Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Spectre of Sociology

Mark Featherstone

In recent weeks I watched the refugee crisis unfold across Europe and discussed possible responses with a number of academic colleagues. These discussions tended to revolve around two positions. First, what we might call the utopian response, which explains that Europe cannot stand by and watch Syrian refugees drown in the Mediterranean or suffocate in trucks on their way to what they hope will be a new life in Western Europe. Second, we encounter political realism, where Europe simply cannot afford the new arrivals, who will break the fragile infrastructure of societies already labouring under the weight of severe austerity and destroyed public services. Caught between these two alternative positions, which both express their necessity and suggest that there is no other way, it seems hard to find a resolution or way forward that could satisfy both perspectives. On the one hand, saying that Europe could take so many hundred thousand refugees seems insufficient. The images of Aylan Kurdi, whose body was washed up on a beach in Turkey, and Yousef Rajab, a two year Syrian boy living with terrible injuries after a missile strike on his home in the town of Douma, mean that anything less than unlimited responsibility seems unbearable. On the other hand, the political realists would argue that Europe is already over-populated, and that taking even a small number of refugees effectively opens ‘the floodgates’. Given that our global future is likely to be defined by the figure of the refugee taking flight from environmental catastrophe, in this view there is no alternative, but closed borders. Since we cannot save everybody, we must be realistic, understand our limitations, and save ourselves before we try to transform the lives of others at a distance. In other words, we can open camps, provide some aid and so on, but must ultimately keep these other people at arm’s length. In this respect, I would suggest the realist position ultimately presupposes a kind of apocalyptic vision of the future – the future of humanity may well be worse than the present and see a large percentage of the world’s population perish in seemingly endless wars and increasingly catastrophic environmental events. We can try to respond to this situation where possible, but ultimately we need to accept our likely catastrophic future.

In the middle of these debates, at the end of August I travelled to central Europe, the Czech Republic, and Prague for the European Sociological Association annual conference in order to present a paper, The Spectre of Sociology, where I could explain where I believe sociology must stand in relation to this key issue – how should we respond to the misery of other people? When I arrived in Prague, central Europe, and particularly the road from Hungary through Austria to Germany, had become the centre of the debate around how best to respond to the refugee crisis. While the Germans welcomed the refugees, the Hungarians began construction of a security fence across its southern border with Serbia in order to prevent the arrival of even more people. Although I had started to formulate my conference paper before the refugee crisis, because I had been asked to speak to the issue of the role of sociology today, in the end my talk became a more or less direct response to the events taking place across Europe. But why the spectre of sociology? What is the spectre of sociology?

Basically, my argument is that since World War II, when the United Nations was formed in order to respond to global problems such as the current refugee crisis, processes of globalisation, and centrally the globalisation of capitalism, have led to the emergence of a world view concerned with individualism largely hostile to notions of social responsibility, which are, of course, what sociology is all about. In order to flesh out my argument in this context, consider notions of Americanisation, which explain how American social and political thought, and more broadly American culture, have been globalised through mass media channels that brought the rugged individual into our living space. Related to this idea, we might refer to the so-called neoliberalisation of the UK in the late 1970s under Margaret Thatcher, who famously said that society does not exist, and successive Conservative governments concerned to create an individualised, aspirational, entrepreneurial nation. On the other hand, and sticking with the case of the UK, we could reflect on the failure of the Labour Party and the rise of New Labour shorn of its commitment to public ownership. Further afield, we might refer to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Deng’s transformation of China into an authoritarian, capitalist, superpower. While the American political thinker Frances Fukuyama sought to capture all of this through his idea of the end of history – which basically meant that the liberal, democratic, capitalist ideas of America and the west had won the Cold War ideological struggle against the collectivist, communist, thought of the Soviets, Chinese, and leftists more generally – the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coincidentally also spoke in Prague, wrote about the emergence of the individualised society and explored the consequences of this new form of capitalist globalisation without alternatives.

What are these consequences? Centrally, the global, individualised, society results in the failure of our sociological imagination. Since we think about ourselves in individual terms we forget that we live in a world made up of other people. We forget that we were born into this world of others and fail to see that our future is dependent on our relationships with others. Of course, we recognise our reliance on those closest to us, but even then, Bauman suggests, processes of individualisation have eroded our sense of ourselves as social beings bound to others. Under these conditions, the distant other is nowhere – they are absolutely strange and in no sense connected to me. My argument here is that the other person, and more especially the distant other, becomes a kind of spectre. They are present, and I know they are there, but I do not recognise my relationship to them, because, of course, I am an individual and I stand alone. I can choose to relate, but in the individualistic world view there is no necessity to be with others. Of course, processes of globalisation mean that this view is entirely unsustainable. Beyond the truth that humans have always been absolutely social beings, since we are born into human made worlds, live in societies sustained by others, and generate futures through our relationships with other people, globalisation means that the world is absolutely inter-connected and we cannot escape our relationship to not only those close by, but also distant others who are implicated in our lives by complex social, political, economic, and cultural networks that span the globe.

Given this situation, what I sought to argue in my paper is that the spectre of the other person who must live and die in misery haunts me by virtue of a necessary relationship that I seek to deny on the basis of my ideological individualism. While my ideological position in a world of individuals suggests that I have no responsibility for their fate, their suffering imposes a kind of infinite responsibility upon me that I cannot escape, despite my ideological resistance to this truth. This is, of course, an argument we find across the works of key thinkers, such as Levinas, Derrida, and Bauman himself, who seeks to develop a post-modern ethics in his book of the same name that would insist that we respond to a situation such as the refugee crisis and refuse the idea that it is possible to turn our backs on other people in need. Bauman’s theory, which develops Levinas’ ethics, is basically that we cannot but respond to the misery of the other when we come face to face with their pain. But the problem of the current situation remains - we must insist upon this ethical responsibility in the face of ideological individualism that makes the other a spectre and as a result transforms the very idea of a social relation, which it is, remember, impossible to see or touch, into a kind of ghostly un-connection.

Yet I think that this is precisely what we must achieve. We must insist upon social responsibility – and thus accept our infinite responsibility for other people in a case such as the current refugee crisis – because there is no alternative but to recognise our interdependent connection to other people. How can we achieve this in a historical period which is resistant to this truth, makes other people spectral, and transforms the idea of the social relation itself into a spectral un-connection? Here, I refer to the work of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and particularly his theory of telepathy. Given his status as a psychoanalyst Freud was never able to fully develop a theory of social relations, or account for what it is that connects people, because he was essentially concerned with individual psychological processes. However, when he did seek to explain the strange relation between people, which he was required to try to do because psychoanalysis is ultimately reliant on communication between analyst and analysand, he referred to the mysterious process of transference and more controversially the occult idea of telepathy. In other words, Freud imagined that people may be telepathic in order to try to account for the invisible connection between people which means that they are always more than individuals.

While Freud abandoned this occult idea in the name of making sure psychoanalysis maintained some level of scientific respectability, in my paper I sought to argue that sociology has met a similar fate to the psychoanalysis of telepathy in the individualised society. However, unlike psychoanalysis, which was able to throw out the notion of telepathic communication in order to save its commitment to scientific individualism (the analysis of what it is possible to observe), the problem of sociology in the individualised society is that there is no way for sociology to reject its ideas of sociability, social interdependence, and social responsibility because these form the very core of what sociology is about. Even though these ideas remain largely unintelligible in the global individualised society that wants to deny the truth of the social relation, my view is that sociology must embrace its ghosts – the ghosts of other people, the ghosts of the social relations that link our fates, and its own ghostly status in a knowledge economy that cannot fully recognise its truth – and become what I call spectro-sociology.

Moreover, my argument was not simply about the status of sociology itself, but rather concerned the contribution it can make to society and politics today. Where the realist, or individualised, position leaves no room for real alternatives, because it cannot easily think beyond what already is - in fact, for this very reason it tends to imagine apocalyptic futures, which is no future worthy of the name - the future spectro-sociology imagines is by definition utopian because it is different from what we have now, simply by virtue of the fact that it insists upon the need for collective action on the basis that we have no other choice. Why is there no choice? Why is this necessary? Our fates are entwined, we are interdependent, we must save each other.

Finally, we confront the realist’s objections. How can we possibly accommodate the refugee when we are labouring under the weight of austerity and so on? These people’s problems are not our problems. They need to put their own houses in order. The answers to these questions cannot be provided by rational debate, but must be felt deeply in the ethical responsibility we feel when we look into the face of the other – take the example of the toddler, Yousef Rajab – and that we must never deny because to deny these feelings is to deny our humanity. Of course, the hyper-realist response, which takes the form of a kind of phobic reaction when the other comes too close, is the racist one that is ultimately founded on a kind of desperate fear of others – the racist essentially says that ‘I am not like this other person and I cannot possibly tolerate their presence’. However, this is the road to dehumanisation and disaster: the dehumanisation of the other person, who becomes rubbish we refuse to bother about, and the dehumanisation of the self because when I have no concern for the other, I have lost my basic connection to the principle of civilization which allows me to live peacefully with others. Unfortunately for the realist, this is a catastrophic strategy. Unlike Hollywood film, and the paranoid fantasy of the individual who refuses other people, there is no sole survivor in the real world.

This is precisely why sociology is important today, and what sociology can do very practically in the classroom, in published works, in blogs, and other forms of communication – sociology must oppose this kind of phobic rejection of other people in name of the necessity of the social relation. Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are what make us human and we cannot abandon this to the darkness of a kind of Hobbesian future characterised by the war of all against all. Quite apart from the fact that nobody can stand by and watch a toddler suffer, or see a young child wash up on a beach, and reasonably maintain the realistic position, the realist position is itself, ultimately entirely unrealistic – we, humanity, will not survive a Hobbesian war of all against all.

This is what I sought to explain in my paper – sociologists must listen to ghosts and seek to teach their students to listen to ghosts and always think beyond themselves and beyond their individual circumstances because this is what the sociological imagination is about. This is where we will find a better future – in the space beyond the individual who cannot see further than the end of his own nose. Finally, repeating the late Derrida’s idea that the future belongs to ghosts, I referred to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in order to explain that sociology is now probably less about facts and more about values and centrally ethics. Like the ghosts who haunt Scrooge, remind him of his relationship to other people, and lead him to change his ways, I think spectro-sociology is really an ethical, utopian, discipline. This is why I think that there is only one real answer to the refugee crisis and it is an answer that involves ethical responsibility towards other people and recognition that this must entail a wholesale rethink of the irresponsible individualism that has supported late capitalist society since the late 1970s.

Since I presented this work in Prague, which is, in Derek Sayer’s classic work on the city, the kind of Gothic capital of the 20th century (what better place to talk about haunting), I have thought about how what I have sought to call spectro-sociology might function in the context of the classroom and developed three basic questions relating to the three sociological spectres – the Dickensian spectres of society past, present, and future.

First, the Spectre of Society Present: On the basis that hopelessness is not an option, we must conclude that the world is not necessarily, and simply, the way that it is – in other words, inequality, injustice, and misery are not simply given. If this is the case, how is it that the world is the way that it is? Keep in mind, the word ‘world’ can be replaced here by other locations or other forms of injustice and so on. Of course, the spectral dimension here resides in the basic recognition that there is something more, something beyond, the present in its apparent necessity.

Second, the Spectre of Society Past: How has the past produced the present? How did what we discussed above emerge from a historical process that could have led to alternative outcomes? On the basis of the above ghosts, the spectral dimension here emerges from a recognition of the contingency of the present in the ghosts of the past – the alternative pathways that closed down in the emergence of the present that looks necessary.

Third, the Spectre of Society Future: How could things be otherwise in the future? Given that the present is unnecessary, and that the past was a contingent process haunted by spectres of other presents, what could happen in the future? What are the spectres of the future that haunt the present and how can we conjure them into being?
In my view the above represents what it means to think sociologically, and what it means to think with ghosts, the ghosts of the great writers who have contributed to sociology understood in its broadest sense, and the ghosts of other people who are always beyond us, demand our attention, and command our responsibility. In the contemporary moment, a moment marked by narrowly defined individualism, this is the meaning of spectro-sociology, the occult discipline of utopian thinkers, that is always reaching out towards the other who is barely there.