Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sartre remains a beautiful soul trapped in the golden cage of abstract bourgeois categories

Bourdieu’s Political Interventions by Alexei

Indeed, these elements inform his intense friendship with Foucault and his dislike of Sartre, the two prominent leitmotifs of Political Interventions. “What I like least about Sartre,” Bourdieu writes,

“is everything that made him not only the ‘total intellectual’ but the very ideal of an intellectual, and in particular his unmatched contribution to the ideology of the free intellectual, which brought him the eternal recognition of all intellectuals” (27).

To put it in lay terms, Sartre’s brand of commitment remained naïve, too ‘catholic’ (universalistic), and hence fundamentally disconnected from the actual social situation he inhabited. According to Bourdieu, for all his overt communist leanings, Sartre’s ‘total intellectual’ remains a beautiful soul trapped in the golden cage of abstract bourgeois categories. Foucault, by contrast,

“sought to substitute for the absolutism of the universal intellectual, specific works drawing on actual sources […] but he did so without abandoning the broadest ambitions of thought” (138).

And, as can be inferred from his interventions, Bourdieu shares with Foucault this mode of committed research, or this model of a “specific intellectual” (ibid.).

The most valuable contribution of the volume remains its presentation of Bourdieu as a committed, specific intellectual. Far from reconstituting the old model of a ‘universal intellectual’ who withdraws into her ivory tower to better – i.e. more ‘objectively’ – survey the social and political battlefields of her day, Bourdieu’s ‘political interventions’ articulate the need for the ‘collectivization’ of social transformation. They call for the constitution of a new ‘Intellectual International’ that can collectively resist, i.e. analyse, the provincialism of identity politics, as well as the depoliticizing rhetoric of the “policy of globalization” (374).

Moreover, Political Interventions offers an immensely interesting point of comparison to the recent return of ‘commitment’ and ‘resistance’ in contemporary critical theory (for instance, in Simon Critchley’s recent book, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance), precisely because it helps debunk the uncritical, though still widely-held notion that commitment and resistance have to be emphatically non-theoretical, in order to be effective. Almost despite the editors’ minimalism, a ‘style of political intervention’ does emerge: rigorous, sociological analyses of specific social phenomena oriented by an internationalist vision.

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