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The Language of Nature

Thomas Whitley

In yet another edition of "Hey, look at all the cool and interesting stuff I'm reading," I want to share a few thoughts from Pierre Bourdieu's Language and Symbolic Power. Bourdieu is a prominent French sociologist who often made it his task to take that which seemed easy enough to observe in a general way and developed these observations in rigorous, scientific and compelling ways. In an essay where he talks about the limits of political effectiveness, Bourdieu offers this lengthy sentence about dominant individuals' reactions to the threat they experience "by the very existence of heretical discourse;" i.e. discourse which opposes the dominant ideology:

Finding nothing for which to reproach the social world as it stands, they endeavour to impose universally, through a discourse permeated by the simplicity and transparency of common sense, the feelings of obviousness and necessity which this world imposes on them; having an interest in leaving things the way they are, they attempt to undermine politics in a depoliticized political discourse, produced through a process of neutralization or, even better, of negation, which seeks to restore the doxa to its original state of innocence and which, being oriented towards the naturalization of the social order, always borrows the language of nature.

That is, when those who are in dominant positions feel threatened, because they have an interest in maintaining the current social order which has benefitted them, they make the case for the necessity of keeping the social order the way it is by making appeals to nature. They offer reasons why the system should remain like it is that they hope will seem obvious.

This is no less the case in religion than it is in politics. Those in positions of power will invariably appeal to the language of nature when making their case for why their understanding (which also happens to benefit them and their position of power) is the right, the "natural," understanding. Homosexuality, you have no doubt heard, is "unnatural." This is a claim that wholly ignores the evidence in nature, but is instead interested in making that is intended to be received as obvious and necessary.

By the way, Bourdieu wrote these words 30 years ago, a testament to sociology done well: "when the language has been well chosen, then what has been shown with regard to a known object can be applied to all sorts of new objects."

For a sort of primer on Bourdieu, check out the first 70 minutes of Sociology is a Martial Art (7 clips of about 10 minutes each on YouTube).