‘This is not an autobiography’

sketch-for-a-self-analysis“Why have I written and, above all, for whom?” asks Pierre Bourdieu in the conclusion to Sketch for a Self-Analysis, and then answers: “Perhaps to discourage biographies and biographers, while providing, as a kind of professional point of honour, the information that I would have liked to find when I tried to understand the writers or artists of the past…” (page 111).

Yes, me too Pierre, I like to know who’s talking to me from the pages of a book, where they grew up, what school they went to, what kind of family, I particularly like to know the struggles they’ve gone through to work out their ideas. Anthea and PierreAcademia had kind of knocked that journalistic (or maybe basically nosy) desire out of me by insisting that ideas stand alone and guess what, I did my entire PhD using your field theory as a method (and it permeates my day-to-day consciousness as I live my academic life) without once going to google you. I didn’t even know what you looked like when Guy Berger took me to your grave in Paris to pay my respects (he knew what I didn’t know or admit, that you’d become a big deal in my life). The simple gravestone said simply: Pierre Bourdieu 1930 – 2002.

So this self revelation is a bit of a treat, but of course, and as he says right at the beginning “I do not intend to indulge in the genre of autobiography, which I have often enough described as both conventional and illusory”, this is not a straightforward read. It takes some attention as he applies his sociological analysis to his own life. (And what’s with the translation? does it have to be quite so  tortured? And the explanatory footnotes don’t help at all to enlighten a reader not from Paris.)

True to field theory form (in which he made much of the entry moment into a field), but a bit surprising nonetheless, Bourdieu starts examining his life with his entry into elite French academia. He looks around the scene at the major colleges, the major schools of  thought, the giants straddling the field. He finds himself not quite fitting in (but we have to wait to find out why). Part of the reason is because he had already spent some time in Algeria as a conscripted soldier and then had done some “ethnological” research in the villages while the war went on in that country. This experience showed him that he didn’t want to be a philosopher (a highly desirable pinnacle of French academe) and that sociology was the field he could work in, but with some difficulty, as it was dominated by an American brand of scientism he didn’t feel comfortable with. He had to chart his own course through sociology, bringing to it a commitment to empirical work and a respect for and knowledge of people and they way they lived. He’s not kind in this book about much of academia and especially the French variety of intellectualism of the 1960s. One of my favourite quotes which he uses to describe this world is “collusio in the illusio” and he underlines this later by saying: “The intellectual world, which thinks itself so profoundly liberated from custom and convention, has always seemed to me inhabited by profound conformisms which have acted on me as repulsive forces” (page 106).

He then goes back further to his childhood in Bearns in southwestern France, a small village close to the Spanish border where he grew up as the son of the postmaster (himself the son of peasant farmers) and a mother from a slightly grander family who had married down. He evokes the terrible militarism of the boys boarding school (so like the prison and the army) and the misery and effects on adulthood of that life. This is the background that set him apart from the Paris intellectuals he was to rub shoulders with, and which drove his projects.

At the end of his life he had attained all that the French university system had to offer and he was one of France’s most recognisable intellectuals — he was, as he says “socially consecrated” but he maintained a troubled ambivalence about his position.

Good to know, many of us feel like that in this world. And good to know what kind of life and choices produces this kind of theory and thinking.

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