The habitus

[29 August 2005]

By Rob Horning

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus—the ways in which class shapes our notion of common sense and shapes the way we percieve and act, forming the very grounds on which we can have interactions with others—is extremly useful but difficult to explain. Just have a crack at his Outline of a Theory of Practice if you don’t believe me. Bourdieu’s prose is exceedingly dense, prsuming a familiarity with doctrinal clashes in the world of anthropology, and this work in particular is cluttered by a translator’s persnickety attention to grammatical niceties, which makes sentences full of tons of subordinate clauses that much harder to read—when the preposition is a few dozen words away from the phrasal verb to which it could be attached, things can get rather confusing. But it’s worth decoding for a sense of how the habitus can be used to ask better questions about human behavior, and to get a sense of how it is that individuals can act collectively—usually to protect class prerogatives and perpetuate inequality—without having any intention of doing so or even any knowledge that they are in the midst of behaving prejudicially. In America, the habitus rears its head most powerfully in race relations, since much of the pretense of the “classless society” is underwritten by the de facto visible class structure posited by skin color. Many Americans think they are perfectly color blind when it comes to race, while their habitus perpetuates racism in the little things they do—where they shop and eat, how they treat clerks, how they change their inflections when they speak to people, how their body language adjusts, and so on. I probably do all of these things every time I board the N train, reflecting and reinforcing the privilege my suburban upbringing leads me to take for granted, so for granted in fact that it requires all sorts of effort, including a painstaking reading of Bourdieu’s difficult work, just to even have a fleeing sense of it. My hope is that by understanding the concept, I can somehow seize more control over these unconscious processes and alter my practice, but it may bot be as simple as that; the better I understand it, the more it seems to lay beyond any one individual’s control. It’s the kind of thing that turns people against that boogeyman dubbed Theory, the fact that tis complicated analyses only lead to our autonomy being even more curtailed and our individual action being rendered more ineffectual, even less likely to accomplish the end we intend. The more one studies society, the more one comes to accept how complex every accomplished fact can be, full of portents and the result of innumerable factors (of which the individual will is often the least significant) and how the most inconsequential seeming actions can seem at once overdetermined and utterly unpredictable. Lots of people therefore wisely decide that its better to believe in the myth of the all-powerful individual will and ignore all the other factors altogether, and then they amuse themselves by denouncing critical thinking from a number of righteous ideological perspectives. Whereas the anti-theorists enjoy ridiculing the difficult and comfortless truths philosophers posit, critical thinkers do the exact opposite: For instance, because I have decided to pursue such analyses, I take an undue and perverse and altogether unhelpful delight in puncturing the illusions others take the most solace in.

Thus I was struck by this passage in Outline, which undermines some of the ideology surrounding companionate marriage : “The illusion of mutual election or predestination arises from ignorance of the social conditions for the harmony of aesthetic tastes or ethical leanings, which is thereby percieved as evidence of the ineffable affinities which spring from it.” In other words, one recognizes one’s “soulmate” in a moment of forgetting and ignorance, out of blindness to the factors that have contributed to one’s own identity. We choose to see in the other the things we have come to be blind about in ourselves. We fall in love with our own mysteries that come to packaged for us in the body of the other.

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