Craig Calhoun on Pierre Bourdieu and Picturing Algeria

We continue our week-long focus on Picturing Algeria, by Pierre Bourdieu with an excerpt from Craig Calhoun’s foreword. (You can also read an interview with Bourdieu about the book and his time in Algeria):

Bourdieu sailed to Algeria in the company of working-class and peasant soldiers with whom he identified as the son of a provincial postman. He tried, not entirely successfully, to persuade them of the problems with French occupation. As he realized, their very recognition that he had voluntarily (but perhaps only temporarily) renounced some of the privilege conferred by elite education only accented the class division between them. Assigned to national service as a clerk in the bureaucracy of the French army, he found himself working for a colonial administration he would come increasingly to hate as it repressed a growing insurrection. But Bourdieu’s hatred was not only for the violence of the French military, but for the larger colonial project and the ways it disrupted and damaged the lives of individuals and the collective life of communities. He entered a country torn apart not just by colonialism but also by the introduction of capitalist markets and consequent social transformation. It was in this context that Bourdieu developed the concept of “symbolic violence” to refer to the many ways in which people’s dignity and capacity to organize their own lives were wounded—from the forced unveiling of women to the disruptions a new cash economy brought to long-term relations of honor and debt to the categorization of the rural as backward and the denigration of Berber languages (by Arabophones as well as Francophones).

Bourdieu was initially posted to boring duty with an army air unit in the Chellif Valley, 150 kilometers west of Algiers. Before long, however, he was reassigned to Algiers. The move was a favor from a senior officer who was also from Béarn, the same rural province as Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s mother had interceded on his behalf.

Mothers don’t get enough credit in histories of social science, and Bourdieu’s made a second crucial contribution to his career, even more basic to this book. She bought him a Leica camera. This came a little later, though, as Bourdieu’s engagement with Algeria grew deeper and became a crucial, formative influence on his career and life.

The photographs in this collection date from 1957–60. By the time most were taken, Bourdieu had completed national service, written a book, and voluntarily returned to Algeria as a university lecturer. They are neither the completely naïve snapshots of a newcomer nor products of a fully formed sociologist or anthropologist. Bourdieu did not deploy his camera artlessly, simply to record, as in a few years he would describe French peasants doing in his book on photography. His camera was a Leica, not a Kodak Brownie, and his ambitions were greater. And the young Bourdieu was a good photographer; his pictures offer interesting, sometimes beautiful compositions. But when Bourdieu looked back on these photographs nearly a lifetime later, he said that the ones that moved him most were the most naïve. The young man was ambitious but the older man recognized that the camera served him better when it recorded a scene that made him think more deeply on reexamination than when it illustrated what he already thought was going on.

Bourdieu was in the process of teaching himself how to be a social scientist and especially a fieldworker. He tried out a range of techniques: surveys, observations, in-depth interviews, sketches of village geography and houses, and even Rorschach tests. Photography was one crucial way in which Bourdieu gathered data—and developed his sociological eye.

Some of the photographs document research sites and served as mnemonic devices to spark his memory later. Some, rather more artfully, try to make a point. By his own account, Bourdieu was drawn especially to photograph scenes that brought to the foreground transitions and dislocations, the contrast between old and new; “situations that spoke to me because they expressed dissonance,” as he told Franz Schultheis. There are striking and sometimes quite wonderful examples here. More than a few focus on veiled women—riding a scooter, buying a newspaper, in front of a shop selling radios. Others show peasant men in the city, often with a tiny capital of objects for sale and looking uncomfortable.

A shy, or perhaps better, a private man for all his later public prominence, Bourdieu was conscious of the voyeurism of photography. He did not shrink from photographing much that seemed more private than public—even a girl’s circumcision. But many of his photographs are shot from an oblique angle or show their subjects from the back. As Kravagna notes, the subjects of Bourdieu’s photographs seem often to be in retreat; they seldom look back at the camera. Indeed, Bourdieu eventually replaced the Leica his mother had given him with a Rolleiflex because of the advantage a through-the-top viewfinder offered to a photographer who wanted to be unobtrusive. Beyond personal diffidence (and he was self-confident at the same time as shy), Bourdieu was conscious that he was manifestly a Frenchman photographing Algerians.

Neither Bourdieu’s photography nor his fieldwork was without background and agenda. He came to Algeria at odds with colonialism, yet indirectly informed by it. If justification for colonial rule came in the idea of a mission civilisatrice, and more basically the notion that “the natives” simply lacked civilization, much early anthropology was devoted to demonstrating that the societies into which colonialism intervened were in fact civilized, had culture, had an organized way of life. So too the early work of Bourdieu. Indeed, Bourdieu reports that at first he shied away from reporting on ritual practices because these would be taken as evidence of the primitivism of the Kabyle. Conversely, if the basic fact of colonialism was domination, then the ethical imperative for the researcher was to make domination manifest. Steeped in Bachelard’s epistemology and history of science, Bourdieu embraced the notion that knowledge was created in a series of corrective moves. The effort to understand Algeria and Algerians was part of the necessary correction for colonialism itself. But there was the danger of overcorrection. The natives could be represented as inhabiting a more completely functional and internally closed culture and society than was ever historically real. And colonialism could be represented as so completely domination that its seductions and the motivations for collaboration were hidden. Or taking the Bachelardian opposite perspective could lead the anthropologist to leave colonialism itself out of the picture in seeking to portray autonomous native society: The French seldom appear as such in Bourdieu’s account of colonial Algeria and very little in these pictures (though note the tank seen through the back window of Bourdieu’s car….

Bourdieu is criticized sometimes for overestimating the unity and timelessness of Algerian societies before the French. Certainly there was prior history and there were internal fault lines and occasions for debate. Conversely, Bourdieu is said sometimes to overstate the completeness of colonial dispossession. If his written accounts threaten sometimes to totalize—to show traditional Kabyle society as perfectly integrated, or to show colonial Algeria only as a system of dispossession—these photographs reveal more of life outside those frames. Take one of the most “pre-interpreted” of the photos, the veiled woman riding a scooter. It is a strong image, but also a hackneyed one, reminiscent of others produced over and over around the world, the veil signifying tradition and a specifically gendered view of exotic Islam, the scooter signifying modernity. Yet although we read these meanings immediately in it, it is also a picture of a confident young woman moving about on her own.

Bourdieu initially thought his Algerian sojourn was just an interruption on the way to a career in philosophy. It marked instead a moment of personal transformation as he found his métier in sociology. In these photographs we are invited to look almost through his eyes at the world of old ways and new conditions, cultural continuity and change, that permanently and very productively gripped his imagination.

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