Distinction in the Buff

February 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

According to a story in today’s Guardian, Bourdieu is “the second most frequently quoted author in the world, after Michel Foucault.”  
Sociology students the world over are familiar with concepts such as social reproduction, symbolic violence and cultural capital.
Funny you should mention cultural capital, given another story in the Guardian (and elsewhere) about Dominique Strauss Kahn.  I may be misinterpreting Bourdieu, but I think cultural capital includes the ability to distinguish what is of high quality from what is ordinary.  La distinction is what characterizes the French elite.

As for Strauss Kahn,  certainly a member of that elite, he’s being questioned by French police about his part in recruiting prostitutes for “soirées coquines” at a hotel in Lille.   (In France, being a client is not illegal, but pimping is.)  DSK is claiming that he didn’t know the women were prostitutes.   As his lawyer said, shortly after the case came to light in France,  
People are not always clothed at these parties. I challenge you to tell the difference between a nude prostitute and a classy lady in the nude
That “classy lady” may not be le mot juste.  Worse, this Times translation also loses the Bourdieu angle – distinction.   Here’s what the lawyer actually said,
Je vous défie de distinguer une prostituée nue d'une femme du monde nue.
Ill have to reread Bourdieu to see if he makes the point that la distinction requires that people have their clothes on.


Baptiste said...

No need for clothes, and in "La Distinction" Bourdieu is attentive to combine examples where clothes are involved with examples where body is involved (the "mimiques" of the mouth, the length of the hair...).
Moreover, sexuality itself is seen as distinctive (especially for the "new petite bourgeoisie"). E. Bernstein in "sex work for the middle class" http://sex.sagepub.com/content/10/4/473.abstract is using Bourdieu's ideas to describe middle-class commercial sexual encounters, where "the emergence of `bounded authenticity' (an authentic, yet bounded, interpersonal connection) as a particularly desirable and sought-after sexual commodity."

Jay Livingston said...

Baptiste -- Thanks for the clarification. Possibly, DSK himself would have said that he was seeking “an authentic, yet bounded, interpersonal connection”

But that's not the view of Dodo la Saumure, who apparently knows something about these soirées:
«Ce qui l’intéressait, c’était d’avoir des rapports et de jouir. Point final.»

Anonymous said...


Why is it so clear that he "is a member of the elite." Jewish ancestry on both sides - half-Ashkenazi, half-Sephardi - w/ mother a Tunisian, didn't make it into ENA, etc. I know this is peripheral to the point you are making, but, for the record...

Jay Livingston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Livingston said...

Anon: Elite in the sense of cultural capital, taste, distinction. In the US, it’s different. Here, you can be of the elite socially and economically – be born to WASP wealth, go to elite schools – and still speak English badly, have very middle-brow tastes, and reject any kind of cultural sophistication . . . and still be successful in the public sphere. (See, Bush, George W.)

DSK, as you say, is something of an arriviste, a parvenu,* and I know nothing of his personal preferences in culture. But I would guess that on the road to being a Sciences Po prof, a top-level cabinet minister, head of the IMF, and head of a major political party, he acquired the same tastes as others in those circles. My guess is that given a choice between tickets to the opera and tickets to a soccer match, he’d take the former (assuming that the timing didn’t interfere with a good partouze).

* Before I had any cultural capital, I thought that parvenu was the fifth question at seder.