The absent city

Sartre, in his 1960 critique of orthodox Marxism called Search for a Method, has an interesting comment about absent presences that reminds me of my last post about absent militaries, absent militantisms:

“The city is a material and social organization which derives its reality from the ubiquity of its absence. It is present in each one of its streets insofar as it is always elsewhere, and the myth of the capital with its mysteries demonstrates well that the opaqueness of direct human relations comes from this fact, that they are always conditioned by all others. The Mysteries of Paris stem from the absolute interdependence of spots connected by their radical compartmentalization. Each urban collective has its own physiognomy.” (p. 80 in the english translation)

I’m not sure that this is the kind of absence I was talking about in relation to the Bastille Day parade. Here Sartre seems to have in mind the fact that a city – Paris, for example – exists everywhere and nowhere, that one can never see the city as a whole even though its existence as such depends on an “absolute interdependence” between the city and its various streets, neighborhoods, hidden alleyways, and so on. Whereas I was thinking about the fact that the military appears fully only through the mediation of images and stories, of parades and journalists’ photos of parades; the absent presence of the military depends less on its mediation through its other units and more on the sheer fact that it is visually unobservable except through spectacular semiotic mediations.

Sartre says some other interesting things too, things which partly need to be saved for some other time when I am in the mood for exegetical writing, but I am particularly taken by his comments, early on in the first chapter, on what knowledge is good for. He simultaneously displays a marxian cynicism about knowledge being a product and tool of class struggle, and a rather more traditional desire for philosophy to come to master the world – albeit only in a precarious, momentary dialectical fashion. “If philosophy is to be simultaneously a totalization of knowledge, a method, a regulative Idea, an offensive weapon, and a community of language, if this ‘vision of the world’ is also an instrument which ferments rotten societies, if this particular conception of a man or of a group of men becomes the culture and sometimes the nature of a whole class–then it is clear that the periods of philosophical creation are rare,” he says a bit glumly (6).

And then he emphasizes that our knowledge is external to us, can even master us: “We are not only knowers; in the triumph of [Hegelian] intellectual self-consciousness, we appear as the known. Knowledge pierces us through and through; it situates us before dissolving us” (9). Or more dialectically: “To understand is to change, to go beyond oneself” (18).

Dialectical philosophy is an excellent ethnographic object! Surely this is as arcane to an average american as any “exotic” witchcraft accusation of the Azande?

Still, I’m not sure that these quotations will mean much to anyone besides me, though. Whoever you people are who are reading this blog (there are 25 subscribers according to google), what kind of stuff are you interested in reading? To be sure, partly I write this blog to clarify things for myself, to amuse myself, to process some of my field material, to keep myself aware of what’s happening to universities in various places. Which is why it seldom arrives at any finished claims or polished prose. But I also want it to be in some way useful or interesting to people who are interested in academic culture and university politics… what would you want to know about French universities as a foreigner? Perhaps it would be useful to give some more background on the structure and history of the national university system as a whole. Am leaving for vacation in five minutes, but will come back to this.

5 thoughts on “The absent city

  1. I’ve just read Bourdieu’s demolition job on Sartre in “Le Sens pratique” (pp. 71-78). What’s missing in Sartre’s philosophy of the absolute freedom of the self, says Bourdieu, is any recognition that decision-making is shaped by past experiences: “faute de reconnaître rien qui ressemble à des dispositions durables et à des éventualités probables, Sartre fait de chaque action une sorte de confrontation sans antécédent du sujet et du monde.” Bourdieu sketches a sociological analysis of Sartre’s career in “Les règles de l’art” (pp. 345-350), describing it as a successful attempt to dominate all fields of cultural production simultaneously, by inventing and incarnating the figure of the “total intellectual” (pp. 344-350). Enjoy your vacation!

  2. Hi Ben, thanks for your comment. I haven’t read those bits of Bourdieu’s analysis, though my impression is that the whole point of Sartre’s category of the practico-inert is to arrive at some kind of mediation between the inertia of the world as is, and the never wholly determined moment in which human praxis intervenes in this world. Have you looked at the beginning of Search for a Method? It’s more a manifesto for a more subtle marxism than a proclamation of absolute human freedom from determination… in fact there are some very bourdieuian passages in this book, ones where he says that sociology’s merit is to offer an analysis of the irreducible mediations of “social fields” in historical processes. It comes to mind that Bourdieu would have had a definite interest in distancing himself from Sartre (and philosophy more generally, in a somewhat complicated way)… but that is a longer discussion!

  3. I’ve barely studied Sartre myself. Most of Bourdieu’s quotes are from L’Etre et le néant and Critique de la raison dialectique, neither of which I’ve read. Bourdieu concedes:

    Sans doute opposera-t-on à cette analyse de l’anthropologie sartrienne les textes (fort nombreux, surtout dans les premières et les dernières oeuvres) où Sartre reconnaît par exemple les « synthèses passives » d’un univers de significations déjà constituées . . . Reste qu’il repousse avec une répugnance viscérale « ces réalités gélatineuses et plus ou moins vaguement hantées par une conscience supra-individuelle qu’un organicisme honteux cherche encore à retrouver, contre toute vraisemblance, dans ce champ rude, complexe mais tranché de l’activité passive où il y a des organismes individuels et des réalités matérielles organiques » ; et qu’il ne fait aucune place à tout ce qui, du côté des choses du monde aussi bien que du côté des agents, pourrait brouiller la limite que son dualisme rigoureux entend maintenir entre la transparence pure du sujet et l’opacité minérale de la chose.

    Definitely I think that, at a certain time, a lot of French intellectuals had a huge interest in attacking Sartre and distancing themselves from his ideas. Bourdieu said as much in a lecture called Les conditions sociales de la circulation internationale des idées. Speaking to an audience in Germany, he said:

    Tout le monde ici se demande comment les Français ont pu s’intéresser tellement à Heidegger. En fait, il y a beaucoup, beaucoup de raisons, presque trop… Mais il y a une explication qui saute aux yeux, c’est le fait que, comme l’a montré Anna Boschetti dans son livre sur Sartre et Les Temps modernes, le champ intellectuel des années 1950 était dominé de façon écrasante par Sartre. Et une des fonctions majeures de Heidegger, c’était de servir a disqualifier Sartre (les professeurs disait : « Tout Sartre est dans Heidegger et en mieux »).

    Similarly, it’s been in the interest of some French academics more recently to distance themselves from Bourdieu.

    I think Bourdieu is right to reclaim for sociology a lot of what philosophy had claimed has its own. If the academic study of society is ever going to be credible enough to influence government policy and the shape of politics, that can only happen if it becomes credible as science, not as philosophy, which, as Richard Rorty argued, can only aspire to be “edifying discourse”.

  4. hi Ben,

    Thanks for the clarification. Without getting into the details of a global analysis of Sartre which I think neither of us really wants right here, it seems to me that this is one of those cases where one can give a more or less sympathetic reading of Sartre or Bourdieu and accordingly find quotes to support… so we may not be able to arrive here at a very satisfactory consensus reading of Bourdieu’s critique. I note incidentally that Bourdieu doesn’t, from what you’ve quoted, really seem to give much of a reflexive account of the way that his own social position or his own disciplinary “interests” determine his own interpretation of Sartre, so that although he may recognize others’ interests in attacking Sartre, he seems not to do so for himself. But who knows?

    About the last issue you raise, the (re)claiming of philosophical issues (which ones?) by sociology, it seems like a pretty complicated question to me. Bourdieu was somewhat influential in 80s policy circles, I heard somewhere. But that may have had less to do with the scientificity of his discipline and more to do with the political resonances of his findings — it’s not politically empty that bourdieuian sociology is called a “sociology of domination.” And philosophy, needless to say, has had no shortage of political influence in France, so scientificity per se definitely doesn’t seem like a necessary condition of political influence in France. But sociology and philosophy have a long and conflictual history in France — Louis Pinto has a new book out about it, actually.

  5. Bourdieu always argued that there is no such thing as disinterestedness, that the apparently disinterested defence of the common good is necessarily self-interested (see ‘Un acte désintéressé est-il possible?’ in Raisons pratiques). Moreover, he constantly emphasised the need for the sociologist to objectivise his or her own social position, and the social conditions of his or her own intellectual activity, in relation to the object of study (see the article ‘Participant Objectivation’). (Efforts at self-objectification are scattered throughout Bourdieu’s books, and I think it’s the main focus of his last book, Esquisse pour une auto-analyse, which I haven’t read.) So I think Bourdieu would probably have readily agreed that his own interests were strongly tied to sociology’s struggle for legitimacy with philosophy as well as with other disciplines, and that his attack on Sartre was part of that.

    Instead of asking whether a particular intellectual position is self-interested or disinterested, Bourdieu says we should be asking to what extent it’s shaped by a field in which the ‘rules of the game’ systematically exclude the interference of economic and political power, i.e. to what extent the field is autonomous (for the argument for autonomy, see the postscript of Les règles de l’art). So I think a Bourdieuian argument for the greater validity of a sociological understanding of society, compared to a philosophical one, could rest on the claim that sociology (or at least the type of sociology that Bourdieu advocated and practiced) can be more autonomous than philosophy, because, unlike philosophy, when sociology analyses ideas, it can include in its analysis the social conditions of the production of those ideas, as well as the social conditions of the production of the individuals who formulate and use those ideas. Only this social reflexivity, Bourdieu argues, can enable a sociologist to avoid unconsciously smuggling assumptions that are part of the object of study (e.g. concepts that belong to the taken-for-granted world-view of intellectuals, and thus of the fraction of the dominant class from which intellectuals tend to be recruited) into the study itself.

    I’d be very interested to see any evidence that Bourdieu’s sociology has been taken on board at all by anyone who holds political power anywhere. His basic argument was that systems of domination and privilege can function only because they are ‘misrecognised’, ‘euphemised’, disguised as something else (e.g. as the practice of lofty intellectual or ethical principles), and that the role of sociology is to break the spell of this misrecognition by revealing the true mechanisms of domination, thus undermining them.

    I think that philosophy’s relative lack of autonomy is precisely what has made it easy for philosophers to become TV personalities in France and to provide a discourse that serves to legitimise the social order, while sociology remains more or less completely excluded from the mainstream media.

    Thanks for pointing me to Louis Pinto’s book, it looks interesting.

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