Over the past couple of weeks, I have been challenging myself in a couple of different ways and reaping the rewards. One challenge involves exercise; the other reading with and writing about theory in my own research. The former challenge is much less risky for me, because I was always fairly confident that the results would be positive. But taking the chance on theory–specifically Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of capital and habitus–meant gambling with time and effort, since in entering the (intellectual) exercise I was not sure that I would even be able to fully grasp the material, much less find it helpful for my project.
The exercise challenges have involved a Yoga for Runners course at a local studio and upping my running mileage in preparation for the Memphis Marathon. I already knew I was pretty good at yoga, at least in terms of my own expectations of my own body. After a few weeks of the course, I have renewed my opinion of myself as a balancing savant! And since I have already run a half marathon, I was confident I could manage last week’s long run of 9.5 miles. As I hobbled around my apartment after the run I caught myself saying out loud “That was actually kind of fun!”
Now for the intellectual challenge. For three years, in three different offices, in two different states and one Canadian province, I have had a copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction on a shelf. But I had only barely cracked the cover until about ten days ago. Bourdieu is one of those theorists that people mention, saying “You know, Bourdieu might be helpful for you.” But no one has ever really told me why. After muddling through parts of Distinction and Outline of a Theory of Practice, I have been writing some rewarding things about habitus and the various kinds of capital (symbolic, economic, etc.), as well as a more general theory of “symbolic self-completion.”
Here is one paragraph, produced today. The thoughts are still quite raw, and there is some considerable fleshing-out to do. But like the first 9-mile run in training for a much longer distance, this short passage is giving me the confidence I need for the long run (ha! see what I did there?).
Bourdieu’s concept of méconnaissance, usually translated as “misrecognition,” might be another useful concept for understanding how domestic decoration could be viewed in terms of economic and symbolic capital. Méconnaissance may perhaps best be interpreted as a willful refusal to recognize one value in favor of another, rendering one aspect invisible by reconstruing it through other aspects of habitus. In social practice, this could involve ignoring a friend at a party if acknowledgement of that relationship could be potentially embarrassing—the friendship is deliberately disavowed to save face. A more concrete example is gift-giving in which the economic capital of the gift is meant to be “misrecognized” and the symbolic capital emphasized, as it might seem socially objectionable to focus attention on the gift’s price tag. With respect to domestic decoration in the Roman world, we acknowledge how suites of sculpture or mosaic could be impressive to viewers and could make it known that a home’s owner was wealthy; as noted above, this is related to the convertible characteristic of some types of capital. Yet with the textual evidence for a widespread anti-luxury mindset, at least among certain groups of elite Romans, one wonders how expensive decoration could be simultaneously a social benefit and something of an undesireable hindrance to achieving or asserting some of the more ancient mores relating to avoidance of luxus. In other words, méconnaissance might explain how costly aspects of decoration, and especially foreign ones, came to be viewed as something of a “necessary evil” for the established elite as well as up-and-comers. The qualities of, say, Hellenizing sculpture in imported stone which alluded to an intellectual refinement could be deliberately misrecognized by a viewer with an anti-luxury bent. The economic capital of the expensive statue is ignored while the symbolic capital is accentuated; this puts both patron and viewer at ease and allows them both to reveal their cultural capital which comprised part of their habitus.