This Thanksgiving holiday I find myself wading through Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste; his enormous and justly famous sociological study of aesthetic judgment as related to class structure in France. I was interested to find a description of the relevance of cultural habitus (definable here as a system of cultural dispositions) to romantic relationships. This is of interest to me as, having gotten married only eight-months ago, my partner and I are still in the honeymoon phase of our marriage. While not exhaustively characterizing our relationship, there’s something about Bourdieu’s description of the process through which lovers recognize their matched habitus through a “happy accident, a coincidence which mimics transcendent design (“made for each other”) and intensifies the sense of the miraculous.” This idea is surprisingly poetic and fun to think about:
Taste is a match-maker; it marries colours and also people, who make “well-matched couples”, initially in regard to taste. All the acts of co-option which underlie “primary groups” are acts of knowledge of others qua subjects of acts of knowledge or, in less intellectualist terms, sign-reading operations (particularly visible in first encounters) through which a habitus confirms its affinity with other habitus. Hence the astonishing harmony of ordinary couples who, often matched intentionally, progressively match each other by a sort of mutual acculturation. This spontaneous decoding of one habitus by another is the basis of the immediate affinities which orient social encounters, discouraging socially discordant relationships, encouraging well-matched relationships, without these operations ever having to be formulated other than in the socially innocent language of likes and dislikes. The extreme improbability of the particular encounter between particular people, which masks the probability of interchangeable chance events, induces couples to experience their mutual election as a happy accident, a coincidence which mimics transcendent design (“made for each other”) and intensifies the sense of the miraculous.
Those whom we find to our taste put into their practices a taste which does not differ from the taste we put into operation in perceiving their practices. Two people can give each other no better proof of the affinity of their tastes than the taste they have for each other. Just as the art-lover finds a raison d’être in his discovery, which seems to have been waiting for all eternity for the discoverer’s eye, so lovers feel “justified in existing”, as Sartre puts it, “made for each other”, constituted as the end and raison d’être of another existence entirely dependent on their own existence, and therefore accepted, recognized in their most contingent features, a way of laughing or speaking, in short, legitimated in the arbitrariness of a way of being and doing, a biological and social destiny. Love is also a way of loving one’s own destiny in someone else and so of feeling loved in one’s own destiny.*
As Bourdieu invokes Sartre, I thank my partner for giving proof of the affinity for my(our) tastes and, in a (sometimes very real-feeling) sense, justifying my existence as I justify hers. I’m thankful for you, Carolin.
* Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 243.