Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Durkheim's Ruse: The Concept as Seduction

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Durkheim's Ruse: The Concept as Seduction

Article excerpt

Introduction

Durkheim modernizes the Classical notion of beginning in medias res --in the middle of things--by radically reconfiguring the social actor as an object to and for oneself and so, as a free subject only in relation to such limits; always and everywhere the social actor can be seen as inheriting the problem of having to negotiate space for free action under the condition of being ruled and not ruler. Each of Durkheim's books describes how fundamental ambiguity is expressed in different shapes of this tension, between constraint and freedom, and the specific situations of problem-solving each raises. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1965 [1912] hereafter, EFRL), Durkheim highlights the particular solution of religion in this way.

This paper is influenced by my reading of The Elementary Forms as the analogical surface of a textual structure that makes explicit and palpable another story, a story that formulates the place and force of the symbolic order in social life. The symbolic order is typically identified as a platitude without specificity, in ways that make its manifestation inevitable and formless. Yet, if everything is "symbolic"; it loses its force and symbolizing is viewed as the free and spontaneous action of constructing meaning unfettered by restriction or limit. I propose that EFRL is designed to destabilize this modern truism by revealing how the symbolic order can come to be seen dramatically, when contingent beliefs and practices or conventions are treated as rites directed to affirming and constituting the intelligibility of the order as if sacred and untouchable and its meaning as profane. The limits of the work of ritualization reveals the order as an inviolable and transitive bond disseminated between and among members who relate to it by virtue of such a transfer of meaning and of the social actor as if an automaton in the grip of social formulae and their rites. Durkheim shows how this methodical silencing of ambiguity allows for the symbolic order to carry on as if a machine applicable to language, and its system of classifications as a ritual order organized around the sacred imperative to hold the question of ambiguity in abeyance through a network of interdictions. Of its actor conceived as subject to such a machine, Durkheim requires an automated attachment that is still capable of elevating itself on occasion, beyond resignation, despair or docility, to a kind of ironic fortitude, sometimes heroic, but typically driven by the comedic awareness of being condemned to eternal life. For Durkheim, society is a machine that, in the idiom of Plato, writes upon the souls of speakers (Gane 1983). In EFRL, religion serves as a ruse to allow us to conceptually engage the tension between the sacred and profane in language; in the best sense, it might position the modern subject to appreciate such ambiguity as both limit and incentive in human conduct.

In contrast to the social actor as a "player," Durkheim conceives of the symbolic order from the position he imagines for an insider driven to embrace its legitimacy without reserve, as if an imperative manifested at the level of the corporeal. Durkheim's conception of an automated attachment to society still enables the actor, viewed as such, to reinvent him/herself aesthetically within such limits by experimenting with different modes of playfulness oriented towards the ritualized manner and means of disguising the secret of the abyss that social life projects and perpetuates as an inherent consequence of its ontological constitution.

The third party here, the orientation to ambiguity as an unstated and persistent field of application disclosed as the gaze to which Durkheim's theorizing answers, makes reference to society as a writing machine (in ways that can provide for biology as another speech) and reveal its limits in contrast to the social. This gaze can empower a degree of reflectiveness upon the social order in a spirit of objective irony (Baudrillard 2006 [1984]), by making it possible to see comedic potential in views of ceremonial devotion to society, revealing the social order as if both corporeal and social in its hold upon the member. …

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