively working to change society, having your voice go beyond a relatively small circle of fellow academics might make it more effective.

    As an anthropologist studying capitalism it isn’t hard to see that economists dominate the way we think about economics. It isn’t about not feeling alive if I’m not mediated. Its about thinking that anthropological knowledge could productively add to public debates. Local level political engagement is important, and anthropologists have done good work with that (helping indigenous groups in land disputes, for example, is a pretty big deal). But scale matters. Some times a lot.

    So, here’s a question – is it the disciplinary cynicism towards power and large scale political projects that keep us from taking a more active role in trying to influence public debates and public policy?

  4. Hello Captain Howdy

    Precisely my point Captain Howdy – you highlight exactly at least one of the issues I am referring to. For instance, you only see economists talking about economics and ask where are the anthropologists? Where is it you are talking about? On the TV, at the university, in your bedroom at night with the Internet, in the newspaper? Are you talking about yesterday or the day before? Are you in America or the Congo? What type of “anthropological intervention” are you imagining? I see many people in those fora discussing matters economy, not just economists, anthropologists as well – check out Wedell for instance. Also, which specific aspect of economy are we talking about?

    My point is that You are allowed this escape into vacuity by virtue of making a “public” statement despite its validity or reliability. You say you are a student – have you read your Habermas?

    here are questions for you

    What evidence do you have that there is a disciplinary cynicism towards large scale political projects? Most anthropologists I know are thoroughly embedded within large scale political projects – wouldn’t you say. One of the core critiques of the discipline is that we are handmaidens of power! What large scale political projects are you talking about?

  5. I recall a conversation several years back when I was still active in Democrats Abroad. I was asked why there were no anthropologists on Bill Clinton’s commission on racism. The answer was straightforward, “How many votes do anthropologists bring to the table?”

    It is all very well to claim a long intellectual history of involvement with certain issues, but without more effective outreach, a.k.a., media exposure, and effective action to build a significant constituency, moaning about lack of influence is, to borrow a Japanese expression, like pissing on a frog. (An absolutely futile gesture.)

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