Thu Sep 16, 2004

Sui Generis

Jim Lewis has a piece on Slate about the photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, who is famous for candid shots of fashionable French people in the early 1900s. The stock story about Lartigue was that he “achieved late-life fame as one of the first masters of the medium, an unschooled amateur who achieved genius entirely by naive instinct.” But there’s plenty of evidence that, in fact, this is rubbish:

His father was a camera buff, and the son was given every possible advantage: the newest equipment, lots of leisure time, and a thorough education in the ways of the medium. Moreover, it was an era when amateur photography was all the rage, when magazines and books were full of instruction, debate, and example.

Still, Lartigue presented his work as the innocent expression of a wonderstruck boy amateur, and MoMA was happy to promote it as such.

I recently came across a nice discussion of this phenomenon in Alan Bennett’s superb Writing Home. Here is Bennett writing in his diary for March 15th 1980:

Finish a draft of my piece for the Larkin Festschrift, Larkin at Sixty. Parts of it I like and are what I want to say, but I detect a note of Uriah Heep-like self-abasement, which could be taken to denote (and maybe does denote) arrogance. I seem always to be saying ‘What am I doing here I’m not a literary person at all.’ Apropos of this I have just ordered a copy of a book I saw reviewed, a translation of Ernest Kris and Otto Kurtz’s Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist, the main point of which is that there is a tradition, in which the artists themselves conspire, of making a painter’s beginnings humbler and less sophisticated than in fact they were. The public liked to believe an artist had no training, that he astonished his elders, who picked out his skill when he was in lowly or unlikely circumstances. This has always been the case, and K. and K. demonstrate it from many periods. I suspect this is also true of literature. My contribution to the Larkin book discusses his poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’, in which he recalls what elsewhere he called the ‘forgotten boredom’ of his childhood and Coventry ‘where my childhood was unspent.’ He is trying to appear an artist without a past. And so am I in my piece, claiming I had little reading and no literary appreciation until I was in my thirties.

It’s an old story. Not even the Son of God himself was above indulging in it a little. It is closely tied to the desire for authenticity (the wish, that is, both to project and experience it). We want to present our tastes, abilities, and achievements as the unforced outcome of our natural talents because this is one of the main means through which we legitimize our social identity and, in the process, stay ahead of the competition. But really, and particularly in the case of good taste and our “feel” for fitting in, these things are a sort of capital—cultural capital. To put it in strategic terms, there is a kind of race in life where the best way to win is to insist you’re not participating, while still managing to convey the impression that if there were such a race you would happen to be comfortably in the lead. You might be surprised to learn that the degree to which this sort of thing is a conscious strategy or an ingrained disposition is an important question in social theory. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spend much of his career circling round the problem. His theory of practice tries to get a grip on the fit between class position and one’s disposition to speak or act in particular ways, or develop some tastes rather than others. Bourdieu’s key concept, a slippery one, is the habitus. Loic Wacquant provides a good, compact discussion of the idea in this encyclopedia article:

Because it is both structured (by past social milieus) and structuring (of present representations and actions), habitus operates as the “unchosen principle of all choices” guiding actions that assume the systematic character of strategies even as they are not the result of strategic intention and are objectively “orchestrated without being the product of the organizing activity of a conductor”

If the style of Francophone social theory is a little much for your Anglo-Empiricist mind—Bourdieu’s style is enough to give anyone a migraine after a while, frankly, though he would probably say that both his prose and your headache can be traced to differences in the habitus of French and Anglo-American academic cultures—then consider this comment from a later part of Bennett’s Writing Home, which conveys the nub of the issue very well:

There is a passage in [Namier’s] England in the Age of the American Revolution …: ‘A man’s status in English society has always depended primarily on his own consciousness … Whatever is apt to raise a man’s self-consciousness—be it birth, rank, wealth, intellect, daring or achievements—will add to his stature; but it has to be translated into the truest expression of his sub-conscious self-valuation: uncontending ease, the unbought grace of life.’

It’s the process of generating the (apparently) “unbought grace of life” that concerns Bourdieu, and that Lewis is probing in Lartique’s history. Transparent efforts to acquire and display it are bound to fail, but we try anyway. One of the favorite tropes of the blogging world, for instance, is the David vs Goliath story of the lone (self-taught, self-powered, grittily independent) blogger assiduously fact-checking Big Media or producing a devastating critique of some bit of mainstream science or other. It’s the same story: the lone blogger is just another version of the artist without a past, upending the conventional wisdom with his special brand of outsider-status and sui generis credibility.