pierre bourdieu

On teenagers (& the field of cultural agency)

The other day I went to get a smoothie at a popular downtown smoothie bar in Santa Barbara. I (stupidly) went during lunchtime on a weekday. School around here has just started, and the place was packed with teenagers from the nearby high school.

Five years ago I would have thought that these kids—long-legged super-tan girls in their tiny cut-off shorts and Converse, guys in their skinny jeans and tanks and sun-bleached hair—were totally cool. They would have intimidated me, even as I was one of them (minus the long legs; I’ve always been short).

They still intimidate me.

What is it about adolescence that remains mysterious and foreign, even once we’ve gone through it? I knew I was like them once; I wore my eyeliner like that, talked in those shrill tones, clustered just as they did in a giggling group of five, each girl so careful of the way she stood. What changed about me? When, exactly, did I grow up? And why do teenagers now seem like an impenetrable and opaque species, their motives and thoughts distinct from anything I can now imagine, yet everything they do so clearly dictated by a group dynamic, each one of them hardly distinguishable from the rest? More importantly, would I have ever actually worn shorts that tiny at their age?

These are questions for the ages. I often wonder if I had been born at a different time how different I, too, would be—how much place and technology and fashion and cultural assimilation play into my personality, and how much of it is something I developed for myself. Or maybe everything we call “Self” is a reaction to the outside force of culture; nothing, after all, can be created in a void. I don’t know. I don’t feel like delving into the nature-nurture debate today.

Instead I was looking for the easy way out: a good quote to illustrate and theorize my thoughts. So I flipped open my boy Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production and landed by chance on this gem:

“It would be futile to search for the ultimate foundation of this ‘fundamental norm’ [‘cultural legitimacy’] within the field itself, since it resides in structures governed by powers other than the culturally legitimate; consequently, the functions objectively assigned to each category of producer and its products by its position in the field are always duplicated by the external functions objectively fulfilled through the accomplishment of its internal functions.”

Lost? That’s fine. Breaking it down, we have “teenagers these days” = the “fundamental norm” that creates “cultural legitimacy” within the field of adolescence —in other words, they are the producers and, simultaneously, the product of the field that they are positioned to act within, their functions both limited and dictated by their very identity as teenagers. (That is, they accomplish the “internal function” of “being teenagers” by fulfilling the “external function” of “looking like teenagers.”)

That was fun!

No, really, it explains a lot. The opacity of adolescents is a cultural identity production/performance—a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. Teenagers seem weird to those of us who are no longer teens because we are, well, no longer teens. We no longer live and act in their field of cultural production. Comparing myself to the girls in the smoothie shop isn’t comparing apples to apples, or even apples to oranges. It’s apples to, I don’t know, stuffed animals. Different fields, different categories, different purposes, different everything. And difference, we know, is scary. That’s what’s so intimidating.

The lesson being: we move ceaselessly through invisible but all-powerful fields of cultural constructs as we age, changing and growing as we move from one to the next, shedding selves and taking up new ones to fit the space we enter into. Sometimes we fit comfortably; sometimes it’s a squeeze. Either way, it’s not always under our control. (At least not until we get older, have access to a broader variety of fields, and can choose where we want to situate ourselves. Teenagers in small towns don’t generally have that luxury.)

Not that I’m excusing the teenagers for anything. I will never tolerate up-talking.