Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Notes on Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art

These notes are part of a series and I'd welcome response.

“As for the threat that science might post to the liberty and singularity of the literary experience, it suffices, to do justice to the matter, to observe that the ability, produced by science, to explain and understand that experience—and thus to give oneself to the possibility of a genuine freedom from one’s determinations—is offered to all those who want to and can appropriate it.” (Preface xvii)

I greatly appreciate the idea that explaining and understanding the literary experience can offer a “genuine freedom” from one’s determinations, and that this possibility should be offered to all those “who want to and can appropriate it.” But a distinction is being made here between the literary experience (all the things that go into the making of a work of literature) and the work of literature itself. And scientific analysis is certainly well-suited tell us a lot about the “literary experience.” But of course isn’t one of the promises of literature itself that it can explain and understand experience, and in so doing give us the possibility of a genuine freedom from our determinations? If it weren’t for the slippage between “literary experience” and the idea of the work of literature, there would be a real danger here of implying that the work of literature does not offer the possibility of genuine freedom from one’s determinations, that it is the job of the scientist to do so.

Literature, because it often shows rather than tells (some of it), has often been treated as needing to be explained by someone else. Yet it’s not at all clear that a scientist is better able to free us of the determinations of the world than a work of literature simply because the work of literature shows those determinations at work. And if the scientist is more capable of direct explanation, that would simply be because direct explanation is not usually the way literature goes about exploring the world. It embodies, rather than explaining from outside. And is literature or science more capable of dealing with those moments when explanation breaks down? Isn’t literature more capable than science of dealing with those things about the world that maybe cannot be explained, if there are any such things?


tmorange said...


give the guy his opening gambit! he's trying to problematize the commonplace that literature (the literary artifact or the experience of it -- i'm not sure there's much of a distinction to be made here for bourdieu) is singular, exceptional, irreducible, ineffable. he's saying it's not, and you're essentially saying, "but isn't it?"

one can of course take exception to his construction of the commonplace -- aren't virually all of his post-structuralist peers well working well beyond the pale of explication de texte? in addition, there is a whole european school of scholars (mostly dutch and german) who practice empirical studies of literature -- who at least reference bourdieu while he ignores them altogether. frankly i find their approaches much more "scientific" than his. but his work is infinitely more readable than theirs.

depends too on what we mean by "scientific."


mark wallace said...
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mark wallace said...

Thanks for your helpful comment, Tom. I'm not sure I'm saying that the art object is irreducible, although I appreciate that I should be concerned about that. But my more central concern is that B might still be implying that the work of literature needs the explanation of the scientist to have its full social effect. In other words, as is too often the case, the (critical) scientist places himself as the mediator of the artistic object, a la Jakobson's infamous comment about having creative writing professors in literature departments: "Would you let elephants teach zoology?"

Far from its being irreducible, I'm wondering whether a work of literature doesn't have as much effect "on the possibility of a genuine freedom from one's determinations" as the work of criticism which explains the work of literature and its development. I'm suggesting that the literary object is a kind of specific explanation, albeit one that embodies rather than lectures directly, a la Williams' ideas in The Embodiment of Knowledge. Far from being irreducible or unexplainable, then, it does a specific kind of cultural work in a specific kind of way.

And I think B understands that, but I'm still cautious about how he, as "scientific" critic, defines his relationship to the object he will be explaining. It's worthwhile for criticism to talk about literature, but its role as mediator/explainer of the strange beast of literature may imply an authority over the literary object that I find questionable.

tmorange said...

sure, i agree: there's no immediate reason to assume science is any better equipped to free us of our determinations than literary hermeneutics. B is i think overreaching here.