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Frank Pearce

On reading theory

[These passages from The Radical Durkheim apply to reading other authors as well. Reading is not absorbing a book like a hungry photocopier. When books were hand written and few ever saw them, ordinary people read dreams and riddles. "Reading the dream" meant interpreting it.]

[Some] theorists do not adequately respect the complexity, integrity and uncomfortable implications of theoretical discourses - they are willing to raid them, dismantle them and borrow from them to give authority and flesh to what they already believe or to generate syncretic syntheses.

... there are many critics who wish to render Durkheim more 'scientific', by tidying him up or by eliminating distortions due to the intrusion of value bias, so that his work fits the procrustean bed of a positivistic hypothetico-deductive science.

... there are those who reject the relevance of science for the analysis of human behaviour and advocate instead one or other form of idealism.

Much recent writing has demonstrated that these are false alternatives not least because the positivist model does not even fit the natural sciences...; furthermore Durkheim's 'scientific rationalism' is not a simple variant of positivism. ... whether correcting or dismissing it, both positions share a dogmatic approach to Durkheim's work -judging it by some already constituted theoretical discourse.

The characteristics and limitations of such an approach to theory were explored by Althusser in his discussion of the two different ways in which Marx read classical political economy. In a dogmatic reading the earlier text is reduced to the status of an anticipation (or ramification) of the later discourse and its study will therefore yield little of interest. In contrast to this he advocates a 'symptomatic reading' by which one can identify 'the combined existence of sightings and oversights which in an author "poses a problem, the problem of their combination".' This helps one to search for examples of 'the correct answer to a question that was never posed' (Althusser and Balibar, 1970, pp. 19-22) and to recognize the presence of more than one discourse in a text, to separate them out and to discover if they complement, suppress or displace each other thereby truncating each other's development. The symptomatic reading will be effective in so far as it divulges the undivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same moment relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first . . . the second text is articulated with lapses in the first. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 28)

In practice Althusser distinguishes between two different kinds of texts, one of which can indeed be assessed dogmatically, as having nothing to say - although it may be internally consistent to the point that it only ever poses questions that it has already answered _ whereas the other is not so much ideological as pre-scientific. The latter are read symptomatically from a position grounded in an already constituted scientific discourse. This helps to identify its useful parts and to discover symptoms (of incoherence) and to assess whether these merely indicate inadequacies or a point at which discourses intersect.

Hirst's Durkheim, Bernard and Epistemology (1975) is such a reading of Durkheim. He stresses the power of Durkheim's critique of social contract theories, applauds his consistent anti-humanist stance, his anti- subjectivism and his assertion of the irreduceable nature of the social, but criticizes him for misrepresenting Bernard and for succumbing to a form of metaphysical essentialism.

Thus Durkheim is congratulated for anticipating structuralism and for implicitly answering questions not put in his texts. His work is useful in so far as it agrees with or anticipates structuralism. The rest is confined to silence, or better is repressed, perhaps with the danger that it might re-emerge unbidden in the critic's own discourse.

Fundamental to these arguments of Althusser and Hirst is the belief that there exists a realm of scientific discourses that can be used to judge others, demanding compatibility in so far as they overlap. The mode of reading may be more sophisticated but it is still undoubtedly dogmatic.

Hindess has argued that we must abandon any dogmatic distinction between science and ideology. If theoretical discourses are to be criticised it can no longer be because they are alleged to be derived from some empiricist process or from epistemology but only because of an inadequacy at the level of their concepts and the relations between these concepts. (Hindess, B. 1977a), pp. 223-7

Such analyses help us to specify what is worth retaining within a discourse and to locate where it has become incoherent and thus how to rework it to generate more valid arguments. Hindess here acknowledges the potential incompatibility of internally coherent discourses but implies that the analysis of discourses is an activity of discovery - of stumbling upon, or unveiling what is already latent in the texts, thereby underplaying the intertextual nature of reading.

Reading is intertextual in that discourses are often identified only through the examination of more than one of an author's texts and a serious reading will involve examining a wide range of these. We must ask whether everything an author 'wrote, said or left behind is part of his work?' (Foucault, M. 22.2.1969, p. 103 in Foucault, M. 1986). In Durkheim's case these might include his 'marginal' writings on law, for example his somewhat Hobbesian 'La Science positive de la morale en Allemagne' or his wartime articles on Germany, where he pointed out that legal formalism could contribute to an unjust, aggressive social order (LaCapra, D. 1972). The texts that constitute an oeuvre are inevitably a selection.

In this book an attempt is made to identify the discourses that traverse Durkheim's texts, to disarticulate and evaluate them and to show how the development of some of the more fruitful is truncated by the presence of others that are less coherent.

The main focus is on The Division of Labour in Society, Suicide, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Moral Education, Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, The Rules of Sociological Method and Socialism.

Texts are also intertextual in that those who read them are always themselves already positioned by other texts and by the relations between discourses, discursive practices and the forms of subjectivity thereby constituted. Social practices work in part through the interpellation of subjects and this is as true of reading subjects as speaking/writing subjects or acting/feeling subjects.

"A meaning effect does not pre-exist the discursive formation in which it is constituted. The production of meaning is an integral part of the interpellation of the individual as a subject; in so far as, amongst other determinatons the subject is 'produced as cause of himself in the subject form of discourse, under the influence of interdiscourse." (Pecheux, M. 1982 p. 187)

The practice of reading, then, is always one produced by an interdiscourse.

Thus, for example, whilst Nisbet (1963) is correct that the conservative elements of Durkheim's work form 'one of the coherent systems of his thought', he seems blind to the fact that, as Hunt (1978) and Lukes (1975) have argued, it is only one such system in a complexus of political discourses - socialism, radicalism, conservativism - that traverse his work.

All three commentators, however, can be criticized for not attempting to specify from 'where' they themselves engage in such readings - to read a text is to be positioned by it, by the other texts with which it is articulated, and by the other discursive formations within which one is imbricated.

[Imbricated: roof tiles are imbricated. You are part of an inter-locking pattern of dialogues and your reader needs to know where you fit in. But roof tiles are more or less the same, so perhaps a jigsaw would be a better analogy? "I am the bit with the funny blue patch and I fit in under the nose". I think Frank means the same by articulated as he does by imbricated.]

These relationships determine why these particular texts are read and affect the process by which the presence of particular discourses (and signifying chains) within them is detected and ultimately what strategies are used to systematize, clarify, elaborate, disentangle and criticize them. They make it possible to isolate and assess the epistemologies, methodologies, political ideologies and problematics present _ and, indeed, often at stake - within them.

Dominick LaCapra's discussion of the 'transferential' relationship between the critical historian and both historical documents and the writings of other historians help clarify this issue.

" ... the desirable but elusive objective of an exchange with an other' is to work through transferential displacement in a manner that does not blindly replicate debilitating aspects of the past. Transference ... is as much denied by an assertion of the total difference of the past as by its total identification with one's own 'self or 'culture'.

The difficulty is to develop an exchange with the 'other' that is both sensitive to transferential displacement and open to the challenge of the other's 'voice'. In this sense it is a useful critical fiction to believe that texts or phenomena to be interpreted may answer one back and even be convincing enough to lead one to change one's mind." (LaCapra, D. 1972 LaCapra, 1987, pp. 72-3)

Thus such a textual analysis must not simply be negative but must also help the 'liberated' concepts to be put to work in a new manner.

Needless to say any new texts generated by a 'reformulation' of a deep structure of concepts will not represent a mere tidying up or correction of the old texts. The original texts will be displaced by the theoretical work expended upon them producing conceptual systems with significantly different substantive implications. Once different discourses (signifying chains) have been identified and their relationship to each other specified it is possible to discard those aspects of each that are fundamentally incoherent, and retain and synthesize those that are coherent and compatible with each other, supplementing this at times somewhat fragmentary conceptual system with other (equally compatible) concepts drawn from elsewhere _ thereby achieving a non-syncretic synthesis. It is important to note that to utilize a signifying chain or set of concepts is also to be constrained by its logic _ one is not free simply to pick and choose when to use which element of which argument. Rigorous retheorizing constrains the theorist, forcing him or her to think through the general implications of 'regional' analyses.

"Marx and Freud as founders of discursivity . . . made possible not only a certain number of analogies, but also (and equally important) a certain number of differences. They have created a possibility for something other than their discourse, yet something belonging to what they have founded..." (Foucault, M. 22.2.1969, p. 114 in Foucault, M. 1986)

A major goal of this book is to show that Durkheim was also a 'founder of discursivity'. It will be argued that his texts are traversed by a series of discourses which vary in their coherence, systemacity and completeness. Some discourses are relatively systematic but incoherent, others coherent but underdeveloped. The texts are explored to identify and analyse the discourses (and signifying chains) and hierarchies of concepts that constitute and are constituted by them. Where the lower level of concepts are found to be contradictory and confused then, in order to produce a more coherent theory, it is necessary to try to generate new concepts at this lower level. Such concepts generate models of a. variety of social forms some of which may already exist and others that could exist. A major aim of the book is to theorize elements of one of these in particular, namely an egalitarian socialist system.


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See discursivity and Frank's discussion of the creation of concepts using Weber and Durkheim.



Foucault: on discursivity - on a writer's work



    Radical Durkheim is copyright Frank Pearce and these extracts are used with his permission.