Eros in the Field? Bourdieu’s Double Account of Socialized Desire

An interview with Helene Aarseth, author of Eros in the Field? Bourdieu’s Double Account of Socialized Desire, shortlisted for The Sociological Review Award for Outstanding Scholarship 2016.

What role did psychoanalytical theory play in Bourdieu’s later works?

In his later works Bourdieu draws extensively on psychoanalytic ideas. He talks, for instance, about projections, energies, drives, sublimations, desire and libido. In Pascalian Meditations, he explicitly notes that sociology and psychoanalysis need to overcome their mutual suspicions and ‘combine their efforts’ in order to understand how the world is constituted for us as an object of interest and preoccupation.

I myself have been particularly interested in how he draws on psychoanalytic ideas to conceptualise what it is that drives our investments in the world. An important dimension in Bourdieu’s theory is that we are not indifferent to the world. We are radically exposed to it, and therefore also deeply invested in it – not only in the economic sense, but also in the psychoanalytic sense. Bourdieu talks about this investment in terms of libidinal drives and impulses that push towards a self-investment in the object and energise agents’ engagement with the world. His concept of libidinal drives appears to be taken from Freud’s instinct theory. He writes, for instance, about an original ‘undifferentiated biological instinct’ – incidentally, a point that he has been criticised for. But perhaps this could also be taken as an account that emphasises how we are deeply bound to the world. We are affected by the world – and for that reason, we are also equipped with a deep-seated urge to engage with it.

How did this leave him in tension with the earlier commitments of his practice theory?

I’ve wondered how this idea of libidinal drives could serve to develop further the praxis-theoretical strand in Bourdieu’s theory, as evident in his view of habitus as a practical sense. Investments emerge in our practical engagement with the world, in our encounters with what ‘has to be done’. Here, however, Bourdieu’s theory tends to emphasise the practical and procedural dimensions of practice: what it is that works in certain practical situations. But how can experiences of what it is that ‘works’ turn into an enchantment that energises investments in specific fields? I wanted to see whether introducing the concept of libidinal drives could enable a move beyond this emphasis on practice as procedural ‘goings-on’.

But when Bourdieu seeks to account for how these libidinal drives are transformed from an undifferentiated libido to socialised desire, he seems to relapse into a dualism of subjective and objective structures. I would suggest that this is because Bourdieu sees ‘the desire to be desired’ as the underlying motor of our investments in the world. The state of being radically exposed to and therefore invested in the world becomes transformed into a desire for recognition: libidinal drives become an engine that drives a competition for symbolic advantage.

What are the underlying roots of this problem in psychoanalytical theory?

The antagonism between desire and culture that haunts Bourdieu’s conception of socialised desire has pervaded much psychoanalytic thinking, from Freud onwards. Arguably, there is an innate problem in psychoanalytic theory when it comes to conceptualising our relations to the external world. Paul Ricoeur captures this well in what he terms ‘the solipsism of desire’ in Freud’s theory. Libidinal strivings are reduced to an urge for neutralisation or removal of pain – and do not include the urge to engage with the external world, the delight in imaginative activity. What is lacking is a conception that can capture the mutual enrichment between subjectivity and worldly pursuits.

How can Hans Loewald’s account of Eros help us move beyond this impasse?

Hans Loewald explicitly addresses our libidinal attachments to the external world. His concept of Eros has much in common with Donald Winnicott’s transitional experience. Compared to other theorists in the British object-relational school who focus on inner objects, Winnicott is more concerned with our attachments to real objects in the external world. Winnicott conceives of a possible space between the individual and the environment, which starts out with the infant’s creation of a transitional object that is both me and not-me. This transitional experience may go on to develop into more complex forms of engagement with the world – for instance in art, aesthetics and the creative sciences.

Loewald could be seen as working out the theoretical implications of Winnicott’s idea of a transitional experience. Whereas Winnicott conceives of transitional experience as emerging from moments of illusions, Loewald is concerned with how the world becomes psychically constituted for the child: how the inner and the outer, the self and object, are created in the first place. And while Winnicott, along with other proponents of a non-antagonist conception of desire and social investments, rejects Freud’s instinct theory, and gives primary emphasis to object relations, Loewald’s reworking of the individuation process enables him to conceptualise libido as not being a pre-social instinct. Loewald reworks Freud’s theory of the separation–individuation process in a manner that paves the way for a more synthesised psychoanalytic theory of perception and motivation. Viewed through Loewald’s optic, the self is simultaneously striving to produce boundaries between itself and the world, and also to make linkages to the world. The infant struggles to achieve a sense of autonomy – but this autonomy is not primarily a struggle for defence against harsh realities: it is just as much a struggle against the loss of reality. In Loewald’s conception, libido is, as Jonathan Lear has put it, a force ‘by which ego strives to keep itself connected to the world from which it is differentiating itself’.

Helene Aarseth is Professor at Centre for Gender Research, University of Oslo. She is the author of two books and several articles on changing masculinities, everyday life of the late modern family, and parenting and social class. Recent publications apart from ‘Eros in the field? Bourdieu’s double account of socialized desire’, include ‘Conflicts in the habitus: The Intergenerational Emotional Work of Becoming Modern’ and ‘Fear of falling – fear of fading: The emotional dynamics of positional and personalised individualism’.

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