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. 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.