Bourdieu’s reasoned utopianism

Perhaps it is necessary, to be a good sociologist, to combine some dispositions associated with youth, such as a certain force of rupture, of revolt, of social “innocence,” and others more commonly associated with old age, such as realism, and the capacity to confront the rough and disappointing realities of the social world.

I believe that sociology does exert a disenchanting effect, but this, in my eyes, marks a progress toward a form of scientific and political realism that is the absolute antithesis of naive utopianism. Scientific knowledge allows us to locate real points of application for responsible action; it enables us to avoid struggling where there is no freedom—which is often an alibi of bad faith—in such a manner as to dodge sites of genuine responsibility. While it is true that a certain kind of sociology, and perhaps particularly the one that I practice, can encourage sociologism as submission to the “inexorable laws” of society (and this even though its intention is exactly the opposite), I think that Marx’s alternative between utopianism and sociologism is somewhat misleading: there is room, between sociologistic resignation and utopian voluntarism, for what I would call a reasoned utopianism, that is, a rational and politically conscious use of the limits of freedom afforded by a true knowledge of social laws and especially of their historical conditions of validity. The political task of social science is to stand up against irresponsible voluntarism and fatalistic scientism, to help define a rational utopianism by using the knowledge of the probable to make the possible come true. Such a sociological, that is, realistic, utopianism is very unlikely among intellectuals. First because it looks petty bourgeois, it does not look radical enough. Extremes are always more chic, and the aesthetic dimension of political conduct matters a lot to intellectuals.

(Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, 196-7)

I don’t immediately find this plausible. It seems very Aristotelian and not very dialectical, as if Bourdieu says, “let’s find the happy medium between voluntarism and resignation!” rather than what seems to me a more desirable politics, which would continuously, jarringly oscillate between unrealizable utopian dreams and a “realist” politics of compromise, a politics set in motion by the constant contradiction between actual and possible, a politics in which the circulation of utopian representations attempts to reshape the limits of practical possibility and vice versa.

But Bourdieu of course does not exactly advocate a massive, magical reshaping of political practice, in which everyone would be instantly assimilated to his version of reasoned utopianism. If anything, he would recognize, sociologically, that such an occasion is “very unlikely among intellectuals.” So perhaps Bourdieu is actually arguing not for the total vanquishing of voluntarism or fatalism, but rather that sociologists should assume a mediating position in the division of political labor, in which their role would be to contribute their knowledge of social possibility and probability to political projects.

That might be useful; but Bourdieu still seems concerned to distinguish “rational” from “aesthetic” politics in a way that seems implausible. Although it is certainly true that intellectuals often aestheticize politics, they aren’t the only ones who do so, and it’s unclear why “reason” and “aesthetics” should be opposites. Insofar as aesthetics is about the norms of form, and reason has form, all reason is already aestheticized, while one might conversely argue that aesthesis involves, if not reason, at least an inner logic. The closest thing to a statement on “reason” I’ve read comes in Bourdieu’s 1991 piece, “The Peculiar History of Scientific Reason.” There he claims roughly that the historical conditions of possibility of scientific knowledge depend on science being organized such that “logic is the mandatory form of social struggle” (23). He says little, however, about the content of this rationality, this logic. Is this rationality the sole possession of the Bourdieuian sociologist? If so, does only the Bourdieuian sociologist have access to reasoned politics?

Perhaps not, but only, for Bourdieu, to the degree that sociopolitical reflexivity can be generalized beyond the sociologists. “When you apply reflexive sociology to yourself,” Bourdieu goes on to say, “you open up the possibility of identifying true sites of freedom, and thus of building small-scale, modest, practical morals in keeping with the scope of human freedom which, in my opinion, is not that large” (199). So to a large extent Bourdieu aims less to advocate a positive political project than to combat the politics of self-deception, to combat the “irresponsible” struggles that obscure the pursuit of more plausible projects.

That seems to me a wise idea. But of course the trouble is, as I argued over at Nate’s blog last month, that politics are an epistemological nightmare, that it’s hard to know which struggles are plausible and which aren’t. Is Bourdieu really arguing that sociological research contains the answers to all questions of political plausibility? I find that very unlikely, because scholastic knowledge tends to be difficult to put in practice, precisely because it is the product of an objectifying escape from practice that, according to Bourdieu, constitutes the scholastic point of view. But then, a major empirical weakness of Bourdieuian research on universities lies in its neglect of the relations across social fields that happen when academic knowledge is imported and translated and applied outside the academy, in politics for instance.