TABLE TALK, AT A SIMULACRIATIC TABLE
John R. Hall - University of California, Davis
The sociological attraction of the dinner with engaging companions is that it facilitates table talk across a range of topics, everyone freely expressing opinions, maybe floating excessive claims over the third bottle of wine, perhaps in response to someone else’s rather bold assertion, testing the possibilities of shared understandings efficiently and in ways that bring forth topics and points of view otherwise elusive. Habitus, as Bourdieu rightly understood, finds its strongest stamp at the dinner table. In Perspectives, engaged table talk about theory has its quasi-simulacrum, and the editors, past and present, are to be commended for throwing the dinner party. Here, in memory of my late fellow Louisvillian Hunter S. Thompson, I want to exploit this table talk-ish culture by advancing gonzo-esque claims about the prospects of sociological theory today, claims that would be impossible to justify either amidst the clink of stemware and clatter of dishes or in this short text.
Last fall, my essay for Perspectives both noted the vital energies in theory today and waxed somewhat melancholy about the seemingly dim prospects of general theory. We have seen significant developments of theory on diverse fronts – theories of cognition and agency, field theory, governmentality, postcolonial theory, theories of intersectionality in stratification and identity, feminist theory, critical race theory, actor-network theory, theories of social justice, cultural theory: this list could be longer, and still incomplete.
We are in a better position than Parsons to advance general theory for any number of reasons. A short list includes:
the abandonment of analytic dualisms, notably, the modernist structure/agency divide, and the related collapse of arguments for the primacy of one or another “level” of analysis in favor of acknowledging the simultaneity and interplay of processes, such that any privileging of a “level” is arbitrary (to paraphrase Clifford Geertz, it’s turtles all the way up and down);
the end of the critical realist versus constructionist and interpretivist standoff in a draw, or actually, a convergence on real constructionism, in which any differences seem more symbolic than real and the best empirical analyses undertaken under the two rubrics are strikingly similar in character;
the rejection of a static conception of society as a thing, in favor of embracing the processual-activity thesis long held by Simmel, Weber, symbolic interactionists, and others, concerning the social as relational unfolding in episodically connected interactions; and thus,
the end of the artificial divide between sociology and history, deepening the understanding of historicity via temporalized theorizations of meaningful action in relation to institutional structurations of temporality, codified pasts, the unfolding present, and anticipated futures, from theorists as diverse as Andrew Abbott, Jenny Andersson, Nina Eliasoph, Ivan Ermakoff, Ann Mische, Iddo Tavory, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Eviatar Zerubavel, and myself.
What might these interconnected emergent understandings imply about possible directions for general theorizing?
I have long been intrigued by the prophetic note that Julia Adams, Elisabeth Clemens, and Ann Orloff sounded in their introduction to Remaking Modernity, where they remarked, “meta-narrative and synoptic grand theory are making a comeback” (2005:60–61). They rightly invoked S. M. Eisenstadt’s work on multiple modernities, but that seemed the only exemplar they could offer. Thirteen years later, the agenda of “remaking modernity” seems, if anything, all the more urgent. Yet a synoptic grand theory remains elusive. The reasons are well understood. Any metanarrative or general theory, arriving under a cloud of suspicion, immediately becomes subject to Derridean deconstruction, to identify its absences. With Richard Rorty (1979), most theorists have renounced all hope for a “correspondence” approach to theory. Under the circumstances, and with Richard Swedberg’s (2015) encouragement, projects of theory have become less searches for an edifice – a structure of interrelated concepts – and more activities of theorizing, practices. Yet practicing theory requires concepts with which to practice, and getting those concepts requires a different kind of practice, devoted to the general elaboration and critique of theories themselves, in terms that exceed empirical analysis.
At its best (or at least, most consequential), sociological theory also has provided a metaphor or imago of society, relevant for its institutional development (think Parsons and systems theory) or revolutionary change (Marx), and it has enabled “situational history” – informed theoretical analysis about agency in relation to a political moment (Lenin, “What is to be done?”). To be sure, recent theoretically rich accounts by scholars like Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman do provide vivid imagoes for understanding the social in the wake of the decline of modernity as a progressive ideology. Yet for the project of “remaking modernity,” Beck and Bauman offer more diagnostic documentation and lament than conceptual tools to gain clarity about public choices and political action in our historical moment.
We never were modern, Bruno Latour tells us. Now it seems we never will be. Too late! We have reached a point of real postmodernity, not just a fancy occasion of cultural bricolage, rather, a time when the social in its “structured” totality could be described conceptually seems lost. That theoretical circumstance reflects a fragmentation of the social itself.
Certainly any modern social theory that presumed secular or dialectical progress failed to appreciate emergent social challenges – climate change; new gravitations toward patriarchy, racism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and autocracy; and the triumph of the simulacrum upon which your reading here depends – the consolidation of a set of internet and cloud processes that increasingly organize social life, sometimes subjecting us to new forms of propaganda and technological manipulation – all under conditions of ever increasingly extra-national capitalism. Is it possible that these developments herald an apocalyptic “end of the world as we know it” – the passing of liberal democracy, as Wendy Brown (2015) has it, or even what Wolfgang Streeck (2014) announces as the “end of capitalism,” to be displaced not by some new social order, but by the interregnum of morbidity that Gramsci anticipated?
To interrogate such post- or anti-modern complexities is to wonder whether they exceed the grasp of contemporary sociological theory, still centered, much of it, on the implicit assumption of institutional order. Field theory, in either its Bourdieusian or West Coast dispensation, has the strongest current claim to chart social competition and conflict within relatively institutionalized settings. But field analysis is inherently partial: as its uses by scholars like Monika Krause, Tom Medvetz, Stephanie Mudge, and others already demonstrate, there is more going on “within” fields than field analysis brings to light, and less institutionalized social phenomena occurring “between” or “outside” fields defy capture by field analysis per se.
To index one example, even if Bourdieu had much to say about antinomies between democracy and the political field, no bounded field-theoretic analysis adequately captures the challenges to democracy afoot today. Yes, there is the putatively encompassing “field of power,” but power is now enveloped in new apparatuses, technologies, and stratagems that exceed any “rules of the game.” Moreover, power can be productively theorized in ways beyond field analysis (Reed 2017). Thus, although even transnational and global phenomena such as colonialism can be analyzed in field-theoretic terms, field analysis will have to find its place within broader theoretical discourse and, possibly, a more general theory that draws specific theories into relation with one another.
Charting out a new program exceeds mere table talk. And sociologists today can embrace diverse programs of synthesis and theory-building. We may sing Kumbaya together without sharing an agenda. Yet I would be remiss to leave the table without hinting at my own broad desiderata, hopefully in a way that you find suggestive and open to discussion. We ought to be looking to find new imagos and general frameworks, flexible enough to chart the “liquid” flows of social instantiation (Bauman), specific enough to identify alternative social constellations that matter today (Eisenstadt), empirically relevant in ways that connect theory with programs of research, concrete enough to facilitate “political” and “situational” inquiry, infused with enough humility to forswear dictating theoretical answers to complex questions in advance.
Theodor Adorno held that epistemology is necessarily historical and emergent: we should suspect the same for theory. And even sociologists disinterested in general theory might be hard put to purge its implicit presence in their work (we may read a lot of functionalist sociology these days whose authors may be unaware that they are using it). Far better for general sociological theories to be explicit. Concerning myriad recent theorizations, we should ask, is their variety a sign of incommensurability, or rather, an indication that we have not yet done the general work that can place recent theoretical advances into some broader, theoretically informed conversation? Jürgen Habermas has offered us an early exemplar of the possibilities: yes, theories of (post)colonialism have their origins in the analysis of states and their internal and external subordinations of subject populations, but can’t colonization be found in relations between “the system” and “the lifeworld”? …and perhaps in other analytic circumstances as well?
To generalize from the example of lifeworld colonization, we should acknowledge that like biology (!), sociology has no singular totalizing theory. Rather, we may expect to find different but linked arenas, worlds, domains, spheres, situses, and fields of action, separately and in their interrelations subject to distinctive and historically emergent processes, mechanisms, pathways, channels, and narrative scripts of action. If this is the circumstance under which theorizing proceeds, and keeping to the thematization of temporality and historicity identified above, one basis for constructing a general framework of theoretical analysis would be to recognize that social temporalities are constitutive of linkages among relational action, meaning, figurations, and, sometimes, orders of interaction, as well as organizations and institutions. I can’t elaborate this claim at the dinner table, but a comparative, structural, institutional, and hermeneutic phenomenology of alternative social temporalities and their concatenations offers a basis for identifying where and how various processes and scripts operate (Hall 2009: 207-20; Glaeser 2014). Such an approach, done right, avoids essentialism or reductionism, embraces the manifold realities of the social and their distinctive processes – both more and less institutionalized – and thus warrants a comparative and historical approach to sociological theorizing, one that identifies how the play of action in a religious organization will differ qualitatively from that of a political struggle, in ways that cannot be reduced to alternative forms of capital, and even if sometimes lines of action within one appropriate the logic of the other, and sometimes elective affinities connect the two.
Despite the historicity of theory, it does not “evolve.” We exercise will to bring theory into being, we theorize, in concert with one another. We choose how to develop theory, when, in relation to what. How to do this now? What specifications of general theory might offer leverage for under postmodern crisis of authoritarianism, de-democratization, the great unraveling? That is the question of the summer of 2018.
Hopefully, you, I, and others will consider this and other questions in the Theory section events in Philadelphia: the sessions on power and philosophy organized by Anne Marie Champagne and Isaac Reed, the “trespassing” sessions that Simeon Newman and I organized, the roundtables organized by Alison Gerber, the business meeting, where we will honor Theory section award and prize winners, the Coser Salon lecture by Gabriel Abend, and the Theory section reception, to be held from 7:30 to 9:30pm on Sunday, off-site, at the oldest continuously operating public house in Philadelphia, McGillan’s Olde Ale House, 1310 Drury Street, a mere block and a half south of Market Street, off 13th Street (see Theory section award/prize winners and ASA schedule elsewhere in this newsletter). To conclude, I extend my sincere thanks to the chairs and members of the section’s standing and award/prize committees, the other section officers, and the editors of Perspectives for all their efforts and support. It is truly a privilege and a pleasure to work with such a great group of sociologists.
- Adams, Julia, Ann Orloff, and Elisabeth Clemens, eds. 2005. Remaking Modernity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
- Brown, Wendy. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.
- Glaeser, Andreas. 2014. “Hermeneutic institutionalism: Towards a new synthesis.” Qualitative Sociology 37: 207-41.
- Hall, John R. 2009. Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity. Cambridge, England: Polity.
- Reed, Isaac. 2017. “Chains of power and their representation.” Sociological Theory 35: 87-117.
- Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Streeck, Wolfgang. 2014. “How will capitalism end?” New Left Review 87 (May-June): 35-64.
- Swedberg, Richard. 2015. The Art of Social Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.