Pierre Bourdieu: Sociology is a Martial Art (La Sociologie est un sport de combat) (2001)

Pierre Bourdieu: Sociology is a Martial Art (La Sociologie est un sport de combat) (Directed by Pierre Carles, 2001) For some strange reason, contemporary documentaries of intellectual figures, whether academic or within the public sphere, share a tendency to bring to the screen literally the writings of their subjects. Two recent documentaries about Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek (both iconic figures in Europe, North and Latin America) endeavor to portray the life and thought of these scholars, while ending up reproducing exactly the same thing we find in their books. The major flaw of these kinds of documentaries lies in the fact that they add very little, almost nothing, to what the audience can gather from reading them. To deploy the documentary genre in such fashion becomes a fruitless enterprise at two fundamental levels: as cinematic form and as communicative device. It fails as communicative device because the audience it aspires to reach becomes the same that reads their work. This means that nothing new transpires through the film that one couldn’t get reading their work. The only incentive left to the audience is a voyeuristic one that although intrinsic to the genre, is the less valuable one. And this makes it a failure as a genre.

The first thing to be noted about First Run/Icarus Films’ Pierre Bourdieu: Sociology is a Martial Art is that the documentary succeeds at the two levels where others have failed, and it does much more. If you are interested in European social movements, the practice of sociology, a strong critique of neo-liberalism and the sources of structural inequalities, then this documentary is for you. Whether you are a teacher, a university professor, a graduate student, a social activist, or a concerned citizen, and have no idea who was Pierre Bourdieu, the film will inform you about him through all the themes above. And if you knew of Bourdieu and his work, then it will add in interesting and fruitful ways.

The first three scenes frame the structure of the documentary. It sets the stage at three different levels. The first is historical. We see Bourdieu as part of the audience in a demonstration headed by José Bové (leader of the French agricultural union Confédération Paysanne). This is historically important because it sets the social temporality of the documentary and frames Bourdieu as an implicated subject of his own object of study. This is what Bourdieu calls reflexive sociology. The second level is that of reception. Throughout the film we see an interesting representation of the reception Bourdieu’s work has in Europe: how it has affected individual’s choices at their personal and political level, how it has informed and misinformed activists in social movements, and the kinds of political and social questions Bourdieu’s sociological practice can and cannot answer.

The range of Bourdieu’s work is exemplified by a moment in the film where Bourdieu receives a letter from the famous French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. A letter to which, after reading it, Bourdieu responds “very mysterious, like all his work…I don’t understand a thing!” This is probably the funniest scene, particularly so because it ends with Bourdieu saying about himself, without irony, “Poor old Bourdieu” as who can no longer understand difficult stuff.

The third level is that of Bourdieu’s actual work. The film shows clips of radio interviews, live public performances, academic conferences, and exchanges with other public figures (we see him conversing with Gunther Grass). The first thing to notice is how his work is always historicized, from his experience in Algeria during the fifties and sixties where the practice of sociology was literally a matter of live and death, to his contemporary practice.

These three levels are present throughout the film. There their intertwining gives us a very productive approach. Rather than emphasizing only on the theoretical and sociological insights present in his writings, Bourdieu gives us the assumptions behind it, the problems behind the work he does, what motivates him and the questions he asks and why he leaves others unasked. The viewer also takes a peek at what we can call sociology at work. In a very interesting scene we see Bourdieu with several of his collaborators of the well-known volume La Misère du Monde discussing the social effects of liberalism and neo-liberalism. His engagement with social activism, as an active contributor but also as a spectator, is stimulating.

The conclusion of this documentary also provides a refreshing approach, although some may consider it patronizing. During a lecture, a heated debate takes place between the audience and Bourdieu regarding the socio-economic conditions of immigrants in France. The discussion comes to the point of anti-intellectualism, to which Bourdieu responds “you have taught me nothing. I have read Sayad! I could teach you a few things about yourselves. If that sounds arrogant, what the hell…Intellectualism is not a disease.” If there is a central theme to this documentary is precisely this: intellectualism is a practice, reflexive, engaging, informative, insightful, and critical. All characteristics exemplified in this tour de force.
Alex Betancourt University of Puerto Rico abs@uprrp.edu

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