Tili Boon on

Bourdieu, "Illusion and the Illusio"

Bourdieu defines the illusio as the belief that the "game" we collectively agree to play is worth playing, that the fiction we collectively elect to accredit constitutes reality. The illusio may exist on the level of society or on that of texts. Society's agreement to abide by rules of common sense, as determined by concurring perspectives, constitutes a belief in reality, the social illusio. Society may agree to accept the reality of literary texts, to participate in their fictions, giving rise to aesthetic pleasure, the literary illusio. Agreement to participate in a fiction is not the same as belief in that fiction, however. Literary illusion arises from the concurring presuppositions of narrator and reader that create the apparently sensible world of the literary text--parallel, and potentially preferable, to that of society.

Certain individuals, because they are unable to accept the "reality" of society's illusio, choose to believe the literary illusion is real, and to live life as fiction. By depicting characters in the act of refusing reality, Flaubert incorporates the structures by which we perceive reality into his fiction, rendering it all the more realistic, all the more believable. He thus writes "fictions which make use of the belief effect in order to question the foundations of the belief effect" (334).

Though Bourdieu has elsewhere expressed the desire to transcend the opposition of consciousness vs. unconsciousness, and though he states that the "precondition" of aesthetic pleasure is "almost always unperceived" (334), it is odd that he does not employ his vocabulary of misrecognition in his definition of the illusio. In our debates about whether you can still play a game if you are cognizant that you are playing it, if there is a way to get outside the structure of "game being played," etc. the distinction was made between what you believed you were doing and what you actually do. Bourdieu refers to this discrepancy as misrecognition--a concept which may explain why the game can be sustained but does not necessarily effect how it is played. As long as you exchange gifts, you are still playing, regardless of whether you acknowledge or deny that the rules exist or that you are abiding by them. Euphemistic or cynical, it is the action, not the belief, that counts. In "Illusion and the Illusio," on the other hand, the fundamental distinction is on the level of belief, which determines action. It is here that the actor remains unconscious, permanently misrecognizing the context and conditions of his actions. Why then, does Bourdieu choose not to relate the vocabulary, and therefore the conceptual coherence, of his various studies?

Bourdieu's text gives rise to further questions. Does the literary illusion exist in real life? Bourdieu gives us fictional examples of Frederics, or Don Quixotes who are stubbornly attempting to live their fictions as a means of avoiding reality. Granted, he is positing that many attempt to enact illusions to which they give undue credence, but it would be useful to have a real-life example of someone who attempts to sustain a fiction to the same degree as those characters decribed as realistic because they believe in fiction.

Part of Bourdieu's project is to explain the phenomenon of "realism," a literary effect Flaubert denied having fathered for he was not imitating reality, but rather sustained illusion. Flaubert was thereby depicting how we perceive reality, Bourdieu argues, or the--voluntary, therefore (sub)conscious?--collective misperception of reality which constitutes reality itself. If "historical analysis [...] allows us to understand the conditions of the 'understanding'" (333), as Bourdieu claims, does Bourdieu consider realism to be an exceptional successful portrayal of our constant cognitive structures, or do those cognitive structures evolve in tandem with literary movements? Cervantes is not called the father of realism, but does his fiction reveal the cognitive structures of his society as fully as Flaubert's does of his? Does Bourdieu privilege Flaubert in his study because he is closer to him and his society, more able to identify with the fictive reality depicted, more able to empathize with the escapist desires of the characters? Is his attention drawn particularly to Flaubert's work because Flaubert's society was sufficiently cognizant of--or sufficiently misrecognized--its own cognitive structures to call Flaubert's writing realism, thereby expressly inviting further investigation into the particular relationship between fiction and reality that Flaubert achieves?

I have a related question that stems from class discussion and the preceding section in Rules of Art but which I would like to ask here since Bourdieu misses another golden opportunity to address it. One of the critiques of Bourdieu, which I find unjustified in relation to fields but pertinent in his discussion of the illusio, is that he describes a static system but not how it evolves. Similarly, in the section entitled The Conquest of Autonomy, Bourdieu states that "sociological analysis [...] allows us to take account of the difference [...] between works that are the pure product of a milieu and market, and those that must produce their market and even contribute to transforming their milieu, thanks to the work of emancipation of which they are the product and which is accomplished, in part, through the objectification of that milieu" (104). I confess that I do not want him to "take account" but rather to explain the difference between those works that are products and those that produce, much as we wanted him to explain why some individuals are transformed by their field, while others transform the field itseld. As long as he is focusing on Flaubert's oeuvre and milieu, why not perform that sociological case study and deduce what might have contributed--besides Flaubert's bourgeois yet sympathetic father and Flaubert's documented need to write while traveling, details that deflect the question--to the habitus that allowed Flaubert to objectify social structures and that allowed him to do so by rewriting the very structures he recognized. Such an analysis might help us to determine the fundamental difference in approach and effect, to which Bourdieu alludes yet does not make explicit, between the literary illusio of Flaubert and the scientific illusio of the sociologist.

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