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Book Review: Manet: A Symbolic Revolution, by Pierre Bourdieu

Manet: A Symbolic Revolution (Polity Press; ISBN: 978-1-5095-0009-3) primarily consists of the series of previously unpublished lectures that the twentieth-century French sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher, and public intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu, gave towards the end of his period of academic tenure (1981–2002) at the Collège de France, with those from 1998/9 focusing on the Manet effect, and those from 1999/2000 focusing on the establishment of the foundations of a dispositionalist aesthetic. The book concludes with the approximately hundred pages that remain extant from a book co-authored with his wife, Marie-Claire Bourdieu, centered on Édouard Manet as a heresiarch, giving rise to extensive innovation as a fundamentally innovative painter whose approach was deeply reflective of, and yet fundamentally uprooting of, the sociocultural milieu in which his artistic output was embedded.

That the lectures were presented orally is evident from Bourdieu’s use of such rhetorical devices as repetitions and paraphrasing of what he has already said, as well as the sense of rapport that he establishes with his audience. A number of the lectures start with a response to a query or argument with which others have presented him, and there are occasions of interjection, with the response of his listeners (such as occasions of laughter) being recorded. The informality of the presentation therefore makes for lively reading, and the tone is kept far from intellectually remote. Bourdieu’s work tells of an informed, but neither elitist nor separatist, approach to his subject material, with him being very much in touch with those around him, as befits the role of a sociologist.

The ramifications of the central concepts of Bourdieu’s thought are unpacked in relation to Manet’s chief works, with three notable instances being symbolism in relation to Luncheon on the Grass (1863), habitus in terms of The Nymph Surprised (1861), and reflexivity with bearing on Olympia (1863). The transitional nature of the burgeoning arguments concerned transformed this work into a springboard of ideas from which later analytical argument regarding the artist Manet has since emerged.  Bourdieu, despite his long history of scholarly endeavor, remains ever on the alert for new and alternate meanings emanating from the critique surrounding Manet’s work, whether such criticism was contemporary or entered into over the intervening period of time since Manet first produced his primary works in the 1860s and 1870s (of which many are reproduced in full color as the centerpiece of this fine volume).

Both of the translators/editors are Fellows of the University of Cambridge, with Dr Peter J Collier being attached to Sidney Sussex College, and Dr Margaret Rigaud-Drayton having been attached to Christ’s College since 2003. While the former has previously co-edited the innovative Artistic Relations: Literature and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France, the latter’s primary research interest lies most significantly in nineteenth- and twentieth-century French poetry and the visual arts, especially in relation to the interplay between identity and creativity beyond the conventional bounds of the accepted prevailing order.

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8 points

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