Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Envisioned, Intentioned: A Painter Informs an Anthropologist about Social Relations

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Envisioned, Intentioned: A Painter Informs an Anthropologist about Social Relations

Article excerpt

  Conversationless our love poured and passed from us ... We were shiny-
  faced & glittereyed & unmindingly tossed the catch-ball of our love to
  each other. It went from us without a throw and came all over us
  without a catch.... We just make empty handed armless snatches in the
  air & catch our love anywhere ... We ramble & ramble & love the
  carrying of our love: giving our love a trip ... Oh how we loved it:
  the land having our love march left-righted on it ... We were ogres
  for each other's love, but our loves adored our open jaws.
  Letter from Stanley Spencer to Hilda Carline

The argument sketched

Why do individuals--a 'Stanley', say, or a 'Hilda'--maintain social relations? What do they conceive social relations to be? How do they represent to themselves the history and processes of their relations? In what ways do their conceptions and representations of social relations impact upon the relations in which they partake? These seem to be key questions for social science. Their answers give rise to a foundational appreciation of sociality, while an aggregation of such answers provides insight into the nature of the particular social groupings that individuals form at particular times.

Nevertheless, my formulation of these questions might be said to be wrong-headed. 'Society', it is often claimed in anthropology, is more than an aggregation of individuals, and 'social relations' more than the intentions, conceptualizations, and evaluations of their individual participants. Indeed, it is the social relations, and the common discourses through which they represent themselves, which are responsible for eliciting the nature of their participants as 'individual' or 'dividual' social actors: the consciousness (or absence of it) of these actors is epiphenomenal upon the structuration processes by which the habituality of social relations reproduces itself. That is, anthropology encourages us to reject the subjectivist vocabularies of 'knowing subjects', and to locate the generative forces of social life outside the immediate lived reality of individuals' life-worlds. Subjects, it is said, act in terms of sets of learnt dispositions ('habituses') which operate as 'intentionless conventions': as 'structuring structures' which regulate individual acts, constitute an objective basis of society, and give rise to coherent, institutionalized cultural worlds (Bourdieu 1977). Durable, transposable, cognitive, and behavioural, habituses function to generate an homogeneous social conventionality, while subjects remain unconscious of the consequences of their actions and 'misrecognize' the objectivity of the social relations that these reproduce. Social relations are thus 'themselves' the prime mover in the lives conducted through them, and society 'itself' is the guarantor of the meanings accrued by them.

This article uses the artistic output of the English painter and diarist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) to challenge the above structuralistic and deterministic perspective--my representation of which, I admit, is a cameo, but not, I would hope, a caricature. The artist's consciousness, it will be argued, provides an exemplary case study by which to explore, in exaggerated form--exaggerated self-consciousness, self-intensity, expressiveness--the phenomenology of social relations within the life-world of the individual actor. I contend that in order to understand social relations--their origin, their course, their 'function' or purpose--it is necessary to understand their positioning within the consciousness of their participants; this is the point of origin for social analysis. Social relations are an aggregation, a complex assemblage, of individual perspective and purpose; the course of social life and relations cannot be comprehended without an appreciation of the individual world-views that animate them. By looking at the regard that one hyper-conscious individual in particular, Stanley Spencer, had for social relations, and by at least sketching in those 'others'--wives, lovers, friends, places, events, ideologies--to which he related himself, I hope to outline an alternative foundation for a social-scientific apprehension of sociality: an appreciation of social relations as intentioned acts produced by self-conscious individuals as part-and-parcel of discrete world-views and life-projects. …

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