In trying to describe the relationship between instinct and intention, convention and originality, which characterizes literary creation, few notions are as helpful as Pierre Bourdieu’s description of “habitus.” It does not do any special work but it clears a space between two extremes as no other term does; it prevents us from moving too strongly to the notion that an individual artist is essentially an emanation of the imaginative or ideological fault-lines of her time, and it also moves us away from the notion of unrestrained artistic freedom.
The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices–more history–in accordance with the schemes generated by history. It ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms.
Here, as elsewhere, Bourdieu’s description of “habitus” struggles to clear itself from currents of language that would reduce it to one extreme (what he calls “objectivism”; rules, norms) or the other (“subjectivism”; individual freedom).
To say that Proust helps illuminate Bourdieu is not to subordinate Proust to explicator; it is to suggest what in life Proust is especially alive to: the subterraneous exchanges between the often necessary and useful oppositions by which human behavior is understood: active and passive, intention and reaction, habit and will, creation and criticism, productivity and receptivity, the group and the individual, and even the animate and the inanimate. His prose charts the paths by which those exchanges occur, and does so, more often than not, by following the fluid currents of words that flow along them, bringing him, and us, from one to the other. Here a description, in The Guermantes Way (trans. Moncrieff, rev. Enright), of Robert Saint Loup approaching the young narrator by way of a plush bench-top in a fine restaurant in a misty Parisian evening:
A certainty of taste in the domain not of aesthetics but of behavior, which when he was faced by a novel combination of circumstances enabled the man of breeding to grasp at once–like a musician who has been asked to play a piece he has never seen–the attitude and the action required and to apply the appropriate mechanism and technique, and then allowed this taste to be exercised without the constraint of any consideration by which so many young men of the middle class would have been paralysed from fear both of making themselves ridiculous in the eyes of strangers by a breach of propriety and of appearing over-zealous in those of their friends, and which in Robert’s case was replaced by a lofty disdain that certainly he had never felt in his heart but had received by inheritance in his body, and that had fashioned the attitudes of his ancestors into a familiarity which, they imagined, could only flatter and enchant those to whom it was addressed; together with a noble liberality which, far from taking undue heed of his boundless material advantages (lavish expenditure in this restaurant had succeeded in making him, here as elsewhere, the most fashionable customer and the general favourite, a position underlined by the deference shown him not only by the waiters but by all its most exclusive young patrons), led him to trample them underfoot, just as he had actually and symbolically trodden upon those crimson benches, suggestive of some ceremonial way which pleased my friend only because it enabled him more gracefully and swiftly to arrive at my side: such were the quintessentially aristocratic qualities that shone through the husk of this body–not opaque and dim as mine would have been, but limpid and revealing–as, through a work of art, the industrious, energetic force which has created it, and rendered the movements of that light-footed course which Robert had pursued along the wall as intelligible and charming as those of horsemen on a marble frieze.
The habitus of the aristocracy permits Robert to perform a feat that others could not, for self-consciousness or embarrassment; and in so perfectly applying the techniques of his inherited taste in his bodily movement, without even knowing fully that he is doing so, Saint-Loup becomes an object of aesthetic admiration, a work of art. It is a perfect illustration, and even description, of habitus. But it is more; it shows how that concept might aid in critical appreciation.
Appealing as he does to the habitus, the entire range of inherited, unconscious, generative techniques, judgment, taste, instinct, that underlie both artistic practice and bodily behavior, Proust establishes also a ground upon which the ethical and the aesthetic intersect, a means by which a work of art may be judged, from any vantage, a success without divorcing the art from the social context of its creation and reception.
Proust suggests that admiration for art and behavior are alike founded on a sense that a habitus is being revealed to us as its clearest, finding a form that isolates what is essential to it.
Such a suggestion might seem to be fraught with peril. Could not a particularly inhumane or cruel behavior exemplify what is essential in a habitus? Does not it open a door to snobbery, to the valuing of one artwork rather than another for exemplifying the habitus of a particular class or group? Does it not essentialize groups, asking that we see a behavior or work as a product of one or another set of people, who we may therefore reduce to that one exemplar? Where is the space for the central faculty of artistic production and receptivity, judgment, in all of this? How anyway, are we to decide that something does count as exemplary of the essential traits of a habitus? Finally, is our receptivity to works or behaviors not, itself, a product or manifestation of a habitus?
I think that all of the doubts can be met.
Return to the idea that admiration is founded on a sense that habitus is revealed as its clearest, finding exemplary and essential form. The point is not that the habitus is one on which we would (or could) model our own behavior. Moreover, I would think that a habitus, in so far as it, by its nature, persists and generates further iterations itself, is fundamentally connected to human flourishing. “Habitus” derives from the Aristotelian conception of habit, but in modifying that conception, does not do away with the Aristotelian tradition entirely. A habitus is not just what permits human flourishing (eudaemonia); it is what flourishing looks like; it is only from within the perspective of habitus that we can judge other people’s flourishing, but to recognize any flourishing as itself a perfection and exemplification of a web of dispositions is to be able to judge beyond our own habitus.
To develop that idea further, intrinsic to the idea of habitus is the idea of distinction, of taste, of behavior that counts as right; habitus is itself organized around such normative notions, and might be described as a normative horizon; it is a disposition rather than a rule in part because the success of an action or phrase cannot be guaranteed beforehand; it happens by training as well as by luck; habitus aims at the perfection of itself; it is structures further structures of dispositions and generates further generative possibility; habitus succeeds when it most becomes itself, and its most becoming itself is seen as a form of human flourishing.
In so far as we view and judge another habitus from within our own, we are able to judge what in them constitute human flourishing. But we are also able to recognize what in a habitus is unnatural, denying the possibility of its becoming itself. If we were to begin with a narrow notion of human flourishing, and then to ask whether another habitus permits it, we might fail to see how such a possibility of flourishing is possible; we would impose our standard of the good on another. At the other extreme, if we accept that whatever behavior or life is most celebrated or honored in a given habitus represents its perfection or flourishing, we are emptying out the notion of flourishing as we understand it. We would seem to be in a position of the relativist v. the universalist. Relativity leaves us without ground to stand upon since any flourishing might be as good as any other; universalism rejects the ground of too many others, since many forms of flourishing will be rejected.
Relativity and universalism come about because of a fear of a vicious circle; they ask us to decide where we will start. Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, like Aristotle’s, asks us to start at both places at once, and Proust shows us how such a doubleness is possible: we admire the work of art when it shows us what flourishing in a habitus looks like or becomes; flourishing in a habitus becomes akin to work of art that we admire.
This is to suggest that “work of art” refers not to an aesthetic experience, but to an experience of human understanding that reveals to us something that we know as flourishing that has emerged from a system of dispositions, a habitus, that is a way of life, not conscious, not artistic, not rule-bound, not unique to any sphere of behavior.
Proust uses the word “art” but the term has taken on a special meaning for him; it is some sort of crystallization, not an epiphany, but a proof, an guarantor, that human flourishing is possible and can reveal itself from whatever habitus. Whether he refers to the actions of a body or the arrangement of paint on a palate, that term or some other refers to the moment when we perceive what flourishing a habitus allows; it establishes the criteria by which we are to measure its success.
The experience can be startling; it emerges from within our own dispositions to judge and taste; from our own dispositions to receive the world; but in so far as the novel as Proust conceives it is an exercise in receptivity, it provides us with an exemplar of how flourishing might mean receiving the world beyond one’s own habitus; so literature, painting, music, in hearing, seeing, and understanding the flourishing of the world in a form that seems a perfection and flourishing, instruct us in how they are to be received.
Just as a strong vein of seriousness had been necessary for Mme de Villeparisis to convey in her conversation and in her Memoirs a sense of the frivolous, which is intellectual, so, in order that Saint-Loup’s body should be imbued with so much nobility, the latter had first to desert his mind which was straining towards higher things, and, reabsorbed into his body, to establish itself there in unconsciously aristocratic lines. In this way his distinction of mind was not inconsistent with a physical distinction which otherwise would not have been complete. An artist has no need to express his thought directly in his work for the latter to reflect its quality; it has even been said that the highest praise of God consists in the denial of him by the atheist who finds creation so perfect that it can dispense with a creator.
And just as the flourishing we perceive may emerge, crystallizing suddenly, from a habitus without conscious intent, but with all the force of personality, so our perception of it may seem to be something overtaking us, our disposition to judge, to assent and affirm, brought into play without our knowing why or how; our habitus realizing itself in the recognition it affords us of the flowering of another.