Statement of Intent and Concern on the Occasion of my Thirty-Fifth Birthday: Part I

In Life as Lived, Organizations, Sociology on June 13, 2009 at 10:02 pm

fff-blackMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

Intent and Concern #I: Berger and Luckmann on Typification and Reification

Everything has a face, forms, sounds and colours: these are just appearances.  They are just forms and colours, and nothing more.  However, everything arises from what is formless and descends into that which is changeless.  If you grasp and follow this, using it to the full, nothing can stand in your way.

Chuang Tzu

This is the first in a projected series of posts which will represent an attempt on my part to synthesize a variety of theoretical and practical concerns that confront me as I approach thirty-five.  This post will begin with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, a book we have looked at before here on Sympathies.  I have re-posted the original post so that readers can familiarize themselves with the work.

A good deal of the writing on this blog has taken as its theme the relationship between the individual and the institution, and we have seen various attempts to come to terms with the ideal stance of one who, as we all do, exists within the grasp of institutionalization.  In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann spend 45 pages on the topic of institutionalization, and what they have to say provides me with my jumping off point.  They make the point that while man (and yes, The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966, uses the outdated gender-specific catch-all term for humanity), makes his world, he is given to losing sight of this and projecting (“reifying”) aspects of the social world so that they are perceived as entirely external and beyond his control.  “Man’s self-production is always, and of necessity, a social enterprise.  Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations” (51), but, being prone to reification, they will sometimes “{apprehend} the products of human activity as if there were something else than human products–such as facts of nature, results of cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will.  Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world {and experiencing it} as a strange facticity, {…} over which he has no control” (89).

When mis-apprehending (social) reality as something other than the product of his own action and consciousness, he forgets that “the social world was made by men–and, therefore, can be remade by them,” but, ironically, “reification is a modality of consciousness {…} Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it” (89).

Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it. I would like to extrapolate this to mean that the perception of sedimented, externally controlled or created, facticity continually creates the very facticity in question.  Put slightly differently, the denial of agency diminishes, uncreates, free-will, while the exercise of free-will depends in large part, perhaps entirely, on the strength of one’s belief in it.

Now, this is not to argue that reification is simply false-consciousness, or that groups within society do not go to considerable trouble to perpetuate and legitimate reification of their activities.  Berger and Luckmann make this quite clear in their analysis of what they call “socially segregated subuniverses of meaning” such as “Hindu castes, the Chinese literary bureaucracy, or the priestly coteries of ancient Egypt” (85), not to mention lawyers, doctors, television pundits, university English departments.  They write that subuniverses  “become esoteric enclaves {…} to all but those who have been properly initiated into their mysteries {…} The outsiders have to be kept out {but} If the subuniverse requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure.  This is done through various techniques of intimidation {…} mystification and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols” (87).

And generally the manipulation of prestige symbols. Indeed.  Those who engage, consciously or unconsciously, in the manipulation of prestige symbols are, in Berger and Luckmann’s language, involved in creating a “typification.”  The acceptance of typifications, in turn, sediments social facticity and brings into being a taken-for-grantedness in the performance of social actors. “The typification of forms of action requires that these have an objective sense {…} In the course of the action there is an identification of the self with the objective sense of the action {…} Although there continues to be a marginal awareness of the body and other aspects of the self not directly involved in the action, the actor, for that moment, apprehends himself essentially in identification with the socially objectified action {…} In other words, a segment of the self is objectified in terms of the socially available typifications” (72-3).  The authors point out that after the actions of the typified actor have been carried out, in, say, the privacy of the home, the meditation chamber, the confessional, the actor may re-establish a certain “role distance,” but this distance is apt to shrink again when the times comes once again for the actor to take up the role by re-activating the segment of the self objectified in terms of the currently applicable socially available typification.

This discussion inevitably brings us back to Mr. Inch’s earlier post on Sympathies about sartorial conformism/ non-conformism.  Longtime readers will recall that Mr. Inch wrote, “Reflection on MT’s devotion to this apparently innocuous task, knotting a piece of cloth around his neck each morning, leads us towards what has become a key element of many recent theories of ideology. Derived from Pascal’s advice to non-believers, ‘kneel and pray, and then you will believe’, the French philosopher Louis Althusser sought to assert the materiality of ideas, and how ideology works through our actions as well as our words to define us as certain sorts of subjects.  For Michel Foucault, one of Althusser’s students who sought to break with Marxism and the concept of ideology, the knotting of that neck-tie might have been considered a ‘practice of the self’, a way of disciplining oneself in line with a particular matrix of power and knowledge. The question that I think both of these thinkers struggle to address, however, is the extent to which we are able to shape our own selves, rather than simply being shaped by power.  What scope do we have to resist the power embedded in these apparently mundane everyday motions? {…} By kneeling to pray, or standing in front of the mirror adjusting the knot, we perform belief and so take on socially available identities.  And as for the rest of us in that office – what was the effect of not knotting the tie each morning? At times there were no doubt some who reveled in the non-conformity of that not knotting.  In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting?  Was not wearing a necktie not just another kind of necktie after all?”

In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting? My feeling about this wonderful sentence has not changed since my first reading–then I found it to be predicated on a particularly alert and acute piece of self-knowledge.  But, Mr. Inch is essentially making the same point that Berger and Luckmann do when they point out that roles and typifications are “endemic to social interaction {…} All institutionalized conduct involves roles.”  And then, the authors bring matters home: “The institution, with its assemblage of ‘programmed’ actions, is like the unwritten libretto of a drama.  The realization of the drama depends upon the reiterated performance of its prescribed roles by living actors.  The actors embody the roles and actualize the drama by representing it on the given stage.  Neither drama nor institution exist empirically apart from this recurrent realization” (75).  What I would like to note here is that Berger and Luckmann do not confine the acting out of prescribed roles, the submission to typification, or, indeed, “conformism” if we wish to use this pejorative term, to those in positions of authority within an institution.  To the contrary, I read them to be saying that both the master and the servant, the “teacher’s pet” and the “bad boy,” the necktie wearer and the necktie shunner, the consummate insider and the professional rebel, all, to the degree that the act within and are sustained by the institution, are engaged in the recurrent realization of pre-typified activity.

Of course, this reading of Berger and Luckmann appears to leave the door open to the basest form of cynicism by suggesting that all forms of behavior by institutionalized actors are equal.  This is not quite what I wish to argue.  Barack Obama has defined his political philosophy as “ruthless pragmatism.”  While I respect this formulation, one key term does seem to be missing here, and that term is “principled.”  To the extent then that “principled ruthless pragmatism” can obtain meaning without slipping irrevocably into the realm of the oxymoronic, then this is the basis for public action which I would like to embrace.

Let us break down this triad: “principled” in that one’s initial agreement to engage with institutionalization, presuming of course that one has at least a degree of choice in the matter, must rest on principle–that is, one should enter into a relationship with a given institution with one’s eyes open and with a degree of foresight into the outline of the role one will be asked to play therein.  “Pragmatism” in that in order to accomplish anything in the social world, wherein competing interests, visions, and ideologies are, and ever will be, an unavoidable reality, one must, it seems to me, be prepared to lose the battle in the service of, hopefully, winning the war.  It has been my experience that the inability to lose a battle, to take a loss but retain enthusiasm, optimism, and will vis a vis the larger project, is a major hindrance for many of my generation.  Similarly, one must, I think, ask oneself the following: do I regard compromise as a dirty word?  It will be understood that while the actor who blithely declares “there can be no compromise where my principles are concerned” will sooner or later find their principles encased under glass in their own private shrine to imagined rectitude which is visited by no one but their increasingly bitter selves.  In other words, total denial of the possibility of compromise is tantamount to surrendering all hope of getting anything done.  In the immortal words of William Jefferson Clinton, “sooner or later, you have to cut a deal.”  The question does not, I think, concern whether deals should be struck, so much as whether individual deals are in the long term interest of the project at hand.  “Ruthless,” here is where some of my civilized, housebroken readership may blanch and avert their eyes.  At the very least, however, the pragmatist needs to accept in herself a degree of strategic ruthlessness where goals rooted in principle are concerned.  We cannot deny, of course, that this is an easily misused sentiment; for the deeper we involve ourselves with a project the more it seems that in the matter of strategic ruthlessness, some diabolical combination of the evolving social circumstance, our own abiding ambition, and the infinite malleability of philosophy and metaphysics, is forever engaged in the relocation of the goal-posts.

So, we come, via Talleyrand, to our promised statement of intent.  Napoleon’s foreign minister is, perhaps, most famous for his remark that “treason is a matter of dates.”  Gives you the chills, does it not?  Benjamin Schwarz writes of Talleyrand, “Arguably a turncoat, possibly a degenerate {…} certainly a shameless flatterer and world-class bribe taker, Talleyrand was also the most skillful and farsighted diplomat of his age and a man of arresting grace, wit, and style {…} He was as seductive as he was obviously dangerous {…} Talleyrand subscribed to the idea that statecraft’s modest but arduous task is to enable one’s country to survive and prosper in the world as it exists–not to transform international relations and not to further the alleged cause of mankind” (The Atlantic, December 2007, 93-4).  A hero or a villain?  Schwarz is not sure, but he is charmed.  For my part, I see in Talleyrand precisely an 18th century form of “principled ruthless pragmatism”–France’s survival and prosperity was the principle from which his ruthless pragmatism stemmed.  While our own cause may or may not be the triumph of the French nation, the application of a ruthless pragmatism in the service of a deeper principle appeals.  And, ruthless pragmatism demands that we realize the power inherent in form, in the embodying of certain typifications if they are in our larger strategic interest.  Indeed, it may not be too much to say that a “strategic surrender to form” might not be in order–moreover, a strategic surrender to form may provide a window into that most elusive beast, a pragmatic post-modern stance which takes the best of post-modernism’s relentless questioning of form and turns it inside out, recognizing that the tyranny of form is something we bring upon ourselves by allowing form to tyrannize.  Put another way, were we to extend Berger and Luckmann’s claim that “an apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon at least relative derefication of consciousness, which is a comparatively late development in history and in any individual biography” (90) to read that an apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon at least relative dereification of consciousness which may then lead into the ability to either and alternately i) embrace reification and role typification as a strategy (that is to inhabit a form which brings with it certain desirable prerogatives and forms of access), or/ and ii) radically overthrow reification and typification through the recognition that the establishment of social facticity is but a spectacular bluff resting on the manipulation of prestige symbols and the shaman’s art whereby illusory thinness is reflected as eternal massivity, we might be on our way to creating a space for action and free-will within the over-determined world of the creeping institutionalization of both the public and the private sphere.

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  1. “But I sometimes force myself to sit and feel confused and wonder what life would be like if it really required an in-depth engagement with Hegel, Lacan and pulp cinema.” Ah, but it does–and you will not be able to breathe your last until each has been well and truly attended to.

  2. Beyond my ken if I’m honest, is Mr. Zizek. But I sometimes force myself to sit and feel confused and wonder what life would be like if it really required an in-depth engagement with Hegel, Lacan and pulp cinema.

  3. Heavy. Verily I say unto you, “Zizek is heavy.”

  4. I like the idea of taking stock of yourself at 35, searching for the “power tie” inside yourself or some such.

    Some food for thought from Slavoj Zizek on how cynicism can become ideological:

    “Contrary to its misleading appearance, Robert Altman’s MASH is a perfectly conformist film – for all their mockery of authority, practical jokes and sexual escapades, the members of the MASH crew perform their jobs exemplarily, and thus present no threat to the smooth running of the military machine. In other words, the cliche which regards MASH as an anti-militarist film, depicting the horrors and meaningless military slaughter which can only be endured by a healthy measure of cynicism, practical jokes, laughing at pompous office rituals, and so on, misses the point – this very distance is ideology.” (Plague of Fantasies, 1997, p.20)

    • Just today I was acutely aware of how I tend torwad certainty, that continual longing for fixity and stasis.Of course, I want the other to be certain and stable, while I wobble around like the fool.As it turns out, and as your post so beautifully conveys, the world doesn’t cooperate with this desire for certainty. The world, instead, changes, deteriorates, shifts and fluxes away, according to its own reasons.I just don’t know what else to do in the face of this, other than practice and continue to try.

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