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There's a reason things have gotten so dumb.
During my first semester of grad school, one of my professors told our class about another professor in the department — I want to say it was Arlie Hochschild — whose book became a national bestseller and was blurbed by Al Gore. Rather than enhance the sociologist’s reputation in her field, our professor told us, the popularity of the book was viewed by her colleagues as a mark against her. The Gore blurb, in particular, rankled.
The professor who told us this anecdote was herself a friend and admirer of Hochschild. The point of her story was, first, that the academic world is petty, as everyone knows, and second, that there’s a sort of inverted marketplace of ideas within academia, such that the more obscure your work is, the more serious it’s perceived to be. If you write an article that’s published in an absurdly specialized academic journal that’s read by all of 50 people, you’re presumed to be engaged in real scholarship. If you write an academic book that sells like hotcakes and gets reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, the assumption is that your work must be somehow frivolous, and that you’re a dilettante.
I bring this up because it illustrates one of the key concepts of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production. And that concept, I believe, explains a lot about why our shared social reality is fracturing into a thousand partisan sub-realities and competing conspiracy theories.
Bourdieu viewed the world of professional cultural producers (artists, academics, journalists, etc.) as a collection of what he called “fields.” There’s the artistic field, the journalistic field, the juridical field, the political field, and so on. A field is the constellation of individuals, organizations and stakeholders that constitute the market for a given profession. For the artistic field, it would include artists, art dealers, gallery owners, agents, critics, collectors, and probably a dozen other groups that I don’t know enough about art to think of. The artistic field is roughly comparable to what you might call the art “industry.”
The “field” metaphor works in two ways. First, it’s a field of battle, where all the competitors and hostile factions within a given enterprise endeavor to defeat their rivals. You can see this most plainly within the journalistic field just by logging onto Twitter, where you will behold the endless, vicious, public feuds between blue check mark media employees. But it’s not unique to media. In every field, you have people occupying disparate positions of power, in shifting alliances with one another, jealously defending their positions from usurpers while undermining those they aim to topple, using the cultural norms of the field in question as a weapon and a shield.
The anecdote above illustrates the dynamic well within academia: A social scientist’s work gains a broad popular audience, accolades from non-academic critics, and perhaps some influence in actual policymaking circles. One might consider this a clear sign of success within the field. In response, rival academics use that very success as evidence of the scholar’s inauthenticity: she must be dumbing down her research to pander to the public, in cheap pursuit of media attention and political influence. The rivals’ own lack of public recognition, on the other hand, is proof of their legitimacy: their work doesn’t appeal to lay readers because they’re speaking to other experts, in the language of expertise. Lay readers aren’t supposed to “get it”; if they did, then the work must be too shallow for real scholars take seriously.
In addition to a battlefield, the field is also a force field. Like a magnetic field, fields of cultural production have polarity. Each field has two poles, which Bourdieu calls the “autonomous” pole and the “heteronomous” pole. These poles exert force upon actors within the field, just as the poles of a magnetic field exert force upon metallic objects within it. They attract and repel them, fixing each actor into specific positions relative to the others.
You might think of the autonomous pole as the collective influence of the purists within a given field — the ones who are most preoccupied with being authentic, with “keeping it real.” The autonomous pole impels actors within a field to conform to the traditional normative principles of that field — the values that constitute the mythology and the orthodoxy of a given profession, the ones that have shaped the moral outlook of its practitioners for as long as they’ve been in it. In journalism, that principle might be impartiality or objectivity; in academia, it’s the pursuit of the “truth”; in science, adherence to the scientific method. As a field develops from a mere vocation into something more like a “calling,” the autonomous pole becomes more and more pronounced.
For example: Once upon a time, even the greatest artists were merely highly celebrated artisans. Like Michelangelo, they were at the service of the patrons who hired them. But as Modern Art developed, artists began to conceive of themselves as accountable not to the church, or to the nation, or to the Medicis, or to collectors, but to one another. No longer were artists merely hired help for rich and powerful clients; they were the lords of their own manor.
This notion saw its apotheosis with the arrival of the Abstract Expressionists. When the Irascibles swept the New York scene in the mid-twentieth century, they were revered as gods within their field. Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell, de Kooning and the rest of their cohort championed a notion of the pure values of art, which could only be expressed through abstraction, as figurative painting by its very nature subordinated itself to the material reality it sought to portray. Abstract Expressionism, which fetishized texture, color, visible brushstrokes, and all of that which was most painterly in the act of painting, was the production of art not for the sake of money or fame or even representation or beauty, but for its own sake. This was the conquest of the autonomous pole over the artistic field, which marked the ascendance of the power of the artist over the world of art — the artists, so to speak, seizing the means of artistic production.
The heteronomous pole is the inverse of the autonomous pole. It’s the force exerted upon actors within a field by those who are external or peripheral to that field, and thus animated not by the principles championed by the field’s purists, but by motivations that are entirely extrinsic to the field. The most obvious example is commercialization, but it can also be political influence, or the pursuit of fame or popularity. If an artist, or a musician, or a journalist, or an academic is motivated principally by the ambition of commercial success, then to those who inhabit a space in the field closer to the autonomous pole, their work is fundamentally suspect. They can’t be faithful to truth, or impartiality, or art for art’s sake if they’re taking their marching orders from the consumer market or a political party, or seeking the attention of the media. They’re traitors and impostors, leveraging their position within the field to betray the field’s most cherished values. This is the unforgivable crime of the “sell-out.”
In short, the autonomous pole is where cultural producers create cultural products expressly for other cultural producers. The heteronomous pole is where they produce for non-producers. Think Terence Malick versus Michael Bay.
The institutions of the autonomous pole tend to bask in laboriously cultivated self-importance. These are the professional societies with their award galas, the academic societies with their obscure journals, and the prize committees with their lucrative, status-conferring honors. Professional prestige is what the autonomous pole offers — and about the only thing it can offer that the heteronomous pole cannot. To seduce actors within the field away from the forces of heteronomy, they have to lard it on pretty thick.
But the autonomous poles of just about every field have suffered in the age of social media. The internet has reordered the status hierarchy of cultural producers, diluting the influence of professional peer networks and enhancing that of the mass market audience. This has tilted the playing field of the entire meta-field of cultural production in favor of the forces of heteronomy.
This is perhaps clearest in the field I know best — that of journalism. Prior to the emergence of social media, journalists ostensibly wrote for their readers, but it wasn’t their readers whose accolades they sought or whose disapproval they feared. Aside from the occasional Letter to the Editor, journalists had no way of even knowing what readers thought of their work. But they knew very well how their journalistic peers regarded them. Not only were there the myriad awards and honors from journalism associations to confer titles of professional nobility upon them, but there were the countless informal relationships each reporter had with other reporters and editors that gave them a fine-tuned sense of where they and each of their peers stood on the professional status hierarchy.
In much of media today, those conditions are inside out.
Take me, for instance. I don’t live in New York, nor do I work in legacy media. I imagine that if I did, both my professional and my social worlds would be dominated by other workers in the media industry. I might still have those many informal relationships that tie my career to the judgments of my professional peers over and above anyone else’s.
But existing, as I do, outside of the New York legacy media world, the opinion of someone on the New York Times masthead is about as professionally significant to me as that of any other blue check. I’m not seeking employment from them, and I don’t tend to regard them as particularly accomplished in their field merely by dint of their illustrious place of employment, as I would have five or ten years ago. I don’t write for their approval, ever.
Instead I write on Substack and for various independent outlets. I live where I grew up, thousands of miles from northwest Brooklyn, and while some of my best friends are journalists, many more are people I went to high school with. I can count on three fingers the numbers of weddings I’ve attended of other journalists, and one of those was not my friend but my wife’s. Naturally, I would be thrilled to receive a PEN or a Pulitzer or a MacArthur Genius Award, but as that’s about as likely as my winning a Super Bowl ring, I spend about zero seconds of my life thinking about it, let alone organizing my career around pursuing them. The autonomous pole of the field has little pull on me.
On the other hand, I’m not proud to say, I live much of my professional life on Twitter. The voices bouncing off of its echo chambers haunt my soul and addle my brain. I try to resist it, but like anyone else, I’m prone to the cheap endorphin hits it zaps into my skull like a lab rat hitting a lever. If I were to succumb entirely to its social incentive structure, I would find myself writing directly for the audience I can find 24/7 on Twitter, with the instant gratification it offers to the lonely, anxious writers who fly into its web. I have a suspicion that many of my professional peers have long ago surrendered themselves to that temptation.
Journalism is not a particularly lucrative field. Commercial opportunities are rare. True fame is out of reach for most. But the knock-off version, internet fame, is just an outstretched hand away. The seductive pull of rising social media follower counts, of approval and amplification by big follower accounts, and of the choruses of thousands of anonymous supporters cheering you on, is a permanent and perpetual condition of the daily work lives of most journalists. Its presence is visible and immediate, unlike the distant, theoretical notion of one’s professional reputation. This is the living, breathing force of the heteronomous pole on the lives of media employees.
The result is, of course, political tribalism, ideological orthodoxy, self-censorship and all the other things we’ve become used to in today’s mass media, as journalists become captured by their social media followers and invested in the partisan bloodsports of Twitter instead of accountable to the principles of their profession that were once upheld by the institutions of the autonomous pole. The autonomous pole of journalism, in fact, has been so thoroughly wrecked by the influence of social media that even its flagship bastions have been colonized by the heteronomous pole, and now openly support the abandonment of their traditional principles and celebrate their subordination to the political field. A lot of journalists don’t even really think of themselves as journalists anymore. They’re political activists, who use reportage as a tool to pursue their political goals.
The same dynamic is also playing out in academics and politics and even medicine, where the impact is even more profound. In each of these fields, social media has undermined autonomy and bolstered heteronomy in the same way as in journalism. The consequence has been nothing short of epistemological. Basic empirical questions on the efficacy of masking and Covid vaccinations, the risk of outdoor public gatherings during a pandemic, the cause of the emergence of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, the risks of medical gender transitions for children and adolescents, the frequency of police killings of unarmed black people and any other topic that touches a nerve on social media have become almost unaskable by academic researchers. Scholars have found themselves undermined, ostracized, admonished and even suspended from their positions for merely broaching certain hot button research questions.
When the autonomous pole dominates a field, it can become insufferably self-important, detached and insulated from the rest of the world, as American Modern Art became in the postwar era. But when the autonomous pole is entirely dominated by the forces of heteronomy, it risks losing its soul. In response to various historical conditions, the pendulum tends to swing from one side to the next in every field of cultural production. But in our era of social media, it’s all moving in the same direction, and for the same reason. The effect is a balkanization of our shared reality, as each and every apparatus of knowledge production becomes a tool of partisans and ideologues. The cultural producers themselves no longer set the rules of their own practice. In many cases, they don’t even want to. They answer to a higher authority: the social algorithm.