Sunday, 23 November 2014

My Mate Émile

Once again you’ve gone too far.  A few weeks of freedom and look what you’ve got yourself up to.

Well, you know…

We let you out on bail on the condition that you stopped beating up academics.  You were freed on good faith, as you seemed genuinely contrite and…

…and I appeared to have had a good education.  I talk well, don’t I?

No. Not…

Oh, I know you didn't actually say this; but isn't that what you meant?

Ha!  You have too much sauce young man.  And now look what you’ve gone and done: punching that professor in his lower paragraphs and head-butting his sentences. You’re going back inside, you know.

But wait; I…

Look.  It’s no use…

But listen!  Just you listen to this.

Our Année must provide people with a picture of what genuinely sociological production there has been, of its intensity as well as its quality.  For this reason, the mediocre products must be noted; they form an element of the whole, in their fashion… [but] if everything must find a place in our Année, the place must be very different [in different cases].  We must concentrate on what is important, fruitful or that can be made fruitful…it is the more or less important residue that can be extracted from the book, whether it takes the form of data (choses) or ideas, which should determine the length of the analysis… We must, don’t you think, reject the current methods of criticism, which are too concerned with seeing the author behind the work, and with ranking talents instead of noting results and their importance.  In matters of science, shouldn’t the ranking of men be a simple consequence of ranking what one owes them, whether it be insights or information.

That’s all very good sir, but…

Wait.  Émile hasn't finished.

….Our role as critics must be to extract from the works we study the objective residue, that is, the suggestive facts and the fruitful insights - whether they be interesting for their intrinsic value or because of the discussions they evoke.  The critic must be the collaborator of the author, his grateful collaborator; for whatever little remains of a book after critical evaluation, that much is gained for science…  Since many of [the works with which we have to deal] are not explicitly sociological, we could not be satisfied with giving their contents, with merely expounding, as it were, the materials they contain; as far as was possible, we had to submit them to a preliminary elaboration which would indicate to the reader what information contained in them is useful to the sociologist…  (Émile Durkheim quoted in Steven Lukes, Émile Durkheim; His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study)

Can you hear it officer?  Can you hear the truth in these words.  

Yes I…

Can you?  Can you really?  Can you really hear it?  Can you really hear that call of duty?  What does it say?


That honest men and women have a duty to uncover the qualities of a work and reject that which is useless.

But you’ve…

And while for most of the time we will ignore what is irrelevant or just plain nonsense there are occasions, and Radkau’s book is one of them, when we have to highlight the egregiousness and try to erase its pernicious effects.  As Durkheim says, we must look for what is important in the work not “concentrate on the man behind” it.

But sir, your exegesis is not accurate.

Yes! Yes! Yes it is!  You are too keen to interject.  Your tongue should wait upon your ears. Forgive me the metonymy; I know it can sound a little abrupt; perhaps even a trifle rude.

Well, yes…

Yes, it is true that I am bringing out something that Durkheim leaves implicit in his remarks.  Most of the time we will ignore what is poor and third-rate.  However, there are times when the details are not only useless but positively harmful; Radkau’s book designed to destroy an important thinker’s reputation.  Oh, of course, it is all done in the name of truth and science; the good professor ending his biography with a long and fascinating extract from Karl Jaspers who believed in a myth that this biographer wants to expose.  It is the myth of Max Weber the secular saint; the intellectual patron of West Germany.  Jaspers made the mistake of conflating the public work with the private life; assuming that the latter was subsumed into the former.  Jaspers’ mistake is the complete opposite of Radkau’s; though both hold the same assumption - that work and life are essentially the same kind of activity.  The differences between them are due solely to the periods in which they worked; Jaspers active when the public realm was idolised, especially by the intellectuals who wanted to extend it into the family home; Radkau inhabiting a far more privatised and salacious place.  We expect he watches Big Brother. 

Radkau justifies his biographical approach by arguing that Weber’s private life explains the thought; the problems of sex intimately entwined with artistic creativity; their connection the secret to understanding the work.  The result: prurience packaged as scholarship.  It inevitably devalues the thinker, who is reduced to an ordinary man with the usual problems of love and passion.  Compare Radkau with Steven Lukes.  It is like listening two musicians; the one an amateur bassoonist; the other a virtuoso of the trumpet. The amateur plays badly, offending the ear and spoiling the professional’s magisterial performance, which we can hardly hear through a cacophony of clodhopping notes.  We ask him to stop.  He won’t. So we catcall and ridicule him hoping to shame him into silence.  I call this a public service, sir.

Yes, I see; I see your point.  In a sense it is the professor who is the criminal and we should be arresting him.

I wouldn’t go quite that far, officer.

No.  Neither would we; after all he is a respected authority.

This meant nothing to Durkheim.  It is the information, ideas and insights that are important in a work; the rest doesn't matter.


But! But! But!  But what about me!  What about the pain Radkau has caused me; those hours of torture on the rack of his sentences.

True; I hadn’t…

So now do you understand.

All right.  But be careful in future.  Yes?

I will be more careful.  I promise.

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