Theoretical Context

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This project was largely conceived within the framework of Pierre Bourdieu's work on cultural reproduction, particularly the account of class and taste he offers in Distinction (1984). The most basic value of Distinction for my project on tract housing is that it casts as legitimate and important the study of consumer taste in contemporary societies. Bourdieu effectively demonstrates that people's choices of homes and furnishings, rather than merely reflecting the vagaries of personal preference, need to be viewed both as acts within a given cultural system and as themselves constitutive (reproductive) of this system. Of his effort to show that such prosaic preferences as those for clothing, food and homes are subject to the type of systematic cultural logic that governs taste in the arts, Bourdieu writes:

This barbarous reintegration of aesthetic consumption into the world of ordinary consumption (against which it endlessly defines itself) has, inter alia, the virtue of reminding us that the consumption of goods no doubt always presupposes a labour of appropriation. . .or, more precisely, that the consumer helps to produce the product he consumes, by a labour of identification and decoding. . . . (1984:100)

Not only does Bourdieu sanction the study of ordinary consumption, he privileges it as "particularly revealing of deep-rooted and long-standing dispositions" because it lies outside the realm of institutional pedagogy and, thus, is guided by the habitus of each class (1984:77). Bourdieu's concept of habitus is crucial to this privileging because it allows even the most minor practices and preferences to be seen as part of a system or logic, which he calls the logic of practice (1977:72-9).

The habitus concept gives systematic definition to the anthropological idea of culture (or sub-culture), combining such notions as "ethos", "value", and "affect" with "more strictly cognitive schemes of classification" (Ortner 1984:148). Forged by class; class-fraction; education; and the other, myriad micro-structures of experience--the habitus functions as a sort of "regulating mechanism" (footnote 7), or feedback loop, between social structures and rational, purposeful human agents. Bourdieu developed this construct most fully in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), where he writes that habitus are:

. . .structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures. . .a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions appreciations and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks, thanks to the analogical transfers of schemes permitting the solution of similarly shaped problems. (1977:72, 82-3, italics in original)

Bourdieu's work is central to my inquiry into how closely consumers follow the discourse of supply, how passive or active they are in the processes of cultural reproduction. Bourdieu developed the habitus concept with the express intention of overcoming the opposition between Subjectivism, with its tendency to overestimate the creative power of social actors (footnote 8), and Objectivism, which tends to reify cultural structures and their logic, reducing human agency to a mechanistic submission to rules. He proposes the habitus as a mechanism which regulates between social structure and human agency. Bourdieu works to guard against Objectivism, saying that the habitus structures "practices and representations which can be objectively 'regulated' and 'regular' without in any way being the product of obedience to rules" (1977:72). He works to guard against Subjectivism, saying these practices and representations can be "objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them" (1977:72, emphasis mine)

In addition to privileging the study of taste in contemporary consumer society, Bourdieu's work also elucidates the obstacle which blocked my initial inquiry into home-buying and furnishing, selling and dwelling, in Antelope Valley. If you recall, that study came up against a hard wall of ideology which rendered my academic audience incapable of seeing the issue as anything other than "lower class" bad-taste and left me at a loss for an analytic frame with which to redirect their vision. Distinction powerfully demonstrates that the relentless logic of the high aesthetic ("art for art's sake") pervades elite encounters with popular taste and practice. Since this is the case, it becomes necessary for any academic project on consumer society to reflexively engage and account for the obstacle of classist misrecognition. That is, as a French sociologist studying French society, Bourdieu has had to objectify his own position and thinking vis--vis his subject. This is perhaps what Distinction accomplishes most thoroughly. Of all the works I have read on class and taste in consumer society, Bourdieu's is the only one to touch on the "strange distance" that lies between people of different classes in the same society. Bourdieu himself has struggled with the frustrating obviousness of the relation between class and taste:

It is not sufficient to overcome the initial self-evident appearances, in other words, to relate taste, the uncreated source of all 'creation', to the social conditions of which it is the product, knowing full well that the very same people who strive to repress the clear relation between taste and education, between culture as the state of that which is cultivated and culture as the process of cultivating, will be amazed that anyone should expend so much effort in scientifically proving that self-evident fact. (footnote 9) (1984: 11)

Unlike the critics of the Frankfurt School (footnote 10), who pioneered the study of the relation of culture to power, Bourdieu confronts the classist obstacle, writing:

There is no way out of the game of culture; and one's only chance of objectifying the true nature of the game is to objectify as fully as possible the very operations one is obliged to use in order to achieve that objectification. (1984: 12)

This strategy of attempting to break through the positional, situated nature of academic thought by classifying and operationalizing that thinking "as fully as possible" is the hallmark of Bourdieu's approach. It is this that makes Distinction much more of an "ethnography" of elites than "a vast ethnography of contemporary France", as the book-jacket claims. Of course, owing to its survey methods of data collection, it is not an ethnography at all, but my point is that the object which Distinction really describes, or represents, is the logic of the high aesthetic--the Kantian logic of an aesthetic wholly divorced from the practical--not, the logic governing the social judgment of taste throughout French society. Thus, I find that, as with so many vast, systematic works, Distinction's strength becomes its weakness by over-extension. For while it charts and contextualizes the ruling-class aesthetic brilliantly, it implicitly takes that aesthetic to be true, denying out of hand the innovative and transformative power of human agency.

Bourdieu presents himself as having resolved the tensions between Subjectivist and Objectivist poles, saying that his elaboration of the habitus and the "doubly determined" nature of ideologies provides:

. . .the means of escaping crude reduction of ideological products to the interests of the classes they serve. . .without falling into the idealist illusion of treating ideological productions as self-sufficient and self-generating totalities amenable to pure, purely internal analysis. (in Garnham and Williams 1986:117)

In their article "Pierre Bourdieu and the Sociology of Culture" (1986), Nicholas Garnham and Raymond Williams contrast the approach of a culturalist Marxism (which privileges agency) with that of a theoreticist Marxism (which privileges text and structure). They assert that Bourdieu's work "confronts and dialectically supersedes these partial and opposed positions" (1986:117). Yet, after thirteen pages stressing the merits and values of his work, they gently insert the following reservation:

However it has to be said that there seems to us (and this is very much a question of tone, nuance and attitude) to be a functionalist/determininst residue in Bourdieu's concept of reproduction which leads him to place less emphasis on the possibilities of real change and innovation than either his theory or his empirical research makes necessary. (Garnham and Williams 1986: 129)

My own empirical research led me to a similar reservation about what Sherry Ortner has called "the irony at the core of the practice model" (1984: 157). Ortner writes:

The irony, although some may not feel it as such, is this: that although actors' intentions are accorded central place in the model, yet major social change does not for the most part come about as an intended consequence of action. (1984:157)

Despite his numerous claims to the contrary, I do not feel that Bourdieu satisfactorily addresses and assesses the problematic relationship between structure and agency that poses one of the "central problems" of modern social theory (Giddens 1979).

My reservations about Bourdieu's theory in Distinction center around two points, or perhaps, two zones of discomfort. The first is that, though he is said to hold an "unpatronizing valuation of the cultural values and aspirations of the working class" (Garnham and Williams 1986:129), he in fact denies, out of hand, that this class might possess any cultural logic of its own. That is, by reducing working class taste to the rack of necessity, Bourdieu ignores the ways in which these people create their own symbolic space. He thereby denies them agency in any true sense of the term. The second point is that attention to the way the book is written yields a reading of it as a kind of "equality of opportunity" argument that actually upholds the elitist notion of the aesthetic as wholly divorced from the practical. In this reading, Distinction may be seen as a dispassionate "victimology" that contextualizes the dominant, or ruling-class, aesthetic in a vast apologia for the dominated group's lack of cultural competence.

I do not believe I would be able to articulate the lack I feel in Bourdieu's work had I not been engaged in my own field research and had I not been familiar with two exemplary ethnographic works that examine the issue of cultural reproduction in a different manner. In the remainder of this section I will: first, discuss the limitations I see to Bourdieu's Distinction; then move to show how two anthropologists--Paul Willis and James Holston--avoid similar difficulties. Among other things, I wish to illustrate that the account in Distinction points up the need for ethnographic studies of the negotiations between culture and power in modern, consumer societies. Finally, I will discuss the way these theoretical issues have shaped my own field study in Antelope Valley.

My first objection to the formidable argument presented in Distinction is that it over-steps its bounds. That is, though Bourdieu's prime focus is on the way the classificatory system of the Kantian aesthetic is internalized by people of every class in French society, he ventures beyond this to all but dismiss the possibility of genuine, alternate cultural logics. He writes rather disdainfully of:

Those who believe in the existence of a 'popular culture', a paradoxical notion which imposes, willy-nilly, the dominant definition of culture, must expect to find--if they were to go and look--only the scattered fragments of an old erudite culture (such as folk medicine), selected and reinterpreted in terms of the fundamental principles of the class habitus and integrated into the unitary world view it engenders, and not the counter-culture they call for, a culture truly raised in opposition to the dominant culture and consciously claimed as a symbol of status or a declaration of separate existence. (Bourdieu 1984: 395, emphasis added)

Bourdieu, however, is not looking for alternate logics, whether raised in conscious opposition to the dominant one, or not. Moreover, since the habitus are largely embodied and unconscious, why, when others seek to describe them in ways other than Bourdieu does, must they present a conscious logic raised in opposition? Further, "other" cultural logics are hardly accessible by the survey methods Bourdieu uses, which are really geared to examine structure, rather than experience or the social actor's self-understanding ("what the native thinks he's up to"). Yet, Bourdieu does not hesitate to make numerous statements to the effect that what he is not looking for is not there. (footnote 11)

Perhaps this point is more clearly made in reference to Bourdieu's argument that among the dominated classes "necessity imposes a taste for necessity" which "implies a form of acceptance of domination", or an adaptation to the elite cultural regime (1984:372,386). As an example, he writes of the working class taste for adorning the mantelpiece with "trinkets and knick-knacks", saying this taste "is inspired by an intention unknown to economists and ordinary aesthetes, that of obtaining maximum 'effect' ('It'll make a terrific effect') at minimum cost" (1984:379). In this example, Bourdieu speaks as if it were of no importance to consider just what sort of bric-a-brac "makes a terrific effect", or to explore the substance of particular effects. Moreover, who are these "ordinary", i.e. normal, aesthetes?

The criticism is not that Bourdieu's theory is pessimistic in drastically limiting the possibility of cultural change, but that he refuses the possibility of alternate (not necessarily consciously opposed) cultural logics in order to extend the reach of his systematic vision to the whole of contemporary French society. When he writes (echoing Weber's remark about Caesar (footnote 12)), that the experiences of consumers "do not have to be felt in order to be understood with an understanding which may owe nothing to lived experience, still less to sympathy" (1984:101), I ask: is the understanding enabled by Bourdieu's theory so total that it would not be augmented by ethnographic knowledge of the lived experience of consumers? This thought is shared by one of Distinction's American reviewers who admires the work, but believes Bourdieu's "posture", and the picture he paints, would be different "if his data came from historical studies or long-term ethnographic observation in fieldwork settings" (Berger 1986: 1450). Though Bourdieu writes of "incessant struggles over the classifications which help to produce the classes", he gives very little sense of these struggles as struggles (1984:481). There are no case-studies in this book laden with statistics and questionnaire data. There is no sense of the actual process of cultural struggle: the terms, "weapons", or modes of articulation. Moreover, Bourdieu speaks as if it were so much Subjectivist nonsense to seek such a sense in grounded research. Thus, I come away from his theory with an uncomfortable feeling that the activity, rationality, and creativity which marks human agency has been "explained away".

A second, related, critical reservation I have about the theory presented in Distinction is that Bourdieu writes as if the Kantian aesthetic were the only correct or true aesthetic. He speaks of the working class tendency to evaluate works of art in ethical or moral terms as an inability to take "a specifically aesthetic point of view" (1984:40). "Working class people", he writes, "who expect every image to fulfill a function, if only that of a sign, refer, often explicitly, to norms of morality. . .in all their judgments" (1984:41). According to Bourdieu, this disqualifies them from possessing an aesthetic of any sort, since such an aesthetic is "necessarily pluralistic and conditional" (1984:42). For example, he says: "Confronted with a photograph of an old woman's hands, the culturally most deprived express a more or less conventional emotion or an ethical complicity, but never a specifically aesthetic judgment" (Bourdieu 1984:44). The working classes are said to lack "the aesthetic disposition" because they speak about art in moral and practical terms, yet distance from morality and the practical is only the sine qua non of the Kantian aesthetic. Thus, what Bourdieu is saying is that the Kantian aesthetic is the only aesthetic. In making these statements, Bourdieu is not just situating working class taste in relation to the dominant aesthetic regime, he is defining the aesthetic unilaterally as "art for art's sake".

It is this perspective which leads Bourdieu to the view that working class taste is based entirely on material deprivation, on a "choice of the necessary". He asserts:

The submission to necessity which inclines working-class people to a pragmatic, functionalist 'aesthetic', refusing the gratuity and futility of formal exercises and of every form of art for art's sake, is also the principle of all the choices of daily existence and of an art of living which rejects specifically aesthetic intentions as aberrations. (1984: 376)

Thus, the dominated classes' choice of food, furnishings, clothing--indeed, all their symbolic articulations--are reduced to utilitarian terms. Recognizing this leads to a reading of Distinction as a work which shows that the working classes cannot afford to have "good taste", not because they lack the finances, but because their dispositions were forged in conditions of material want. Culturally "deprived" and lacking distance from the practical, they "make a virtue of necessity", incorporating in their habitus the negative pole of every binary opposition set up within the dominant cultural regime.

This reading emerges all the more clearly when one considers that Bourdieu always views the issue from the "art for art's sake" perspective. The problem as he sees it is to demonstrate how the dominated classes take up as their own the "barbarous" term in every dichotomy set forth by the elite aesthetic. Though he grounds this aesthetic sociologically, he does not problematize it. He makes no mention of the critiques of the "art for art's sake" modernist aesthetic which reveal its reduction of every artistic practice to formalism, mannerism and the "cult of genius". (footnote 13)

My criticism of Bourdieu's eclipse of agency and his assumption of the elite aesthetic might be unfair to a lesser work, but Distinction is an immense book which stakes out as its own a tremendous territory. Moreover, my experience in the field, and familiarity with two anthropological works that examine the relations of culture to power, has shown me ways by which the pitfalls of Distinction's approach might be avoided.

Exemplary Ethnographies

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Paul Willis' Learning to Labor (1977) presents a case study of a group of working-class, high school boys in an English factory town. The question Willis aims to shed light on is how liberal, democratic, class societies are reproduced without physical coercion. This book gives an account of the way these working-class boys, "the lads", refuse the official "advance through education" story, creating a counter-culture of truancy, rebellion and machismo. Willis presents this counter-culture, not as the automatic inversion of the dominant cultural logic, but as the result of "the lads" attempt to structure meaningfully their experience of class society.

Willis shows how "the lads" refusal of education stems from their insight into the true nature of the democratic meritocracy. They refuse to participate in the ideal of educational advancement, in the vision of society as a ladder individuals must climb, because they understand that as a class they cannot advance through educational "qualification". While the occasional working class individual might rise "up the ladder", as a group, the working class cannot advance by education. "The lads" recognition of this, says Willis, prompts their refusal to participate in formal schooling, for such participation only serves to legitimize the class structure. As Willis writes:

. . .the counter-school culture makes a real penetration of what might be called the difference between individual and group logics and the nature of their ideological confusion in modern education. The essence of the cultural penetration concerning the school--made unselfconsciously within the cultural milieu with its own practices and objects but determining all the same an inherently collective perspective--is that the logic of class or group interests is different from the logic of individual interests. To the individual working class person mobility means nothing at all. The only true mobility at this level would be the destruction of the whole class society. (1977: 128)

Through ethnographic research and representation, Willis (unlike Bourdieu) allows a sense of activity, creativity and human agency to emerge from his analysis of cultural reproduction.

More directly pertinent to my project on the cultural reproduction of taste, is an article entitled, "Autoconstruction in Working-Class Brazil" (1991). In this article, James Holston presents an analysis of his fieldwork among working class Brazilians who build their houses at the urban periphery "under precarious material and legal circumstances" (1991: 447). Over the last fifty years, poor Brazilians have bought or seized lots at the margins of Sao Paulo and Brasilia; built makeshift dwellings; moved in; and embarked upon the long process of transforming their dwellings into masonry houses. Holston argues that this process, known as "autoconstruction":

engenders political actions about residence and aesthetic judgments about houses through which the working classes develop new kinds of social agencies and subjective capacities that not only subvert historically ascribed incapacities but paradoxically actualize the new hegemonies of modern industrial society. (1991: 447)

The crucial difference between Holston and Bourdieu's perspective on working-class culture is that Holston does not search for "hidden", unconscious structures only. Rather, he approaches autoconstruction as an "interactive discourse" in which working-class people use their knowledge of architectural styles to articulate claims about their sense of self and society (1991: 457-8). Holston looks at autoconstructed houses as "imaginary representations" which, to use Levi-Strauss' famous phrase, are "good to think" because they convey personal experience in the public idiom of architecture.

Holston emphasizes the exterior of the house and speaks of the way autoconstructors use their facades to assert membership in a "moral community" of homeowners--to "broadcast claims about themselves and comments about the presentations of others" (1991:457-8). Most fascinating is Holston's Distinction between the langue and parole of "house talk". He says that autoconstructors draw on a standard set of architectural elements (the langue) which makes communication possible because it is shared. Yet, this langue is only a set of possibilities and does not meet their goal of personal Distinction.

Their aesthetic objective is to achieve what they sometimes call "personality" in their houses. We might conceive of this aesthetic as the parole of house talk, the moment of invention that uses collective elements to make an individual enunciation. (1991: 460)

Through his analysis, Holston gives a sense of the way autoconstruction is a negotiation between structure and agency, a relation between langue and parole, which brings about the conscious and purposeful conversion of commodities into personalized signs (1991:461).

Holston himself takes issue with Bourdieu, saying that the articulations of autoconstructors constitute an aesthetic that can be accounted for neither in purely utilitarian terms, nor as purely formal exercises (1991:460). Thus, he advances the useful definition that: "aesthetic judgments are embodiments of the imaginary representations we construct about our conditions of existence"(1991:448). They are not necessarily marked by distance from the moral and practical.

Both Willis and Holston show the way ethnographic research, because of its direct contact and dialog with purposeful, reasoning human agents, tends to avoid the reduction of symbolic practice to hidden structures visible only to "experts". Neither anthropologist casts "readers of culture", if you will, as all-powerful, unconstrained by the structure of the "social text". Neither sees the relevance of an interaction as contained entirely within the interaction itself; and neither relies on "over active" human agents who subvert at will the "the structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures", as Bourdieu defines the habitus (1977:72). This sort of ethnographic approach does not fall prey to any of the criticisms Bourdieu directs to attempts at rational subjectification, that is, searches for meaning.

Bourdieu's project is to "objectify the true nature of the game": he seeks for objectification and for what is often called structure (1984:12). Thus, by virtue of his goal, he accounts for--gives an account of--only the galaxy of signifiers, that is, only the surfaces of "the game". He seems to forget that the playing is the most meaningful aspect of any game; and that meaning, in the sense of collective subjectification, also possesses the logic he reserves for structure; and might also be the goal of social inquiry. It is precisely because the structures Bourdieu speaks of are unconscious, or embodied, and lie apart from our sense of ourselves, that they invite human agents to engage them, to produce significance out of them.

My intention has not been to show that Bourdieu, rather than contributing a "whole nine yards", has contributed only a matter of "feet" to the project of social science. As I stated at the outset, his work has created enabling conditions for my research in Antelope Valley. Rather, I have sought to demonstrate the necessity and value of ethnographic inquiry into the negotiations of culture and power in consumer society; and to argue that the role of human agency in these negotiations must not be eclipsed by the search for the structure of "the game" apart from the agencies of those who play it. In terms of my fieldwork on cultural reproduction in Antelope Valley's tract housing, there is certainly a structure to the ideologies surrounding the suburban home in contemporary America. I identify four elements, or structural themes, in my analysis of "the discourse of supply". Yet, I call this a discourse precisely because it is addressed to social actors whose beliefs and behaviors must be viewed as more than mechanistic submission to offered codes. By speaking to my Antelope Valley informants, I have attempted to elicit a "discourse of demand"; and inquire into the way these human agents engage ideological structures in the process of cultural reproduction. In the following section of this paper, I describe the methods of this inquiry into cultural reproduction in American suburbia.

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