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  Pierre Bourdieu


sociologue énervant



Décès de Pierre Bourdieu :(



Pierre Bourdieu

 For Scholars,
 A Lesson In Humility

By Philip Kennicott, Washington Post Staff Writer, Saturday, January 26, 2002; Page C01.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu died on Wednesday.



Most people in the United States had never heard of him, but he was considered one of the most important thinkers of contemporary France. Consider the word "thinker," contrast it with "pundit" or "talking head," and you have a good idea why Bourdieu was a hero to people who hate the way culture is going to the dogs. He was deep, it took him forever to answer a simple question and he was, in general, the kind of thinker who makes Americans impatient and irritable.

Bourdieu's name is not thrown around in this country quite so often as other master thinkers of France, like Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault, but he wrote more clearly and he had at least as much to say.

Bourdieu, 71, lived in Paris, the center of the society he goaded for more than 40 years. In this country, a slim volume he published in 1996 about television and intellectuals, called "On Television," is probably his most accessible bit of writing, and the most immediately relevant to our own society. Bourdieu's book questioned, in a delightfully earnest way, why serious intellectuals would waste time talking to idiotic television journalists. It may seem a ridiculously elitist question in America, but his conclusions about French television can help make sense of recent American intellectual scandals.

Intellectual scandals? In America? We've had a bumper crop. The short list: Cornel West runs afoul of Harvard's new president and gets chastised for spending too little time writing books and too much on extramural activities like politics and making hip-hop records; historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin find themselves accused of sloppy attributions (at best) or plagiarism (at worst); and dozens of this country's academic and cultural leaders line up behind a letter calling for Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small to step down, or scale back the selling of the institution to the highest corporate bidder.

Seemingly disparate issues, but symptoms of the same cultural neurosis: our impatience with scholars and our ambivalence about how much independence they should maintain from the "real" world of commerce and politics.

Bourdieu wasn't an ivory tower absolutist, but he was contemptuous of what he called "collaboration" -- a word that in France still carries the evil resonance of intellectuals dividing up between Hitler and the Resistance. It seems a hard-nosed way of approaching the issue, especially in this country, where "collaboration" has an almost entirely positive meaning: working together productively with other people. But Bourdieu was suspicious of something we might be more suspicious of ourselves: whether or not the values of corporations, universities, artists and journalists are all basically interchangeable.

In America, we accuse intellectuals who write about their cats or go on "Oprah" of selling out, an individual capitulation to the temptation of money, fame or influence. But Bourdieu framed it all differently: The danger intellectuals face -- collaboration -- is more public and severe than sacrificing one's own ethics. It means working with the enemy, compromising the whole profession, taking down with you the values and people who were once your colleagues.

Americans so distrust intellectuals that we don't have a clear sense of the principles and traditions that underlie scholarship. We like the idea that our best minds are devoting themselves to ferreting out truth and meaning from the chaos of life, but we have very little patience for how they do it and an almost pathological contempt for the personality types that gravitate to this sort of work. We tend to miss that underneath the apparent snobbery and silly squabbles of scholarship are traditions and values we may not want to sacrifice.

The sin of plagiarism is the first and most fundamental lesson of every student's college career, and it is a lesson in being humble. Before a student has anything interesting to say comes the basic dictum that what he says should be original, or credited to its source. The possibility of saying anything new may seem so remote as to be absurd, and after slaving to produce a paper, 99 of 100 ideas bear someone else's address. What's the point? Humility in the face of a larger project.

Popular historians collaborate with publishers, placing speed and profit above the values of established academic tradition. It's no surprise that they tend to sloppiness and occasional wholesale borrowing. The shelves that hold popular history at major bookstores seem to renew themselves every six months: Out with the old book about the major disaster that shaped our modern world (the Titanic, the hurricane in Galveston, World War I) and in with the new. It's a factory and we're all pragmatists; sometimes there will be a glitch in production values.

Humility, however, cuts both ways. If the academy holds popular history in contempt for not worrying enough about the intellectual paper trail, academics are held in contempt for not worrying enough about the clarity of communication. It seems like there's so much to be gained by simply acknowledging the importance of the other's priorities; academics should care about their audience, popular historians should put everything they write through a finer sieve. But things get nasty whenever one side takes the moral high ground.

Read between the lines of the Cornel West-Harvard University fracas, and there seems to be a big breakdown in the spirit of humility. Ultimately it's about whether someone dissed someone else. It's about power, whether Harvard President Lawrence Summers has the power to question the behavior of his professors (he does, and should) and whether scholars like West have the power to work independently of the academy, to approach the public directly, by whatever means they choose (they do, and should). In Bourdieu's terms, Summers has accused West of "collaborating," and West, who has made a career of "resisting," is stunned and angry by the charge.

West, the professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard who released a rap recording in September, doesn't look foolish for his musical ventures. He looks foolish because he appealed his case to the public, tried to undermine the institution that sponsors his work and generally behaved like he is ignorant of the ancient tradition of service and sacrifice that underlies good scholarship. Question my work, and I'll pull stakes and head to Princeton.

Bourdieu noticed an important similarity between the political collaborators of the Nazi occupation and the "intellectual collaborators" who went for celebrity exposure on French television. The ones who collaborated were, he argued, generally the ones who lacked stature and approval from their scholarly colleagues.

That helps explain the deep animus against Lawrence Small. To scholars, he isn't just a businessman trying to put the Smithsonian on a more sound financial footing. He's collaborating with the enemy, and if he doesn't seem to care about their objections, it's because he doesn't seem to have any interest in earning their respect. His values are fundamentally different.

It's easy to see why Small, who comes from the business community and is not a scholar, would be impatient with this mind-set. But a little humility would be in order, the kind of humility West might have shown to Summers at Harvard, or Ambrose to the scholars whose work he appropriated. It is one of the most essential virtues of scholarship to be humble in the face of criticism, and Small is, ultimately, running an institution that does scholarly work. At least for now.

Pierre Bourdieu


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