Friday, 18 December 2015

Boltanski's On Critique

Having just finished Luc Boltanski's On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (2011, Pollity Press), I just want to jot down two things I found interesting. So this post is going to be brief!

First point: the bodiless being of the institution. Having always been fascinated by the stubborn persistence of quasi-transcendental forms in social life, I was quite happy to read Boltanski's explanation of the role of institutions. His starting point is that “no individual possesses the requisite authority to say to others, all the others, the whatness of what is” (Boltanski 2011:74). Whatever is claimed by a mere individual can always be dismissed as a mere "private" standpoint or opinion.

Hence follows the necessity of installing what Boltanski (following Olivier Cayla) calls “the device of a third party", namely an institution "to whom is accorded, ‘by agreement’, the prerogative of ‘having the last word’” (ibid.). We can observe that there is a certain Hobbesian flavour to this argument - the institution fulfilling the function of what could perhaps be called semantic sovereignty, defining reality in a way that would be out of reach for any single individual. He takes the example of a constitutional judge, who in impersonating the institution is no longer viewed as a flesh-and-blood individual. “To hear him it is necessary to ignore his body. The only conceivable solution is therefore to delegate the task of saying the whatness of what is to a bodiless being” (ibid.). The institution, Boltanski states, “is a bodiless being to which is delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is” (ibid. 75). 

The fact that institutions have a certain form of independent existence over and against the individuals that make them up has important implications for critique. Just exposing them as fictions is not enough to weaken them, since they fulfill their function even though “everyone knows full well that these institutions are mere fictions and that the only real things are the human beings who make them up” (ibid 85). Boltanski refers here to Octave Mannoni’s "je sais bien, mais quand même...” ("I know very well, but all the same..."). The problem he brings up is the peculiar impotence of critique against quasi-transcendental forms that seem to be inscribed in reality itself, upholding it and thus acquiring their own stability and inertia regardless of the extent to which people believe in them (another example would of course be that of commodity fetishism). However, unlike many other theoreticians who have focused on this problem, Boltanski chooses not to dramatize this difficulty. Instead he identifies a number of points where he believes institutions are still vulnerable to critique. Although I won't have time to enter into the intricacies of the argument here, these possibilities are grounded in the distinction he makes between the "reality" upheld by institutions and the "world" outside this reality, which consists of everything that is the case and which has the potential of upsetting reality since reality can never map it completely. To mention but a simple form of critique, the very fact that institutions are bodiless means that they always depend on flesh-and-blood spokespersons who can always be suspected of using their position for private motives or who can simply make mistakes, thus disrupting the order they seek to stabilize (ibid. 84).

Second point: Boltanski's description of today's dominant classes. The first remark on these classes comes early in the book. In connection with a discussion about ideology where he makes the interesting (although perhaps not wholly water-tight) argument that ideologies are mostly meant to convince the dominant classes themselves of their right to lead.
While not challenging the idea that something like dominant ideologies does indeed exist, seeking both to underestimate and justify inequalities, we can nevertheless show that these constructs are directed in the first instance to disciplining the dominant classes themselves, whose members, especially when they reach the threshold separating the status of child from that of autonomous, responsible adult, also encounter the tension between an egalitarian ideal and a massively unequal reality. The social function of dominant ideologies is therefore above all to maintain a relative cohesion between the different factions that make up these classes and to reinforce [...] their members’ confidence in the validity of their privileges. (ibid. 41)
The bulk of his discussion of the dominant class comes in the two last chapters (ibid. 143-149, 151f). He begins by criticizing Bourdieu since the new global elite no longer shares a habitus based on classical culture. What then do they share? Apart from sharing a new “international culture that is rooted in economics and, above all, in disciplines of management” and having the power to affect the lives of many other people, their distinguishing characteristic is a certain moral double standard. Let me just throw out a few forceful quotes where Boltanski makes this point: 
What members of the dominant class implicitly share... is, on the one hand, that it is indispensable that there should be rules – law, procedures, norms, standards, regulations and so forth; and, on the other, that one can do nothing really profitable... that one simply cannot act, in an uncertain world, if one follows these rules. (ibid. 146).

The observance of rules therefore presents itself as a handicap for them... Conversely, they are inclined to think that rules are necessary and sufficient to constrain and order the actions of underlings. (ibid. 146)

[T]his kind of wisdom cannot be made public; or shared with those who are not leaders. (ibid. 147)
Does this mean that leaders have no morality? Certainly not, but they have a ‘higher’ morality... [T]he ‘great ones’ believe that they can be assessed only in the light of the ultimate success of failure of their enterprises. They therefore lay claim to a time-scale which can far exceed that of human existence (‘history will judge’). (ibid. 151)
I'd just like to make two remarks concerning this description of today's dominant class. Firstly, I am not sure that this double standard is so very new. It sounds remarkably much like the capitalist class portrayed by Braudel in Civilization and Capitalism: The 15th to the 18th Century, where Braudel makes his famous distinction between the sunlit and transparent world of the market and the shadowy realm of capitalism "where the great predators roam". The market, one might say, is the world of the small people, those referred to by Boltanski as the dominated ones, who believe in following the rules or standards of fairness which govern human interchange and which are grounded in their own experience and knowledge of the small-scale economy in which they are active. Capitalism, on the other hand, is where the great profits are made, and they are made by breaking the rules, circumventing them or by creating new ones, in collusion with political rulers and through the support and mobilization of political, diplomatic and military power.

Secondly, I sense that this description of the dominant class betrays - just like his description of institutions - a certain fascination with the problem of sovereignty. In connection with institutions, Boltanski explicitly refers to Kantorowicz' discussion of the politico-theological dimensions of medieval monarchy. Like the medieval monarch, the constitutional judge possesses two bodies - being a frail human being with private interests and weaknesses, but also, at the same time, impersonating the institution in all its glory. As regards dominant classes and their relation to rules, it is easy to spot similarities to Schmitt's discussion of sovereignty. Isn't Boltanski's description possible to understand as an account of how sovereignty ("sovereign is he who decides on the exception") has become dispersed and exists as a form of cynic elitism within each member of this class, who believe themselves to be standing above their own rules and who are always ready to grant themselves an exception?

These were just two points I found particularly interesting. There won't be time for me to do justice to the other major points Boltanski tries to make - e.g. the relation between his own sociology of critique to Bourdieu’s critical sociology, the world-reality distinction, contemporary forms of managerial domination or the possibility of emancipation. For anyone interested in those points, please read the book!

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