The vanishing object of literary-sociological study

In his focus on the structure of social relations within the literary field and the role literature plays in the field of power, Bourdieu seems to direct his attention away from the actual content or form of the works produced by his actors. He does at one point mention the preference of the avant-garde for “pastiche or parody” (Bourdieu 313), two terms we’ve previously associated with both modernism and postmodernism, and his idea of “art for art’s sake” seems to suggest something like Greenberg’s avant-garde “artists’ artists” who theorize the medium itself (Greenberg 8), minus Greenberg’s evaluative judgments about “real” and “ersatz” culture. Apart from these moments, though, “The Field of Cultural Production” doesn’t tell us much about what texts look like as aesthetic objects, or what they do beyond scoring points for their creators in the struggle for social distinction. We get little sense of literature as potentially registering social contradictions or anxieties, expressing utopian longings, compensating for some emotional intensity absent in its readers’ lives, or any of the other functions literary critics have attributed to it.

Can Bourdieu’s more structural, sociological approach be reconciled with the forms of close reading and ideology critique more closely associated with literary criticism? I do think that certain close reading-based questions can help us to mediate between individual texts and Bourdieu’s account of the structure of the literary field, for example:

  • What types of culture are depicted in the text? What do we as readers seem to be meant to feel toward that culture (recognition, estrangement, contempt, awe, aspiration, etc.)? What type of habitus must a reader have in order to experience that reaction?
  • How does the text interpellate the reader? (For example, “you” addressed as the medical student confused and unsettled by Lord Peter in Whose Body?, or Sayers’ footnotes that purport to teach you more than Lord Peter knows about editions of Dante.)
  • Following Leavis and Greenberg: how “difficult” is the text? What type of reader is most likely to seek out that level of difficulty (thinking about labor, leisure, access to education, etc.)?

It may also be useful, however, to think of Bourdieu as continuing the project of literary critics such as Leavis, whose work similarly downplays from close reading in favor of other methods (though she seems to attend more to potential effects of the text upon the reader than does Bourdieu). Both are thinking about gradations of power and prestige within the literary field—and both projects also seem to point toward the difficulty of just such a project. Leavis, as we’ve noted, aims to produce a study of readers yet finds that she can only go about this by surveying writers. Bourdieu seems to build here on his earlier work in Distinction, which elaborated a theory of taste as socially determined, drawing on extensive surveys of French people across classes about their economic position, tastes, and consumption habits. But rather than continuing such contemporary, empirical work, he applies his theories back to the moment of the formation of a stratified literary field in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Reading these two texts together seems to suggest that there’s something slippery about readers (or even authors) as sociological subjects, and that they must be approached with caution and from some distance, whether via readings of the texts themselves rather than engagements with the individuals producing and consuming them; surveys carefully distributed only to a particular population; or historical analyses whose bearing on the present is implied but not quite made explicit.

Survey and data on tastes in visual art, from Distinction. Why not do this for literature?