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.
Please refer to:
- 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.
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 …
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.
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.