Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Late-Modern Symbolism: Continuity and Discontinuity between the Modern and the Pre-Modern in Durkheim's Work

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Late-Modern Symbolism: Continuity and Discontinuity between the Modern and the Pre-Modern in Durkheim's Work

Article excerpt

Through analysis of key texts, I seek to demonstrate the explanative potential of Durkheim's sociology of religion in the present context. I critically readdress the idea, found in his early work, that modernity is characterized by a rupture with pre-modern forms of solidarity. First, I investigate the ways in which Durkheim sets up a stark distinction between the pre-modern and the modern in his early work, and how this distinction is further cemented by his orthodox critique of the modern economy and its negative effects on social life. Second, I show how another timeless and positive understanding of "mechanical" solidarity is to be found behind the "symbolist" template crystalizing in Durkheim's late work. Third, I develop this template for a modern context by critically addressing and removing other obstacles and prejudices on Durkheim's part.

This article attempts to demonstrate the explanative powers of Emile Durkheim's sociology of religion within an analysis of contemporary forms of sociality and culture. To adequately circumscribe these potentials, the paper deals critically with other-and conflicting-impulses in Durkheim's own work. The aim is to move beyond a certain "textbook interpretation" of Durkheim that overemphasizes coherence and continuity in his work, promoting an understanding of modernity and of modern social reality that I take to be indiscriminate or even spurious. This flawed interpretation can be swiftly characterized according to three features: It preserves a strongly critical attitude toward the economic sphere; it operates a decisive shift between the pre-modern and the modern; and it canvasses a privative and pessimistic picture of the conditions of felt sociality and solidarity in modem society.

Through analysis of key texts, I seek to redeem another Durkheim-a Durkheim who moved beyond this bleak or "critical" economistic scenario; one who bridged the gap between the pre-modern and the modem, and who recognized the forms of solidarity and integration at work in modem society without breaking with the past. To understand and unfold these forms of solidarity, I seek to rescue the late Durkheim's concept of "symbolism," i.e., his insistence on the special appearance of objects placed at the center of collective attention. Indeed, as I will argue, Durkheim's "totem objects," instead of having disappeared, have metamorphosed and proliferated. They play a major role in the mediation of solidarity and individuality in modem society. Modem reality is as "fetishistic" as ever before, in the sense that a multitude of conspicuous and socially charged objects of differing duration and emotional quality play an all-important, but mostly concealed, role in institutions such as science and the arts, and in the sphere of consumption and everyday life. Traditional forms of solidarity have not disappeared, but they are fragmented and temporalized by mediation and individualization.

Unfortunately, however, Durkheim never put his symbolist template to use in a modem setting himself. Unfolding the potential of Durkheim's sociology of religion from a present-day perspective requires an elaboration of his sketch. But before we can get that far, we have to readdress the idea that modernity is characterized by a rupture with pre-modem forms of solidarity, provoked by the division of labor and by new forms of egoism and anomie induced by the modem economy. This means we need to draw Durkheim's early work into the investigation.

First, I investigate how Durkheim sets up a harsh distinction between the pre-modem and the modem in The Division of Labour in Society ([1893] 2013), and how this sharp distinction is further cemented by his orthodox critique of the modem economy and its negative effects on social life. Second, I try to show how another timeless and positive understanding of solidarity is present all along in Durkheim's work, culminating in the symbolist template in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life ([1912] 1995). …

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