Emperor's new Prose

James G. Carrier (jgc5p@UVA.PCMAIL.VIRGINIA.EDU)
Sat, 2 Apr 1994 07:24:48 EST

As someone has mentioned the name of Pierre Bourdieu in the context of
clarity, I offer the following, extracted from

Jenkins, Richard 1989. Language, Symbolic Power and Communication: Bourdieu's
_Homo Academicus_. _Sociology_ 23: 639-645, p. 644.

I enjoyed OTP tremendously (and ended up with about a page of notes for each
page of the text), but I will not defend its prose. Anyway, here is the
extract from Jenkins's review:

One of the key themes of this book is the use to which language can be put in
the power and status struggles of _homo academicus_.

`We have ... to relate language to the social conditions of its production
and use, and, unless we accept in the social order the equivalent of magical
power, we must seek beyond words, in the mechanisms of production of these
words and the people who emit and receive them, the motive force of a power
which a certain way of using words allows us to mobilize. Conventional usage
of conventional language is only one of the conditions of effectiveness of
symbolic power, and a condition which works only under certain conditions. We
only ever preach to the converted. The power of the academic is absolute only
when it works on the agents selected in such a way that the social and
academic conditions of their production dispose them to recognise it
absolutely (p. 208).'

This model of language use can be turned on Bourdieu's own text. With
respect to the emitter of the language -- Bourdieu -- he is playing a game
with a long and successful tradition in French academic life (Althusser,
Foucault, Lacan, _et al_.) in which the academic reputation of the author is
inversely related to the clarity of his expression. The more (relatively)
simple ideas are obscured and inflated by the language of their emission
(expression or communication seem hardly to be the appropriate words here),
the more points are scored. What is _really_ being communicated is the great
man's distinction. It's a bit like an intellectual penis-sheath: it makes a
point, but only be concealing the true dimensions of its contents. With
respect to the receivers, the audience, who are responsible for the creation
and communication of reputation, a similar process is underway. Preaching to
the converted is an apt metaphor. How comforting it is to understand
something so obviously difficult, to be gifted with vision sufficiently acute
to see the emperor's new clothes, to be part of the priesthood. The
distinction of the audience is a reflection of the grandeur of the idol. And
so the illusion continues, the only losers being the wider audience (my
undergraduate students, for example) who are usually forced, at best, to make
do with a second-hand relationship to Bourdieu's undeniably interesting
And there, of course, lies the real pity of the thing. If Bourdieu did
not have something worthwhile to say one could cheerfully consign his works
to obscurity (no, not the bonfire!). Could somebody, therefore, please pass
Professor Bourdieu a copy of Gower's _Plain Words_ [or suggest my preference,
Fowler's _Modern English Usage_, as bathroom reading - jc]. If at the same
time they could also persuade him to take himself a little less seriously,
and his audience a little more seriously, a double service will have been

That's the bit. Jenkins gets a bit strident at a few places, but the points
make sense.


James G. Carrier

29, University Circle / Charlottesville, Virginia, 22903
(804) 971-2983 / jgc5p@virginia.edu