Bourdieu vs. “The Total Intellectual”

Guest Author: Kerim Friedman

The culture that Europe needs, for itself and the world, and particularly the world’s third estate, will not emerge from the negotiations of experts or the discussions of technocrats. The question is to make the rigorous use of reason, and thus of language, a political virtue, indeed the first of all political virtues, and thus to give intellectuals the sole power that they have a right and a duty to claim, that of exercising a ceaseless and effective vigilance against the abusive words – and grand words most of all.

– Bourdieu, Political Interventions. 2008. p. 219

Bourdieu’s  statement is striking for two reasons. The first is that his notion of the power of intellectuals is remarkably circumscribed. Elsewhere in this posthumous volume of political writings he repeatedly attacks the notion of the “total intellectual” as embodied by figures like Sartre whom, Bourdieu felt, seemed to stand apart from the world, claiming a special status for the knowledge they produced. Bourdieu insists that intellectuals can best use their knowledge to attack “grand words” through the “rigorous use of reason.” At the same time, however, Bourdieu claims that this is not simply a “right” of intellectuals, but “duty” as well. It almost sounds as if Bourdieu is arguing that all intellectuals should also be bloggers!

Indeed there are a number of ways one can be a “public intellectual”: the more well known options are as an op-ed columnist in the newspaper, as a writer of popular non-fiction, as a TV pundit, or as a blogger. In these situations Bourdieu’s comments ring true. To the extent that we stray too far from his limits we cease to function as an “intellectual” and become just another talking head. Paul Krugman strikes me as one of the few public intellectuals who have remained effective in this regard, largely because he mostly sticks to what he knows. Of course, it helps that public policy discourse is primarily conducted in the language of economics.

It is not as easy for anthropologists to intervene when they must first deconstruct the primacy of rational choice theory. Nonetheless, there are still many areas where anthropological knowledge can make an impact. A nice example of anthropologists intervening in public discourse is  John Borneman and Laurie Kain Hart’s 2004 op-ed on marriage. It would be nice to see anthropologists doing more of the same, and it is hard to tell if the fact that they don’t is due to the prejudices of the mainstream media or a reluctance on the part of anthropologists themselves.

But I think there is also a problem with Bourdieu’s conception of the public role of intellectuals, one which derives from a narrowness of vision. Bourdieu felt that “doing politics means exposing oneself to a loss of authority,” allowing one’s politics to be used as a means for discounting one’s academic work. But many academics engage in the public sphere not through the op-ed column, but through political action – including, at times, Bourdieu himself. I think this is particularly true of anthropologists, many of whom engage in local politics as partners with the communities they study.

When people decry the lack of public anthropology, I think of all my friends and colleagues who are engaging in collaborative anthropological endeavors at the local level. I believe the problem is not that these anthropologists suffer from a loss of authority, but that these local interventions are not seen as mattering as much as the op-ed pages of the major American newspapers. Anthropologists should be careful about letting the mainstream media define “the public” for us. There are many publics and the ones anthropologists are involved with matter as much, if not more, than the one inhabited by pundits and policy wonks. Still, anthropologists could do more to bridge the gap between these two worlds. Perhaps by blogging about their work so that more people are aware of it, anthropologists could bridge the gap between these two publics.

P. Kerim Friedman is assistant professor of Indigenous Cultures at National Dong Hwa University, in Taiwan. He blogs at SavageMinds. His latest film is Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! He has a full review of Political Interventions forthcoming in Capital andClass.

6 Responses to “Bourdieu vs. “The Total Intellectual””
  1. martijn5155 says:

    Kerim Friedman raises some interesting points here about anthropologists as public intellectuals. I would like to take up the issue of what is our public. It is good to try to appear with op-eds in major newspapers. Consider for example Jurgen Habarmas’ interesting op-ed in the New York Times today: Leadership and Leitkultur, where he writes aboutLeadership and Leitkultur –

    waves of political turmoil over integration, multiculturalism and the role of the “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture. This discourse is in turn reinforcing trends toward increasing xenophobia among the broader population.

    . Ok, I know Habermas is not an anthropologist he is of course a major public intellectual. There are other ways too of course for example by speaking in public debates like Saba Mahmood recently did on ‘Politics of Religious Freedom and the Minority Question: A Middle Eastern Genealogy‘. My Dutch colleague from the Free University of Amsterdam, Edien Bartels, is often engaged in policy related researches on Islam and Muslims in the Netherlands trying to bring together politicians (who have all kinds of concerns related to Muslims of course) and Muslims networks and organisations about issues such as forced marriages and pre-natal testing in the case of (possible) cousin marriages. In my case, in my research on the Muslim Salafi movement, I held discussion in audio-chat rooms and one time I featured on a Salafi Internet TV channel in order to reach out to the ‘Salafi’ / Muslim public in the Netherlands. The last case appeared to be controversial after it was picked up by another ‘public’.

    That brings us back to Bourdieu’s issue of authority. In 10 years the public debates about Islam in the Netherlands flamed up and Islam became a politicized issue. Intersubjectivity as the field of interaction between researcher and researched is influenced by politicization, which means that the researcher has to reflect even more than usual on how to construct and perform one’s role in the field. In my case and that of several colleagues the question of one’s loyalty became an important one and the expression of it was asked, sometimes even forced, both by Muslims and non-Muslims. Notions such as identity, religion and culture are not only used by social scientists but also by the researched, the people who are subject of social scientific research. Moreover, these notions are central in the political debate. They are therefore by definition politicized, rendering a neutral position impossible. To complicate things even more; the researched are are also part of our public in particular when one does research in their own country. This means that the knowledge we are disseminating is (partly) derived from a part of the public and (in the case of radical Muslims) a very controversial part of the public. We are therefore not just the authority telling people how things ‘really’ are, but perhaps a sort of independent mediators. The politicized nature of ‘our’ knowledge in come cases is in my view an extra reason for not letting others decide who our public should be and it should be an incentive for anthropologist to think very carefully about who are publics are and what this means for anthropology.

    • Brett says:

      “increasing xenophobia among the broader population,” is that what Habermas said? Is he talking about Holland or the U.S.? I mean Holland is one very small pocket of the world and the increasing tension between Islam and Christianity seems more obvious in many countries now; but then again there are more Muslims in Christian countries now. If Habermas is using the term “xenophobia” then I think as a “public intellectual” who is an “authority” and a “mediator” and indeed a “Latourian diplomat” for all I know, then he needs to qualify that use. Unfortunately I don’t read the NYT – not my sort of public as it were.

      I came to this site from SM after reading Kerim’s post there and commented there that publicity indicates relevance and effectiveness. Not everyone is into newspapers, radio, tv, blogs and so on, so it seems a pretty poor indicator of relevance and effectiveness.

      • martijn5155 says:

        Habermass is talking in particular about Germany but also more in general about other European countries. And he is talking about increasing xenophobia in public debates.

      • Brett says:

        Thanks for your response mate. However it is still not clear to me. What does he mean in public debates? Is he referring to town hall forums, chat rooms, cafes, newspapers, political announcements. the TV, facebook? What data is he drawing on? Does he do this research himself or does he read about it in newspapers, watch it on the tv? Perhaps Habermas (You spell his name with S’s – is that the correct way ?) would like to go public and comment on this – anyone have his email address, phone number?

  2. enkerli says:

    Haven’t read this specific text by Bourdieu so it’d be hard for me to comment on the content. But it does sound like it might be useful to discuss the context for not only this quote but for Bourdieu’s engagement as a (public) intellectual. After all, modern France (since Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus affair, which popularized the concept of «intellectuel») has a rather specific role for intellectuals. As Prévert said, «il ne fuat pas laisser les intellectuels jouer avec des allumettes» (“intellectuals shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches”). Yet many «intellos» are part of PAF («paysage audiovisuel français», France’s media landscape).
    So I can’t help but wonder if this quote predates Bourdieu’s well-known debate with Schneidermann. If it doesn’t, it might be more of a representation of Bourdieu’s wariness as to the overbearing rhetoric used by some Frrench intellectuals of the time than an admonishment to all intellectuals to avoid any work outside of fighting bigwordism. If it does predate Bourdieu’s tv focus (quite possible, given the reference to Sartre), it may still be more of an offhanded remark («propos à l’emporte-pièce») which seemed quite common in Bourdieu’s discourse as in most intellectual discourse in modern France. It doesn’t even sound half as forceful as his comments about postmodernists and/or about intellectuals in the US made in a talk organized by sociology students at Université de Montréal.

    Still, it’s important to think about the roles intellectuals may take in diverse contexts, including that of “pundit” in the US or that of talkshow host in France (Bernard Pivot and his wannabes). This Bourdieu quote may indeed bring us somewhere.

    Was recently listening to an interview with Chomsky (playing up his political side, not his linguistic one). Much of it reminded me of Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL). And Bourdieu had some thoughtful but quite negative things to say about BHL. In fact, I just found this neat video in which Bourdieu mentions Chomsky as an interlocutor in direct opposition to BHL.
    It may seem tangential but it still seems germane, in my mind, as he talks about the difficulty to involve oneself as an intellectual in public life. In other wires, if that quote really is an admonishment it may be directed at e likes of BHL instead of at intellectual workers like Bourdieu himself.
    There really should be more discussion as to the cultural significance of the roles of intellectuals.. Hopefully this seminar can bring this about. Will follow it more closely.

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  1. [...] is a repost my contribution to the ongoing series of posts on public anthropology over at the Anthropology and Publicity blog, [...]

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