Public relations

by Carl Dyke

“We must socially stimulate ourselves to place at our own disposal the material out of which our own selves as well as those of others must be made” (G.H. Mead, “The Mechanism of Social Consciousness,” Selected Writings, ed. Andrew J. Reck).

In a series of posts Larval Subjects has just discussed disgust with the blog medium, the frustration produced by rude and arrogant blog commenters, democracy and perverse internet egalitarianism, and upsetting mismatches between rhetorical effectiveness and the truth. As usual the reflections over there are first-rate, but in a very different theoretical idiom and emotional register than mine. LS will get where he gets without my kibbitzing. So instead of being impertinent there I’m going to address these questions here and attempt to show what a different way of looking at them might yield.

To my mind these posts are all related, and what relates them is relationships. Specifically, LS like many other people I know is disappointed by the distance of real relationships from ideal ones. Blogger to commenter, internet user to user, all of us to democracy, humans to the truth. In each case there’s a hope for something special to happen, a desirable better way to do things, and a letdown with what we actually get. Underwear and socks for Christmas again. Although we’re outside my way of thinking about things, I do see the point. In each of those spheres of relationship things are not as they ‘should’ be.

After the usual philosophical training in high idealisms of various kinds and only Marx to fall back on, what a treat it was for me to find George Herbert Mead. Mead does not torture himself and others with shoulds. There is no ideal against which the real is being compared and always, always found wanting — although he does explain why people tend to think that way. Mead starts with actual relationships and stays there. His abstractions come from the pragmatics of pattern and repetition. They are symbols or they are habits. People create and share abstractions — including a sense of self — as tools to keep track of and assign significance to the interactive networks and assemblages that they encounter in their lives. This process is his focus.

LS begins to entertain an idea along these lines when he considers Feuerbach’s view that, as LS puts it, “we project our highest aspirations and desires onto another being, but then experience these qualities not as existing in and from us, but in something else. God is thus an alienated and distorted image of our own essence or nature.” Right, and not just God. Notice, however, how LS has subverted the social-relational drift of Feuerbach (as Feuerbach himself does with the static concept of ‘species-being’) by smuggling in the language of ‘desire’ and ‘essence’. Later in the train of thought this re-idealizing reading would be better foreclosed by Marx and Durkheim, both of whom had similar ideas of how abstractions happen in the course of real social relationships, the former in his discussions of religion and fetishization, the latter in his analysis of the stability of collective representations compared to individual perceptions and explanation of religion as societies representing themselves to themselves. “Therefore the collective ideal that religion expresses is far from being due to some vague capacity innate to the individual; rather, it is in the school of collective life that the individual has learned to form ideals” (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912, trans. Karen E. Fields).

Marx was coping with Young Hegelians, utopian socialists and liberal political economists; Durkheim was trying to sociologize Kant while detheologizing the positivistic sociology of Saint-Simon and Comte; and both were thoroughly steeped in the western philosophical tradition, so the social relationality of thought is both demonstrated and discursively obscured in their work — as N Pepperell is showing brilliantly in Marx’s case. As much as I loves me the Marx and Durkheim, and can get what I need from them, there’s a lot of digging through the cluttered attic involved with finding any particular useful thing. Sure, I’ll do it if I have to. But what I like about Mead is that although he knows his philosophy, he started out as a railroad surveyor and has a nice direct way of laying his track right to the point in short, pithy essays. In fact, his writings are a little like blog posts.

The reason Mead didn’t write more, and more at length, is interesting. He was a very good teacher. He devoted his thought and energy to getting his points across to his students and colleagues, who were his first and realest audiences. To his fans’ benefit and dismay he did not apparently have any strong vocation to talk at more abstract audiences through a book. This conversation right now with these people right here was the one he cared about. There’s no platonism at all in Mead, no inclination to think of the world we live in as less than fully real, ‘phenomenal’ in relation to some more perfectly and enduringly real noumenon behind the curtain of our lamentable animal perceptions. My grad advisor David Luft taught me to take pride in being simpleminded, which was a wicked subtle joke he told on himself and the philosophers upstairs. Mead tells the same sort of joke in his essay conversations with his imagined audience.

For Mead “Our thinking is an inner conversation in which we may be taking the roles of specific acquaintances over against ourselves, but usually it is with what I have termed the ‘generalized other’ that we converse, and so attain to the levels of abstract thinking, and that impersonality, that so-called objectivity that we cherish” (G. H. Mead, “The Genesis of the Self and Social Control,” Selected Writings, ed. Andrew J. Reck). This is the ‘truth’ of real interactions in real communities, that gets its objectivity from being shared and effective. Roots of standpoint theory are here (going back to Hume, of course, or forward to, for example, Sandra Harding’s “strong objectivity”), without the metanarrative of heroism and villainy that’s usual in more contemporary versions. On this view rhetoric is not something opposed to truth, but a process communities use to work truth out.

Selves are the product of an ongoing series of feedback loops, to which at first we bring only basic biological dispositions to mood and attention, with localities gradually defined as ‘environments’ in a process of experimental differentiation, and specific others in relation to whom roles are worked out and abstracted into worldviews and ‘generalized others’. (Most of Freud’s developmental theory is in that last sentence, without the reification of accidents of Freud’s own culture.) It is by ‘taking the role of the other’, getting a feel for the game (as Mead, Wittgenstein and Bourdieu would all put it), that the self is differentiated in particular and then abstracted symbolic space. As an explanation of Mead this gesture may be enough. Because I don’t have a specific interlocutor for this post other than the existentially thin ‘Larval Subjects’ persona, I don’t know how much detail to go into here. Wouldn’t want to be a schooler. Comments would help, if you’ve made it this far.

So why do we blog? Lots of reasons, of course, or perhaps lots of rationalizations for the same reasons. But in terms of the contrast I’ve set up there are two contradictory possibilities. The first is the search for an ideal audience as against the disappointing real audiences who inhabit our real lives. Students, colleagues, friends, etc. who in their human, all too human ways come to their conversations with us with differing standpoints produced by differing self-formation processes in differing interactive histories. It’s hard work continuously reorienting ourselves in real time to others whose roles we have not yet taken and who may not give us much to go on to do that. Much easier to close off this real interaction and search for a more perfect one with ideal others who will echo, confirm and amplify the generalized other our thoughts already embody. I think this is what LS means by ‘democracy’ and as he says, as such it doesn’t exist. In this sense he is right that the academy is where eggheads go to protect themselves from democracy. The internet then turns out to be a place where that many more disappointingly imperfect others lurk.

The other reason to blog is to have (more of) these difficult conversations in which our selves are literally destroyed and recreated in dynamic interactions with really other others. Here self is not stabilized by being closed off from further (exhausting, painful) interaction but metastabilized by embedding in networks and assemblages of relationships. I realize this is a bit of a salto mortale, especially for selves whose interactive history is confusing or oppressive. But I agree with Mead that this is what it means to really think. So this is why I and perhaps some others blog, as Mead suggested in the opening quote.

22 Responses to “Public relations”

  1. This is very nice:

    The other reason to blog is to have (more of) these difficult conversations in which our selves are literally destroyed and recreated in dynamic interactions with really other others. Here self is not stabilized by being closed off from further (exhausting, painful) interaction but metastabilized by embedding in networks and assemblages of relationships. I realize this is a bit of a salto mortale, especially for selves whose interactive history is confusing or oppressive. But I agree with Mead that this is what it means to really think.

    I’m too tired to say much else πŸ™‚ Just registering the resonance of the comment. (Oh, and whenever I stop revising the next thesis chapter every time I glance in its direction, it may – may πŸ™‚ – follow up on the various comments you’ve made about Durkheim in relation to “my” Marx – like you, I see many similarities there, and perhaps my own attic rustle can dig out at least a few useful things…)

  2. Since you kind of asked for comments. . .

    Sometimes I doubt whether I and Me are related at all, and I frequently doubt how they are related. Of course I doubt the existence of a generalized other. I doubt whether I make such a gesture of generalization, habitually or any other way, and I doubt whether making such a gesture would be a basis of any kind of truly meaningful interpersonal relationship. I certainly feel empathy, but I doubt whether the feeling flows through such a network as Mead would describe. I think there is precisely a problem with reciprocity.

    Sometimes I feel as if people would rather wish doubt away, as if it were hostile. Well, I wouldn’t want to defend doubt in response to some expressed philosophical antipathy towards it. I note feeling doubt.

    Go ahead and elaborate what you will, spell out what you want to spell out. I won’t object to being schooled, though I wouldn’t in a million years expect you to stoop so low as to school me for the sake of some kind of humiliation game. Anyway, say what needs to be said. I’ll try to hear you.

  3. Hi, Fido! It’s great to hear from you. I really enjoy your blog, and keep looking for a way I can hook a comment into something you’re saying. Your posts tend to seem like completed thoughts, which makes response hard for someone who thinks like me. (And I half-wish I had named my blog Cianfrusaglie.)

    Your comment about the I and Me is very perceptive. They’re not necessarily related. At one level, Mead is simply distinguishing the ‘interior’ self from the ‘exterior’ self. The exterior self is performative, as Goffman later elaborated and Judith Butler reinvented. The sneaky thing is that the interior self is also performative, which is how Mead is able to describe thinking as a conversation. At this point the interior/exterior distinction actually breaks down into two sorts of situations – the self is a performance within interactive situations, including reflexive self-interaction. Various performances of self in various situations may be similar or quite different; a standardizing overlay or ‘self-image’, which I believe he actually calls the generalized self at some point, may (or may NOT, as in the case of something like borderline personality disorder) develop to keep it all apparently coherent.

    The generalized other does not, of course, exist. Quite right. It is that compendium of memories, thoughts and habits that have been layered into us across our interactive histories. It is part of the material of self, which is made up of the traces of each significant encounter with others. So the generalized other is an abstraction that organizes a general orientation toward a world of others. I hope that’s responsive.

    I also note feeling doubt. I find it productive, and note that others are more troubled by it. Do we agree on this point?

    Now, about this last paragraph, Fido, I have already spelled out what I want to spell out. I have no idea what else needs to be said until another comes and takes their turn in this conversation/thinking I’ve proposed. Some others know lots about this stuff and some others know nothing. My generalized other includes both, so I don’t have a simple image of who I’m talking with. Humiliation is not my aim. I want a bigger, badder self, I can’t get it by myself, and I’m advertising the self-wares I have available for trade. Reciprocity can be a problem, but I’m committed to doing as right as I can.

    Thanks, Fido!

  4. @NP – Hi. There’s this funny compartmentalization in the the way Durkheim is currently handled, at least in the U.S. Although he crystallized a lot of the ideas that underlie anthropological practice, he hasn’t been forgiven in that discipline for the apparent evolutionary eurocentrism of Division of Labor, which then gets read back into Elementary Forms as residual positivism. It doesn’t help that Geertz reinvented Durkheim wholesale while citing and oddly repurposing Weber to do it.

    In sociology Durkheim is revered as a founding father, but again only in terms of D of L and as a ‘functionalist’ against Marx as a ‘conflict theorist’. Weber is the middle term. Then they’re all pedagogically bracketed as ‘classical’ theory, against which ‘contemporary’ theory is contrasted as the stuff to actually work with (when sociology is consciously theorized at all). Of course vulgar contemporary standpoint theorists, when they have anything to say about him at all while they’re using ideas he shared, want him on the bad pile for both eurocentrism and phallocentrism.

    I get it that these moves are strategic identity plays and that Durkheim per se doesn’t matter much if the insights are getting worked through. But as you know, they often aren’t, in large part because strategic identity plays are attempts to stabilize relationalities that he showed how to keep metastable.

  5. Your welcome, Carl. It’s a pleasure to chat with you, and I’m pleased to hear somebody else likes the word cianfrusaglie.

    I see two points we could potentially agree on. First, is our feeling of doubt of productive? Sure, in the sense that if we asked no questions of what was told us we wouldn’t quite be partners in conversation. We might seem like mindless zombies, or we might put up a show of conversation without really committing to questioning each other. Conversation would have no meaning. So does doubt enable us to question? Does it enable us to converse? (Some might say doubt is a product of conversation; how could it then enable conversation? Is conversation only its own furtherance? ) Consider the opposite scenario, an excess of doubt. What would happen to conversation if one could only question, if one never budged from one’s doubts?

    Is conversation productive, or are we finding the wrong metaphor to value what we do?

    I can easily imagine not being able to do social science because of a functional paralysis of doubt, because of asking too many of the “wrong” questions. In what way is an academic discipline an accumulation of wrong questions? How much education is about instilling a knowledge of wrong questions? How would we genuinely converse in an milieu of disparate accumulations of wrong questions?

    So now I am talking about questioning rather than doubt per se, and it occurs to me that if doubt is to be productive it must be trained or managed in some way. Doubt must be brought into question. (Hmm.) Yet it could easily be micromanaged or managed to death. The culture of middle management (which is too close to education as many of us have known it) could well be inimical to doubt and could spell the death of conversation in any decent sense. On the other hand conversation could be dying of forty thousand wounds, and yet it continues. (Who’s the zombie, really?)

    (I think interrogation is an urgent issue for our world today, but I’m not confident in academia’s ability to grapple with problems of interrogation or to adequately prepare young people to deal with interrogations and their consequences. So in some sense I must feel that questioning should be cultivated through something like a moral education. I’m ambivalent, obviously.)

    Would we be able to converse if confronted with a wild doubt? Well, who said there was a confrontation? Is there a facing, or would that be too confrontational of an encounter? As I might say, then, would we be able to dance with a wild doubt? That brings me to the second point of potential agreement, which I’ve kind of been dancing around. Would others be troubled by a dance with wild doubt? I’m troubled by doubt so I imagine others are troubled by it too–or is that the other way around? Would somebody who dismisses a doubt be more troubled by doubt than I am? Would somebody who says philosophical doubt should not be equated with thinking be more troubled by doubt than I am? I don’t know. I hesitate to speak for others.

    On the responsiveness of the point of the generalized other, let me briefly clarify my attitude. I doubt that our best orientations to the world of others are organized by or through abstractions. In fact I believe to allow one’s interactions to be guided by such abstractions may speak of a lack of empathy or a violation of empathy or, since we’ve talking about questioning, a violation of questioning–who says doubt should be inviolate? Respecting others as truly other may require something like a commitment not to violate the other’s doubts, or a practice of kindness to doubts, even to one’s own doubts about other people and feelings in between. So as a question of sociological theory there may be a cart/horse disagreement because I place others before generalization. But I don’t do theory. There is also a philosophical question of how we treat others which should inform sociological method in my view. (I don’t do sociological method either. Just saying.)

    Does adopting Mead’s theory mean knowing other people better than they know themselves?

    Well, I’ve certainly asked a lot of questions this morning. Cheers!

  6. Dyke you got this completely wrong, the narcissistic cat plays with our self-constructs because that increases her narcissistic Ideal I. She confronts us with the Hole in the Symbolic Order in order to demonstrate how only she is exempt from it, being a muscular Texan doctor of only the finest qualifications and credentials, not to mention that Shaviro included her on the blawgroll.

  7. Hey Carl – Yes – that’s been my sense as well – that Durkheim gets bracketed, both by dint of being a “classic” and from objections to various political perceptions of his work. In the Q&A after one of my papers recently, I made a casual comment, trying to clarify a particular point, that the argument I’m making about the ontological status of the category of value is fairly similar to Durkheim’s argument in Elementary Forms – I think the comment caused much more confusion than I had expected, mainly because I think the association seemed political dissonant to other people, but the conceptual resonance is, I think, there nevertheless. The common gloss of Durkheim as a functionalist also makes it difficult to express quickly what I get out of his work, which has nothing to do with his functionalist gestures… So I feel in an odd situation because, in certain respects, his work ought to be a more familiar analogy for some of the things I’m doing with Marx – except that, when you have to explain your analogy too… it’s a bit like having to explain your own jokes πŸ™‚ Once it comes to that, you’ve pretty much lost the attempt to make your point clear πŸ™‚

    I also agree with your final point: that there can be a point to creative readings or misreadings or simplifications of theorists, as long as this provides a means of casting something else into relief. The problem arises when this just becomes a way to illustrate how “we all know” what’s wrong with theorist x – not the best basis for creation…

    There was a point, probably a couple of years ago at this point, when Kerim Friedman from Savage Minds and I were having a discussion about the treatment of “classic” social theory – specifically about the way in which disciplinary training discourages doing this kind of work today (Kerim, from memory, was talking specifically about claims like “the world has become too complex now to do this sort of work”), and yet we continue to rely on (while also often disparaging) this sort of theory. I said at the time that I’m not convinced by the “world is now too complex” argument – mainly because I tend to think the world has already been rather complex, and that it ain’t simplicity in the environment that provided the spark for the generation of classic theory. But assuming someone does believe the world has gotten more complex, then it seems even more perverse to discourage the creation of significant orientational theories adequate to the problems of the more contemporary context… At any rate… πŸ™‚ Random Durkheimian associations… πŸ™‚

  8. @CPC, yes, I saw that you made this amusing diagnosis on your site as well. Mead’s not as useful for diagnosis as Freud and maybe that’s what makes him less appealing. I think a lot of what upsets some folks about Freud is what Fido alludes to above – the diagnostic will to power where the analyst knows people better than they know themselves. And sometimes, no doubt, that’s true. I’m aware that there are ways of ‘doing’ Freud that are more respectful, but at that point it might as well be Mead or some other variant of behaviorism, which is respectful even in its ludicrous Skinner-box extreme precisely because it does not presume to poke at people’s interiority.

    My conversation in this post is, as I said, with the existentially thin ‘Larval Subjects’ persona. It’s quite possible that this persona is neurotic in the way you say. I don’t know the person behind the persona, and Mead encourages me to think of that person as situationally complex so that what we’re seeing here is not an essence but one dimension of a much more dynamically rich whole. Conversation is a way of creating situations in which more of that richness is called into play.

  9. Fido, I enjoy how you use implausible extremes to mark out the real possibility spaces in between. Mindless zombies, meaningless dead conversations – awesome. Just as you say, these abstractions are ultimately a very poor guide to action, and would indeed reveal a lack of empathy for the complexity of ourselves, our others, and the various situations we’re all in.

    For Mead all conversations are meaningful, although of course they’re not always or even usually about what they’re ‘about’ (such ‘technical’ conversations require quite specialized situations and selves to perform). As Goffman later drew out much more concretely, conversations are performances of self (or ‘face’, as he put it) in relation to others; this is, as Durkheim also said, our way of connecting to something larger than ourselves, the society of others, in relation to which we make bids for identity and receive back clearance or denial of it. So the very first thing a conversation is, is a ritual of sociability in which the ‘other’ is recognized and accepted as a meaningful interactant (the way dogs sniff each others’ butts), usually in terms of some role that the situation calls for.

    You’re quite right that the ritualization of interaction in terms of abstractions seems like a violation of empathy. However, a complete engagement of our whole selves with the complex humanity of every single person we interacted with would be prohibitively exhausting and emotionally overwhelming – this is the content of at least one version of agoraphobia. It’s actually a nice thing we do for each other to allow more specialized engagements with limited performances of self, and in this sense there’s potentially nothing ruder and LESS empathetic (or imprudent, when one is dealing with jerks) than calling forth more of the other’s self or showing more of one’s own than the situation calls for. Of course it’s also rude or even oppressive to refuse sincere offers of self, so this is really quite a delicate little dance we have to do with each other, and again it’s helpful to have ‘etiquettes’ that manage the more common types of interaction for us.

    Like the waltz or the watusi, wild doubt is a dance some others will enjoy and some won’t. In my experience doubt can either be a luxury or a desperate defense; those two versions of the dance are quite different, right?

  10. NP, Kerim jumped me about Durkheim a little while ago also. Pretty classic disciplinary boundary maintenance. Oddly enough, he wanted Durkheim in the eurocentric ‘progress of civilization’ bad pile, but if things are actually more complex now, how are we to analyze this otherwise? It’s the map and territory thing – of course the ‘orientational’ theories (abstractions, linking to the conversation here with Fido) don’t cover every little nuance of local difference. That’s not what they’re for.

    I agree with you that increasing complexity is not the point in classical theory, while noting the practical advantages of the sui generis anthropological present that’s enabled by believing it is.

    The thing about explaining your own jokes is very good and a real problem. It’s possible that we just can’t get Durkheim to be usefully evocative at this point. As a historian I don’t really need to worry about this too much, but if you’ve got work to do with him it may be necessary to reinvent him under another name, or to find those who already have in a more popular idiom.

  11. “In my experience doubt can either be a luxury or a desperate defense; those two versions of the dance are quite different, right?”

    They would be quite different. I confess to allowing myself to inhabit my persona with some measure of leisure, and since I’m confessing I’ll also say I don’t get out much. Repute means something different to me than it does to professional thinkers, among others, and that can make conversations difficult.

    Should we understand society or conversation in a way that excludes those who would be overwhelmed by the presence of others?

    You see then I have doubts about the use of the label “agoraphobic.” I’m unsure as to whether these doubts should be chalked up to luxury, defense, or something else. I don’t mean to be insensitive to anybody’s suffering, but I find the idea of agoraphobia as you’ve presented it striking in the context of this discussion. I can imagine an academic discipline constituting itself around such an exclusion; I can imagine an ethos of the academy premised on such an exclusion.

    Should the sociology professor want to be any less engaged than the agoraphobe in the complex humanity of every single person?

    Let’s make raising this doubt a move towards a better engagement with the complex humanity of every person. In that spirit your idea about presenting less than the whole self, or engaging incompletely, rings true. Etiquettes have their uses. One problem I may have though is in a equation of the felt immediacy or perhaps even pressure of the other with a wholeness of the other. It seems like you’re moving in that gesture from a theory of the self to a kind of experience, rather than developing theory from a description of experience, or letting a project of understanding grow from an experiential practice. Duh?

    It’s hard to escape being defensive, Carl. I’m sorry for that.

  12. Fido, well I know how hard it is to escape being defensive. It’s important, but I’m not sure how well I succeed. Since we’re confessing I’ll also say that this big chatty Carl I do is itself a preemptive defense against being overwhelmed.

    Mead understood society to be inside us as the selfing traces of all our interactions, and thinking to be a conversation. On this view we are always already social, so although particular societies can be defined exclusively, the social self cannot be. We are all conformists of some conformity or another, as Gramsci said, which also points back to Wittgenstein’s ‘private language’ problem. On this view, exclusion or self-exclusion from sociality is literally self-defeating.

    One way to self-exclude from sociality is to insist on a standard of perfect interaction and withdraw, offended or disillusioned, if that’s not what’s offered. I’ve known a number of people in my life who ‘tested’ their relationships by seeing how much work ‘the other’ was willing to do to decode their cryptic gestures and enter into the byzantine particularities of their signification. I’m pretty good at both sides of that game, but it gets tiresome quick, and that of course confirms the other’s prejudice. As you say, reciprocity is important, which means getting clear.

    Here, I think it’s important to note that some interactive histories create a disposition to look upon relations with others as an opportunity, while others will dispose a sense of risk. Without claiming expertise in either area, I’d say that for the sociologist the former is ideally the case; for the agoraphobe, the latter is likely the case. However, it’s also worth noting that it’s not in sociologists’ job description to engage intimately with the particularities of individuals, but rather to identify patterns in groups. Sociology as such is not about how we are different, but about how we are similar. Meaningful interaction relies on this, and there’s a sense in which all sociality is a process of assimilation. Our individuality comes from the dynamics of how the common bits are deposited and arranged.

    Beyond the discovery of these commonalities, in which we find ourselves in the other and take the other into ourselves, is some more pure ’empathy’ possible? What would that involve?

    On method, I don’t start with either a theory or an experience, because I ‘started’ 45 years ago and it’s been a dialectic of experience and theory ever since. All of my experiences now are thoroughly pretheorized and all of my theories are amply (if selectively) suggested and supported by experience. You’re absolutely right that there’s all kinds of danger of prejudice in this, which is why I think it’s so important to reality-check with others whose dialectic has been different. But even here, the temptation is to seek out the others who are most similar, comfortable and comforting.

    Phew! I hope you can find something worth bouncing off of in there.

  13. I think I’d hold the sociologist to greater account for her research on human subjects, but perhaps we should set that aside since neither of us appears 100% willing to speak for her or her discipline.

    To be clear, are you saying that meaningful interaction relies on a similarity of interactors? One critique I would have of that idea is that it would require that something like a sociology be prior to any kind of meaningful interaction (in order to determine similarity), yet we appear to be willing to interact without speaking for a sociology. Just one thought.

  14. Fido, would you say more about what your standards of holding people to account are? I don’t yet understand why the sociologist’s vocation of discovering humans’ common grounds (if any) should trigger the threat of judgment.

    On speaking for sociologists, if we want to elevate diversity to an absolute principle no one sociologist should be 100% willing to speak for her discipline; if we take Mead’s view of the situated, plural self seriously no one moment of myself should be 100% willing to speak for myself ‘as a whole’. I think both of these injunctions are strictly correct, but create a pickle about the standpoint of reliably authoritative communication that has to be resolved pragmatically. There are better and worse versions of synthesis.

    My field of expertise is in one way describable as the history of sociology. On that basis I taught sociology for several years. That gives me what might be called an ‘inside/outside’ perspective on sociology. When I speak for sociology I do so as an outsider, of sorts, but I’m not just making stuff up or even just observing from afar.

    As a historian I am even more committed than most to the notion that we can speak for ‘the other’. All of my others are dead and I must speak for them as a condition of my profession. I have never been a 19th century Italian, but then no one living has been either. If such people are to speak it will have to be through me, and the profession of history depends on the idea that I can do that with some degree of reliability.

    In general I think it’s my prerogative and sometimes duty to speak for ‘others’ who are not present. If, as often happens, I teach a class or participate in another social situation with no race/ethnic minorities in it, I regularly introduce those perspectives which would otherwise be absent. I will do that even when members of those minorities are present, since it is both unfair and implausible to ask individuals to represent whole groups. To do this, I must believe that it is possible to ‘understand’, if not fully share, the perspective of the other. It seems to me that even those who deny this must believe it, otherwise there would be little point in castigating each other for not understanding what we cannot understand.

    In response to your second point: thank you, yes, that is what I’m saying. There are generally a whole raft of similarities to look for, starting with some basic perceptual stuff built into the structure of the brain. Then elementary communicative gestures like smiles and frowns. Language – here we are, both using English, meaning the same things with it in some dimensions and groping toward assimilation in some others. Without these signifying similarities we would face each other as incomprehensible whatsits – a hat, a brooch, a pterodactyl?

    At this point it would be fair to say that I have a ‘Fido’ subroutine built into my self that I use to try to work out what you mean when you say stuff. My Fido does its best to explain; if it fails, I have to then go looking for Fido-like subroutines to substitute and integrate into the growing complexity of that self-construct (stopping in this step leads to ‘stereotyping’). Sometimes you say things that are sufficiently unfamiliar to force me to cross-connect a number of subroutines to generate an orienting ping. Usually the first version of that is wrong, but close enough that it gets zeroed in with recursion as you keep feeding back. Eventually if we stick with this I’ll have a pretty good Fido simulation running, although it can never be more than the dynamic model of the particular versions of yourself that you’ve deployed in this conversation. That Fido subroutine then becomes available as an analogic resource for new interactions with yet more others, which is what I mean by this being a process from which I get a bigger, badder self.

    A prior sociology is not required, just a basic socializing cognitive system. We get selfed up, ‘socialized’ through a recursive process of interaction that starts with caregiver reactions to our infantile gestures and winds its way to blog conversations. It’s not, therefore, sociology that is prior, but society.

  15. “Fido, would you say more about what your standards of holding people to account are?”

    I meant to point to the fact that if I were conducting research on human subjects in an academic setting I would probably be asked to clear my research with an ethics committee set up specifically to oversee research on human subjects. To the extent that the sociologist can carry on her job without engaging with people her responsibility to other people would be indirect. When I say I would hold her to greater account than you would, I presume she would almost certainly have to engage with people, and I kind of presume that she would be willing to discuss her work with me, i.e., provide an account of herself for the sake of discussion. I can imagine such a discussion touching on indirect kinds of responsibility to other people as they relate to sociological method and the profession of sociology. Though I like to ask questions, I’m not about forcing people to account.

    As for my own personal standards, I recognize that there are all kinds of ways of abusing other people and I try to avoid them. This is not always easy. For instance, I’m trying to honestly answer your question because to do otherwise might be a kind of abuse. On the other hand I worry that if undertake to make myself understood I may end up stating the obvious or repeating myself which might likewise be abuses.

  16. Yes, I see. Thanks, Fido.

    I’m probably not doing it right. Just to be sure, you might check my remarks on what I think is going on historically with what you call ‘abuse’ in my post on giving offense, and also in my series of posts on offensive language, “Words and Things,” especially part 3. As I say differently in the latter, in a general kantian sort of way I agree that people should radically be treated as ends, not means. I also think this injunction is reciprocal and requires quite a lot of flexibility and patience with each other about what constitutes ‘abuse’. Forcing others to walk on eggshells over one’s tender spots is also an abuse; given a sufficient grant of entitlement to individuals, everything whatsoever is potentially an abuse.

    I am personally familiar with a style of interpersonal interrogation that begins to feel like abuse. My inclination to feel this way seems like a regrettable weakness of mine that I should not take out on others. I share what I take to be your interest in the continuum between wholesome curiosity and torture, and apart from a general sense of the responsibility of all to be flexible and patient I’m not sure I’d know where to draw the line. Not always easy, as you say. Is there a rule?

  17. I’m glad you’ve responded, Carl, because I’m sure I was a bit touchy. I’d like to make another effort to communicate because I’m sure that given the interests you’ve expressed here you can understand where I’m coming from. When I said “something like a sociology” I meant “a way of talking about society.” Any way of talking about society will serve to make the point. It seems to me that you want “society” to be a part of our discussion without allowing us to question what “society” means. Here I will speak only for myself. I worry that my commitments to egalitarianism and to noninstrumental relations with other people would be vitiated were I to insist that society must be placed between myself and others as a precondition of communication or any sort of interpersonal encounter. I wouldn’t want to assert a prior belief in the immediacy of interpersonal relations, but I’d like to be allowed to question any claims to mediacy. You may wish to consider the argument that human society is not a natural phenomenon in the same way that baboon society is a natural phenomenon but is rather more like a craft. I believe such an argument has implications that you might want to consider. For example, perhaps saying that society is like a craft implies that people know what they are doing when they make society. But to really talk about this we would need to be able to doubt that we already know what “society” means.

  18. Sure! I’m all for it. I’ll go one further and suggest that if human society is not a natural phenomenon then ‘nature’ is not a natural phenomenon, nor is it obvious that we and the things we do are natural, unnatural, or supernatural.

    In the post I’ve suggested that Mead defined society emergently, that is, as first of all a complex of relationships and practices into which we are born and that therefore condition us a priori, as a practical matter; and then as that series of specific interactions over time that we happen to have within the general conditions of our time and place. By this definition, ‘society’ is something dynamically quite different for each of us, although the materials of which it’s built are largely shared. It is also unlikely that the functionally a priori, emergent character of such societies makes them entirely subject to craft, although once we’ve gotten a self from ours we are of course involved in its evolution. I agree with this, but more to the point this is the specific claim to mediacy I am contemplating in this thread. It is fully open to question.

    In a way, what this sort of argument suggests is that commitments to egalitarianism, noninstrumentalism, fair trade, honor, virtue or whatever else are sourced and gain their moral salience from our specific interactive histories (including, of course, our ‘self’ interactions, or thoughts).

    Again, then, I’m not arguing that I already know what society means. I’m arguing that my ways of knowing are emergently and pragmatically shaped by the fact that my emotional and cognitive development occurs through a specific process of social interaction. Re-cognizing that process then becomes the task of self-understanding, which means other-understanding.

  19. @Fido, to pick up another thread in the conversation:

    To suggest that ‘society’ and ‘nature’ are subject to doubt is, at one level, an elementary good move in the critical thinking game. At another level it’s what philosophers as such do in order to ponder Being, Knowledge, and so on.

    Those questions are never in principle closed – they are ‘rightly’ subject to infinite revisitation and deferral. In that sense of knowing whether and what society is we are always approaching but never reaching.

    In philosophy I am a pragmatist, because it allows me provisionally to trust the products of a disenchanted empiricism and unashamedly stabilize and generalize concepts in a way where I can perceive, understand, think and act in the present. I am accordingly comfortable calling society ‘real’, a ‘useful fiction’, a ‘regulative ideal’, or whatever other euphemism allows us to go forward with it; but I am not disposed to circle back on the work I’ve already done to get a set of observations and thoughts stabilized as ‘society’ in a way that helps me to get along.

    Sometimes I ask my students whether they put their shoes on sock sock, shoe shoe or sock shoe sock shoe. Do they brush their teeth from left to right and top to bottom, right to left, bottom to top, etc. Of course these questions leave unasked and unanswered those about whether and why we need to wear shoes, and whether and why we need to brush our teeth, and whether and why we have feet and teeth. These are serious questions which in a larger sense it would be irresponsible to leave unasked. But pragmatically they are settled, and accordingly a paralyzing distraction to continuously re-ask. It would be a long, long morning if we had to do so every time for these and other mundane procedures.

    In exactly this way I take ‘society’ to be a settled question, which is why I keep answering yours by simply rewording exactly what you’re questioning. Is this an impasse, or have I misunderstood you?

  20. In exactly this way I take ’society’ to be a settled question, which is why I keep answering yours by simply rewording exactly what you’re questioning. Is this an impasse, or have I misunderstood you?

    I’m not sure that’s an either/or. I think you have some interesting ideas but I am not sure you are disposed to go over them with me. That’s okay, Carl. You have other interlocutors now to carry on your discussions.


Leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: