Today, March 6th 2014, is World Book Day. To give it notice some, the sociologists’ here at Canterbury Christ Church have chosen a book that has inspired their sociological imagination and excited their research agendas, intellectual outlook as well as their passion for prose. Sociologists are writers and, like all people, what they learn in prose they respond to what they learn with what they put into in their lives and work. Without these books, no sociology and sociologists would result.
The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell
The lasting cry of the pains of understanding oppression
Orwell lived and laboured for his writing. From his work Down and Out in Paris and London to The Road to Wigan Pier, he suffered for his craft and with it developed a gaze and richness of description in his writing that has yet to be surpassed. Only going through the hardships he endured could he depict the plight of others so richly and empathetically:
“At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”
This snap-shot of Orwell’s classic is one of many segments in the book which mobilise not only the ‘snap-shot’ sociological imagination but pulls together all the many different strands of oppression in different parts of the world, felt by different people, and endured in different times. The ‘snap-shot’ frozen by Orwell’s gaze from a train as he passed row upon row of downtrodden, weary, cold and damp houses, with people making their way in the world, provides a lasting, universal cry for understanding struggle, pain, hardship, and grief.
To do this requires more than sociological navel gazing. It demands a personal ethical shift, a deeper sense of commitment, for even in its freeze-frame state, it performs an act of dynamic fluidity – it creates a counter gaze in which one sees multitudes of the oppressed going about their daily business, living, suffering, working, dreaming, and creating social and cultural life in circumstances many of us will never have to experience.
Wedlocked Women by Lee Comer (1974)
The age of weddings
‘The wedding is the culmination of all that the girl has been conditioned to believe about herself. She hands over her identity to her husband in exchange for a small portion of his, she takes his name and promises to love, honour and obey and she listens while the vicar pronounces them, not ‘husband and wife’, not ‘man and woman’ but ‘man and wife’ (Comer, 1974: 55).
A lot has changed since 1974, right? First of all, not many people still ask to be pronounced ‘man and wife’ at the end of the wedding ceremony (with some notable exceptions in fiercely Christian ceremonies). And surely girls have more to aspire to now than weddings when growing up? Women have made huge advances in the workplace (although the 15% pay gap remains), politics (although still only 22% of MPs are women), family life (although women, admittedly still take on the majority of the housework/caring responsibilities), and so on. Women are undeniably in a better position within British society than they were 40 years ago. And yet. This year it is 40 years since Comer’s book was published. How far have we really come?
Girls, weddings, popular culture
Weddings are everywhere; over the last decade we have been witness to a growing trend in television programmes that think the most interesting thing in the world is showing us the trials and tribulations of self-involved, entirely dislikeable men and women on the brink of undertaking an archaic social ritual. If girls no longer pretend to walk down the aisle with a pillow case over their heads (did boys ever do this?), they are now stomping around trying to emulate the subjects of Don’t Tell the Bride or Bridezilla or My Big Fat Gyspy Wedding or Four Weddings or… the list continues. While there may be nothing wrong with these shows in and of themselves, it is interesting from a sociological perspective, and worrying from a feminist perspective to see the messages and discourses that are being maintained and perpetuated through these cultural artefacts. For example, Don’t Tell the Bride is a show where a seemingly hopeless and hapless young man attempts to organise and plan an entire wedding all by himself (with the help of a usually equally hopeless ‘mate’). The whole set-up of this show then implies that the norm is that the woman is the one who takes on this task in a unilateral way. The programme misrepresents men generally as incapable but loveable chaps who pull it out of the bag in the end and- to everyone’s surprise- they always turn out to be actually capable of booking a venue and buying a dress. The programme misrepresents women generally as controlling, spoiled and distrustful of their male partners who view the wedding day as just about them and the dress as the biggest decision of their lives. Let’s not even start on the heteronormativity of it all. While there may be some room for alternative or queer readings of these shows, the extent to which they buy into traditional gender stereotypes is concerning.
Names and identity
Because these notions of traditional femininity and masculinity are not just words, discourses and beliefs- they translate into real behaviours and real consequences. One example: how many women still change their surname to their husband’s when they get married? The vast majority. And why? Because of tradition, because of creating a unified, family identity, and because girls and women grow up expecting to change their names. Women did this 40 years ago and women do this still now, almost in the same numbers: ‘mindless acceptance of male superiority and compromise of the female identity in the service of the husband’s are the formulas for the sound marriage’ (Comer, 1974: 56). In terms of identity, then, either women always have a slightly more fragmented sense of identity (assuming a surname signifies even a small part of one’s identity), or they never associate their name with their sense of self. Given women’s responses to the question of names and family, however, and the affirmation that a shared name denotes a unified identity, names and naming clearly does play a significant part in our identity formation. And it is almost always women giving up their names in favour of their male partner’s name. Even accepting the idea that a shared name creates a shared family identity, why is this name almost always that of the male partner? Maybe because we lack the social scripts that make it acceptable and ‘normal’ for it to occur the other way around. Women then seem very willing to give up at least this aspect of their identity, even today, in the name of love, romance, femininity.
Love and compulsory coupledom
What else do men and women compromise in the name of ‘love’? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I don’t believe in love, on the contrary I am a firm believer in the power of the discourse of love; I see this operating every moment of every day. My problem is with our uncritical acceptance of the nature and power of ‘love’ as a dominant discourse: ‘so that sex is legitimized, so that attraction and warmth and affection can be called “love”, which can then be parcelled into marriage and one woman and one man come to symbolise an institution’ (Comer, 1974: 220 emphasis in original). The idea that ‘love’ is the legitimating ideology for marriage (Jackson, 1993), that love is all you need, that if you love someone you should marry them, has not diminished but rather grown. While previously it may have been acknowledged that there were some practical and financial benefits to tying two people together, contractually, for life, that discourse is entirely rejected now on the basis that it is not ‘romantic’ and therefore is in conflict with notions of marriage and love (Carter, 2010). Does this mean, then that marriage and love are largely ‘feminine’ notions that emphasise irrationality and emotionality? This would help explain the cultural prevalence of women’s obsession with weddings, but more than this, if marriage, love and weddings are ‘feminine’, they are necessarily at odds with ‘masculinity’ and alienating notions for maleness. It is not that women are obsessed with weddings per se, it is that the whole femininity discourse is in line with all that weddings stand for and therefore, in order to be a woman, as defined by our culture, you are a wedding aficionado. The opposite, therefore, must apply to men.
There is much in our Western world now that encourages, nay, promotes the notion of coupledom and of love. If you don’t have a good enough reason to leave an apparently perfectly good relationship, you are a highly questionable individual. Because, ultimately, coupledom is what we all strive for on a daily basis. It remains the ultimate goal for women, and is increasingly the same for men (or always has been?). In every corner of life you are confronted with perfect couple happiness; here are some examples: every programme about weddings that is now on TV; every romantic comedy film at the cinema; political discourses promoting couple relationships (especially marriage); every advert ever. Not only does this image of perfect coupleness hide dangers within couple relationships, it pathologises those who are not coupled and especially those who have no desire to be coupled. Rather than single women being labelled as ‘spinsters’, unable to attract a desirable man as was the historical tradition, single women now are simultaneously pathologised, expected to want to find a partner, while also being lauded as the sexually liberated generation able to exercise ‘freedom’ within the confines of a strictly defined femininity. Coupledom and the legitimating ideology of coupledom- love- together are arguably becoming the religion of modern life; we worship love and live our lives in couples striving towards the ultimate salvation of true love, happiness and togetherness.
40 years later…
So how far have we come in 40 years? Time should not really be seen as a linear progression from worse to better. In some regards we have ‘progressed’ – we now see a husband raping a wife as wrong. In some regards we remain static- marriage is still the end point of many couples’ romantic relationships (before divorce of course). And in other regards we have ‘regressed’- perhaps as a backlash against the gains women have made in other areas, the confines of relationships, marriage and preoccupation with weddings and beauty have risen up and consumed our collective consciousness. After all, ‘even sociologists fall in love’…
Tristes Tropiques (1955) by Claude Lévi-Strauss
A book of intellectual gymnastics
Daniel R. Smith
“I hate travel writing and explorers” is the opening line of Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques. And it helps explain why his work had such an effect on me. Often this book is seen as a classic not just in academic social anthropology, where Lévi-Strauss still remains the most distinguished scholar and master of the discipline, but in popular reading, also. This is because of its hold on the popular imagination: it is a critique of modernity from the perspective of life in the Amazon basin, a plea for environmentalism and a critique of world religion and French Enlightenment. And even more it is a beautifully written travel diary, the journey of an anthropologist in the making, a public intellectual made in the Amazon rainforest, and an inspiring read for the budding traveller. (Despite the fact it is written by someone who hates travelling and explorers).
The reason why Lévi-Strauss’ book had its major impact on me was because of his attitude to ethnographic inquiry, the telling the story of a culture or group. When Lévi-Strauss depicts culture, he does so through ‘intellectual gymnastics’, not so much the travelling and exploration zeal that grips most ethnographers. This is usually seen as Lévi-Struass’ big failing. Often he is criticised for his work being seen as merely a game of intellectual twists and turns, of curlicue interpretations and cleverness, and not a fateful account of the life of a group. This may be the case for the more sober ethnographer who documents the life world to the nth degree, or the number cruncher whose data ‘speaks for itself’. But what appeals to me in sociology and the human sciences in general is the intellectual side of human existence, that fact that there is only so much and so far attention to detail gets us and after the details have been presented we have to conceptualise these facts with an interpretation that illuminates them on a higher plane, the plain of intellectual resolve to the life depicted.
What Tristes Tropiques gives the reader is not just a presentation and lucid description of the life of Amazonian natives, it presents their society from the perspective of an outsider and tries to render apparent for the reader the process of ‘making sense’ by an engaged outsider struggling with the native’s point of view. The point is to depict life and make it sensible to the reader, the hallmark of ethnographic writing, and then show that behind the sense is nonsense. Lévi-Strauss’ depiction of the worlds of the Cadeuvo, the Bororo, the Nambikwara, and the Tupi-Kawahib all engage in this process of sensible description only to follow with insensible revelation. We wait with Lévi-Strauss’ prose for those ‘wow’ moments, those bits which turn all the proceeding descriptions into pebble ripples revealing a beautiful pattern only to be appreciated when looked at from a distance. The distance of intellectual reflection is answer to the ‘what does all this mean?’ The ‘So what?’ question. In truth, Lévi-Strauss used his ethnography to crown himself a master dialectician, a resolver of social contradictions and nonsense. He was in this regard, as Alfred Gell said of him in his Art of Anthropology (1999), master of the unexpected, revealing to the reader what they’d seldom suspect to be the answer to the questions he posed.
This is most apparent in what I consider to be the best chapter of Tristes Tropiques, chapter 20 on the Cadeuvo entitled ‘A native community and its lifestyle’ (1974:178-197). This chapter basically inspired my PhD project and is a piece of writing that made me want to write about culture as he did: present the facts, the depiction of a life world, and then say to the reader – and this is what it’s all about. In this chapter Levi-Strauss asks ‘Why do Cadeuvo women paint their faces with such complex and oblique face-paint?’ This simple fact of decoration, adornment, and making themselves beautiful, is turned by Lévi-Strauss into a visual clue to their whole humanity and way of life. Face painting becomes, in his hands, a tiny cell which holds the key to the mysteries of their civilisation. It is a master work of dialectics and the unexpected. And he begins so casually: “these knightly Indians looked like the court figures in a pack of cards” (1974:178); and so follows a comparison of Cadeuvo facepainting with the heraldry of European court pageants and hereditary nobles. The problem is for Lévi-Strauss that they look and act like nobles but they have no social institutions which establish this – they have no monarchy, no set of aristocratic seats which govern provinces, i.e. no system to reproduce hereditary privilege. All they have is ‘the look’ of nobility. And after a gruelling walk through the life of the Cadeuvo, Lévi-Strauss finally resolves the melody. He finally gives you the answer to the question Why do they paint their faces in this way? after many twists and turns. And he answers with probably the best lines ever composed in anthropology:
“…the graphic art of the Caduveo women is to be interpreted, and its mysterious appeal and seemingly gratuitous complexity to be explained, as the phantasm of a society ardently and insatiably seeking a means to expressing symbolically the institutions it might have, if its interests and superstitions did not stand in the way. In this charming civilisation, the female beauties trace the outlines of the collective dream with their make-up; their patterns are hieroglyphics describing an inaccessible golden age, which they extol in their ornamentation, since they have no code in which to express it, and whose mysteries they disclose as they reveal their nudity.” (Lévi-Strauss, 1974:197)
Art becomes the symbolic resolution to a social contradiction – a nobility with no means to socially reproduce a noble class do so artistically through the brands they adorn their faces with. Pure genius. This is a passage I come back to over and over again. Elsewhere in the book, Lévi-Strauss talks of his love of Marx and says “my admiration for Marx has remained constant, and I rarely broach a new sociological problem without first stimulating my thought by rereading a few pages of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or the Critique of Political Economy.” (Lévi-Strauss, 1974:57) Anyone acquainted with Marx’s essay on Louis Bonaparte will notice the influence the passage quoted above has to that text. But what is more, my admiration for Lévi-Strauss means that I, too, never approach a new piece of writing or new topic without also stimulating my thought with his work, especially Tristes Tropiques.
Lyrical and Critical Essays (1970) (and practically everything else) by Albert Camus.
There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more…
“The most loathsome materialism is not the kind people usually think of, but the sort that attempts to let dead ideas pass for living realities, diverting into sterile myths the stubborn and lucid attention we give to what we have within us that must forever die.” Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays.
There are so many passages that I could have cited from the writings of Camus – his work has been an inspiration to me, not only academically and intellectually, but also (and perhaps even more so) at a lived, personal level. I chose this particular quotation for World Book Day, though, because it reminds me that how we read is as important as what we read. Some books may simply divert or entertain us. Some may challenge or inspire us. Some may bore or confuse or even outrage us. For me, the best books are those which I can use as an existential or ethical mirror, those which help me to review and re-evaluate my own relationship to the world, and to my conduct in the world. And for me that implies that I should take a lively, questioning, critical stance towards the text. I think the greatest respect one can afford a great author is to interrogate their ideas with intelligence and robustness. They did their part by putting a living idea down on the page. But as the reader, I have to do my part as well – and my job is to reinvigorate the idea by picking it up, playing with it, looking at from all angles, introducing it to ideas that I’ve bumped into elsewhere, twisting it out of shape, twisting it back, deconstructing and reconstructing it… but certainly not to simply accept it with reverence and awe. (Nor for that matter to dismiss it without a second’s thought.) This is what is so marvellous about the written word (the greatest human invention?): it allows us to discourse, to debate with people from different worlds, from different epochs – as a reader I can ask myself “so, do I agree with you today, Albert? Well, let’s see – in this regard yes, in this one no, in this one, perhaps – or is there some other way we might look at this?” The only shame is that he can’t reply. But then, perhaps someone else in another book might be able to? Who knows? Well let’s investigate! The thing is to keep reading, because the joy of ideas is not in alighting on some or other ‘final answer’, but in an unending, tireless, Sisyphusian questing towards a more fulsome, a more joyous, a wiser, understanding than yesterday’s. As Camus himself noted:
“Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have already reached his conclusions. A thousand voices are already telling him what he has found, and yet he knows that he hasn’t found anything. Should he search on and let them talk? Of course… I do not know what I am looking for, cautiously I give it a name, I withdraw what I said, I repeat myself, I go backward and forward. Yet people insist I identify my term or terms, once and for all. Then I object: when things have a label, aren’t they lost already?”
On this one, Albert, I absolutely agree.
This post, after the Canterbury Christ Church’s sociologists wrote of their favourite books, may be contrasted with what sociologists often feel about their writing.
While writers, that is literary writers, may write witty aphorisms about writing, I am reminded of what a sociologist friend said of why sociologists’ write: “Because one is told to.”
It contrasts to Orwell’s Why I write very starkly: there is no ego, no aesthetic enthusiasm, no historical impulse or political purpose. I wonder if any of these things were the original drives but somewhere along the line the realities of academic life caught up to them…