Friday, October 21, 2005


Pierre Bourdieu's The Social Structures of the Economy landed on my doorstep today. I've had the briefest of skims through the book, which doesn't at first sight seem all that interesting, but the following stands out, from the conclusion to the long first part (essentially a book of its own) on "The House Market":
What we have addressed throughout this work is one of the major foundations on which the suffering of the petite bourgeoisie is built or, more exactly, on which are built all their little troubles and adversities, all the infringements of their freedom, the blows to their hopes and desires which load their existences down with worries, disappointments, frustrations, failures and also, almost inevitably, with melancholia and resentment. That suffering does not spontaneously prompt the sympathetic, compassionate or indignant reactions inspired by the great hardships of the proletarian or subproletarian condition. No doubt because the aspirations that underlie the dissatisfactions, disillusionments and tribulations of the petite bourgeoisie, who are pre-eminently the victims of symbolic violence, always seem to owe something to the complicity of the sufferers themselves, and to the mystified, extorted, alienated desires by which these modern incarnations of the Heautontimoroumenos conspire to bring about their own unhappiness. (185; my emphasis)
Now, it's easy enough to see Bourdieu's work as long preoccupied with the petite bourgeoisie, from, say, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art through to his sympathy for (and self-identification as) the "oblate" in Homo Academicus and even on to his particular brand of anti-globalization politics.

If Bourdieu has populist tendencies, then his is surely a populism of the petit bourgeois. He does here argues that "this 'people,' simultaneously petty-minded and triumphant, provides no source of comfort for the populist illusion" (186). But surely it was precisely the so-called C1s and C2s, the working class made good out in the Essex suburbs, that were the core of Thatcher's populist base. And were not "Reagan Democrats" also quintessentially petit bourgeois?

But what's most extraordinary is his description of the petite bourgeoisie as "pre-eminently the victims of symbolic violence." To be fair, there's an ambivalence here, perhaps introduced by the translation: Bourdieu could simply be saying that the petit bourgeois are more or less cushioned from physical or economic violence, and so feel the effects of symbolic violence all the more. But might he not also be suggesting that it is the petit bourgeois who are symbolic violence's pre-eminent victims?

Say it ain't so.

Meanwhile, I wonder about how all this connects with the burgeoning field of suburb studies.

Vancouver Special
A "Vancouver Special"

Bourdieu is certainly no fan of the suburb, as he reveals in his discussion of suburban deprivation and
the statistically ordinary case of all those inhabitants of prefabricated houses in the so-called residential areas who, lured by the mirage of falsely "individual" housing (like the semi-detached houses on estates, which have almost all the same restrictions as a council flat), experience neither the solidarity of the old working-class districts, nor the isolation of the better-off areas: these people, who spend hours each day commuting to distant workplaces, are deprived of the relationships that formed within their neighbourhoods, particularly in and through trade union campaigns, without being able to create--in a place of residence where socially very homogeneous individuals are gathered together, but without the community of interests and affinities that ensue from belonging to the same world of work--the elective relationships of a leisure community. (189)
NB I think there's again something up with the translation here (surely "environs" would be better than "neighbourhoods" to describe the milieu of the workplace). There's also a strange romance of workplace solidarity of the most traditional kind, which ignores the displacement of these same communities and conflicts onto what Mario Tronti long ago termed "the social factory."

For what is suburbia if not the paradigmatic assembly line of twentieth-century modernity's social factory?

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