Approaching the end of the current chapter, I’m coming to see conatus as a key concept. This is both blindingly obvious and a Eureka moment (and a Eureka moment is always the sudden realization of the obvious): after all, conatus is almost the only term that Deleuze, Bourdieu, and Negri have in common.

Bourdieu adopts the concept quite late on, and never fully develops it. I think, moreover, that it reveals a striking ambiguity in his work. Here is a lengthy passage in which he employs the term in a response to his critics; and note that he is apparently defending himself from the charge of determinism. It’s also, incidentally, part of a section on “historicist ontology”:

The relation between habitus and the field through and for which it is created is an unmediated, infraconscious, practical relation of illusio, of investment, of interest in the game, which implies a sense of the game and a sense (which the twofold meaning of orientation, direction, and signification) of the history of the game; in short, a practical anticipation or inclination not to be mistaken for a conscious project or a calculated scheme. This investment, realized only in the relation between habitus and field, is the specific libido, the socially constituted and fashioned principle of every action. Both habitus and field (and also the specific form of capital produced and reproduced in this field) are the site of a sort of conatus, of a tendency to perpetuate themselves in their being, to reproduce themselves in that which constitutes their existence and their identity (for instance, in the case of the bourgeois habitus, the system of diferences and distances constitutive of distinction). This I hold against a finalist, utilitarian vision of action which is sometimes attributed to me. It is not true to say that everything that people do or say is aimed at maximizing their social profit; but one may say that they do it to perpetuate or to augment their social being. (“Conclusion” 274; my emphasis)

The first thing to say is that if this is a defence against determinism, then my goodness! For it’s a very strong statement of the principle of reproduction, of what elsewhere Bourdieu terms the “specific inertia” of both habitus and field.

But here’s the ambiguity: is it not a very different thing to attribute conatus to a habitus rather than to a field?

For in so far as a group or subject struggles “to perpetuate or to augment [its] social being,” is is constantly struggling against the countervailing tendency of the field to seek to perpetuate its social being. Precisely because there’s always a slippage between habitus and field, there’s therefore also a constant struggle between the two, even as habitus is also the means by which a field reproduces itself. (And also vice versa?)

Bourdieu sometimes, as here, recognizes the possibility of a group conatus, a striving distinct from the social field. But too often he considers only the field’s self-reproduction, as for instance when he describes habitus as “one of the mediations through which the social order fulfils its tendency to persevere in its being, in a word, its conatus” (Pascalian Meditations 152).

But again, especially in so far as a social subject strives to augment its social being, then that subject is always in conflict with the field in which it expresses that striving.

To put this at its most schematic, borrowing from Marx’s formula for the commodity (which may or may not be apposite): one could either consider the interplay between habitus and field from the perspective of the field, and the (differential, historical) reproduction of the social order, viz. Field-Habitus-Field, or F-H-F’. Alternatively, however, from the perspective of the group (and part of the problem is that Bourdieu has no real theory of the group, or rather no immanent theory), the formula would be H-F-H’.

Here, then, is May 1968 explained in almost precisely these terms, and in contrast to any ideological analysis. Against suggestions that the prime cause of the événements was “the diffusion of learned ideologies–such as that of Marcuse,” Bourdieu argues that

This semblance of ideological diffusion results in fact from the multiplicity of simultaneous but independent, albeit objectively orchestrated, inventions, realized at different points of the social space, but in similar conditions, by agents endowed with similar systems of dispositions and, so to speak, the same social conatus (by which we mean that combination of dispositions and interests associated with a particular class of social position which inclines agents to strive to reproduce at a constant or an increasing rate the properties constituting their social identity, without even needing to do this deliberately or consciously). (Homo Academicus 176; emphasis in original)

Now, again for all Bourdieu’s stress on “inventions” there’s a clear reductionism implied here. But it ain’t necessarily so. Not if we regard, as Spinoza does, conatus as itself the essence of a body, so that an increase in power is also a change in social identity or state, because it is a change in the power to affect or be affected.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that this struggle, this conflict between habitus and field and their two conatus (conati?) takes place via the encounter, good or bad, positive or negative. In the slippage between habitus and field, either sad or joyful passions can be engendered, leading to a transformation either of habitus or indeed of the field itself. Bourdieu once more:

One can also say, following the same logic, that habitus helps to determine what transforms it. If it is accepted that the principle of the transformation of habitus lies in the gap, experienced as a positive or negative surprise, between expectations and experience, one must suppose that the extent of this gap and the significance attributed to it depend on habitus: one person’s disappointment may be another’s unexpected satisfaction, with the corresponding effects of reinforcement or inhibition. (Pascalian Meditations 149)

Yes, the functionalist tenor persists. But the “surprise” of the encounter has surely also to be the location of a certain unpredictability–a surprise, if you like, also for the analyst. And equally the field (as well as the habitus) must also be affected variably, by either reinforcement or inhibition.

Either way, however, the segue to the multitude becomes clear.

And I wonder if we could posit a disparity similar to that posited by Negri for the multitude… I.e. whereas the field (and social reproduction) is dependent on habitus, is habitus really dependent on the field in the same way? I’d wager that it isn’t.


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