Statement of Intent and Concern: Part III

In Reading, Sociology on June 28, 2009 at 9:57 pm

DSCF4470Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Concern and Intent #III: System Building

Everything’s connected.  Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.

Fernando Pessoa

I’m behind in my reading.  Stacked in front of me at my desk are the following: Ted Solotaroff’s The Literary Community, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Kate Buford’s Burt Lancaster, Pierre Bourdieu’s Sketch for Self Analysis, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbors Wife, Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s My Dinner with Andre, John Cheever’s collected stories, and Elias Canneti’s Crowds and Power.  As if this was not enough, today I checked out Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, and Robert Service’s Lenin.  I have also set aside for now, but need to get back to: Francois Cusset’s French Theory, Peter Drucker’s Management, Marx’s Capital, and Seth Lloyd’s Programming the Universe. All of these books are crucial and must be attended to at once.  Moreover, all of these books are connected–and taken in their totality they will add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.  In fact, when incorporated with another hundred or so abandoned books to which I will shortly return, they will help constitute a system through which the universe and all contained in it shall be read.

Or so I tell myself.  I used to finish books in a single sitting; no longer.  According to my reading list for 2009, I have started 36 books and finished only 13 of these.  The remaining 23 range from the nearly finished (Solotaroff and Said) to the barely begun (Lloyd and Talese), but they all have one thing in common–I cannot truly move on with my life and work before these are completed, noted, and blogged about.  Herein the pathology.  In the year 2001 I began a master’s thesis.  The topic was supposed to be Japanese collective memory of the Second World War.  A big topic, surely, but not, perhaps, one which I could not wrap my arms around, even in the artificially constricted form of a thesis (my adviser told me 100, and not more than 120, pages).  220 rough pages later, having encompassed not only the topic directly at hand, but also Aristotle and Augustine, Occam and Kant, Weber and Wittgenstein, sociology and statistics, and a short history of the concept of free will, I foundered.  The thesis ran aground not from lack of something to say, but from a lack of ability to encapsulate and select–all this material seemed deeply relevant, indispensable in fact, but it wasn’t helping me finish the damn thing.

Evitar Zerubavel, in his highly sensible The Clockwork Muse, presents a compelling argument for just getting on with it.  Arguing for a “deromanticization of the writing process” (4), Zerubavel writes that “the problem, unfortunately, is that we often have difficulty letting go of our projects and bringing them to completion {…}  Such perfectionism (also expressed in the compulsive urge to read everything possibly related to our project) may lead us to keep spinning our intellectual wheels and work on the same project indefinitely” (87-88). Zerubavel recommends a micro-managed writing schedule–the “clockwork muse” in fact, whereby we forget about the idea of writing when inspired and instead write on a strict schedule.  “The very notion of a ‘clockwork muse’ may sound somewhat oxymoronic at first given the way we normally associate creativity with spontaneity.  It certainly goes against our traditional romantic image of a writer as someone who forgoes structure in order to accommodate essentially unscheduled outbursts of creative energy.  Yet only those who develop a certain amount of self-discipline actually end up completing theses, dissertations, and books” (98).

Uh huh.  And if one is afflicted by a “compulsive urge to read everything possibly related to our project” when at the same time being categorizable as one who’s passion in life is “theoretical” {as outlined by Eduard Spranger, someone in the grips of the theoretical passion “essentially likes to know that they have explained things better than they have been explained before” (Snyder, 132)}, the scope of necessary reading can reach outstanding proportions.   What I need is a clockwork system for my reading, and then the ability to draw some worthwhile lines.  But then, I just don’t seem cut out for this kind of efficiency.  Three things occur to me:

i) Erving Goffman, one of the three greatest sociologists of the 20th century, had a wife who went insane.  In addition, he spent time in the Shetland Islands while researching his dissertation.  In book after book he refers back to the Shetland Islands and/or mental hospitals.  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, all these deal with one or the other of these locales, and these are just off the top of my head.  Arguing that sociology in general has not sufficiently dealt with everyday public behavior, Goffman writes: “It is well recognized, for instance, that mobs can suddenly emerge from the peaceful flow of human traffic, if conditions are right.  But little concern seems to have been given to the question of what structure this peaceful intercourse possesses when mob formation is not an issue.  It is the object of this report to try to develop such a framework.  Some data have been drawn from a study of a mental hospital {…}, some from a study of the Shetland Islands {…}, some from manuals of etiquette, and some from a file where I keep quotations that have struck me as interesting” (Behavior in Public Places, 4).  As if this combination of source material was entirely natural and obvious.

In an earlier post concerning Goffman, I wrote that “One of the great joys of reading The Presentation of the Self lies in reading Goffman’s footnotes and checking his sources. Goffman is widely read, and his sources display his omnivorous, catholic range beautifully: The Higher Service of Great Britain is followed closely by Sidelight on Chinese Life and Mr. Ump. “How Executives Get Jobs,” The Philosophy of William James, The Canons of Good Breeding: or the Handbook of the Man of Fashion from 1839, and “Screening Patients for Nasal Plastic Operations” are all cited within ten pages of each other.”  Indeed.  Mr. Goffman, for one, clearly felt that everything he read, from The Canons of Good Breeding to Mr. Ump was connected–and this is one of the many reasons why I love him.

ii) According to a fascinating article in The Atlantic by Joshua Wolf Shenk, George Vaillant, curator of a 72 year longitudinal study on the happiness of Harvard men, much mental illness, and much happiness and unhappiness, can be boiled down to one’s adaptation strategies.  Shenk writes, “At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest {…} adaptations–like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania {…} One level up are the ‘immature’ adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy {…} ‘Neurotic’ defenses are common in ‘normal’ people.  These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought)…” (Shenk, 41). What?  Wait a moment there.  “Neurotic”?  Well sure.  Intellectualization of “the primal stuff of life” into “objects of formal thought,” metaphysics and ‘systems’ is, to be sure, my own foundational defense mechanism–as it was Mr. Goffman’s.  Read in light of his wife’s affliction, Mr. Goffman’s opening to Behavior in Public Places becomes a deeply moving testament to the ability of the human species to turn dross into gold: “In diagnosing mental disorder and following its hospital course, psychiatrists typically cite aspects of the patient’s behavior that are ‘inappropriate in the situation’.  Since this special kind of misconduct is believed to provide one obvious sign of ‘mental sickness’, psychiatrists have given much time to these improprieties, developing the orientation and observational skills needed to study them, describing them in detail, seeking to understand their meaning for the patient, and obtaining a mandate to discuss them in the academic press {…} We sociologists should be grateful for this harvest, all the more so because it has been brought in by delicate hands” (3). If the sociologist giving thanks for psychiatric conceptualization of the mental disorder of his nearest and dearest is not reflective of the neurotic transmutation of the primal stuff of daily life, then I don’t know what is.

iii) Of all of history’s system builders, one of my favorites is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the inventor/ discoverer of monads.  Here is an account of monads from The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers: “Leibniz’s account of substance as essentially active, arose out of his dissatisfaction with the extended substance of the ‘new philosophy’ and his equal dissatisfaction with atoms and the void {…} The only possible element must be a ‘simple substance’ Leibniz called a monad.  Since the monad has no parts, it is indestructible except by annihilation and can come into existence only by creation.  I can produce no effect on another monad, so there is no causal interaction.  (‘The monads have no windows’) {…} Every monad perceives all other monads with some degree of clarity, so that it has a multiplicity of aspects.  Its perceptions are trun in that they are in pre-established harmony with other monads.  Pre-established harmony is ‘proved’ by the joint fact of the impossibility of interaction and the actuality of perception…” (167). The Encyclopedia also notes that Leibniz spent most of his life in the library and in the service of the Duke of Brunswick in Hanover.  How much reading must he have undertaken, how much mental abstraction must he have engaged in, how ‘neurotic’ must Leibniz have been to extrapolate the concepts of monads?    What variety of textual support did he string together as the thought foundation of monadology?

If monads are the foundation of all matter and form, then it follows that all matter and all form are essentially one.  I am then surely correct in seeing the whole stack of books in front of me as intimately and intrinsically connected, such that were I to remove a single one, the hermeneutics of the social and physical universe would be placed at serious risk.  The neurotic system builder ever in the grips of his theoretical passion is dead, long live the neurotic system builder.


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