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volume 7
july 2006

On basic human conditions


  An essay on destiny and dispositions
by Hans Durrer
  By our upbringing and social surroundings we are caught in a preformatted web of cultural conditions shaping our perceptions. Are we able to escape this cultural matrix or is even our wish to do so a culturally imposed illusion? Looking into the concepts of habitus and field, Hans Durrer here poses some fundamental questions.
1 Right: Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

The borders of perception and the limits of choice. Our understanding of reality is shaped by the way we were brought up. The most crucial years — from a Freudian point of view — are from, roughly, three and a half to six years. During this period a human being is most significantly formed. This means, as an anonymous New York psychoanalyst (cited in Malcolm, 1981: 159) puts it, that ...

"man isn't master in his own house. That he is determined, that his degree of freedom is zero, that he cannot change his destiny, that he is malleable at one formidable time and that everything in his life is settled and preordained ever after. Yes, it's a horrible idea to have to accept. And we analysts take it for common knowledge, and when we talk among ourselves it's a basic assumption derived from a tremendous amount of evidence."

  Not a very pleasant idea, and not a very popular one either, one would suspect. But is it true that one's freedom to choose — and this is what one needs to conclude from this statement — is not only limited but probably almost non-existent? Since there are, for instance, alcoholics who manage to stop drinking, and since there are smokers who successfully quit smoking, one can safely conclude that one's not condemned to a life of practised addiction. Moreover, any penal system, for instance, is based on the conviction that one is free to (however illusory that might be), and thus responsible for (although not in an absolute sense), commit offences against the law. Could it then be that Freudian psychoanalysis means another kind of freedom, that it defines choice differently? For if everything in life were indeed settled after one's sixth birthday, why then bother with psychoanalysis? As the anonymous psychoanalyst from New York (cited in Malcolm, 1981: 107-108) explains:
  "This is a popular myth about analysis — that it makes the patient a clearer thinker, that it makes him wise and good, that people who have been analysed know more than other people do. Analysis isn't intellectual. It isn't moral. It isn't educational. It's an operation. It rearranges things inside the mind the way surgery rearranges things inside the body — even the way an automobile mechanic rearranges things under the hood of the car. It's that impersonal and that radical. And the changes achieved are very small. We live our lives according to the repetition compulsion, and analysis can only go so far in freeing us from it. Analysis leaves the patient with more freedom of choice — but how much more? This much: instead of going straight down the meridian, he will go five degrees, ten degrees — maybe fifteen degrees if you push very hard — to the left or to the right, but no more than that."
  In other words, there exists a basic structure that appears not really changeable and that is highly influential in how we perceive the world as are factors such as race, height, gender, and intelligence. In addition, as Bourdieu (cited in Swartz, 1997: 96) states, "the socialized body (which one calls the individual or person) does not stand in opposition to society; it is one of its forms of existence." This seems to suggest that one can't escape the laws that govern the society one is born into either. Yet is that true, are our lives as predestined as Freud and Bourdieu appear to believe? Bourdieu, as Swartz (1997: 289-290) states,
  "is not rigidly deterministic ... [yet] ... his conceptual framework is clearly more attentive to patterns of continuity than to change. The concepts of habitus, cultural capital, and field stress the tendency to perpetuate structures inherited from the past. The propensity of habitus is clearly to address new situations in habituated ways, it takes capital to accumulate more capital, and field permits an impressive mapping of social positions and their continuity over time. His framework does not encourage researchers to seek out forms of change."
2 Habitus and field. What then are Bourdieu's notions of habitus and of field? The term habitus dates back to Aristotle, yet Bourdieu uses it in a rather specific way and defines it as ...
  "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 that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them" (cited in Swartz, 1997: 100-101).
  In other words, habitus is "a set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways" (Thompson, 2002: 12). While these dispositions are acquired gradually, early childhood experiences are of particular importance. As Thompson (2002: 12) puts it: "Through a myriad of mundane processes of training and learning, such as those involved in the inculculation of table manners ("sit up straight," "don't eat with your mouth full" etcetera), the individual acquires a set of dispositions which literally mould the body and become second nature." We human beings are therefore, and quite substantially, determined by our social environment — our dispositions, and thus our choices, are not limitless. This is however not to say that we are simply "victims" of our social surroundings, this is only to say that our chances to re-invent ourselves are not without limits.
  Habitus, as Swartz (1997: 104) states, "represents a sort of deep-structuring cultural matrix that generates self-fulfilling prophecies according to different class opportunities ... Habitus calls us to think of action as engendered and regulated by fundamental dispositions that are internalised primarily through early socialization." In other words:
  "Habitus is fairly resistant to change, since primary socialization in Bourdieu's view is more formative of internal dispositions than subsequent socialization experiences. There is an ongoing adaptation process as habitus encounters new situations, but this process tends to be slow, unconscious, and tends to elaborate rather than alter fundamentally the primary dispositions" (Swartz, 1997: 107).
  This seems to correspond with the above mentioned notion of Freud according to which what was acquired in early childhood can only be slightly modified in later life.
  Individuals who act in specific social contexts that Bourdieu calls fields, act on the basis of generative principles, or dispositions, that underlie perceptions as well as practises. "Hence particular practises or perceptions should be seen, not as products of the habitus as such, but as the product of the relation between the habitus, on the one hand, and the specific social contexts or "fields" within which individuals act, on the other" (Thompson, 2002: 14). The importance of the concept of "field" lies in that it aims at rejecting "idealist interpretations of cultural practices. Field analysis calls attention to the social conditions of struggle that shape cultural production" (Swartz, 1997: 119). Consider, for example, the literary field in which writers, grammarians and teachers stick to a variety of rules that are however in "the process of continuous creation, which occurs through the unceasing struggles between the different authorities who compete ... for the monopolistic power to impose the legitimate mode of expression" (Bourdieu, 2002: 58): what takes thus place is a struggle for the legitimate language — it is a game of power and must be accepted as a game of power. As Bourdieu (2002: 58) asks: "What would become of the literary world if one began to argue, not about the value of this or that author's style, but about the value of arguments about style?" The game would be over, of course, for its basis would not be in place anymore.
3 The creation of the self. Freud and Bourdieu appear to suggest that our destiny seems dominated by individual and social factors that are largely given and that tend to resist change. Yet doesn't this stand in opposition to, for example, the biological principle of growth which is, at its root, not different from the Buddhist law of impermanence ("the only permanent thing is change")?
  The truth about one's self, as Nietzsche argues, "is not something there, that might be found or discovered — but something that must be created" (cited in Miller, 1993: 69). Yet if that holds true, then, as Miller argues (1993: 69), it would follow that "... human beings as such lack any unchangeable rule, statute, or norm." Not necessarily for Nietzsche depicts the human being also as formed by a host of historically contingent rules, statutes, and norms, defined by the customs, practices, and institutions every human being must grow up within. In other words, as a creature of history, every human being embodies a compound of nature and culture, chaos and order, instinct and reason — two heterogeneous dimensions of being human symbolized, as Nietzsche saw it, by Dionysus and Apollo (Miller, 1993: 69).
  In addition, the media increasingly contribute to shaping our perceptions for most of what we nowadays know about the world, we know from the media. And despite us not trusting the media, we nevertheless build our view of the world on them (Luhmann, 1996). Moreover, we are guided by them for they set the agenda, they decide (to a large extent) what we are talking about. As Van Ginneken (1997: 88) reports:
  "Classic examples were the dramatization of the discovery of the presence of Soviet missile sites in Cuba (whereas the previous existence of equivalent American missile sites in Turkey was completely passed over in silence), the "discovery" of a Soviet army unit near Havana on the eve of the summit of non-aligned countries in that country (whereas the previous presence of American army units in similar countries — and indeed of a huge military base on Cuba itself [Guantanamo] — was ignored, the discovery of crates with "possible" parts of Mig-21 fighters in Nicaragua (whereas the massive military build-up in neighbouring Honduras was treated almost casually). But in fact hardly a month passes without major drummed-up news items in this category."
  Agenda-setting thus emphasises the gatekeeping aspect of the news (Jowett and O'Donnell, 1999: 192). What we get to see and hear is sometimes termed "the management of public opinion" (Jowett and O'Donnell, 1999: 44), in other words: propaganda. And while the effects (on the behaviour) of such manipulation cannot be measured (in a clear-cut cause and effect way), hardly anyone doubts the significant influence of, for example, advertising, a peculiar form of propaganda that Ellul (1973: 274) describes as the "education of reflexes and instilling of habits," to which we are almost constantly exposed for most of us are nowadays familiar with the idea that the unconscious plays an important role in our lives.
  As much as culture (family, society, media) appear to shape our destiny, can, say, success or failure, as scholars from Max Weber to Samuel Huntington claimed, really be explained with culture? That seems indeed too simple for, as Zakaria (2003: 52-53) argues, the US culture, for instance, produced not only (in the last two decades) an economic boom but also the Great Depression. In other words, "A single country can succeed and fail at different times, sometimes just a few decades apart, which would suggest that something other than its culture — which is relatively unchanging — is at work" (Zakaria, 2003: 52). One of course wonders what "that something other" might be yet, unfortunately, Zakaria (2003: 55) volunteers no more than stating: "The West's real advantage is that its history led to the creation of institutions and practices that, although in no sense bound up with Western genes, are hard to replicate from scratch in other societies. But it can be done." That of course is a matter of belief — it is a belief that I share yet I cannot help but wonder if I were to think like that had I been brought up in a non-Western culture for, as Spengler (1986: 435) argues: the imperative "one should" is so typical Western European that West Europeans aren't even aware of it.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre (2002), Language and symbolic power. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.
  • Ellul, Jacques (1973), Propaganda. The formation of men's attitudes. New York: Vintage.
  • Jowett, Garth S., and Victoria O'Donnell (1999), Propaganda and persuasion. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Luhmann, Niklas (1996), Die Realität der Massenmedien [The reality of mass media]. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.
  • Malcolm, Janet (1981), Psychoanalysis. The impossible profession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Miller, James (1993), The passion of Michel Foucault. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.
  • Spengler, Oswald (1986), Der Untergang des Abendlandes [The decline of the West]. Munich: dtv.
  • Swartz, David (1997), Culture and power. The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Thompson, John B. (2002), "Introduction to Bourdieu." In: Pierre Bourdieu, Language and symbolic power. Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2002.
  • Van Ginneken, Jaap 1998, Understanding global news. London: Sage.
  • Zakaria, Fareed (2003), The future of freedom. Illiberal democracy at home and abroad. New York: W.W. Norton.
  2006 © Hans Durrer / 2006 © Soundscapes