Sociology(:) for the Rich
The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1559
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.