What Happened?

[Crossposted to to Infinite Test.]

Michael Joyce

Infinite Jest was published in 1996, but is set in what was then the near future and is now the recent past. The chronology is complicated by the fact that in the novel years are no longer referred to by numerals (1996, 1997, or whatever) but by product names as time itself is now “subsidized” by corporations that presumably pay good money for the privilege. Hence we have the “Year of the Whopper,” the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and so on. This shift to a new mode of reckoning time (or at least, naming it) accentuates a general sense of uncanniness that, I think, pervades Wallace’s text. There is much here that is recognizable, familiar; but there is also the impression that everything is just slightly out of joint and that something, possibly something traumatic, must have happened to make it so.

It is not just time that is out of joint; it is space, too. Again, something has happened: some kind of new international organization, the Organization of North American Nations (happily abbreviated to ONAN), has emerged, and at the same time national borders seem to have been renegotiated: territory (Maine? Vermont? Parts of New York State?) has been given to Canada; and yet in some way Canada has also been assimilated to the USA. Hence the various more or less violent organizations, mostly but not entirely from Québec, “whose opposition to interdependence/reconfiguration is designated by RCMP and USOUS as terrorist/extortionist in character” (144). Here, the RCMP is presumably still the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; but the USOUS is an unfamiliar acronym, part of this new, uncanny world that is so like and unlike our own.

The third element in the novel that is slightly (but significantly) misaligned is technology. In the world of the novel it seems that telephones have been replaced by consoles of some sort (there is a chapter devoted to the rise and fall of video telephony [144-151]), and that broadcast television has disappeared altogether. In place of TV, audiovisual entertainment is provided via a system of cartridges dominated by a small number of suppliers: “InterLace, Tatsuoka, Yushituyu, SyberVision” (110), but above all InterLace. The Internet exists–we even get a copy of an email detailing a somewhat bizarre insurance claim–but this is not exactly a wired, or even wireless, world. A long chapter is devoted to the decidedly old-school pleasures of late-night shows on a local (indeed, hyper-local) college radio station.

Of course, there is always something slightly uncanny about any novel, any work of art, which is inevitably both like and unlike, both part of and distant from our own everyday lives. But here there is also a touch of science fiction, even a touch of post-apocalyptic narrative. But only a touch: it wasn’t quite an apocalypse; life continues in many ways much the same. And the answer to the question as to what exactly happened may not be so very important. Something was bound to happen anyhow. In “actual fact” what happened was the world wide web and 9/11, whose effects are perhaps not all that different from the aftermath of whatever the trauma is that haunts Infinite Jest: a vague sense of paranoia, surveillance, and underlying violence; the rampant commodification of everyday life.

In the midst of all this, we are presented with a paper about the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern hero, written by the character who is probably the closest thing this book has to a hero of its own: Hal Incandenza, tennis player and lexical prodigy. Written “in the year of the Perdue WonderChicken” and “four years after the demise of broadcast television” (140), the essay puts forward Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues” as epitomes of modern and postmodern heroism respectively. McGarrett presents us with ”the hero in action” as we watch him “stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does” (141). By contrast, Frank Furillo is “a hero of reaction [. . .] his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields.” Furillo is “a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration” (141). But Incandenza then suggests that we are now waiting for a new kind of (post-postmodern) hero, “the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines” (142).

Is Hal himself a “hero of non-action”? It is not yet clear: he and the other boys in the tennis academy seem to be striving, perfecting their game for a place in the “Show.” And yet all that effort is less about action itself than about perfecting the habits of the forehand and backhand, ensuring that playing tennis becomes almost robotic, to produce a kind of catatonia in motion: “over and over, each forehand melting into the next, a loop, it’s hypnotizing, it’s supposed to be” (110). As Pierre Bourdieu used to say, when watching good tennis players it’s not always clear whether they control the ball or the ball controls them: through constant practice and repetition, habits of play and performance are instilled to become almost instinctual. This is the aim of the Enfield Tennis Academy that Hal’s father founded and his mother and uncle run. And perhaps for a good tennis player, as for the post-postmodern hero, the question of “what happened?” becomes unimportant or irrelevant. Something happened–it always does–but true heroism consists in insulating oneself from such events, which are mere distraction.


In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things George Lakoff argues: first, that emotions are concepts, that they do a form of cognitive work and constitute “an extremely complex conceptual structure” (380); and, second, that these “emotional concepts are embodied, that is, that the actual content of the concepts are correlated with bodily experience” (408).

To prove his argument, he presents dozens of idiomatic sayings or expressions, taking the particular case of anger. Anger, he shows, is conventionally associated with heat (“hot under the collar,” “hot and bothered”), pressure (“burst a blood vessel”), and agitation (“hopping mad,” “quivering with rage”). Such idioms correlate, Lakoff suggests, with a “folk theory” that imagines anger in terms of a contained liquied, an imaginary that enables a whole series of “metaphorical entailments” (384). So anger produces steam (“all steamed up”), can at least temporarily be held back (“bottled up”), but, if it does not find relief (either “vented” or “channeled”) is liable to lead to explosion (“flipping her lid,” “blowing his top”).

Lakoff goes further: he presents a sort of basic narrative of anger in terms of this metaphorical structure. An offending event excites anger, which the victim of the event fist tries to control but then fails, until he or she can enact some retribution for the purported wrong-doing (397-98). This is the embodied folk theory of anger.

Where Lakoff goes out on a limb, however, is with his claim that “the conceptual metaphors and metonymies used in anger are by no means arbitrary; instead they are motivated by our physiology” (407). If we think through the body, it is because somehow the body knows best; the verbal idioms and linguistic categories through which we understand emotion in common parlance are rooted in a primary corporeal experience that is transcultural and transhistorical: “if we look at metaphors and metonymies for anger in the languages of the world, we will not find any that contradict the physiological results” (407).

It is therefore all the more startling that Lakoff moves immediately to a discussion, in very similar terms, of idioms of lust and ultimately the language used to justify rape. Though he is careful to note that he himself in no way condones violence against women, he seems very close to naturalizing and so legitimating the fundamentally sexist “folk argumentation” that claims that (in his words) “a woman with a sexy appearance makes a man who is acting morally less than human. [. . .] To be made less than human is to be injured. [. . .] The only way to make up for being injured is to inflict and injury of the same kind” (414).

If language is only an expression of a somehow more fundamental set of embodied concepts, then those concepts are put beyond reach and thoroughly naturalized. It is surely better to see the body as an always contested (or contestable) point of contact between conceptual schemes of diverse origin, between affect and emotion, and between a social order and a corporeal experience that is never anything other than social. The body, in short, is the site of a habituation whereby (in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms) an arbitrary symbolic power is made, quite literally, to feel timeless and necessary.

Bourdieu tries to capture this notion with the concept of “bodily hexis, which he defines as “a political mythology realized, em-bodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking, and thereby of feeling and thinking” (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 92-94). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, in an only very slightly different context:

The practical acts of knowledge and recognition of the magical frontier between the dominant and the dominated that are triggered by the magic of symbolic power and through which the dominated, often unwittingly, sometimes unwillingly contribute to their own domination by tacitly accepting the limits imposed, often take the form of bodily emotions–shame, humiliation, timidity, anxiety, guild–or passions and sentiments–love, admiration, respect. (Masculine Domination 38)

The very fact that we seem to be betrayed by our own bodies, by a logic that precedes or undercuts rationality, can seem to legitimate the structures of power that the body thereby apparently confirms. But it is what Slavoj Zizek, in turn, would call the ideological structure of social reality (which is far from ideology as it is usually conceived) that has itself to be interrogated and overthrown.


The BBC’s Paul Mason (to whom I’ve linked before) has a rather interesting post on “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere”.

I’d underline the power of disenchantment, which I’ve discussed previously with reference to the protests against authoritarianism in Chile. At root is a series of broken promises.

Mason says:

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future

[. . .]

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

This is also much like the reasons Bourdieu gives for France’s May 1968. As I put it in Posthegemony:

Bourdieu argues that the May 1968 student protests were the result of ethical self-protection in the face of the inadvertent effects of increased 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 scholarly certification, 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.” 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 toward the educational system.” Hence the “anti-institutional cast of mind” that “point[ed] toward 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.” However much the events of 1968 drew “strength from ideological and scientific critiques,” 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. They were part of an ethical revolt that drew on habitual inclinations to confront the social order. (pp. 220-21)

The only thing I’d add, then, to Mason’s analysis is the importance of habit and conatus, the instinct for survival or increase. And it is conatus that builds the multitude.


It is perhaps too easy to call Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled “Kafkaesque,” and yet from the Central European setting to the befuddled narrator trying to make sense of a vaguely nightmarish world in which there seem to be hidden connections that he can’t quite discern, it is Kafka who is surely the reference point here.

One major difference, however, between The Unconsoled and (say) The Trial is that the problems besetting Ishiguro’s narrator and protagonist, a pianist by the name of Ryder, come because he is celebrated, rather than persecuted. But as time goes on, the line between celebration and persecution becomes increasingly blurred, and what begins as mere befuddlement approaches closer to nightmare.

Ryder has been invited to give some kind of recital in an un-named town that features a hotel in which Frederick the Great may once have stayed, run by a manager who is a little too eager to be of service; a historic Old Town with a Hungarian Café at which the hotel’s porters relax, gossip, and give rousing displays of their bag-handling prowess; a more modern, windswept housing estate a bus-ride away in which a committee of busy-body housewives rule the social roost; and a series of other more or less shadowy locales and colourful but slightly creepy characters.

Just about everyone that Ryder meets declares themselves incredibly honoured to make his acquaintance at last, and almost all of them have some little favour to ask–if it is not too much trouble, though they swear that it will surely not take more than a minute or two. The hotel manager, for instance, would like the great pianist to glance at some scrapbooks his wife has put together; the hotel porter hopes that, in the speech that Ryder somewhat belatedly finds he is due to give at the recital, he may spare a moment to mention the work done by porters such as himself; and so on and so forth. All these small favours add up, most of them come to take up much more time and effort than anticipated, and soon Ryder finds he is slowly being suffocated by these small requests for kindness.

At first sight, people are simply being over-familiar. But in fact Ryder starts to realize that some of these new-found acquaintances are familiar, and include old schoolfriends strangely displaced. Others should be rather more familiar to him than they are. Above all there is Sophie, the porter’s daughter, and her son, Boris. She treats the distinguished visitor as though he were her estranged lover, and her son as though he were Ryder’s own offspring, and soon Ryder is almost convinced that she is right. Everything seems to resonate some dim memory somewhere. And if everyone has some small stake in Ryder’s visit–the housewives’ committee, for example, aggrandize themselves with the honour of looking after the musician’s parents–in some cases Ryder slowly realizes that he, too, has some kind of stake even though he can’t fully work out what it is himself.

It is tempting to try to come up with a rational key to this otherwise mysterious story. Is the answer, say, that Ryder is suffering from amnesia, shock, or delusions of some sort? There are certainly hints towards such narrative “solutions,” and there is for instance no doubt that very many characters are in the grip of a variety of delusions–not least concerning the role of art and the way that this obviously much-anticipated visit by a celebrated musician might improve the profile and prospects of the town. And yet, on the one hand, there are a number of strange occurrences that really can’t be fully explained away: space and time both appear warped, as when Ryder finds his childhood car rusting in a field outside a reception given in his honour. We find it hard to discern any hard border between delusion (or dream) and sanity (or consciousness); both are delineated with the same measure of realism. Moreover, on the other hand, it is as in Kafka precisely the search for logical explanation that gives rise to the greatest madness. Here, too, it is a bureaucratic logic (if in the form of making things easy for an honoured guest, rather than difficult for a suspected criminal) that ultimately throws up the “utterly preposterous obstacles everywhere” that are “quite typical of this town” (388).

In the same vein, it is hardly spoiling the plot to reveal that the recital never ultimately goes ahead… and, indeed, that it never particularly matters, either for the plot or for the experience of reading the book. In the end, if there is any logic to the long-anticipated event at all, Ryder slowly discovers that it has less and less to do with him. However much he is told he is the centre of the fuss and activity all around him, he comes to see that really he is only an excuse at best, a vehicle for other people’s desires to play out as they try to position themselves within the community, or to reposition the community itself. The means by which they establish their positions is art, or the (often rather abstruse) discussion of what is apparently defiantly difficult modern art–in some ways The Unconsoled is almost a case study in the (il)logic of Bourdieusian symbolic capital. And finally even the art itself hardly matters.

So Ryder finds himself, as the book ends, a “rider” on a tram whose route is an apparently endless circuit of the town, or perhaps a rhizome that brings everything together. For “you can go anywhere on this tram” and it seems to offer its riders a full breakfast of “eggs, bacon, tomato, sausage” (533). Soon the pianist, now that the time for the recital has come and gone suddenly at a loss if no longer as lost has he once was, is happily eating and chatting, in no hurry to get off or go anywhere in particular. Despite everything, “Things had not, after all, gone so badly,” he muses (534). He might even agree with his new friend: “Oh yes, this is a marvellous tram” (533).

And perhaps The Unconsoled, for all its gloomy title and Kafkaesque ambience–and the title is justified by the fact that everyone here is wounded in some way or another, and consolation would require some portion of the resolution that Ishiguro refuses–resembles somewhat the tram with with which the novel finally and rather arbitrarily ends. Perhaps it’s because we ultimately don’t care enough about the petty squabbles that occupy the townsfolk so, but the book turns out to be a sort of Kafkaesque comedy: rather aimless, and mysterious in its constant circuitous motion, but the journey alone is enjoyable enough for a while, even if it means we miss our stop a few times.


The social order is merely the order of bodies: the habituation to custom and law that law and custom produce by their very existence and persistence is largely sufficient, without any deliberate intervention, to impose a recognition of the law based on misrecognition of the arbitrariness which underlies it. (Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations 168)

Para conocer a Pinochet, basta con leer sus declaraciones [. . .] sus palabras lo dicen todo. (Nelson Caucoto, in Luis Alejandro Salinas, The London Clinic 12)

“Tiredness and waiting,” observes Deleuze, “even despair are the attitudes of the body” (Cinema 2 189). We are some distance here from nomadic lines of flight, even if Deleuze’s point is to underscore the Spinozan maxim that “we do not even know what a body can do” (189). The body opens up a world of immanent resistance and Exodus: an “imperceptible passage of attitudes and postures to ‘gest,’” a Brechtian shock that is “necessarily social and political” as well as “bio-vital, metaphysical, and aesthetic” (192, 194). Yet, “obstinate and stubborn” (189), weary and worn down, often enough the body is simply a creature of habit. At its most reduced, most contracted, affect becomes habit. For instance, the tick inhabits “a world with only three affects, in the midst of all that goes on in the immense forest” (Deleuze, Spinoza 124-125). It seeks light, to climb a branch; smell, to detect and drop down on an animal passing below; and warmth, to burrow into that animal’s skin. These three affects are an index of the tick’s power, what its body can do; and they enable the tick’s becoming, its leap and clandestine submergence within a host animal’s hide. But these same affects also structure a profound passivity, a “tiredness and waiting” that reaches its apogee in the famous Rostock tick that, as Agamben reports, zoologist Jakob von Uexküll “kept alive for eighteen years without nourishment” (The Open 47). The tick figures the persistence of habit, a captivation or “remaining-inactive” in which everything continues the same (68).

For Agamben, we are closer to the tick than ever: “for a humanity that has become animal again, there is nothing left but the depoliticization of human societies” (76). We are hardly even bored any more, for boredom is at least the “awakening of the living being to its own captivation” (70), a realization of our own habituation. On television, we are obsessed with people like us who, as with the Rostock tick, are denied almost all external stimulus (reality TV’s Big Brother). On the Internet, millions surf listlessly, perhaps with half an eye on webcams of coffee warming (http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/coffee/coffee.html) or paint drying (http://www.watching-paint-dry.com/). Ours is but a bare life, all the more so for the routines that fill it, captivating us as much as the tick is captivated by the meager affects that constitute its plane of immanence. Contemporary culture is pervaded with the sense that most of us are condemned to cubicles and McJobs, a world of blank indifference enlivened only by petty rivalries with co-workers or grievances towards employers. After its initial shock, even terror becomes routine: we adapt to the search procedures of airport security just as British shoppers in the 1970s adjusted to the inconveniences of IRA bomb threats. Few of us really believe either in the threat or, still less, in the measures taken to deter it (which is in part why terror maintains its power to shock); but we go along with the rigmarole, altering our habits accordingly. Our bodies become accustomed to waiting in line, to passing through metal detectors, to iris scans and security patdowns.

Few of us believe: habit persists even when ideology fades. Our contemporary condition is the cynicism outlined by Peter Sloterdijk, “a universal, diffuse cynicism,” which is “that state of consciousness that follows after naive ideologies and their enlightenment” (Critique of Cynical Reason 3). The paradigmatic cynic is “an average social character in the upper echelons of the elevated superstructure” (4) who is aware that he or she is exploited in work and alienated in the face of the culture industry, but who continues on none the less, in the spirit of “a detached negativity [. . .] that scarcely allows itself any hope, at most a little irony and pity” (6). Now a host of books, from Timothy Bewes’s Cynicism and Postmodernity to Wilber Caldwell’s Cynicism and the Evolution of the American Dream, indicate that, in William Chaloupka’s words, “over and over, cynicism pops up as a description of our society’s problems” (Everybody Knows 5). Moreover, today this cynicism is more diffuse, no longer restricted to Sloterdijk’s “upper echelons.” In what is often regarded as a sign of widespread depoliticization, we are all cynical now, thanks to a “mass cultural retreat from politics itself” (Bewes 3).

Read more… (large .pdf file)


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.


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.



Belief is a matter of the body: “To speak of ‘ideologies’ is to locate in the realm of representations [. . .] what in fact belongs to the order of belief, that is, to the level of the most profound corporeal dispositions” (Practical Reason 55). It is also therefore immediate. Bourdieu adapts and radicalizes Pascalianism. If for Pascal, belief arises from corporeal dispositions, for Bourdieu it is located in those dispositions themselves, and needs never rise to consciousness. Though praising Pascal’s challenge to “all those who insist on seeing belief in terms of representations” (The Logic of Practice 49), Bourdieu argues that Pascal maintains a pre-eminence of consciousness over practice, “as if will and consciousness were the basis of the disposition which ‘with no violence, art or argument makes us believe'” (49). For Bourdieu, however, dispositions are always primary: “what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying” (Outline 157; emphasis in original). There is no prior decision, and so no wager. Institutions work directly on the body; social order produces no rationale so long as it needs none, and “the principles embodied in this way are placed beyond the grasp of consciousness” (94). Everything begins and ends at the level of the corporeal, as we are habituated to subjection. We are steeped in doxa, “the relationship of immediate adherence that is established in practice between a habitus and the field to which it is attuned, the pre-verbal taking-for-granted that flows from practical sense” (The Logic of Practice 68). Despite its immediacy, however, there is always some slippage between habitus and social order. Something always escapes. For as a deposit of the power relations that structure a given social field, habitus is always a residue, an embodied memory of a previous state of that field. And because fields are always in flux, in that their contours are determined only in the course of a permanent struggle between social agents and their continual position-takings, habitus and field are never fully synchronized. Hence the historicity of habitus, or rather what Bourdieu terms its “double historicity” in that it is both the product of history and the force that, by generating practice, produces history (Invitation 139; see also Outline 82). More fundamentally still, habitus generates time itself, for “time is what practical activity produces in the very act whereby it produces itself. [. . .] Time is engendered in the actualization of the act” (Invitation 138). History and time, in short, are also fully immanent: “the theory of practice condensed in the notions of field and habitus allows us to do away with the metaphysical representation of time and history as realities in themselves, external and anterior to practice” (138).

The historicity of habitus secures social reproduction, but also and at the same time allows for the possibility of resistance. It is because the practices it generates express dispositions structured by a previous state of the field, that habitus provides the continuity that ensures that historical structures are reproduced in the present. But the encounter between dispositions shaped by history and the field in its current state, and the inevitable slippage between the two, makes for unpredictable effects and so the possibility of a new history. Habitus ensures resonance, but also leads to dissonance. Hence the “hysteresis effect necessarily implied in the logic of habitus,” which means that “practices are always liable to incur negative sanctions when the environment with which they are actually confronted is too distant from that to which they are objectively fitted” (Outline 78). Hysteresis can account for missed opportunities, for clumsy or unsuccessful practices by which an individual or group confirms, despite themselves, their social decline. Equally it can provide an embodied memory that serves as a resource or resistance, just as Paul Gilroy argues that the “structures of feeling which underpin black expressive cultures” derive from embodied memory both of “the once forbidden drum” and of “a terror which has moved beyond the grasp of ideal, grammatical speech” (The Black Atlantic 77, 76, 71). In either case, the gap that arises in the slippage between embodied structures and actual practices opens up a time for strategy. It is the strategic aspect of practice that means we can speak of a social game: though the playing field is never level, structured as it is by symbolic domination and unequal distributions of capital, still the result of each move is always partly in doubt. Time enables strategy, which in turn depends upon timing. As Bourdieu observes in his analysis of gift exchange, what counts is not some transcendent structure or invariable rules, but “the tempo of action” and “the interval between actions,” such that a successful outcome is guaranteed only by the skilful management of time, by acting neither too precipitately nor too late (The Logic of Practice 106).


The key to the difference between Bourdieu and Deleuze, and so to the specificity of the concept of habitus, consists in Bourdieu’s introduction of the related concepts of “field” and “symbolic capital.” For Bourdieu, habitus is always embedded in a prior social field, which itself is structured by symbolic power. In some ways Bourdieu takes more seriously than Deleuze, then, the notion encapsulated in Deleuze and Guattari’s affirmation that “politics precedes being” (A Thousand Plateaus 203). For if habitus is a set of “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (The Logic of Practice 53), it is not only generative but also generated. It is the product of a given state of power relations: the social field as a whole, and also distinct subfields (such as the artistic field, the journalistic field, the academic field). Hence, in Loïc Wacquant’s words, the relation between habitus, field, and capital is that “a field consists of a set of objective, historical relations between positions anchored in certain forms of power (or capital), while habitus consists of a set of historical relations ‘deposited’ within individual bodies” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology 16). Hence the dispositions of habitus are also depositions, both in the sense that they constitute a record of the state of the field that formed them and (to use now more Deleuzian terminology) that they are the sediments or deposits that form within a particular landscape of power. They are “conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence” (The Logic of Practice 53). And what they therefore generate or structure in turn tends therefore to reproduce the structures that constituted them, in that they generate practices that seem to call those structures into being, that take them for granted without the need of words or discourse.

Each field is structured by a competition for domination and capital. “The structure of the field,” Bourdieu argues, “is determined by the structure of the distribution of the distinct forms of capital that are active in it” (An Introduction to Reflexive Sociology 108). For there are different forms of capital, each of which has a different weight depending upon the field in question. Broadly, for instance, the field of culture is structured in terms of its differential distribution of cultural capital, while it is financial capital that counts in the market for economic goods. Yet Bourdieu downplays the direct influence of financial capital, and is interested above all in the distinct forms of symbolic capital that are subject to struggle in different subfields, and the ways in which the definition of capital (or what is to be accorded value) is at stake in these struggles, as well as the mechanisms by which one form of capital is converted into another. In the end, the most effective power is symbolic: “symbolic” here does not imply either representation or a power that is “merely” symbolic, but refers a mode of domination that achieves legitimacy in that its arbitrariness is misrecognized, so much so that it goes without saying. Bourdieu and Passeron present this as the fundamental axiom grounding their analysis of social reproduction: “every power which manages to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force, adds its own specifically symbolic force to those power relations” (Reproduction 4; emphasis in original). What is reproduced through habitus, habitually, is our corporeal assent to the legitimacy of these power relations, and to the unequal distribution of capital that they secure.

Habitus is reflex and relay, product and producer, assuring social continuity by literally incarnating the principles of social order. In Bourdieu’s words, “it ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes and perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time” (The Logic of Practice 54). It ensures that social agents are attuned to their circumstances. It fosters the self-confidence of the “inheritor” who, rich in cultural capital, exhibits a confidence and flair that is rewarded with further social and cultural capital; and it also ensures that those dispossessed of cultural capital assent to their dispossession by rejecting what is culturally consecrated (be it higher education or high art) with the sentiment that it is not for them. Privilege is naturalized as though it were simply a “gift”; and subordination is taken for granted as though social difference were a question of talent or taste. The dispossessed are often the first to admit that they have only themselves to blame. And all this is legitimated and arbitrated by institutions and officials who have no need to be aware of what they are doing, who can be committed or even (increasingly) entirely cynical about the ideals they are upholding. For ideals are not at stake. Academic diplomas, for instance, attest to “gifts” and “merits,” and can do so objectively with no hint of bias, because the real work has been done in the conversion and so dissimulation of privilege as attitude. The source of these dispositions is concealed, all the more effectively in that the habits they generate are second nature. Hence, Bourdieu and Passeron argue, “the supreme privilege” of the privileged is “not seeing themselves as privileged,” which in turn “manages the more easily to convince the disinherited that they owe their scholastic and social destiny to their lack of gifts and merits, because in matters of culture absolute dispossession excludes awareness of being dispossessed” (Reproduction 210). There is no conspiracy because there is no hidden knowledge: the game’s winners as much as the game’s losers, as well as its arbitrators, can all act in perfectly good faith. The judgments that lead to social promotion or exclusion, such as the feeling that “he’s a good chap” or “she’s not one of us,” can be justified by transcendent principles whose legitimacy is assured by the fact that they resonate with immanent habits.


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.