How should we engage our intellectual opponents? Ignore them? Demolish them? Absorb them? Within academia, where recognition is everything, denying it is often the most effective and least costly weapon. Refusing to recognize opponents only works, however, if they are not already in the limelight. When our opponents have won recognition, when they are powerful figures, what is to be done? Within Marxism demolition has been a frequent practice, reducing opponents to intellectual rubble. Think of Lenin’s withering criticism of opportunists, anarchists, social democrats, or anyone who dared to disagree with him. The only people worthy of such aggression, however, were his competitors in the political field. There is a second tradition within Marxism: interrogating powerful opponents to assess their strength and then appropriating them under an enlarged canvas. This is not vanquishing through demolition but domination through hegemony, or as Antonio Gramsci might say moving from a “war of movement” to a “war of position.” Here the strategy is to critically appropriate the truth of the opponent by absorbing it within one’s own expanded framework. This requires a certain appreciation of the opponent. Gramsci’s critical appropriation of Croce, Marx’s critical appropriation of Hegel or Ricardo, Lukács’s critical appropriation of Weber, and Marcuse’s critical appropriation of Freud come to mind.
Every strategy comes with risks. Ignoring the opponent leaves one unscathed, but it can also leave one out of touch with emerging intellectual currents. It can turn into a lost opportunity to expand one’s own horizons through conversation with others. Demolition can win one acclaim, and without having to make contributions of one’s own. But it can bring free publicity to the opponent. By forcing the opponent into a straitjacket, it risks heaping disrepute onto the critic, and even provoking a belligerent reaction. Finally, neutralizing the opponent by absorption, taking the enemy seriously, can so transform one’s own thinking that allies may accuse one of betrayal. After all the practice of critique, if carried out properly, shapes the critic as much as the criticized.
The question at hand is how to engage Pierre Bourdieu?1 In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I myself have taken all three approaches to Bourdieu. I began by ignoring and dismissing him, but that could not be sustained as he gathered steam over the last four decades. I then attempted demolition but I was certainly not adequate to the task. The more I read the more impressed I became, leading me to a more complex process of absorption and critical appreciation.2
While initially reverential, Dylan Riley’s assessment of Bourdieu’s class theory quickly turns to demolition.3 His treatment of Bourdieu is reminiscent of Perry Anderson’s youthful, sweeping assault on Western Marxism as lost in the ethereal realms of philosophy, ideology, and culture.4 Following Lenin, Anderson claimed that revolutionary theory only develops in close connection to a mass revolutionary movement. Similarly, Riley claims that Bourdieu’s appeal, in the final analysis, lies in offering “political relevance to an intelligentsia with little organizational link to popular forces.” In other words, like Anderson’s view of Western Marxism, Riley’s view of Bourdieusian sociology signals a retreat from Marxism and its politics.