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Archive for the ‘Nü-Pragmatism’ Category

Over a century ago, the social and cultural sciences emerged in the promise and hope for the possibility of creating a better future for nations, societies, and humanity at large. A Great Depression, two World Wars and the Holocaust could do away with this attitude. It wasn’t until the spirit of ’68 became inextricably linked with the attitude and gesture of social and cultural theorists, and many of the ringleaders of the student revolution settled too comfortably in the seats of their predecessors in business and academia (gosh, finally they, too, had something to fear to lose in power, profit and privileges), and where those weren’t available, they just created themselves whole new layers of administration and governance to fit and rest in (snoring away the chance for true progress). The major domos and dominatrixes of what is often called  and summarily  executed as the Left are, therefore, little better than the 1% Right of Wall Street (which is supposedly ‘occupied’ while I am writing this). A true kunik would say that in fighting over the primacy of who holds the power, the devil’s left and right hand try to suffocate their other’s half of the brain, killing themselves and the rest of body in the process. A kunik would say something like what I just described.  But there are no more Diogeneses of Sinope around, and the cynics of today are usually busy relishing in infertile polemics and the inter-breeding of memes into incestuous meme-plexes that are riddled with inherited intellectual diseases that account for the smattering of knowledge that does suffice for participants to constitutes their ‘expertise’ in current political discourses, the public understanding of science and scholarship, the media, and contemporary financial markets, and this has already begun to infect the ranks among scholars, scientists, administrators politicians, and business managers themselves. Access to resources and to participation in these discourses is no longer made possible by enabled enunciation, but regulated exclusively through negative selections by constraints and polemics.

In holding on to the dogma and the mechanics that all of society is a zero-sum game, an economy of scarcity (and that its opposite could ‘only’ ever be an utopian and impossible notion of ‘superfluousness’,  ‘affluence’ or ‘unlimitedness’) and that the only criterion of progress is growth (mind you, who among the prophets of growth really understands or, if they do, would want their audience to understand the consequence of growth’s main mathematical quality being that it is exponential), the famous 1%, the Leftist Intellectuals, and the many people who are not rich and powerful but believe that one day they will be, have become impotent in the most crucial aspect of the word, namely with regard to the issue of agency: ‘Devoid of potentiality’.

Where is the social theory that would suggest a model of distribution that is based not on the zero-sum game of scarcity and growth but that suggests that the resources in this world are, while not unlimited, more than sufficient for the human race and that within a couple of generations and with a flexible, plastic, and pragmatic approach we could, indeed, achieve a sustainable distribution, without forsaking profit-making to retain a necessary level of asymmetry in the process? What we need is a model of a society and economy of abundance. Abundance, here, means that there is enough for everybody and just a little bit more for those who lust after it, it means we can do anything even if we cannot do everything, it means to make achievement and efficacy the measure of life and put performance and efficiency as the measure of things in their respective, lower place.

Why has scholarship and science not helped us with this, you may ask? And you would be right to do so. Yes, they haven’t done their jobs properly. Or is that just the problem? They have done their job. They have just not followed their vocation (Almost sorry for going all Weberian on you…not). A job is defined by its constraints, whereas vocation means to seek enablement:

Two social researchers of a public-private institute for social research in Germany, I once met with to discuss potential cooperation in research with, who had very little to offer intellectually and no grasp of the historic and pragmatic scope the concepts they were using to constrain and polemicalize me (funny, they were using the word ‘pragmatism’ in my face, claiming how they were following pragmatism and how I should be like them), these two described their (and supposedly my) job to me: Social science has to produce studies that help people who are in positions of influence, such as political parties or business, make their case, and we have to anticipate who will be influential next and make our research count to them by showing their message can be vindicated by research and numbers, that is how we survive and get money.

Another German social researcher put the role that social theorists should play this way, when I was talking to him about how we should try and create theories that could make a difference: Do you want to play politics, he asked  me, you cannot want that, the last time sociologists tried to accomplish something in society was in the 60s, and look what came out of that, no, it isn’t our job to accomplish something in society, or to have influence or make a difference, our job is make social studies of this or that phenomenon in society and not participate.

Another fun game that social scientists play among themselves is to shove responsibilities and questions to other disciplines. In a recent example, in one of the journals run by the American Sociological Association, one author finished an essay by stating about the problem of intersubjectivity that one of its main aspects sociologists shouldn’t even need to bother or talk about, but ‘happily’ leave it to anthropologists.

I do not exactly ‘blame’ Luhmann, but Luhmann’s systems theory and, more importantly, the way it is used by most of his (many) disciples is illustrative of the larger problem (and most social theorists, at least in Germany, seem to have accepted the constraints stipulated by Luhmann). They argue that there cannot be something like a grand-theory of society (as sociologists up to the 1960s seemed to believe), and Luhmann’s theory was the theory that could finally show that to be the case. Luhmann’s theory, in a way, by being the über-theory of theories, thereby itself a grand-theory, was the grand-theory that was none at the same time. It is the last and final grand- theory by doing away with all the others in showing that there can be no grand-theories at all. Great strategy, indeed. In the Luhmannian frame of reference, the best a society can achieve is a self-description. That point, as you will soon see, is crucial. When describing something, you have the opportunity to derive a theory of it, if you have an adequate theory you can use that theory to try and intervene into that something. If you have a comprehensive  or abundantly sufficent description and derived a comprehensive or abundantly sufficient theory, your interventions should achieve what you set out to do.  However, Luhmann’s frame would put a major constraint on this: You cannot have a comprehensive not even a sufficient view, because that would be very much like a view from everywhere (perhaps a view from nowhere, although, I do not think this says much about the view from anywhere, which is what I may be all about, but decide for yourself, how you want to view it). All that you, as a society, can describe is your own(ed) self,  in your own language from your own (singular) point of view.  This puts a limit on your theory and a limit on your interventions.  in other words, because a description of society (at large) is impossible in this current frame of social science, and all that is possible are descriptions of minute parts of our society (looking inwards and regionalizing our societies interior into fragmented interiors)  no theory of society is possible, only theories of the little parts, therefore, societies are too big to interfere in (whereas banks are too big to fail, the failure of societies could not even register on any scale because we are not allowed to have one), we can only micro-manage tiny little parts. If the addition of these parts does not match up with the whole of it, well, bad luck, but, again, what can be done about that, since that is something that cannot be talked about at all and, if remotely possible, we can say it is another mini-part that is the problem and we can ‘happily’ leave that to someone else.

Well, I am not sorry to say that this isn’t a state of affairs that I am content with. I take Pragmatism seriously, and I do not confuse it with a solipsistic-egocentric utilitarianism as some of my, mostly German,  peers do (waddling increasingly towards pear-shape). It is time we take ourselves seriously again and take up the provocations that I have offered here (kunik-ally not polemically). The mission of social and cultural science was never to change the world single-handedly, its original promise was to provide a bridge over the ‘bifurcation of nature’ that the humanities and natural sciences had created in order not to have to speak with one another anymore. But the social sciences are not the child victims of an ugly divorce, even if they have considered themselves to be that for the past few decades and thus gone from pout to tantrum and back again. We, as social and cultural scientists, are not just made to be stepped upon or walked over, matter of factly, we are forged in a matter of concern: Getting from there to here*. Since it seems that at the moment nobody seems to be getting anywhere, we are not doing our job quite right. I think it’s time for us, as social scientists, to have the kid-gloves come off, grow up, and get alive!

*With the concern for references not made clear, the fact of Sloterdijk’s fanship of Diogenes, means I, a mere pawn ripe for sacrifice, cannot spare you the gambit of an architectural joke of moving Underground with a French Tower: Latour goes to prison in England over the Channel, get it?

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