The sincere fiction of disinterestedness

by Rob Horning

12 September 2005


Forgive the broad-strokes history here: The rise of capitalism enshrined calculating self-interest as the governing principle of rationality, elevating it to an almost invisible and always operating social principle, raising it to the level of unquestioned common sense. This created an opportunity to define some behaviors extraeconomically, giving an easy way to demonstrate that some things are not contingent but permanent, and operate out of motives that transcend immediate self-interest and calculation. Such behavior was held to reveal the individual’s emotional core, and when it first appeared in the late 18th century in conjunction with capitalism’s stirrings, it went by the name of sensibility. Sensibility is what enabled people to feel pity for others and to burst out with spontaneous fits of emotion and grief when confronted with various events—basically it was ostentatious emotion, the first hint that capitalism was going to make everyone stop taking mutual, communal sympathy for granted—it had become something that required caluclated display, and it had become a status signifier, a means to communicate to the world that you are at luxury to feel. (Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, an 18th century novel, is a good place to start to see sensibility in action—Mackenzie seems to have been purposefully exploiting the vogue while codifying it formally via cultural entertainment.) Sensibility becomes the antithesis of interest but is at the same time reified as a precious positional commodity. As it is refined as a concept, it also helps to sharpen the notion of interest dialectically and expand its usefulness (leading in a direct line to the current prevailing idea that all behavior can be understood as an analysis of incentives).

The notion of sensibility morphed into the romantic conception of the artist as someone who rises above the money-grubbing fray as an elevated man who can speak poetry for all, who can see the eternal truths that people in their petty quotidian lives are blinded to in their daily hustle to get by. Unlike mere mortals, people like Wordsworth can exhibit “disinterested interest” in things—the workings of nature, the magic of childhood and other junk like that. At this stage, the common sense starts to separate material interest from cultural interest, and one is used to define the other in a neat tautological package. As Bourdieu points out in Outline of a Theory of Practice, artists and writers become more and more invested in the production of this “disinterested interest.” But “practice never ceases to conform to economic calculation even when it gives every appearance of disinterestedness by departing from the logic of interested calculation (in the narrow sense) and playing for stakes that are non-material and not easily quanitifed.” Bourdieu is anxious to justify his approach of analyzing “cultural capital” and “social capital” or “symbolic capital” in economic terms—his case is that we blind ourselves to the way economic calculations guide behavior we find to be “unthinkable” in economic terms, that the rise of rational self-interest forces a split between economic and symbolic capital, things which were integrated and inseparable in pre-capitalist economies. (In his view, this leads to ethnocentric distortions when we attribute artistic aims to pre-capitalist “artists.”)

One of the strongest proofs for this lies in the way people who marry for “love” also manage to marry people in their class and replicate the existing boundaries to social mobility through intermarriage (a la that other quintessential 18th century fiction, Richardson’s Pamela. Bourdieu regards this sort of thing as an “institutionally organized and guaranteed misrecognition which is the basis of all the symbolic labor intended to transmute, by the sincere fiction of a disinterested exchange, the inevitable, and inevitably interested relations imposed by kinship, neighborhood, or work into elective relations of reciprocity.” Indeed, “the labor required to conceal the function of the exchanges is as important as the labor needed to carry out the function.” In other words, the ability to mask the interested motivations of love requires as much energy as loving itself, and is love’s prerequisite. The ability to make art is contigent on the ability to suspend one’s awareness of the art market shaping one’s creativity, an ability that requires as much effort as the art-building itself. We expend a great deal of mental effort invisibly in sustaining this ideology, that love and art are autonomous, that they function independent of the economy in general. Perhaps this is one of the strains marriages buckle under, the invisible and unacknowledged work of supporting the relationship’s unmotivated purity in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, which merely builds as the relationship lasts. It may be that as marriages progress, people stay in them for reasons other than magical soul-mate love for their spouses, namely reasons that correspond with the existing order of society as one comes to appreciate it with maturity. And artists too may squander a great deal of productive energy unawares in creating the conditions in which they can make art, in carefully detaching themselves from the market and from the ideology of economic incentives and so forth so that they can inhabit what capitalist society dubs as the authentic artistic space.

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