This is a summary of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production. It’s pretty terribly written, because I haven’t proof read it. But in terms of the content, it’s accurate.
Bourdieu saw that to understand a work of art, we must look not only at the piece of art itself, but rather at the conditions of its production and reception, the specific logic characterising the field of cultural production, and the way in which that field relates to the wider fields of power and class relations. Doing so, he argued, reveals that the field of cultural production is cut through by two opposing principles of heirachization; the autonomous and heteronomous principles, and that as the degree of independence from the financial imperatives of the economic sphere grows, the autonomous principle, an exact inversion of the principles of heirachization governing the economicsphere, comes to predominate. Bourdieu’s work on culture provides a strong argument for the need for a theory of art that roots it in the specific conditions within the field of cultural production at a particular time. However, it is not without its weaknesses, and his conclusion that the field of cultural production is the ‘economic world reversed’ is slightly overblown.
Bourdieu was highly critical of those forms of internalist approaches to art, which attempt to understand the nature of a work of art through an analysis of its internal structure and form alone, and of those which subscribe to what he termed the ‘charismatic ideology of creation’, which attempt to locate the creation of art in the genius of the artist himself. At the same time, however, he was also heavily critical of deterministic structuralist approaches, such as that commonly adopted by many Marxist critics, which attempt to see artistic products as a mere reflection of determinent social structures and devoid of any subjective input, leading to claims such as the idea that art is merely a reflection of bourgeois interests and nothing more. Rather, what was necessary was a sociological approach that attempted to locate the production of art within the particular social conditions that gave rise to its production and the production of its value, but that did not descend into the extreme subjectivism or objectivism that most forms of cultural analysis relied upon. Bourdieu attempted to resolve this problem through the application of his theory of fields to cultural production. It is first, therefore, necessary to provide a broad overview of bourdieu’s wider theory.
At the heart of Bourdieu’s work is an attempt to transcend the opposition between structuralist and agency-orientated views; the antimony between what he calls subjectivism and objectivism. Central to attempt to do this are three particularly important concepts for analysis of culture: Habitus, capital and field, which together make up the central components of his theory of practice, which is an attempt to uncover the dichotomal relationship between agency and structure and the way in which these combine to give rise to one’s actions. It is only through his distinctive theoretical approach that Bourdieu believed the nature of artistic life and production could be truly grasped. His views on the field of cultural production springs from an application of these principles to the artistic world.
Habitus refers to an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted.1 In other words, habitus is our set of intuitive, or doxic, dispositions that inform the way to behave in different contexts. This is formed at a young age through the process of socialization, and once formed is relatively stable over time. The habitus is often referred to as a ‘feel for the game’. It provides people with a familiarity with certain social settings and conditions the way in which an individual reacts to and perceieve their social surroundings, but is shaped by the objective social conditions in which it originated. This explains the similar habitus’s of individuals within the same class. As it reflects the objective conditions of the field in which it originates, a habitus serves to reproduce the conditions of that field.
A field refers to a system of social positions structured by power relations and characterised by a struggle for dominance between its members. Agents do not act in a vacuum, but rather social life takes place within objective social settings governed by particular sets of social relations, which bourdieu refers to with his concept of field. According to Bourdieu’s theoretical model, any social formation is structured by way of a hierarchically organised series of fields. Fields interact with eachother, but are heirarchical, with most fields in a subordinate position relative to the field of power, a term which bourdieu uses to refer to a composite of the field of the economy and the field of politics. Fields are relatively autonomous from one another, but at the same time all fields are structurally homologous, in that a field is always the site of struggle between the dominant and the dominated, in which by exercising their symbolic power within each field, certain groups are able to ensure that the field is structured in such a way as to maintain their privileged position. However, the resources being competed for are not always economic or material, and this competition is not always based upon conscious calculation. Rather, numerous different fields exist, such as the field of education, politics, culture and so on, and success within each of these fields results from the capital that an individual posesses.
Capital, as Bourdieu uses the term, refers to specific qualities that an individual possesses that enable him/her to ensure success within a given field. By capital, Bourdieu is not merely referring to financial capital, as the term is usually employed. Rather, various forms of capital exist, and whilst they may in some cases be mutually convertible they are not reducible to one another. Bourdieu outlines various forms of capital exist, and which are necessary for success within varying fields, such as cultural capital, economic capital, symbolic and social capital. Those in posession of the greatest amount of capital are by virtue of this fact dominant within the field in which that capital is valuable, and able to structure the field in a manner which serves to reinforce their dominance. Understanding the relationship between field, habitus, and capital, argues Bourdieu, allows us to grasp the way in which our subjective experiences are both shaped by, and shape, objective social structures, and it is the doxic interrelationship between field, habitus and capital, argues Bourdieu, that gives rise to social action. This can be best summarised through the formula [(habitus)(capital)]+field=practice.
In order to understand the nature of artistic production, then, Borudieu argues that we must appreciate that when a writer or artist produces a work they always do so within a context or field that is structured in certain ways. As with all other fields, the position that an individual occupies within the field of cultural production is dependent upon both their class habitus, and the degree of capital that they possess. The field of cultural production is one amongst many fields of human endeavour, and the extent to which the actions of its members are shaped by its own internal logic depends upon the degree of autonomy that the field possesses from all other fields, in particular the field of power. Looking back historically, Bourdieu argues that an historical analysis shows that the field of cultural production has grown increasingly autonomous from the field of power, meaning that cultural production has increasingly come to be determined by the internal logic of the field of production itself. Whilst Bourdieu views this as a very positive process, his work is an attempt to show that, in contrast to the claims of those such as proust and his lesser followers, artistic production is not necessarily autonomous, rather it has been able to become increasingly so as a result of a specific set of historical conditions.
Whilst the autonomy of the field of cultural production has increased over time, cultural production is not entirely autonomous, as the field of cultural production remains situated within the field of power. It is for this reason that the cultural field is a site of double hierarchy, as it contains its own internal logic of heirarchization – the autonomous principle, as well as the heteronomous principle, which reflects the principle of heirarchization that exists within the field of power. Were the cultural field to achieve total autonomy from the field of power, the autonomous principle would rein unchallenged, the degree of success of autonomous art relative to art affected by the demand for profit reflects the relative autonomy of the cultural field at that time. Were the cultural sphere to disappear, lose all autonomy, then artists would be subject to entirely the same laws as those prevailing in the field of power.
The existence of these opposing poles of heirachization gives rise to two competing sub-fields; the field of large-scale production, and the field of restricted production. The subfield of large scale production is governed by the heteronomous principle, as it exists in a dominated position relative to the field of power. In this subfield, goods are aimed at the largest possible audience, and are produced primarily in order to create a profit. This subfield involves what we usually call mass or popular culture. It is sustained by a vast and complicated culture industry, and success within this subfield depends upon the possession of large amounts of economic capital.
The field of restricted or small scale production is governed according to the autonomous principle. Production is relatively free from the demands of the economic field, and goods are produced for a narrower public of other producers. Success within this subfield is dependent upon achieving the symbolic recognition of other members of the field, and thus requires high levels of symbolic capital. As this subfield grows increasingly autonomous from the field of power, it reverses the principles of heirachization that govern the field of power to an ever greater extent. Success comes to be dependent upon being able to appear to be entirely free from the constraints of the market – there is an ‘interest in disinterestedness.’ Any art which is successful economically is seen to be ‘selling out’. It is for this reason that the field of cultural production is referred to as ‘the economic world reversed’ by Bourdieu, as in the subfield of cultural production in which production is most autonomous from the field of power and therefore is governed most in accordance with the autonomous internal logic of the field of cultural production itself, symbolic recognition is dependent upon the ability to produce works that systematically invert the principles of heirachization that exist within the economic sphere.
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