Cultural Capital (pared down paper)

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at acpub.duke.edu
Fri Apr 14 13:33:07 MDT 1995


             Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx

[snip]

     In the face of criticisms that "cultural capital" is an
empty metaphorical gesture towards scientificity and radicality,
Bourdieu adamantly denies that this is so, just as likewise he
denies the term's purely literalist tendencies towards economism.
In response to these twin criticisms, Bourdieu answers that
cultural capital is a specific "form" of capital, convertible
with and yet irreducible to economic capital.

[snip]

the term
performs important theoretical work, if only by implication, in
an undertheorized way.  For it is upon the basis of this analysis
of different but convertible forms of capital--its "three
fundamental guises" (Bourdieu, "The Forms of Capital" 243) of
economic, cultural and social capital--that he outlines his
overarching project of a "general theory of the economy of
practices... [requiring us] to abandon the economic/non-economic
dichotomy [in favor of]... a science capable of treating all
practices" (Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 122).
     My contention is that such a general theory is indeed
tenable, but that Bourdieu does not achieve this, in large part
because he is unwilling or unable to conceive of a general
political economy of practices which would account for all
sectors of this economy.  Or rather, that Bourdieu more or less
outlines a political economy of practices and capitals, but that
the market subsumes all other economic sectors in his analysis at
the expense of an understanding of production or, most crucially,
of surplus.  We need a critique of this political economy, one
which might historicize the specific modes and mechanisms of
production and capitalization, and thus enable us to conceive of
alternative ways in which this general economy might be
structured.  I hope to suggest a way towards such a critique
through comparison with Marx's similar critique of political
economy.

[snip]

     If Bourdieu's own definition of capital leads to a
consideration of value--understood, we can now see, in a
framework reminiscent more of Ricardo than of Marx--it should
prove useful to re-investigate the theory of value in political
economy.  Indeed, as John Guillory implies, the concept of
cultural capital necessitates a reconceptualization of the
relations between the two components of value, use value and
exchange value.

[snip]

I suggest that Bourdieu
enables us to reconceive use value as defined by the role of
"concrete time" in the circuits of both cultural and economic
capital.

[snip]

Bourdieu makes clear that in
exchange, and thus in exchange value, the "temporality of
practice" is eliminated.  By contrast, the specificity of use and
use value then is what I will call this "concrete time" of
strategy, of the interval, in contrast to the "abstract time" of
the contract instituted in and through exchange.
     This is clear in any analysis of simple commodity exchange
and use: while a given commodity can be exchanged (can realize
its exchange value) at any time and in a legal instant, it is
used (it realizes its use value) according to a temporality or a
set of rhythms that may be determined by the particularity of the
commodity itself, or of its user(s).  So, if I buy Great
Expectations at a bookstore, I pay for it at the cash register
and realize its exchange value in an instant, but may take it
home and read it, or not, at my leisure according to a
temporality determined both by the structure of the novel and by
the interruptions of my own everyday life.
     Traditionally, only the exchange at the cash register concerns
economics. [snip] Everything else concerns use value.  On the other hand,
for Bourdieu this is only the beginning of the story: selecting and then
reading the book require a certain amount of cultural (particularly
linguistic) capital, and the benefits of such investment yield an amount
of cultural capital which may acquire value at an academic dinner party or
job interview, or with the granting of an educational diploma.  Thus while
for an orthodox economist the choice of Great Expectations over
Neuromancer is of no concern, for the economist of cultural capital such
distinctions are the essential points of analysis.  Indeed, Bourdieu
appears to overturn the common economistic conception that use is the
immediate and uncomplex satisfaction of need.
     However, the expulsion of use value from economics has been
far from absolute.  For Marx's essential difference from Ricardo
lies not only in his recognition of the role of surplus, but
concomitantly in his acceptance of use value as an economic
category in certain decisive circumstances.  The process of
capitalist production and exploitation itself is understood by
Marx in terms of a contradiction between use value and exchange
value--a contradiction that is also one between abstract and
concrete time.

[snip]

Most important for our present analysis is that this process of
exploitation is enabled through positing abstract time as the
measure of value.  In other words, exchange is here an
abstraction of value measured in terms of socially necessary
labor time.  Hence the labor theory of value: value is not merely
accumulated labor, but rather an accumulation of quantifiable
labor, with socially necessary labor time as its measure.  But it
is this abstraction that enables both the extraction of surplus,
and its mystification as an alienated, fetishized relation.
     The phrase "socially necessary labor time" signifies not
only that the quantity of labor time is socially determined to be
"necessary," but more importantly still that the very form of
quantification as labor time is also socially determined as
"necessary."   Alienation occurs when the concrete time
characterizing the use of labor power (the rhythms and
particularities of the working day) is transmuted into the
quantifiable abstract time deemed socially necessary for its
reproduction (so many hours per week at so much per hour).  As
Moishe Postone puts it: "It is the temporal dimension of the
abstract domination that characterizes the structure of alienated
social relations in capitalism" (191).
     Moreover, this abstract quantification of time is socially
constituted as insufficient to represent the full amount of
concrete time (use value) expended over the working day: a
surplus is produced, less or more according to the working day
and the socially determined productivity of the branch of
production in which the labor process is taking place.  This
surplus, which is essentially surplus time, time wasted, from the
point of view of the worker, is then the source of surplus value
and the transformation of value into capital.  I want to suggest
that exactly the same process constitutes cultural capital.
     Just as economic capital is a result of the constitutive
under-valorization through abstraction of concrete laboring (that
is, senuous) activity, so cultural capital has to be understood
not in terms of productive or unproductive activity (for
consumption through use is only secondarily productive) but in
terms of precisely this mechanism of under-valorization.  The
fact that labour struggles have consistently been fought over the
wage and the length of the working day demonstrates the ways in
which workers have focussed on precisely this index of
valorization, asserting their own mechanisms of auto-valorization
in contradistinction to the abstract and constitutively
exploitative valorization of capital.  Likewise, cultural
struggles over valorization for "non-canonical" works or
subaltern cultural practices are also struggles over the
proportion of surplus to "socially necessary" activity in the
everyday lives of the masses of the population.
     Bourdieu is thus right to see institutions such as the
school not as the sites of distribution of cultural capital, but
as the sites of its valorization.  Through such institutions
concrete cultural wealth (to use Postone's distinction between
wealth and value) is subject to the abstract and seemingly
objective social transformation into value.  As a result of such
operations, it will turn out that cultural activity--concrete
time--spent reading Great Expectations may be socially determined
as necessary activity, while the time spent reading Neuromancer
may remain relatively undervalued, or as completely surplus in
the light of this socially regulated market.  In other, less
centralized, markets, the gap between cultural value and price
may enable negotiation according to supply and demand: this then
opens up a new form of transformation problem, as also a
relatively fluid space for speculation, quick profits,
advantageous conversions into other forms of capital and so on.
     However, the fact remains that Bourdieu consistently
focusses his attention on the ups and downs of these relatively
volatile cultural markets at the expense of analyzing the
mechanisms of valorization itself, as the source of exploitation
and surplus.  [snip]  Rather, a critique of
the general political economy of practices shows that what is at
issue is the form of the law of value itself, which Bourdieu too
uncritically accepts as when in Distinction he effectively
negates the very idea of the dominated class's cultural wealth.
     Yet, contrary to his apparent functionalism, much of
Bourdieu's work must also be seen as structured around the
possibility precisely of a crisis in this law of cultural value.
Both Distinction and Homo Academicus are effectively traumatized
by the experience of 1968--both books were researched before but
written after this date, and amount at least in part to a
retrospective attempt to understand this generalized revolt
against precisely the law of value as a determination of socially
necessary time--time to wait for a degree, to wait for a job.

[snip]

Working more fully through a critique of the general political
economy of practices towards which Bourdieu points us, and
attempting to understand better the inter-relations between and
mutual determinations of the various forms of capital--now
understood as immanently implicated rather than in any relation
of exteriority--it might now also be possible to analyze moments
of rupture such as the events of 1968 in France, Italy and
elsewhere as assaults on the general law of value.  This, then,
might lead us to imagine what lies outside Bourdieu's framework.

                                               Jon Beasley-Murray
                                                       April 1995                           works cited


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