Something I’m working on, and I thought I’d put it up to see what the various Bourdieusians and Deleuzians make of it…

Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” is, in the first place, central to his intervention into the ongoing debate about structure and agency, “one of the key faultlines that runs through social theory” (Korczynski, Hodson, and Edwards, “Introduction” 12). On the one hand, there are theorists who stress the ways in which social structures constrain and determine individual or social agency. Marxism and psychoanalysis, for instance, in different ways tend to emphasize the ways in which agency is constrained by structures that are, respectively, material and psychic. On the other hand, other theorists stress the fact that agents can resist or overcome these structural determinants. The tendency of cultural studies, for example, is to point to the slippages by which (say) consumers determine their own responses and eke out a measure of agency even within contemporary capitalism. Or as Anthony Giddens (whose theory of structuration is an alternative bid to resolve the debate) puts it, those for whom “structure (in the divergent senses attributed to that concept) has primacy over action, and the constraining qualities of structure are strongly accentuated” are arrayed against those for whom “action and meaning are accorded primacy in the explication of human conduct; structural concepts are not notably prominent, and there is not much talk of constraint” (The Constitution of Society 2). Giddens goes on to characterize this difference as an “imperialism of the social object” facing “an imperialism of the object” (2). In short, these are two competing claims to transcendence; what is at stake, Giddens argues, is as much ontological as it is epistemological, as much about our models of what society is as about conflicting perspectives regarding the same model (2).

Bourdieu’s intervention is therefore also ontological, substituting immanence for the dueling imperial transcendences of structure and agency. He refuses both “mechanism” (an emphasis on structure) and “finalism” (a stress on agency), arguing that the debate between the two is “a false dilemma” (Outline of a Theory of Practice 72). If “it is necessary to abandon all theories which explicitly or implicitly treat practice as a mechanical reaction” shaped by rules or structures alone, equally “rejection of mechanistic theories in no way implies that [. . .] we should reduce the objective intentions and constituted significations of actions and works to the conscious and deliberate intentions of their authors” (73). Mechanism and finalism, structure and agency, are each as reductionist as the other, seeking causes always elsewhere, in some other dimension, either the “transcendent, permanent existence” of objective social constraints and regulations or the “transcendence of the ego” equipped to make its own rules (27, 75). So Bourdieu turns to habit, or “habitus,” an embodied set of dispositions immanent to practice itself. Habitus is a system “of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations” (The Logic of Practice 53). These dispositions are “objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends” (Outline 72). Habit, our everyday activity, is therefore the product of a “scheme (or principle) immanent in practice, which [. . .] exists in a practical state in agents’ practice and not in their consciousness, or rather, their discourse” (27; emphasis in original). Regulation and practice are immanent to each other, rather than mediated either by consciousness or by external structures. Habitus is an attitude of the body. It is the unspoken, unspeakable, feel for the social game that generates the positions and actions that agents adopt in given situations, in regular if not fully predictable ways. In short, because it is immanent, habitus is both embedded, and so structured; and it is also generative, an immediate rather than external motor of action.

There are many overlaps between Bourdieu’s habitus and Deleuze’s conception of the “virtual.” Both are immanent and productive, intensive and affective, corporeal and immediate. The relation between habitus and practice is not unlike that between the virtual and the actual: an unfolding or differentiation that takes place in the event of an encounter with other bodies. Habitus and the virtual alike describe an ontology that underlies but is of a different order from the realm of representation, discourse, and ideology. Habitus, Bourdieu tells us, is like the work of art in that it “always contains something ineffable, not by excess [. . .] but by default, something which communicates, so to speak, from body to body, i.e. on the hither side of words and concepts” (Outline 2; emphasis in original), while the virtual, Brian Massumi explains, is “the unsaid of the statement, the unthought of thought” (A User’s Guide 46; emphasis in original). Hence both theorists’ distaste for ideology: for Deleuze and Guattari, “there is no ideology and never has been” (A Thousand Plateaus 4); for Bourdieu, more measured, “I have little by little come to shun the use of the word ‘ideology’” (Pascalian Meditations 181). And yet, despite these manifold similarities, the tenor of Bourdieu’s work differs markedly from Deleuze’s. Where Deleuze emphasizes escape, and a flight towards the immanent virtuality of affect as an empowering realization of what the body can do, for Bourdieu the immanence of habitus is characterized above all by inertia. Bourdieu shows how habit enables social reproduction and works against radical social change, so much so that (as Bourdieu and Wacquant note) some even accuse him of “a politically sterile hyperfunctionalism” (An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology 52). Though his “functionalist tenor” (Lane, Bourdieu’s Politics 116) does not exhaust Bourdieu’s account of habit, the contrast with the voluntarist tenor of Deleuze’s theorization of affect is dramatic. Yet the difference is not, as Massumi claims, that habitus is an “ideological notion” whereas Deleuze’s account “emphasizes that [habit] belongs as much to the organic stratum, to the productive, physiological capacities of the flesh” (“Introduction” xxxvii). Bourdieu’s habitus is fully as corporeal as Deleuze’s affect. Rather, we might almost say that the structure and agency debate is replicated in the difference between Deleuze and Bourdieu, but now as a contest between two immanences.


One thought on “habitus

  1. Pretty interesting, I think the last line really makes a great point – Bourdeau is not proposing a structuring transcendence of the ideological, but a bodily disposition or immanent capture of expression. Habitus is an actual-virtual circuit.

    What would you say is the difference in B and D’s understanding of signs and the status of the symbolic order?

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