Bourdieu sometimes prioritizes intellectual (above all sociological) reflection as the means by which to grasp what otherwise goes without saying. Sociology is a “science [. . .] of the hidden” (Reproduction xxi) that follows and interprets social crisis. But the crises themselves are not caused by any such enlightenment. Indeed, Bourdieu’s analyses of social action highlight a practical reason that is far removed from scientific rationality. Hence the tension between Bourdieu’s own political program, especially as outlined in his later work in which he champions a “rational utopia” where “scientists are no doubt the ones who have to shoulder the primary role” (Firing Back 63, 25), and his descriptions of social movements, in which ethical protest generated by habit trumps political action motivated by rational deliberation. No wonder Bourdieu also complains that social scientists are out of touch, though it is less obvious that it is the “social movements” that “have a lot of ground to make up” (Acts of Resistance 57). For Bourdieu demonstrates that resistance arises semi-spontaneously at the interface of habit and social field following significant changes to the rules of the game. Bourdieu thereby shows not only the ways in which power is secured beyond and despite ideology, but also how protest builds by means other than the construction of so-called counter-hegemonic projects. Moreover, the dissent engendered by and in habitus undermines any putative hegemony or other political articulations. Politics is a restricted practice of representation, counterposed to an embodied ethics that emerges from habitual practices.
Politics is subordinate to ethics, albeit an ethics that is close to biopolitics in that what is at stake is life itself rather than the forms in which events are represented. Politics as the inclination to articulate “political principles to answer a problem that is presented as political” (Distinction 398) is unevenly distributed, and concentrated among the dominant class. Elsewhere, and “for problems that have not been brought into a personal or party ‘line,’ agents are thrown back on their ethos” (420). This ethos an expression of the embodied experience of the habitus, and contrasts with the discursive realm of hegemonic articulation: “there is every difference in the world between the conscious, quasi-forced systematicity of a political ‘line’ and the systematicity ‘in-itself’ of the practices and judgements engendered by the unconscious principles of the ethos” (420). Ethical dispositions underlie but are never equivalent to political positions. The conservatism of habitus and its material ontology of embodied subjectivity means that ethical protest is similar to Foucault’s conception of ethics as care of the self, the constitution and maintenance of a subject “defined by the relationship of self to self” that goes beyond any “juridical conception of the subject of right” (The Hermeneutics of the Subject 252).
So Bourdieu argues that the May 1968 student protests were the result of ethical self-protection in the face of inadvertent effects of increasing access to the French educational system in the 1950s and 1960s. The expansion of secondary and tertiary education had led to “diploma inflation” and the devaluation of certificates, such that educational success could no longer be converted straightforwardly into social mobility. Yet “newcomers to secondary education [we]re led [. . .] to expect it to give them what it gave others at a time when they themselves were excluded from it.” Whereas “in an earlier period and for other classes, those aspirations were perfectly realistic, since they corresponded to objective probabilities,” in the wake of systemic expansion “they are often quickly deflated by the verdicts of the scholastic market or the labour market” (Distinction 143). The social field had changed, shattering habitual expectation, and provoking an ethical refusal that questioned the very rules of the game: “a whole generation, finding it has been taken for a ride, is inclined to extend to all institutions the mixture of revolt and resentment it feels towards the educational system.” Hence the “anti-institutional cast of mind” that “point[ed] towards a denunciation of the tacit assumptions of the social order, a practical suspension of doxic adherence to the prizes it offers and the values it professes, and a withholding of the investments which are a necessary condition of its functioning” (Distinction 144). However much the events of 1968 drew “strength from ideological and scientific critiques” (144), they were not themselves ideological; rather they constituted a suspension of (practical, embodied) belief in the wake of an interruption to the smooth functioning of social reproduction. Just as the explanation for social order is found at an immanent, corporeal level, so disorder is also explained at this same level, beneath ideology.