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Bourdieu’s own illusio

While reading Bourdieu’s explanation of how some kids have an advantage in school because they are part of the dominant (class) culture, my honest reaction was: My friends and I have been talking about how this works since middle school.
Then again, perhaps Bourdieu’s discussions of institutional power seem instinctual to me only because some of his ideas are prominent ways of thinking about social difference. But to go back to my middle school, the question was not about who was reading certain higher-status-signifying books, but which children chose to read at all. There was no simple social and academic domination of the elite children over the children of the working class. The cool kids were white, working class kids, and they said they didn’t read; so no child, regardless of class background, could openly admit to such behavior with impunity (regardless of how beneficial it might be for job prospects). The dominant culture of the school was not that of the “dominant class,” and the tastes that would make one accepted among the majority were certainly not something that could be acquired in school.
Bourdieu’s analysis feels as disconnected from the American Midwest public school experience as it does to Rutgers, where learning “high status cultural signals” is near impossible and potentially not beneficial. As Lamont and Lareau note, there is “a greater autonomy of lower class high status cultural signals from middle class ones” (162). Perhaps Bourdieu’s discussion makes more sense in an elite university, where upper class American students are able to have a jumpstart on academic culture, than any of the schools I have inhabited.

Even if I’m not that impressed by Bourdieu, I can recognize that Lamont and Lareau are (dare I say it) enchanted with him. For example, as they are painstakingly disentangling Bourdieu’s inconsistent and unclear use of the term “cultural capital” over the course of several books and articles, they say:
“Subtle shifts across these analytical levels are found throughout the work. This polysemy makes for the richness of Bourdieu’s writings, and is a standard of excellence in French academia.” (156) I wonder what it is about Bourdieu that makes them defend his style, even as they seek to “rescue” the term cultural capital.

On the banks of the old Raritan

In the 1930-1931 catalogue, I found an English course called “103. 104 Masterpieces of Literature” and it uses the phrase “world literature”! I wonder how early this phrase was used, and what it meant here, namely, what literatures were excluded.

I found a similar couse in the addendum: 111 and 112: Masterpieces of Literature – I sense a foreshadowing of our discussions of the English canon!
I wonder if this is a pre-comparative-literature moment, when the phrase “great literary works of the world” would have meant great literary works of America and Western Europe?

The three levels of the Speech classes in the addendum show an interesting development, and an emphasis on being able to speak with “correct pronunciation” and “proper voice placement” in public. Being able to read drama and blank verse was the highest of these three classes, before “theatre” might have been considered a separate department, I suppose.

A women’s literature

Woolf is calling for the creation of an as-yet-unrealized form of feminine literature, or the expression of poetry, which circumstances have denied women the creation of. Woolf’s descriptions are suggestive rather than proscriptive. I think her own emphasis on erudition is part of her desire to explain women’s literature in relation to pre-existing literary traditions:

“Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women. Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes…. There is no reason to think that the form of the epic or of the poetic play suits a woman any more than the sentence suits her. …Yet who shall say that even now ‘the novel’… that even this most pliable of all forms is rightly shaped for her use?”

This notion of feminine art is difficult to reconcile with the excerpt from The Androgynous Vision, and Woolf’s call for an androgynous mind which “does not think specially or separately of sex.” (608) This state of being seems to presuppose an environment in which one faces no gender-based oppression (although this is not explicitly stated). Thus, it seems to remain impossible for women, but not for men.

Discursive resistance

Foucault denies the existence of two opposed discourses, one of power and one of resistance, in his book “The History of Sexuality.” Instead, he explains that discourse and silence can serve as both instruments of and hindrances to power. He gives the example of pre-19th century reticence in Western texts on male homosexuality, and how that made sodomy an “utterly confused category,” generally allowed to exist and occasionally severly punished (1632). Foucault further posits that the “the appearance in 19th century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species” of homosexuality “made possible … social controls” of this behavior (1632). He says, curiously, that “homosexuality began to speak on its own behalf… in the same vocabulary,” and it is not clear in which genre this begins to happen or who exactly was speaking on behalf of homosexuality (1632). Literature would provide (and has provided) fertile grounds for this reappropriation of medical terms originally created to explain homosexuality as a perversion. Many strategies could converge to support this resistance through literary depictions of force-relations, for example novels that depict violence and dysfunctionality in patriarchal heterosexuality, as well as homosexuality being shown as a means of liberation.

Langston Hughes uses words created to enable social control in discourses of resistance in his poetry, as in the use of the word “Negro” in his poem “Ballad of the Landlard.” The poem illustrates how the word is obfuscates a reality of oppression in institutional settings, like the printed word of newspapers.

Literature can create ironic reproductions of discourses of power that “undermine” and “expose” those discourses, in order to render the power “fragile” and make it possible to “thwart” it (1632).

Echoes of Life-Process

In sorting through the various terms used by Marx (or rather his translators), Williams and then Engels, I think I will settle on the “relationship” between two concepts (which might be one single substance to Marx). Rather than delving into the base and superstructure dichotomy that it seems so many Marxists used, as critiqued by Williams, I will try to go straight to the passages in which Marx discusses how ideology is produced. At the end of the selection from The German Ideology, Marx refers to “morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology” as “phantoms formed in the human brain” or which are not independent from man’s material processes, or “real existence.” Marx goes on to clarify that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life,” but after reading Williams I am more inclined to say that consciousness is life, or at least its inseparable echo. The umbilical cord of more “distant” ideologies like philosophy or art or, perhaps literature, may be more tortuous, but they are never to be severed or considered separate from their mother: real, material life-process. This idea simultaneously imbibes significance to every type of art produced by man while flattening it in some way. If two people of similar circumstances, with the same material life-processes, produce very different kinds of writing and art – do they both still stem from and are they both part of the same “substance”?  Are they echoes of the same thing?

Ransom’s Literary Form

In his essay “Criticism, Inc.,” Ransom says:
“Poetry distinguishes itself from prose on the technical side by the devices which are, precisely, its means of escaping from prose. Something is continually being killed by prose which the poet wants to preserve. … The poet perpetuates in his poem an order of existence which in actual life is constantly crumbling beneath his touch. His poem celebrates the object which is real, individual, and qualitatively infinite. He knows that his practical interests will reduce this living object to a mere utility, and that his sciences will disintegrate it for their convenience into their respective abstracts.” (601)

Ransom’s distinction between poetry and prose is beautiful, but difficult to parse. Ransom makes the poet’s work tangible by classifying it as the “perpetuation” and “defense” of a living object – so why is the poet’s manouvre “metaphysical”? Is the object the poet creates not real, as Ransom suggests? He continues to describe for each poem a “distinguishable, logical object or universal” (602). It seems to me a novel description, and I feel I would certainly have trouble discerning said object of any poem and “reducing” it to a “prose core” by way of explaining its techniques. Still, I see why it is necessary for Ransom to describe the purpose of poetry as such in order to justify developing a critical tradition which can explain its form.

Passages of Interest

“What is true about drama and the novel is no less true about those arts that we call decorative arts. The whole history of these arts in Europe is the record of the struggle between Orientalism, with its frank rejection of imitation, its love of artistic convention, its dislike to the actual representation of any object in Nature, and our own imitative spirit. Wherever the former has been paramount, as in Byzantium, Sicily, and Spain, by actual contact, or in the rest of Europe by the influence of the Crusades, we have had beautiful and imaginative work in which the visible things of life are transmuted into artistic conventions, and the things that Life has not are invented and fashioned for her delight.” (486)

“Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate, self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them.  The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. IN fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.” (493)

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying,” in The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, ed. David Richter (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 478-496.