We live in the emerging mainstream moment of the sociology of taste. Think back to the first time you heard someone casually talk of “cultural capital” at a party, usually someone else’s inglorious pursuit or accrual of it; or when you first listened to someone praise “the subversion of the dominant in a cultural field,” or use the words strategize, negotiate, positioning, or leveraging in a discussion of a much admired “cultural producer’s” career. (For it was always careers, never single works, that were being considered.) You might have thought that you were listening to Wall Street bankers detailing mergers and acquisitions, but these were English majors! Then there appeared those charticles at the back of New York magazine, weekly guides to the rise and fall of tastes, which derived directly from Bourdieu’s maps of the field of power. Few things are less contested today than the idea that art mostly expresses class and status hierarchies, and only secondarily might have snippets of aesthetic value.
This spread of sociological thinking has led to sociological living — ways of thinking and seeing that are constructed in order to carry out, yet somehow escape, the relentless demystification sociology requires. Seeing art as a product, mere stuff, rather than a work, has become a sign of a good liberal (as opposed to bad elitist) state of mind. This is why you must support upper-middlebrow Terrence Malick one day, and the next spuriously shock everyone with a loud defense of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Too often, being on the left tasks you with a vigilant daily quest to avoid being tagged with snobbery. In sociological living, we place value on those works or groups that seem most likely to force a reevaluation of an exclusive or oppressive order, or an order felt to be oppressive simply because exclusive. And yet despite this perpetual reevaluation of all values, the underlying social order seems unchanged; the sense of it all being a game not only persists, but hardens.
The initial demystifying shock of the sociology of culture in the academy partly accounts for its popularity. Thanks to the dead ends of certain kinds of European hermeneutics — the realization that repeated analyses of Balzac novellas might not shake the foundations of the subject, let alone those of capitalism — it became more promising to ask why certain classes of people might be interested (and other classes not interested) in Balzac at all. No more appeals to the inexplicable nature of genius. Seen from the longue durée of social change, individual authors or works were less important than collectives or status groups, cities or systems. Like latter-day Northrop Fryes, armed with data, the critic-sociologists converted writers back into “literature” as a system, and from there into refractions of codes, institutions, and classes.
The effect on a sector of the professoriat, at least, has been liberating. It has led to a new wave of semi-sociological studies of institutions instead of works. Many of these, such as The Economy of Prestige or The World Republic of Letters, are, if we permit ourselves a value judgment, among the best works of criticism in our time. The overpowering influence of sociology outside its own disciplinary borders was recently verified in a list of “most-cited” intellectuals in the humanities. Sociologists varying in methods and political affiliations from “third way” liberal (Anthony Giddens) to radical (Latour) hold seven of the top ten spots: Foucault, theorist of institutional power, and Bourdieu lead the pack, six hundred citations ahead of the first nonsociologist, Derrida, whose posthumous cultural capital isn’t what it used to be.
These would be footnotes, but what happens at the university doesn’t stay in the university. The generation taught by these sociologist-citing literature scholars has now graduated and is attempting to make a place for itself in the arenas — once blandly uncontested “areas” or vague “spheres”—of cultural commentary, formerly known as “criticism,” and cultural production, formerly known as “the arts.” Not everyone can be a professor. But without thinking too much about it, most of us, especially on the left, would agree that our cultural preferences (what used to be called “judgments”) are fundamentally influenced, or even determined, by a number of external factors, not just the trinity of race, class, and gender, but also nuanced subfields: urban versus rural, regional, sexual preference, professional versus entrepreneurial versus proletarian. The sociological view that both the production and consumption of culture originate in institutional environments, subject to power but also subject to changing powers, offers its own deterministic counterweight to the trending, neurology-based literary studies of “cognitive literary criticism” and other evolutionary psych–based attempts to argue that humanity is hardwired to enjoy marriage plots.
With the generalization of cultural sociology, however, the critical impact has vanished. Sociology has ceased to be demystifying because it has become the way everyone thinks. Discussions about the arts now have an awkward, paralyzed quality: few judgments about the independent excellences of works are offered, but everyone wants to know who sat on the jury that gave out the award. It’s become natural to imagine that networks of power are responsible for the success or failure of works of art, rather than any creative power of the artist herself.
We’ve reached the point at which the CEO of Amazon, a giant corporation, in his attempt to integrate bookselling and book production, has perfectly adapted the language of a critique of the cultural sphere that views any claim to “expertise” as a mere mask of prejudice, class, and cultural privilege. Writing in praise of his self-publishing initiative, Jeff Bezos notes that “even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation. . . . Authors that might have been rejected by establishment publishing channels now get their chance in the marketplace. Take a look at the Kindle bestseller list and compare it to the New York Times bestseller list — which is more diverse?” Bezos isn’t talking about Samuel Delany; he’s adopting the sociological analysis of cultural capital and appeals to diversity to validate the commercial success of books like Fifty Shades of Grey, a badly written fantasy of a young woman liberated from her modern freedom through erotic domination by a rich, powerful male. Publishers have responded by reducing the number of their own “well-meaning gatekeepers,” actual editors actually editing books, since quality or standards are deemed less important than a work’s potential appeal to various communities of readers.
The danger is that the critical insights of what was called “critical sociology” have been repurposed as the status-quo thinking of “concerned liberalism”—the very thing that it set out to subvert. Thinking of everything as a scripted game show hasn’t led to change. Instead, sociological thinking has hypostatized and celebrated the script. Or to put it another way: hate the players, love the game. Even the sinister David Brooks managed to use (and only partly travesty) Bourdieu, when he suggested that the rise of “bourgeois bohemians” had largely solved the titanic conflicts of the Sixties. In such instances, sociology, which intended to explain in order to criticize the glacial stability of bourgeois society, has passed almost seamlessly into the hands of those wanting to justify that society.
How this happened may have something to do with the ambiguity of the demystification project itself. We can see the problem in the documentary about Bourdieu, Sociology Is a Martial Art, when a passerby recognizes him and tells him that his work changed her life. “I thought I was free, but I wasn’t,” she says, smiling. Bourdieu may have chafed at the enormous simplification, but it’s a relatively accurate conclusion to draw from his work. Yet the political takeaway of such thinking was always unclear. So you’ve learned you aren’t free — good. What do you do now?
The chief virtue of critical sociology, to its American adopters and apostles, was its ability to account for the paradox of greater (cultural) diversity within greater (economic) inequality, without ignoring either. In Cultural Capital, one of the first academic books to import Bourdieu’s ideas into literary and cultural studies, John Guillory made the counterintuitive suggestion that the exhausting canon debates of the 1980s culture wars were really “a crisis in the market value of [the literary curriculum’s] cultural capital, occasioned by the emergence of a professional-managerial class which no longer requires the [primarily literary] cultural capital of the old bourgeoisie.” In other words, the canon debates were not about empowering women and “non-Western” or minority cultures through education, but a sign that these previously subordinate groups already had increased in power to the point where they could create alternate canons, literary or postliterary, which reflected their new status within a capitalist order. Canon formation and reformation being something elite groups did whenever they became aware of themselves as elites.
Guillory didn’t intend to slight the attainments of these historically marginalized groups; he simply wanted to sidestep those annoying debates about whether Edith Wharton was really better for us than Henry James. He focused instead on how eruptions of conflict over symbols pointed to shifts in underlying power dynamics — whether the rise of the professional-managerial classes of the 1980s (which had produced the culture wars), or the bourgeoisie of the 1680s (which had produced the English novel itself).
This insight, radical enough for 1993, now gets a commonplace “fit to print” version in the well-meaning bourgeois paper of record, where the Columbia sociologist Shamus Khan recently took issue with a self-congratulatory tone he’d noticed among educated elites when it came to their global-minded tastes, their ability to channel surf between high and low culture, European and non-Western. “Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old,” he writes. “Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited.”
It’s worth slowing down Guillory’s and Khan’s arguments to make explicit certain assumptions they share about the university and the culture it promotes: that its purpose is to train a professional-managerial class or a technocratic elite; that those who attend such schools do so with an intention, no matter how unconscious, of becoming members of either the professional-managerial middle class or the elite managers of those managers; and that such groups need distinguishing markers, the equivalent of secret handshakes, that allow them to recognize themselves as a class, and which, apart from their professional training, are provided by “culture,” which offers, at best, a way for people with shared interests to frame their lives to themselves, and for one another, in ways that are mostly flattering to their self-esteem.
The jaded view of “the arts” propagated by new cultural sociologists is not really different from what the sociologist of America’s first Gilded Age wrote in the 1890s: “The humanities . . . are pretty uniformly adapted to shape the character of the student in accordance with a traditional self-centred scheme of consumption.” Thus Veblen deplored what he called the “regime of status” in contrast to a more puritan and utilitarian “regime of productivity.” Post-Veblen, the contemporary sociologist’s idea of the university’s purpose does not really differ in kind from the neoliberal version: to provide training in a specific field so one may get a better job and have a better life than someone without such training. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether a degree’s additional symbolic value is provided by reading Shakespeare, pledging a fraternity, or DJing a radio show on the blues.
Arguing that an epiphenomenon of an unjust society exists to rationalize that society’s injustice: it’s a silencing maneuver that cultural sociologists have perfected, making them unbeatable on their own terms. The ordinary person, genuflecting before his unfreedom, cries “uncle”—which the sociologist reads as a cry for more sociology. The form of this move can be glimpsed in Guillory’s explanation for the rise of French theory during the period he covers. Theory, according to Guillory, was perfectly in keeping with a “technobureaucratic” turn in intellectual work itself and in the economy overall: “The emergence of theory,” he writes, “is a symptom of a problem which theory itself could not solve.” Well, if theory can’t solve this problem, nobody can. But wait — who’s that tweedy figure in the sky, with his WebCASPAR data sets, coming to save us?
Being no closer to a society free of domination, injustice, and inequality than we were in 1993, we may ask whether the emergence of cultural sociology is a symptom of a problem that sociology itself cannot solve. Anyone who’s spent some time soaking up the discourse can point out that access to critical sociology is now one of the goods people purchase with their tuitions at elite institutions of American higher education. Of course the question and the observation that leads us to ask it turn out to be framed in sociological terms.
It seems there’s no way out of sociology; nevertheless sociology cannot provide us with internal reasons for its ever-rising prestige. Surely we want to be able to say that the sociology of culture is valuable because it’s true or insightful. However, a culture that blithely accepts a sociological account of itself is one that appears to have foundered in the straits that have always bedeviled sociology: the attempt to negotiate the relations between structure and subject, or society and agent. How to account for human freedom and also the determining power of the social world? Can we no longer really provide good-faith reasons for our cultural preferences, reasons rooted in private and idiosyncratic experience but articulated in a common language, and therefore also capable of noncoerced, voluntary change?
In spite of the strenuous attempts by sociologists to preserve some autonomy for the acting subject — Bourdieu’s “habitus,” Latour’s “actor-network” theory — popularization has inevitably resulted in more weight being thrown on the structuring side of things, the network over the actor. The only quantum of freedom left then belongs to the sociologist himself. It is the sociologist who is uniquely qualified to provide explanations for us, which have to do with feelings of status or desire for recognition, sublimated self-interest. Ultimately, there can be no mixed motives, no swerving, no revisions, no “powerful attraction towards all that we conceive or fear or hope beyond ourselves,” as Shelley once tried to define love.
If a work succeeds with a sector of the elite, it must be because the author intended, somehow, to curry favor. The cultural sociologist’s tacit conventionalism and implicit cynicism are offered as an explanation of authorial choices. Only in this way can academic literary sociology preserve the ghost of individual shaping-power. In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova claims that Nabokov began to write in English because “he knew the difficult fate of all exiled and dominated writers who, in order to be able to exist literarily and to attain true creative autonomy — which is to say to avoid dependence on unsupervised translations — choose to become, in Rushdie’s phrase, translated men.” The masterly author is preserved; in its biographical rhetoric, this could be a sentence out of On Native Grounds. But society and subject are reversed: rather than interacting socially, the subject becomes an all-knowing manipulator of sociological categories — a sociologist himself. Casanova tips her hand by her association of “true creative autonomy” with control over one’s own literary reputation, as though there could be no other valid kind of creativity or autonomy. Of course Nabokov had good reasons for wanting to write in English — most of his original Russophone aristocratic audience had been murdered — but autonomy is not merely an expression of survival instincts, deployed without pathos, self-loathing, or regret. Not even university professors are as explicitly careerist as the author-ideal that literary sociology puts before us.
A culture that understands its artists only as producers for various niche markets may not need more than this. At this point, however, it’s reasonable to ask whether the diminishment of human “vanitas” and individual agency in the cultural sphere is really an oppositional project. In a 1980 interview with his protégé, Loïc Wacquant, Bourdieu depicted himself as an inheritor of a modernist avant-garde tendency to fight against self-congratulatory, complacent humanisms: “Schoenberg said one day that he composed music so that people could no longer write music. I write so that people, and first of all those people who are entitled to speak, spokespersons, can no longer produce . . . noise that has all the appearances of music.” At the time, and for a nation that considered Bernard-Henri Lévy an intellectual, Bourdieu’s vanguardist arrogance was needed. Thirty years later and across an ocean, however, the spokespeople most effectively diminished by Bourdieu’s influence turn out to be those already in the precarious position of having to articulate and transmit a language of aesthetic experience that could remain meaningful outside either a regime of status or a regime of productivity.
Perhaps sociology of culture has achieved such a dominant share in the contemporary “marketplace” of ideas because it too perfectly mirrors those corporatist and institutional values whose pervasive influence it seeks to expose. We can glimpse the triumph of the sociological view of the university as the credentialing, class-replicating institution par excellence in the positivist counterpart to the critique of credentialism: Are credentials meaningless? Well, now private “degree-granting” farms like the University of Phoenix offer for-credit classes with no content apart from forcing students to memorize statistics about the purported benefits of earning one’s degree.
The more sociologized an institution, the more it seems to accept that it has no purpose apart from the perpetuation of its own institutional structures and hierarchies, and the harder to imagine that it could be, or could have been, otherwise.
As with all projects of “disillusionment” for the sake of greater enlightenment, the sociology of culture can come to feel tyrannical in the way of Plato’s Philosopher King: all-knowing, imperious, he moves the citizens along through a dialectical encounter that will lead them to understand their place. The French aesthetic philosopher Jacques Rancière was the first to point out Bourdieu’s implicit Platonism, and he went on to argue that in their zeal for a regime in which no one could be an elitist because everyone would be a sociologist, sociologists missed out on what he termed benign illusions or “frauds” of culture. There were certain aesthetic practices — classical music, for example — that cut through distinctions and could be appreciated by people — Bolivian peasants, in one instance — as long as they weren’t told that they were listening to “Western Classical High-Bourgeois Music.” There is still, in other words, a space where the aesthetic may be encountered immediately and give pleasure and joy uninhibited by surrounding frameworks and networks of rules and class habits. We would go further than Rancière and suggest that a great part of the appeal of critical sociology itself relies on a similar ruse. Bourdieu’s equating himself to Schoenberg is again revealing, because he’s making an aesthetic analogy, not just one based on equivalent roles in different avant-gardes. The secret allure of critical sociology lay in making certain susceptible members of dominant classes hear an appeal to some transcendent sense of radical justice and fairness — an appeal that might also echo through the realms of art, literature, and criticism. Without this hidden god of universalism, sociology is — to speak sociologically — just a high-culture spokesperson of power. It elaborates rules for a never-ending battle in which there are winners and losers, dominators and dominated, but nonetheless fails to persuade us why we might want to take sides in the first place.