Category Archives: Academics

NEWSFLASH: “Professor Deeply Hurt by Student’s Evaluation”

As another academic year winds down across the US at colleges and universities, this classic piece from The Onion merits a full reprint (rather than, say, just a tweet). There’s so much material in this and countless other satires in the The Onion that rings incredibly true to real life. This one especially has a lot to unpack. The position titles, book and award names alone are hilarious and priceless for pointing out the often hollow tendency in academia to name drop and for academics to garner prestige based on associations and networking. Reading this I wonder if Professor Rotherberg’s self-assessment isn’t spot on: “Chad’s right. I am totally boring.” Funny stuff.

Professor Deeply Hurt by Student’s Evaluation

Leon Rothberg, Ph.D., a 58-year-old professor of English Literature at Ohio State University, was shocked and saddened Monday after receiving a sub-par mid-semester evaluation from freshman student Chad Berner. The circles labeled 4 and 5 on the Scan-Tron form were predominantly filled in, placing Rothberg’s teaching skill in the “below average” to “poor” range.

Leon Rothberg

Rothberg, though hurt by evaluations that pointed out the little globule of spit that sometimes forms between his lips, was most upset at being called “totally lame” in one freshman’s write-in comments.

Although the evaluation has deeply hurt Rothberg’s feelings, Berner defended his judgment at a press conference yesterday.

“That class is totally boring,” said Berner, one of 342 students in Rothberg’s introductory English 161 class. “When I go, I have to read the school paper to keep from falling asleep. One of my brothers does a comic strip called ‘The Booze Brothers.’ It’s awesome.”

The poor rating has left Rothberg, a Rhodes Scholar, distraught and doubting his ability to teach effectively at the university level.

“Maybe I’m just no good at this job,” said Rothberg, recipient of the 1993 Jean-Foucault Lacan award from the University of Chicago for his paper on public/private feminist deconstructive discourse in the early narratives of Catherine of Siena. “Chad’s right. I am totally boring.”

In the wake of the evaluation, Rothberg is considering canceling his fall sabbatical to the University of Geneva, where he is slated to serve as a Henri Bynum-Derridas Visiting Scholar. Instead, Rothberg may take a rudimentary public speaking course as well as offer his services to students like Berner, should they desire personal tutoring.

“The needs of my first-year students come well before any prestigious personal awards offered to me by international academic assemblies,” Rothberg said. “After all, I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of knowledge, and to imparting it to those who are coming after me. I know that’s why these students are here, so I owe it to them.”

Though Rothberg, noted author of The Violent Body: Marxist Roots of Postmodern Homoerotic Mysticism and the Feminine Form in St. Augustine’s Confessions, has attempted to contact Berner numerous times by telephone, Berner has not returned his calls, leading Rothberg to believe that Berner is serious in his condemnation of the professor.

“I’m always stoned when he calls, so I let the answering machine pick it up,” said Berner, who maintains a steady 2.3 GPA. “My roommate just got this new bong that totally kicks ass. We call it Sky Lab.”

Those close to Rothberg agree that the negative evaluation is difficult to overcome.

“Richard is trying to keep a stiff upper lip around his colleagues, but I know he’s taking it very hard,” said Susan Feinstein-Rothberg, a fellow English professor and Rothberg’s wife of 29 years. “He knows that students like Chad deserve better.”

When told of Rothberg’s thoughts of quitting, Berner became angry.

“He’d better finish up the class,” Berner said. “I need those three humanities credits to be eligible to apply to the business school next year.”

The English Department administration at Ohio State is taking a hard look at Rothberg’s performance in the wake of Berner’s poor evaluation.

“Students and the enormous revenue they bring in to our institution are a more valued commodity to us than faculty,” Dean James Hewitt said. “Although Rothberg is a distinguished, tenured professor with countless academic credentials and knowledge of 21 modern and ancient languages, there is absolutely no excuse for his boring Chad with his lectures. Chad must be entertained at all costs.”

Walking in the City

In 1980 Michel de Certeau published L’invention du quotidien. Vol. 1, Arts de faire (English translation by Steven Rendall, 1984, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: Univ. California Press)

For many students who encounter Certeau, it’s this text of his that they read, and within it, the essay “Marches dans la ville,” or “Walking in the City,” is no doubt the most widely assigned section of the book. The Practice of Everyday Life, and especially this essay, struck me mightily when I first read it. For me, Certeau’s work is helpful to make sense of the ways in which people are exposed to, consume, and reproduce “narratives” and “texts” in their everyday activities and speech acts. His ideas are rich and provocative, and deeply interdisciplinary, if also a bit dense and at times abstruse. But he’s remained with me over the years. And I’ve been walking lots and lots lately. So I thought I’d revisit him this morning!

For Certeau the essays in The Practice of Everyday Life form an extended exercise in understanding human “ways of operating,” stylistically and functionally. That is, this book tackles the thorny issue of being, by asking what enables people to exist in the world, and social formation and conditioning, by asking how social experience (re)produces various forms of communication. In sketching out nuanced social theories that draw upon psychoanalysis, sociology, and phenomenology, Certeau writes about what he famously called the day-to-day “strategies” and “tactics” of people in the negotiation of power relationships inherent to human environments. For most people tactics are dependent upon the space they inhabit; tactics of all sorts represent individual opportunities to manipulate cultural associations within given places in an effort to loosen the totalizing order of the dominant society.

The most vital and defining characteristic of an everyday practice, such as walking, is its tactical mobility. As societies are evermore inculcated by totalizing socioeconomic orders, the ways in which people resist disciplines and “governmentalities” are the foci of Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City.” It’s interesting to note that the people about whom he writes, and indeed those to whom he dedicated the book, were ordinary folk: the common and omnipresent characters, the walkers, who blaze an incalculable grid of paths through city streets.

Why does Certeau study these people (to varying degrees each one of us is included) in this essay? By writing about walking as a tactical modality, Certeau attempts to identify creativity and intelligence among the oft-presumed powerless people in the historically lopsided social relationships between governments and their subjects, between big business and consumers. To walk in the city is to carve out, if only momentarily, one’s own “space” in the “place” otherwise designated by civic architects and institutions.

A walker can alter the architectural intention of a street, which, for instance, might be to lead a person past certain things rather than others:

“On the one hand he actualizes only a few of the possibilities fixed by the constructed order (he goes here and not there), on the other he increases the number of possibilities (for example, by creating shortcuts and detours) and prohibitions (for example, he forbids himself to take paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory). He thus makes a selection” (98).

The selections the ordinary person, the walker, makes thus tactically subvert the panoptic, totalizing authority that for the most part determine what happens in the lives of ordinary people.

Certeau is calling us to arms, however, to recognize the manipulation of our everyday lives and to revolt. His is a more subtle appeal, perhaps best illustrated by what he calls la perruque (“the wig”) – the act of a worker who steals company time – i.e., fleeting moments – and turns them into “circumstances” for his/her own entertainment and/or benefit. An example he gives is when a man or a woman writes a love letter while technically, and outwardly appearing to be, on the job. Only the employer’s time is stolen, but in the end corporate profit is undercut. For the employee, stealing this time while at work is a sort of “micro-resistance” within a normally overpowering and unequal relationship. Moreover, an opportunity has thus been created which brings into being a sort of “micro-freedom” for the ordinary person. This isolated freedom (it’s actually an ongoing process of seizing “opportunities,” whether through walking, reading, etc.) exemplifies the type of fracture that can be created in the panoptical superstructures within which we live.

“Walking in the City,” then, offers a glimmer of hope for humanity amid an often-overwhelming and dominating system of operations. Certeau’s report is indeed even playful and communicates a localized vision of ambition and invention. It is his “phatic” attempt to infuse into our (university students and scholars, especially) quotidian thinking that, as he says elsewhere in The Practice of Everyday Life, “it is always good to remind ourselves that we mustn’t take people for fools” (176). This reminder seems especially pertinent nowadays when political campaigning and punditry bent on spinning information in obviously erroneous ways seem to occupy enormous amounts of the airwaves and internet.

In the end, it’s through our walking in the city, or traveling generally and wherever and to whatever extent, thereby negotiating our own space within the superstructured places of our societies that we create memories, give meaning to our experiences, and fashion history at micro and macro levels (and every inch in between). On this important association between “space” and “place”, Certeau offered a quite vivid and concise account:

“A memory is only a Prince Charming who stays just long enough to awaken the Sleeping Beauties of our wordless stories. ‘here, there used to be bakery.’ ‘That’s where old lady Dupuis used to live.’ It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences. What can be seen designates what can no longer be seen. Demonstratives indicate the invisible identities of the visible: it is the very definition of a place, in fact, that it is composed by these series of displacements and effects among the fragmented strata that form it and that it plays on these moving layers.” (108)

A takeaway for me in all of this, minor though it may be, is the basic differentiation of spaces and places in my life. Can I perceive them? How do I create my own spaces? How do I negotiate the places in which I travel, those settings that have been created by others into which I enter? I see space (espace) in Certeau’s work as composed of intersections of mobile elements; it is produced by the operations that “orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function” (117). Place (lieu), on the hand, is a register within which objects are distributed in “relationships of coexistence”; elements therein are defined by their location, i.e., adjoining relation to other elements.

The world of Merleau-Ponty’s perception

In 1948, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) published Causeries.  This aptly titled, thin collection of “talks” aired on the radio (vie la radio philosophique!) on Saturday mornings in France, typically in a lineup that included causeries by Georges Davy on so-called primitive psychology, M. Laignel-Lavastine on psychoanalysis, and Émile Henriot on psychology and literature.  Nearly sixty years later, in 2004, Routledge published seven of Merleau-Ponty’s radio causeries as, The World of Perception. This title is apt, too. The seven radio lectures covered in the Routledge volume include the following:

[1] The World of Perception and the World of Space

[2] Exploring the World of Perception: Space

[3] Exploring the World of Perception: Sensory Objects

[4] Exploring the World of Perception: Animal Life

[5] Man Seen from the Outside

[6] Art and the World of Perception

[7] Classical World, Modern World

René Descartes’s illustration of dualism. Inputs are passed on by the sensory organs to the epiphysis in the brain and from there to the immaterial spirit (from Wikipedia).

This book has been bouncing around my head since 2004, when I first read it (in English), after stumbling upon it and promptly buying it in a bookstore in Thiruvananthapuram, south India. I’d already read Phenomenology of Perception (PoP), for which Merleau-Ponty is most well known (but by no means his only great work on perception and the everyday human encouter with the world of objects).  PoP is a complex text, published in 1945, in which Merleau-Ponty envisions phenomenology as a renunciation of Cartesian science, especially empiricism (behaviorism) and intellectualism (cognitivism).  Phenomenology describes, Merleau-Ponty argued.  It does not analyze or explain; explanation is the task of science.  The whole undertaking of science is based on our direct experience of the world.  So, to subject science to rigorous scrutiny and investigate its efficacy, we must, Merleau-Ponty explained, “begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression” (PoP, ix).  The “basic experience” he invokes occurs with/in the body.  For its part, science then applies rationale and categories for basic experiences, such as consciousness, creativity, man, woman, et cetera.  Merleau-Ponty’s aim in PoP is to recover the antecedent of science, the embodied self.  Science always speaks about this primary experience and hence is always an abstraction from, a derivative of, this knowledge-prior experience.  This is to say, to use Merleau-Ponty’s phraseology, reflection bears upon unreflective experience, which occurs with/in our bodies.

Phenomenology of Perception is fascinating and, for me, a useful book (for many things, but especially for what it says about the importance of the somatic engagement for perceiving and creating one’s world). But it’s also truly confounding at times. The World of Perception, on the other hand, is quite accessible, and can be a highly valuable introduction to Merleau-Ponty’s work in general.

What is it exactly that we we perceive when we feel, smell, see, hear, and taste? This question is of course critical to any number of things—the contents of the so-called good life and happiness, for example, among other things. Merleau-Ponty was surely one of the most creative thinkers of the twentieth century on the question of perspectival engagement among humankind and in the world in general. We are worldly creatures, he said, because truth resides “out there” on the horizon, in the world, and it must be experienced. It’s not found only in contemplative navel-gazing. He famously wrote in PoP that “Truth does not ‘inhabit’ only ‘the inner man,’ or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself” (xii).  The idea that we experience truth socially, as subjects “destined to the world” is essential to ground oneself socially and somatically and to avoid overstating the self and the intellect as the origin of truth and meaning.  But where his ideas really inspire me, where they open up avenues for discussing the human condition and reading critically what others have argued about the role of the body in cultural institutions, such as religion, medicine, and politics, is not in the “what” of perception but in the “how.”

How does my position as an observer influence what I perceive?  How does my situation, physically, yes, but also intellectually and experientially, affect what I am experiencing?  Indeed, how do I create the world of perception within which I live year-to-year, month-to-month, day-to-day, moment-to-moment?

The perceived world is made up of things that are manifest to us through our experience.  Worldly things are not hidden behind a veil of appearances.  We experience meaning in our interactions with worldly things directly through our experience of them.  Therefore, meaning depends upon the relationship between our experience and the things perceived as such.  Meaning cannot reside (or depend upon), as in a representational illustration, in the relationship between the thing in the world and something extrinsic to it (e.g., a portrait simply evokes the person portrayed, but the essence of the portrait rests in the relationship between the person experiencing the piece of art and the piece if art in itself).  The point, then, is that we must learn to accept the fact that contestable theories and interpretations will always make up the world of humans.  Or, in other words, there cannot be any final principles – in science, theology, politics, literary criticism, etc – in the world when there is more than one perceiving subject.  That said, no matter what one devises as a “principle” (e.g., Newtonian “space” conceived of as the absolute within which physical objects have an absolute location at any given time and may move about therein without altering their inherent physical properties) must always be provisional.  Take, for instance, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which posits the interdependence of physics and geometry.  Einstein’s theory showed that Newton’s principle of “space,” and along with it gravity, is incomplete.  The Newtonian understanding of space and gravity could not be a final solution, according to Einstein, for we must regard gravity not as a fixed principle in relation to space but as expressing the curvature of space, which is determined by the local distribution of matter (as shown in the Riemann-Clifford Hypothesis).  Consequently, as regards the subjective enquirer (the “scientist”), there cannot be an absolute and final objective space, for every particular observation is linked to the location and situation of the observer.

For all this, and more, j’adresse un grand merci à M. Merleau-Ponty! I’ve been working on his ideas lately, and no doubt I’ve many more years to come to think through some of this business. I’ll surely need it.

Les noms et les choses: What’s in a Name?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “name” thus:

a designation; a proper noun; a word or phrase constituting the individual designation by which a particular person or thing is known, referred to, or addressed.

The modern English word “name” has a long history. The noun “name” has existed across the Indo-European speaking world for millennia, with such attestations in antiquity as Old Frisian nama, Avestan nāman, Sanskrit nāman, Old Icelandic nafn; in the Middle Ages there’s Middle Dutch name, Middle Low German nāme, Old Church Slavonic imę; and in modern times there’s Dutch naam, German Name, Swedish namn, Hindi nām.  Lots of people use the term, in lots of different languages, to convey lots of types of information. It would seem there’s a lot in a name, that “name” is like the ant of the lexical world, able to carry a load fifty times its own weight.

When Juliet Capulet rhetorically poses, then answers, the question—What’s in a name?—Shakespeare had her pronounce something about language use that is at once commonsensically evident and linguistically essential.  Juliet recognizes in poetic terms that the names we use to represent objects do not have an effect on the objects themselves when she laments to Romeo

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;  Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name!  What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title: Romeo, doff thy name;   and for that name, which is no part of thee, take all myself (Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene II, “Capulet’s Orchard”).

As many times as this question has been asked, it’s been answered, typically in one of two ways: there’s a great deal in a name, or there’s nothing, zilch, nil in a name.  It could be argued that a name actually reveals something about the personality of a person, the utility of a thing, the gravity of a narrative, or perhaps the chronology of an event.  If so, then what is in a name?

Do names and words relate anything meaningful—such as intangible and/or concrete qualities—about the people and things to which they are applied?  For some people, they decidedly do.  Take, for instance, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert (R-Ill).  At the end of 2005, Speaker Hastert made a public statement about the enormous fir tree that was lit and decorated with traditional Christmas ornamentation for decades and rested on the west lawn of the White House for several weeks at the end of every year.  He advocated that the tree, known at the time as the “Holiday tree,” be renamed to its old, pre-late-1990s name, the “Capitol Christmas tree.”  The Capitol tree, not to be confused with the “National Christmas tree,” which sits in the White House, was renamed the Holiday Tree in the late-1990s in an effort to de-Christianize the public display on the White House lawn.  The idea behind the name change was to recognize, albeit tacitly, the plurality of religious holidays during the end of the year like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah alongside Christmas.  But this Washington D.C. tree by any other name than “Christmas” raised the ire of many people.  Speaker Hastert, through the mouthpiece of, Ron Bonjean, his spokesman, stated that he “believes a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, and it is as simple as that” (Emerling 2005).

In a similar instance around the same time as Speaker Hastert’s remarks, Boston’s Mayor, Thomas Menino, said the tree that lights up the Boston Commons from late November through the New Year, called the “Holiday tree” for several years prior to 2005, and which he plugs in every year to great pomp and circumstance, would demonstrably be a Christmas tree in 2005. “I grew up with a Christmas tree, and I’m going to stay with a Christmas tree,” Mayor Menino said.  Asked if he was influenced by the evangelist Jerry Falwell’s efforts to pressure Boston city officials to name, once and for all, the Boston Commons tree a “Christmas tree,” Menino replied: “I don’t need Jerry Falwell or anybody else to tell me it’s a Christmas tree” (Wangsness 2005).  The arboreal hullabaloo at Boston Commons extended even further, to a logger from Canada, Donnie Hatt, who felled the forty-eight foot fir.  Hatt said he never would have brought the tree from Nova Scotia to Boston if he would have known it might be called a “Holiday tree.”  Instead, he told a reporter, “I’d have cut it down and put it through the chipper.”  He continued, “If they decide it should be a holiday tree, I’ll tell them to send it back.  If it was a holiday tree, you might as well put it up at Easter” (Szep 2005).

To Dennis Hastert, Thomas Menino, Jerry Falwell, and Donnie Hatt these trees are not simply perennial flora with woody, self-supporting trunks.  The name “Christmas” appears to endow these trees with festive import and religious meaning denoting the Christian festival of the nativity of Christ.  It occurs every year on 25 December, and Christians typically celebrate the Nativity by erecting and decorating a fir tree.[1]  To decorate a tree at this time of year with ornaments and lights, to put it on display, and to call it a “Holiday tree” is for these men, and no doubt countless others, tantamount to recklessly rewriting history. The label “Holiday” ostensibly cannot contain or convey adequately the full meaning of Christmas in addition to the religious meaning inherent to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.  It’s one or none.  If the tree is not a Christmas tree, it is not worthy of several weeks of pageantry.

But if we pose the same question – What’s in a name? – to some of history’s brightest students and users of language, we might find, contrary to the examples above, that there actually is nothing in a name.  We might learn that, counter to Hastert et al, a name, like any word, is just a label, a tag we apply to a thing or an event that occurs in the world, nothing more or less.

What, for example, does the name “Peashoot” actually say about the author writing this essay?  No doubt it is difficult to separate the names of the people we know from the real warp and woof of the people themselves.  Once we have met a person, say the author of this essay, whenever we meet another Peashoot we are likely to perceive the author of this essay to some degree while taking into account the recently met Peashoot.  This is not to say that a person will necessarily think of the author this essay when she encounters her brother, for example, who is also named Peashoot.  Rather, it’s likely the name of the author of this essay takes on a uniquely individualized meaning when the person with the brother named Peashoot meets the author of the essay, Peashoot Chaplin.  And once she comes to know the new Peashoot, Mr. Chaplin, her brother Peashoot might not seem like the Peashoot she once knew.  The name “Peashoot” meant one set of things for her brother and now, having met the author of this essay, the name Peashoot has taken on new meaning.  For the author of this essay, the name Peashoot might be greater than the sum of his parts, yet we mentally categorize the personality and physicality of the writer of this essay in a mental file, under “P” for Peashoot.  We access the file as needed and add to it or take away from it as our impression of and relationship with Peashoot changes.  And, to complicate this oversimplification of how we cognitively store and use language, the “Peashoot file” is cross-listed with other files too, files we might title with classificatory words like “male,” “brunette,” “anxious,” “over six feet tall,” and so on, as each of us sees fit to apply words that aptly characterize the author of this essay.

Yogi Berra

We fix names and words to things because we want to be clear about whatever it is we think needs to be said about a person, thing, or event.  To be sure, when the wrong name or word is attached to a person or object we typically recognize the error straightaway.  To use a language well demands an ability to join words and names appositely to people, objects, places, and events.  Take, for example, the following directions of Yogi Berra—“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  Set aside the absurdity that accompanies Yogi Berra’s enduring litany of quotations, and ask, seriously, what he might have meant.  Did he simply misspeak, or did he just advocate burglary?  Is there a fork lying in the road or is the shape of the road itself fork-like?  The general idea to glean from this, I think, is not that Yogi’s comment is simply incongruous, a gross non sequitur.  Though it is that, the more important point is that Yogi’s comment is off beam and confusing because of the range of meaning one can infer from the word fork and countless other words in the English language.  Yes, this example is almost too obvious, and, truth be told, Yogi Berra made a living out of his pithy illogicalities, or Yogiisms.  Still, this statement demonstrates emphatically how a four-letter word like “fork” may steer one off the course of standard and even comprehensible language use.

Yogi’s fork, to the give the benefit of the doubt to this one-time great New York Yankee, could be taken as clever wordplay rather than mere nonsense.  Most languages have words that can convey multiple meanings.  English has a good many. The duplicity of words enables one to make puns, double entendres, and euphemisms.  To be able to maneuver words inside and outside of certain contexts is a skill, often employed to comic effect, and it exploits the fragile connection of words and the objects to which they are (supposed to be) affixed.  This skill is what Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov referred to when they wrote about making use of language.

Ferdinand de Saussure

None other than the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, made an observation about “name tags” that was at once apparent yet innovative.  He observed that the names we use to represent objects in fact do not really affect the objects they point to.  In language, words and names do not exist on a one-to-one association with the objects we think they signify.  On Saussure’s view a linguistic unit, in this case a name or a word, is a double entity, unlike a thing which is singular.  The application of names to things, he argued, is a decidedly complicated process, for the realm of phenomena and the realm of language are distinct, and each has its own unique set of rules.[2]

For Saussure, language consists of a complex network of signs.  The linguistic sign is neither a thing nor a name but a relation that unites a concept and a sound-image; both are psychological, not physical, entities (Saussure 1966, 66).  Saussure used the term sign (signe) to indicate the union of a concept with a sound-image.  He then replaced the terms concept and sound-image with the now ubiquitous terms signified (signifié) and signifier (significant).  A signifier consists of words on a page or audible sound-images that make impressions upon our eardrums; this is also known as a signal.  A signified is the conception our brains envisage when we read a collection of letters or hear a sound or series of sounds; this is also known as a signification.  A signifier evokes a referent (a worldly object), and a signified is the product called up in our minds when we encounter a signifier.  Language signification, Saussure wrote, “works in the borderland where the elements of sound and thought combine” (1966, 113).

The linguistic sign is a link between two abstract entities.  The sign connects, and is thus comprised of, a signal (which is a relation between a sound pattern and a physical sound) with a signification (a relation between a concept and a phenomenal object or event).  Saussure said that the sound pattern of the signal (signifier) and the concept of the signification (signified) are cognitive structures, which represent physical stimuli like sounds and worldly objects).

Saussure’s most often cited claim is that the linguistic sign is arbitrary. What did he mean by this?  The sign is arbitrary insofar as the relation between its constituent parts, the signifier and the signified, is wholly tenuous and random.  It is random in the sense that there is no reasonable underlying principle that determines the letters i-P-o-d or the sound born of these phonemes should produce in our brains an image of a small electronic device that stores and plays music.  Neither the orthography of “iPod” nor the auditory distinction of the uttered word “ipod” has an inherent connection to the thing itself, that is, to the electronic hardwiring and digital manufacturing of iPods.

Saussure’s definition of the linguistic sign translates into a continuous semiological chain of relations between signs, which are themselves sets of relations between sets of relations.  Saussure used the following diagram in his Course in General Linguistics to explain this association (NB: the double-headed arrow between each oval designates the sign –  1966, 115):

Saussure adamantly held that we should not study the sign in isolation from the system to which it belongs:

To consider a term as simply the union of a certain sound with a certain concept is grossly misleading.  To define [the sign] in this way would isolate the term from its system; it would mean assuming that one can start from the terms and construct the system by adding them together when, on the contrary, it is from the interdependent whole that one must start and through analysis obtain its elements (1966, 113).

We understand the meaning of a sign, therefore, only as it exists between any signal (image and sound) and signification (concept and thing).  Indeed, without a state of balance between the elements of signal and signification there would be no sign. The meaning, or value, of the signs that make up language, then, is a matter of internal relations.  Because the linguistic sign relies on associations (between signal and signification, or signifier and signified) that advance towards a state of balance, in which a signal triggers a signification in such a way that a cognition of understanding of a referent forms in the brain, the link—the linguistic sign—uniting the concept and acoustic impression is fundamentally arbitrary. To know the sign, one must consider the whole semiological system.

The association between the written or audible image and the concept (i.e., the sign) is arbitrary, according to Saussure, because of it lacks motivation.  Once a sign is established, it is in effect immutable and unchangeable.  To say it lacks motivation, then, is to say that the relation between a linguistic image (acoustic, pictographic, or orthographic) and the concept the image sets off in our brains is not dependent on the free will of the language user.  In fact, Saussure thought the arbitrary nature of the sign is what ensures language cannot be modified easily.  He further thought most people are not truly conscious of their languages and language use.  In general, he argued that languages are conservative and change only over great spans of time.  Changes in the ways signifiers relate to signifieds in a language are not simply made by specific, individual users of a language community, on Saussure’s view.  Communities, too, rarely make such changes.  Saussure suggested that a language is a knowledge system we inherit and that language is anchored in a set of rules, a grammar, that we cannot alter.  Languages do change, however, but at such a slow clip and over such great breadths of time that we only come to see these changes from an historical perspective.

Use and interpretation, however, can rend asunder conservation in language.  And this, I think, Roland Barthes and J.L. Austin each in their own unique ways recognized and articulated by ascribing to language users the ability to know that their words will be understood differently in different contexts and by different people.  It’s true that language can be used to generate multiple effects.  This allows the language user both to wield great command over his or her language use and render the creative language user culpable for his or her language use.  Take the political mythmakers in the US, for example, whose rhetoric is especially important to analyze nowadays in advance of the national election. I would suggest do not change language but work it. They make use of language so that multiple meanings may be expressed on multiple levels of cognition, some of which are conscious and some of which are not.


[1] The symbolism could be carried out further: gifts are placed under the tree to represent the gifts presented to Mary and Joseph by the Three Wise Men who journeyed to see the newborn baby; usually a star is placed atop the tree to symbolize the Pole Star that guided the Wise Men on their journey; and so on.

[2] Since the publication of Saussure’s Cours (Course in General Linguistics, 1966 [1916]), which is a summary of Saussure’s lectures as professor of general linguistics at the University of Geneva from 1907-1911, the lion’s share of scholars whose work involves the study of language have invoked, in one way or another, Saussure’s work on language and most often his work on the linguistic sign.

La sociologie est un sport de combat

Lately I’ve been piecing together some thoughts on what we are doing when we act in the world, what we’re reproducing, and how (or if) things could be otherwise. This enquiry brought me back to a thinker I’ve been reading for some time — Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). His writing is extremely insightful, equally for its theoretical trenchancy and ethnographic narrativity. He was a subversive thinker, really, and he was very gifted at uncovering the mechanisms that operate in our daily lives to determine how we act, what we like, what we know, how we articulate these things, and much much more. Based on my limited knowledge, he’s also one of those thinkers whose theories are rarely put to gainful use by others, opposed to, say, the more regularly used and understood works of folks like Lévi-Strauss, Gramsci, Marx, Durkheim, and, well, many others (fill in the blanks for yourself). Some have “used” Bourdieu quite skilfully, of course — for my money, Thomas Csordas stands above the rest. But if I had a quarter for every academic paper I’ve heard delivered at conferences in which someone invokes Bourdieu and their ideas become more recondite than they were before invoking him, then I’d be flush enough to spring for lunch. This is to say, it seems like for many people Bourdieu muddies their ideas more than clarifies them.

Why is this? You read his work, and it’s so incisive…so clever…so rich. If anyone who reads this blog also reads Bourdieu, then perhaps that person can set me straight, point to some useful examples of Bourdieu put to use in fruitful and novel ways. In the meantime, I’m happy to post this clip from Pierre Charles’s 2001 documentary on Bourdieu, Sociologie est un sport de combat (“Sociology is a Combat Sport”). It offers some insights from the man himself about what makes society tick. After the clip, if you’re still interested, I offer a dump of my notes on the intellectual genealogy of one of the concepts Bourdieu put to great use in his works – habitus.

A Rough-n-Ready Genealogy of the concept HABITUS

The word habitus derives from the Latin √habere, “to have.”  Habitus is the Latin translation of the Greek hexis (ἕξις).  The verb habere was typically used in the sense that someone or some people had a disposition to act or behave in a certain way.

ARISTOTLE argued that a person becomes courageous by doing things that make her courageous; having gained the state of being courageous, resulting from the willful enactment of deeds that led to the courageous disposition—what some people might call habitual or routine—she becomes more and more readily able to act courageously. ARISTOTLE did not concern himself with the causes that might have led her to want to acquire the disposition of courage.  Rather, he focused on the development of character and the ways in which character relates to moral behavior.  So, for example, his argument is that a person trained as a pipefitter over time comes to possess the necessary disposition to act in a way befitting a pipefitter. For ARISTOTLE the locus of analysis, as well as the end of the analysis, was the individual. He did not think one could fruitfully explain the practices of the pipefitter’s union by analyzing the structures of the pipefitter’s disposition.

St. Thomas AQUINAS’s theory of habit went like this: every habit is a disposition, and every habit is that by which one acts as the result of one’s will.  One has these habits or dispositions, and these possessions operate upon the individual as principles for action and behavior.  Our actions therefore ensue from habits (e.g., science is the habit of conclusions arrived at by means of reason; hence, one who has mastered the rigmarole of a science [including the rationale it entails] may, through willed acts, do the work of a scientist).  Unlike BOURDIEU’S culturally deterministic use of habitus (see below – the one who put habitus on the map as a sociological concept), AQUINAS did not presume nor claim that the habitus, or habits of thought, present obstacles to freedom in one’s actions (free will, of course, is crucial to AQUINAS’s theological program).

With Émile DURKHEIM we begin to see the notion of habitus develop as an important sociological concept.  DURKHEIM formulated something he called the “collective habit,” which very closely resembles the habitus as employed by Pierre BOURDIEU.  The collective habit exists as expressions, or behaviors, of people and are passed on from one person to another by word of mouth, education, and the like, and becomes fixed in writing (e.g., legal and moral rules, parables, sayings, tastes, etc.).

In Primitive Classification (1903), DURKHEIM and Marcel MAUSS argued that cultural classification systems (specifically the classification of natural systems in traditional Australian societies) are structured by the social order.  The ways in which a society classifies things, they said, reveal a distinctive pattern of socially informed types of thought that exist in a society.  The principles of a society’s classification systems, furthermore, structure the cultural practices in which people daily partake.  DURKHEIM and MAUSS thought societies were constructed as unified entities and, as unified entities, societies impose themselves on their environments.  Accordingly, for DURKHEIM and MAUSS it was appropriate to analyze society as a cohesive body, of which the undergirding structural principle is a “conscience collective.”  DURKHEIM and MAUSS do not quite close the gap in this model between the social structure and social agency.  Clearly BOURDIEU drew upon, or at least absorbed, some the social understanding of DURKHEIM and MAUSS insofar as his later understanding of class and “specific habitus” are concerned.

MAUSS’s work on body techniques (1935) is for all intents and purposes the immediate precursor to BOURDIEU’s conceptualization and use of the idea of habitus.  For his part, it’s likely that MAUSS’s habitus belongs to the ARISTOTELIAN vein.  That is, we can say MAUSS reintroduced the Latin concept habitus, with its ARISTOTELIAN weight, into French sociological theory.  But he was also attuned to the post-Darwinian applications of the concept—namely, that society is built on the differentiation between morphology (material structure of an organism) and physiology (the nature of the organism’s functioning).  Above all, the habitus was important to MAUSS because of its incisiveness for explaining the ways in which socialization, particularly through systems of education, imposes social forms of thought and body techniques.  So-called techniques du corps became for him a “bodily habitus.”  MAUSS’s intent was to show how body techniques are powerfully and effectively formed through social education and training, and naturally that they vary from society to society.

MERLEAU-PONTY expanded HUSSERL’s social phenomenology to include habits as the embodiment of forms of classification.  HUSSERL understood habits to refer to meaningful events that are constituted in lived experience, which people hold onto and which resurface over time.  HUSSERL further understood these habits to be possessions, in the Latin sense of habitus, and they generate states in the individual that enable action.  MERLEAU-PONTY was opposed to the structuralist program, but he did concede that in the case of cultural systems there was something that structured the ways people know, produce art, perform rituals, create myths, and so on.  He hastened to add to this capitulation, however, that men, society, and history do not exist for these structures.  He felt there needed to be a “lived equivalent” to the overriding cultural systems and structures.  He rejected the notions of cultural and historical determinism.  He sought rather to promote the existentialist dictum that humans are free to choose their actions.  As such, MERLEAU-PONTY tried not to understand social codes of an abstract nature that define the human individual; rather he promoted the analysis of culture through a testing of one’s self through experiential encounters with the other (and vice versa).  In the process, the self changes itself and changes other selves, and through these changes views of nature and human being change and, in turn, cultural constructions change and develop.

The structuralist notion of LÉVI-STRAUSS that cultural productions of societies, e.g., culinary practices, marital associations, kinship, etc., are generated by codes (or grammars) greatly influenced BOURDIEU.  These codes (or grammars) are analyzable as social behaviors and linguistic features shared by people in a society, and they ultimately generate meaning in a community and find expression as they regulate and order the lives of people within a society.  For LÉVI-STRAUSS and the structuralists who adopted his view, habitus is “a generative schema in which the forms of elemental social structures come, through the process of socialisation, to be embodied in individuals, with the result that people necessarily act in such a way that the underlying structures are reproduced and given effect” (Nash 1999, 177).

Under the command of BOURDIEU, the idea of the habitus becomes “a system of shared social dispositions and cognitive structures which generates perceptions, appreciations and actions” (1988, 3, fn.2). Whereas LÉVI-STRAUSS and the structuralists were not able to account for the causal effectiveness between cultural structures, which in turn left open the role of any mediating factor between social structure and social agency, BOURDIEU’s fashioning of habitus did precisely that.  Namely, with the concept of habitus BOURDIEU wedded the structuralist theory of culture (social classification, class position) with psycho-social agency theory, or systems and agents (hence, embodied forms of classification, perception, judgment, and so on).

PIERRE BOURDIEU said the Habitus…

[1] is an embodiment of structure (collapse subject | object distinction)
[2] provides the grounds for agency (limited arena of choice)
[3] enables individual trajectories to be studied (has a history and leaves traces)
[4] unites past and present (product of early experience yet modified by subsequent experience)
Habitus = The Principle that Regulates the Act
Habitus = Internalized Structure
Habitus = Embodiment of Objective Structure

The habitus is a generative mechanism (method?) for the structuring of social practice.  Or, social practices are produced by a particular habitus.  All social practices therefore, upon analysis, reveal the structures of the habitus that generate them.  For the social scientist, the challenge of studying the habitus is to analyze social practices in such a way that the principles (cultural categories – e.g., medicine, religion, politics, education, etc.) that undergird the generative structures of the habitus are laid bare.

BOURDIEU himself claimed to find the concept of habitus to be useful as the principle that generates and regulates the act because it at once allowed him to refer to something that is akin to habit and yet different from the notion of habit.  Namely,

habitus is that which one has acquired, but which has become durably incorporated in the body in the form of permanent dispositions.  So the term constantly reminds us that it refers to something historical, linked to individual history, and that it belongs to a genetic mode of thought, as opposed to essentialist modes of thought (like the notion of competence which is part of the Chomskian lexis).  Moreover, by habitus the Scholastics also meant something like a property, a capital.  And, indeed, the habitus is a capital, but one which, because it is embodied, appears innate (Bourdieu 1993, 86).

Do habits not have a history, too?  Are they not indelibly incorporated in the individual?  Habits do have a history, for they are acquired.  But on BOURDIEU’s view history is specifically tied to the practices of social groups (especially “classes”), such that our dispositions to act, think, and feel have both an individual and social impact and genealogy.  They are not in-built then, but “genetic” in the sense of PIAGET’S “genetic epistemology.” Jean Piaget in 1968 delivered a series of lectures at Columbia University entitled, “Genetic Epistemology,” in which he argued the we may come to understand knowledge and knowledge acquisition on the basis of its history, in particular its sociological genesis and the psychological notions and practices which inform the social formation of that knowledge.  Piaget’s genetic epistemology, moreover, attempts to take up the process of formalization in society (e.g., through education, familial relations, and so on). Habitus for BOURDIEU is acquired though one’s group associations and, importantly, it becomes something one possesses.  It’s here for BOURDIEU that habitus breaks from habit, for the habitus as genetic possession is of necessity tied to every act, and so every act is regulated by the principles that form the habitus.  Habits do permeate every action one makes.

What is more, since individuals in society embody the habitus, it develops a history by and through the practices it generates.  The process of embodiment occurs over time, during which the generation of practices continues and perdures even after the original generative material conditions that produced the habitus have disappeared.  In the process of embodiment—i.e., internalizing the habitus in individuals, families, class groups, etc.—the principle of the habitus find expression in the structuring of culture.  
[1] Habitus is arranged by the principles of the social structure(s)
—AND—
[2] Social practices are arranged by the structured principles of the habitus
—THEREFORE—
[3] From socialization individuals in a society acquire a set of dispositions
—AND—
[4] These dispositions reflect the central structural elements (kinship regulations, political ideologies, religion, etc.) of their society
—THEREFORE—
[5] Individuals in a society behave in ways that reproduce the structural elements of the habitus

For BOURDIEU, the habitus is, in gist, history turned into nature.  We generally take that which is natural to be fixed, biological, the stuff we’re hardwired with, and therefore beyond our control; that which is historical, however, we understand to be acquired, indeterminate, culturally imposed, and mapped onto the natural.  Rarely, however, do we experience the rift between these two fields.  BOURDIEU writes, “In practice, it is the habitus, history turned into nature, i.e. denied as such, which accomplishes practically the relating of these two systems of relations, in and through the production of practice.  The ‘unconscious’ is never anything other than the forgetting of history which history itself produces by incorporating the objective structures it produces in the second natures of habitus” (1977, 78-79).

Habitus, Capital, Taste

The habitus is, essentially, a set of generative dispositions that every individual body appropriates in the form of “physical capital” (NB: BOURDIEU also recognizes several other sorts of capital, e.g., cultural, economic, symbolic, etc., at play in society).  To have more physical capital than another person (or group) means that one has (or a group has) more capacity to define one’s (or its) lifestyle and body as superior and more worthy of reward than others.  This is an example of how “class” becomes embodied.  About this BOURDIEU wrote:

The schemes of the habitus, the primary forms of classification, owe their specific efficacy to the fact that they function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will.  Orienting practices practically, they embed what some would mistakenly call values in the most automatic gestures or the apparently most insignificant techniques of the body—ways of walking or blowing one’s nose, ways of eating or talking—and engage the most fundamental principles of construction and evaluation of the social world, those which most directly express the division of labour (between the classes, the age groups and the sexes) or the division of the work of domination, in divisions between bodies and between relations to the body which borrow more features than one, as if to give them the appearance of naturalness, from the sexual division of labour and the division of sexual labour (1984: 466).

As a result, lifestyles proportionate to one’s class become invested in the bodies of social beings.  Even the most mundane physical traits, such one’s gait or gestures, in turn serve to perpetuate social inequalities in society.  Physical capital thus affects bodies, which in turn become, for BOURDIEU, bearers of value in society.

In the essay, “Plat du Jour” (1988), Michel de CERTEAU discusses behaviors of preference related to everyday things such as food, clothing, music, et cetera.  These preferences are experienced on the personal and ordinary level as individual “tastes,” yet they are ineluctably linked to society and social stratification.  For example, the lowers classes of society are and have been regularly portrayed by historians, the media, and in literature as having “vulgar tastes,” the high classes as having “refined” or “distinguished tastes.”

In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), BOURDIEU demonstrates that each individual is assigned a position in society according to his or her class.  This position is determined by the kind and/or amount of capital in each person’s possession.  The composition and kind of capital owned by each individual is modifiable directly in proportion to the motility of one’s prospect in society as determined by the fixed place of social strategies structured to uphold the class divisions and privileges (1984, 208).  The argument is ultimately quite circular: one has a place in society; one may change out of that place to another according to the options (e.g., employment opportunities, ability to travel and relocate one’s home, etc.) commensurate with one’s capital wealth.  Since the opportunities accorded a person are homologous to his or her capital, including the opportunity to make more financial capital, the cards are stacked against a person in the lower middle class to ever experience the food, clothing, and music (the so-called behavior preferences) of the higher social classes.

Ways of operating in society, too, are homologous with various strata in society.  A social group is defined by its class position, its ways of operating born of the requisite rotation of “a set of ready-made choices, objectively instituted possibilities” (1984, 209).  Such an ordered society has a severe stifling of creativity and invention, of individuals and communities.  Situations are structured in society according to a perduring system of dispositions that standardize and influence practices by modifying them to other certain specific practices.  Consequently, genuine intentionality and inventiveness are near impossible in BOURDIEU’s system.  BOURDIEU’s primary condition for any intelligibility in social life rests squarely on homogenization of the habitus within social groups (1977, 80).  To explain variation among individuals in a social group, BOURDIEU classifies systems of homologous groups of individuals’ dispositions so that any variants from the social group habitus are considered derivations in style, taste, etc. of the norm (1977, 86).

There are and will always be individuals in society whose tastes, style, behavioral preferences deviate from the group habitus, to be sure.  But, ultimately, for BOURDIEU any improvisation is regulated improvisation, or as Thomas CSORDAS put it, improvisation that is “open-ended yet circumscribed by the dispositions of the habitus” (Csordas 1993, 152).

BOURDIEU constructed a rather closed system, whose gate is closed in advance of any creative uprising, nearly precluding anything new from arising that might influence an individual (or the group) so profoundly that she or he might expand her or his tastes—e.g., trying new food, hearing new music, wearing en vogue clothing, etc.—including a chance meeting with a new interlocutor (perhaps even if only in a book!) who might introduce to that person new cultural practices.  BOURDIEU claimed that, “as an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted, the habitus engenders all the thoughts, all the perceptions, and all the actions consistent with those conditions, and no others” (1977, 95).

For BOURDIEU, the fact that tastes (e.g., such as food behaviors – what one likes to eat, how to prepare it, and how to eat it) and practices come from such “early learning” and are not (usually) taken up again later in life (e.g., in secondary school or college) makes them just as, if not more, immobile in one’s habitus throughout life (1984, 78-79).

REFERENCES
BOURDIEU, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Richard Nice, trans. Cambridge:   Cambridge University Press.
—-1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Richard Nice, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
—-1988. Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans., Stanford: Stanford University Press.
—-1993. Sociology in Question. London: Sage Publications.
DE CERTEAU, Michel, Luce Girad, and Pierre Mayol. 1998. The Practice of Everyday Life Volume 2: Living & Cooking. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
CSORDAS, Thomas.1993. “Somatic Modes of Attention.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol.8, No.2 (May): 135-156.
DURKHEIM, Émile and Marcel Mauss. 1903. “De quelques formes primitives de classification: Contribution à l’étude des eprésentations collectives.” Le année sociologique.
MAUSS, Marcel. 1934. “Techniques du corps.” Journal de psychologie normal et pathologique. Paris, Année XXXII, 271-93.
NASH, Roy. 1999. “Bourdieu, ‘Habitus’, and Educational Research.” British Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 20, no. 2: 175-187.