That Bourdieu has distorted culturalism and ignored important developments in contemporary neo-structuralist thinking is not important in itself. These mistakes are important, rather, for what they reveal about Bourdieu’s more general theoretical intent. If we may speak, contra Bourdieu, of theoretical dispositions that exist on the level of ideas alone, we wish to ask: what is Bourdieu’s theoretical interest in portraying structuralism as ideal and determinate, and as a theory that implies formal and conscious obedience to rules?
Bourdieu constructs this vulgarized enemy -tradition, it would seem, ‘so that’ he can present his own version of practical action as the only viable alternative for theories that wish to maintain some reference to supra-individual, collectivist forms. (134-135)
When he calls his own approach a theory of ‘practice’ or ‘practical action,’ we have every right to expect, in light of his critique of structuralism, that this approach will have both an anticultural and anticollective cast. But this is not the case. Bourdieu’s intention, it turns out, is not to qualify the autonomy of cultural norms vis-à-vis action and its other, non-cultural environments, thereby giving culture a less determinate cast. His intention, rather, is to submerge cultural norms, to demonstrate that they are determined by forces of an entirely different, decidedly material kind. Bourdieu wishes not to free up creative and interpretive action but to attach it to structures in a noninterpretive way. (135)
This standard of the relative autonomy of culture is fundamental for understanding the weaknesses in Bourdieu’s theory. Values possess relative independence vis-à-vis social structures because ideals are immanently universalistic. This is so, in the first place, because they have an inherent tendency to become matters of principle that demand to be generalized in ‘unpractical’ ways. . . . For Bourdieu, however, socialization does not transmit values that are in tension with life-as-it-is-found-to-be-lived; rather, it produces values that are immediate reflections of the hierarchical structures of material life. (137)
Jeffrey Alexander, “The reality of reduction: the failed synthesis of Pierre Bourdieu,” Fin de Siècle Social Theory
Alexander unwittingly misconstrues Bourdieu’s “theoretical intent.” The test of his theoretical work is not whether it satisfies any preconceived ideas about the value of cultural analysis, cultural autonomy, or the ethical component of efforts at social transformation. The test of the theory is not ideological but empirical, whether it illuminates an aspect of reality better or worse than a theoretical alternative.
Privilege checking is a public shaming ritual that accomplishes rather little other than emotional damage for the victim and smug self-congratulation for the perpetrator. It mistakes the intersectionalist mantra for theoretical insight, empirical accuracy, and political efficacy.
The genealogy of privilege checking stretches back to the early 1970s. The model was established first within “second wave feminism,” when radical (lesbian) feminists challenged the political commitment of their cultural (straight) feminist comrades who continued to love men. By the late 70s and early 80s, it had become the modus operandi of “third wave” feminism in the USA. Books by bell hooks from that era could serve as primers on how to privilege check.
Intersectionality was au courant 20 years ago, the era of pitched skirmishes over identity and resistance to postmodernism, when the politics of theory was substituted for a theory of politics. Today, only extremely late adopters trot it out as a cudgel. Around this idea an academic church of sorts has formed, whose adherents, operating much like orthodox Lacanian disciples, are enthralled by a catechism. They mostly speak to each other, policing errors, reaffirming the faith, rarely venturing outside their beloved community. This is why a simple question can set off a fierce counter-attack: the adherents experience it like a sharp slap in the face. It is as if the intersectionalists suddenly realize there’s a reality outside their idea that doesn’t receive it as an article of faith. The shock of this negative epiphany can be met only by a swift over-reaction.