The Joyce of (Re)Producing & (Re)Imagining the Field

Last class, we discussed the more complicated literary field Bennett describes in The Truth About an Author, but we didn’t explore how the text’s (re)production troubled the field. This week’s readings make it impossible to do that with Ulysses

Both Rainey and Hutton discuss the importance of Ulysses’ initial publication as a serial in the Little Review, but neither critic offers robust analysis of the publication itself. In 1914, The Little Review marketed itself as a periodical devoted to “Literature Drama Music Art”. According to playwright and novelist John Galsworthy, the publication could “enjoy that untrammelled liberty which is the life of Art” because it was “neither directly nor indirectly connected in any way with any organization, society, company, cult, or movement” (2). The publication carved a space for autonomous art in a medium devoted to public taste, not artistic interest. In 1917, the magazine changed its tagline to broadcast its investments⸺The Little Review: A Magazine of the Arts: Making No Compromise for Public Taste. Where does this kind of periodical fit within the literary fields Bourdieu and MacDonald describe? What does it mean for Joyce to publish Ulysses as a serial in this magazine? 

This text further complicates the field by charting new relationships between literary forms. In chapter nine, both “provincial papers” and Shakespeare’s plays influence literary discourse (165). Joyce also uses other literary forms to construct his text. As the library guests discuss Shakespeare’s plays, the dialogue takes the form of a script, complete with character names, musical notations, and asides. In transforming narrative into theatre, Joyce seems to comment not just on the educational practice (which Hutton discusses) but on the history and structure of the literary field. The chapter begs us to reevaluate the value of literary genres and their relative force in the literary field. How did Shakespeare’s plays transform from art that “reveal[s] to us ideas, formless spiritual essences” (152)? What is the artistic role of these lucrative literary forms? 

For fun, read Mary M. Colum’s 1922 review of Ulysses.

It’s Just a Formality

I want to talk about form in Ulysses, specifically in “Telemachus,” the start of Stephen’s story, and “Calypso,” the start of Leopold’s. In reading these two beginnings back-to-back, I had the uncanny sense that I was reading the same thing twice. Not that the characters or their stories were exactly the same, but that one was built out of the materials of the other, both at the level of narrative and of language. We might use a theater production as a loose metaphor, with Leopold’s Second Act as a re-staging of Stephen’s First–a different story, but one that takes place in the same theater and relies on the same elements (set-pieces, props, actors, etc.). A few concrete examples to show you what I mean:

  • The breakfast rituals, which take on a religious quality in both–pouring milk, making tea, buttering toast, etc.
  • The emphasis on Buck’s “even white teeth…with gold points” (3) and “white glittering teeth” (6) that continues with Bloom’s cat’s “milkwhite teeth” (45)
  • The “green stone” that “twinkle[s]” in Haines’s cigarette case (17) comes back as a metaphor for Bloom’s cat’s eyes (45)

It’s an odd group of things, but milk, tea, bread, teeth, green stones, mirrors, staircases, the even the colors–green, white, gold, and black–get re-appropriated between stories in ways that feel like more than just the coincidences of everyday routine.

Thinking about Bourdieu– as much as his concern seems to lie outside of and in some ways opposed to formal analysis, his reading of (and around) Sentimental Education relies on first distilling the novel to its elements/pieces/regions to construct its field of power. I suppose I’m interested, in part, in a larger methodological question–what is the relationship between reading we might ID as “formal” and the sociological, and ostensibly “non-formal,” reading that Bourdieu conducts on SE? And, as I’m still trying to work through Bourdieu, is my preliminary reading of Ulysses in conversation in some way with B’s understanding of a “realist formalism” (107)? Would love your help with these thoughts…  

“complete as written”; or, dirty parts and all

Andrew promised us a secondary reading that was uninterested in opening Joyce’s novel. Being a bit contrary, I read Rainey’s account for gestures towards textual content and places where considering textual content would open up further questions.

Rainey includes the prospectus for the “genuine deluxe edition” of Ulysses (50). Though this edition was about more than sidestepping obscenity laws, the prospectus nonetheless reads, “ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication in “The Little Review” will be published by “SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY” complete as written” (53). I wonder, following Rainey’s own close reading of other press items: for whom is this proclamation of triumph over puritanical suppression? If this edition was (primarily) marketed to dealers and speculators who had little interest in opening the book, then why such rhetoric? Does it suggest that sensational media coverage bolsters economic appreciation? Is public interest or hype (without purchasing power) relevant to appreciation? (Here, you can see, I’m a newcomer to investing.)

I wonder if thinking about other responses to the “obscenity” in Joyce’s text–not just the legal attention to sexual content but the critical revulsion from sexual and scatological content–changes our understanding of this ~triumph over “suppression”~ narrative? Does the prospectus also implicitly rebuke prudish Virginias, suggesting that consummate art transfigures dirt into gold?

The prospectus, naturally, notes that the deluxe edition is “complete as written,” not a word expunged. Though for Rainey, reading became “superfluous” in a milieu of collecting and investing, paradoxically, the fidelity of Joyce’s text seems to become part of its value as object d’art (74). To be fair, the fidelity fetish associated with later Ulysses editions (salivating over the near “ideal text” of the Gabler edition, say) seems only nascent at this time. Perhaps it comes more from Joyce’s own attention to textual corrections. Anyway, I’d be curious to know how else y’all see relationships between what’s IN Ulysses and how it’s valued as an object. And someone who used a reference book while reading (not I!): what do you think such paratext says about the literary field that distributes, reads, and makes meaning out of the novel?

Crossing the threshold into the Georgian Age (j/k)

We spent a lot of time talking about McDonald’s appropriation of Bourdieu. I wanted to note a few aspects of his method that differentiate him from Bourdieu.

McDonald makes much of the archives of the authors he writes about. His book is a product of the British Library. Bourdieu mostly is at one remove from the archive (even Flaubert’s notebooks are cited from published transcriptions). McDonald shows you how you might bring sociology to the archive—but also teaches a lesson about the kind of archive that helps the research. Bennett’s career is obviously exceptionally well-documented in his papers, and the richness of information there on the business of writing is of particular use to the analysis McDonald persues.

This interest in business is also, I think, part and parcel of McDonald’s more charitable understanding of literary commerce than Bourdieu’s. Bourdieu scorns the field of large-scale production, including journalism, serial fiction, and the most profitable forms of theatre. At moments Bourdieu sounds like the highest of high modernists (in some ways he really is, but that’s another story for another time), and this distorts the effort to make an objective study of the field. McDonald, though not a pop-culture booster (he says that we should “reclaim” Bennett’s serials “not as enthusiasts of ‘popular culture’…but as readers concerned to recover the dialectical energies of the major novels” [117]), is willing to give sensitive and nuanced attention to profiteering literary activity, not only in Bennett’s case but also in the case of the more straightforwardly commercial Conan Doyle. I never did get to ask you how you felt about making money from literature, but it’s well worth trying to get some self-critical distance from whatever your instinctive feelings on this subject are. People who end up doing literary scholarship usually have been acculturated into belief in the special vocation of writing or of art, but this acculturation somehow coexists with an equally widespread admiration for cultural hustlers and go-getters (especially when they are underdogs). Bourdieu argues convincingly that neither position can found an objective analysis of culture.

Another difference in McDonald’s British Literary Culture: it is an author study, even more than Rules of Art, and it’s also rather strictly concerned with fiction. There’s a chapter on Conrad, a chapter on Bennett, and a chapter on Conan Doyle. Despite Bourdieu’s expansive account of Flaubert, his analysis ranges more widely, taking up many more individuals and ranging across fiction, poetry, and drama. At the same time, this breadth is synchronic, with history represented only by the juxtaposition of the “stages of the field.” McDonald’s focus on individuals allows him to trace developments over life courses—and his fiction-centrism may make the purist-profiteer contrast as sharp as possible. However—and in this he really does look more like a literary scholar than a sociologist—McDonald leaves implicit the method by which any other literary actor could be “placed” in the field in comparison with the three exemplary cases he examines in detail.

Still, notice that McDonald has room for some quite distinct kinds of evidence. The pages on John Lane constitute an analysis of the publisher’s position in the field, not just his relations with Bennett; other publishers get similarly detailed treatment. When periodicals come up, they are generally situated in terms of their typical stances and participants. And there is even reception history, in the compact but pointed remarks on the different periodicals’ responses to Truth about an Author. All of these pieces add up to a fuller sense of the actors in the field than the apparent author-centrism of the approach suggests.

Reading Joyce, Joyce’s predicaments

I really think it’s worth the effort to read Ulysses without annotations, but you’re probably going to go looking things up anyway. The standard reference, apotropaically mentioned on the syllabus, is Don Gifford’s “Ulysses” Annotated. But this is only available in print, and if any text ever needed a digital annotated edition, it must be this one. John Hunt’s Joyce Project gives you an online text of the novel with links to fairly extensive notes (typically derived from Gifford and other glossators). I find the interpretive remarks in the notes distracting. The site may be more usable in the mobile version. The site can show you the pagination in the 1986 Gabler edition of the novel I assigned to you, which is handy for going back and forth between print and digital. However you decide to navigate these options—reflect on the social significance of annotation and more importantly of the capacity of Joyce’s novel to be annotated.

The novel opens with Stephen Dedalus as protagonist. Stephen, as Joyce’s few fans knew, was the hero of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), an artistic Bildungsroman that traces Stephen from early childhood to university-student rebellion. Early readers largely assumed that, as the title implied, the earlier novel was autobiographical. This assumption was mistaken in some ways, but it meant that for them, the first chapters of Ulysses picked up the story of Joyce’s authorial stand-in a little after where he had left off. The first three chapters of Ulysses are centered on Stephen. Consider what happens when this narrative set-up is disrupted by the introduction of Leopold Bloom in “Calypso.”

“To grasp history and biography”: Take your choice of the DNB entry on Joyce or the Dictionary of Irish Biography entry to get some landmarks in the life. As for history, which one? For Woolf, remember, Joyce was a “Georgian”; you’ll only need to read about five pages of Ulysses to see why George V, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India, might not furnish the best label for Joyce’s historical context. Putting Hutton and Rainey together will help indicate the scope of this problem. But if you are eager for more Facts, the Rutgers library provides online access to the Cambridge History of Ireland; see especially Roy Foster’s chapter on the Revival, but then consider where and when the relevant history stops. Why only Ireland after all? Joyce left for good, as the biographies tell you, in 1904, the year the novel is set. Is that the terminus ad quem for a historical context too? Perhaps for our seminar the years around 1919, when “Wandering Rocks” first appeared in the Little Review, matter most? (Hutton recently published an entire monograph, Serial Encounters: “Ulysses” and the “Little Review” [OUP, 2019]). Is 1922, when the book is first published, enough? But then Ulysses has been accumulating editions, annotations, and interpretations ever since. The history of what you are reading extends, of course, right up to the present. That might give you some more food for thought on the question of textual predicaments and textual interpretations we discussed last time.

“Trembling on the verge”

Throughout Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf characterizes her present historical moment as a point of literary transition. She concludes the piece with the “surpassingly rash prediction” that “we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature” (24). And of course, much of her argument centers on how this “great age” must be brought on by drawing a distinction both historical (Edwardian vs Georgian writers, split by the year 1910) and literary (those who “lay an enormous stress upon that fabric of things” and those who dispose of convention to get at Mrs. Brown as “the spirit we live by, life itself”)(18, 24). However, while Woolf marks this transition quite specifically at the historical moment of 1910, it is less clear to me how one might read this moment of transition sociologically. By this I mean, while Woolf makes clear the literary imperative for this shift towards a new way of making characters “real,” it is not entirely evident right away what social forces, or, in Bourdieu’s terms, what configurations of different kinds of capital in a field of power, might have bearing on what Woolf posits as such a seismic shift in literary representation and production. I would like to propose, in the context of Woolf’s essay and Bennett’s work, that we continue our discussion from last week concerning the difference between what it takes for a field of cultural production to be maintained vs what it takes for it to be radically altered. My main question, then, is how might or might not this transformation in the literary field that Woolf describes also constitute a change in other social fields? 

Reimagining the Field

     In Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown, Woolf opens her argument concerning the crisis of character in the novel with Arnold Bennet’s claim that “we have no young novelists of first-rate importance at the present moment, because they are unable to create characters that are real, true, and convincing.” For Woolf, the formation of “convincing” and “real” characters, ironically, unlike those offered up by Bennet, is the chief endeavor of novel writing. Yet, in closing her piece, Woolf also calls upon readers to insist that authors “truthfully” render Mrs. Brown. In cleaving a space for the audience, she invokes the irony of using Bennet to couch her argument against Edwardian materialism by offering that readers reject their distance from authors. Authors, she insists, know no more about Mrs. Brown than they do, no more about the machinations and exigencies of “real” life as it is lived than they do. 

     I am reminded of the authorial duplicity to which Bennet constantly refers in his “Truth About an Author,” a piece that humorously gestures towards Bourdieu’s rather seriously rendered theory of the field. Bourdieu offers the social space as operating within but distinctly separate from the field of power, which exerts itself onto all planes of cultural production, no matter how obscure. Bennet is exhaustive in his address to the field of power (in that he addresses the transactional realities of literary production), but unlike Woolf, he fails to acknowledge the exertions of the social space aside from his circle of “literary friends.” Woolf seems to suggest that the public-not necessarily readers-are both that which constitutes characterization-Mrs. Brown-and that which complicates the truthful execution of these characterizations, leading to “sleek novels,” “milk and watery criticism,” etc. If, as Woolf suggests, the public at large is equally acquainted with the ingredients for truthful characterization,  how then might the critics’ role be morphed, diminished or elevated? Further, does her perspective of “truthful” characterization signal absolutism, and if so, how might the formal critic be repositioned within the field?

Toward a Sociology of Literary Politics; or: Buzzwords, Buzzwords!

I follow AG’s most recent post in appreciating the distinction that Bourdieu’s method offers from a disappointingly non-evidential political literary criticism, but I nonetheless suspect that a sociology of literature could offer a more textured account of the political as another dimension of position-takings. For example, Bourdieu certainly offers a nuanced interpretation of the relationship between Flaubert’s class (dis)position and literary position-takings, as AG points out; however, the relationship between an agent’s politics and a comprehensive description of their view from the field seems more troubled in some of the other examples we’ve seen. McDonald reads Gosse’s disdain for an emergent mass readership as the literary anxiety of “an established man of letters” rather than the expression of a “political reactionary” (4). Surely, one can’t so easily overlook the class and gender politics of this opposition to the literary encroachment of workers and women, when the very categories of scarcity and masculinity seem to structure Gosse’s conception of literariness (6). But what can a literary sociologist do with that? 

My question, then, remains something like this: to what degree is it possible to incorporate, in this method, a discussion of an agent’s political interventions (like Zola’s) without flattening the contours of the specific political positions taken? Does McDonald not commit the same oversight he (rightly) criticizes in the limited horizontality of Darnton’s “communications circuit” by levelling a terrain of political difference into “politically committed” and “not”? One of the most compelling objectives of Bourdieu’s analysis, in my view, is to model an evaluation of the literary field that is not just original and clever but “more true” (xx, emphasis mine). Is it “more true” to record only the fact of Zola’s political intervention as a position-taking that co-opts politics toward a new position in the field, or might such a model be made “more true” by accounting for the particulars of that intervention, the concrete politics advanced? In other words, would a Bourdieusian analysis of Zola’s position in the field be changed at all if Zola had instead J’accused Dreyfus? If not, should it be?

Bourdieu: more questions of method

We hesitated over how to describe Bourdieu’s own methods in Rules. Though sociology is characteristically concerned with the present, sociology has its own tradition of historical inquiry, going back right to the founding figures, especially Weber and Marx. The sociology-history overlap is particularly significant in France in the 1960s and 1970s when the school of the Annales (emphasizing social history and the history of the longue durée) is of major importance. In a way my choice of excerpt gives a somewhat distorted picture of Bourdieu’s array of methods, since as Rules proceeds into the present it also makes use of data from interviews, and his most influential book, Distinction, is primarily an analysis of survey data.1 The first part of Rules is as close to an ethnography of nineteenth-century French literature as the available sources permit. It is worth reflecting on the differences and similarities between this approach and more familiar forms of literary history and criticism.

An apparent similarity: Rules develops an extended reading of a single novel. To what extent is Bourdieu a historicist literary critic? I own a theory reader in which Bourdieu in fact appears, alongside American New Historicists, under “historicism.” But historicism has typically operated by bringing literary texts and particularized non-literary contexts together in order to show that the literary text is deeply involved with the context. Bourdieu’s field is distinct from context as ordinarily conceived. In the first place, the literary field is literary: the context for interpreting Flaubert consists largely of the activities of other writers, and the stakes of Flaubert’s choices (or any other writers’) are, in the first instance, his position with respect to field.

The analysis of Zola shows the difference clearly: Zola’s political intervention in the Dreyfus Affair is analyzed in terms of Zola’s stance in the literary field, rather than, as literary criticism might do, locating Zola’s “politics” in his novels. And we noted in seminar the passage in which Bourdieu rejects “direct determination by economic and political conditions” in the emergence of art for art’s sake in the Second Empire; instead, “it is from the very particular position that they occupy in the literary microcosm that writers such as Flaubert, Baudelaire, Renan, Leconte de Lisle or Goncourt become aware of a political conjuncture which, grasped through the categories of perception inherent in their dispositions, allows and encourages their inclination to independence” (60). Put more generally, the field is the medium through which all kinds of social forces are felt, and, conversely, it is also the medium through which literary activity exerts its force on society—in the first instance, on that part of society which is literary activity.

This proposition cuts two ways. On the one hand, it is supposed to help us guard against the most reductionist approach, which might say that, for example, defending art for art’s sake is just an expression of class privilege. Flaubert’s class position gave him the resources he needed, and the dispositions that suited him, to effectively champion art for art’s sake, but his intervention reconfigures the literary field. In his earlier work, Distinction, Bourdieu shows the close association between class positions and certain kinds of aesthetic attitudes in cultural consumption. In particular, the “disinterested” appreciation of cultural objects is, he found, most typical of “the dominated fraction of the dominant class.” Many of his readers took him to be saying that there was no difference between aesthetic distance and snobbery. This was always a misreading, but you can see why it might make Bourdieu eager to underline what is not merely the expression or reflection of class in his account of writers like Flaubert.

On the other hand, Bourdieu’s theory also sets some limits on the degree to which “politics” can be extracted from texts. Consider: is Sentimental Education, a novel about an era of failed revolution, a progressive or a reactionary text according to Bourdieu? Answer: the question is wrong. The relation between literature and power is the relation between two fields, for Bourdieu; it is this relation that shapes Sentimental Education and is reshaped by it. The novel’s studied indifference (realized at the level of Flaubert’s distinctive style) to political developments is a necessary condition for its capacity to intervene in the literary field.

To be blunt about it, I think Bourdieu offers a way to study what writing does in the actual world that is far superior to the fantasies most of literary studies traffics in. It might have seemed to you that Bourdieu’s preface attacks a kind of literary criticism—appreciative, philosophico-aesthetic, anti-historicist—that is way out of date on our shores. But in another way our own disciplinary climate remains extremely favorable to the “exclusively literary” reading of literature (xvi), through the general agreement that the most subtle and consequential moral, political, and philosophical meanings can be teased out through acts of textual interpretation focused on literary texts. Such interpretations, whatever their power to convince other professional literary interpreters, almost never provide any evidence of the relations between the literary field and any other social field and thus remain at the level of wishful thinking about the powers of the literary.

The second and third parts of Rules, which I did not assign—though I hope you will get to them eventually—mounts a sustained attack on the assumptions that undergird literary criticism, in the name of proposing the “science of the work of art” as a superior way to understand literature and the arts. Paradoxically, the same developments which Bourdieu described in heroic terms in the parts we read lie behind the intellectual failures of later decades. For in establishing a relatively autonomous literary field and defining the position of the “pure” artist as a social type, those developments made possible the routine “misrecognition” (Rules, 172) of literary texts as meaningful and valuable in themselves. The institutions and practices that establish meaning and value fade into the background and become habitually unspoken, taken for granted—at least by those who operate most successfully within them. Bourdieu’s insight is that this background assumption can be shared by people who take sharply different views of what literature is and does. What we call “close reading” can be understood as an exercise of misrecognition in Bourdieu’s sense, unless it can provide an account of the field or fields in which the text is produced and received. And doing so, says Bourdieu, will “break the spell” (32). In return for suspending the belief in the singular power of the work of art, however, you might recover a much fuller sense of what is necessary for any work—which is really to say, any field—to cast a spell in the first place.

One of the big challenges for anyone persuaded by these arguments is to figure out how to lay hands on the kind of information needed to “objectify” a literary field. Or even if you don’t do the full Bourdieu, a sociology of literature has to concern itself with actual people in actual societies. Biography is an important starting point for getting a handle on those. For British literature, we benefit from the extraordinary Dictionary of National Biography (first edition edited by Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen). For work on any writer with a DNB entry, it is always worth consulting. Naturally one has to read it critically, bearing in mind the limitations of biography as a frame for interpretation. The DNB does not forswear literary judgment when it treats literary writers, and many of those judgments reflect very particular (often highbrow, sometimes shockingly retrograde) assumptions. The entry on Arnold Bennett is concise and quite informative, however, read alongside The Truth about an Author.

One of Bennett’s very first literary publications, mentioned in Truth, is instructive to contemplate in its original publication context: this is the story “A Letter Home,” Yellow Book 6 (July 1895): 93–102. The Yellow Book, published by the avant-garde firm of John Lane, is a byword for aestheticism and decadence. This periodical has been digitized and elaborately edited as part of the Yellow Nineties 2.0 project; cf. the editors’ introduction to vol. 6. Bennett’s identification with this position in the field was, as your other readings reveal to you, short-lived.

At the level of sociological method, then, our readings in and around Bennett pose the question of trajectory through the field. How do authors move from one possible position to another? What enables or disables mobility, and what effects does mobility have, on career, on reception?

But Bennett’s mobility also has another significance. In some ways, his versatility makes him comparable to Bourdieu’s Flaubert; McDonald makes Bennett an exemplary “player” in the field. But whereas Flaubert is one of the great novelists, and thus entirely plausible as a “founder” of a new social configuration of literature, Bennett rapidly became a minor figure. He is no “nomothete,” and very few later scholars have seen him as a hero. What kind of analysis of the “author’s point of view” is possible with a non-heroic model? As you’ll see, such a model is entirely appropriate to Bennett’s own extremely antiheroic sensibility.


  1. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).↩︎

Inheritance’s Relationship to Capital In Patrimonial and Transgressive Structures

Bourdieu announces at the start of the prologue: “the structure of the social space in which the adventures of Frederic unfold, proves to be at the same time the structure of the social space in which its author himself was situated” (3). So like the characters within Flaubert’s novel, the artist is a figure who moves within a field of power, affected by the “dispositions” of others—constituted by, perhaps most importantly, various types of capital (“economic, cultural, social”) (10). Bourdieu outlines for us the “fairly systematic” balance of habitus in four principal characters from Flaubert’s novel to give a sense of the overall structure of the social space. Each character presents a binary pair of traits from different fields, either having the advantage of inheritance or not, and either having the advantage of the will to succeed or not. Later in the text, Bourdieu articulates a different crossing of fields of power: the salon. As a place where the politically powerful (with inheritance and will) meet with and exert power over artists (with no inheritance—as suggested by the epigraph to Part 1—, but will), artists seem to get the short end of the stick with only tenuous “control of the different material or symbolic rewards” (51). The contrast between the boons that the political gain from engaging artists—“legitimation” and the economic capital that comes with it—and what artists gain highlights a problem with patrimonial inheritance: its being unevenly applicable within the various types of capital (51). In other words, the politically powerful can pass on their capital to their children, while artists usually cannot pass on cultural capital, including their ability to make art. Turning to Bourdieu’s claim that “the society of artists” functions as “its own market,” do we see a possibilitity for artists to perpetuate and pass on accumulated power through an inverse relationship to bourgeois capital (58)? How does the field of “common sense” (having or opposing it) affect the field of inheritance (having it or not) when both the positive and negative presentation of the trait create social capital (58)?

Singularity and the Character in Bourdieu

Throughout Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art, the individual and their social field are in constant play, intertwined in a mutually creative dynamic. At points, Bourdieu claims the elucidation of this dynamic as a benefit of his sociological method, despite claims that “the scientific analysis of art” will only “threaten the ‘creator’ and the reader in their liberty and singularity” (xvii). As Bourdieu’s work develops, it becomes clear that this is far from the case, and in fact “the only chance of truly recapturing the singularity of [Flaubert’s] creative project” arises when we oppose “those who are content with chanting litanies of the Unique” and “reinsert it into the historically reconstituted space inside of which it was constructed” (98). “Truly” understanding “singularity,” in other words, depends on first grasping its collective context and preserving the tension between creative individual and creative field.

While the critical benefits of such an approach seem manifest in Bourdieu’s text, what is less clear to me is how this approach regards literary representation at the individual level–how are we to read character (or the idea of a character) sociologically? Bourdieu’s description writing as an active “veritable search” that “makes the real rise up” suggests that the character intensifies the presence of otherwise buried social structures in an individual (108), but how far can this tension between individual and field be preserved in a literary text? At times, Bourdieu’s delineation of the function of character almost implies personification, such as when he writes that “it is this liberating rupture…that Flaubert symbolized in dramatizing, in the shape of Frédéric, the powerlessness of a being manipulated by the forces of the field,” or when he posits that “literary writing” alone can “concentrate and condense in the concrete singularity of a sensitive figure…functioning both as metaphor and as metonymy, all the complexity of a structure and a history” (105, 24; emphasis added). How much metonymy can a “concrete singularity” hold before its “shape” distorts? Can a character contain as much of the collective in its singularity as the individual human, or does its representational status as literary creation limit its capacity?

The Space of Rupture and (Dis)Union in Bourdieu

In The Rules of Art, Bourdieu suggests that artistic autonomy requires writers who wish to acquire a kind of symbolic capital to “manifest a certain distance from dominant values” (Bourdieu 69). While Bourdieu means to demonstrate the way in which prestige value is established through the upending of norms and generic expectations, I kept returning to this concept of “distance”—or as he puts it elsewhere, “rupture”—more broadly and wanted to think about how we might conceptualize gaps (spatially, interpersonally, theoretically).

Just after pinpointing this ruling logic, Bourdieu claims some analysts “can only register, unwittingly, the way the ignored authors have affected, by the logic of action and reaction, the authors to be interpretated…This is to preclude a true understanding of everything in the work of the survivors themselves that is, like their rejections, the indirect product of the existence and action of the vanished authors” (70-71). Here, the “rupture” is framed as not being just a form of opposition (action, reaction) but rather a form of relation (of the more complexly bounded alchemy that results amongst factors). To consider “the work of the survivors” as just as much an “indirect product” of the “vanished authors” is to consider this field more as an interlocked network than his more commonly used image of two poles with space between them. Instead, we might start to think of this blank space not as a boundary, but as a space of potential relation, as his metaphors about the forces that move figures within that space implies.

I wonder where else in the text and elsewhere we might see conceptualizations of distance, rupture, boundaries, or gaps as being—rather than absent of connection—excessively dense with it. One place that might provide a visualization of this is the salon (page 51), but what other theoretical or literal social environs might help make the connections that disappear into such a “distance” become more visual to us? And what would thinking about gaps, ruptures, or distance as a space of increased density of relation do for our understanding about traditional notions of individual authorship?

The introduction, an epilogue

Though our introductory session was abbreviated, I want to add a few notes to our discussion before we move on, and then I want to try to provide a little guidance to reading the Bourdieu. We’ll come back next time to some of the material on my introductory handout that I skipped over.

“Adam’s Curse”

In positioning the poet against what “the martyrs call the world,” this poem belongs to a long Romantic tradition. But, as we said, Yeats’s version is emphatic about representing poetry as a kind of work. (What “bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen” have in common is that they too do immaterial work, but, presumably, the ugly kind.) The poem embraces the uselessness of literary work, though with some irony about the poet’s own desire to put poetry to lower-case-r romantic use. The proud affirmation of poetic autonomy is hedged around by qualifications: the poet, despite his aristocratic disdain for “the world,” is embedded in social relationships, including a relationship to an audience. These relationships are in fact the precondition for his writing (“and talked of poetry”).

One reason I like this poem as a good starting point for talking about the sociology of literature is that it talks about the social position of the literary writer. Furthermore, it teaches the lesson, crucial for the early twentieth century, that even writers who are most committed to disentangling themselves from “the world” may be aware that they require all kinds of social and institutional support. This kind of interpretation is one of the keynotes of Bourdieu’s account of Flaubert and other French modernists, as you’ll see.

Yet interpreting what Yeats “says” (via the poem) on this subject is only interesting in relation to other evidence about the social forces shaping this literary activity. “Adam’s Curse” begs us to widen the frame. Our next step was to pay attention to the materiality of the book and the social relationships that producing such a book actually requires. Again, it is no accident that the 1903 In the Seven Woods is particularly forthright about the material circumstances of its making. W.B. and Elizabeth Yeats, and Evelyn Gleeson, are insisting on the difference between their book-making and commodity book-making. Their handicraft presupposes, for its meaning, the dominance of a very different kind of book industry. On the handout I put a passage about Elizabeth Yeats from the Dictionary of Irish Biography which mentions that the Dun Emer Press typically ran at a loss. This is anti-commercial book-making (“idle trade”).

This anti-commercialism is also fueled by a nationalist opposition to English colonial cultural dominance (for that matter it was very typical of Irish nationalism to stigmatize the English as concerned exclusively with profit). In 1903 there is a definite meaning to making a book with Irish paper, on a press in Dublin, under the sign of a heroine of Irish folklore (Dun Emer was named for Emer, Cúchulainn’s wife). The subtitle of In the Seven Woods is Being Poems Chiefly of the Irish Heroic Age. “Adam’s Curse” is self-evidently not one of those, but this subtitle proclaims Yeats’s allegiance to the Celtic Revival, one of the most significant cultural dimensions of the Irish nationalist movement. (We’ll meet the Revival again when we turn to Joyce.) At the same time, the twilit, cosmically weary ending of “Adam’s Curse,” with its shrug of the shoulders about “beautiful old books,” hardly reads as a call to arms for revolutionaries. Now we have arrived at a more obviously sociological question, that of the way political and cultural movements interact. If we were continuing on, the single case of Yeats would need to be set in comparison with that of other contemporary writers in order to understand the opportunities and limitations produced by that interaction. The proper framing of such comparisons is, in one sense, the largest subject of Bourdieu’s Rules of Art.

Leading into Bourdieu

In my efforts to be entertaining about the niche quality of the sociology of literature, I overstated its marginality a bit. We’ll come back to the way this interdisciplinary venture lives on and even flourishes even though few people invoke it by name. But let me try to motivate your reading of Bourdieu in particular by underlining that this sociologist is one of the most influential writers on culture across all the disciplines that study it. Bourdieu’s book Distinction is one of the most cited works in the sociology of culture. And Bourdieu has been very influential in a whole range of literary scholarship across historical periods. Bourdieu is roughly contemporary with some of the big names of post-structuralist “French Theory,” like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. But, in my view, his reach and significance exceeds even those philosophers’, partly because he is an apostate from philosophy. Trained as a philosopher, which put him on a trajectory for the pinnacle of the French academic system, Bourdieu abandoned philosophy for social science, which was and remains a decidedly lower-status discipline. One thing you’ll notice right away about Rules of Art is that it proposes sociological and historical analysis as an alternative, and superior, approach to questions that have traditionally been the province of philosophical reflection (for literary studies as much as for philosophical aesthetics). The question for us will be, how would this alter our own approach? What new objects and methods will come into view? What former aims might we set aside? Will the moon seem hollow and our hearts turn weary?

A few introductory words on some of Bourdieu’s specialized terminology. The key terms field, space, and position can, I think, be figured out from the reading (but follow carefully the ways the spatial metaphors work). Two other important concepts are brought in from Bourdieu’s earlier work without much explanation.

Capital: For Bourdieu, economic capital is a special case of something more general. He uses “capital” to refer to other types of scarce resources that can be accumulated, used for advantage, and exchanged for other resources:

Capital is accumulated labor (in its materialized from or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) whch, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the from of reified or living labor.1

Borudieu’s insight is that people can accumulate not only money and property in their various forms but also, for example, honor and prestige (symbolic capital), advantageous social connections (social capital), and education and specialized knowledge (cultural capital).

Habitus: Bourdieu’s signature notion of habitus appears in Rules without a great deal of explanation. Here is a definition, which may or may not be clarifying:

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively “regulated” and “regular” without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor.2

Put more simply, habitus describes the kinds of things your body and mind habitually do because of the kind of person you have been made to be. Bourdieu posits that these behavioral dispositions are systematically related to people’s social situations because they are inculcated by those situations (they are “structured structures”) and because they shape patterns of behavior (they are “structuring structures”). Think about the physical assertiveness taught to boys and the deference rewarded in girls. Think about the ways people of different classes approach encounters with authority figures like teachers or police. Think about all the ways people organize the world into categories like “beautiful, ugly,” “tasty, disgusting,” “practical, idle.” Much influenced by the generative revolution in linguistics, Bourdieu thinks of social behavior as having the same qualities of infinite creativity and rule-bound regularity as the grammar of speech.

Lastly, science. It would almost be better to translate this very charged word as “social science,” keeping in mind that history is a social science on odd-numbered days of the month. Whereas a “science of literature” is a laughable idea in the Anglo-American context, la science in French, like die Wissenschaft in German, has a wider range than “science” in English, and can plausibly be extended to all forms of disciplined knowledge developed through empirical inquiry. Much of what we call “humanities” is called sciences humaines in French, even if les lettres can be opposed to les sciences. So it’s possible to aspire to une science de l’œuvre d’art without wanting to make the study of literature put on a lab coat. Bourdieu is in fact an acerbic critic of scientism even though he thinks the only route to understanding literature is scientific.


  1. Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital” (1983) in Education: Culture, Economy, and Society, ed. A. H. Halsey et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 46.↩︎

  2. The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 53.↩︎