Bourdieustic Thoughts: On Authorized Language and Uniform Rituals


Bourdieustic Thoughts 

On Authorized Language and Uniform Rituals

 Edip Yuksel

Language and Symbolic PowerAs a member of University, now I am participating in a ritual which empowers the academic hierarchy and justifies the existence of the institution. In order to get some share from its symbolic power stock market, I am obligated to write a paper that should demonstrate the habitus of social scientists: impose on myself to evaluate the evaluation of a respected member of other respected members of the club. I am expected not to use slang. I am expected to cite a long list of accepted intellectual works. I am expected to create a theory of my own, and occasionally manufacture new jargons as trade mark of my production. I know that I am not expected to divert from formal guidelines. I know that it is only tolerated to a certain extend when your name has gained certain authority in the hierarchy.  Well, I tried my best to fit the mold. But, I continuously struggled in a dilemma created by my rebellious and mischievous thoughts. Here is my intellectual “cookie” prepared in a sleepless night that was occasionally interrupted by my newborn son’s ritualistic cry.

“It is clear that all the efforts to find, in the specifically linguistic logic of different forms of argumentation, rhetoric and style, the source of their symbolic efficacy are destined to fail as long as they do not establish the relationship between the properties of discourses, the properties of the person who pronounces them and the properties of the institution which authorizes him to pronounce them.” (Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, Harvard University Press, 3rd edition, 1994, p. 111).

In a rural town of east Turkey, when I was a teenager, I could not understand why the imam (priest) of the mosque would recite half an hour long Arabic speeches in every Friday Ceremony before the prayer. The original purpose of the Friday speech was to inform and enlighten those who attend the ceremony on religious, political and social issues. During the time of prophet Muhammad it was delivered in Arabic because it was the language of the people in that region. When I moved to a city in west, I found that imams, by complying to the order of secular government, were giving their speeches in the spoken language. However, they were still preserving Arabic clich*s in the starting and ending of ceremonies. Though majority of people could not understand what they were reciting, virtually none would question the wisdom of continuously being subjected to a foreign language. Then, as a teenager, I objected that practice without knowing the real reason behind it, the reason that is well expressed by Bourdieu:

“Rigorous observance of the code of the uniform liturgy, which governs the sacramental gestures and words, constitutes both the manifestation and the counterpart of the contract of delegation, which makes the priest the holder of ‘a monopoly in the manipulation of the goods of salvation.’”  (Bourdieu, 115).

Contemporary French social scientist Bourdieu, in his book Language & Symbolic Power, explains this and similar tactics in a very strong statement: “the language of authority never governs without the collaboration of those it governs, without the help of the social mechanisms capable of producing this complicity, based on misrecognition, which is the basis of all authority.” (Bourdieu, 113). Bourdieu who is more interested in socio-political connotation, implication, background and context of words, the identity of speaker and listener than the words themselves, overgeneralizes the importance of symbolic power of language: “The power of words is nothing other than the delegated power of the spokesperson, and his speech–that is, the substance of his discourse and, inseparably, his way of speaking– is no more than a testimony, and among others, of the guarantee of delegation which is vested in him.” (Bourdieu, 107). Yes, he overgeneralizes and overemphasizes the delegated power. There are words which contain intrinsic power, such as simple logical and mathematical arguments. Such as anonymous proverbs and poems. Though the prestige and audience of the medium are important factors, we cannot ignore the power of clever language, that is, words, design and pictures in advertisement.

The delegated power can be explicit or implicit. It is explicit in quotations that are followed by a brand name signature, such as Pope John IV, Einstein, George Washington, Shakespeare, Bible, The New York Times, etc. The fame and power of the signature can be enough to make a dull statement a popular wisdom. However, we should not forget that some of the signatures may have gotten their fame from their skills of using the conventional language efficiently. Usually, there is  an interactive reinforcement between signatures and words.

Religious and political popular names can blind the eyes of their worshipers to obvious contradictions and irrational ideas. The same narration can be labeled as nonsense or wisdom depending on the information regarding the source of that narration. Just ask the opinion of a non-scholar traditional Muslim regarding the following statements. They will most likely reject them as nonsense:

  • The intelligence and the religion of women are incomplete.
  • The earth is carried on a giant bull; when it shakes its head an earthquake occurs.
  • You shall kill all black dogs; because they are devils
  • The parchment that the verse about stoning to death for adultery was written on was eaten and abrogated by a goat.
  • A tribe of monkeys arrested an adulterous monkey and stoned it to death, and I helped them.
  • If a monkey, a black dog, or a woman passes in front of a praying person, his prayer is nullified.
  • To find a good woman among women is similar to finding a white crow among a hundred crows.
  • Do not eat and drink with your left hand, because Satan eats and drinks with the left hand.
  • If anybody has been required to prostrate before others beside God, the woman should prostrate before her husband.
  • I have been shown the dwellers of hell; the majority of them were women.
  • If the body of the husband is covered with pus and his wife licks it with her tongue, she still will not be able to pay her debt to him.
  • The punishment for cutting the fingers of a woman is to pay her: 10 camels for one finger, 20 camels for two fingers, 30 camels for three fingers, and 20 (twenty) camels for four fingers.
  • Muhammad possessed sexual power of 30 men.
  • Moses was scared by the angel of death, thus Moses slapped him and blinded one of his eyes.
  • A group from the Ureyneh and Uqayleh tribes came to the prophet and the prophet advised them to drink urine of camels. Later on, when they killed the prophet’s shepherd. The prophet seized them, gouged out their eyes, cut their hands and legs, and left them thirsty in the desert.

Whenever they learn that they are quotations from their most reliable holy hadith books, such as Bukhari, Muslim, Ibni Hanbal, etc., then, they stop their objection and resort to interpretation provided by their scholars. Evidently, the power of authority changes their attitude from rejection to defense.

The delegated power can be implicit in the style, context, selection and implication of words, such as in Bourdieu’s own language. What is the misrecognition of Bourdieu’s intellectual authority when he points to misrecognition as the basis of all authority? Where does the delegated power of his words come from? Bourdieu’s language confirms his theory of language. He shows the linguistic habitus of traditional intellectuals and demonstrates the skills of marketing them in appropriate field. He participates in intellectualistic ritual by trying to coin jargons and producing expressions (see Editor’s Introduction, 7), he refers to other members and works of his institution in lengthy notes, he keeps the institution alive by criticizing other social scientists.

For another example of implicit delegated power I would like to give three different translations of the same Biblical verse, Exodus 20:7. Their style and words deliver the power of their institution. The expected positive reaction of their audience is  both the subject and the source of that power:

“You shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (King James)

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (The New International)

“You shouldn’t diss the Almighty’s name, using it in cuss words or rapping with one another. It ain’t cool, and payback’s a monster.” (Black Bible Chronicles)

The emergence of these three different styles or dialects indicates that the classic language of Bible has lost its power on some classes of contemporary population. New translations are a way to create new languages to save the institution. As Bourdieu says, “The veritable miracle produced by acts of institution lies undoubtedly in the fact that they manage to make consecrated individuals believe that their existence is justified, that their existence serves some purpose” (Bourdieu , 126). Therefore, we can expect a Feminist version of Bible in the near feature.

Beside the uniform liturgy, there are many other conventional devices that ensure the authority of priesthood. One can find numerous clues in St. Paul’s letters. Here is an ironic example. Paul, the real founder of today’s Christianity, while trying to limit the demonstration of speaking in tongues in churches, seeks credibility in speaking tongues:

“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. . . if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:18-23).

By boasting about his articulation in tongues, Paul tries to establish credibility and authority among the believers. “Thanking God” may be interpreted as an attempt to avoid the negative perception of self-praise in religious field. “Tongues” as an unintelligible symbol of Christian piety, like many other religious symbols, increases the sacred authority needed for Paul’s “intelligible words” to stop a popular trend. In broader words, meaningless sounds or archaic phrases uttered by the member of religious institution function as subliminal passwords to plant or reinforce relatively meaningful words in the hearts of followers. The validity of passwords is reinforced by this mutual and circular process of preaching and believing. Followers are lead by their trained followers.

The leading followers (priests) are well trained in measuring the desire and trend of their apparent followers. The popular trend is usually to preserve and conserve the inherited rituals. Nevertheless, these ritual passwords (or norms) cannot escape from little mutations. Mutations are so slow that most of the followers don’t feel it in their life span. Any reckless attempt to change the ritual will find negative reaction and excommunication. Rarely, the name and charisma of a religious leader gain the authority equal to a conventional password. Then, a reformation or modification is possible. End even less frequently, those rare leaders gain more charisma and authority over the institution and its ritual passwords, especially during social and political crisis. Then, the whole image of the institution passes through dramatic changes. In this case, mutation is so big that the name of the religion also changes. The new religion is born with great pain and revolutionary spirit. Yet, this initial pain becomes the base for a strong institution and tradition. The revolutionary spirit soon transforms to conservative dogmas.

Besides being the symbolic power of the institution, uniform liturgy and rituals, create and protects the jobs for the professional members of institutions. If military instructions regarding how to salute, how to wear uniforms and how to walk were eliminated, then, many sergeants and lieutenants would loose their jobs. Many recruits would be condemned to boredom. The same reason or function can be inferred from the size of U.S. Department of Agriculture directive on pricing cabbage. It weighs in at 15,629 words, that is, six times the size of this paper. Technical details and jargons created by bureaucrats, in turn, create and secure the jobs of those bureaucrats.

Uniform liturgy and rituals create a common verbal and non-verbal language among the members of institutions. For instance, churches bring together all kind of people from diverse backgrounds and habitus. The institution unites them with a common symbol. The meaning of words and rituals are not important, but their psychological impact is important. They are magical catalysts in the process of social, political and psychological interaction.

Uniform liturgy and rituals can create a sense of security for those who seek a reliable and durable thing in their ever changing world. This service of psychological security, in turn, provides institution with essential symbolic power.

Uniform liturgy and rituals also help to distinguish institutions from each other. They provide the members with a sense of belonging and identity. Fraternities, churches and political parties share this goal and tool.

We should not forget that they also add the power of mystery to the muscles of institution. Religious and Masonic institutions have sophisticated rituals. Eucharist in Catholic church, for instance, is a multi-purpose ritual. With its “holy cookies” it adds the spice of metaphysics into physical interactions of clients. It provides a symbolic power for clergymen who are the only authorized people who can produce such a product and service. Encyclopedia Americana (1959) under the title Eucharist gives an enigmatic information about the Holy Communion. Here is the first paragraph:

“The Roman Catholic Church teaches and maintains that it has always taught that the Holy Eucharist is a sacrament, that after the consecration of the bread and wine in the Mass, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is really, truly, and substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine. It teaches that He is not present there, as most Protestantism maintains, merely symbolically, or figuratively, or virtually; it teaches that there is contained in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, together with His body and blood, really, truly, and substantially present, also the soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that is, the whole Christ; it teaches further that by the consecration of the bread and wine at Mass, the whole substance of bread is converted into the substance of the body of Christ, and the whole substance of the body of Christ, and the whole substance of wine is converted into His blood, and that only the appearances of bread and wine remain. The conversion that takes place in the Eucharist is called Transubstantiation. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is known as the Real Presence” (Henry R. Burke, S.S., Catholic University of America).

The translation of the above passage is this: Bread and wine are the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This is not a metaphorical or an allegorical statement. When consecrated in Eucharist, bread and wine convert to the substance of Christ’s body. This is called Transubstantiation. This odd theological doctrine is being considered as one of the greatest mysteries of Christianity.

Finally, uniform liturgy and rituals protect the institution against its creative, ambitious and charismatic members. Creativity is perceived as a dangerous activity in social, political and religious institutions, since it challenges the established hierarchy and fuels domestic power struggle among their members.

PS: This article was written in 1994 during my philosophy undergrade years, at the University of Arizona. Copywright: Edip Yuksel.