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Cambridge University Press
Durkheim's Ghosts: Cultural Logics and Social Things

Durkheim's Ghosts: Cultural Logics and Social Things

by Charles Lemert
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From Saussure and Levi-Strauss to Foucault, Bourdieu and Derrida, current criticism of modern politics and culture owe an important, if unacknowledged, debt to Emile Durkheim. These engaging and innovative essays by Charles Lemert bring together his writings on the contributions of French social theory past and present. Rather than merely interpret the theories, Lemert uses them to explore the futures of sociology, social theory, and culture studies. He offers the reader original insights into Durkheim's legacy and broader traditions of the cultural and social sciences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521603638
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 02/09/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.91(w) x 8.94(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Charles Lemert is Andrus Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, Connecticut. He is a leading sociologist and his many books include Muhammad Ali: Trickster in the Culture of Irony, French Sociology: Rupture and Renewal since 1968, Michel Foucault: Social Theory and Transgression, and Social Things: An Introduction to the Sociological Life. His book Social Theory is a best-selling text in the field.

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Durkheim's Ghosts
Cambridge University Press
0521842662 - Durkheim's Ghosts - Cultural Logics and Social Things - by Charles Lemert

Part I

Cultural logics


Frantz Fanon and the living ghosts of capitalism's world-system

Frantz Fanon died of cancer December 7, 1961 in Washington, D.C. He had gone to the United States seeking treatment unavailable elsewhere. Given all that he stood for, he died in the most alien of lands - far from Algeria, the home of his medical practice and literary fame; just as far in social distance from Martinique, where he was born, thirty-six years before, on July 20, 1925. In a short life Fanon had traveled light years across the colonizing belt that for half a millennium had held up the pants of the capitalist world-system.

His death in Washington, at the core of the world system against which he fumed, was a final exclamation on the cruelty of Atlantic colonialism. Fanon had been trained at the medical faculty in Lyon and practiced medicine in France's North African colonies. Still, the fabled French paternalism that each day airlifts bread from Paris to the overseas departments would not deliver adequate medical care to its colonial subjects. The violence of the world system cuts even the decomposing bodies of those off whom it feeds.

And, those who die young never quite go away. They are lost but never far off. If we knew them in this life, we remember them as they were before they fell. If we knew them only by what they left behind, we imagine them in their prime. None was more ordinal to the crisis of his times than Fanon.

Black Skin, White Masks appeared in Paris in 1952 as Peau Noire, Masques Blancs. Fanon was twenty-seven, not long out of medical school; still young to his work as a psychiatrist; still a year before taking up his post at Blida, the notorious asylum outside Algiers. The book was, among other of its rebellions, a first strike against the received wisdom of the white world whose insufferable culture was his ticket to cultural and political power.

The title, Black Skin, White Masks, suggests a play on the double-consciousness theme of which W. E. B. Du Bois had written fifty years before in Souls of Black Folk. On the contrary, Black Skin, White Masks was radical even by the pointed standards Du Bois had set. Fanon's Negro is the Negro subject of the colonial system. His experience is Black through and through, but governed by a remote class of white officials administering the policies of a distant metropolis. The American Negro of whom Du Bois wrote was in daily contact with a greater number of latently aggressive whites who could be counted upon to leave the bodies burned and hung for all to see. This sort of neighborhood violence is done in and for the middle ground - a ground onto which the American Negro stepped to serve, from which otherwise he was meant to keep himself.

It is not that the colonized do not suffer racial violence. They do. But the violence upon which the capitalist world system is built gets deeper under the skin. For Fanon there was very little doubling of the Negro consciousness. The white mask has the upper hand - so much so that, against every ounce of conviction, one may be forced to turn over his body for last medical rites.

"The Black man is not a man." Thus began Black Skin, White Masks. For Fanon there is no middle ground for the Negro because he is formed by the white colonizers. "The Black is a Black man; that is, as a result of a series of aberrations of affect, he is rooted at the core of a universe from which he must be extricated." Negritude thus became the zero-signifier of the silences upon which the modern world was founded - exclusions so close to the quick of its being that its culture cannot speak of it. Any system that thrives on mute exclusion is one so morbid that only violence can overcome it.

Black Skin, White Masks is an unruly book, ranging rowdily over literary, medical, political, and psychiatric themes - always literate, unnerving, and eerily remote in its condemnations. One of its more acerbic lines is Fanon's clinical savaging of the oedipal legend so dear to his profession. Referring to his native Martinique, he says: "The Martinican does not compare himself with the white man qua father, leader, God." The colonial subject's primary desires are not sexual ones for the parental-Other. The Other of colonized desire is the racial Other he can never hold. No middle ground. The Black man is already white. His longing for the white-Other is the ever open wound. In wishing to be other than he is, he confirms that he is not a man. He partakes of his own devastation. "The Negro is a slave who has been allowed to assume the attitude of a master" - Black skin, white mask. Therein, the first inkling of Fanon's scorching idea that the colonial system must die by the violence it has wrought. The corollary is that to kill the master, the slave must kill himself. No middle ground. This is the unspeakable violence of the capitalist world system.

Fanon saw the pages of Les Damnés de la terre just before dying. They gave him little comfort. But, this is the book, translated after his death as The Wretched of the Earth, that would become the spiritual manual of the revolutionary decade. In it Fanon slashed back at the heart of white power. "The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it." The violence of the modern world comes back to haunt. "The colonial world is a world cut in two."

In Fanon's last months, liberation struggles were severing the already cut parts of the Francophone colonies. The French lost Tunisia and Morocco in 1956 and Vietnam in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. They would lose Algeria in July, 1962, months after Fanon's death at the end of 1961, the year that Patrice Lumumba, having liberated the Congo from Belgium, was assassinated by the CIA. Those were the years when the colonial egg began to totter slowly toward its shattering fall.

Immanuel Wallerstein, but five years his junior, met Fanon in 1960 in Accra, Ghana at the World Assembly of Youth. Wallerstein recalls that "since neither of us had any obligations at this meeting (apart from my talk), and we hit it off, we spent a lot of time together." Many years later, he would claim Fanon as a "substantial influence" on his work. There is poetic symmetry in the off-chance of their few days together in decolonizing Africa. Though neither Fanon's Wretched of the Earth in 1961 nor Wallerstein's Modern World System in 1974 would normally be considered works of poetry, there is a literary justice in their having framed the decade that cracked the blithe innocence with which modernity mistook its global colonial empire for providence.

Frantz Fanon was the first of the great French social theorists of the dismantling of the colonial world from which capitalism extracted its wealth. More even than his fellow Martinican, Aimé Césaire, or his fellow North African, Albert Memmi, Fanon set down the terms of colonization as a global system of racial terror. He was not the first to define racism as the foundation of the capitalist world system. In his later years, W. E. B. Du Bois did much the same. Nor was Fanon a world systems analyst before the fact. But he did unravel the inscrutable knot in which modern culture had tied itself. Modernity's enlightened reasonableness so dazzles the gullible eye as to blind it to the brutality that subsidizes its cultural finery. And no more so than in its sweet inducements to see the world as one, when in fact it is inherently and necessarily divided in two.

Therein may lie the appreciation that led Wallerstein to read Fanon in French even before they hit it off in 1960 in Accra. Wallerstein, in turn, began his work as a specialist in African studies. This may be why the younger of the two men understood before others what Fanon, by experience, understood before him. The global system of capital greed was first and foremost based on the Atlantic violence of the slave trade triangle since the painfully long sixteenth century. Fanon and Wallerstein mark off, in effect, the beginning and the end of the time of the French social thought that arose in the decolonizing movements of the 1960s to grow into an acute heaviness in the world revolutions of 1968, after which, all the king's men of the modernist dream could not put their humpty back together again.

Though worlds apart, in work and experience, Fanon and Wallerstein were, in their youths, both students of France and her colonies; from which, by different lessons, they learned that, dreams aside, the modern world is a system united in the illusion that capitalism's violence is benign. Now, in the face of realities hard to deny, that world is more evidently one always divided in two - a prosperous powerful core; a bleak, eroded periphery. Being colonial to the core, it is a world of incommensurable parts, joined by a pervasive violence from which there is no escape. The truth of this fact is hard to swallow, especially in the early years of the twenty-first century when the global viscera are regurgitating modern violence back up through its over-stuffed gullet.

Ghosts are beings without bodies. When they appear, they are more real than the living. They visit with impunity, by their own pleasure. The living cannot easily shake them off because even the courageous would rather not hear what they have to say.

During his last months in hospital in Washington D.C., Wallerstein was reunited with Fanon. "I don't know," he recalls many years later, "if I was the only white American to have that kind of relationship with him. Maybe. In any case, there couldn't have been very many. There were hardly any Americans, white or Black, who had even heard of Fanon in 1961. For one thing, he wasn't translated yet into English." Fanon died young, before his time had come. This sad fact of Fanon's death may be among the reasons he continues to haunt the colonial world system. He died before the core of the system could know him.

Whoever conjures up the ghosts - whether it is the living searching for what they lost or the dead refusing to go away until their stories register - ghosts haunt the living for some good reason. Whatever it may be, Fanon is the apparition that appears in the bad dreams of the capitalist overlords who, having drunk too much and stuffed their guts too full, awake restive in the stupor. They will not very often know Fanon's name, but they recognize him in the faces of those they skip over as they surf the channels of their late night insomnia.

Durkheim's ghosts in the culture of sociologies

There are risks ahead at the turn of a phrase like Durkheim's Ghosts. None is more fraught than the dread that a sacred corpse is about to be defiled. Still, the risk is worth taking. Like most of his age, Durkheim is dead. Like few others, his body of work lives on to haunt the present.

Durkheim's claim on the minds of generations of social thinkers owes, as these things often do, to an ever heightening sensibility to the concerns he addressed in his time. The industrial and social conflicts that shocked his generation in the waning years of the nineteenth century have, in the early twenty-first century, passed on, but not away. Perturbations interior to a national-community have not so much disappeared as been caught up in a jumble of global conflicts. As a result, it is no longer possible to look for the cause of social disorders where Durkheim did - in the entrails of an encompassing Society defined implicitly by a territorial polity covering a purportedly distinct national culture.

Whether global conflicts are more or less severe than those of early industrial nation-states is an open question. But they are more pervasive - normal enough to require ever more explosive outbursts of violence to keep media attention focused; or, if not more pervasive, then more visible. Durkheim's generation saw what it saw of the wider world through glasses dimmed by the blush of European colonial domination. In the comparison, the unsettlements in Europe in Durkheim's day - even those leading up to the Great War which ended the innocence of his generation - seem local and passing. Today's troubles may be different in degree, perhaps modified in kind, but they are similar enough to render Durkheim's definition of the crisis, if not his solutions, disconcertingly apt to a much different time.

It may be that the dead stir up dread because they are not dead-enough. Legion are they who prefer their dead to stay put as are, say, Comte and Spencer who haven't budged in years. We visit them, if at all, as curiosities. Then there are ones like Durkheim and Marx, who are far from ready for the wax museum. The living dead, when they are not a comfort (as, remarkably, they can be), disturb the hold people like to have over their own times and places. Yet, they haunt variously according to their several natures.

Durkheim disturbs for reasons different from the others. Marx and Freud are two contrary examples of theorists from another time, who, while living, wrote convincingly of ghosts haunting Europe and of uncanny visitations from the Unconscious, which may be why, while dead, they will not quit the scene even when hunted down by detractors. They exposed themselves to attack on the critical flank of their daring theories of modernity's dishonest social veneer. Though differently, to be sure, Marx and Freud believed as Weber and Durkheim could not: that to understand modern societies of the industrial age it was necessary to begin from the assumption that the appearances of the new technological wonders were false representations of the underlying realities. For them, the facts of modern matters are haunted by hidden and contrary forces - the mode of production in Marx's case; the Unconscious in Freud's.

Durkheim, in this one respect, was more like Weber. Each struggled, in his way, to explain the new world as it presented itself. Neither could quite believe that what met the eye was as far as it was from the whole truth. Weber, however, and unlike Durkheim, had the stronger inkling that something inscrutably perverse was wrong on the surface of social things. Still, unlike Marx and Freud, the best Weber could do was to describe the enigma where the others insisted that the perversities of modern life were, in truth, interpretative guides to the underlying and contrary realities. In the end, Weber could do little more than bemoan the facts that cut both ways at once - modern rationality enhanced human freedom, while at the same time trapping the modern in the iron cage of rational efficiency.

Durkheim, at least in the early empirical studies, notably Suicide, was barely skeptical at all - a character trait lacking in Durkheim to the extent that it was prominent among the other three. For Durkheim, the social facts he took as social things in and of themselves were drawn up in numerical rates he had culled from Europe's dusty archives. This - the naïve move of an ambitious younger man - led him down the slope of scientific trouble greased by the all-too-comfortable slippage from reality to gathered data to fact to analytical stabs at the truth. The others held fast to a higher, if equally vulnerable, ground.

Marx and Freud, by developing their reconstructive sciences of material and emotional netherworlds, complicated the logic of daily life at some embarrassment to their methodological boasts in the triumph of the aggravated revolution and the patient therapy of the talking cure. Weber, by setting forth the grand interpretative method of understanding, was in his way the more daring of the lot, though at the cost that accompanies even so astute an appeal to the intersubjective: that of freezing modern man in his tracks, the lost soul cut off from the traditions, looking foolishly for the charismatic prophet. By contrast, one could make the case that Durkheim's caution, though it cost him dearly on the political side, left him the option he chose, however unwittingly, of revisiting the scientific side to supply the traction his early theories lacked.

Still, none of them would come to life today were it not for one or another nod to the finitude of social life - its politics and sciences included most especially. With or without a theory of ghosts, all were consumed by the past. They were at the head of the short list of survivors from a generation preoccupied with the lost past - a preoccupation without which what today we call the social sciences might not have come into being in their present form. Sociology, in its earliest days, was nothing if not a running commentary on the fate of traditional values in the caldron of modern times. It was precisely the question of human values that united all the European men, if not others. The quest for values in a value-less world led to the classic European experiments with four of the essential methods still at work in social theory and sociology. Marx's foundational value of the elementary labor process as a transcending critical tool, Weber's intersubjective value as the probative method of the ideal typical, Freud's imputation of scientific and therapeutic value to the chaos of dream talk, Durkheim's imbrication of social values upon the isolated individual - these were the subtly hidden, but evident, concerns that moved the European men of classic social theory. Each was an attempt to measure the continuity of the new modes of social order against what was to them a dead or dying past.

Durkheim led both academic and social movements promoting the reform of science and of the educational system in France. He believed, and many agreed, that the science he conveyed could heal the discord in and among over-individualized moderns. While controversial in his day, this aspect of Durkheim's life work seems a bit pathetic today - and no more so than when imagined as a solution to the divisions in the wider global spheres. Still, in surprising ways, Durkheim's ideas stand among the living-dead - even when, in some aspects, their enduring viability courses along a thin vein oblique to the heart of much social theory.

The surprise is palpable because Durkheim, more than the others, was the one forced by his times as by the mistakes of his early method to change course later in his work. Without getting onto the line Louis Althusser made famous in regard to Marx - whether there were two of him, the one young and the other mature, from which we get the question of whether there can be two anyones other than Jesus and Wittgenstein - it is fair to say that, though all purportedly great thinkers change their minds to some degree, few changed theirs as much as Durkheim did his.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Foreword; Preface; Part I. Cultural Logics: 1. Frantz Fanon and the living ghosts of capitalism's world system. Durkheim's Ghosts in the culture of sociologies; 2. Levi-Strauss and the sad tropics of modern cultures. What is culture? Amid the flowers, seeds or weeds?; 3. Paris 1907 and why the sociological imagination is always unstable. Sociological theory and the relativistic paradigm; 4. Ferdinand de Saussure and why the social contract is a cultural arbitrary. Literary politics and the Champ of French sociology; Part II. Durkheim's Ghosts: 5. Marcel Mauss and Durkheim and why the ghosts of social differences are ubiquitous. Durkheim's woman and the Jew as the pluperfect past of the good society; 6. Jacques Derrida and why global structures had to die when they did. The uses of French structuralisms in sociology; 7. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and why structures haunt instruments and measures. Structures, instruments, and reading in social and cultural research (with Willard A. Nielsen, Jr.); 8. Roland Barthes and the phantasmagorias of social things. Language, structure and measurement; Part III. Culture as the Ghost of Primitive Transgressions: 9. Michel Foucault and why analytic categories are queer. Pierre Bourdieu's aesthetic critique of sociological judgment; 10. Simone de Beauvoir and why culture is a semiotics of the other: Michel Foucault, social theory, and transgression (with Garth Gillan); 11. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein and why globalization is a social geography of inequalities. The impossible system of future worlds. Postscript: what culture is not.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Charles Lemert's deft disentanglement of Durkheim's legacy in social theory crowns a career devoted to exploring the cultural logics of social things. Durkheim's Ghosts is a brilliant and beautiful book, a passionate reflection on the powers and limits of French social theory's contributions to the understanding of culture."
-Anthony Elliott,Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of Critical Visions: New Directions in Social Theory (2003)

"The bodies of classical theory that outlive the conditions and times that produce them haunt us as scholarly ghosts. These hauntings can be either positive or negative, depending on how we handle them. Charles Lemert brilliantly explores the legacy of both the classical ghosts — Marx, Freud, Durkheim and Mauss — and a range of more proximate giants — Fanon, Foucault, Derrida and others — to provide a critical insight into French social theory. Durkheim's Ghosts is amongst other things a fascinating intellectual journey through twentieth century structuralism and its aftermath. The result is an analytical map of the tensions between the social and the cultural that have shaped the terrain of contemporary social thought. This is a journey not to be missed."
-Bryan S. Turner, Asia Research Institute, Singapore

"Were an ambitious novice to ask me today what book one might read in order to understand the Gallic theoretical tradition at its most vital, Durkheim's Ghosts would head the short list. Lemert's famous limpidity, in combination with a solid understanding of what French thinking is all about from the time of the Paris Commune forward, makes it an easy choice."
-Alan Sica, Pennsylvania State University, American Journal of Sociology

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