poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Special Doors

Received this morning, a glossy brochure from my old college explaining why I should consider giving them some money. From within, here is alumna Naomi Alderman, novelist, describing the life-enhancing mission of the institution:

The ethos and experience of attending an ancient college like Lincoln is this: don’t be afraid of anything, don’t be squashed, don’t feel that the special doors are meant for someone else. Live in the 14th century building, dine in the panelled hall. Whatever you want, stride towards it boldly without asking permission.

We live in a class society. If you don’t feel that the special doors are meant for someone else, it’s because they’re meant for you (as the daughter of a distinguished academic, himself a Lincoln alumnus, might be expected to realise). An apt name for the process through which you come to recognise that the special doors are meant for you, that you do not need to ask permission, is Bourdieu’s “consecration”: “the legitimation and naturalisation of social difference”.

Now, there is a sense in which the social is difference, or is at least the medium through which differences propagate: it is in and as society that difference is “produced” and “reproduced”, to phrase it in Marxian slang. “Naturalisation” and “legitimation” are then names for the ways in which the production of difference is mystified and its reproduction is secured. They are mechanisms of class power, which is exercised in the production and reproduction of a particular set of differences. A lot of it turns out to be about money, but there are other legacies also at stake: what Bourdieu for example calls “cultural capital” (“live in the 14th century building, dine in the panelled hall”).

I’m skeptical about the argument that there is nothing in our nature that participates in the shaping of social differences. There is I think something: but if you want to understand what that something might be, there is a dense fog of mystification you have to get clear of first. What’s more, it tends to close in around you just when you think you’re really getting somewhere. The “natural” is precisely that which “naturalisation” works to obscure, replacing the unheroic kinks and obstructions of our predicament with heroic stances, epiphanies of selfhood, those elements of Bildungsroman which underwrite an ongoing bourgeois self-narrative. “Consecration” is a ready-made epiphany of selfhood, the conferral of a sense of destiny and entitlement: whatever you want, stride towards it boldly.

Among the epigraphs to Geoffrey Hill’s essay collection “The Lords of Limit” is this short quotation from Iris Murdoch: “It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher: what is he afraid of?”. Our “nature”, our fundamental orientation, might better be described in terms of its characteristic incapacities, the ways in which it is inescapably contracted or beholden, than in terms of latent abilities or propensities which await only empowerment and opportunity to be realised. “Don’t be afraid of anything, don’t be squashed”: pursue your desires ruthlessly, without perhaps ever pausing to consider whose desires they actually are, or from whence they derive the permission you no longer feel you need to ask.

I’m being perverse, but to some purpose. I have been afraid, and I resent the promulgation of an “ethos” and “experience” based on the erasure of uncertainty. It could be argued that I’m over-reading what is, after all, a sales pitch (the invitation to live in the 14th century building and dine in the panelled hall could be followed, without dissonance, by references to the excellent sports and recreation facilities). The writer is hardly going to say “come to Lincoln and be miserable and discouraged”. But these are not fixed and self-evident opposites. I am more grateful to my old college than I imagine I sound; but what I am grateful for is the opportunity it gave me to get to grips with the intellectual imperative usefully phrased by my first-year tutor as “problematise, don’t deproblematise”. If this also is a form of consecration, it is one which at least contains the seeds of its own critique.