The Centrality of Sociality: Volume 39
Responses to Michael E. Brown's The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Social Sciences and the Humanities
Table of contents(14 chapters)
This work addresses what Michael E. Brown calls the immanence of sociality to individuality. It does so by focusing on the essentially social nature of human consciousness. I explore Durkheim’s analysis of human consciousness, beginning with totemism and concluding with his analysis of German consciousness at the time of World War I. I do so in order to provide some insight into the rise and nature of political movements, with a focus on extreme right wing political groups and leaders today as well as the spirit of the French Revolution in European and American history. With reference to Marx’s early writings on consciousness, spiritual nourishment, and the fettering of forces of production and his later writings on the critical significance of fetishism, and the role of “fictitious” capital, I conclude by claiming that bringing together the insights of Durkheim, Marx, and Spinoza can provide a way to analyze and address the interlocking social, political, economic, and cultural crises of today.
The Uncertainties of the Social
Michael Brown's remarkable book is a bold attempt to reunite the social sciences and humanities on the basis of a unitary concept, that of the social, which allows him to integrate the different dimensions of sociality and to question our research practices, in which we too often take for granted our ways of thinking about the collective. The book also helps to combat the increasing fragmentation of our knowledge, which the hypertrophy of the critical posture and the multiplication of specialized studies have fostered over the last half-century. Brown proposes a real refoundation of our knowledge in a time of great confusion about the legitimacy of discourses on the social and the drifts of “situated epistemologies” that tend to reduce our knowledge to a simple point of view. Certainly, the dream of a unified social science emerged long ago and has never been realized. Brown's essay escapes the criticisms that always threaten systemic thinking and conceptual generalization, for he consistently incorporates the critical perspective inherited from the Marxist foundation into his enterprise.
This chapter is an attempt to rethink the social from the point of view of intellectual history. In the first part, the question of the unity of the social sciences is reexamined in the light of the proliferation of specialized studies. We then move to the sociological analysis of concepts as they emerge in diverse social contexts. A special attention is paid to Bourdieu's grand theory endeavor in the third part. It can be compared to Bruno Latour's strategy to flatten the social, which is the object of a critical analysis in part four. Thus, it becomes possible to offer a renovated analytical frame to account to the sociality of intellectual contents, based on the “density of practices” (parts five and six).
Theorists and theory have lost their way, and Brown offers some guidelines for reviewing and finding new ways of writing. Brown seeks the social that which is left out and is implicit. My concern here is with the role of the tantalizing “actor” in theorizing: perhaps a puppet on a structural string, a bundle of emotions, a strategic actor employing tactics of assertion or a rational chooser. Brown correctly argues in my view that the actor is a momentary social creation. Thus, what is said about the actor implies what is not said and the dubious value of “words.” Although the body, first captured by Mauss (1968), remains a shadow figure in current thinking and not cited by Brown, I argue it acts without words. I cite studies of Manning and Fabrega summarized in Psathas (1973) to display the crosscultural relevance of the self-body connection as evidence of the situated nature of the actor and the meaning of the body in time and space.
Michael E. Brown's book, The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences, demonstrates that prominent attempts to account for the social dimension of human affairs rely on an unstated notion of a “course of activity,” that is diametrically opposed to the conceptualization of sociality that is presumably intended to realize it. I want to focus on the idea of a “course of activity” in order to locate his work in and clarify its importance to the development of dialectical reason from Heraclitus through Hegel and beyond. Of special importance is the bearing of his research on the critique of contemporary theories of agency and sociality, and, since considerable attention has been paid, in this regard, to the arts and humanities, some of what I will say about this refers to art and its avant-garde moments—-particularly in my work on Dada and Brown's account of two avant-garde theatrical performances.
This chapter examines what is entailed by separating agency from individuality and what it means for the idea of a “course of activity,” (going on) and its relation to the concept of sociality. This also bears on questions of ontology, as Brown's course of activity is generative and nonrepeatable. The course of activity and nonrepeatability are linked to both avant-garde practice and theoretical notions that reframe our temporal understandings. These include the avant-garde of dada and surrealism, and the reformulations of bourgeois time of Jean Duvignaud, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The question raised here is that of a teleological understanding—how we link the present course of activity with future events.
Michael Brown argues that what unites the human and social sciences is their evolving character, made explicit in the concepts of “reflexivity,” “course of activity,” and “theorizing.” Once the social sciences are taken as a whole, the notion of “sociality” will allow to grasp society as ever changing, as a becoming. I shall examine the notion of sociality in the literary criticism of Lukács, Goldmann, and Adorno, three authors who consider the essay as the adequate open form of critique in times of rapid social change. Originally adopted by the young Lukács, the essay tended to be abandoned by him when elaborating the concept of critical or socialist realism as a repository of timeless cultural values. In his studies in the European realist or the soviet novel, for example, on Balzac, Stendhal, Thomas Mann, or Solzhenitsyn, the dialectical concept of social totality becomes a sum of orientations, presenting the individual writer with the moral task to choose “progress” and discard “negativity.” The social is thus narrowed to individual choice. Different from Lukács, Goldmann's literary theory defines cultural production as a matter of the social group, the transindividual subject. Goldmann was deeply marked by Lukács's early writings from which he gained notably the notion of tragedy and the concept of maximum possible consciousness—the world vision of a social group which structures the work of a writer. Cultural creation is resistance to capitalist society, as evident in the literature of absence, Malraux's novels, and the nouveau roman. In the writings of Adorno the social is lodged within the avant-garde, provided that one takes its means and procedures literally, e.g., the writings of Kafka. By formal innovation—among others the adoption of the essay, the small form, the fragment—art exercises criticism of the ongoing rationalization process and preserves the possibility of change (p. 319).
Concepts such as “the social,” “sociality,” and even “society,” must be viewed “in time and space,” simultaneously as malleable, as representing national and regional differences, and as reflective of concrete sociohistorical conditions. Importantly, particular societal and historical circumstances exert specific kinds of gravity on efforts to clarify the meaning of the above concepts in general and for specific contexts, and to deploy them for purposes of both illuminating and examining the social phenomena they refer to, and their concrete content and form. It is also necessary to establish how and to what extent such efforts themselves are bound to be symptomatic and expressive of the distinctive features (social, political, cultural, economic, geographic, climatic, etc.) they are intended to illuminate and examine. In the United States, related challenges are especially pronounced, for a range of reasons, including the fact that as a comparably “young” nation that was created under very unique conditions, the character of “the social” and the historical foundations of sociality are discernibly different from other societies on Earth. For this reason, as far as social theory is concerned, before it is possible to assess the status and character of “the social,” of “sociality,” and of “society,” in general and abstract terms, it is important to circumscribe what is unique or “exceptional” about a particular society in whose context the status and nature of “social” is being assessed and characterized. Against the neoliberal trend of pitting the social sciences and humanities against each other, and the natural and engineering sciences against both, the former must learn to collaborate and complement each other in ways that secure the independence and autonomy of the social dimension of increasingly complex and contradictory, yet seemingly cohesive societal reference frames.
This chapter develops a sketch of a critical social ontology and contrasts it to a theory of sociality as presented in the work of Michael Brown. I argue that the ontology of our social forms requires categories for understanding them descriptively, functionally as well as in evaluative terms. I contend that a theory of power is needed for an understanding of the ontology of our social forms and that this can contribute to the construction of a more critical social ontology. I argue that a critical social ontology is a more attractive and satisfying paradigm for critical theory than current post-metaphysical approaches that emphasize discourse, recognition or other neo-Idealistic aspects of human sociality.
This chapter looks at the Bakhtinian account of language that Michael Brown presents in his The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences and suggests that it is in tension with his Rousseauean description of human sociality. Like Rousseau, Brown claims that human sociality derives from a recognition of mutual dependence that cements the disparate wills of individuals into a general will which enforces social equality and protects the rights of all. Brown argues that this fundamental human sociality is instantiated in language itself which he describes not as communication but as “an anti-telic moment of collective enunciation,” and he identifies this collective enunciation with Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia. In doing so, however, he downplays the drama of individual and social struggle that is at the center of Bakhtin's work and thus underestimates its power as a force for social change.
What do we mean by “the social” exactly, and above all, are we attempting to define it as a static issue or a dynamic one? Consequently, as a theoretical concept or as a grounded empirical concept? Furthermore, should this concept be uniting two orders of knowledge such as the social sciences and the humanities in a broad sense? Or should this knowledge be considered within a reciprocal relationship, creating a tension that can have some kind of consequence uniting in some cases, but also differentiating and conflicting in others? The book of Brown is extraordinarily detailed and consequent in this sense. There is a continuous attempt to develop a terminology which can move from static concepts of the social in favor of dynamic ones.
The question facing sociology is whether it is a field or a discipline. If it is a field, then there is no need for theorizing. However, if sociology is a discipline, then problem-solving cannot be disentangled from theorizing without a loss of intelligibility – the inability to explain the social as the concept of the discipline. Through the quasi-realism of problem-solving as a course of activity, this chapter presents cognitive sociology as a paradigm appropriate to the concept of the social understood as an ongoing course of activity. In doing so, it is shown how bounded rationality and expertise play a crucial role in how communication interacts with the division of cognitive labor, especially through the idea of representational representationality. Representational representationality is an idea that reveals how the degree of clarity among language, meaning, and thought is relative to the issues of audience and ignorance. Representational representationality is significant because it demonstrates how the relationship among meaning, language, and thought is subject to communicative errors – errors arising from a predicament of intelligibility and not merely arising from issues of computational skill, as described by Herbert Simon's model of bounded rationality and expertise in human problem-solving. The argument that follows from this shows how the means for adapting to ambiguity amounts to the difference between Simon's model and a quasi-real model in terms of its principle of rationality, principle of efficiency, and its cognitive style of problem-solving for deliberate practice. These dimensions are shown to effect what “examples” are good for in the problem-solving process, thereby revealing the politics of expertise. The politics of expertise demonstrates how the conflicts in sociological explanations of strategy are not merely conflicts that can be set aside as a pluralism of values. Rather, the conflicting explanations of theory and theorizing can only be resolved when the situational rationality of sociology as a discipline realizes the quasi-realism of problem-solving as a course of activity.
This essay summarizes the formation of the concept of “sociality” as it was developed in The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences. Its thesis is that if the human sciences are to have a representative discipline – in contrast with a field of largely topical studies – that defines human reality in the course of its work, then that discipline must have a concept of its distinctive reality, and the basic fact that the concept describes must be indisputable: that is, it must be irreducible and irrepressible as well as distinctively human. These qualities are satisfied by the formula “each-dependent-on-All,” where each shows itself as “intra-dependence” and, therefore, as “being-in-the-middle” of a “course of activity without immanent beginning and end.” This concept is then applied to theoretical positions presented or hinted at by the other chapters of this volume in order (1) to see how a given theory might differ from what is conventionally taught as sociological theory when the basic fact is systematically taken into account, and (2) to find among the implications of the concept a dialectic of social progress and societal change that is incompatible with received positive ideas of society, e.g., as an entity, system, or totality and compatible with the idea of such an apparent formation as a project in which the manifold (internal) relations of each-dependent-on-All present social progress as the ongoing reality of human reality.
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