On Symbolic Power

Language & Symbolic Power, Chapter 7

 In this chapter, Bourdieu attempts to reveal power dynamics within the “structuring structures” of art, religion, language, etc. He notes the invisibility of symbolic power, and that power isn’t just held by the dominant cultures and authorities, but that power relations are exercised by both those maintaining power and those ceding it; in other words, power is a dynamic that is maintained by all individuals involved. The structured structures of society position individuals—even those not necessarily holding power—to reproduce these dynamics. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to alter power relations, and indeed those who are dominated may themselves not wish to alter their position, and that rhetoric around the dominated may be merely rhetoric, an symbolic act of making public what their societal position is rather than what they strive to be. 

It’s important to remember with any discussion of language and/or power, that relations are arbitrary: the dominant culture/language is not there through any moralistic or divine reason, but as the result of the complex interaction of systems and individuals inevitably leading to the point at which we are currently.

 Symbolic power = a power of constructing reality

Rites of Institution

Language & Symbolic Power, Chapter 4

When considering the various rites and rituals embedded within society, Bourdieu makes clear that rites should not be analyzed in terms of who has been consecrated and who has not, but rather who is and will be in and who, by contrast, is kept out. The important point, to Bourdieu, is the line that the ritual maintains; in terms of circumcision, for example, Bourdieu notes that this ritual makes clear that there is a category of men, and in a sense they are defined by who is not a man, i.e. women. Even though anatomically this distinction might be apparent, the ritual act reinforces, consecrates the distinction socially.

Rites of institution, Bourdieu notes, change an individual’s representation of themselves as well as other individuals’ representation of that person. The rite, and the titles that may come with it, ask an individual to “become what you are,” and ask others around them to see the individual in this way. According to Bourideu, these rites of institution are maintained collectively; there must be a collective belief in the rite and the designations that go along with it.

One example could be a college graduation. An individual goes through a rite of institution (wearing cap and gown, receiving a diploma, etc.) and after this, himself and others are asked by the rite to view him differently. The rite also makes clear the distinction between degree-owners and those who never will own a degree, and also makes clear distinctions between, say, Ivy League schools and state colleges. Not only do students graduate, but some go through this rite at an institution that is by a collective believed to be superior to another institution. In this case, the lowest performing student who graduates from Yale has still accrued more symbolic capital than the valedictorian from an obscure state college.

Suppose, for example, I see a vessel on the stocks, walk up and smash the bottle hung at the stem, proclaim ‘I name this ship the Mr Stalin’ and for good measure kick away the chocks: but the trouble is, I was not the person chosen to name it…

– J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words

Price Formation and the Anticipation of Profits

Language & Symbolic Power, Chapter 2

Bourdieu asks us to think of linguistic exchanges within the analytical units of an economic market.  A particular linguistic exchange takes place in a symbolic domain of producer, endowed with linguistic capital, and consumer, who has a chance to get symbolic capital from the exchange. In these exchanges, language use is not only a sign of communication, but of wealth and authority, as well. Each utterance—both by those who are granted more power in a conversation and by “weaker” participants—is used to reinscribe power relations. These utterances that are spoken within an exchange of language are only valued within markets, and are given particular values within that market. Bourdieu uses the example of a mayor who, when giving a speech, uses a form of French that is considered a “regionalism,” not “real French.” Everyone involved in that market understands his symbolic capital, as a mayor, to use a regional dialect for an effect. Within these markets, the value of linguistic power can be negotiated by the individuals involved, but those with more symbolic power have a greater ability to negotiate what is valued and what isn’t.

The ability for people to speak in particular situations is never based solely on the linguistic competences of the speakers involved. Instead, language use is an act inseparable from an institutional act. A linguistic situation is built upon the recognition of the scenario and the histories of that scenario as understood by the individuals involved. Social conditions grant power to words. Bourdieu gives the example of a soldier, who could very well give an order to a commanding officer, but will not see that order carried out. I thought of Bono and U2, for some reason, although the example may be a bit blurrier. Some see his humanitarian work as noble, while others find his words on the matter vacuous and inappropriate: at the least, not worth listening to.

Awareness of the market in which a speaker is hearing, speaking, writing, etc., largely determines the words he or she will use. The markets, as Bourdieu calls them, fixes the “price” of utterances. Speakers thus account for the probably value of given words in a market, and speak accordingly, hoping to put forth the most value in their words.

Speakers learn this value through their embodied histories with past markets. The ways speakers act in a given linguistic market—say, a classroom—is based on their previous histories with similar markets and the current market in which they find themselves. Speakers literally embody the markets neurocognitively, and use body/language to operate within a given market.

The Production and Reproduction of Legitimate Language

Language & Symbolic Power, Chapter 1

Working past the notion of language as a value-free, politically neutral object of study (in the tradition of Sasseure, Comte, and the field of linguistics, in general), Bourdieu suggests that language can only be understood in use. This means that language must be seen as an instrument of action, and these actions (re)produce symbolic power within cultural-historical contexts.

A “standard,” “correct” language is more of an idea than an actual thing to be mastered. It’s mythical. But to speak of it as if it exists is to impose the idea of a correct way of using language, and in turn of wrong ways of using language. Bourdieu argues that this language—termed official, standard, legitimate, etc.—is bound up in government and political power relations, and that those in power have an interest in supporting the idea of a standard, since it is them who will be the bearers of the standard and thus maintain power through knowing how to use language “correctly” (The same applies to English teachers who have a economic interest in maintaining the idea of a standard in markets that deem their job to be to uphold correctness). It may be suggested that standardization is being demanded in the name of political unity, that a national language can unite the country, when in reality it only serves those who determine what the “standard” should be. According to Bourdieu, this implies that the standard is a completely arbitrary concept; it so happens that whatever language is spoken by those in political power also ends up  being the “standard” by which “incorrect” language users deviate.

Language use is symbolic, in that with each utterance, the speaker and listener position themselves in a particular power relation; those who in a given situation feel as though they do not have power will continusiouly reinscribe their lack of power with each utterance they make. In these circumstances, symbolic domination occurs in a situation in which a speaker/listener is intimidated or unable to speak in a way that they feel is appropriate for the situation. It is important to remember here that intimidation “can only be exerted on a person predisposed to feel it, whereas others will ignore it” (51). For example, a student who is aware of a legitimate language that s/he is supposed to use with a teacher will either feel that s/he knows what language to use or will feel intimidated in the situation, leaving them literally “speechless” (52).

It is easy to believe that any human who has the capacity to use language can do so correctly in a multitude of different settings. But to Bourdieu, one cannot conflate the neurological capacity to use language with the cultural-historical contexts in which language is used. Those who are granted a position to determine what “correct” language is (teachers, grammarians, governments, etc.) have an intrinsic imperative to uphold a notion of right and wrong speech, since in certain markets their jobs and identities depend on it. In order to save the value of a competence (i.e. knowledge of a linguistic “standard”), one must also save the market in which that competence is valued (57).

Bourdieu says that in school, students are all made aware of a “legitimate” language that is to be used, which is a product of the elite and those in power. The further away you are from this legitimate language, the more you have to learn in order to be able to use it. This reinforces the recognition of the legitimate language for all students, while reinforcing that only a few have knowledge of this language (62).

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have, instead, is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.

– Edward Said

[A]près cinq ou dix années de scolarité plus ou moins chaotique, l’Haïtien moyen parvient à peine à articuler une phrase correcte en français alors que lorsqu’il émigré aux USA, au bout de six mois, il parle déjà anglais relativement couramment! […] La raison est la suivante: en français, il est paralysé par l’épée de Damoclès d’une norme rigide, il crève de peur de commettre des fautes alors qu’en anglais, rien de tout cela ne pèse sur lui. Personne ne lui fera de remarque désobligeante sur son accent ou sur telle ou telle faut qu’il pourra inévitablement commettre au cours de son apprentissage.

– Raphaël Confiant

Hrudey, the Canadian boy down in Tinsletown. The blue chiffon dangled out from underneath his helmet in tandem with his hair. Master of the crease. .891 save percentage all-time in the playoffs. He brought hockey to California. A true hero.

Hrudey, the Canadian boy down in Tinsletown. The blue chiffon dangled out from underneath his helmet in tandem with his hair. Master of the crease. .891 save percentage all-time in the playoffs. He brought hockey to California. A true hero.

(Source: hockey-time-machine)