Thursday, May 07, 2009
Bourdieu and the Big Picture
Internet Theory is closely related to a concern that is pertinent, both to America and to the entire Western world- the necessity (in 2009 and after) for a totalized sense of humanity, as it actually subsists on a global level. Bourgeois ideologies are difficult to overcome, particularly in America- material abundance is (often) presupposed, and minor setbacks in material gratification are taken for major crises. A "downsized" America is still the richest country in the world (despite China's recent displays of affluence), and Americans (particularly Blue Americans) have the tendency to view America as a miniaturized version of the world, rather than as an autonomous state, raised far above its neighbors in affluence and military power. Worse than taking affluence for granted, many Americans do not consider themselves to be affluent at all- only the super-rich are deemed to be legitimately wealthy, and those beneath gaze up, we assume, in envy and admiration. When competitive ideologies are thwarted, they transmute into a kind of "helplessness before riches," an envious gaze that has its roots in a feeling of absolute lack that is purely illusory. Illusions are always dangerous, but this kind is particularly pernicious- rather than positing the subject (through grandiosity and conceit) as having more than he or she has, this kind of illusion shows a wealthy subject to him or herself as being impoverished. This phenomenon, of bogus impoverishment, is endemic to bourgeois life in America- that nothing (materially speaking) is ever enough, and that economic modes of production are hegemonic to the extent that nothing else actually exists.
What is important to my thesis is that digital consciousness, in its ideal form, subverts both the base and the superstructure of American bogus impoverishment (the base being the perceived inadequacy of economic modes of production to produce an adequate superstructure, thus displacing the actual Marxist paradigm with an illusory one.) It is doubtlessly true that many Americans use the Internet to stalk celebrities (enacting a post-Roman sensibility), but there is no context or medium that cannot be abused. Moreover, in a digital context, stalking is far less destructive then in other contexts; traces are quickly covered over, the ability to disguise the Self is super-available, and actual violence is less of a possibility. However, the very ease with which linguistic traces are covered over can be problematic for serious discourse. This is a legitimate weakness of Net discourse, and difficult to surmount. What concerns us here is merely the implicit (and necessary) insult to bourgeois illusions of impoverishment visible, in the Net's own richness.
The richness of the Net can only be fully appreciated when thinking people recognize the cultural capital that can be gained there. However, it will first be necessary to recognize the inadequacy of Bourdieu's formulation. More than one of Bourdieu's formulations, in fact, suffer from the intellectual equivalent of bogus impoverishment that I have ascribed to bourgeois America. What is the ideology behind "cultural capital" and the positing of intellectuals as the "dominated of the dominant class"? It is an ideology of competition (though Bourdieu was not American) that nonetheless wants in to the institutionalized avarice that it reacts against. Bourdieu's strategy in these formulations is to join by competing, to emulate-via-rebellion. Bourdieu pays overt homage to the system he seemingly disapproves of; he defines himself in their terms. Thusly, he makes himself, and the thinkers he is speaking for, subaltern. It is the ambivalence of wanting in and out at the same time, and is not, in my opinion, the most intelligent strategy for subversion. "Cultural capital," puts culture, like held capital, strictly in the private sphere; culture is (as in Pater) a personal possession, leading (possibly) to a state of self-absorption and atomized lethargy. The indolence of the rich becomes the indolence of the cultured; the atomization of a materially wealthy subject becomes the atomization of an intellectually wealthy subject. All this cuts against the grain of digital consciousness and IT, which wants culture to be available for usage in the public sphere. Rather than cultural capital, what we should seek to develop is cultural fluidity; a sense of self-comfort in navigating the terrain that connects public and private culture, public and private discourse, public and private encounters of Otherness.