August 1, 2011
Self-conscious French sociologist PIERRE BOURDIEU (1930-2002) recognized that position is everything. His magnum opus Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979; in English, 1984) playfully reduces Kantian abstractions to class realities, and implicitly defends the hilo dictum that no taste can be inherently better than another. Not that anything goes in Bourdieu’s sociology of preferences. Instead, the choices we make about music, clothing, food, and recreation — all the aspects of self-presentation he called habitus — are herd-animal attempts to achieve superiority with respect to another. That superiority may be socially sanctioned, as in official culture or received taste, but it operates at ‘lower’ levels too, in the form of machismo, populism, or claims to authenticity. Bourdieu was well aware that such analysis was itself motivated by a thirst for distinction. “Social subjects,” he said, “including intellectuals, are not those best placed to grasp that which defines the limits of their thought of the social world.” In fact, the academic “illusion of the absence of limits” can be the most limiting thought there is — an insight Bourdieu further explored in Homo Academicus (1984; in English, 1990). In later years a public intellectual of great influence, Bourdieu coined the dismissive term “le fast-thinker” for the slick made-for television pundits he routinely trounced, and that is unimprovable. Don’t think fast, think hard!
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).