Twisting the Stick: A Reply to Jeremy Lane, David Inglis

SERRC —  November 25, 2013 — 2 Comments

Author Information: David Inglis, University of Exeter, D.Inglis@exeter.ac.uk

Inglis, David. “Twisting the Stick: A Reply to Jeremy Lane.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2-13): 66-68.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1as

Please refer to:

Jeremy Lane has been one of the most careful, balanced and fair assessors of Bourdieu’s life and intellectual career. His book (Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction, 2000) on this topic is in my view a very considerable piece of work.

Yet I think he has misinterpreted my brief comments on Susen’s paper (2013) and thus by extension on Bourdieu. He says I have wagged a “sententious” finger at the academic liberal-left. I have carefully examined my finger, using the most advanced methods of self-objectification, and find it to be not sententious but certainly a little bit naughty. The aim of my comments was in fact a Bourdieusian one — “to twist the stick in the other direction”, pour epater le bourgeois (academic field sub-type). I wanted to irritate (in both the common-sense understanding of that term, and the Luhmannian one) people of all political persuasions. But as most social theorists are placed somewhere to the left of Nick Clegg (admittedly one of life’s easier tasks), it was towards liberals and left-liberals that most of the criticism de facto was aimed. (Right-wing intellectuals have more than their fair share of unexamined assumptions (here meaning delusions) too, which I left alone on this occasion — but these today are generally more socially efficacious than those of their left-liberal counterparts: witness their recent crashing of the world economy.)

The quotation about the twisted stick comes ultimately from Mao, and it nicely indicates a number of things: the role of Maoism in the intellectual atmosphere Bourdieu (and everyone else of the time) perforce operated within from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s; Bourdieu’s willingness to take inspiration from a “wide range of sources” (to put it into the usual euphemistic terminology); and the fact that no-one in the social sciences quotes from Mao any more (more’s the pity) — and if they did they would risk the sort of censure by the academic field which I indicated in my comments on Susen and to which Lane has also apparently subjected me now.

Lane misrepresents my intentions — although that may be due either to his mis-reading, wilfully or not, what is a clear statement of my points, or alternatively, my comments being insufficiently clearly expressed. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it is the latter option. What I wanted to say was in essence this: a lot of the silly criticisms one has heard endlessly repeated, all variants of the “Bourdieu is a determinist” orthodoxy, are rooted in assumptions about human nature that are rarely (never?) subjected to any sort of reflexive self-scrutiny by the people who say those sorts of things. To paraphrase one great educator, for those who like to say that sort of thing about “determinism”, that is the sort of thing that they like to say.

To point out what I did is to “twist the stick in the other direction”, by going against the consensus – or the hegemonic discourse, if you prefer – about such matters, in order to wonder aloud about something along the lines of: “But WHAT IF human nature is not as nice as the critics of Bourdieu’s so-called determinism seem to assume all the time?” To wonder aloud in this way would, I predicted, bring down upon the wonderer’s head the collective ire of the upholders of the consensus. Lane’s comments nicely confirm my prediction — by even thinking such things, I am clearly a bad person engaged in sententiousness, finger-wagging and flirting with counter-revolutionary thought! Confirmation of my thought experiment, as to the calumny that would be heaped upon s/he who said such naughty things (even when they were explicitly labelled as “not my own personal views”), has come more swiftly and decisively than I had either feared or hoped. The stick was twisted and retribution from the doxa of the field came forth. QED. Et voila! Validation!

Lane’s warnings about flirting with reactionary thought are themselves a touch on the sententious side. They also sail over some nice ironies — and surely it is the business of the “critical sociologist” to be uncovering such contradictions, pointing them out and, sometimes, heightening them to the point of absurdity or collapse? Although it is a flawed argument, Robert Nisbet’s claim that so many of the core concepts of sociology were born after 1789 within not just conservative but actively counter-revolutionary thought, is still in part valid. Notions of social structure, community, social facts, and related terms, are partly born out of the conservative forms of thought that flourished in the first three or four decades of the 19th century. So for Lane apparently to be defending a pristine Sociology from the wicked forces of Conservatism is just invalid on historical/conceptual grounds — the very grounds that the tradition of French historical epistemology has sensitised later thinkers to, grounds upon which Bourdieu in part built his own conceptual edifice.

Lane might respond that he is defending “critical sociology”, but of course the tradition of social critique within sociology has involved in complicated ways both leftist and rightist forms of criticism of modern society, these crossing over and informing each other in all sorts of peculiar ways. So the apparently wishy-washy consensus about human nature in contemporary social theory that I was identifying both turns nasty when it is threatened — especially by twisted sticks (see above) — and also is either unaware of its roots in, and connections to, reactionary thought, or actively seeks to cover that fact up. I don’t know by which of these dispositions Lane’s comments are propelled by, but it remains the case that he is reproducing the field’s doxa about such matters when he wags his finger at me for even mentioning such things.

I must add that it is very odd that Lane tars me with the brush of Conservative complaints about the alleged stupidity of “the masses”. I was in fact raising the possibility that EVERYONE’S behaviour may be highly determined, regardless of class or any other social characteristic. Moreover, I was focusing my critical fire on a wing of the contemporary intelligentsia, quite the opposite of people normally labelled as members of the mass; instead it is the intelligentsia, of both left and right, that usually engage in such labelling processes.

As it happens, I am as good and nice a left-liberal as those in the social theory field I waved the twisted stick at in my comments on Susen. In effect, I was waving the stick at myself, as much as anyone else (was this Maoist self-criticism?). I was having naughty thoughts, trying to think outside the usual comfort zone — thoughts which Lane apparently wants to censor. As it happens, along with other members of the field, I DO think it is the case that there is a lot of rubbish and offensive trash in early 19th century counter-revolutionary thought. This is not an ahistorical and post-hoc condemnation — what is witless and nasty was so at the time, and was thought to be as such by the conservatives’ opponents, of whom I am of course on the side of, for I too am a good, nice left-liberal social theorist. I am not “defending” such traditions of thought; I am simply pointing out that there ARE other ways to think beyond the comfy and mostly unquestioned assumptions of the field as it stands. (These assumptions of course only have some elective affinities with but are neither reducible to, nor synonymous with, a North London worldview characterised by the fatuous tone of a Guardian editorial on a bad day.) But I want to be — and I want all social theorists to be — engaged in all sorts of twists of the stick, including those that don’t keep just reproducing a consensus which, ultimately, produces the dumb “Bourdieu is a determinist” thinking that really is rife today. Just go to the drinks reception at a conference or talk to indoctrinated PhD students to hear it endlessly reiterated (admittedly, this reflects the less-than-magical UK experience I operate within).

Such talk is performative — say it often enough and eventually it sticks. It will, I predict, be in future the central element of the — I suspect ultimately successful — attempt to kill off the influence of Bourdieu in world sociology. Such trends are already afoot in the UK. But my comments were intended to praise Bourdieu, not to bury him. I said that Bourdieu considered things about human nature that the wider field does not want to hear, and that is one reason — maybe the most profound and lasting reason — why he is praiseworthy. But Jeremy seems to want to close and lock the lid of the box within which such considerations have been stuffed by the current doxa. Fair enough, life is nicer when that happens, when we turn our eyes away from nasty things and get back to the business of endless chat about something called “late modernity” — but his comments have proved my point about the negative reaction that the saying of distasteful things will inevitably provoke. I prefer to put the stick in the box, stir, and see what happens. Our differing dispositions must simply be a matter of taste …

Coda

My comments on Susen were actually a Garfinkel-inspired breaching experiment — one that had the expected, and alas predictable, effects. And yet as we all know, human action is not at all highly determined.

References

Lane, Jeremy F. Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Lane, Jeremy F. “Bourdieu’s Theory of Linguistic Exchange: Realistic Description or Exclusionary Prescription?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): 60-65.

Inglis, David. “Bourdieu, Language and ‘Determinism’: A Reply to Simon Susen.” Social Epistemology 27, no. 3-4 (2013): 315-322.

Susen, Simon 2013 “Bourdieusian Reflections on Language: Unavoidable Conditions of the Real Speech Situation.” Social Epistemology 27, no. 3-4 (2013): 199-246.

2 responses to Twisting the Stick: A Reply to Jeremy Lane, David Inglis

  1. 

    Hello there, David. I hope this finds you well. Let me respond to a couple of your points:

    You say: ‘Lane’s warnings about flirting with reactionary thought are themselves a touch on the sententious side.’
    I respond: well, yes, of course they are. I never sought to deny it. On the contrary, I explicitly stated this to be the case in my original piece: ‘Since Inglis seems keen to wag a sententious finger at these hopelessly naïve leftists and liberals for failing to reflect on the assumptions behind their interpretative frameworks, let me apply the same gesture to his intervention.’ See those words, ‘the SAME gesture’, i.e. I’m saying I’m about to be just as sententious as you were being. It’s rather telling that you seek to present as a shocking revelation of my hidden motivations or disavowed inconsistencies something I explicitly admitted to being the case from the offset. This was my whole point; I was being knowingly sententious, ‘naughty’, to use your own term. Although, if I read you right, it’s alright for you to be naughty, to think outside the comfort zone, but not for me.

    You say: ‘I must add that it is very odd that Lane tars me with the brush of Conservative complaints about the alleged stupidity of “the masses”. I was in fact raising the possibility that EVERYONE’S behaviour may be highly determined, regardless of class or any other social characteristic. Moreover, I was focusing my critical fire on a wing of the contemporary intelligentsia, quite the opposite of people normally labelled as members of the mass’

    I confess to being somewhat bewildered by this passage. First of all, I understood very clearly that your explicit target was what you took to be an unthinking consensus amongst the intelligentsia regarding the inherent ‘creativity’ of the dominated classes. (‘Creativity’ is not a term I’d use in this context. I’d prefer ‘agency’. Your choice of ‘creativity’ seems rather loaded to me.) However, you are more than intelligent enough to know that, by definition, to challenge that consensus is both to criticise the intelligentsia for holding such idealistic beliefs and, by necessary extension, to suggest that the dominated classes, in reality, do not possess any such inherent capacities, for ‘creativity’, in your terms, for ‘agency’, in mine. So your remark necessarily implies both a critique of the intelligentsia’s idealism and a much less optimistic assessment of the dominated classes’ capacity for reasoned thought and action. Moreover, in the example of counterrevolutionary discourse I gave in my original piece, I quite explicitly stated that a classical form of that discourse involved criticising the intelligentsia for holding idealistic beliefs about the capacities of the dominated classes. As I put it, ventriloquising such counter-revolutionary responses: ‘only naïve leftist idealists, with no grasp of the regrettable realities of class and status, could believe otherwise’. So my point was that, firstly, your critique of the intelligentsia reproduced in its form, content, and assumptions the counterrevolutionary discourse about this group and, secondly, that any such critique, whether you’re prepared to admit it or not, has implications for an assessment of the agency of the dominated classess. Those implications too would be very familiar, not to say congenial to any counter-revolutionary thinker. Does this not concern you at all?

    You say: ‘So for Lane apparently to be defending a pristine Sociology from the wicked forces of Conservatism is just invalid on historical/conceptual grounds’
    Sorry, David, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about here. Are you suggesting I am actually seeking to defend ‘a pristine Sociology’? Where on earth did I say anything of this sort? Isn’t the whole tenor of my piece directed to highlighting the dangers inherent in assuming Sociology to be ‘pristine’, the dangers of seeking to defend sociology against ‘contamination’, to use Bourdieu’s term?

    In defence of your point regarding the lack of validity of any attempt to defend a ‘pristine’ sociology, you say this: ‘Notions of social structure, community, social facts, and related terms, are partly born out of the conservative forms of thought that flourished in the first three or four decades of the 19th century.’
    Absolutely, couldn’t agree more, in fact that was precisely what I was alluding to in my final line and it demonstrates precisely why your claim I’m attempting to defend a pristine sociology directly contradicts what I actually said. Our only difference here is that I include your critique of the intelligentsia’s naive idealism, with its concomitant impact on any assessment of working class agency, as itself one of those ‘conservative’ notions. You, apparently disagree. Fine, so let’s have a discussion about the substantive issues here.

    The only real obstacle to such a discussion, it seems to me, is your tendency to say things like this:
    ‘I don’t know by which of these dispositions Lane’s comments are propelled’
    What on earth makes you so sure that my comments must be propelled by any of the dispositions you enumerate? Perhaps they’re propelled by what you very generously describe as my ‘careful, balanced, and fair assessment’ of Bourdieu’s work. Why do you immediately seek to attribute opinions which you clearly don’t share to some mysterious unconscious force or disposition that you, as professional sociologist, presume yourself uniquely equipped to identify? Why are you so committed to that classical gesture of critical sociology, the ‘aha!’ moment, when you assume you’ll be able to disqualify someone else’s opinions by pointing to what you presume to be their hidden, objective roots? Let me save you the trouble: ‘Lane comes from an upper middle class background and was educated at an elite British public school. He studied French & Italian literature as an undergraduate, conducted doctoral research into the work of Pierre Bourdieu, and now works in a Department of French & Francophone Studies. His dispositions, consistent with the habitus of someone of his class and education, have propelled him, after an initial dalliance with sociology, to revert to type. This much has been evident in his criticisms of Bourdieu’s alleged ‘determinism’, in the name of a naive faith in the agency of the dominated classes, a faith typical of someone of his social background, who continues to teach and publish on literature, a domain historically resistant to the objective truths of a scientific sociology and committed to the idealistic defence of the transcendent powers of human creativity.’ There, done it for you. No need for further thought or debate. Simples.

    There is, of course, another version of my biography, another possible ‘objectification’ of my trajectory that would start from the possibility that someone who’s been through an elite British public school might just have some personal insights into how mechanisms of social reproduction function. Such a person might also be rather sensitive to those moments when, reading Bourdieu’s extremely pessimistic account of the allegedly limited nature of the working class’s capacity for rational thought and action, he recognises forms of discourse and the kinds of disparaging assumption about the dominated classes he heard every day throughout his school days but that he had hoped, as an adult, he would never have to hear again.

    Al the best, David, and I hope our paths cross again soon.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Bourdieu, Science and Democracy: A Reply to Bridget Fowler and David Inglis, Jeremy F. Lane « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - January 3, 2014

    […] David. “Twisting the Stick: A Reply to Jeremy Lane.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): […]

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