Bourdieu in the Grey Zone of Violent Politics (South Africa)

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 11:30
Oral Presentation
Karl VON HOLDT, SWOP, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Pierre Bourdieu is the quintessential theorist of domination and social order. South Africa presents an exemplar from the global South – fractured, contested, disputative, disorderly, violent. In this paper I rethink Bourdieu from a Southern perspective. In particular, I reconstruct the concept of political field to provide for multiple overlapping, mutually unintelligible and subversive fields of practice occupying the same social space, thus accounting for double-meaning, ambiguity, violence and subaltern agency in the making and unmaking of social order.

Drawing on empirical research on local politics in South Africa, I identify three political fields which intersect, overlap and destabilise each other: the formal democratic field, and informal field of patronage, factionalism and violence, and a field of insurgent citizenship. It is this complex political arena of overlapping, meshing and mutually disrupting fields that characterises violent democracy and its grey zones (Auyero 2007) of legality and illegality, symbolic ambiguity and dissonance. While some agents may attempt to restrict their practice to one or other of these fields, others engage in practices across two or more fields simultaneously, and in any case each field is irretrievably influenced by or ‘corrupted’ by the symbolic practices of the others, meaning that most agents – or at least those who survive – are implicated in moral and symbolic ambiguity and the workings of the grey zone.

This is an attempt to rewrite Bourdieu for the postcolonial world, where each of these different political fields bears a different history in relation to conquest, colonialism, modernity and democracy. Such rewriting is fundamental, constituting a fundamental departure from Bourdieu rather than an elaboration.