Blog Post

Acquired tastes and the pleasures of imitation

I've been thinking about Pierre Bourdieu and also about what I think are common and reductive misreadings of Bourdieu. Bourdieu says two things which will often strike people as incompatible enough that they pay attention only to the first, to wit: That acquired tastes provide those who acquire them symbolic capital. Like all symbolic capital such tastes are examples of costly signaling, their costs showing the status of those who can afford to pay them. Expert knowledge of arcane jazz, or art house movies, or coaching records and strategies, or local politics is hard to attain, takes a lot of time and energy and expense, and so gives one cred in the social context where such knowledge is valued. There is or there is supposed to be a circular structure here: expertise (the combination of knowledge and taste) is valued because it gives you status, and it gives you status because it's valued.

And this is where one might see a contradiction with Bourdieu's cantankerous and self-assured commitments to his own tastes and his own canon. For example, Proust is one of his heroes, perhaps his greatest literary hero - partly because Proust offers a similar theory of taste. But we might also say that Bourdieu's theory of taste comes out of a loyalty to his love for Proust.  But this loyalty is in fact the solutution to the apparent inconsistency it flags: he can love Proust because Proust is on the side of truth, and is not just symbolic capital.

I've quoted this passage from Edmund Burke's essay on taste once before, on the pleasure of judging well:

it frequently happens that a very poor judge, merely by force of a greater complexional sensibility, is more affected by a very poor piece, than the best judge by the most perfect; for as everything new, extraordinary, grand, or passionate, is well calculated to affect such a person, and that the faults do not affect him, his pleasure is more pure and unmixed; and as it is merely a pleasure of the imagination, it is much higher than any which is derived from a rectitude of the judgment; the judgment is for the greater part employed in throwing stumbling-blocks in the way of the imagination, in dissipating the scenes of its enchantment, and in tying us down to the disagreeable yoke of our reason: for almost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority, which arises from thinking rightly; but then, this is an indirect pleasure, a pleasure which does not immediately result from the object which is under contemplation. In the morning of our days, when the senses are unworn and tender, when the whole man is awake in every part, and the gloss of novelty fresh upon all the objects that surround us, how lively at that time are our sensations, but how false and inaccurate the judgments we form of things? I despair of ever receiving the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent performances of genius, which I felt at that age from pieces which my present judgment regards as trifling and contemptible.

The thing to notice here is that social capital ("conscious pride and superiority") offers far less than what it displaces. Social status is worth less than immediate pleasure, at least to the extent that desirability is measured by pleasure. That it is so measured is something that William James will follow Burke in denying.  Burke's central distinction between the sublime and the beautiful requires him to distinguish between pleasure and delight; James argues vigorously against the reductive idea that pleasure offers a universal measure of comparison, and I agree with him. There are many different kinds of pleasures to be had, without their being commensurable. It's that incommensurability which prevents consistent preference rankings of our desires, and the fact that our rankings are inconsistent makes narrative possible (we want to know who the villain really is, but we don't want people who've seen the movie to spoil it; we want the couple to come together happily, but we wouldn't want that to happen without various obstacles making that outcome seem chancy).

The indirect pleasure of judging well may confer status and so power on the eminence grise who judges thus, but his taste for power is a taste like any other. As Hume points out, the desire for political or social power and for status is fundamentally unselfish (which doesn't make it good), since it is most concerned with what others are thinking and doing, not with one's own direct and selfish experience of pleasure.

I'll remark that since there are a lot of different kinds of status to be had, with a lot of different sub-groups, each of which is potentially understood somewhat differently by each of its members, there's much room for individuated expertise - probably as many types of expertise as there are individuals. The cricket aficionado among baseball fans may not want to pass as one of them - she may prefer the sense she has of her own tastes as sublimely subtle in comparison, even if she's the only one there who appreciates her tastes. While the first stage of taste-formation might involve trying to pass as an expert, after that people tend to be honest about their tastes, because such honesty harmonizes with the status they seek to demonstrate, which telescopes into and becomes not only extensionally but intensionally a taste for that there thing. Taste doesn't confer status; taste is status. If there's passionate demonstration involved (and there is) the target-audience of one's demonstration of taste and therefore the group within which or to which one wants to demonstrate one's status may vary widely: vicarious experience is a complex business. But the taste itself is not a proxy for status. It is the status itself. My taste allows me to be thought of as - well - as having that taste.

And the point is that status isn't well-ordered - or it's only well-ordered along one very narrow dimension, while tastes go out in all directions. In Proust the artistocrats have contempt for the Verdurins, but they have contempt for the aristocrats (until the high irony of the last scene, of course). People want to achieve status, yes, but status in those things they have a taste for.

And yet. I'm interested in the way we (I) can will certain tastes. I'm collecting examples from my own biography, and I can give a short and random but exemplary list of things I love - really love, now, maybe love most - just because I decided I would: the Psalms, Virgil, Horace, Lady Murasaki, Dante, Paradise Regained, Pope, Dryden, Jonson, Claude Lorraine, Richardson, some Wordsworth, Clare, Hawthorne, Melville's Pierre, Flaubert, Tannhäuser, Naturalism (Zola, Norris, Dreiser), Isaac Babel, Kafka, Flannery O'Connor, Marianne Moore, Auden, Larkin, Bishop, bebop, Rothko, Amos Tutuola, late Godard, early Eno, Cole Swenson, Yo La Tengo. Trying to love something doesn't always work: I tried and failed to love Clarel (sorry!), Pound's Cantos (oh, well), and Robert Lowell.

I'm interested in how you can determine to develop a taste for something. I think it's imitative: you try (I try) to imagine the works differently from the way you've been imagining them. You try (I try) to imagine what it would be like to feel the passion for them that some people do (no, this isn't mediated desire). And I think what I offer myself in doing that is a new taste, the experience of liking something for different reasons from the reasons I know for what I already know I like. I experience myself as different, and so experience differently, try out a different way of experiencing. I can understand this as status-seeking: what would it be like to possess this capital? But the answer that matters is: then I would love this art, and that would be a different experience from any aesthetic experience I've had before, and perhaps one worth having.

There's a pleasure in the experience of conversion.  Wittgenstein writes (of psychoanalysis) that when we are disinclined to accept something, we are also inclined to accept it.  Why? Not because disinclination is repression of desire, but because desire comes from the overcoming of disinclination. The pleasure is one of discovery and novely, if not in the object (how boring Clarissa is!) then in the self (how riveting it is!). We don't see differently, but we alter our relation to seeing.  That's a second order experience worth having.

Second-order? Even on the receptive side, art is the experience of imitation, and imitation (cf. Roger Caillois, who argues that seeing itself is a mode of imitation, an assimilation of the sole to the visual field it projects itself into) - imitation is the most basic experience of experience that there is, and the most aesthetically intense.  Acquired taste is as basic and as intense as it gets.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).