NAASR Notes: Dennis LoRusso

Big-Lebowski-White-Russian

by Dennis LoRusso

Abiding the Habitus, or the Habitus Abides: Getting acquainted with Bourdieu

Chances are, if you’ve had the (mis)fortune of reading any of my scholarly work, I probably mentioned some aspect of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas. His ambitious efforts to construct the sociological equivalent to a “theory of everything” always seem to offer up a relevant explanatory framework or, at the very least, a quotable tidbit to which I can anchor my own modest intellectual contributions. Bourdieu’s work traverses the unsteady terrain between the subject and the object, agency and structure, and although he only attends to “religion” sparsely, in some ways his project resembles some ancient theological exercise to explain human freewill (agency) in light of some all powerful God (structure). Like his theologically inclined forebears, he attempts to explain how, on one hand, we can experience our lives as if it resulted from our decisions, and the recognition on the other hand that we, even at the most fundamental psychological level, are largely shaped in and through forces over which we exert little control. Bourdieu elaborates a theory of the humans as social agent, acting strategically according to their particular location in various social fields. It is the “habitus,” a set of cultivated dispositions, through which we emerge as subjects. “In so far as he or she is endowed with a habitus,” he writes, “the social agent is a collective individual or a collective individuated by the fact of embodying objective structures. The individual, the subjective, is social and collective” (Bourdieu 2005, 211).

Now, as enthralling as Bourdieu’s prose can be, it is not the easiest to comprehend. Admittedly, I was more bewildered than enthused when I first encountered Bourdieu (which, as it turned out, was on a French translation exam. “Habitus” was not in my French-English dictionary, needless to say). What are “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (Bourdieu 1977, 72) anyway? Upon reflection, I think Bourdieu has become important to my work primarily because previous experiences and scholarship prepared me to accept it, and it is this path that, of how I came to know Bourdieu’s work, of how I came to appreciate the subjectivity as a social process, that I would like to resurrect in this essay.

A few years earlier when I was completing a master’s degree in religion, one professor assigned a short piece by anthropologist Susan Harding entitled, “Convicted by the Holy Spirit: The Rhetoric of Fundamental Baptist Conversion” (American Ethnologist, 1987), in which she approaches the “conversion process” as a rhetorical social practice rather than as some inner individual experience. “At the center of the language of fundamentalism is a bundle of strategies—symbolic, narrative, poetic, and rhetorical—for confronting individuals, singly and in groups, stripping them of their cultural assumptions, and investing them with a fundamental mode of organizing and interpreting experience” (Harding 1987, 167). While the same could be stated about any number of social groups, Harding claims that fundamentalist rhetoric is distinctive because of its highly formal quality, which takes over “the listener’s dialogic imagination,” producing a transformed self in the potential convert.

The potency of Harding’s theoretical claims lies in her method: a reflexive ethnography of her personal experiences with preachers, many of whom were actively attempting to convert her. She deliberately allowed herself to be affected by her subject, to “go native,” or as she writes, “I had been invaded by the fundamental Baptist tongue I was investigating.” Harding called this method “narrative belief,” entering that often contentious space between “objective” observer on one hand and “subjective” participant on the other. The article, a version of which appears as the first chapter in her Book of Jerry Falwell (2000), displays individuals as intentional strategic actors and, yet, captures experience as socially constituted and agency as a byproduct of larger discursive arrangements.

Of course, such methods, which emphasize subjectivity, are not without their limitations. Harding locates herself “in the gap between conscious belief and willful unbelief,” a move that “opens up born-again language” (Harding 2000, xii). Yet, as one review states, “How can we ‘learn to hear Jerry Falwell as his people do’ unless we pass over into belief and take on the real consequences of commitment?” It seems that Harding might be overstating her claims here, since this “invasion” of fundamentalist language never apparently fully reformulates her identity.

Despite this shortcoming, the article prepared me for Bourdieu for two reasons. Not only does she provide a clear account of her own socially produced Self, but her work demonstrated how I might incorporate the critical theoretical perspectives into ethnographic research, the narrative focus of which can too often become overtly constructive. Harding aspires to neither undermine nor reify the “religious” claims of adherents. She is ultimately interested in how practices might uphold or contest particular social structures.

Although her scholarship has been influential, I was already fixated on the problem of agency when I first encountered her work. Looking back, I can say unequivocally that my nascent curiosity stemmed in part from a fascination (I dare say obsession?) with “the Dude,” the main character of the Coen Brother’s masterpiece The Big Lebowski (1997). Considered only a modest box office success, the film has emerged as cult classic over the last decade and a half. From Big Lebowski themed parties to internet-based “religions”, like The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, people have found it a rich cultural reservoir from which to draw meaning.

From start to finish, the film could be understood as an exploration of habitus-in-action. The “Dude” epitomizes the socially produced agent, Bourdieu’s “collective individualized by the fact of embodying objective structures.” First, although we know his real name, he remains nameless, resisting all attempts at identification beyond empty signifiers (“His Dudeness,” “Duder,” or “El Duderino” if you’re not into that whole brevity thing). Rather, others affirm their identities by attempting to (mis)identify him. He becomes a “bum” for the “Big” Lebowski, Maude’s potential partner to conceive a child, and even gets mistaken for a sleuth by private investigator, De Fino.

Although the film is centered on an individual, pinning down the quality of the Dude’s agency stubbornly eludes the audience. His identity is inextricably bound to his social world. As Sam Elliot’s prologue echoes, “Sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talking about the Dude here-the Dude from Los Angeles. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” In some ways, the context itself exhibits equal if not more agency than the Dude. It is what happens to him, and how these events move him along, which drive the storyline. The Dude, along with the audience, gets dragged along a series of events: the “soiled rug,” Walter’s split-second decision to toss out “the ringer” instead of the money, the brutality of the “reactionary” police chief of Malibu.

However, the more I watched the film, the more I was fascinated with the manner in which it explored how language operates as a medium for social reproduction. Time and again, the Dude recycles words and phrases that others have uttered. In the very first scene, when he writes a check for $.70 to purchase half-and-half, we catch the Dude catching a sound byte of President Bush stating, “this aggression will not stand,” a phrase he will later employ during his visit to the Lebowski estate. We also hear him reuse words like “coitus,” “in the parlance of our times,” or “johnson,” each time slightly altering their meaning (some might say he even misapplies them, but making such a claim might render me very “un-Dude”). The point here is that the film invites us to consider the ways in which language does not merely signify our inner experiences; it challenges us to consider our experience, and subsequently our acts in the world, as produced through the words we pick up in our social worlds. While in some sense we are “eating the bar,” at the same time, “the bar is eating us.”

Overall, it was these kinds of experiences that prepared me for Bourdieu. I may superficially believe that I made some kind of voluntary decision to become the scholar that I am, but ultimately, I accepted Bourdieu, in part, because I watched a movie on some night twelve years earlier, and then some professor assigned a short article that I would have otherwise not read. In other words, my intellectual identity emerged through social relations, through the mechanisms of habitus.

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