Boxing, Bourdieu and racism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Nov 8 07:09:15 MST 2003

NY Times, November 8, 2003
A Professor Who Refuses to Pull His Punches

BERKELEY, Calif. — In the ring his nickname was Busy Louie. In the 
classroom, where he spends much more of his time these days, it is easy to 
see why. Confined by street clothes, his feints and jabs accompanied not by 
leather gloves but merely by a dwindling piece of chalk and a blackboard 
eraser, Loïc Wacquant, a professor of sociology at the University of 
California campus here, all but dances his way through a seminar on the 
criminal justice system.

Twisting, turning, hopping, scribbling, he is in constant motion, 
demonstrating, for an oblivious audience of a half-dozen sleep-deprived 
graduate students, the fleet-footed agility that fueled his brief, abortive 
stint as a pugilist and nearly derailed his academic career.

A slight, excitable Frenchman with a mop of curly brown hair, hyperactive 
eyebrows and a high-pitched chortle of a laugh, Mr. Wacquant, 43, talks 
even faster than he moves, and with the same unflagging energy. "It's like 
drugs," he said of boxing's hold on him. "You have it in your veins."

Weaning himself of the sport, which he took up as a means of gaining access 
to a poor black neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, has taken him the 
better part of a decade. He stopped sparring in 1997, and now, after years 
of delay, his analysis of his days in the ring is finally coming out in print.

Mr. Wacquant (pronounced Vah-KAAHN) calls "Body & Soul: Notebooks of an 
Apprentice Boxer," which will be published by Oxford University Press later 
this month (a French edition appeared in 2001), a "sociological-pugilistic 
Bildungsroman." And for an ethnographic study, it is a remarkably personal 
work. In novelistic detail it recounts Mr. Wacquant's improbable 
transformation from winded graduate student to Busy Louie, a 137-pound 
junior welterweight who manages to pin his opponent on the ropes during the 
third round at the 1990 Chicago Golden Gloves tournament (though in a 
controversial decision by the judges, he ends up losing the match):

"I rush at Cooper and attack without letting up. I'm taking a lot of 
punches but I'm dishing out some of my own in return and the wild shouts of 
my supporters give me an extra boost of energy. We're both running out of 
steam and getting tired. Three minutes in the ring is an eternity! Jab, 
jab, right, double jab, I really am busy — at least I will have earned my 
ring name!"

"To finish the book was like closing that chapter of my life," Mr. Wacquant 
said, explaining why it took so long to complete. "It was like burying Busy 

Of course, he is hardly the first intellectual to come under boxing's 
spell. With "Body & Soul," he joins a long line of writers and philosophers 
— from Sartre and Heidegger to Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, Norman 
Mailer, George Plimpton and, the rare female exception, Joyce Carol Oates — 
who have tried to capture the brutal sport's allure on paper.

But Mr. Wacquant has serious academic ambitions for the book as well. It is 
intended not simply as a corrective to the romantic depictions that 
dominate the literary canon — "Norman Mailer compared two boxers going at 
it to a metaphysical discussion," he said incredulously — but also as a 
scholarly manifesto: a model for what ethnography, or field research, 
should look like.

In this endeavor, however, he may not get much sympathy from colleagues. 
During the decade it has taken him to write the book, Mr. Wacquant has 
acquired a reputation as one of his profession's fiercest critics. In more 
than half a dozen articles and essays, several written in collaboration 
with his French mentor, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, he has subjected 
his field to withering rebuke.

Among his charges: sociologists ignore racism and the role of the state in 
creating ghettos; they offer sanitized portraits of the urban poor instead 
of rigorous analysis of the reasons for their plight; and, worse, their 
work ends up providing unwitting legitimacy to regressive policies on race 
and poverty. He has also accused American scholars of cultural imperialism, 
of importing the peculiar national dynamics of race and racism to their 
studies of countries like Brazil, where the concepts make little sense.

As Mr. Wacquant put it last year in The American Journal of Sociology in a 
scathing review of three otherwise well-received urban ethnographies: "U.S. 
sociology is now tied and party to the ongoing construction of the 
neoliberal state" and its "punitive management of the poor, on and off the 

This grim view of government conduct is the subject of his next book, 
"Deadly Symbiosis," due out in the spring, which argues that American 
ghettos and prisons have become a single interconnected system for 
segregating and controlling the poor.

And while his writings have earned him acclaim — his honors include a 
MacArthur Foundation "genius award" — they have angered many of his colleagues.

"He's upset a lot of people," said William Julius Wilson, a university 
professor at Harvard who has made extensive studies of Chicago's ghettoes 
and been a central proponent of the view that racism is increasingly less 
significant in perpetuating urban poverty than are changes in the global 
economy and the local job market. He said he had read several chapters of 
"Deadly Symbiosis" and found much in them brilliant. "However," he added, 
"as with much of Loïc's work, I'm afraid that many readers will focus on 
the polemical attacks on the urban poverty literature instead of the 
powerful and substantive theoretical arguments he makes."


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