Saturday, August 09, 2008

Raise the Red Lantern

There was a film joke in the middle of the spectacular opening ceremony of the Olympics yesterday. Zhang Yimou, China's greatest film director, directed the ceremony, which just had topper after topper. Toward the end, a giant globe, in the form of a paper lantern, was raised high in the air. It was big enough that a dozen dancers on wires could run horizontally around it in multiple layers. The globe changed colors, and had many images projected on the surface as well.

At one point, though, it was red. A giant red Chinese lantern, raised high in the air. Like Zhang Yimou's early big-time film.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Is Hierarchy Uncivil

Jeffrey Alexander reluctantly admits that some hierarchy is necessary to get the job done - but only in the uncivil spheres. The state, the economy, religious institutions, family life, and perhaps other spheres, all need functional hierarchies.

These functional hierarchies lose their begrudged legitimacy when they cross the boundary into the civil sphere. Alexander argues that the civil sphere needs to be defended from illegitimate intrusions by these hierarchies of the other spheres. Elites from the other spheres may enter the civil sphere, but only as individuals, equal with all others.

Alexander never comes out and says so, but he seems to be assuming that egalitarianism is a necessary value of the civil sphere -- in any society, not just our own. He appears to think that hierarchy is just undemocratic. He otherwise makes very sophisticated and historically rooted arguments, so it is surprising that Alexander seems to be smuggling in such a major value commitment into the very definition of the civil sphere.

I see a further problem with banning hierarchy from the civil sphere: the social movements that compete in the civil sphere need leaders. That need produces as much of a functional hierarchy as we find in any of the "uncivil" spheres.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Polluting Your Enemies

Jeffrey Alexander rests his strong program for cultural sociology on the claim that we have to take the content of culture seriously. In The Civil Sphere he delivers what he thinks are the core binary pairs of American civil-uncivil values.

Alexander argues that we use these civil/uncivil binaries in just the way that Durkheim said we use the deep opposition of sacred and profane: we conduct ritual purity struggles. In the civil sphere we find campaigns of Us versus Them, in which we clothe our position in the positive side of the binary, and try to wrap our opponents' position in the negative side. Alexander describes this as polluting your enemy.

I was put off by this phrase at first, but I quickly came to find it useful. We usually describe polluting in a more indirect or bureaucratic way. We might say that someone is polluting "the environment," or even just polluting, without specifying what. But it is more powerful and direct to say Smith pollutes Jones by connecting Jones with a bad value or an embodiment of bad values ("He's just like Hitler!").

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

We, the People - the Voice of the Civil Sphere

One of the difficulties in grasping what Jeffrey Alexander is getting at in The Civil Sphere is that he is very coy about describing what the civil sphere is. He defines it mostly by what it is not, or by criticizing previous definitions as not quite right, or by naming the other spheres that it defends its boundaries against.

The main spheres of social life that the civil sphere is distinguished from seem to be the state and the market. He also suggests that religion, family life, and perhaps race will be distinguished more fully hereafter.

The civil sphere is the place in public life in which there is a "public" -- where the People can develop a consciousness of themselves and voice their opinion. The insight of Theory Camp yesterday was that "We, the People ..." in the opening phrase of the Constitution is a powerful instance of the way in which the amorphous and ephemeral public of the civil sphere finds voice and remakes reality.

I am very interested in how Alexander is developing this idea. I may sound critical here, but really I am intrigued by the idea and am hoping he can pull it off.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Solidarity Rests on a Feeling For Ideas

The first day of Theory Camp reminded me why I like to study collaboratively with people different from me.

Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith argue that social solidarity rests on a shared commitment to basic values. The sophistication of their approach is that the values are expressed as antinomies, pairs of opposing ideas. These pairs are not quite identical relations to one another, but they are homologous relations. The work of culture is drawing analogies from what one pair would lead one to do in one situation, to what a homologous pair would lead one to do in an analogous situation. Since we have to do the work of making these analogies, and there are alternative analogies that others could draw, we are free to make different choices from other people even within our shared culture.

I was caught up short by Olivia's summary: culture rests on feelings. My first reaction was, no, culture rests on ideas. The more I thought about it, though, the more I could see that she was right. Culture does rest on ideas. But solidarity rests on our feelings of attachment to these ideas. The ideas don't automatically generate their own emotional attachment. People are not normally willing to live and die for ideas alone, but for the imagined community of people who passionately share those ideas. Moreover, as Alexander makes clear in several works, most of us are not consciously aware of what the pairs of opposing ideas are that we live by -- we just work with them as we need to.

Thank you, Olivia - Theory Camp has paid for itself already.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology

Today begins our annual intellectual feast/boot camp, Theory Camp. For the next two weeks I will be sitting down each day with a group of students to work through a big theory book. This year we will take on Jeffrey Alexander's The Civil Sphere. As a run-up to the book itself we are starting with two earlier articles that Alexander wrote with Philip Smith, "The Discourse of American Civil Society: A New Proposal for Cultural Studies" and "The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics."

Alexander is a rising star in sociology. He now teaches at Yale, though he came there after my time. He and Smith are directors of the Center for Cultural Sociology, which "provides a focus for meaning-centered analysis in the social science tradition."

Alexander and Smith draw a distinction between the sociology of culture, and a true cultural sociology. The former treats culture as the dependent variable, produced by deeper forces in the social structure. Cultural sociology, by contrast, treats culture as the cause of why people act as they do.

Alexander and Smith's beef with other attempts at cultural sociology is that they don't take meaning seriously enough. That is, they see that people act on the basis of what they believe is true and meaningful, but the sociologist takes the content of that meaning as, in Pierre Bourdieu's phrase, a "cultural arbitrary." Against several "weak programs" of cultural sociology, of which they think Bourdieu's is the best, Alexander and Smith propose a strong program.

I am very interested in a sociology that takes the content of what people believe seriously. I will report on how our Theory Camp conversations on this strong, meaning-oriented program in cultural sociology turn out.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Christian Dignitarian Movements

The other day I wrote about "rankism," the abuse of rank to insult the dignity of others. In talking to Bob Fuller, who coined the term, it struck me that combating rankism requires more than just raising the consciousness of individuals that "that's not nice." To use rank without abusing it requires new social movement to create new social types.

Christian thought is full of movements and social types of those who respect those of lower rank. The notion that all souls are equal before God is the root of democracy. The servant-leader follows the model of Christ to lead by serving, even unto death. The great saints cheerfully serve "the least of these." Somewhat more secular version of Christian ethics, such as chivalry and the Lady Bountiful -- indeed, the whole idea of gentility as a way of ennobling the warrior code -- are fruits of the "dignitarian" impulse (to use another of Fuller's terms) in Christianity.

Nietzsche thought Christianity was itself the triumph of slave morality. I think it is rather a triumph of a dignitarian morality among the powerful. Christianity encourages the self-humbling of those of high rank.