The Rise of the Meritocracy

Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy is a strange little book, more akin to a dystopian novel than to a work of sociology (though of course all dystopian novels encode some kind of critique of contemporary society). Published in 1958 but set in 2034, it purports to be a work of historical sociology tracing not just the rise of meritocracy, a term that Young coins here, over the long period from 1870 to 2033, but also its crisis. There may be much that Young’s futurology gets wrong, but surely one thing he gets very right is the prediction that some day meritocrats would face a populist backlash that could even end in violence. (In a note to the book’s final sentence we learn that its narrator has died amid the disturbances, and that this is therefore a posthumous publication.) Have we not seen something of that in the events at the US Capitol a couple of days ago? If anything, Young’s dystopian future has come to fruition a decade or so earlier than he anticipated, in 2021 rather than in 2034.

Yet the difference between Young’s critique of meritocracy and the rejection of expertise that characterises not only Trumpism but also (say) Brexit and COVID denialism is that whereas the current populist insurgency is firmly aligned with right-wing politics, often viciously chauvinist and nationalist, by contrast Young imagines meritocracy to be brought down by a fundamentally left-wing (even feminist) protest against its anti-egalitarian injustices. (We are told that the narrator dies at a public meeting at Peterloo, in clear resonance with the Peterloo massacre of 1819, in which the army repressed a crowd gathered to demand that parliamentary representation be democratized.) It is a sign of the distance between our times and Young’s that it is hard to imagine today the struggle against meritocracy to be a progressive cause, so much has the erstwhile left tied itself to its banners.

The particulars of Young’s futurology also (naturally enough) reflect his own British post-war context more than they resonate with today’s political or social realities. For instance, he envisages the continued relevance of state planning, and can hardly imagine the ways in which the market has effectively supplanted the state in so many areas of life. So although he recognizes that meritocracy means that the school and university become ever more the key institutions of social reproduction (think of that uber-meritocrat Tony Blair’s famous slogan, “Education, education, education”), and even predicts both the exhaustion of the comprehensive system and the increasing prevalence of testing at every younger ages, he somewhat bizarrely foresees the withering away of the private sector where what we have instead seen has been the wholesale marketization of public education as schooling has been firmly painted as a private rather than a public good.

At the same time, though Young no doubt correctly envisages the declining relevance of the House of Commons, as meritocracy eats away at democracy, he (perhaps fancifully) portrays the House of Lords taking its place at the center of the parliamentary system, missing the rise of the executive and the triumph of various forms of presidentialism even in notionally parliamentary democracies such as the UK (and again, Blair and Blairism are no doubt paradigmatic here).

Yet for all its failings, and perhaps because of as much as despite its somewhat quaint air, it is worth returning to Young, not least to shock us out of the meritocratic “common sense” that grips us. Merit, which Young defines here as a combination of intelligence and effort, is firmly entrenched as a supreme virtue not only on the left but also, in the form of a valorization of entrepreneurialism, on the right. It is the shibboleth of our times, so much so that few believe it can be questioned: they assume that arguments against meritocracy can only be framed in terms of the fact that “equality of opportunity” has yet to be achieved by many (minorities, women, the poor, or whoever), and so what is needed is for merit to be more, rather than less, perfectly recognized and rewarded. But Young’s dystopia is in fact a fully realized meritocracy: he takes aim at the ideal itself, rather than the obstacles that lie in its path; he is against equality of opportunity, which he opposes in the name of the rather more radical notion of equality, plain and simple.

It is in the nature of any book that goes so against the grain of prevalent common sense that it is misread and misunderstood. In later years, Young felt the need to add a supplementary introduction, in his own voice rather than that of his narrator, to point out that he was arguing against rather than in favour of meritocracy, a point that the satirical tone also perhaps obscures much as some readers apparently felt that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (which argued that the eighteenth-century Irish could alleviate their economic woes by selling their children as food for the rich) was somehow a serious proposition. Yet the term that he coined is still almost universally presented as utopian model rather than, as here, dystopian warning.

It is also in the nature of the book’s satirical genre that Young’s alternative to meritocracy is seldom articulated. But it is here, and it comes in the form of a Manifesto that is imagined to have been published in the early 2000s, and which deserves to be quoted at length:

The classless society would be one which both possessed and acted upon plural values. Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation, and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry-driver with unusual skill at growing roses? The classless society would also be the tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for living a rich life. (159)

This is the firmly egalitarian left-wing critique of meritocracy, and it should surely be revived.


Gastón Gordillo, Rubble

Before ruins, there was rubble. This is the startling and counter-intuitive claim at the heart of Gastón Gordillo’s magnificent new book. It is counter-intuitive because we tend to think of rubble as an extrapolation of ruination, ruination taken to the nth degree. Rubble is what we are left with when we don’t even have a ruin, when the forms of ruined structures are no longer comprehensible, leaving us with little more than shapeless masses of material and debris. Rubble is what ruins ultimately become, if left to their own devices; they are what ruin the ruin itself. If ruins are a palimpsest, rubble is their holocaust. If in the ruin, as Walter Benjamin observes, “the idea of the plan speaks” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama 235), and we can think we imagine a completed building, a unified structure, by contrast in the mound of rubble little can be discerned. Rubble is illegible, seemingly mute and expressionless; it defies representation. Or if rubble speaks, surely it tells us only of the extreme violence that has silenced it, that has erased the history that it once incarnated? No, says Gordillo: quite the opposite. Rubble’s apparent formlessness is an indication of its generative potential. From heaps of rubble mighty ruins spring.

Gordillo’s book, then, is a wide-ranging account of the production of ruins from rubble across a swathe of Northern Argentina from the foothills of Andes to the Paraguayan border, in the once forested plains of the Gran Chaco. He shows how diverse forces, from the Spanish conquistadors to the colonial Church or the contemporary state, have at various points tried to seize hold of the rubble that litters the region and capture it to produce what (following David Harvey) we might call a “spatial fix” to cement power, shape memory, and organize bodies, human and material alike. For even “naming something a ruin” is, as Gordillo quotes Ann Stoler saying, “in itself a political act” (196). Ruination is a process of selection that negates certain potentialities that remain virtual within rubble, even as it actualizes and celebrates others to produce “deceivingly positive landscapes” (16) punctuated by fetishized monuments to an official version of the past. If there is anything negative in the ruin it is this: the ruin sets out to negate rubble and with it its generative power and complex multiplicity. Against the flexibility and fluidity of what seem to be unformed mounds of material, scattered here and there in all manner of combinations, ruination produces “rigid objects presented as nodes of memory” that “transform space by gathering bodies around them and organizing and modulating their gaze and affective disposition” (206). But with rigidity comes brittleness. It’s no wonder that these ruins become objects of ritual veneration that require “repetitive ceremonies that something worth remembering happened there” (206). Ruins have to be endlessly (at)tended, reconstructed, shored up, rebuilt. Hence the irony that there are no structures more carefully conserved and preserved than ruins, supposed monuments to impermanence and decay that are in fact shaky bulwarks of projects to ensure stability and purity. Ruins have to be kept “whole” to hide the fact that all great structures are only ever ruins in waiting, and that everything tends to return to rubble. Ruins are the precarious legitimation of sovereign power; built on rubble, in the end they are not so mighty after all.

For the transformation of rubble into ruin is not a one-way process. Ruination is not rubble’s destiny, and Gordillo’s history is also the tale of constituted power’s constant battle with rubble’s perennial resurgence. While the elite battle against rubble, perpetually in fear of the ways in which it manifests “the fragility of state power” (57), or indeed the failures of any other would-be hegemonic project, in and around the debris itself arise other practices, other memories: subaltern reappropriations of place, such as the wild parties (“fiestones”) and “exuberant events of a Dionysiac nature” that one of Gordillo’s informants tells him used to take place in an abandoned Jesuit mission. It is this same informant, a local man called Alfredo, who first shocks Gordillo into realizing that if “we aren’t afraid of ruins” (as his Conclusion has it), it’s because we fear rubble even less. Calmly breaking off pieces of stucco, “enthusiastically eroding the materiality of the wall” (4), Alfredo happily demonstrates the vulnerability of ruins, their susceptibility to a subaltern counter-violence. Sous les pavés, la plage; beneath ruins, rubble.

But what comes before rubble? Or is history simply some kind of endless dialectic between rubble and ruin, violence and counter-violence? No. Gordillo suggests that before rubble is the void. But void does not here mean absence of any kind. It is true that Gordillo has much to say about negation, and in general his book is often dressed up in Frankfurt-School and particularly Adornian and Benjaminian rags. But his is an Adorno who, in proper Deleuzian fashion, has been well and truly fucked in the arse. So despite imperial or national depictions of the Chaco as some kind of savage abyss, defined by everything it supposedly lacks (culture, order, hierarchy), Gordillo stresses its plenitude, indeed its multiplicitous excess. This is what truly makes elites tremble: not that there is nothing there, but that there is too much, as is evidenced by the void’s power to create rubble. For perhaps it is better to speak not of the void, as though it were one object among many, but of voiding as an activity, as an insistent presence, a vital expression of the war machine as constituent power that (here Gordillo references Pierre Clastres) exerts its own violence to ward off the state, and in so doing creates rubble. The difference between the void and rubble is that the void is truly formless, a smooth space of pure immanence. Rubble, by contrast is organized (much as the state cannot see this or has to deny it) in zones of intensity, or what Gordillo consistently calls “nodes,” which themselves constitute “constellations.” This makes sense of the description of rubble as “ruptured multiplicity” (2), as opposed to the “ruptured unity” that more conventional accounts suggest. For it is not unity but multiplicity that is prior, and it is this basic (pure) multiplicity of the void that rubble ruptures.

Gordillo wants to persuade us not to fear ruins, in the name of a plea that we appreciate and affirm rubble. But should we not then love the void even more? Is this a radical call to embrace the war machine, reversing all the polarities of constituted power? Again, no, for this is not a book tainted with nostalgia for the so-called primitive, nor does it surrender to banal dialectics. There is something deeply ambivalent about the void. And we can see why if we look at the latest forces to shape the landscape of the Argentine Chaco: truly “primitive” accumulation in its purest state; neoliberal agribusiness as incarnated in the so-called “Soy Boom” of the past couple of decades. For what marks the process by which the forests are destroyed to be replaced by vast fields of soy is that the devastation is near absolute: not even rubble is produced or left behind, while the rubble that was once there is now consumed by fire. This is truly a smooth space. Moreover, there is something of the nomad, something of the war machine and even something multitudinous in these new multinational forces sweeping through the Chaco. Their voiding is certainly vigorous and active, and ultimately as threatening to state sovereignty as marauding indigenous bands ever were. These are the new spectres that haunt the Chaco, constituting lines of flight in pursuit of capital that (as Deleuze and Guattari comment in another context) “emanate a strange despair, like an odor of death and immolation, a state of war from which one returns broken” (A Thousand Plateaus 229). In the face of this latest challenge to the Argentine (but not just Argentine) spatio-historical ecosystem, it is the signal merit of Gordillo’s book to remind us of the value of the loose, but productive and fertile, horizontal connections and communities that make up the network of nodes and constellations that we too easily dismiss as “mere” rubble.


Rousseau, Discourse on InequalityIn the Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau sets out to turn Thomas Hobbes’s famously pessimistic account of “natural man” on its head. Where for Hobbes life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish, and short” as everyone struggles against each other in a “war of all against all,” for Rousseau it is a form of existence characterized by self-sufficiency and relative harmony: “these men’s disputes would seldom have had bloody consequences” (102). We can prove this empirically, indeed, by looking to the New World: “the Caribs, who of all peoples existing today have least departed from the state of nature, are precisely the most peaceful in their loves, and the least subject to jealousy” (103).

This relative tranquility in the state of nature stems less, Rousseau argues, from any innate human goodness (indeed, the opposition between “good” and “evil” scarcely makes sense in such a situation) as from a number of more pragmatic considerations. First, as each of them is effectively self-sufficient, primitive humans have no need (and no desire) to maintain extended contact with each other. Beyond answering the call of sexual desire to mate (a singularly unromantic process, in Rousseau’s account) and reproduce, they keep themselves to themselves. Second, when they do meet, natural inequalities–of size or strength or speed, for example–are relatively minor; there would seldom be any obvious advantage in starting a fight, especially given that one could satisfy one’s needs for food and shelter etc. on one’s own. And third, any aggressive impulses are kept in check by a more fundamental sense of compassion: “It is pity which in the state of nature takes the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the added advantage that no one there is tempted to disobey its gentle voice” (101).

It is then (and this is Rousseau’s main argument) society that will create divisions, by accentuating natural inequality and adding to it the burdens that are artificial inequalities of wealth, rank, honour, and so on. So whereas for Hobbes, we are all equal before the law, because we are all equally lowly in the face of the Leviathan’s supreme power (for this reason, if no other, he is a classical liberal), for Rousseau civilization introduces difference–and, what is more, an awareness of difference (pride)–and therefore discord as we compete for status and to satisfy artificial needs. If there is a “war of all against all,” it is propelled by the fact that “inequality of influence and authority soon becomes inevitable among individuals as soon as, being united in the same society, they are forced to compare themselves with one another and to take into account the differences they discover in the continual dealings they have with one another” (132). This is the hectic social whirl, the “petulant activity of our own pride” (115) that makes social life uncertain and unstable.

By contrast, the life of a savage is also, then, one of singularly low intensity. Indeed, it is a life of “indolence” (115) that is scarcely ruffled by the slightest affect. Where Hobbes sees primitive man in terms of panic and fear, for Rousseau the passions are overwhelmingly artificial. Affect is the product of society and habit: there is nothing particularly natural about either love or hate, happiness or sadness, fear or joy. And even Rousseau (Romantic that he was) had to thank socialization for finally teaching us to feel.


Alberto Moreiras has written a very nice article on the recent LASA Congress. It mainly comprises a series of reflections on the function played by the Congress itself and the trajectory of Latin American cultural studies over the past decade (a true “Latinamericanism since 9/11”). It then ends with some reflections on the discussions in San Francisco, via a rather promising account of posthegemony:

La posthegemonía es una modalidad de práctica teórica en la que caben innumerables tipos de análisis y tomas de postura, pues no es ni normativa ni prescriptiva: es sólo, y por lo pronto, el lugar de un posible encuentro capaz de generar pensamiento nuevo.

[. . .]

El término incluye de antemano su posibilidad crítica y resulta tan apropiado para pensar problemáticas estatales, es decir, en el registro del estado mismo y de la política de estado, como intra- o extraestatales (microfísicas comunitarias, regionales, ciudadanas o rurales, o bien macrofísicas de la globalización y su impacto), de marea rosada o neoliberales, populistas o no. Y en la medida no menor es que su productividad crítica está lejos de reducirse al pensamiento de lo político: constituiría también una herramienta fundamental para pensar la cultura, y con ella todas las modalidades de presentación de lo visible (estéticas, poéticas) al margen de postulados meramente identitarios. Tiene la capacidad de intervenir en cuanto crítica del conocimiento porque es antes que nada crítica de la ideología, y tiene la capacidad de proponer rearticulaciones políticas e intelectuales de todo tipo.

Alberto Moreiras, “¿Puedo madrugarme a un narco? Posiciones críticas en la Asociación de Estudios Latinoamericanos”. FronteraD (June 27, 2012).


Jason read has written a very interesting commentary on Benjamin Noys‘s book The Persistence of the Negative. It makes me all the more eager to read it–if only it weren’t so damn expensive–even though (or perhaps especially because) my tendency, like Read’s, is towards what we might call the philosophy of affirmation.

But in Read’s words, Noys “is not interested in positing an ontology of negativity against the ontologies of affirmation. Negativity is a practice, not a principle, a destruction of existing positivities.” And here I sense I agree with Noys. I’m likewise far from convinced by (say) Negri’s unremitting championing of the multitude. As I point out in Posthegemony, we still need to be able to distinguish between good multitudes and bad, and to be able to discern when the multitude turns bad.

Or to put this another way: a philosophy of affirmation does not for all that have to be unrelentingly affirmative. Not everything is to be affirmed.

I agree also that the problem with Latour (and, I would add, Delanda) is that they present something of a mirror image of Negrian affirmation, in which it is rather contemporary capitalist relations (instead of the coming Communist utopia) which is relentlessly affirmed. Where Negri claims that “What ought to be, is,” Latour and Delanda simply affirm that “What is, is what ought to be.” Either way, critique is discarded.

And I am happy to agree in principle with the notion of negativity as “an insistence on localizing thought and practices, resisting both an ontology of affirmation and an ontology of finitude.” Again, in large part, this is what I aim to show with the Latin American case studies in Posthegemony.


Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster may be egalitarian, but it is far from anti-authoritarian. Indeed, what’s curious is the way in which the book implicitly argues for the superiority of traditional forms of authority, against the illegitimacy of modern expertise.

Rancière’s book elaborates on the theory of intellectual emancipation propounded by the Frenchman Joseph Jacotot in the early nineteenth-century. Exiled from France after the conservative restoration, Jacotot found himself in Belgium where he was charged with teaching French to native Flemish-speakers. Knowing no Flemish himself, Jacotot was forced to rely on his students’ abilities to glean the basics of French grammar from the bilingual edition of a French novel. This they did, with remarkable results. Thus Jacotot propounded a novel pedagogic theory whose basic principle was that “one can teach what one doesn’t know” (15).

On this foundation, the observation that teaching is not a matter of communicating expertise from master to pupil, Jacotot develops an entire philosophy, which Rancière in turn seems to affirm. (It is hard to disentangle Rancière’s voice from that of Jacotot.) The practice of explication, instruction, and interpretation is denounced. The true pedagogue enables the student to discover his or her own intelligence, rather than to be illuminated by the professor’s. Or rather, it is suggested that all teaching is a matter of harnessing and guiding the student’s will to learn; “explication is the myth of pedagogy,” whose function is not to communicate knowledge but to produce “a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid” (6). For in fact, all intelligences are equal, or of equal capacity–this at least is the hypothesis or opinion that an emancipatory pedagogy sets out to verify.

Hence the radical egalitarianism: all intelligences are of the same kind and “any human work of art is the practice of the same intellectual potential” (36); it is just that sometimes that potential is developed, and sometimes it is constrained. Moreover, one of the foremost forces to constrain the development of natural intelligence is the very educational system that claims that this is its object. The school doesn’t educate; it stultifies.

But hence therefore the strange reversion to traditional authority: the business of education has to be taken from the educational system and returned to the family. Intellectual emancipation cannot be systematized; “universal teaching belongs to families, and the best that an enlightened ruler can do for its propagation is to use his authority to protect the free circulation of its service” (103).

For it is not that Jacotot (or, implicitly, Rancière) would be done with authority: his students “had learned without a master explicator, but not for all that, without a master” (12). If anything, the new master is more demanding than the old one in forever insisting that the student pay attention and direct his or her will to achieving their own potential: “Is this insignificant? Think about everything the demand implies for the student in the way of an endless task” (31).

So it is perhaps unsurprising, if unfortunate, that the family is chosen as the sole legitimate sphere for universal education on the basis that (and here Rancière is directly quoting Jacotot) it “was the sanctuary where the father was the supreme arbiter” (105). The “natural method of the human mind” (105) appeals to the supposed naturalness of patriarchal authority for its implementation.

All this is strangely anti-social in every sense of the term, and it’s not clear how much it jives with Rancière’s later concern with precisely the institution of the social (however precarious and necessarily incomplete). But it ain’t necessarily so. For surely this strong division between natural families and un-natural social institutions itself merely replicates the false dichotomy between pedagogy and instruction.

After all, explicators and instructors are in fact pedagogues, though they are (ironically) ignorant of the fact: “learning also takes place at the stultifiers’ school; a professor is a thing, less easily handled than a book, undoubtedly, but he can be learned” (102). As such, rather than legitimating the authority of the patriarchal family, surely another route towards emancipatory pedagogy would be the further objectification of the professoriat?


The Wednesday quotation, part VIII: Foucault on pirate heterotopias.

Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia, and if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century to the present, the great instrument of economic development (I have not been speaking of that today), but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates. (Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces.” Lecture given in March 1967, printed in Diacritics 16 [1986]: 22-27 [27])

This is a guest post because the quotation was suggested by my brother, Tim.


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 ( or paint drying ( 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)


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).