Although sociology narrowly defined as the contemporary academic science of society has its roots in the French Enlightenment, the sociological impulse in contemporary criticism across the academic disciplines might best be considered a direct descendant of the great British and American essayists of the 19th century. From the Romantics to the organicist sociology of Lewis Mumford and his circle, from Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, and John Stuart Mill to contemporary New Historicism, the sociological critic has been, with some notable exceptions, first and foremost a “public moralist.” Although empirical sociology has long held prestige in the university, more broadly influential still has been the cooptation of sociological techniques and presumptions in interdisciplinary work across the humanities and social sciences. While the constellation of race, class, and gender as the sine qua non of the contemporary sociological essay owes much of its force to a century of empirical research and synthesis, few critics have noted that the shape of social criticism in the ioth century has been deeply informed by generic constraints. The short sociological essay—with strong links to the academic article and scholarly monograph—has exerted a powerful, if subtle, influence on contemporary discussions of culture across the academic disciplines and outside the academy. In short, the social sciences, cultural criticism, and the history of literature share common historical ancestors.
Georges Bataille’s short-lived Collège de Sociologie exemplified the newly perceived link between the personal and the political in the sociological essay, which began in the 20th century to reject the common, public language of “bourgeois” social science and Arnoldian critique. Anticipating the movement away from the broad national voice of the public intellectual in the latter half of the century—a national voice on the model of the New York intellectuals, and on Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and John Stuart Mill before them—the Collège de Sociologie, whose members included sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers, began to explore cryptic themes in an increasingly autobiographical idiom. Bataille’s “sacred sociology,” intended to dissolve the borders between the self and the society in which it is embedded, suggests the essayistic tenor in 20th-century sociological criticism. The selfreflexive textuality of the essay, represented in the work of Bataille and many admirers by a juxtaposition of rhetorical registers, literary styles, and authorial voices, signifies a turn toward the irrational and unrepresentable as sources of sociological concern. In Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939 (1985), for example, a posthumous collection of his sociological essays written in the new style, Bataille writes, “It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.” In its abandonment of academic decorum in favor of frank description and painfully personal detail, and in its insistence on the fundamental absurdity of social relations, the French sociological essay continued to estrange itself
further from the critical essays of the popular press. A whole generation of Anglo- American critics—especially in the 1970s and 1980s—followed its example.
An anticipation of this new sociology was provided in 1923, when the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, a powerful influence on Georges Bataille and his generation, published his widely read “Essay on the Gift,” which distinguished between “primitive” gift economies and modern exchange economies, attributing to the former the nobility of giftgiving without reserve, and to the latter the stain of mass society and capitalist calculation. This distinction, so important to 20th-century intellectual life, with its Romantic hostility to utilitarianism, undergirded both social progressivism, such as that of Lewis Mumford and his circle, and neo-Luddite reactions against mass society, as expressed earlier in England by Thomas Carlyle and in America by John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and the other Southern agrarian essayists. In sum, the new Nietzschean trend in sociological criticism experimented with interdisciplinary forms such as collage and free writing to gain access to the “primitive” forces buried by the psychological defense mechanisms symptomatic of civilization’s discontents.
As Julia Kristeva writes of the new intellectual milieu that developed out of the shambles of post-1945 French political culture, “what has emerged in our postwar culture, after the wave of totalitarianism, is these peculiar kinds of speeches and fouissance directed against the equalizing Word… This is something ignored by the machinery of politics, including that on the left, which has been caught up in a large history that excludes the specific histories of speech, dreams and jouissance” (quoted in Bensmaïa, 1987). We might take Kristeva’s words here as describing a general intellectual crisis of authority that has haunted social criticism for the last 50 years. As the micropolitics of language displaced the “metanarrative” concerns with large-scale radical transformation—“the equalizing Word”—the sociological essay adapted itself to accommodate these new intellectual priorities. Not unlike the Modernist aesthetic experiments from which contemporary literary and social theory has drawn much of its inspiration, the form of the sociological essay began to reflect its intellectual content and political orientation. Further strengthening the link between the essay’s form and its content, the insurgency of the critical voice, gently encouraged in the North Atlantic tradition by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the British and American Romantics, urgently demanded by the trans-Atlantic slave narratives—whose authors had “written themselves into being”—and righteously declaimed by the Young Americans, the insurgent voice became a commonplace in social and cultural theory by the last quarter of the 20th century. Taking Modernist experiments as paradigms for the limits of language and representation, and resisting the reification of everyday speech into stereotype and newspaper banality—Roland Barthes’ “necrosis in language”—many postwar intellectuals began to reject the worn-out and cliche-ridden language of the public sphere, a language which had been the medium of the critical essay since the public sociologists of the 19th century gave the genre wide currency.
Setting the trend for intellectual life on both sides of the Atlantic, and temporarily rescuing the oppositional potential of the cultural avant-garde from academic complacency, French intellectuals in the last quarter of the century have argued that literary Modernism’s self-reflexive experimentalism demonstrated sophisticated, albeit highly encrypted, insights into the mechanics of language and desire—insights they would later elaborate into fully fleshed-out theories of discourse and society. In fact, we might see in the poststructural essay of social criticism only the most recent version of the self-reflexive, exploratory tradition of writing begun in the 16th century with the birth of the early modern essay. Julia Kristeva notes the link between social criticism, methodology, and the essay genre when she remarks that “when thought concedes its debt to language—and that is the case, well before structuralism, within the French essayistic tradition—the speaking subject is thrown into Infinity conceived as the power and ruse of the Word.”
The insights of 20th-century French philosophers and sociologists have been borne out by other major intellectual traditions as well. In “Der Essay als Form” (1958; “The Essay as Form”), for example, Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor W.Adorno argues that the seeming self-contradictions and paradoxes of the essay genre itself expose the reified rationality at the heart of positivistic social science. For Adorno, the essay’s rambling and unmethodical method reproduces the rational mind’s own hidden capricious rhythms, employing a dialectical language that doubles back on itself at every turn. Adorno writes: “…doubt about the unconditional priority of method was raised, in the actual process of thought, almost exclusively by the essay. It does justice to the consciousness of non-identity, without needing to say so, radically un-radical in refraining from any reduction to a principle, in accentuating the fragmentary, the partial rather than the total.” The heterodox essay genre, Adorno argues, rejects the metaphysical distinction between form and content, culture and nature, likewise abandoning the philosophical search for origins characteristic of both science and theology. Further, according to Adorno, the essay’s refusal to indulge itself in the illusion of unmediated representation characteristic of much sociology casts doubt on the spurious certainties and commonsense ideologies that reproduce the status quo. Georg Lukács provides a similar justification for the essay as an inherently critical genre in a letter to Leo Popper later published as “Über Form und Wesen des Essays” (1911; “On the Nature and Form of the Essay”): “the essay has to create from within itself all the preconditions for the effectiveness and validity of its vision. Therefore two essays can never contradict one another: each creates a different world…”
On the essay, then, traditions of social criticism as divergent as the Frankfurt School of critical theory and French poststructuralism concur. For Adorno and Lukács, as for
Kristeva and Barthes, both critical theory and the essay similarly collude in the critique of ideology as it is transmitted by aesthetic form and scholarly method. From this perspective, then, poststructuralism’s hostility to narrative closure and emphasis on difference and dissemination, combined with the Frankfurt School’s critique of instrumental reason, lends the re-emergence of the essay genre in postwar criticism an air of inevitability.
Following the war, first in France, then across the Atlantic, the linguistic turn of social critique—underscored by the Althusserian, and later, Foucauldian emphasis on the social constitution of subjectivity—further placed the sociological essay at the eye of the university’s political storm. As theorists on both sides of the Atlantic fought to prevent their own critical work from ironically coalescing into new dogma, increasingly idiosyncratic, autobiographical rhetoric made its way into academic life. The performative aspects of thought now began to vie for an intellectual respectability formerly reserved for the disembodied, system-building Enlightenment as the foundation for a new sociological scholarship; this trend would culminate in poststructuralism, postmodernism, and the New Historicism. As Roland Barthes’ own work suggests, the essay genre, which encourages critical self-reflection with its ready-made tradition of writerly texts par excellence, is perhaps the best resource for postmodern social critics obsessed with the operations of discursive power on the level of the individual.
If a certain strain of sociological criticism has encouraged essayistic self-exploration, broader political developments have also renewed the essay’s lease as the most appropriate prose forum for theoretical inquiry across the disciplines. The rise of “new social movements” in and outside the academy in the late 1960s—including civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and many others—has demanded theoretical cartographies supple enough to map out the intricate relationships between the personal and the political. From the revolution of the Modernist word and Kristevan “écriture feminine” to the materialist sociology of British cultural studies, a wide variety of “standpoint theories” of gender, race, and class have commanded academic center stage since the late 1970s. As with previous eras, the essay has proved itself the most durable and pliable testing ground for interrogating the sociological limits and boundaries of subjectivity. In perhaps the most notable recent example of aesthetic form abetting intellectual and political function, the sociological essay has accompanied the flourishing of contemporary feminism, aiding its efforts to rewrite and rework a masculine cultural tradition to suit properly feminist ends. Further, since (as philological scholars have been fond of pointing out) the essay has no “legitimate” patrilineage, the genre opens up new discursive space for the reinvention and revision of the Western tradition which continues apace in the Anglo-American academy. Citing Virginia Woolf, one of the most influential essayists for academic feminism, Rachel Blau du Plessis underscores this observation in the influential collection New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf (1981):
“Writers know their text as a form of intimacy, of personal contact, whether
conversations with the reader or with the self. Letters, journals, voices are sources for this element…[I] see ‘no reason why one should not write as one speaks, familiarly, colloquially’ expressing the porousness and non-hierarchic stances of intimate conversation in both structure and function.” The intimacy and porousness of conversation, justifiably lauded here as a principle of feminist textuality, suggests the dialogic coffeehouse of the 18th-century public sphere as readily as it does the art of liberal conversation praised by Emerson.
Finally, revising and extending the tradition of the essayistic public sphere of the 19th century, the 1990s have brought a spate of confessional, conversational, popular sociological texts such as Daughters (1994) by Gerald Early, Patricia Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991), Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons (1993), Nancy K.Miller’s Getting Personal (1991), and Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary (1989).
These narratives signal a return of the sociological critic as public intellectual. While social theory narrowly defined remains largely opaque, despite its putative links to public concerns, these autobiographical narratives dismantle the opposition between the public and the private, the personal and the political, contributing to a broader tradition of cultural critique of which social theory is one element. Continuing in the tradition of the trans-Atlantic slave narratives, the reformist sociology of Lewis Mumford and his circle, and the New Journalism of the 1960s, this most recent revival of essayism in sociological criticism may at first appear novel, but is in fact as old as the essay form itself.
Adorno, Theodor W., “The Essay as Form,” in his Notes to Literature, vol. 1, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991 (original German essay published 1958)
Bataille, Georges, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, edited and translated by Allan Stoekl, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985
Bensmaïa, Réda, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 (original French edition, 1986)
Gross, John, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: A Study of the Idiosyncratic and the Humane in Modern Literature, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York: Macmillan, 1969
Lepenies, Wolf, Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988 (original German edition, 1985)
Lukács, Georg, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” in his Soul and Form, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1974 (original German essay published 1911)
Nisbet, Robert, Sociology as an Art Form, London: Heinemann, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1976
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