The French Connection: combining Camus and Bourdieu to explain “alternative facts”


“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The internet widely attributes this quote to Groucho Marx, but the gist of the joke is that the line was spoken by Chico Marx, while dressed as Groucho. In a movie (Duck Soup, 1933). In other words, you cannot trust what you see or read, or what they say. It is all facade.

Near the end of grad school, I did a portfolio presentation, a series of papers leading to a project that examined the Satanic Ritual Cult scare (SRC) of the 1980s through the lens of Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory.  During the Q&A, a professor asked me to explain why the documented hysteria surrounding the fear of the “Other” (in this case, a widespread satanic cult conspiracy preying on the children) seemed to primarily plague working class communities, often in relation to economic instability. I had some ideas, but I did not feel confident in my ability to answer that question at the time.

I have not forgotten, however. In the two years since that presentation, Trump has risen to power as president, and many Americans are baffled by the efficacy of his blatant demonization of minority groups to gain popularity among members of the white working-class. This phenomenon is closely related to the question above. After all, there are Americans who consider themselves to be intelligent, well-meaning and knowledgeable, who feel that anyone who supports Trump must live in some sort of fantasy world; yet all Americans firmly believe they live in the “real world, right? If Americans cannot agree on what constitutes reality on political issues, how far removed are we from believing flying witches have taken over an otherwise reputable daycare center?

Very close, believe me. After all, who lives in a real world, anyway?

Over the last month, I have been reading Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (1942) for the first time in twenty years. At first, it was a salve for social wounds, exploring the absurdity of existence as a perspective quite objective to the tremendous changes that are taking place in our country. Unexpectedly, however, I saw connections between his core definition of the “Absurd” and Bourdieu’s habitus, and I decided to write about it.

Camus has long been my favorite philosopher, primarily because he is not a philosopher. He writes fiction, which makes more sense to me in the search for meaning. After all, science is the path of the asymptote, a line of effort ever approaching a foundation of truth, with the understanding that it can never be fully obtained by the human mind. Fiction is a narrative that explores truth through experience, demonstrating how philosophical ideas play out in the messiness of a human life. In a related way, Bourdieu avoided clearly defining terms he used in his writing. Even those who profess to understand habitus could not point to a clear definition in all of his writing.  After all, if he clearly defined such an important term, most readers would accept or reject the term and move on. To talk about it without explaining it clearly requires continued critical thought that can never end, the path of the asymptote.

In Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972), his first discussion of the habitus, Bourdieu criticizes Sartre immediately, describing Existentialism as the polar opposite of Structuralism in a false binary dichotomy of either/or theories to describe human behavior. An important part of his project was to demonstrate how social authorities shape our sense of reality through binary terms with language. Bourdieu sought to encompass the two poles of individual experience and social structures into his social theory and open the discussion up to more possibilities. The important thing to know in this discussion is that Bourdieu describes the habitus as though it is the relationship between the subject, which embodies the social fields which it inhabits, and those fields it physically and socially traverses and, to a minute degree, effects. In some readings, habitus seems limited, as a stand-in for the unconscious mind, but, in others, it is like a cultural bubble that connects the subject to the broader social world.

Camus describes the absurd as a relationship between the subject and the world as well. While Camus repeatedly rejected association with Sartre’s Existentialism, he was certainly concerned with the experiences of the individual and said little about social forces which might shape the individual. That being said, relationships and social forces did play important roles in his fiction, and there is one point in “Sisyphus” that explicitly describes the absurd in terms of an individual’s interaction with the social world:

“…a demonstration by the absurd is achieved by comparing the consequences of such a reasoning with the logical reality one wants to set up. In all these cases, from the simplest to the most complex, the magnitude of the absurdity will be in direct ratio to the distance between the two terms of my comparison. There are absurd marriages, challenges, rancors, silences, wars, and even peace treaties. For each of them the absurdity springs from a comparison. I am thus justified in saying that the feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression, but that it bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality, between an action and the world that transcends it. The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. In this particular case and on the plane of intelligence, I can therefore say that the Absurd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have meaning) or in the world, but in their presence together.”

When he describes the gulf between expectation and experience, he seems to imply that expectation derives from social inculcation, as his list (marriages, wars, peace treaties) are examples of social institutions that have ostensively predictable structures. Therefore, the Absurd derives from the expectations of the individual (ingrained social structures that impose a facade of order onto the material world) in relation to the material world the individual experiences (the irrational universe that defies the social order). And while human existence itself is generally taken to be the origin of the absurd (“If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. …This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation”), it is clear that Camus believes the socially constructed world is responsible for the illusion of “unity”, a social “norm” set in opposition to common experience of the irrational universe.

Elsewhere, Camus attributes this habit to the individual alone, as basely “human”, but it is not much of a leap to use this same description for humanity’s social project as well: “Whatever may be the plays on words and the acrobatics of logic, to understand is, above all, to unify. The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity. Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal. The cat’s universe is not the universe of the anthill. The truism ‘All thought is anthropomorphic’ has no other meaning. Likewise, the mind that aims to understand reality can consider itself satisfied only by reducing it to terms of thought. If man realized that the universe like him can love and suffer, he would be reconciled.” Exclusively from a human perspective, cats express human emotions, dogs have human habits, God acts like a man and our enemies embody exactly those values we fear most. All thought is anthropomorphic; all reality is a projection of the inner landscape, as formed by social structures.

Therefore, all human thought is suspect, regardless of how well-intentioned (“Reason and the irrational lead to the same preaching. In truth the way matters but little; the will to arrive suffices. The abstract philosopher and the religious philosopher start out from the same disorder and support each other in the same anxiety. But the essential is to explain. Nostalgia is stronger here than knowledge“). In other words, social structures seek to “explain” incongruences in existence within a moral, ethical or rational framework, a social reality with which to cope with the material reality’s irrational indifference. A unifying narrative shapes our perception, overlaying the inhuman universe like a veil. For Camus, the absurd hero is one who turns from the comfort of this socially constructed fantasy and embraces the “now” of a life without purpose, without reason and without order: “My reasoning wants to be faithful to the evidence that aroused it. That evidence is the absurd. It is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together.” In the end, he argues, life must be lived in “constant revolt”, a conscious embrace of the absurd. To refuse revolt and deny the absurd, despite the evidence against unity, is to escape into the socially constructed narrative for comfort.

That narrative can be characterized by reason as easily by faith. “With the exception of professional rationalists, today people despair of true knowledge. If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences.” He surveys the work of some notable rationalists (Jaspers, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Chestov, the phenomenologists and Scheler), to describe their combined struggle with the absurd (“…these men vie with one another in proclaiming that nothing is clear, all is chaos, that all man has is his lucidity and his definite knowledge of the walls surrounding him”) and their individual responses to the absurd, which all amount to a “leap of faith” to escape the absurd they have discovered. (For my own interests, I could also include the gnostics behind Apocryphon of John, who clearly understood the duality of human experience, condemning the irrational creation as corrupted and making a “leap of faith” to the Monad, a “God above god”, from which everything had emanated through a process of self-reflection).

The absurd hero would not make the leap, but would accept his unattractive fate because it is real. Reason that attempts to deny the absurd “bears a quite human aspect, but it also is able to turn toward the divine. Since Plotinus, who was the first to reconcile it with the eternal climate, it has learned to turn away from the most cherished of its principles, which is contradiction, in order to integrate into it the strangest, the quite magic one of participation. It is an instrument of thought and not thought itself. Above all, a man’s thought is his nostalgia.” In the tradition of Plotinus, reason is a mythology (Adorno is a good read on that subject). After all, “reason” is a human endeavor and does not exist objectively to the human experience, except as part of the unifying narrative of socially constructed meaning. The most basic human struggle is against our flawed natures in pursuit of the real that exists beyond the veil of human meaning.

And, to return to Bourdieu, there is no one unifying narrative. There are many, and they intersect. Bourdieu called them “fields”: the overlapping socially constructed worlds we navigate on a daily basis, embodied through interaction. And the many fields an individual may encounter seem to manifest in physical space: a particular individual’s family, school, church and other local fields, as well as broader structures such as state and federal government, all shape the individual, influences that are conveyed and reinforced through media, communal behavior and organizational structures. This is why an individual may have a particular view of God that deviates slightly from his or her local church’s description and drastically from the God described by government officials’ civic religion stance and also from public comments by famous preachers, yet the individual does not notice the contradictions. The fields provide meaning, so the narrative is accepted as cohesive, even when it is not. Bourdieu describes the individual who resides in the social space for which she has been fully inculcated as “a fish in water”, a metaphor to imply that she feels she belongs. However, the individual whose embodied fields differ from the fields in which he inhabits will experience anxiety and longing to belong, as if he is a stranger to his community. Likely this experience gives rise to the experience of the absurd, exposing social structures as facade. Only Camus’ “absurd hero” would pursue this knowledge, however. Most people would strive to be accepted, thereby embracing the facade as real.

And it is when individuals of significantly different fields interact that conflict arises; and these conflicts are often taken as challenges to identity. They are, insofar as an individual’s identity is socially constructed by the fields he or she embodies, and those fields provide the narratives that order the person’s identity. That conflict is often expressed as differences in “values”, so that a personal attack will be characterized as a “moral judgment.” After all, an individual from a differing field can call into question an important aspect of one’s own unifying narrative, therefore threatening order with chaos.

The true conflict, of course, is the intrusion of reality on the narrative of unity, presented through interaction with an equally unifying (but foreign) narrative. This calls the individual’s (and community’s) source of meaning into question. Rather than question, however, the community will cast the role of the Other in order to preserve the illusion of unity through conflict. Each narrative is another version of the oldest story, Marduk versus Tiamat, in which every participant is the hero and Tiamat is merely a dark reflection. In narrative form, the enemy does not exist except as a projection of self. No community characterizes itself as evil, after all.

And this is why it is more important to a community whether it feels its values are under attack, rather than whether it experiences an actual crisis. A community could experience an economic boom but feel economically vulnerable because the mouthpiece of the prevailing narrative (say, the president) is rejected as a moral authority. By the same token, an economically vulnerable community might continually vote against its own interests in harmony with the moral authority that provides its prevailing narrative of unity (say, a particular political party).

In the McMartin Preschool case I studied for my SRC paper, working class families of the early 1980s were forced to work more than previous generations had, and so had to put their children in day care centers, giving their kids over to strangers. When rumors of ritual abuse began to circulate (with absolutely no evidence), the resulting hysteria forced authorities to get involved. Once the authorities began to investigate, the rumors gained legitimacy and the accused day care employees went on trial for crimes they could not have committed. Manhattan Beach’s legal authority convicted them in the eyes of the public, but the courts could not sentence them. The community order had been threatened by economic changes and made vulnerable by compromises made within the families. The collective guilt was repressed and projected onto “the Other”, a mirror image of the community that threatened its identity from the outside. The ordering narrative negated all inconsistencies and justified the trauma inflicted on innocent day care employees as necessary to restore the community. Few dramas play out on such a broad scale, but the basic narrative is the plot of every story in human history.

This is all an oversimplification of human social behavior, of course, but I hope the exercise spurs some musings my readers had not previously considered. That is why I am presenting this in a blog post rather than a scholarly article, and why it is merely a companion piece to my fiction project, in which I will explore these ideas more deeply. But also, if you accept anything that I have said here, know that narrative is far more effective a form for shaping minds than simply stating a rational argument. To show rather than to tell is to embrace the messiness of human behavior, which rejects the false cohesive nature of pure reason. Explain to a man the reasons why he is wrong and you will make him an enemy; tell him a good story and he will agree, with no sense of irony.

And my final thoughts? Despite the endless deluge of articles on the subject, I do not believe we are now “more divided than ever”. We are actually more connected than ever, which puts people of vastly different backgrounds in contact with one another for the first time in history. [side note: Baudrillard’s work on “Simulacra” and “Simulation” is interesting here, but irrelevant:  he attributes the artifice of reality to the historical age of “post-modernism”, as though this is a recent phenomenon. However, it is obvious any self-reflection in human history has exposed the duality of human experience). Through widespread connections (travel and social media, for example), local tribalism comes in contact with the broad diversity that is human existence, calling into question the unifying narratives that provide identity and meaning. This is dangerous, but it is also productive. On one hand, those who travel take their identities with them, and those who experience diversity through media do so within the echo chambers they choose to experience. On the other hand, moving and living in another place with vastly different cultures will erode a person’s social identity in order to integrate with that new community. There is a great recent article that argues effectively that the “conservative” suburbanite who moves to the big city will soon turn “liberal”, but the article really seems to imply what I have been saying here: political identity is socially constructed, unity is a mythology imposed by human structures, and we are shaped most by the company we keep. There is progress, even if that progress is overshadowed by all the loud rhetoric that seems to decry that possibility. For instance, a congressman took to the floor this week to ask if we are living in the Stranger Things universe, and the New Yorker used the Oscars snafu this week to ask if we live in a computer simulation. And who can forget “alternative facts”, the Bowling Green terrorist attack or Sweden? We are living in a social world that is constantly being called into question, and that is progress. When we are forced to question the deep assumptions of our very identity, we come closest to witnessing reality as it exists, devoid of the illusory meaning we worship at the center of our unifying narratives.


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