Pierre Bourdieu – Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979, trans. 1984)

Bourdieu’s project, as he describes it, is to perform the “barbarous reintegration of aesthetic consumption into the world of ordinary consumption,” which in turn “abolishes the opposition which has been the basis of high aesthetics since Kant, between the ‘taste of sense’ and the ‘taste of reflection’” (6). He argues that the ability to engage in aesthetic judgment at all depends on a certain amount of cultural competency (“to see (voir) is a function of knowledge (savoir)” (2)). Not only this, but the pure aesthetic is rooted in an ethics, or rather, an ethos of elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social…and takes the bourgeois denial of the social world as its limit” (5). This detachment is the product of “negative economic necessities—a life of ease—that tends to induce an active distance from necessity.” Thus the aesthetic gaze rebounds onto the stylization of life itself: form is privileged over function, manner over matter. “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (6).

One of Bourdieu’s main points is that the object determines its subject:

Any legitimate work tends in fact to impose the norms of its own perception and tacitly defines as the only legitimate mode of perception the one which brings into play a certain disposition and a certain competence. (28)

But he also makes the reverse claim: that the aesthetic point of view can create the aesthetic object. This circle can be explained concretely by looking at two factors: education and social origin, both of which affect the ability to “distance oneself” from the aesthetic object. Thus food can be aesthetic of it is properly distanced. Thus Bourdieu can unearth the subtext of aesthetic language:

Detachment, disinterestedness, indifference—aesthetic theory has so often presented these as the only way to recognize the work of art for what it is, autonomous, that one ends up forgetting that they really mean disinvestment, detachment, indifference, in other words, the refusal to invest oneself and take things seriously. (34)

What Bourdieu calls “the aesthetic disposition, a generalized capacity to neutralize ordinary urgencies and to bracket off practical ends…can only be constituted within an experience of the world freed from urgency” (54). This is not so much a critique of Kant, as an elaboration of Kant. The real difference is that Bourdieu is giving an account of how the aesthetic can be experienced at all—an the answer to that question puts the concept of the beautiful at risk because its universal quality is based on a real system of exclusion and “distinction.”

Some of the more interesting parts of Distinction include Bourdieu’s analysis of “Life Styles.” It’s important to take the word style seriously, as the signifier of an artistic act—this connects these sociological analyses with thinkers like Foucault and Merleau-Ponty, both of whom theorize life stylistically: the former in terms of negotiating power structures, that latter in terms of linguistic development. For Bourdieu, any such analysis has a class element:

The art of eating and drinking remains one of the few areas in which the working classes explicitly challenge the legitimate (bourgeois) art of living. In the face of the new ethic of sobriety for the sake of slimness, which is most recognized at the highest levels of the social hierarchy, peasants and especially industrial workers maintain an ethic of convivial indulgence. A bon vivant is not just someone who enjoys eating and drinking; he is someone capable of entering into the generous and familiar—that is, both simple and free—relationship that is encouraged and symbolized by eating and drinking together, in a conviviality which sweeps away restraint and reticence. (179)

The practices of eating, therefore, offer a curious hitch in the scheme marked out by Bourdieu—not because his theory of “artistic living” is wrong, but because food itself, as something that is irreducible “sensual” no matter how reflective one’s relationship to it may be, refuses aesthetic categorization all together. Thus the inability for working class people to take “pleasure” in their food is exactly what enables them to take pleasure in it. That this matches what Adorno would call a “vulgar” identification highlights the pretensions of distinction grounding his concepts of both life and art.

“Plain speaking, plain eating: the working-class meal is characterized by plenty (which does not exclude restrictions and limits) and above all freedom.” Observations like this, however, reveal a blind spot: abundance is not always the norm, and freedom of form is not always accompanied by an abundance of content. But the contrast with the bourgeois meal stands, nevertheless.

 It is the expression of a habitus of order, restraint and propriety which may not be abdicated. The relation to food—the primary need and pleasure, is only one dimension of the bourgeois relation to the social world. The opposition between the immediate and the deferred, the easy and the difficult, substance (or function) and form, which is exposed in a particularly striking fashion in the bourgeois way of eating, is the basis of all aestheticization of practice and every aesthetic. (196)


Postscript: Towards a ‘Vulgar’ Critique of ‘Pure’ Critiques

This final chapter explains why a book about taste and art made no appeal to the canon of vocabulary associated with philosophical and literary aesthetics. The chapter is largely performative—i.e. I could have written this as a dense philosophical treatise if I had wanted to. He argues that if we must now allow for the “return of the repressed, having produced the truth of taste against which, by an immense repression, the whole legitimate aesthetics has been constructed,” then there should be an adjustment of vocabulary such that these two discourses are not allowed to exist as parallel, or alternative discourses—but rather as a unity of discourse on taste.

Pure taste, Bourdieu reminds, us is based on a refusal of the impure. Thus, the originary gesture marking out pure taste is a moment of disgust that cannot be registered as pure affect. This disgust is directed at the facile—associated with the charming and the agreeable, that which is immediately gratifying. He quotes extensively from Schopenhauer to illustrate the distinction: in short, art that inspires appetite defeats the aim of art. Kant’s principle of pure taste, Bourdieu extrapolates, is nothing other than a refusal of that which imposes enjoyment. Disgust is horrifying (passages from Kant and Adorno link disgust and horror repeatedly) because it results from the removal of distance, in which freedom is asserted between the representation and the thing represented, in short, alienation, the loss of subject in the object” (488). [Try to relate this to Marx on alienation in 1844 manuscripts.] Thus the object that insists on being enjoyed cannot be art. This is why Kant cannot give an account of how the aesthetic makes an appeal to the subject.

He reads Derrida reading Kant. Derrida basically approaches Kant’s object as if it were capable of producing the sort of pleasure that Kant assigns to the work of art—“making Kant’s object its own objective.” Bourdieu argues that deconstruction as a whole is yet another means of shoring up the circle of membership necessary for “enjoying” Kant’s text. Thus philosophy partakes in the modes of distinction that deny the processes of exclusion upon which they are based.

Empirical interest enters into the composition of the most disinterested pleasures of pure taste, because the principle of the pleasure derived from these refined games for refined players lies, in the last analysis, in the denied experience of a social relationship of membership and exclusion. (499)


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