What is 'Human Society'?: a Response to Davetian

by Nicholas Gane
Brunel University

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 10 Aug 2005     Accepted: 16 Aug 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


1.1 Benet Davetian has responded to my recent work on the future of social theory (Gane, 2004; Gane and Beer, 2004) by suggesting that the future of sociology lies in the study of the 'emotional components of human society'. His main argument is that sociology still tends to work with a Cartesian dualism between mind and body, and because of this the 'immutable emotional needs of individuals and their social systems' have tended to slip from view. Davetian's answer is to reassert the need for an 'embodied social theory', one that need not be scared of 'psychologism' in its attempt to reconcile the '"micro" and "macro" realities' of social life. I would like to respond with a few brief reflections, first, on the history of sociology traced by Davetian in his account, and second, on the problems of formulating a theory of emotions in abstraction from analysis of the information communication technologies (ICTs) which increasingly structure life today. Finally, in light of this, I would like to raise some challenges posed to sociology (including a sociology of the emotions) by recent 'posthuman' approaches to the study of society and culture.

Revisiting Classical Theory

2.1 Davetian's paper attempts to show that social theory has, for the main part, failed, for it has never come to terms with the emotional basis of human life. The first target for Davetian's attack is Auguste Comte, who is said to have assigned 'the rich world of human psychology to the biological sciences...thereafter forcing sociologists to play with an incomplete deck'. Since Comte, Davetian says, we have studied an 'entity called "society", thought to somehow be metaphorically compatible with a geodesic dome, dependent on its individual parts, yet possessing a bearing and identity that surpasses and eclipses the individual identities of its modules'. For this reason, Davetian takes Comte's work as a turning point, after which, 'psychologists went "into" the human while sociologists went "out" into the social'. For Davetian, this is still pretty much the case today - nearly 150 years after Comte's death - for 'sociologists and psychologists continue to hardly talk with one another or read one another's journals'.

2.2 There is indeed a lack of communication between sociologists and psychologists today, but, for me, this has little to do with the work of Auguste Comte. From my experience in the United Kingdom, while interdisciplinarity has been encouraged in theory, most disciplinary boundaries are as hard and fast as ever. This is partly because strategic choices need to be made in applications for the funding of research projects, and for the entry of university departments or research clusters into the fabled Research Assessment Exercise. At this level, there are institutional structures that divide sociology from psychology, and which also divide most other academic disciplines. But, besides this, sociologists, at least for the past 20 years, have been particularly bad at opening their disciplinary borders to 'outside' approaches or knowledge. Sociology as a discipline has struggled to come to terms with exciting developments in areas such as literary theory, cultural studies (as Davetian himself notes) and new media theory, and such disciplines barely influence the kind of sociology that is published today in mainstream UK or US journals. This is not to say that innovative social theory has simply vanished, but that some of the most challenging work on 'the social' is being done outside of sociology as we know it. That is why I interviewed thinkers like Judith Butler, Françoise Vergès and Scott Lash in The Future of Social Theory, as well as others who are doing important, ground-breaking work from within the discipline: John Urry, Nikolas Rose, Ulrich Beck, Saskia Sassen, Bruno Latour and Zygmunt Bauman. In short, I wanted to find new theories and methods for thinking about the basis of all sociology: the social. In line with Davetian's position, I also wanted to place sociology in dialogue with other disciplines, such as geography (Sassen, Urry), political theory (Rose) and philosophy, literary theory and queer theory (Butler). Some critics have disagreed with the rationale for this project on the grounds that it neglected their favourite thinkers or approaches (such as psychoanalysis, see Elliott, 2005), but the book never claimed to be an exhaustive survey of all possible positions. Rather it was a modest attempt at opening new interdisciplinary spaces for thinking about the social through dialogue with some of the leading thinkers writing today. If others want to open alternative spaces by talking to different theorists or about different disciplines then so much the better.

2.3 It appears that this is, in fact, Davetian's wish, for he calls for heightened dialogue between sociology and psychology. Such dialogue has taken place in fruitful ways in the past in the work of the Frankfurt School, and, as Elliott points out, continues to take place today in the writings of Žižek and Laplanche. For this reason, I would argue that Davetian's emphasis on Comte's separation of these disciplines overlooks some of the most interesting fusions of sociology and psychology that appear in the work of Freud, Lacan, Adorno, Žižek and others. Davetian's account also paints a rather one-sided portrait of Comte. For while Comte had little to say about emotions, his work remains powerful in other ways, in particular his theory of social statics and social dynamics (which can be mapped onto recent theories of accelerated change and social movement), along with his law of the three states (following which all social theory can be seen as a (failed) attempt to overcome metaphysics).

2.4 These aspects of Comte's work, however, are neglected because they have little to do with a sociology of emotions. Instead, Davetian uses Comte to characterise the split between sociology and psychology in the following terms: 'psychologists went "into" the human while sociologists went "out" into the social'. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this use of Comte, I would object to Davetian's characterisation of this split because classical sociology (particularly the work of Weber and the early Marx) ties together the social with an understanding of the human. Weber, for example, looked at meaningful social actions between human subjects, while Marx analysed the social as the outcome of relations forged between humans in the process of production. This tying together of 'the human' and 'the social' in classical theory is still evident today when sociology is described (as it commonly is) as the study of human societies. But there are other historical figures, besides Comte, that might also be considered here. Rousseau, who died 20 years before Comte was born, addresses, for example, the question of the social contract. But his work (aside from Emile) again runs counter to Davetian's insistence on psychologism because it reads the social in legal terms as emerging from new systems of positive law and political right. This legalistic reading of the social (which is reproduced in different ways in each of the classical thinkers) says little about human emotion, but, I would argue, is important today in the face of expanding international and global rights claims. Indeed, in the introduction to The Future of Social Theory, I call this the new world of the hyper-social.

2.5 Davetian is right to observe then that the study of emotions is largely absent in the founding texts of so-called classical sociology. But, I would argue, there are good reasons for this. For Marx, Durkheim and Weber, emotions do not explain the emergence and development of capitalist society and culture. For Marx, in my reading at least, economic or material forces are the drivers of social and cultural change, and this has little to do with 'emotions' or the way people feel. Given the brutal history of capitalist and colonial expansion, and even the harsh market-driven mechanisms of economic globalization today, there is still something to this argument, not least because emotions are secondary to or perhaps even structured by inhuman capitalist forces, which, as Giddens and Bauman point out, increasingly seem to possess their own 'runaway' powers. For Durkheim, meanwhile, things are more complex, for capitalist development is tied to the specialisation of the division of labour and to fundamental changes in the nature of social solidarity. This analysis (and not simply the argument of Suicide) is pivotal today as we return to the question of whether there is such a thing as 'society'. In Durkheim's account of the 'homo-duplex' individual (which again is a legal rather than 'emotional' unit, and hence one that cannot be understood in purely psychological terms), we become increasingly individualized with the emergence and development of modern capitalism. Importantly, however, does not mark the decline of the social per se but rather the emergence of a new social order based on individual right and contract in which we, as individuals, become more isolated but at the same time more dependent on others. In other words, with the rise of modern individualism, a new form of sociality is born.

2.6 Recently, Bauman (2000) has revisited this vision of the social in the light of changing relations between the public and private spheres. For Bauman, the question of whether society exists today is more pressing than ever because traditional networks of support and dependency are giving way to increasingly fluid, flexible and unstable bonds between individuals (who are not necessarily citizens). For him, the problem of totalitarianism (the authoritarian power of state to restrict the private lives of individuals) is giving way to individualisation, whereby public spaces are overrun with private interests and emotions. This does not seem, to me at least, to give a completely accurate picture of things, as post 9-11 individualisation is accompanied at the same time by the emergence of new authoritarian state powers (most notably new powers for surveillance). But Bauman is right in his observation that the public sphere is filled increasingly with the private lives and emotions of individuals. This means that Davetian's 'private selves' are increasingly put out for public display. But the question is: do we want a sociology that is filled with emotions too, or is a key purpose of sociology to explain the common (post-)structural conditions that lie behind the feelings of uncertainty and isolation that so many of us experience today? I would argue for the latter, and for this reason psychologism, for me at least, is not the answer, for individualisation is a social rather than psychological process, albeit one that has deep psychological consequences.

2.7 Max Weber, meanwhile, offers a different view to either Durkheim or Marx. In one sense, Weber seems to bypass the study of emotions by placing 'affectual' behaviour beneath the 'instrumentally rational' and the 'value-rational' in his typology of social action. This means that emotions are not understood to be social in the fullest sense of the word. But at the same time, Weber calls for 'adequacy' at the levels of causality and meaning, which leaves the door ajar for the study of emotions. Davetian disagrees on the grounds that Weber 'became pre-occupied with explaining the historical and religious origins of modern rationalization', and hence 'minimized important intervening emotive movements that had a seminal influence on the development of capitalism and consumption in the West'. The important thing, however, is that causality and meaning are connected for Weber, for it is only possible to understand the motives (a word which particularly interests Davetian and one that Weber uses frequently) for people's actions by understanding what these mean to actors themselves, as well as to those that such actions are oriented. This has been developed into a full-blown theory of intersubjectivity by subsequent thinkers (from Alfred Schutz through to Jürgen Habermas), but nevertheless there is a notion of empathetic understanding in Weber that to some extent takes account of the feeling states of the actors in question. This, in theory, should be reconcilable with a broader analysis of the historical and religious origins of modern rationalisation, perhaps as an extension of the The Protestant Ethic thesis, which looks at the unintended consequences of Protestant asceticism, but less at the feeling states of Protestants themselves. This, however, is something that I have no intention of doing myself. My interests lie rather in Weber's idea of unintended consequences and elective affinities (which re-emerge in the work of Ulrich Beck), and also his view that history is driven by complex configurations of ideal and material interests, not simply 'emotions'.

Communication and the Posthuman

3.1 Davetian, however, extends his critique of the 'troublesome omissions' of social theory from classical sociology to more contemporary theoretical forms. In the course of this account, he is critical of Lyotard's theory of the self as a 'communicational reality'. Davetian observes that a similar position might be found, although with a different emphasis, in the work of pragmatists such as George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer. While there are subtle differences between these thinkers, Davetian's verdict is they are united in their failure to explain 'what it is that "emotivates" a person or a collective across national and cultural boundaries'. This might well be true, but Davetian surely misses a stage in the argument here. What is interesting, for me at least, about the work of Lyotard, along with other figures such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Judith Butler and Scott Lash, is that they address in detail the linguistic and/or communicational dimensions of the social 'bond' (if this still indeed exists). There are good reasons for doing this, not least because what 'emotivates' a person is often language (be this a written, spoken, visual or gestural signification), which at the same time is one of the primary means for self-expression. The deeper question this begs, and which Davetian omits, is: can the social in fact exist without communication?

3.2 For Lash (2002), the answer appears to be 'no', for social relations are fast becoming forms of communication: they are increasingly short-lived, transient and mediated by new, super-fast technologies. In this reading, the social and communication are inseparable, even if they do not form a bond as such. But, if this is the case, might not the same logic be applied to the study of emotions? For example, are emotions a form of communication (either within the nervous system of the body or projected externally through gestures or language)? Davetian's position here seems to be caught in a double bind. For if the answer is 'yes' then emotions might be studied as part of a wider analysis of the social in terms of communication or language. Meanwhile, if the answer is no (as Davetian suggests when he says that words are not needed for emotions to exist), what exactly is to be the subject matter of a sociology of emotions, for such sociology, and even the psychotherapy of Arthur Janov, seems to presuppose that feelings can be communicated in some way? The key question here is what exactly is meant by the term 'emotion'. Davetian's reference to a 'primal well', which appears similar to the Lacanian 'real' insofar as it resists symbolisation through language, is far from clear. The same might be said of the term 'human' when Davetian speaks of the study of the 'emotional components of human society'. What exactly does this mean?

3.3 A theoretical resource that might be drawn upon here is cybernetics. Humberto Maturana, for example, argues that human being is not defined by biology but by a certain kind of 'cognitive space' that is structured by the 'flow of language'. Within this definition, however, Maturana (nd.) gives space for the play of human emotions:

'as we are emotional animals as well, it is better to say that we human beings exist as such in the flow of our language (coordinations of consensual behaviours) braided at every instant with the flow of our emotions (relational domains) in the domain of recursive coordination of behaviour in which our languaging takes place. It is with this dynamics we connote our daily life with the word conversation. Accordingly, we can say that we human beings exist in the flow of conversations and that everything we do as human beings we do in the recursive flow of coordinations of consensual behaviours. That is, we are human beings and we become human beings as we live and grow in conversation with other human beings'.

3.4 In other words, for Maturana, emotions, like the human and the social more generally, cannot be divorced from language and the associated question of communication. This is also the case for more conservative thinkers such as Fukuyama (2002:170), for whom language and emotions are key features of what it means to be human. Regardless of the correctness of these respective positions, what is important here is the attempt to place into question that cornerstone of classical sociological reasoning: 'the human'. This, I would argue, is one of the key tasks of a sociology of emotions today.

3.5 An important part of such an enterprise is to analyse the ways in which human beings (including emotions) mutate as technologies transform their capacities for communication, along with the nature of language itself (mobile phone text-messaging is an obvious example). The key question here is: do different technologies elicit different kinds of emotions in us or alter our capacity for 'feeling' as they change the ways in which we communicate? McLuhan (1964) touched on this when he defined media as 'extensions of ourselves'. This seemingly banal definition introduces a tension that is still powerful over 40 years on, for in these terms media extend our physical senses but in so doing 'work us over' by redefining both our mental and physical (and hence emotional) capacities both to be who we are and to be with others (seeMcLuhan and Fiore, 1967). The implication here is that as technology changes, so too does human experience or 'being'. This mutation is a key point of focus in recent debates about the posthuman: an entity that emerges once the human is liberated from previous constraints of biology. The key work here is Donna Haraway's (1991) 'Cyborg Manifesto', which questions the biological purity of the human by drawing attention to the increasingly fragile boundaries between the human and animal, animal/human and machine, and the physical and non-physical. The basic argument of this work (at least as I read it) is that the human as a self-contained being is giving way to new hybrid entities or cyborgs that cross the boundaries between human and animal biologies, information systems and machines. This in turn does two things, and maybe more. It, first, suggests, that in an age of intelligent machines, in which the question of human-machinic tranversality comes to the fore, the essence of the human is revealed as an historical-cultural construction based upon a biological norm of genetic purity. Second, and alongside this, it suggests that manipulation of biology through new brain-computer interfaces or genetic engineering takes us beyond the human into a world of invention and re-invention that is beyond culture and nature as they have been traditionally been known. This point of transgression is what some call the posthuman - for better (Pepperell, 2003) or worse (Fukuyama, 2002).

3.6 This presents new challenges for thinking about the connections between culture and biology, and the mind and body. Davetian himself recommends that we 'increase our understanding of the "feeling bodies"' that live within' such 'cultures of change'. Interestingly, the body and emotions lie at the very centre of debates over the human and posthuman. Katherine Hayles, for example, insists that the body, along with the question of materiality more generally, is the focal point for the study of the posthuman. She even asks, albeit ironically, 'How does it feel to be posthuman?' (Hayles, nd). Hayles' intention here is to attack thinkers such Hans Moravec for suggesting that consciousness, and with this emotion, is not restricted to human beings but can be simulated and perhaps even experienced by machines. This issue cannot be dealt with at any length here, but nonetheless it is worth noting that, for Hayles (2005), Moravec's work is part of a wider cultural development through the course of which computers rather than humans have become the measure of all things, including paradoxically the benchmark for judging what counts as being 'human'. Such a development has important consequences for a sociology of human societies that seeks to place the study of emotions at its core. Three lines of questioning immediately come to mind. First, are emotions restricted to human beings? If so, what happens to emotions or 'feeling states' once the 'nature' of these beings can be radically altered? If not, then how might a sociology of emotions be extended to the study of 'intelligent' machines? Second, what is the role of technology in changing the ways in which we experience the world and communicate to one another? If technologies of communication change, do we change too? Do technologies then structure are capacity to experience or 'feel' the world around us, thereby shaping the content of our emotions? More fundamentally, is emotion itself a form of communication, even if this does not take a linguistic form? And third, in view of the above, what is left of the term 'human' in the social sciences? Is the human a cultural construction that is finally free from biology, or is it an array of cultural and political norms tied historically to a body that has now been transcended? Either way, I suggest that the notion of 'human society', which lies at the heart of Davetian's sociology of emotions, now needs to be questioned rather than presupposed.


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