I enjoy reading my wife’s Vogue magazines. While it’s probably fair enough to say that an attraction to women and haute couture lay at the root of my interest, there is a dual repulsion that propels that interest as well.
The famous sociologist and cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu, best known for La Distinction, seized upon the Karl Marx’s concept of class, reworking it into a more empirically-quantifiable taxonomy which included social, political, economic, and cultural-intellectual power elements. Indeed, in my view Bourdieu improved upon Marxian dialectical materialism by providing a more quantifiable basis for its cultural elements. (After all, Marx didn’t have at his disposal Bourdieu’s historical hindsight to better critique Marxian theories respective to the developing social circumstances being critiqued—which are especially appealing to readers such as me.)
Bourdieu also seized upon the flaws concept of culture inherent in the analysis of Clifford Geertz , disintegrating it somewhat in the process and borrowing from Marcel Mauss’ notion of “body techniques,” to arrive at what he called habitus. Arguably it is this last innovation which provides embodied/materialist account of religion(s) as socio-cultural phenomena. Habitus, for Bourdieu, was a term closely related to culture, but which he understood as being more, well, habitual. It is an inherently body- and class-oriented theory. More importantly, it is empirically observable, unlike that slippery eel culture, therefore providing Bourdieu with the opportunity to test its soundness.
Every once a while a concept I come across makes me sit up and take notice due in part, perhaps, to the philosopher’s fetish for theoretical elegance that my undergraduate training in philosophy encouraged. Bourdieu’s fit of habitus into the social milieu and its subsequent functional role there is one such theory. Not only is his theory elegant and falsifiable, I would argue that habitus is a specifically memetic process, lending the theory a neo-Darwinian cognitive evolutionary element.
It is with the notion of habitus in mind–and begging my reader’s indulgence–that I next turn to my habit of flipping through my wife’s copies of Vogue. Quite frankly they’ve always fascinated me in a manner not dissimilar to, say, driving past a fatal accident, but with an additional begrudging acknowledgment of a refined aesthetic. But then this also betrays a certain hierarchical understanding set by habitus.
Sitting down with croissant and coffee and at turns pointing out examples from the magazine to my French friends Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Baudrillard, and Bourdieu, each is impressed, but negatively so. Each has his own take on how “fashion” is social artifice.
Rousseau warns me, “Do not be dazzled by, how you say, ‘neo-liberal’ patina, It is l’ordre hiérarchique. It obscures a darker side. Indeed, it maintains that inequality which it publicly claims to ameliorate with its benefit shows. Look how Marie Antoinette is on the cover. Need I say more?”
Yes, but that’s an actress, I tell him, pointing to the image of Kirsten Dunst.
“But they are no doubt in love with l’Ancien Régime,” he says, adding, “So long as government and law provide for the security and well-being of men in their common life, the arts, literature, and the sciences, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh them down. They stifle in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilized people.”¹
Baudrillard nods his assent, but worries that the radical Jacobin is at heart a Spartan and a fledgling Luddite.
“Look,” he tells me, “This is creation of desire, vraîment? You would do well to understand that here it serves Western capitalism in a certain way, but remember that seduction—the use of desire—is very much a part of being human.”
“Isn’t it a commodity here?”
“Perhaps, yes, a commodity that serves a certain political power, for better or for worse. Seduction takes from discourse its sense and turns it from its truth. It is, therefore, contrary to the psychoanalytic distinction between manifest and latent discourse. For the latent discourse turns the manifest discourse not from its truth, but towards its truth….”²
“So it’s bad, then, isn’t it?”
“No, not necessarily. Seduction, it can be very subversive, in a positive way.”
Baudrillard sips his coffee thoughtfully and answers, “In seduction… it is the manifest discourse–discourse at its most superficial–that turns back on the deeper order (whether conscious or unconscious) in order to invalidate it, substituting the charm and illusion of appearances. These appearances are not in the least frivolous, but occasions for a game and its stakes, and a passion for deviation—the seduction of the signs themselves being more important than the emergence of any truth—which interpretation neglects and destroys in its search for hidden meanings. This is why interpretation is what, par excellence, is opposed to seduction, and why it is the least seductive of discourses.”³
I turn to Bourdieu who nods his assent, but he warns me, “You will have rightly noted that there are power issues here, and that both the means and the ends are the manipulation of material economy. Do not come away from our conversation thinking that these are always intended conspiracies.”
I shake my head. “So things are being manipulated, but not necessarily intentionally? I don’t get it.”
“Reflect on the habitus,” Bourdieu tells me. “You will note that my friend Rousseau here is right in that these things can both obscure—and I might add, reveal—power. But that power—capital, actually—is a utilization of precognitive concepts. People often don’t know they are relying upon habitus for their understanding of the world around them.”
“Sounds logical, in an odd sort of way.”
“My friend Baudrillard here has used the concept of seduction. Perhaps it reveals something about the irrational and precognitive aspects of habitus. But it is with this that I am most concerned: Understanding seduction might help you to understand social hierarchies somewhat, but understanding habitus provides you with the bigger picture. It is the key to understanding the limits of doxa, the key that unlocks the chains with which my friend Rousseau, even my friend Marx, is concerned. But, the idea that the flowers keep you in chains misses the point. See, habitus exists at the intersection of structure and practice. But when structure breaks down, doxa may be disputed and from it the creation of orthodox and heterodox worldviews within habitus. You may break the chains of either doxa integrity or orthodoxy and grasp the flowers, if only temporarily.”
“Doxa as in ‘the undisputed’?”
“Yes, the ostensibly undisputable definition of the real. You see, the dominated classes have an interest in pushing back the limits of doxa and exposing the arbitrariness of the taken-for-granted; the dominant classes have an interest in defending the integrity of doxa, or short of this, of establishing in its place the necessary imperfect substitute, orthodoxy.”⁴
“But this is not always recognized even by those who benefit from doxa or orthodoxy,” I add.
“So what about Vogue, then? This appears to me to be so much doxa.”
“This is not exactly a yes or no question, but there are elements of doxa and orthodoxy, certainly, and what is more important is that you recognize a certain habitus embraced by the magazine. I’d say it’s rubbish, but really, the sociologist in me revels in the opportunities inherent in its presentation. But you clearly see the symbolic value which represents a very materially-oriented habitus.”
“I see,” I say biting into a croissant.