Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard UP, 1984.
My impression of Bourdieu’s Distinction is that his radical social theory of class differentiation does not leave any room for subjective position, focusing on the deepest objectification of the “nature of the game.” Thus for him, cultural capital, which was assumed to be derived from the most subjective (but disinterested) taste , that is, from the ‘aesthetic judgment’ in Kantian sense, is not just a result of pure independent faculty of human being, but the very effect of the accumulation of academic and family capital. In short, aesthetic taste is a product of the social differentiation. But how could this educational capital or social origin have been transmitted to cultural capital? How does different social position (thus class disposition) integrate different level of cultural capital (thus different aesthetic perception)?
Though Distinction is dedicated to explain these questions, there seems inherently a vicious circle in the presupposition. If the distribution of cultural capital is already established and determined by the distribution of wealth (economic capital) and other accompanying capitals, how can classified distinctions of taste survive in historical changes? Put it differently, how can a set of specific works of art, which were exclusively possessed by a specific social class and at a specific time and space, in the status of ‘art’ in the sense of high art, even after centuries has passed?
Let me think over this matter for a while with the following sentence: “The official differences produced by academic classification tend to produce (or reinforce) real differences by inducing in the classified individuals a collectively recognized and supported belief in the differences…”(25). According to this argument, there would have been no real differences if the collective belief was not induced to the classified individuals through differentiated education. Roughly saying, different taste is set by the differentiation of belief system. This is the way how bourgeois legitimate art has been recognized as such. But this logic does not explain why such and such standard of taste sustains its effectiveness through historical changes.
In the same context, when Panofsky’s identification of work of art with an artistic or aesthetic ‘intention’ made him unable “to determine scientifically at what moment a worked-upon object becomes an art object.” To this problem, Bourdieu asserts that the “intention is itself the product of the social norms and conventions” (29). But both of them are missing something critical. Aesthetic intention and social convention of art is also historically malleable concepts. The genre or art or work of art as taken for granted in present day was not regarded as art at all in medieval ages. It is not just about variations in genre or items but changes in the definition of art or something more. Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier” might not be regarded as what we now think as art. Nonetheless, on Bourdieu’s survey inquiries, explicitly or implicitly, the status of this kind of work of art is already reflected, for bourgeois class has chosen it as their taste. And it is not explained how this specific strategy of distinction – whereas the popular (working-class) aesthetic tends to refuse the formal experiments, bourgeois noble aesthetic tends to ignore the functionality – was historically produced and acknowledged as legitimate at a certain moment.
Hence, as Bourdieu mentions, “the paradox of the imposition of legitimacy”: this paradox “makes it impossible ever to determine whether the dominant feature appears as distinguished or noble because it is dominant … or whether it is only because it is dominant that it appears as endowed with these qualities and uniquely entitled to define them”(92). In fact, we cannot even imagine whether there is outside, or a possibility of outside, of this paradoxical system of distinction. The practice of agents – consumers or users – is closely embedded in the structure of symbolic space as in the formula [(habitus)(capital)]+field=practice. Even though it is undeniable that the entire cultural production is formulated as such, what will explain the singular mutations incidentally or contingently occur from the established perceptual system?