Excitable Speech

In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu writes of the relation between “Belief and the Body”:”The body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief.  It does not represent what it performs, it does not memorize the past, it enacts the past, bringing it back to life.”  Bourdieu here makes clear that the body does not merely act in accordance with certain regularized or ritualized practices; it is this sedimented ritual activity; its action, in this sense, is a kind of incorporated memory.  Here the apparent materiality of the body is recast as a kind of practical activity, undelibereate and yet to some degree improvisational.  But this bodily habitus is generated by the tacit normativity that governs the social game in which the embodied subject acts.  In this sense, the body appropriates the rule-like character of the habitus through playing by those rules in the context of a given social field.  Its participation in the game is the precondition for a mimesis or, more precisely, a mimetic identification, that acquires the habitus precisely through a practical conformity to its conventions.  “The process of acquisition,” Bourdieu writes, is a practical mimesis (or mimeticisim) which implies an overall relation of identification and has nothing in common with an imitation that would presuppose a conscious effort to reproduce a gesture, an utterance or an object explicitly constituted as a model.”  The acquisition is historical to the extent that the “rules of the game” are, quite literally, incorporated, made into a second nature, constituted as a prevailing doxa.  Neither the subject nor its body forms a representation of this conventional activity, for the body is itself formed in the hexis of this mimetic and acquisitive activity.  The body is, thus, not a purely subjective phenomenon that houses memories of its participation in the conventional games of the social field; its participatory competence is itself dependent on the incorporation of that cultural memory and its knowingness.  In this sense, one can hear strong echoes of Merleau-Ponty on the sedimented or habituated “knowingness” of the body: “Thought and expression…are simultaneously constituted, when our cultural store is put at the service of this unknown law, as our body suddenly lends itself to some new gesture in the formation of habit.” But one hears as well Althusser’s invocation of Pascal in the explaining of ideology: one kneels in prayer, and only later acquires belief.”


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