[Polity; 2011]

It doesn’t seem controversial to say that there are a variety of things wrong with society. The questions for sociologist-philosophers like Luc Boltanski are: Why? How? Whence this monstrosity we call social and political existence? How do we study it and make it better? That’s what Boltanski’s most recent book On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation is all about.

As a contribution to the academic and intellectual tradition participating in this frustrating discussion, it’s stellar. Not only because of what he says — which I’ll mention very shortly — but also because of the way he says it. The book is a series of six lectures Boltanski gave — the Adorno Lectures — at Axel Honneth’s invitation. It’s style is a mixture of pedestrian clarity, analytic definition and argumentation, continental/poetic phrasing, sociological demonstration, and political anecdote. It draws from a multi-disciplinary list of sources, both within and among different academic traditions. In terms of the discourse, Boltanski continues to do his native France a great service, primarily citing contemporary French thinkers. In terms of his place in intellectual history, he respectfully and honorably distances himself from his influential advisor Pierre Bordieau, building meaningfully on the negative space left by Bordieau’s work in critical sociology (much like Amartya Sen does from John Rawls in his recent Idea of Justice, a book we can fruitfully look to as a cousin of Boltanski’s both stylistically and thematically, though not positionally). On Critique is short and readable, divided into brief sections. It’s quotable, profound, frustrating, and sometimes a little funny. The cover, I must say, is a lovely shade of light blue.

In addition to these pleasantries, the book’s content is compelling and readily applicable. Having been involved with Occupy Wall Street, a movement of protest and critique, I’ve noticed that the meanings of certain key terms aren’t always insightfully delimited, which leads to confusion among activists attempting to challenge extant social and political institutions. Questions always seem to haunt us: What are we fighting? Are we fighting it in a way that could make a meaningful difference? How do we think about ourselves, our families, our friends as we go about this business? What do we mean when we say domination, institution, reality, structure, critique, emancipation, etc? Boltanski defines many of these words and arranges them into arguments that make good sense to this leftist (though they’re not without their ‘problems’, to which any coherent semantic order will be vulnerable, as he’d admit). So the way I’ll proceed from here is to offer a kind of glossary of terms from the book, arrange them in what I take to be the main arguments, and offer some comments.

For Boltanski there’s a difference between reality and the world. Boltanski follows Wittgenstein, using his famous first line of the Tractatus — “the world is all that is the case” — but reinterprets for his own purposes. Boltanski takes world to mean the flux of life. (I think of the word “whirled” as an explanatory pun here.) It’s what we can control and what we can’t, what always escapes us. To put in Nietzsche’s language, the world is the Dionysian mess that always goes beyond the Apollonian semblances we attempt to contain, describe, and understand it. The world won’t be pinned down. Reality, on the other hand, is what happens when we try to describe the world and, to some extent, drink our own Kool-aid. Reality is ordered, coherent, and makes sense. It’s what statistics and reality television are about. It’s the moral of every commercial — what we are meant to think is necessary. In this way, reality is a complete axiomatic theory, whereas the world is that theory’s Gödel number that proves its incompleteness. Reality is pooling subprime mortgage debt into CDOs and making billions when homeowners default, whereas the world is the 2008 financial crisis. Snooki is reality. Snooki getting pregnant is the world.

In the face of the world, in the gap that will always exist between it and what we try to say about it, we use institutions to guarantee order through coordination, systematization, and organization of actual and potential behaviors. Institutions maintain reality despite the world. We define words and other symbols in certain ways and adhere to them, speaking them, thereby delimiting the “whatness of what is” and hewing our actions accordingly. Think of ritual here. The extent to which the whatness of what is hangs together by itself, the extent to which reality covers the spectrum of actual and possible events, determines the strength of our institutions. Instances of confirmation, the results of tests —– of reality, truth, and existence — bolster institutions and increase the density of the whatness of what is. Instances of critique undermine and denounce that density by questioning both the tests themselves as well as test formats, and questioning both social relations and the general social order. Critique, in this way, is when we intentionally bring the world back to reality.

Boltanski claims that because of this “uneasy” relationship, confirmation and critique form an indissoluble couple — they need each other like Heath Ledger’s Joker claims to need Batman. Institutions arise and, since they can never fully cover the world, they by definition pave the way for critique. Critique, on the other hand, always results in some kind of claim on reality. This is why hermeneutic contradictions arise when we try to confirm reality with institutions (and confirm our critiques thereof). Simply put, though the powers that be might not want us to, we can read the world in contrary ways. Obamacare is a tax, not a penalty. The war on Iraq was justified, and ended when Bush said it did. Lloyd Blankfein does God’s work. No Child Left Behind, etc. Confirmations and police are there to mask the contradictions inherent in these statements and keep their respective institutions standing. Critique, protest, and protest movements unmask these contradictions, razing the institutions we raise to cope with the world.

When institutions mask the contradictions in a such a way that questions and critique are blocked, and only a small minority of people have control over their own lives and the lives of others, Boltanski calls this domination (blocking critique), which is motivated by and perpetuates exploitation (using people for profit). Emancipation from domination and exploitation involves helping ‘ordinary’ people sit with the contradictions of social life, navigating the ebb and flow of masked and unmasked paradoxes, clarifying the “shared axis” between confirmation and critique in order that (1) they might get a grip on their lives and (2) at the group level, better affiliate collectives with the institutions meant to serve them. (Also, relaxing private property laws and weakening the nation-state might help too.)

Being in a political movement, reading this was like opening a window in a stuffy room. Even if I don’t entirely agree with these ideas, I can go confidently into Occupy meetings and have some concepts at my fingertips about institutions, critique, the police, domination, exploitation, etc, and work more deftly to achieve some version of emancipation. But taking the activist hat off and moving into the evaluative phase of this review, I have a few critical things to say. I’ll start positive. There are two original philosophical elements of the book that must be noted for the record. The first regards critique in our contemporary capitalist context and the second regards methods of “thinking the present,” to use this series’ name.

Boltanski says there are at least two kinds of domination: simple and complex/managerial. Simple domination is what was said earlier: questions about reality get excluded. Reality’s order blocks critique (a basic totalitarian posture). But complex, managerial domination is a new kind of animal. It takes advantage of change and flux to perpetuate exploitative practices. This was the gist of Boltanski’s (co-authored with Eve Chiapello) massive The New Spirit of Capitalism, which claims, terrifyingly, that capitalism recuperated the social and artistic critiques leveled at it by the 1968 movements and resulted in an even more powerful form of itself: a networked, project-based capitalism. We called for freedom from bureaucracy and capitalism made us freelancers that self-manage, weakened our union membership, introduced the credit industry to appease our sense of luxury, and reduced our entitlements. We called for a more aesthetic lifestyle and capitalism gave us lower-priced luxury items (flatscreens), innovative popular technologies (iProducts), and “transgressive commodities” like Shepard Ferry’s clothing line OBEY. (Recall here that Naomi Klein’s No Logo became a popular text among market strategists.) This is an eminently original analysis of 21st century capitalism — present again in On Critique — that deserves a much wider audience, particularly those activists that still protest with social and artistic motivations like those of 1968.

The second original element is Boltanski’s methodology, the pragmatic sociology of critique, a camp of sociological practice he helped stake out over the last 20 years in response to Bordieau’s critical sociology. The difference is distinct. On the one hand, you can think that the sociologist-philosopher should demystify pedestrians and save the average Joe or Jane from the corrupt illusions instructed into them by nefarious social and political institutions. If you think this way, you also need to think that there is a world beyond that of pedestrian existence, a world of forms or structures (God-given or socially/historically constructed) that loom over regular folks and enmesh them into fabricated roles woven with false consciousness. (Also, since you’re a philosopher, you don’t have false consciousness, which means you will tend to talk about pedestrians as ‘them’, like you’re not a member of that group). Here the sociologist is like Plato’s philosopher that goes into the cave, or Neo in The Matrix, bringing redemptive enlightenment to a dark world of oppressive falsity. Boltanski associates this position with Bordieau’s critical sociology, and aggregates a family of philosophical thought in accordance with it: Durkheim, Freud, Marcuse, Saussure, Hegel, and Axel Honneth. (I’d add Rawls to this list also.)

In contrast, Boltanski associates himself with a different family of thought, one following a line from Michel Foucault and continuing recently to Jacques Ranciere, Bruno Latour, and Nancy Fraser (to which I’d add Peter Sloterdijk’s early work on cynicism and Amartya Sen). This family rejects the Platonic-Matrix picture of philosopher-as-demystifier. It claims, in various ways, that the Platonic savior is actually more like Thales in Aesop’s fable, the philosopher that falls into a ditch on the side of a road because he’s too busy ruminating on the cosmos (incidentally, it’s a slave woman that pulls Thales out of the ditch and chides him for not paying attention to what’s right in front of him). Ordinary people — the slave woman in the fable — are on the level. They aren’t caught in a web of false consciousness. They’re under no illusions. They’re not in need of theoretical enlightenment. A sociology based on this premise takes the experiences of actors more seriously, using measurements, interviews, and an intense attention to lived detail to provide the clearest account of what’s happening here on the ground. Boltanski calls it “pragmatic sociology of critique” because it prioritizes what actors in their situated contexts think, say, do, and critique within their social relations, as opposed to prioritizing metapragmatic metacritiques leveled by philosophers about the social order. This is a unique point of view that I hope takes hold both within sociology and in fields (including philosophy) that, as Gabriel Tarde once wrote, tend to “torture the facts.”

Here, a negative-facing question arises. While the pragmatic sociology of critique offers a refreshing ground-level methodology, Boltanski’s stipulates a basic (existential/Nietzschean) intuition that the world is an overwhelming flux that overflows our attempts to make sense of it. I think this is a theoretical/philosophical assumption far from Main Street. The distinction between reality and world, for instance, on which much of On Critique rests, might not be a thought/feeling that the average Joe or Jane thinks about when going to work. Of course, if Jane reads Nietzsche and Sartre she might agree. But what about everyone else? What if I don’t think the welter-din of the world overflows our sometimes inauthentic and absurd reality? Though it tries not to, the sociological approach flowing from this assumption feels like another version of demystification, Nietzschean this time as opposed to Platonic.

In the end, it’s still not wholly clear how we should study society as we participate in it; neither is it clear whether the way we go about studying society contributes positively or negatively to how we want it to be. Admittedly, these are big questions. Fortunately, Boltanski has devoted his career to answering them in extremely compelling ways. On Critique is yet another helpful contribution.

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