Pierre Bourdieu and the self-taught

I’m not sure where I want to begin with this and even less certain about what it is that I want to say. Bourdieu looms large in my personal pantheon in that he wrote with enormous clarity and I can’t argue with most of what he said. Most people would accept that ‘Distinction’ is his finest work in that it relentlessly tears apart any notion of the autonomy of personal taste. The tome is packed with the results of research which points irrefutably to that our class position determines what music we play, what food we eat, what clothes we wear and what books we read. I can’t argue with this, I see the evidence for this in all aspects of the media every day. I’m also immensely amused at the distaste and exasperation of the bourgeoisie every time the working classes try to rise above their appointed place.
I consider myself to be largely self-taught in that I didn’t attend college and I come from a petit-bourgeois background. In my head this has a number of advantages in that I can read across disciplines as I wish safe in the knowledge that my oddly enquiring mind hasn’t been ‘polluted’ by a university education. So, I can read poetry, history, geography, politics etc. because they interest me and keep my scurrying brain occupied.
This is important to me because, like Keston Sutherland, I find the world to be impossible and need to better grasp the nature of this impossibility. I’m also aware that my tastes betray a kind of inverted snobbery that belies the chip on my shoulder- I’ll always be much keener on the obscure and elitist- especially those modes of expression that offend the established order (Prynne, free jazz, slow cinema et al). This does not mean that I don’t ‘like’ mainstream stuff, it’s just that it isn’t very interesting to me- my boredom threshold is very, very low.
Apart from this I’m also bipolar and it’s bad for my mental health not to be interested but not too interested because that usually means tipping into mania which is unpleasant.
In ‘Distinction’, Bourdieu addresses the self taught (autodidacts) and points out that we’ll never gain full access to the cultural heights because our knowledge is always going to be partial and not in any way sanctioned by the dominant class. I’m going to quote at length from his section on education and the autodictat and then try to make a personal response-
“So it presents no paradox to see to the autodictat’s relation culture and the autodictat himself as products of the educational system, the sole agency empowered to transmit the hierarchical body of aptitudes and knowledge which constitutes legitimate culture, and to constitute arrival at a given level of initiation, by means of examinations and certificates.
Because he has not acquired his culture in the legitimate order established by the education system, the autodidact constantly betrays his very anxiety about the right classification, the arbitrariness of his classifications and therefore of his knowledge- a collection of unstrung pearls, accumulated in the course of an uncharted exploration, unchecked by institutionalised, standardised stages and obstacles, the curricula and progressions which make scholastic culture a ranked and ranking set of interdependent levels and forms of knowledge.”
There I was thinking that I was foot-loose and fancy-free, completely outside a system of sanctified knowledge that is profoundly suspect. To have this illusion of personal autonomy shattered is not a comfortable feeling and has caused some soul searching. It emerges that I am aware of gaping chasms in my knowledge base, I know virtually nothing of linguistics and my familiarity anything scientific is very, very distant. The gaps with regard to literature are more technical in that I don’t know enough about the various forms that a poem can take and I’ve never read anything from the Classical world.
I wish I knew more about the above but I’m very pleased that nobody made me read either Marx or Hegel mainly because they are very, very boring. Perhaps experience of academia would have enabled me to see the flaw’s in Eliot’s poetry earlier than I did and may also have introduced me to the glories of Hill and Prynne.
I think I accept that I am actually just another product of the system and that my kind of quietist cultural autonomy is a contradiction in terms. I therefore have the choice whether to continue ploughing this particular furrow or whether I should go to college.
Incidentally, I quite like the unstrung pearls metaphor as it seems to fit the impossible times in which we live.


7 responses to “Pierre Bourdieu and the self-taught

  1. I don’t quite have a wholly formed thought yet either, but I’d say that the sort of education Bordieu is talking about is very, very rare these days. Perhaps archaeology is also a handful of unstrung pearls (and I also really like the imagery) and other disciplines are more strung together but I have gaps and piecemeal knowledge in places. I think todays education system doesn’t work the way he writes. Sadly.

  2. I think the education system still works in exactly the way he described. Those with a privileged social background still do better than those lower down the ladder. The system (of whatever quality) still produces a system of codes and these act as effective barriers towards those who don’t learn the codes. I’ll lend you the book, it’s very good.


  3. Maybe on a metalevel- I have an ‘Education’ (deliberate capital), so I can talk the talk, use the codes, but I still don’t think my thinking is any better or worse strung together than yours.

  4. Ooops, did my first reply from my phone which doesn’t have the funky wordpress profile thing working just yet. Froglet is me.

  5. I’m quite proud of the unstrungness thing. The big difference is that your educational attainments mark you out in a completely different way to mine because they and only they demonstrate your competence in the codes.
    My unstrung pearls don’t stand for anything very much…

    j x

  6. Marx is not boring! He’s the wittiest critic of political economy since Jesus.

    Click to access KSutherland.pdf

    • “In order to discover how the elementary expression of the value of a commodity lies hidden in the value relation of two commodities, we must, in the first place, consider the latter entirely apart from its quantative aspect.”
      Passage from Capital chosen at random- I’m bored before I get to the end of this sentence. For boring but unintentionally hilarious read Lord Phillips’ inquiry into BSE report- the whole rich tapestry of political ineptitude is on full display.
      I enjoy reading Keston Sutherland but I think he’s a far better poet than a theorist.

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