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Pleasures of politeness

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Wednesday, Aug 31, 2005

By their nature we tend to take manners for granted and notice them only when they are absent. For most people manners reside beyond the realm of judgment; they simply exist, they aren’t optional or subject to criticism or refinement. This is precisely why Bourdieu sees manners as one of the ways in which the arbitrary features of a society are preserved and reinforced, made to seem natural. If something can be made a matter of manners, then that thing is removed from the world of contingencies and placed in the realm of eternal truths, given facts of social life: Writes Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice:“The principles embodied in this way are placed beyond the grasp of consciousness, and hence cannot be touched by voluntary, deliberate transformation, cannot even be made explicit; nothing seems more ineffable, more incommunicable, more inimitable, and therefore more precious, than the values given body, amde body by the transubstantiation achieved by the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy, capable of instilling a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy, through injunctions as insignificant as ‘stand up straight’ or ‘don’t hold your knife in your left hand.’ ” This line of reasoning leads him to conclude that “the concessions of politeness always contain political concessions.” In other words, the point of politeness is always politeness itself, a kind of symbolic social tax that must be paid in order to make social behavior possible; each specific culture will produce the “taxes” that will allow it to continue in its current state, with the same imbalances in power and influence, which are in turn built in to the various obsequities of politeness. Every enacted instance of politeness may, in some obscure and necessarily inarticulable way (if we could explain it, we could reist and alter it, redefine politeness as something else that serve ends we conciously wanted to serve), reinforce the status quo.


That’s not to say we should reject politeness. But it does put a different spin on the pleasure we derive from polite acts. Usually we congratulate ourselves for doing a good deed when we hold a door or smile at a stranger or let someone go ahead of us in line and we leave it at that; we don’t inquire into what makes a deed good, or whose criteria we are importing into our most intimate system of values, or how our own pleasure is related to it all. Society, like the human species, is able to reproduce itself by making the actions required to reproduce it deeply pleasurable on a personal level. The pleasure we get out of our polite acts stems from this and serves to induce us to participate in perpetuating the status quo. That it would feel so wrong to reject these acts, to resist being polite to make a political point, demonstrates how integral and effective politeness is in performing its social reproductive functions.


Small courtesies seem to mean more in the city than elsewhere, maybe because so many opportunities for them are missed and because they are so little expected. In cities there is a sense one must aggressively pursue one’s own interest as there seems a scarcity of time and space, or at least a frustration at having to share so much of it with people who are much less like you than they would be in small towns. But this frustration is also the source of the city’s sublimity: this ability to connect, however ephemerally, with total strangers, with people whose lives you can’t imagine, is a chance to enlarge youself, to seem to be without a social horizon. Of course some prefer social horizons, some like the idea that they’ll never meet a person who can teach them anything. Small courtesies seem to transcend the different habituses that separate groups from each other, but in fact they may reinforce those differences. What the tiny little drama of politeness enacts is a mini celebration of the existing order of things, the established rules that put us in the place where we can readily dispense social niceties.

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