Summing up: Should the “figurati” become “public intellectuals”?

[I asked John Lever and Matt Clement to sum up the recent discussion about whether the “figurati” should become “public intellectuals”. Ryan Powell also chipped into the summary below.]

To some extent, the debate about the engagement of “figurati” in current affairs appears to be a generational problem between a more established group of academics following a pure reading of Elias’s work and a younger generation of scholars/ researchers writing about contemporary issues problems. Whilst many of the younger generation would no doubt agree with Artur Bogner’s claims about the significance of the pluralism of values, the problem of making normative judgments, and by the fact that any such engagement is unlikely to be successful, this should not deter sociologists from attempting to have influence. As Ryan Powell and others suggest, one can – whether we agree with the process or not – take a long-term detached perspective whilst engaging with contemporary concerns.   Moreover, to see figurational sociologists as detached from their world, at rest rather than a part of changing reality, misses the active way in which they both shape and are themselves shaped in the process of civilisation.  John Rodgers maintains ‘The Civilizing Process has often appeared to be a theory exclusively about the socially integrative aspects of modernity … what Eliasian process-sociology needed to preserve its currency was a coherent theory of the de-civilising processes inherent in neo-liberalism’.1 The UK riots, and Eurozone anomie in Athens, Dublin and Madrid, are surely of paramount interest to students of human figurations.  Weimar sociologists saw their time as one of ‘world crisis’ – Elias was one of many who talked of riding the storm of social contention that blew Germany to its nemesis, intervening in the public sphere as he implored trade union leaders to resist the Nazis and acted as ‘cleaner’ to protect the Frankfurt School sociologists and their families.2 For him, involvement was unavoidable.

New levels of involvement and detachment are now possible in the virtual world and new social media can help us to many of the concerns expressed, if – as Robert van Krieken suggests – we can get people contributing to any new media/ forum on a regular basis. To be successful it is also important for sites/blogs to be innovative and fresh and do something new – and to also send out emails/updates to members. Having debates between figurationalists around the world in a virtual realm would be a good starting start point, as would tweeting these debates to the wider world. As anyone who has used twitter knows only to well, it does no take very long if you are commenting on current affairs and issues – even if it is only by posting links to relevant papers at an appropriate time – to get the attention of politicians, lay people, scholars and, of course, absolute lunatics; but that is the nature of the beast, and of course, an opportunity. There are a number of sociology websites and blogs that tweet about contemporary issues and concerns on a regular basis, whilst of course maintaining a balance between involvement and detachment. Adopting such an approach would allow the “figurati” per se, rather than individuals within it, to become a public intellectual.

1 Rodger, J. (2012) ‘Wacquant and Elias, Advanced Marginality and the Theoryof the De-civilising Process’, in Squires, P. and Lea, J. (eds.) Criminalisation and Advanced Marginality (BristolPolicy, 2012),  p. 1.

2 Elias describes these events in Reflections on a Life (Cambridge: Polity, 1994) and The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge: Polity, 1996), p. 221.

[At the moment, discussion on the blog is handicapped by the fact that although subscribers  receive email notification of new posts, but not about new comments on the posts. We hope to fix this soon. In the meantime, the discussion  summarised here can be found by clicking on “Comments”. – SJM]


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4 Responses to Summing up: Should the “figurati” become “public intellectuals”?

  1. Matthew Gregory Walsh says:

    I yield before Artur Bogner’s scholarly arguments. When I expressed my doubts regarding Dr. Bogner’s position on the nature of the detached attitude, I had in mind an interpretation different from his which in essence seems to be some kind of self-restraint. I thought a better approach can be developed based on the characteristics of the concept of figuration. I would briefly summarize what I have in mind as an approach which builds upon the existence of multiple perspectives in sociology (and generally in the human world) and it’s more about systematic self-reflection than self-restraint. I still think that based on those texts of Elias which I know my interpretation is closer to Elias’s thinking than Dr. Bogner’s however I am worried how stable it would be in practice. As Dr. Bogner rightfully pointed out, not many possess Elias’s wisdom (I certainly don’t) but this elusive quality is indispensable for systematic self-reflection. Otherwise, it can lead to anxiety, radicalism or even worse. Therefore, I think it’s better to heed Dr. Bogner’s warnings and avoid too much involvement in public debates. I think I ought to acknowledge this after my previous comment.

    Nonetheless, this is a very interesting and welcome discussion (as Ryan Powell already said it before me).

  2. John Deakins says:

    From David Matsinhe’s comments, and some of the others, including Stephen’s own, it’s apparent that there may well be disagreements about how best to promulgate Elias’s ideas, and thus have a wider effect on popular attitudes generally. What I think is likely to be more important, though, is to consider what, and on specifically what occasions, it is important to share with others, rather than how it might be best to do it. Those objectives are closely related, of course, but to determine their relative importance by initially defining the situation as one that needs the promotion of some to the status of “public intellectuals” is, I believe, premature. The public, and the media, will come to their own decisions on whom they will accord such a reputation, based on their appraisal of how closely the comments of such persons are responsive to their own concerns.

    I guess what I am saying, more crudely put, is that I believe the “what” needs to precede the “how”.

    What will enable us collectively to be together on the “what” is already indicated by some of the comments already made. To enable this blog to become a better facilitator of a conversation about issues than it has been hitherto will be a pretty demanding task––and I certainly don’t intend that as a critique of its effectiveness thus far. Its very existence is as encouraging to me as are Elias’s own writings. How widely we can be heard, though, will depend on how effectively we can hear, and debate, with one another.

    Perhaps a good place to start would be with the very issue of whether, and in what circumstances, a more conscious entry into the sphere of “public” conversation is urgently needed. Stephen’s own comments about Elias’s own “humorous ambivalence” are very relevant, particularly since any ambivalence invites its being proclaimed as itself constituting evidence of the need for clearer understanding. Very possibly Elias was himself aware of the manner in which any definite statement can be transformed into an oversimplification of the need for choice between polarized alternatives. (The vagaries of Stephen’s own entry into the political hurly-burly seem to me an almost prototype case . . . as perhaps is that of Michael Ignatieff”s thrusting his head into the lion’s den of Canadian identity polarities. Possibly, too, Slavov Zizeck’s image as “public intellectual” is further evidence of the dangers . . .)

    How we can ourselves actively participate in civilizing process is not a question that is likely to have an easy answer. It is, however, one that we seriously need to ask–– and talk about.

  3. John Lever says:

    I put this together on bundlr the other night in a about 20 minutes and then tweeted in to the world. Bundlr is like an on-line old fashioned scrapbook – its very useful for bringing tother lots of web links for research or discussion purposes!

  4. David Matsinhe says:

    My discovery of Elias motivated me to think differently about contemporary issues. In fact, before this discovery, I felt that looking at social phenomena from the purely here-and-now standpoint was inadequate. I have heard of the cliché, “If you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know where you are going”. To it I would add, “You don’t even know where you are”. So discovering Elias was exciting.

    Figurational sociology can help clarify many contemporary issues. For example, ‘figuarati’ have a lot to say about what happened in South Africa recently: 45 protesting miners shot dead by the police. If that’s not ‘Apartheid Vertigo’, if it’s not the surfacing of what most of us would rather forget, then someone please tell me what it is. People remark how these unfortunate events are reminiscent of apartheid style massacres: e.g. the 1976 Soweto Massacre. There’s a ‘déjà vu’ quality to these killings.

    Back in North America. A Republican Tea Party nut in Wisconsin, US, is running for Congress. He claims there is a distinction between “legitimate” and “Illegitimate” rapes, that a woman’s body shuts down during rape so as to prevent pregnancy. The British Guardian paper just pointed out that the aspiring congressman’s ideas are medieval: The questions is, how is it possible today that in the US an aspiring lawmaker holds medieval ideas? How is it possible that in the US there is still a medieval-like society so powerful that it is feared by politicians? I think Stephen Mennell is well positioned to blog incisively on these issues.

    Here is another example. During the democratic primaries in 2008, Hillary Clinton persisted in staying in the race even when it was clear to everyone, including her and her husband, that she had lost. Why was it difficult for the Clintons to admit defeat? Might it have something to do with their southern cultural heritage? I think Stephen’s ‘American Civilizing Process’ could illuminate some of these dynamics.

    There is so much ‘figurati’ can do to contribute in the discourse on contemporary issues.

    I add to what Stephen said about this website on this post I have some suggestions. The website can be more interactive that it is now. Why not add social media sharing icons for twitter, linkedin, email and possibly facebook in order to make it easy for people to share the entries they read with just one click? This is very easy to do. This will spread the message more efficiently than cutting and pasting and emailing.

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