Monday, 10 September 2012

Games of Sociological Theory and "Limits" (and the Paralympics)

When I studied music at Manchester (a long time ago now), I became interested in sociological and psychological theories of various sorts. From psychology (or rather, psychotherapy) I was fascinated by Jung (the importance of whom for Michael Tippett really interested me), but I was also interested in Piaget, Lacan and Freud. Then there were the structuralists (Piaget was a link there, but mainly Levi-Strauss) which also took in the semioticians/semiologists (Pierce and Saussure). I was interested in the ways that sociological and anthropological applications of structuralism could be applied to thinking about music (Jean Jacques Nattiez was particularly important in this regard). But I remember gradually getting a bit disillusioned with all of them. There was so much to read - so many words - and ultimately, each individual asserted they had the answer (which I was searching at the time), but ultimately failed to deliver - usually through ignoring really fundamental and obvious things because of a particular ideological bias.

I had a second-wave of interest in social theory when I began looking at learning technology. That took me to Critical Realism and Cybernetics. Too many people to mention, but again, lots of words, lots of books, but something ultimately unsatisfying (although something of value in both of these). This time, however, I realised that I could express my dissatisfaction by going to conferences and delivering papers and asking awkward questions. I didn't do much for my own dissatisfaction beyond getting something off my chest! I realised, a bit later on, that this was the job of an academic in the social sciences, as many academics (who I met at these conferences) saw it. It was talking about what pissed them off. It was like going "down the pub" with your mates, but without alcohol and taking it in turns to stand on a podium and be slightly (sometimes extremely!) rude about each other. Academic reputations in the social sciences, it appeared, are made like this.

It has gradually dawned on me that many academics are happy simply to live like this. More so because they get quite well paid for it! But I cannot get over the fact that all the theory, all the books, all the powerpoints leave me disappointed and disillusioned - and not just about the ideas, but about academia in general. It's as if some very silly (but exploitative) game is going on, played by clever and often manipulative people, which pretends to be advancing knowledge, but which in fact only feeds individual egos. Students are lured into this, and education works its reproductive magic. That's not to say that there isn't important work going on in academia - but not, I fear, in the social sciences. Maybe Alan Sokal has a point - although of course, his 'intellectual impostures' is a classic case of writing about what pisses him off! (see if you don't know it)

I think there's a human game going on. I want to be able to describe the game of academic sociology (and maybe academia in general) because I think being able to describe the game is the first step to being able to decide whether the emperor has got any clothes on or not. Ultimately something has to stand up that is beyond individual ego and posturing. The problem is that any attempt to define the game is a meta-game of the game that is played and will share many of its characteristics. There can be posturing in the meta-game (I'm doing it now!). And it's not inconceivable that there's a meta-metagame - the game that is played in describing the games that are played in academic sociology. And there too there is posturing, ego, and so on.

I believe what matters in the end are the limits of things: the points at which the rationality we believe ourselves to inhabit breaks down. In probing limits, the contours of what's not there can be more clearly and socially determined. Maths is successful at doing because its rationality is well described in formal systems in a common language that everyone shares: when its logic breaks down (as it always will at some point), we can all see it. Music (as all art) is always about limits - the work always has a frame, and the work always draws attention to the difference between its own internal consistency and the frame which demarcates it. Sociology doesn't have a formal system (despite some assertions by some sociologists). But nevertheless, the game (and metagame, and metametagame) of sociology may have some formal representation which will help towards the collective identification of the limits of rationality.

The identification of limits is not about a positive assertion of a 'theory of everything'. It is about a shared identification of where we agree we know nothing. Academic sociology's failure has been to clumsily tread on territory about which we can know nothing and assert false (and dissatisfying) knowledge for it. Its failure is borne out by its simple failure to achieve agreement over what it positively asserts. To understand the game of academic sociology is to aim for agreement over what it negatively reveals.

Having watched the closing ceremony of the Paralympics last night, and having been bowled-over by the spectacular success of the Olympics in general (like many in the UK, I thought it would be a disaster!), I have been thinking about another aspect of 'limits'. Sporting excellence is all about finding limits. Sport on an open (global) stage is a demonstration of 'limit'. The impact of this on society should not be underestimated (maybe the Greeks understood this better than we do). It is not about celebrity. It is about limitation and collective ambition.

It is in defining, studying and agreeing limits we can work together in realising what is possible.

1 comment:

Jules Faife said...

Hi Mark,

I don't pretend to understand everything you've said here as I come from a different background, but I do agree that people who feel they "own" information or theories are usually quite territorial about it, and I can imagine in academia they are quite provocative and adversarial. It comes down to a basic human need, I see it in musicians I know, it's survival. I have to have my niche to survive! And in a world where we all have to prove our worth on Twitter and countless social communities to make it in our chosen fields, niche mentality is all the more important!

I agree that limits are the key to successful cooperation (and artforms!) To be honest that's what left a slightly bad taste in my mouth about the Paralympic coverage, we were encouraged to watch how people with physical limitations could achieve great things, but we were also encouraged to cheer on the Brits and be counting our medals all the time instead of appreciating all the athletes. I suppose that's the opposition of "sport for all" and "winner takes all"!

Perhaps you'd like to check out my blog on improvisation...