Living Sociologies 2
Excitements: Language, Ethics and Politics.
RememberingsWhat does it mean to gather to celebrate 50 years of Sociology at Goldsmiths as we know that sociology is not a fixed object that has a discrete disciplinary history but that it has been transformed and refigured in ways that might raise for many whether it can be identified as sociology at all. There have been such different and contested ways of doing sociology that we might wonder how the fractured conversation that is sociology can be brought together at all.
If we are not simply being nostalgic we might wonder what is to be gained on reflecting on the past 50 years and tracing the different ways that doing sociology has been conceived and so what it means to remember for the future. As a department Goldsmiths sociology has often looked forward as it seeks new engagements with the social and political world and has not dwelt on its own past or really created a narrative that could help those in the present who are wondering about how we got here – what were the different journeys that were taken.
As students and staff who were in the department as students, administrative workers and teachers come together you might wonder what it is liked to come ‘come back'? When so much has changed in ourselves and in the world what does it mean to ‘come back’? What difficulties do we face in finding ourselves in a discipline and in a world that seems to have changed so much when as a student we might recognise so few of the people across different years who have turned up for the celebrations? We might remember with the gratitude the teachers who have affected us and how we still feel sustained by the memories of their teaching and this give a secure sense of the legacies of sociology as a discipline, even academics seems to be concerned about the impact they are having in the public world and on policy makers.
But as people still listening they might reflect upon their own experience as students and teachers and wonder whether teaching has remained a priority of whether, as happened with the REF culture from the 1980s, it seemed to get in the way of the research that academics were being recognised and rewarded for. There are also feelings of bitterness as students also recalled that their teachers attention seemed to lie elsewhere and that pedagogy was not really considered seriously, with some teachers seeming to treat students as if they were a nuisance with their questions and leaving students to feel that they had more important things to do with their time.
So as students gather from different times over the last five decades they might wonder about their own experiences of teaching and learning. In preparation for the celebrations they might have reflected upon what studying sociology at Goldsmiths had meant to them – what significance did it come to have in their lives and what inspirations and memories did they carry as emotional and spiritual resources in the present. Did sociology help me to sustain an oppositional self and retain a sense of the importance of at least attempting to live a just life in an unjust society?
How did I make sense of the different sociologies that were being taught by different lecturers and what were the conversations that were going on? Were their feelings of bitterness and unexpressed resentments that students picked up and felt affected by, even if they could not name them explicitly for sociology over many decades was also riven with intense rivalries and differences that can still be traced in the present.
Teachers as well as students will have very different stories to tell. For being a colleague is a different relationship from being a friend and often there are groups of colleagues that are particularly tight and define themselves through the exclusion of others. I had always felt that if you had one friend in a department then you could survive – you could create a resilient space even if you lacked the power of numbers.
So as students frame strategies of resistance so do lecturers and as I remember it, from my experience at least there was a strong macho boys culture that was particularly dominant and which felt particularly threatened by the challenges that feminism and feminist research practices were making d raised in the department this created a period that was particular difficult and there were feelings of bitterness against faculty, largely female but also supported by some of us men, who were insisting on raising these issues. There was a way that feminism was much more challenging – and in many ways more threatening – to traditional classical and interpretative traditions that were in some way joined in their masculine assumptions about the distinction between public and private spheres.
Students were not isolated from the struggles but often had a crucial part to play for in the late 60s and 1970s students tended to be very committed their intellectual studies and there were often intense arguments between students who identified with traditions of phenomenology, conversational analysis and ethnomethodology – with to render the social as a subjective construction – and those more inclined to different versions of Marx and historical materialisms.
But there were also boundary crossings with texts like SOCIOLOGY AS A SKIN TRADE by John O’Neil that brought phenomenology and Marxism into conversation with each other. There was also an exploration of micro social relationships that were keen to explore what was behind official statistics, for example of Durkheim’s SUICIDE that Jack Douglas explored in THE SOCIAL MEANING OF SUICIDE and so the cultural and individual decisions that went into deciding whether a suicide had taken place and the pressures to find an alternative reading so that people could be buried within their religious traditions or not threaten the social standing or status of families involved.
As students discovered sociology as a vital space of reflection that challenged the values of the wider culture and families they had grown up in, so they learnt to face difficult questions as they framed an awkward social theory that often drew upon a diversity of intellectual sources that were in play in sociology at the time. For many students in the early years of the department sociology provided a moral and political education and a space for self-invention that helped people become clearer and more able to voice who they wanted to be but also how they fitted into the larger social worlds.
In different ways sociology was a formative discipline that asked students to consider where they had come from and where they were going. With C.Wright Mills they were encouraged to shape their own SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION that in some ways went beyond some of the terms that he set, of appreciating how their private and personal troubles could be traced to larger structures of social relationships. There were different layers in people’s experience and different ways of relating to themselves and the world into which they had grown up.
When I eventually joined the department in 1971 I was already influenced by feminist theory and research practice and this was beginning to shift the terms in which relationships between power and experience were being framed. Feminism and early writings of gay liberation and what was called in the early days ‘the men’s movement’ offered a different sense of relationship and qualitative research that sat uneasily with the polarised discussions between phenomenology and traditions of Western Marxism as they were known at the time. I was affected by a complex range of influences that seemed to cohere around an educational practice that had to do with finding our own voice through an equal pedagogy that was concerned with listening to what students had to say for themselves and engaging with them as equal members within a learning community.
For a while there seemed to be a certain resonance between the libertarian socialist pedagogies being taught by Sally Inman and Mary Stiasny to student teachers and the influence that phenomenology was happening, partly through the writings and edited collections of Michael Young in, for example KNOWLEDGE AND CONTROL. It was partly through a renewed sociology of education that connections were being made through what was framed as the sociology of knowledge.
It was a vital space because it reflected a certain meeting with Marx’s theories of ideology and also ways these were being contested by Althusser’s readings of Marx which were beginning to circulate widely in sociology and proved to have an enduring influence on shaping the sensibilities and ways of thinking of a particular generation of sociology teachers who were to gain positions in the Academy in the 1980s and who had often learnt to read Marx through Althusser as they had learnt to read Freud through Lacan. They were part of a turn towards language, but one that was framed through semiology of Saussure and his insistence that signs were arbitrary and existed in a realm of their own, floating you might think over a social reality that could not be known in itself, as Kant had framed it.
For a while there was a shared focus, across phenomenology and libertarian socialist traditions of education that had emerged from the Student Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movement upon teaching as practice of liberation. There was the widespread influence of Paulo Freire’s ideas in THE PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED and there was also the influence of Penguin Education, particularly the small text LETTER TO A TEACHER by the school children of Barbiana, a peasant community in Southern Italy. There was a concern with the ways people learn literacy through an engagement with objects and relationships in their own lives.
There was an interest in practices of learning and ways that the learning of a language was part of a formative process that was entangled with making sense of your experience. But this was also related, possibly through feminism and sexual politics with a sense of the workings of relations of power and so with a sense of how people can be undermined – attacked – in their very sense of self, dignity and self-worth through the ways they were being treated.
These were insights that were also available in Simone Weil’s writings, particularly in her LECTURES ON PHILOSOPHY and in her 70 LETTERS that shared her experience of moving from the university where she felt entitled and had a sense of rights to working in the Renault factory on the outskirts of Paris where she felt she counted for nothing. This encouraged her to question a Kantian moral theory that held that dignity and respect were inner qualities that defined notions of liberal autonomy and were invulnerable to workings of relations of power and dominance.
In their different ways these were insights that tended to be lost in the turn towards language which in Saussure’s terms insisted that experience was discursive and that there was no experience that existed prior to language. I felt that Wittgenstein offered a different sense of the relationship between language and experience that was more attuned to these insights into the vulnerability of identities to the workings of relationships of power and domination that were being framed in the early ‘70s through the Women’s movement and Gay Liberation.
Thinking across time
How long is 50 years? When I was a child a summer seemed like endless time and a decade seemed like an eternity. In 1964 when the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths got going I was starting out as a PPE student at St.Catherine’s College, Oxford. In the same year 1964 Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island and it was to be 30 years later in 1994 when the first democratic elections with one person one vote were to take place in South Africa. Another decade later in 2014 Mandela was to die. As Mandela was to alert us – ‘May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.’
We can also recall that 50 years ago in 1964 homosexuality had yet to be decriminalised and it was not many years after Alan Turing had been compulsively chemically castrated. There has been a long struggle for gay liberation and for shifts in the age of consent, and the Sociology department was meeting to celebrate 50 years on the eve of the legalisation of gay marriage and the sexual equality of gays and lesbians, even though there is still resistance in part of the Anglican church and people cannot yet have their marriages blessed the churches they might worship in.
With the women’s movement there have been revolutionary changes since 1964 and the year I began to read Wittgenstein as a philosophy student. It took years for his homosexuality and same-sex love relationships to be explored in Ray Monk’s biography LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN and as a philosophy students we learnt that this was a personal issue that had nothing to do with the shaping of his philosophical sensibility and the nature of his philosophical explorations in his later work in the PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS.
As I was preparing the talk I wanted to give at the 50th celebrations of Sociology at Goldsmiths – We Are 50 – I was still recovering from my recent hernia operation. I had had to learn to trust enough to put myself in the hands of the surgeons and I realised that trust was an issue for me – the first article I was to publish in the collection Simon Clarke edited collectively ONE DIMENSIONAL MARXISM – was entitled ‘Trusting Ourselves’ – it was possibly because I sensed this was such an issue that I felt a need to write about it and in different ways it has remained a vital theme for me.
The surgeons had assured me that a hernia operation is routine these days and they had percentage figures that were supposed to reassure me. But if it is routine, it is never routine if you are the one being cut into for the first time and also being under a general anaesthetic. In the weeks leading up to the operation I realised that I was fearful and that it would be important to share these fears with my partner and also to engage with her fears of my dying.
But I knew that the difficulties I had with trust were not just a psychological issue that I could deal with in individual psychotherapy but that it was also social and could be traced back to my family histories – to the terrible losses that the family suffered when Hitler took power in Germany and later occupied Austria and eventually Poland at the outbreak of war. My family on both sides had been affected and it was hard to take it in, but I was part of a remnant that had survived. But these murders were not to speakable in my family and as children, we were to be protected and to learn not to ask questions. We learnt, though this was not really spelt out, that to ask questions was simply to add to the sufferings of our mother.
As children we were to be protected from these terrible histories and we were somehow to learn that they belonged to the past, but had no place in the present and so for the lives we were to live within a culture of assimilation. Rather we were to learn to live in a certain kind of hiding – for it was in becoming like everyone else – and so disavowing any sense of difference – that we were to be able to feel safe and so less fearful on the streets.
We were to learn that within a liberal moral culture that the past had to be put behind us and that we had to live as if the past did not exist. It was if the past existed as another country and existed, if at all, as a figment of our imaginations. We knew that our parents were ‘foreigners’ but we were constantly assured that, because we were born in England this made us, as a matter of logic, English. So it was that we could feel entitled to belong in ways that our parents could not. We felt that as adults, they lived in a very different world and that, as children we could not really expect to be able to learn anything from them that was relevant to our lives.
As boys we learnt that emotions were a sign of weakness and that if we wanted to make a transition from boyhood to manhood then we had to be able to deal with anything that the world threw at us. We had to learn to be independent and self-sufficient and so live out the ideals of a dominant European masculinity that we had somehow inherited. But there were also ways in which Jewish masculinities had been feminised, so that we had to make extra efforts to prove that were were man enough – the title MEN ENOUGH: Embodying Masculinities was the title of a book that I was eventually to publish in 1999.
Truth-telling and social theory
How were these painful family silences to be broken? How could you learn to speak the truth of what had happened without threatening to traumatise your children, which was the fear that our parents had? Was it not better for parents to behave as if the past had never happened and so to go through the motions of acting as if you could be a normal family. The idea of the normal and the fear of not being normal were central notions in 1950s Britain – not to be normal was one of the worst accusations that could be made and it was one that my mother constantly feared, especially after my father died in 1950 and she was left as a widow with four children under the age of five. Up to then it seemed as if we could present the family as ‘normal’ but in the 1950s a family without a father was not allowed to think of itself as anything but being abnormal. As children we learnt to deal with by pretending that nothing had happened – and so by pretending as if we still had a father or avoiding the topic if it was ever raised.
We each have our own story but it was the uneasy silences around family history that was part of the journey that I was to make from philosophy to social theory – to a sense that these subjects when well conceived, could not really be separated from each but needed to be connected with each other if they were to develop into practices of truth-telling and if they were to learn to recognise the importance of speaking truth to power. I was having to question my family’ sense of the instrumental nature of truth – whatever could help secure your survival was what was ‘truth’. Children had to be protected at all costs and even if they found themselves lost for words and somehow unable to trust not only what their parents were saying to them but somehow the world that had proved itself threatening. If being Jewish could get you murdered and you knew this as a child, even if it was not something that you could say to your parents, then being Jewish was a dangerous identity.
Within an Enlightenment vision of modernity and growing up in a period of secularisation it was easy to believe that religion was a subjective matter of individual belief. This meant that if you ceased to believe then you would somehow no longer be Jewish and you could possibly secure yourself a sense of safety, even possibly of belonging, even if this was still somewhat precarious, within a secularising world. Within a culture of assimilation you learn to pass and so to make yourself invisible in some way and this is an option that is not available to people of colour and it marks a significant difference between racism and anti-Semitism, but one that can be complex to frame and articulate. For it did not mean that anti-Semitism did not exist as we were growing up in North West London but that sometimes it was overt and at other times it could be difficult to identify and name it as the racism that it was.
But what was clear was that in the sociology of race and ethnicities that was still largely framed through the optic of class, there was an uneasy silence in relation to anti-Semitism till the late 1980s when the Holocaust became an object of concern within sociology. But up to this moment, there was an unsettling and ambivalent silence in the post-war years which was striking giving how recent were the events of mass murder and genocide of European Jewry.
So not only was there a silence that was difficult to break within familial and community spaces but within the education I was receiving at school and later at university, it was as if the Holocaust – the Shoah – had not really happened and that if it was acknowledge historically it was as an aberration that did not provoke an intellectual and moral crisis as happening in the wake of the terrible human losses of the First World War. If there was a political consciousness and determination in 1945 that the class structures of Britain had to radically challenged with the invention of the Welfare State, so that the promises that had been made after the First World War were not to be broken yet again, there was not the intellectual and cultural crisis that called for a transformation in ways of thinking, teaching and learning.
We grew up into the post-war world with a sense that racial and ethnic differences were to be hidden when they were not explicitly shamed. We learnt to fear signs of our own difference and did our best to conceal them from view as we developed strategies for living in hiding, without really appreciating that we were doing so. At some level we were encouraged into performative identities and so with not really learning – or valuing – what it means to be more truthful with oneself. Rather we learnt to bury whatever fears and anxieties that we carried so that we could become like everyone else. We were quick to withdraw at the slightest signs of rejection and we learnt to speak in ways that were circumspect and did not draw too much attention to ourselves.
At the time I was at school I knew that my parents were foreign but I did not really think of them as refugees – possibly because the family was middle-class and we owned the house we lived in. At some level I knew that it was through education that I would learn to breath more easily and find more freedom in my life. I was looking for more truth and as a young teenager sought out books on Freud in the local library. But I realised that there was an abiding tension between school knowledge that I had to learn to master and control as a way of proving myself to the teachers and so succeed individually, and knowledge as a form of truth-telling that I was searching Freud for. I knew that there were different forms of knowledge and different ways of knowing and being in the world that could not be easily reconciled.
This was clear in the intensity of political discussions around nuclear disarmament and the sense that the world could be destroyed at any moment. In some way it was through thinking about nuclear destruction that I was indirectly facing that catastrophe of the Holocaust – the Shoah. I carried this tension in my naming as I was named ‘Victor’ as a way of making a claim to belong to Britain as a space of refuge at the same moment that there had been the Holocaust that had destroyed most people on both sides of my family.
At some level this made me uneasy with a Durkheimian focus upon normalisation and his contrast between the normal and the pathological since the aspiration to being normal and the intense fear of being regarded as abnormal had a profound impact on my mother’s generation. She had carried with her from Vienna the idea that you are judged and evaluated by appearances and that it is vital to keep up appearances whatever the personal cost and regardless of psychic effort this involved. But at the same time I cannot register when I expected that knowledge should be able to illuminate the everyday life that you are living.
Was this an insight that was developed in the wake of Situationist writing after May ’68? This helped question ideas about the commodification of knowledge and Paulo Freire’s notion of banking education that imagined knowledge to be stored in notes ready to be regurgitated at times of examinations. I think there was also the influence of Ronald Laing and ideas of anti-psychiatry that helped to question the authority of psychiatric knowledge and ways it implicitly imagined its patients.
There was something important that was captured in the humanistic critiques of psychiatric knowledge that we have lost touch with in the turn towards biological accounts of mental illness and neurological explanations. In part this had to do with ways that human beings were being objectified as objects of scientific knowledge. This became difficult to appreciate with the turn towards post-structuralisms and its defining critiques of humanism that too easily dismissed the value of anti-psychiatry as an essentialist and humanist discourse. But this was often to miss the point of the critique as well as of the knowledge claims that were being made.
As a postgraduate student I was confronting these diverse critical traditions at the same time as the early challenges of the women’s movement for men to consider the ways that dominant masculinities
were playing a vital part in shaping forms of scientific knowledge and expertise. There were ways that the 17th C Scientific Revolution was implicated in shaping visions of progress as the control and domination of nature. Bacon talked about the need to rape nature, regarded as feminine, so that she would yield up her secrets. Rape metaphors have a powerful history and they often serve to legitimate forms of masculine power and its claims to make scientific knowledge in its own image.
We learnt to be wary of many of the claims of science and to question its visions of evidence, expertise and authority. But these critiques were often difficult to develop and sustain as social theory was refigured within an Althusserian framing that sought to present Marxism as a science of history and politics. As a science it defined itself through its own forms of exclusion and if it questioned certain forms of positivism, it committed itself to a form of scientism that has proved enduring in its fear of the personal and the emotional. Post-structuralism sought to make its peace with feminism, but there was often a heavy price to pay.
The influence of the student movement and the activist politics I was involved in, first in Boston and later with the Big Flame group in the East End of London had meant that I had learnt to distrust many claims to knowledge and expertise. We had exposed the ways that universities were implicated in their science and technology departments but also more widely in sustaining the American efforts in Vietnam. As students we had become unruly subjects who were influenced by social movements that were happening in the wider world that called upon us to transform our individual lives and ways of relating as part of the political imaginations we were helping to shape. We were to become the revolution that we wanted to see. We were often naïve about the forces of power that we were up against within a capitalist patriarchy but we recognised the need to shape counter-cultures as forms of resistance. We knew that if we were going to be able to sustain thinking differently then we were going to have live differently and shape relationships that could nourish and support us in our resistant identities.
The influence of these diverse experiences and a sense of how much is learning through engaging in activist work meant that I never had a strong sense of discipline – of sociology as a discipline that I belonged too and wanted to contribute too. This was to come later but I was always interested in thinking across the boundaries of theory and practice, knowledge and experience and it was important for me to keep these categories open and in playful conversation with each other. But there was also the impact of my family histories that meant that I felt easier thinking from the margins. This also helped me recognise that sociology as a living sociology could only thrive if it was in conversation with the contemporary world and so shaping different questions and concerns with which to engage the past.
I also recognised how much I had learnt from the experiments in living differently and the political work that I had been engaged with. I recognised that I needed to have a different class experience and that it was not enough to read about realities of class or race or gender or sexuality but that I had to shape different modes of engagement. This was also the importance of men’s consciousness-raising groups that I had been involved in since 1970 and the different groups that also included men with different class backgrounds and sexual orientations.
In their different ways diverse social movements were already engaged in a process of de-centering European modernities for they were challenging the ways that a dominant white Christian masculinity was shaping a European modernity in its own image. As this dominant masculinity could alone take its reason for granted so it was the bearer of a modernity, science and progress that colonised others were deemed to lack. They were to be excluded from the circle of knowledge, either because they were colonised others, women or people of colour who were deemed to be closer to nature. They were deemed to be, like children, part of nature and so not being able to reason for themselves or assured of having minds of their own.
Rather it was only through accepting subordination to their European colonisers that they could hope to make a transition from nature to culture, from tradition to modernity, from childhood to adulthood. In their different ways social movements were challenging the terms of authority, power and legitimation of a dominant white heterosexual masculinity and so claiming to widen the vision of what it means to be human.
Ever since I was in Boston in 1970s and read George Jackson’s PRISON LETTERS and some of Eldridge Cleaver’s SOUL ON ICE, I felt there was a certain resonance between thinking black and thinking Jewish that had to do with the traumatic resonances of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade and the lived slaveries in the Nazi concentration camps. I do not know whether I would have been able to articulate the connections and still feel a little uneasy, but there were ways that Christianity had not only legitimated slavery and colonial oppression over centuries but also ways that long histories of Christian anti-Semitism had defined Jews as other – as engaged in the work of the devil.
At some level my work has always been motivated by a suspicion that European modernities for all their talk of historical progress, freedom, equality and justice have been able to treat others too easily as less than human. I was aware of the long silence in sociology when it came to the centuries of the Atlantic Slave trade and was struck by the difficulties of engaging with the Holocaust – the Shoah. It was a silence that was not generally broken until the publication of Zygmunt Bauman's MODERNITY AND THE HOLOCAUST and the conclusion to my MORAL LIMITS OF MODERNITY: Love, Inequality and Oppression and later my SHADOWS OF THE SHOAH.
Philosophy and social theory
When I came to first teach Sociology in 1971 there was a taken for granted universalism even if this was figured differently within different theoretical traditions. There was a sense of social theory as an impersonal and detached discourse even when it was being framed through phenomenology. There was a shared assumption that the personal was a form of self-indulgence within a secularised Protestant culture and that to learn to think sociologically involved somehow leaving yourself behind as soon as you entered the lecture theatre.
I remember later giving first year lectures and attempting to make this assumption conscious because it assumed that nothing that students would learn would really help them understand their own experience in the world. This was an assumption that they had learnt at school, though obviously it was challenged in different ways through doing sociology. Students were anxious that drawing on their subjective experience would somehow introduce bias into their thinking that was aspiring to be objective, even scientific.
I felt a tension between the disciplinary assumptions of sociology that insisted that student should eradicate any mention of ‘I’ while at the same time asking them not simply to reproduce what they have read in books but to attempt to think creatively for themselves. This continued to feel like a double-bind and I was always aware of how pervasive an assumption that it seemed to remain across the boundaries of different theoretical traditions. It seemed to indicate a certain tension between emerging feminist theory and research practices that acknowledged that ‘the personal is political’ in ways that valued the personal as a source of knowledge while making connections with structured relations of power and violence.
This was a way in which feminism seemed to threaten disciplinary traditions within sociology and call for a radically transformed research practice in which researchers were not simply mirroring their research subjects or recording their conversations to be analysed later, but were themselves implicated in a research encounter in which they needed to attend to what was also coming up for them personally within the research process. This tended to acknowledge the importance of ethnography as a research practice that was most in harmony with feminist research methods.
Teaching at Goldsmiths in the early 1970s in an age before computers and mobile phones and when we were mainly still writing by hand rather than on typewriters, there was less technology that was mediating relationships between teaching and learning. For a while before the students moved into the staff meeting and organised an open forum to organise the department more transparently as a community of teachers and students, there was an intense intellectual struggle with ideas between different groups of students. There was also a certain resonance between the egalitarian and democratic impulses within interpretative traditions that treat students as equal members of a knowledge community who as members were sharing in the production of knowledge and socialist and libertarian ideas of education.
This was to change after the open forum when phenomenology tended to become a more elite practice with some people having insights that students largely lacked. The group that organised itself around NEW DIRECTIONS IN SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY, namely Paul Filmer, Michael Philipson, David Silverman and Dave Walsh was also breaking up with David Silverman becoming more concerned with developing qualitative methods drawing on Sachs and conversational analysis to do empirical research on diverse medical encounters.
With NEW DIRECTIONS there had been a shared interest in phenomenology as flowing out of an interpretative tradition curated by Weber and Schutz and there was also an engagement with conversational analysis and with the ethnomethodological work being developed by Garfinkel at UCLA. Students were encouraged to use themselves in experiments, for example, going home and acting as if you are stranger in your own family and watching for the responses of others, as well as your own reflexivity.
This framed a certain level of self-awareness within a wider notion that ‘reality’ existed as a subjective construction and that individuals created their own sense of reality through their individual ideas, beliefs and values. This is framing it crudely, but as I recall tensions were raised around issues of workings of power that interpretative traditions found difficult to engage with and so increasingly were marginalized in intense discussions between feminisms and different forms of Marxism that were circulating.
Feminist insights into ways that people can be undermined in their very sense of self were also helping to shape work I was doing that eventually became KANT, RESPECT AND INJUSTICE: The Limits of Liberal Moral Theory. I was exploring ways that people could be attacked in their very sense of self and so in their existence as autonomous rational moral selves not only in their reason and thinking, but also through the disdain of their emotions, feelings and desires. In this I was also shifting my reading of Wittgenstein and his understanding of the tensions between language and experienced that had seemed to resonate for with me vital insights in feminism and sexual politics.
This was an insight developed through reading Simone Weil and I was impressed with the resonance that Peter Winch had identified between Weil and Wittgenstein in relation to their understanding of language and experience that was to be developed in his A JUST BALANCE. But Weil seemed to also have a grasp of the workings of relations of power and ways they could threaten and undermine different aspects of experience and a sense of self-worth and self-value. I was impressed with certain resonances with Gramsci’s PRISON NOTEBOOKS that also explored relationships between power and knowledge in ways that went beyond the discursive terms framed by Foucault.
Reading Wittgenstein and social theory
As a philosophy student it was the encounter with Wittgenstein’s later philosophy that seemed to capture my attention – somehowit seemed to promisea way of positioning myself not only in relation to myself but also in relation to the wider world. It was through Wittgenstein’s sense that meanings are established in contexts of use and that concepts can so easily become abstracted unless we return them to the childhood contexts and relationships in which we first learn them. This is a humanising practice that allows us to become more human and this explains the deep sympathy that Wittgenstein had for Freud even though he questioned the too exclusive focus upon sexuality and its repression within European modernities
There was a shared sense with Wittgenstein and Freud that we need to ground ourselves through connecting in a different way with the languages that we use. As we learnt to engage with the contexts in which we first learn the use of certain conceptswe are encouraged to engage with social relationships and what Wittgenstein calls forms of life within which we can make sense of the concepts and language we are using.
I was impressed with a need for grounding because it seemed that by the late 1970s the phenomenological writing at Goldsmiths -which David Silverman separated from in his turn towards the empirical and everyday practices of conversational analysis did seem to become very abstracted in its language and difficult for students to engage with. There was a distrust of the empirical and so an absence of grounding that could have been helpful if this abstracted language was brought into relationship with the contemporary world. At some level there was a distrust of the social as a category that seemed to dissolve into a generalised concern with meaning and language. This was marked with the leaving of Michael Philipson who had decided to devote himself full time to artistic practice. In some way you could say that engagements with literature and artistic practice were a potential strength of the social theory, but it was difficult to ground these interests in engagements with the contemporary world.
There was a certain interest in Wittgenstein but there was always a tendency to frame him as a philosopher of language in ways that assumed the very autonomy of language that he had sought to question in his later philosophy. He was continually moved to reconnect language with contexts of use and so with the social relationships that defined a form of life. He appreciated that what we say matters, but that in different contexts it can matter in different ways and sometimes it is more important than at other times and spaces. But he also provided a challenge to Saussure’s notion of the arbitrariness of the signifier and his idea that meanings are established through differences that became so influential in the turn towards post-structuralism and in its defining of its anti-humanism.
What was striking for me was Wittgenstein’s insistence on tensions between language and experience and so his challenge to Saussure’s linguistics that tended to support the notion that experience is discursive and there is no experience that is not discursively framed. Wittgenstein had a sense that we could just as easily get lost in our language as that we could use language to bring us into a deeper connection with ourselves. There was an abiding tendency towards teachers becoming more abstract in their language as they teach students which, in itself, is a sign of anxiety and insecurity. When they loose connection with their class, they often take refuge in fearful abstractions. Often they register that they have lost contact with their class but they cannot find their way back and will rarely acknowledge that they have lost themselves in the process and might have to start the lecture all over again.
In the turn towards post-stucturalism feminism came to be refigured and inevitably it became difficult to translate certain insights that 70s feminisms had cherished. The vital feminist insight into tensions between language and experience had to be displaced as it was accepted that experience was a discursive category. There were enormous gains associated with reading cultural texts through linguistic codes within different media and the influence of Barthe’s work opened up a whole range of cultural languages, including advertisements that could be read as texts. Distinctions between high and low culture were challenged within the work of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies.
But there were also certain uneasy tensions with question feminism, queer theory and studies around race and ethnicities were beginning to raise and the resistance they sometimes showed in being framed within the terms of prevailing post-structuralist theories. There was a certain level of detachment that could show itself in a disdain for the personal and the emotional. There was also a certain withdrawal from activist political work on the part of some, but life was difficult in the academy and post-structuralisms seemed to offer a certain kind of cover but also ways of raising new questions about the fractured and fragmentary nature of identities.
Social theory and social movements
A vital way that feminism challenged traditional forms of social theory was in its recognition that power moves across the boundaries of the personal and political but also that suffering is real when it takes places in the private and personal sphere as much as when it takes place in the public sphere. When we talk about emotional abuse we are trying to make something visible that cannot easily be talked about and rendered visible. Something similar was happening in the 1970s with questions of sexual violence, sexual harassment and abuse. These were not only intellectual issues but they were also practices that could thrive in the unequal power relations between lecturers and students.
Even though teachers might want to disavow the power they had in relation to students, it became clear in the 1980s that questions of sexual abuse and sexual harassment were issues that universities had to face and develop procedures for. These were vital questions in the sociology department that again served to divide staff into different factions. It was not an easy time but I have always felt that if you have one other person you can genuinely relate to as a friend you can shape forms of resistance and survive in your integrity. There was an awareness that fundamental questions were being raised by social movements that not only challenged traditional forms of social theory that were still tacitly set within the secularised Christian universal terms of an Enlightenment modernity but also the relationships of power between teachers and students and practices of everyday pedagogy.
Feminism and sexual politics challenged the patriarchal assumptions of academic hierarchies and raised questions about the absence of women and people of colour within the academy. I recall how questions of gender, race and sexuality were being argued for as central concerns within the core courses in social theory rather than for them to be marginalized in particular options students might take. There was a time when I was challenged by teachers in the department who felt that European Enlightenment modernity should be taught in traditional terms as a narrative of reason, science and progress and that issues of race, gender, sexuality and disability should not be referred to.
It was felt that these critiques needed to come later while some of us insisted that they could not be separated out but were part of the dominant narrative. I also felt that assumptions that defined progress as the control and domination of nature needed also to be critically addressed since it sustained notions of Europe as the bearer of reason, science and progress and framed non-European others as ‘backward’ and as only able to make a transition from nature to culture, from tradition to modernity through accepting subordination to their European colonial masters.
With Paul Gilroy’s THE BLACK ATLANTIC and with work done by many other scholars, including Les Back, Brett St-Louis and Brian Alleyne in the sociology department at Goldsmiths around issues of race and ethnicity along with feminist and queer scholars the strength of these critiques became undeniable and Goldsmith’s sociology became known for the critical nature of our courses in social theory. We had developed social theory courses across the different years that engaged with questions of race, gender, sexuality and able-bodiedness and we have learnt in different ways to de-centre European modernities and their legitimations for colonial rule. I was particularly concerned to trace connections with dominant white, Christian, heterosexual masculinities and wrote UNREASONABLE MEN: Masculinity and Social Theory as a text that would render visible the interconnections between European white masculinities and different traditions of social and political theory.
I was also concerned to sustain a critical relationship with post-structuralisms that seemed in their own ways to tacitly sustain the secular universalism of a European modernity through their turn towards language as discourse being framed through a distinction between nature and culture that rendered nature as given, inert and unable to voice itself as it was deemed to be a cultural construction. I had been critical of Althussers sharp distinction between an earlier humanist Marx who supposedly relied upon a given conception of human nature and a supposedly non-humanist Marx who was developing a science of history and politics in his later writings.
This led to many unhelpful readings of traditions of Western Marxism, particularly of Gramsci Lukacs and the Frankfurt School. This was what motivated me to write my own book on Marx and Marxism – RECOVERING THE SELF: Morality and Social Theory. Though I was supportive of Stuart Hall’s activism there seemed to be a tension between his Althusserian readings of Gramsci and some of the work in relation to gender and race that was emerging from research groups at the Birmingham Centre of Cultural Studies. As Hall was to acknowledge much later in a dialogue with Les Back there was a time that he got lost in the language of French theory. His work on race and ethnic identities that spoke to so many seemed to emerge from a different source.
There was a danger that post-structuralism could not sustain a central insight of the Frankfurt School that Gramsci also recognised that in an unjust society it is difficult to think justly or well. That there is a temptation to think generally, abstractly and universally about human beings in general because it is difficult to engage with structural inequalities and injustices. This explains Horkheimer’s insistence that what makes Critical Theory critical – in contrast to traditional forms of social theory, including phenomenology and interpretative traditions, was its engagement with social justice. But again the terms of social justice needed to revisioned with the challenges of feminism to capitalist patriarchies and queer scholarship to structures of homophobia and sexual violence.
Reading Marx after social politics
Even though since the global financial crisis in 2008 there has been a return to Marx and an engagement with issues of class that had been displaced for many years within sociology, what was somewhat surprising is that students were reading Marx as if he did not have to be read differently because of the influence of feminisms and queer politics. There was a way that Marx counted as ‘real’ the sufferings that take place within the public sphere of work and politics and that these sufferings could be forms of injustice but tended to minimise sufferings within the private and personal sphere as subjective and personal. This was a distinction that could no longer be sustained but the strength of an Althusserian inheritance and the ways it proved aeasy to redescribe yourself as Foucauldian – particularly the Focucault of governmentality – worked to displace and in some ways, silence vital feminist insights.
There seemed to be a shared disdain for the personal and emotional until Foucault shifted in his writing towards issues of ethics and subjectivities. Possibly this made it easier for social and cultural theorists to turn towards affect in the late 1990s but this was framed in ways that was still uneasy about the personal and the emotional. These were framed as concerns of the inner life of individual bodies while affect was imagined as circulating between and across bodies so refusing a sense of interiority.
But what has proved enduring in sociology has been its ability to dialogue with emergent social movements and this has been strengthened in turns towards bodies and multi-sensory sociologies. There has still been a certain reluctance to engage with the personal and cultural memories, sometimes traumatic, that bodies carry from the past into the present. For about forty years sociology has been more concerned with space and spatialisation and has tended to imagine sociality in spatial terms, itself an aspect of an Althusserian legacy.
Even though people have consciously moved away from theories of discourse and representations and there is a sense that ideas of science as culture have been exhausted, there is still an unwillingness to engage critically with the pervasive influence across generations of an Althusserian inheritance. This has allowed people to position themselves impersonally as social researchers somewhat reluctant to explore their personal investments in their research projects but also to engage with personal issues that might return as blocks at particular stages in the research process.
But there are different resources that sociology carries that it can return too – the recent return to 70s feminism and ideas of a feminist research practice shows a willingness to engage with past feminisms and to reflect upon how peoples thinking and feeling have been shaped by the moments at which they entered a discipline. The strength of sociology as a contemporary discipline is that it has become, at least at Goldsmiths, an open and porous discipline that is constantly involved in a conversation with what is happening in the world. It has learnt to question what Beck has called its methodological nationalism as it has sought to reflect the effects of globalisation and the interrelation between the global and the local.
Coming together to celebrate 50 years of Goldsmiths Sociology on the eve of the first gay marriages in the UK shows how much has changed since the founding of the department in 1964 when homosexuality was still criminalized. With feminism this has been a revolutionary transformation even though there have been resistances and regressions. But capitalism has been globalised rather than undone and its neoliberalism forms have stretched into the reorganisation of the university threatening its existence as an open, critical space of dialogue and conversation. The conditions of teaching and learning have been transformed since the early 1970s when we used to see students in pairs for an hour every fortnight.
We were able to know our students well and there was an ethic of care and concern for their intellectual development as they grow into themselves. In the last few years with the universities becoming dependent on student fees, there has been a return to teaching as a valued activity that many academics have learnt to appreciate, while at the same time they are still mainly being evaluated and assessed according to their research outputs. Often students want more time and attention from their teachers and are wary of the metrics in which ‘student experience’ is supposedly being measured.
There has been a welcome return of feminisms and a growth of student activism that has meant that students are again involved in changing the world, not simply interpreting it or seeking their own individual success and ambitions. Students are learning to position themselves in the world differently and are framing ethical lives that they can believe in – learning how to develop awkward theory that helps them live more just lives in an unjust world. The 1970s were a time of revolutionary hopes and there were many disappointments that followed that culminated in the long years of Thatcherism that Stuart Hall did so much to help us understand and organise against.
But what was sustained from the 70s was a concern with equality and respect – a sense that people should be listened too with care and love and should not be ignored or disrespected. As Simone Weil understood this is to do an injustice to people and often if people are abused at a young age – emotionally, physically or sexually – we have learnt that they carry these often invisible hurts for many years making it so much harder to engage in intimate, equal and loving relationships. Some people only know how to get attention through acting abusively or violently.
With Simone Weil we need to think about forms of injustice as a central concern for social, cultural and political theory. But, as she recognised we also need to think about inequalities of power, say in nursing homes or homes for people with learning difficulties that make it so easy for those in power to abuse, ridicule and offend. We need to develop institutions that are open and transparent but not simply in their modes of s regulation but in the more equal relationships of accountability they insist on. At this level there is an uncertain continuity with the dreams of an earlier time that was concerned with the everyday relationships of power and control and with the quality of everyday experience and relationships. Of course there are issues about how these aspirations are to be understood and there is a need to critically assess different historical and cultural histories and experience.
But Britain in 2014 is a very different multicultural and multi-faith world than it was when Sociology at Goldsmiths was conceived in 1964. I do not know what birth it had and I find it hard to acknowledge that I have been part of the department for more than 40 of its 50 years. Often it was a difficult place to be in with different factions pulling in different directions and it was not always place I felt I could breath easily in. But I developed certain survival strategies and being in London meant that I had many friends I could depend upon and the values I lived in my teaching could be affirmed within these different counter-cultures.
I am not nostalgic about the past and also recognise that the social movements were often marred by moralism and unrealistic expectations and analysis of the forces we were up against to make change. But through the support also of psychotherapy we explored different ways of inhabiting the world and relating to ourselves and others. We sought a deeper relationship with ourselves and with others, even though notions of depth became difficult sustain in the turn towards postmodernism that attended to the surface and to the realm of appearances.
In so many ways sociology as a discipline is more engaged both theoretically and empirically with the world and able to think and research across different scales. The present insists on thinking across theory and research and refuses to separate theory out as an autonomous concern. Though this can sometimes make it hard to take time to read philosophical and theoretical texts, there is also something to be gained in the complex interrelations that are explored across the boundaries of theory and research, not only in STS – social studies of science and technology- that have seemed to have assumed a more central position with new technologies, techno-sciences and digital sociologies. There is a greater complexity in engagements within a globalised world but there is also a willingness to explore what it means to become human within these very different times of austerity when the planet is being threatened by global warming. We also need to sustain a sense of the personal and the emotional if we are to engage with lived experience and frame living sociologies.
We also need to create spaces of renewal and support within the academy that can contest neo-liberalism and the metrics that are seeking to shape intellectual life. Rather than giving into fear and anxiety, we need to open up a discussion of what good authority looks like and feels like within a good department. Rather than people feeling haunted by a sense that whatever they do, it is not enough and that they could have done more, achieved more, increased the impacts of their research, people need to be able to trust their colleagues as they counter competitive pressures that can be so undermining.
This can be particularly difficult for young academics who need time to develop their project beyond their phds. This was a time that we had and I feel that the time we had when we did not need to focus upon publication helped to form us as researchers for the long term. Within formative sociologies we need also to address long bodies – the different stages that people are in in their careers and the different kinds of support they need to become intellectually alive and creative, not only for the next REF but for the longer term as they establish themselves as creative intellectuals who are engaged with the world.
Emeritus Professor Victor Jeleniewski Seidler