Volume 9 Number 3 1996


Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies, Zygmunt Bauman, Polity Press, 1992, 215 pages, 11.95 paperback.

Modern Social Theory From Parsons To Habermas, 2nd edition, Ian Craib, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 262 pages, 1992, 10.95 paperback.

Postmodernity, Barry Smart, Routledge, l993, 169 pages, 9.99 paperback.

Civil Society, Keith Tester, Routledge, 1992, 187 pages, 40 hardback, 11.99 paperback.

David Harris
College of St Mark & St John

What do working sociologists do after postmodernism? We have read the attacks on the very foundations of our subject in Lyotard or Baudrillard, witnessed the desertion of some of our leading figures (especially former Marxists), find ourselves presented with more and more fragmented, interdisciplinary, global or poetical pieces by leading sociologists - and still have to turn up on Monday mornings to hack through the old sociology courses with the new students.

In the real world, legislators are hostile and have withdrawn funding and status. Postmodern critique and the neo-conservative turn may have damaged radical social theory beyond recall, and we may have to abandon our image of ourselves as activists who happen to be teachers in the meantime - so what is left to sustain us or to help us seduce students into signing up for the long haul through Parsons and Habermas, or Locke and Rousseau?

The books here offer a range of strangely comforting possibilities. Bauman pursues the aristocratic route of the emeritus professor, serenely above the vulgar business of teaching courses and grading student essays. Secure in a glorious career, he surveys the field of the social and offers us his reflections on death, culture and other ephemera,

addressing postmodernism's gloss on postmodernity as merely an excessive and fundamentally pointless 'life strategy', one among many. Smart is in the business of putting postmodernism in its place, largely by shifting tack to foreground postmodernity as the issue, and then further domesticating the concept as a stage in social development which can be tackled by a modified sociology.

Craib too speaks as the old soldier, to an audience of beginners, unrepentantly reviewing the older modern social theories of Parsons or conflict theory, and developing post-modernism as simply another in a long line of would-be totalisations who have lost patience with sociology's gallant struggle with social complexity simply because social theory fails a few logical tests about its own foundations.

Tester offers the most neurotic approach, perhaps, in this sea of reassurance, beginning, like Craib, with a review of the old safe material he has probably taught for years - the classic political philosophy debates on civil society - only to confront the horrors of postmodern critique at the very end of the piece. Tester seems anxious to do the decent thing, rather like an idealistic young subaltern rather than an old soldier, admitting the concept he has been talking about is hopelessly inadequate and abandoning it (and then setting off for re-training?).

The problem for each author really is to preserve a myth about social science while living in the mundane reality of a desperate struggle to survive, research, publish and teach in institutions that are increasingly conservative and market-oriented. The myth of social science is that it is purely rational in its choice of theories, open and self-critical in its adherence to the force of the better argument, disinterested in itself as a profane career. To preserve the myth, the arguments of the postmodernists must be openly discussed and ground given to them: to preserve the institutional bases they must be managed and defused, and 'research programmes' modified or reformed. None of this can be discussed openly, even though it is all well-known, and the effects of the institutional base on theory choice is a topic commonly taught in sociology of science courses. There are only fragments of a sociology of social science, though, and so the whole debate appears in a strangely stilted way.

Smart begins by distinguishing postmodernism (a cultural configuration), and post-modernity (its social context, social, economic and political constellations). This is admitted to be a bit arbitrary, especially since some writers see postmodernity as a social constellation which has an expanded or even a dominant cultural level. This division also seems to minimise the philosophical thrust of postmodernism, its anti-foundationalist attack on the grand metanarratives which are likely to cause the most trouble for sociology, and indeed this attack is rather muted in Smart.

Various definitions and positions are summarised in chapter one around three major options for the relation to modernity: a real break (argued by the enthusiasts like Baudrillard), a continuity of old themes ( argued by Marxists preferring terms like 'late capitalism' ), or a relational stance (Foucault, Giddens, Touraine and others, including Smart). In this last position, the present is a period in which the (emancipatory) claims of modernity have come under particular scrutiny, in which social changes appear to have overlapped and accelerated (globalisation/localism, the collapse of official socialism, postcolonial critiques of the West, consumerism, the shift from repression to seduction, the new importance of the politics of the personal). Smart says the changes, not the names we give them, are important for sociologists.

The troubles for conventional sociology arise from the serious revisions necessary to its organising concept - society- as well as to its conventional narratives of social change - emancipation in Marx or the ambiguous legacy of the Enlightenment in Weber and others. Classical definitions will no longer do, since 'societies' are more than just nation states (they are now both greater and smaller than nation states), and societies no longer seem to line up neatly in some rational order or progression. Both definitions and narratives are clearly revealed these days as Eurocentric too.

A number of implications follow. The classic project to deliver scientific knowledge of the social cannot be sustained, nor can the classical connections with ethics and politics (whether as 'value free' analysis or as a guarantee for correct politics and 'legislation'). The very boundaries of the subject are blurred and links are needed with geography, history, political economy and philosophy. More modest projects seem suitable - interdisciplinary reflections on ethics, utopian ventures and possibilitarianism (as in Giddens), localised campaigns to deny the universalism of dominant discourses (Foucault), mere interpretations aimed at the best possible deal for a vulnerable social solidarity threatened with near-extinction by market diversities and a privatised indifference appearing as tolerance (Bauman).

These points are familiar ones, of course, as Smart notes himself. Students will find the debates expertly managed and summarised, with main issues discussed in separate chapters for the browser, yet with some redundancy, so that the key ideas are raised again and again each time with a little more meaning added. Practising sociologists will find themselves reassured too, since Smart offers us business as usual, albeit with some new concepts and new rapprochements.

There is even a `new' (actually rather old ) kind of cultural politics available for sociologists, as the possibilities unravel in postmodernity. One can detect a tactical note here too, reminiscent of the struggles to reform the British Labour Party and Communist Party in Marxism Today's 'New Times' project: postmodernism's anti-foundational arguments are flourished to frighten the backsliders and traditionalists, but never outlined systematically enough to bring (still foundationalist) radical politics into question. In a familiar way too, recent political events are used rhetorically, to urge us to change, but are never really analysed: do the changes in eastern Europe really have anything to do with French philosophy's crisis of representation? Shouldn't a revised sociology also retain its classical scepticism for the huge generalisation and the unsupported professional obiter dicta about exotic societies visited or read about in the press?

Bauman offers a similarly powerful overview of life, death, sociology and the meaning of it all, in a very writerly style, packed with esoteric footnotes based on half-forgotten philosophers, with some passages still in French. The analysis outlines the ways in which the absurdity and the certainty of death has affected human culture at different stages. As one reads, the ghosts of Durkheim and Weber haunt the arguments (as do those of Foucault, Adorno and Elias), although this book is not exactly a summary of their views, but more like an extended essay attempting to exonerate and continue them.

Themes from Bauman's other contributions, summarised in Smart are apparent too - Bauman on the basis of social solidarity (love, or 'being for anOther'), for example, elaborated here in terms of the noble moral principles expressed in loving others at the expense of one's own life if necessary (a kind of limit case to life strategies). Or Bauman on postmodernism, this time as a form of life that has deconstructed even immortality, that has put an end to a major social goal and purpose as a result, in favour of life in a continuous present and with a nomadic subjectivity which dies many little deaths every day.

Much of the argument offers an implicit rebuke to postmodernist style and the major claims too. Bauman gives us his opinions, as an unashamed expert and intellectual. He is unapologetic about his gender too. We are in no doubt as to his views on various claims for the basis of solidarity, or on different cultural options. His whole argument appears to flirt quite self-consciously with one of those grand foundational approaches that postmodernists have warned us about - he sees death and the horror of the meaninglessness of death behind (or beneath) dominant cultural trends, not just the actual rituals of managing death, but in the growth of clerks and intellectuals themselves - "professional immortality brokers" (p.59) - in the development of social and political theories of the social or the nation (more active as accounts than 'race' - 'nationalism is the racism of the intellectuals' (p.109), even in stratification systems.

All the methods of pursuing a life strategy, modernist or postmodernist ones, are roundly and thoroughly critiqued. Great individuals and the representatives of dominant groups used to seek to rewrite history to claim immortality - but a standard ideology-critique will dispose of their posturing as representatives of the universal, and Bauman is quick to resurrect the repressed side of claims to be a mere servant of immortal values - values become immortal by increasing the burden of death behind them, death of the martyrs and death of the enemies of the Ideal. The contemporary immortality conveyor, the cultural market, immortalises - but only for a while (about 15 minutes, according to the famed Warhol utterance cited here).

This is a book which will stratify its readership. Those who find pleasure (as I did) in decoding the references, in pursuing ideas in a playful way, in enjoying once again the old academic wit and style, in exposing contradictions in our feeble settlements and cultural rapprochernents will enjoy it enormously. I suspect many will find it far too lofty, poetic and professorial, full of breathtakingly sweeping generalisations about how people live in postmodernism, or how they react to commercially-provided culture, as in this passage, which might have come from the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the editorial of The Oldie:

In these passages, but by no means in all, Bauman's case looks rather familiar, parochial, overblown and even hysterical. How could these remarks about modern sexuality possibly be justified, or even researched? Who actually knows anyone who lives in a continuous present, who has abandoned the idea of a life project, who is so clearly anomic and bored with the prospects of personal immortality? How do you develop full-blown nomadic subjectivity with an unskilled job, a family, and limited cash (unless it is just a new name for the usual fantasies and diversions one uses to cope)? Perhaps one should search first for these elusive postmoderns in academies? Perhaps this is how jaded students on modular courses, or, at the other extreme, senior colleagues flitting from one international conference to the other, might look to a distinguished professor?

Tester's book comes with an impressive endorsement from Bauman, and the familiar Routledge promotional questions on the back cover - "Why do we speak so obsessively about being or needing a civil society?" produced the first problem for me, since I was not aware that we were so obsessed. Indeed, as a sociologist my working knowledge of the concept was framed almost entirely by the discussion of the term at the hands of various Marxists and founding fathers, who on the whole were pretty dismissive. Civil society seemed to be some residue (at best) from pre-sociological political philosophy, operating with dubious categories like sovereign individuals and social contracts, to be swept away by more precise concepts like 'social formation' (with its different levels), or by Durkheimian or Weberian problematics. I was hoping to be able to meet new dynamic uses of the term.

However, that hope is only partially fulfilled in Tester's account. Much of the first hundred pages is indeed still like the political philosophy course I took as part of the old London BSc Econ nearly thirty years ago, where it was thought to be vaguely good for us. It was pleasant and a little nostalgic to rediscover the tensions and dilemmas in Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Rousseau, the utilitarians - and, eventually, Marx, Durkheim and Weber - and I think I learned quite a lot about Kant from the discussion on the aesthetics of civil society.

To be sure, these tensions and dilemmas are discussed in a fresh new vocabulary of terms and binaries - reciprocity (asymmetric and symmetric), universalism/particularism, ascription/ achievement (with no mention of Parsons though, nor the other pattern variables summarised in Craib below), reflexivity/reification - but I am not sure even now how they are actually being used in the discussion, nor how they improve upon the more concrete dilemmas of action and structure, freedom and control, individual and society and so on.

Of course, there are many ways to teach political philosophy, and a book written for students runs the risk, as Tester fears himself in the introduction, that there will always be complaints from other pedagogues that favourites are neglected or reduced too easily to fit in the catalogue. I wanted to complain at the brevity of the discussion of Mill and Bentham, for example, who often appear in a spectral form in current political debates, and, more generally, the late and brief inclusion of those who find the whole concept of civil society irredeemably vague, incoherent or contradictory (Poulantzas, Foucault, and just one postmodernist - Maffesoli).

The first hero to be considered is in fact Marx, but it is the early Marx who radicalises, materialises and demystifies the concept of civil society in a suitably imaginative way, not the Marx who breaks with the concept, replaces it with others, and goes on to develop quite different analyses. This later Marx has been at the centre of things in sociology since the late 1960s, of course - but his only appearance here is via a page on Poulantzas (who is quickly managed in what looks like a Miliband-type accusation of excessive abstraction). In a way it doesn't matter - all the usual contradictions with liberal humanism do emerge, finally, and Marxist or sociological scepticism eventually looms large, interestingly, in the work of modern authors. But I still prefer the critiques by Habermas or Althusser, which settle accounts far more completely, in my view, and which were written before postmodern angst about general concepts being used incoherently.

Tester's choices of authors to carry his story can seem arbitrary, but perhaps they are simply contextual. One suspects that this is a book produced in connection with an undergraduate course, designed to modernise (sic) the obligatory romp through the classics, seduce some students with some contemporary dilemmas to analyse in the old terms, and perhaps even to rescue political philosophy against sociological imperialism. All of these things are done very well.

Tester is entitled to his view that the founding fathers of political philosophy raised the key questions first, for the sociologists to rediscover, but his account does look pretty abstract - key ideas somehow appear to articulate the concerns of the time (in a rather Hegelian way, I thought) and offer variants of solutions to the apparently eternal concerns of reciprocity and strangeness, but they remain tragically tainted by the particularities of their spokespersons, and continually relativised by social change (also abstractly rendered as some kind of inherent limits of 'the imagination' or an eternal 'problem of the stranger' respectively).

This story ends rather surprisingly in postmodernity, rather than in the emergence of more complete and universal accounts (as in the Bauman piece), in a thoroughgoing assault on the notion of civil society using the now conventional analyses of globalisation, massification, tribalism and fundamentalism. 'Civil society' represents a played out tradition, too closely allied to modernism to cope after all, despite the optimism of the earlier pages - yet what happened to the eternal problems, the stranger, the threat of terror from the sublime, the ever-living imagination, the contradictions? Surely these must survive somewhere? History (and political philosophy) can't just have stopped?

We find the same features noted above in Bauman and Smart - the odd assumption that ordinary people abandon worldviews because intellectuals find contradictions in the concepts that lurk in them (perhaps reversed here - ordinary people live lives of nomadic fluidity so intellectuals find themselves somehow impotent and unable to generalise) and the strange tendency to barely believe what one's own analysis has led to. If it were to be taken literally, Tester's book should self-destruct, or when we had read the last pages, we would see the first pages as completely pointless, and be able to get our money back. Or perhaps there is an Hegelian pedagogy at work here, and all that early labour is designed to make sure the owl of Minerva takes off and flies unencumbered by any old baggage? Somehow, though, we know that those founding fathers will still be taught, the first hundred pages still read, the old concepts dusted off, the eternal struggles between Burke and Hobbes fought afresh.

Finally, Craib offers a new version of his famous textbook, after an interval of ten years,and this again gives us a chance to see sociology going about its normal business, responding to the challenge of postmodernism and postmodernity, largely by incorporating it into an existing framework of what looks like a standard social theory course. The need to structure and develop such courses determines theory-choice at the concrete level, for the working pedagogue, I conjecture, and traces of this base can be found here: Craib is still defending theory for its own sake (and for classically liberal personal and political reasons which he shares with us), and still adhering to an old academic division of labour that leaves out examples of the use of such theories in various 'applied' analyses (presumably they fall under another course - 'social structure' perhaps). This can be a problem, since Craib wants to show the relevance and topicality of some of his chosen theories - notably Poulantzas on social class, for example - but finds himself in an expositional dilemma, since much must depend on the reader knowing some of the context of these debates, and there is no room to develop this context.

Some older ground is still covered here. The first seven chapters offer rather tokenist discussions of some old favourites in 'action theory' (with the exception of chapter seven on Giddens, where Craib has a new publication himself), and it is not always clear why it is worth doing especially if you run or take a different course. Although each chapter contains some new material, and a range of largely successful contemporary examples to try out approaches, there is little hint here of any postmodernist or any other crisis either.

As with similar introductory texts, there is still a strange tactical turn to these earlier debates, a legacy, no doubt, of the rivalries between the approaches in the seventies (the 'War of the Schools' as Craib says, quoting Bryant). Thus functionalism is rebuked for not having nice, limited causal theories in chapter three, using some old favourites like Lockwood, or Cohen, while Lukacsian notions of totality are admired in chapter eleven. More than once, we nearly settle into those simple polarisations beloved of A-level texts - like 'action' versus 'structure'. Giddens and Habermas are reviewed very well in later chapters, but their own appropriations or commentaries on Parsons or symbolic interactionism are not mentioned in the earlier ones: perhaps the book lets itself be fragmented by some external arrangements like a particular curriculum?

The book warms up considerably when it gets on to the ground of radical theories. Craib does a very good job on Giddens, on Athusserian Marxism and on critical theory, for example, and manages to convey a flavour of the real thing far more accurately and calmly than is the case, for example, in many Gramscian pieces I work with in cultural studies (which are often still locked in the war of the schools and deal in straw men as a result).

Postmodernism is introduced, very well, in my view, as a crisis primarily for 'modernist radicalism' (see Crook, Modernist Radicalim and Its Aftermath, Routledge, 1991), for all those approaches which wanted to claim some superiority or truth for their work in order to validate or support political movements of various kinds (including largely imaginary ones). More sceptical or pragmatic sociologies have never set themselves up quite like this, however.

Sociologists with the experience of Craib have long realised that claims to have built theory on a solid and unassailable foundation are unsustainable, despite a no-doubt pressing political need. As he reminds us, Winch was undermining those claims for most of us in 1958, at the start of sociology's popularity, and then social phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and various Marxisms all ridiculed sociology's scientific pretensions. (Many other candidates for the first postmodernist are also around, of course, and some are mentioned in Smart and Bauman). The linguistics-based challenges to sociology lasted for a while if only as parasitical critiques, and like postmodernism, they still serve to provide newcomers with that delicious frisson from flirting with the absurd (in Bauman's sense). The Marxisms went through a process of being tested to destruction, Craib reminds us, as in the famous trajectories of Hindess and Hirst - from conversion to disillusion in ten years of hectic effort.

Both challenges now have become incorporated as further ploys in working sociology's pedagogic games. Craib thinks this will happen to postmodernism too, and I am sure he is right. One solution to the challenge of the philosophical thrust of postmodernism is to incorporate it as yet another topic, as in Smart and Craib (in their different ways). This 'filing cabinet' strategy (to borrow from Craib) risks turning sociology into a rather safe and unshockable discipline, however.

Craib offers another way to survive, commending his students to play the game, think strange and unusual thoughts and grow as a person. This is a technique for those with cultural capital, of course, who can maintain a cool distance from any argument, and it is not at all clear why one should stretch one's resources with sociology as opposed to anything else (like the classics, or psychology). Only the really secure can play Bauman's game, of course. There remains the Tester option - but that really would be to think the unthinkable!

Copyright David Harris 1996

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