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The Restricted Autonomy of Journalism and Cinema

L’autonomie sous contrainte du journalisme et du cinéma
La autonomía del periodismo y del cine
Julien Duval
Traduction de Daniela Ginsburg
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’autonomie sous contrainte du journalisme et du cinéma [fr]


Ce texte rassemble des réflexions au sujet de l’utilisation, dans deux recherches sur le journalisme et le cinéma, de la notion d’autonomie telle que Pierre Bourdieu l’a mobilisée dans le cadre de sa théorie des champs. Le journalisme et le cinéma sont difficilement assimilables à de pures activités de spécialistes mais ils se conforment néanmoins sur des traits essentiels à un modèle et des analyses qui avaient été principalement développés à partir du cas du champ littéraire français. Simultanément, ces deux univers semblent présenter un moindre degré d’autonomie que le champ littéraire et ont aussi pour caractéristique, par comparaison par exemple avec la poésie, d’être restés des enjeux économiques et politiques. Enfin, la mise en relation de leurs évolutions en France depuis la fin du xixe siècle attire l’attention sur l’existence de tendances à l’autonomisation de ces espaces sociaux sur un assez long terme. Au cours des trois ou quatre dernières décennies, ce mouvement est caractérisé par des dynamiques dominantes qui, sous certains rapports, introduisent une rupture.

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1In developing his concept of “field,” Pierre Bourdieu used the notion of autonomy that Kant, in the case of the university, for example, defined as the principle that “only scholars can pass judgment on other scholars as such” (Kant 1992 [1798]: 23). In his empirical works, Bourdieu favoured universes that are similarly “pure” and which, more than others, allowed him to identify the properties of fields understood as “microcosms” ruled by their own laws. He dedicated his most in-depth research to art, literature, science, and the academic world; within these universes, he found what appeared to him to be the best examples of fields with a high degree of autonomy: mathematics, poetry, and avant-garde art (for example, Bourdieu 2000: 60).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Citizen Kane (1941).

Source: James Macdonald on Flickr.

  • 1 This text is based on two earlier works that paid particular attention to the question of the relat (...)

2This article contains observations from my research on economic journalism and cinema in France1—two social spaces that appear to be much less easily characterized as pure specialist activities—that is, activities from which any lay audience and any external force have been removed. Limiting myself to the French case, I carry out a comparative analysis of these two universes in light of the sociologically (and perhaps also historically paradigmatic) example of the literary field. To what extent are aspirations to autonomy possible in universes such as journalism and cinema, which are in a sense structurally heteronomous? In what forms might these aspirations be realized? Simultaneous examination of these two universes, which experienced somewhat parallel development during the twentieth century, also invites us to consider that not all periods are equally favourable to the autonomization of social universes, and that consequently, autonomization might be part of a larger general social dynamic.

1. A Double Model

3Pierre Bourdieu developed his thoughts on the autonomy of fields by studying the subjects of art and literature in particular (Bourdieu 1971: 1996). He discusses the gradual autonomization of artists and intellectuals in the wake of the near-monopoly that the Church had over cultural productions in the Middle Ages. Patronage and aristocratic and royal protection contributed to a form of secularization, before the ‘market’ allowed artists to break their bonds of dependence on a “sponsor.” However, Bourdieu emphasizes the ambivalence of these forces, which were alternately liberating or alienating, depending on the period and the cultural domain. The same “market” that helped Rembrandt (Alpers 1988) or Beethoven (Bourdieu 2001) free themselves from the servitude of patronage was, for example, perceived by the Romantics at the moment of the development of “industrial literature,” and then later by theoreticians of “art for art’s sake,” as simply another form of subordination—this time, to the demands of the “public.” The nineteenth century marked an abrupt acceleration of the movement of autonomization, which Bourdieu analyses in The Rules of Art. “The affirmation of […] the right of artists to legislate within their own sphere—that of form and style” (Bourdieu 1993: 2) led to the creation, alongside the enlarged sector of production, governed by economic concerns, of a restricted sub-field of production, highly autonomous with regard to those concerns and where, as in avant-garde poetry, writers’ only clients tended to be their competitors (Bourdieu 1996). Autonomization here is an elitist affirmation of the primacy of form, and it implies a double refusal: the refusal either to glorify the dominants or to educate the dominated (Bourdieu 1996: 79). The movement spread from the ‘purest’ literary genres to the most “commercial” ones, and to other sectors such as painting (Bourdieu 2017). The subject of Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art is the “genesis and structure of the literary field,” but the book proposes a model that can be applied more broadly. He writes, for example, that “the fields of cultural production are organized, very generally, in their current state [according to a] principle of differentiation”: “the objective and subjective distance of enterprises of cultural production with respect to the market and to expressed or tacit demand” (Bourdieu 1996: 141).

4Bourdieu himself sought to extend his analysis to the case of journalism (Bourdieu 1998). This history of the press has long run parallel to that of books. In France, under the Ancien Régime, the two were subject to very similar censorship systems and requirements of prior authorization (Bellanger 1972). In the nineteenth century, the “industrial press” began to develop, and a division soon appeared between the high-circulation press and “serious” newspapers (Bourdieu 1998). The opposition between “views” and “news” still exists today, with the co-existence of the “popular” media—sometimes “sensationalist,” and often very profitable—on the one hand, and the “quality” press on the other, with its narrower—and more elitist—readership (Bourdieu 1984). The latter’s refusal of “commercial arrangements” exposes it to endemic economic difficulties, but it benefits from a special prestige within the profession.

  • 2 The adjective “enchaîné” (chained) refers to wartime censorship; the noun “canard” (literally, a du (...)

5The end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth saw the appearance of enduring practices and institutions that participated in journalistic forms of autonomy. Thus, around 1900, the practice of reporting—where the journalist produces information rather than simply passing it on—was imported from the United States. At the same time, the first school of journalism was created, the origin of today’s École supérieure de journalisme [ESJ] in Paris. It recruited professionals from the “serious” press and sought to train journalists with “integrity,” who would refrain from distorting the facts to comply with the demands of the “general public” or political or economic powers. The antiphrastic title of the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné2, which was founded in 1916 in the context of war censorship, proclaimed the right of its editors to decide, on their own, what they would publish. The appearance of professional prizes attests to journalists’ claim to determine for themselves what it means to be a good journalist. The Albert Londres Prize for reporting, “professional recognition of professionals by professionals,” (Gatien 2012: 232) was first awarded in 1933. The prize rewards reporters’ compliance with the values of the group, and at the same time, creates competition between them and invites them to distinguish themselves through their originality. It constitutes a specific capital that has value first and foremost in the world of journalism.

6As for cinema, which began at the end of the nineteenth century, beginning in the 1920s it became organized around a mass-market pole, oriented towards economic profits, and another pole oriented towards explorations of form, with a narrow and socially selected audience. Among many other indications, a 1919 letter from the director Carl Dreyer to a producer who hoped to finance one of his films shows that the vocabulary and values of artistic autonomy spread to cinema very early on. The filmmaker expresses his refusal to take any “commercial” considerations whatsoever into account, in the name of the “exigencies of art,” which he is “the only one able […] to judge” (Dreyer 1968). The opposition between a “cinema of producers” and a “cinema of directors” has endured, and is expressed in common distinctions between “commercial” and “art” films, or between “elitist,” “mainstream,” and “independent” films. Although these distinctions remain blurry, they nevertheless correspond to objective differences. Some filmmakers aspire to control the form of their works, that is, the “mise-en-scène,” without thinking about economic consequences or the opinions of the general public.

7If the main traits of Pierre Bourdieu’s model, based on the case of literature, can be rather easily extended to the cases of journalism and cinema, this is because in a sense, literature shaped journalism and cinema. Indeed, the autonomization of the journalistic and cinematic fields took place in part through the transfer of agents, practices, and criteria of evaluation from the literary field. This field had a major role in the birth of modern journalism (Ferenczi 1993). Today, “literary qualities” remain highly regarded within certain journalistic sectors and institutions. Thus, candidates for the Albert Londres Prize maintain a tendency to think of themselves as writers (Gatien 2012). The heroic figure of the journalist who takes on economic and political interests in order to expose the “truth” was born in France with Albert Londres in the 1920s, and is not unlike the figure of the “intellectual” invented by writers—first and foremost Émile Zola—at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. Literature was also one of the engines driving the autonomization of cinema. Representatives of the literary avant-garde were among the first to create scholarly discourses on cinema, and they sometimes participated directly in the first avant-garde films, during the post-World War I period (Duval 2016: 131-142). Writers who were closer to academia often served in organizations dedicated to preserving “high-quality cinema.” The writer model can also be found among many of the big names in “mise-en-scène cinema,” from David Griffith—who sought the cinematic equivalents of novelistic procedures—to the French Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, some of whom, after failed literary careers, aspired to “make a first film in the same way a novelist writes her or his first novel” (Mary 2006).

  • 3 However, Bourdieu emphasizes that exchanges are not univocal, and he describes a “relay race” betwe (...)

8In fact, the relative autonomization of these two domains appears to be part of a general movement that affected all the spaces of cultural production: as control over cultural life by political (and religious) powers decreased, cultural production began to favour distance from economic concerns and the demands of the “general public.” At least in France, literature played a particularly “liberating”—since it was pioneering—role. Bourdieu highlighted the trend in the case of painting.3 Practitioners of the “total art” that cinema was said to be also took models from painting and music, just as journalists referred to the social sciences and to politics, as I will discuss below (Ferenczi 1993). Journalism and cinema joined the trend rather belatedly, and they benefited from certain victories achieved by the spaces that preceded them. Very early on, for example, films touched on historical or contemporary subjects that painters only succeeded in depicting after long struggles. But being “juniors” meant that there was a specificity to the autonomization of journalism and cinema: just like painters (Bourdieu 2017), journalists and filmmakers had to free themselves from the tutelage of their “elder” activities. Journalists, for example, developed conceptions of professional excellence that were irreducible to literary style. Filmmakers posited the primacy of a specifically cinematic mise-en-scène, irreducible both to theatrical staging and to the literary activity of screenwriting.

2. A Series of Differences

9Of course, there are differences between journalism and film. Without claiming to propose a methodical model, I will try to discuss some of these differences and the factors that can shed light on them.

10Cinema is clearly closer to literature than journalism is: it is more strongly anchored in the sphere of culture and art, which are considered—no doubt fairly universally—to be the most enduring traces that human civilisations can leave (Sapir 1967: 160); and, unlike those products of human activity that are doomed to be forgotten or destroyed as soon as they are consumed, they are handed down from generation to generation. In our societies, this means there must be institutions that preserve them, such as schools or academies. Especially since the second half of the twentieth century, cinema has received greater cultural recognition, even though its place in school curricula and academic institutions cannot be compared with the place that has long been granted to literary works and authors. This second-tier status does not facilitate the autonomization of the domain: it can make the dream of autonomy seem like misplaced pretentiousness and it limits the profits that reinforcing autonomy can raise for temporal powers, as well as the symbolic costs of attacking it.

11Cinema does not differ from literature only in terms of its legitimacy, but also because of a series of factors that often intensify each other. Its audience is much larger and thus more heterogeneous and less socially selected. It risks seeming less “grown-up” to social authorities, who therefore call for or implement stronger censorship. For example, at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the very moment when censorship was lifted on the theatre, a system of pre-authorization was established for cinema, which had diverted a segment of the popular audience from the theatre to itself. Another difference is that the costs of production and distribution tend to be much higher for cinema than for literature. Cultural producers must not only ensure their own subsistence, as in other domains, but must also find the capital required to produce and distribute their works. This necessarily complicates the establishment of an “economic world turned upside down” (Bourdieu 1996). Artists who wish to maintain relatively autonomous practices must take material demands into account and must pay attention to how big their audience is likely to be. If they ignore all economic calculations, they risk failing. They benefit from exploiting the margins of freedom that “economic considerations” allow for, rather than ignoring them. A common strategy is to alternate between works with varying levels of economic risk or to make films that, a bit like poetry in traditional societies, is addressed to various audiences at once—the audience of one’s peers being but one among them.

12These arguments can be extended to journalism: journalism also has an audience that is nearly co-extensive with the social space, and its “mass audience” has often been the justification for various forms of government surveillance. Its autonomization is blocked by the fact that it has even less cultural legitimacy than cinema does: either by their nature or because of how they are viewed, journalistic products are even more ephemeral than films. A journalist or journalistic enterprise that is not immediately successful cannot really hope to be rediscovered later on by posterity, in the same way that an “accursed artist” who is ahead of his or her time might.

13Economic pressure is perhaps less uniform in the journalistic field than in the cinematic field (among other factors, the fact that there are different forms of media—spoken, written, audiovisual, online—leads to the coexistence of enterprises that are quite different from one another in terms of how they are financed and how much capital they mobilize.) But this pressure is stronger than it is in literature, and, like cinema, journalism is dominated by big companies, where work is highly collective and implies a degree of subordination to one’s employer that is only rarely found in literature. The “studio system,” as it existed in the United States, explicitly relegated directors to the role of underlings, free to act only within the limits set by their hierarchical superiors (Duval 2016: 143-145). As for journalists, apart from a few differences such as “conscience clauses,” they are very often in situations quite similar to that of employees (or independent contractors with no job security), and must compromise with their employers’ requirements. One consequence of this phenomenon is a level of professionalization much higher than what we observe among writers, but which does not necessarily imply economic disinterest. In journalism, “professionalization,” understood in the sense that functionalist sociologists gave the term (in particular, Parsons 1955) is still far from complete (Ruellan 1993). In the case of business news, professionalization culminates in regions of the space that are exposed to interference from economic powers and it powerfully extends the latter’s injunctions (Duval 2004: 110-147). Another sign of the ambiguity of journalistic professionalization is that journalism schools are not sites of professional socialization entirely controlled by peers. What they teach is a result of power dynamics that involve outside forces in a significant way—these forces include the state as well as media companies, which expect journalism schools to train and select future journalists who will fit the companies’ requirements (Chupin 2009).

14It is tempting to conclude that journalism and cinema are not as autonomous as literature. Although it is difficult to quantify the degree of a field’s autonomy, Bourdieu hinted at how that might be done, writing that the autonomy of a field increases “to the extent that the principle of external hierarchisation there is subordinated to the principle of internal hierarchisation,” as well as with the distinction between a large-scale production subfield and a restricted production subfield, with “the effect of translation or of refraction which its specific logic imposes on external influences,” and with the intensity of its transfers with the dominant fractions of the dominant class (Bourdieu 1996: 218-220). Thus, the very strong continuum within the field of cinema that sometimes renders the sectors of large-scale and restricted production indistinguishable from one another (Duval 2016) would be a sign of the field’s weak autonomy. The same holds true for the often-observed intermarriages between the Parisian political and journalistic milieus, or the logics determining the invitation of political leaders onto television (Darras 1995). Here, we may also think of the near-immediate effects that changes of political regime may have on the history of certain national media or cinema. The role played by specific consecrating institutions is only partly comparable to what we find in more autonomous universes. The existence of film festivals, prizes, and a specialized form of criticism contributes to the autonomy of the cinematic universe, but these institutions are often led to recognize relatively “commercial” works in order not to be themselves marginalized. The often-quoted joke that “Everyone has two jobs: their own and film critic” suggests that criticism has not gained the authority that it enjoys in other, more established domains. Specific consecrating institutions seem even weaker in the case of journalism: there is no journalism prize in France that has decisive effects, and “media critics” far from constitute a specialized group. Specific capital is scarcely institutionalized within journalism, which makes it very difficult to objectivise (Duval 2004: 330-336).

15However, it is not possible to limit oneself to a view in terms of degree of autonomy. The case of journalism proves this, since the autonomy of this universe, which clearly is closely linked to the political field, cannot be fully understood on the model of artistic activity. Bourdieu observes that artists are only able to make decisions in terms of form because there exists a “a covenant with the dominant sections of the bourgeoisie,” which implies that “the artist is expected to avoid serious matters, namely social and political questions” (Bourdieu 1993). But such a “covenant” is not possible for journalists, since “social and political questions” are some of their most important subjects.

16It is generally accepted that the first newspapers and gazettes in France date from the era of absolutism. Royal power considered that, as Richelieu is said to have observed, “only ministers are able to distinguish between what must be kept quiet and what must be shared with the public” (Wolgensinger 1989: 31). There can be no more explicit denial by a political power of newspaper editors’ claim to set the rules for their own domain. The constitution of a “public space” (Habermas 1989 [1962]) during the 18th and 19th centuries—or, to put it another way, of a competitive political field—marked an important change, but the (permanent) establishment of freedom of the press in 1881 was first and foremost the work of political leaders who were active within the partisan or opinion press (today, a number of journalistic institutions distinguish themselves from this type of press. For example, Le Monde and Le Canard enchaîné make a point of honour of showing their independence by treating all the various competing forces in the political field in the same way) and the heads of large-scale press enterprises or business leaders. The autonomization of journalism presupposes the existence of “journalists” who recognize themselves as such and claim to obey a particular law, distinct from the raison d’État, as well as from party discipline and the “pressures” exerted by all sorts of powers (economic, religious, etc.); this law brings out a “truth” that is dictated solely by “professional conscience” and validated by other journalists (for example, the practice of reproducing information gathered by a competitor). These aspirations to autonomy may materialize concretely: journalists might own shares in their company or, as was once the case at Le Monde, they might elect their own leaders.

17But are these aspirations as “pure” and “disinterested” as they are in the artistic fields? Although he frames the discussion in normative terms, Michael Schudson is not wrong to point out that these aspirations are not really comparable to “art for art’s sake” (Schudson 2004). Thus, for example, the value of the “truth” that Albert Londres is supposed to have revealed stems from the political effects of publication (reporting is said to have contributed to the closing of the penal colony in Cayenne). In general, autonomy within journalism does not present the same anti-utilitarian aspect as it does in the artistic universes. On the contrary, the criterion of “social utility” is sometimes explicitly invoked in the attribution of professional prizes (Gatien 2012). Journalists, who unlike artists intervene directly in political affairs, often justify their claim to autonomy on the basis of the services they render to “democracy” or to “the public.”

18Moreover, it would not be possible for journalists to make a total break from temporal powers, which are also their sources; instead, they try to be “close enough to them to be informed and far enough away not to be bound to them,” as a journalist for Le Canard enchainé put it (Ridet 2016: 58). We should also note that what would appear to be the most autonomous journalistic practices never escape suspicion. Here we may refer to Dominique Marchetti’s analysis of “investigative journalism” from the 1970s and 1980s (Marchetti 2009): although the “revelation” of information about political and economic leaders is sometimes presented at the result of a pure and disinterested love of the truth, in fact it always serves some interest, when it is not actually produced by one or more interests (such revelations are rarely truly produced by journalism; they are more often the result of “leaks”); furthermore, such revelations are also driven by media companies’ interest in increasing their sales in the short or medium term (thanks to an enhanced “reputation”). The economic benefits that accrue to Le Canard enchaîné, a publication that is the very symbol of journalistic independence, as well as the fact that the Pulitzer Prize has occasionally been accidentally awarded to “fudged” reporting (Gatien 2012), are other manifestations of this same ambiguity.

19Journalistic autonomy can be described as a form of illusion that frequently obscures heteronomy. Patrick Champagne speaks of “an impossible autonomy” or “an autonomy that must always be re-won, because it is always under threat” (Champagne 2016: 69), and suggests that over the course of its history, the press has always freed itself from the influence of one power only to fall under the sway of another. This observation can, to a certain extent, be transposed to cinema: in the Soviet Union and, more recently, in Iran, filmmakers have developed practices that are highly autonomous with respect to economic constraints and to the “general public’s” taste, thanks to circumstances marked by strong state oversight of the film industry (Duval 2016:109-116 and 262-263). These considerations are reminders of the influence of economic constraints and of the fact that journalism and cinema are not constituted as pure specialist activities. They can also lead us to distinguish between cultural activities on the basis of the degree to which, in becoming autonomous, they succeed in becoming indifferent to temporal power—or do not. In this respect, cinema, and especially journalism, differ from poetry or mathematics, because they continue to constitute political and economic stakes for the dominant fractions of the dominant classes. For this reason, their autonomy is not only weaker, it is easily reversible.

3. The Trend Towards the Autonomization of Fields and Contemporary Transformations

20There is a final analogy that can be made between journalism and cinema, having to do with their historical development and contemporary transformations. While Bourdieu took an early interest in the relative autonomy of the fields of cultural production, in the 1990s he greatly emphasized the reversibility of processes of autonomization and sounded the alarm about regression in the intellectual, journalistic, editorial, and scientific fields (Bourdieu 1996; 1998; 2008b; 2004 respectively). He always presented his thoughts on field formation as a reformulation of classic arguments: Max Weber’s theory of the constitution of “spheres of value,” or Émile Durkheim’s notion of the shift from archaic societies, where “all forms of activity and all functions were gathered together, and were, in a manner of speaking, each other's prisoners” (Durkheim 1983: 95). Bourdieu, sceptical of linear or inevitable processes, sometimes indicated that art and philosophy underwent autonomization in ancient Greece, before experiencing the reverse movement during much of the Middle Ages. To his mind, the creation of modern states opened a new era, with the autonomization of jurists from royal power, and then—especially beginning in the Renaissance—that of science and art, and, finally, with the development of capitalism, autonomization of the “economic cosmos,” to use an expression of Weber’s that Bourdieu was fond of citing (Weber 2001 [1905]: 106).

21Studying journalism and cinema side-by-side bolsters the hypothesis that there is a long-term trend towards the autonomization of fields. The role that film criticism has taken on in the autonomization of cinema also demonstrates the cumulative nature of the process. Indeed, film criticism in large-distribution press and media had to win the right to create discourse on films that would obey its own specific criteria rather than the heterogeneous logics of readers’ expectations or the economic interests of major film companies. In the 1920s, some representatives of film criticism turned to the justice system in order to gain recognition of this right. The existence of film criticism presupposes the relative autonomy of the journalistic field. In fact, the type of film criticism most likely to valorize cinematic products that are relatively autonomous from the expectations of the general public tends to develop in homologous positions in the journalistic field—that is to say, in positions that are themselves relatively autonomous from the general public’s expectations.

  • 4 It is useful to recall that painters became autonomous by breaking their connections to the state a (...)

22We must also note the role of the state, which has taken on a significant role in the autonomization of the cinematographic field. Beginning in the 1930s and increasing after the war and then again after 1960, the state supported “quality” or “art-house” films that were unlikely to be profitable on the market (Pinto 2012, Vézyroglou 2014). Similar concern can be discerned in state support for the press beginning in the 1930s: aid was primarily given to dailies with “low advertising revenue” or “low revenue from classifieds.” The examples of journalism and cinema strengthen the idea that “for fifty-some years—essentially, from the interwar period to the middle of the 1970s, state intervention […] amounted to a contribution […] to the constitution or preservation of the autonomy of fields” (Dubois 2014: 24). Of course, the objective was not necessarily announced in those terms: state action was more likely to refer to “quality of films” or “pluralism of the press” than to “autonomy.” In addition, the state’s cinema policy always included, in addition to the cultural component, an industrial one, which also—and sometimes primarily—benefited mass-market films. Similarly, government control of information on state-controlled networks during the 1960s and 1970s did not contribute to journalistic autonomy. Nevertheless, state intervention during the decades after the war cannot be compared with a simple heteronomous force.4 At a minimum, one of its effects consisted in implementing a framework favourable to the development of autonomous practices in journalism and cinema.

23The overall dynamic has been quite different for the past three or four decades. An increase in commercial restrictions within the journalistic universe can be observed beginning in the mid-1990s (Bourdieu 1996, Champagne 2016, Marchetti 2010). Since the 1980s, general interest television networks have been highly attentive to their audience results. The written press has been concentrated among several large industrial groups, which sometimes openly proclaim their wish to exercise influence through newspapers (Bouquillon 2008: 57-60). Confronted with a dwindling readership and increased competition, the major national dailies have lost many of the attributes of their economic independence and have abandoned some of the “exigencies” on which they had built their reputation. Unlike the major newspapers created after the war (Le Monde, L’Express, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération, etc.), the media companies that have gained power over the past thirty years are characterized less by aspirations to autonomy and more by their capacity to reach a large audience or to attract advertising revenue: these include news magazines based on marketing techniques, free dailies produced very cheaply that simply reprint journalism from elsewhere, instantaneous news media on the internet, twenty-hour news stations, etc. There are some online news sites whose existence perhaps requires us to qualify this analysis somewhat, but they are often economically precarious and play a role previously played by the written press, but without the audience the latter had.

24In the film industry, a significant dynamic has resulted from the increased power of blockbusters—films created to concentrate movie-going into a short period of time. This trend began in Hollywood in the 1970s and is responsible for the sharp increase of the United States’ market share in European markets. In France, national film production has only been able to contain this offensive by developing films that are also intended to saturate the market. As a result of this dynamic, it has become more difficult for relatively autonomous creators to access theatres and the major media outlets; at the same time, the public’s taste for independent art films seems to have diminished.

25Over the past few decades, there has thus been a significant trend in both journalism and cinema—as well as in other spaces of cultural production—towards increased power of economic logics and a stronger pole of large-scale distribution, to the detriment of the relatively autonomous pole of restricted distribution. Older forces pushing towards autonomization have continued to produce effects, and new circumstances have reinvigorated islets or niches of “independence” (Noël 2012: 2015), but those trends are not as strong. As in earlier decades, there has been interaction between the transformations of journalism and of cinema. Television networks, which were already central sites for the promotion and distribution of film, became major actors in the economy of cinema and, under the effects of the commercial logics they were now part of, the biggest among them gave more visibility to films intended to “saturate the market,” while smaller productions became increasingly relegated to networks with smaller audiences. As for film criticism, the room reserved for this in the press has been reduced. Its autonomy is sometimes called into question, and reduced readership sparks fear of widening the gap between the public and criticism.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

The broadcast of films on TV channels in 2017 shows that, as a result of the homology that exists between cultural spaces, the major channels tend to fall into the same opposition that exists in movie production between more “commercial” films and those that are (exclusively) “critical successes.”

Source: Personal Graph.

26In recent times, the state has participated in the increase of heteronomous logics (Dubois 2014). For example, it has given up its monopoly on the television market, and has contributed—at least by its inaction—to phenomena of economic concentration that accelerated beginning in the 1980s. In the 1980s, state action began to move away from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs’ initial hostility towards the “cultural industries” (Dubois 1999). The state’s cinema policy has not escaped the neo-liberal turn. The consensus that the state should prioritize support for productions that are not profitable has been eroded, and emphasis is more often put on the importance of bolstering “commercial” films that can compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

27Do the past few decades indicate the reversal of a very long-term trend that seemed to be moving in the direction of increased autonomy for fields of cultural production? We must recall that this trend has always included interruptions and reversals. For example, establishment of “freedom of the press” was not a continuous process in France, but rather a series of forward and backward steps made over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. Similarly, after an active phase in the 1920s, autonomization of the cinematic field regressed in the 1930s and during the Second World War. Today, as a result of a transformation of power relations within the field of power, many social spaces are becoming increasingly subordinate to requirements from the economic field. This shift has not spared the state or the political field: the calls that come from these two universes for a kind of general mobilization towards economic competition is an expression of the reduction of their own autonomy with respect to the economic field. Neo-liberalism corresponds to stronger autonomization of the economic field and its heightened influence over other social spheres. Neo-liberalism is in continuity with classical English liberalism—though it alters it slightly—which Karl Polanyi, for example, analysed in terms of autonomy: the constitution of the economy in “separate institutions,” and its “de-integration” are indicative of the imperative that “society must be shaped in such a manner as to allow that system to function according to its own laws” (Polanyi 1944: 60).

28We may advance the hypothesis that some fields lose autonomy with respect to an economic field that gains in autonomy. There are at least two advantages to formulating things in this way. First, it suggests that, ideally, the notion of autonomy should not be used unless we have in mind the state of the relations of interdependence between fields at a given moment. Second, it suggests that the shift during recent decades does not really concern the process of field formation. There has been no return to “the primitive undivided state” (Durkheim 1983: 94). The “economic cosmos” continues a movement of expansion that was perhaps simply slowed, or partially suspended, during the decades after the Second World War, as a result of the “great transformation” Polanyi heralded. As for those universes that lose autonomy, they continue to operate like fields in many respects. It is simply that competition increasingly sets businesses and agents against one another who, while appearing to pursue specific goals, are often competing against one another in a competition that is largely economic in nature.


29The comparative analysis outlined in this text reminds us that the aspirations to autonomy are far from absent or secondary in universes such as journalism or cinema, which are exposed to a sort of fundamental heteronomy. It is just that autonomy is more problematic and precarious there than it is in universes such as mathematics or avant-garde poetry, which have been able to constitute themselves as specialist activities. At the same time, comparative analysis dissuades us from concluding that there is a mere difference of degree. Autonomy also takes on specific forms in these universes that can be described as “junior” with respect to the pioneering social spaces that provide them with resources for autonomy but which are also tempted to exert tutelage over them. Studying these universes invites us to give full weight to the fact that autonomy is always relative and that, in a social world that comprises relations of interdependence, it can only be achieved in and by dependence; it frequently arrives by unexpected routes that are “complex, if not impenetrable” (Bourdieu 1996: 52).

30There is another consequence of the reflections presented in this article. For researchers, highly autonomous fields are autonomizable objects in the sense that they are not “enmeshed in a network of relations that assign [their] most distinctive properties” (Bourdieu 1992: 228). In this way, focusing on the most autonomous universes can lead to studying them in isolation. In fact, it is the strong autonomy of the literary and scientific fields that ensures the relevance of the sociology of literature or the sociology of science. Working on more heteronomous spaces such as journalism or cinema draws attention, conversely, to the relations between fields. The contemporary transformations of journalism and cinema demonstrate the importance of a general sociology that would recall the image proposed by Bourdieu (1994): as an assemblage of fields more or less connected to one another, the social world can be envisioned on the model of a mobile whose balance is always precarious and changing, where any movement at any one point is likely to spread to other elements.

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1 This text is based on two earlier works that paid particular attention to the question of the relationship between these universes and the economy. For more detail on points that it is not possible to discuss in depth here, see (Duval 2004) and (Duval 2016). We may recall that Bourdieu became interested in the issue of the autonomy of journalism during the 1990s (Bourdieu 1998) and that he made a few remarks on cinema (Bourdieu 1996: 162, 164; Bourdieu 2002: 417-424).

2 The adjective “enchaîné” (chained) refers to wartime censorship; the noun “canard” (literally, a duck), is a slang term for a newspaper.

3 However, Bourdieu emphasizes that exchanges are not univocal, and he describes a “relay race” between writers and painters (Bourdieu 1996; 2017).

4 It is useful to recall that painters became autonomous by breaking their connections to the state and that state support for cinema (or journalism) creates effects of dependence. Significant differences remain between these cases and control of culture by the state in authoritarian contexts, in particular in terms of the criteria and authorities on which state intervention is based. For more on this, see Sapiro 2003.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Légende Citizen Kane (1941).
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
Titre Fig. 2
Légende The broadcast of films on TV channels in 2017 shows that, as a result of the homology that exists between cultural spaces, the major channels tend to fall into the same opposition that exists in movie production between more “commercial” films and those that are (exclusively) “critical successes.”
Crédits Source: Personal Graph.
Fichier image/jpeg, 53k
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Julien Duval, « The Restricted Autonomy of Journalism and Cinema »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 4 | 2019, mis en ligne le 27 juin 2019, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Julien Duval

EHESS/Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique-Centre de sociologie européenne (Cessp-CSE)

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