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What We Learn from the Humanities - Jeffrey C. Alexander, Yale University

(Conference in honor of Professor Ruth Katz, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, December 2008.)

One of the distinctive achievements of Ruth Katz is how she has worked both sides of the street dividing the humanities and the social sciences. That she has been as much social scientist as humanist has been perhaps her most public identity in the field of musicology, and we see disciplines outside those of the traditional humanities well represented in the conference this week. As a cultural sociologist, however, I have been more interested in how she keeps her humanities jacket on when she dons the hat of the social scientist.
When this humanist does "commit a social science" - as the poet W. H. Auden warned Harvard students not to - she does so by bringing the disciplines of the humanities, not by dismissing them for the chimera of hard structures, scientific methods, and objective cause. She has moved from humanities to social science, in other words, in distinctively anti-positivist, interpretive, meaning-oriented way. Twenty-five years ago, Ruth Katz laid this program out in a philosophical contribution to Israel Studies in Musicology. "All historical arrangements and classifications depend," she insisted, "upon an ordering of materials according to some presupposition about the goal of the development." Because "history is not a search of laws" but rather "largely in search of meaning," historical analysis "is interpretive by definition[,] a conceptually structured selection of detail importing signification" (1983 [3]: 7-17, quoting p. 14).

Disciplinary Urban Renewal

Tonight, I would like to honor the work of Ruth Katz by following in her example. I want to walk along the street dividing social sciences and humanities, to think about why the city planners of our academic city (or cité) put the street where they did, and propose some urban renewal to make this street run another way. I will propose that we gentrify the social sciences; that we bring life into the grand spaces and mechanical dwellings of its often empty cité; that we curve its straight boulevards and bring in some coffee houses, book stores, and street vendors. Let's take down some walls and raise high the roof beams, letting the light of signification in! Let's sweep away the old dust of behaviorism and lay down the carpet of hermeneutics. Let's remodel action theory along the sleek new lines of performativity. Let's dress up the neighborhood of drab materiality with aesthetic ideas about the beautiful and sublime. Of course, this remodeled, twenty-first century cité would involve some changes from the humanities, too. Humanities theories centered on meaning often fail to explore the sociological contexts for signification. But this was certainly not the case with Ruth Katz, and it will not be a problem with which I am primarily concerned today. Today's social science is still way too concerned with contexts and not enough with signification.

Social science today - and here I am thinking most about sociology and political science -- is hobbled by the fact that it still looks longingly to what it imagines as the explanatory perfections and achievements of the natural sciences. It is hard to accept that social discoveries will never have the explanatory scope, much less the universal reach, of physics, biology, and chemistry. The social sciences seem always to be making an effort to catch up. I want to suggest that we give up this effort - not that we surrender rationality or give up theory but that we stop thinking of ourselves as in some queue for becoming a science in the English-language sense. Queuing to become a science obscures our own distinctive subjectivity -- the artfulness, morality, and imagination that go into social observation and theory. It also obscures the distinctive ontology of the world we are investigating. The social world is subjective; its structures are fueled by interpretation; its so-called laws are actually norms re-instituted time and again, dramatized every moment of every day. The realism of society and its investigation are achieved and performed; they are not naturally there. Thinking of ourselves as a would-be natural science deprives us of critical tools we need to be good students of the social. We need less statistics and more sign theory, less research design than methods for reading the social text, fewer techniques for making observations than for estimating the effectiveness of performance.

The Human Sciences

More than one hundred years ago, Wilhelm Dilthey brilliantly laid out the case for a human rather than a narrowly social science. "Human sciences" represents the conventional translation of his Geisteswissenschaften, literally the sciences of the spirit. Dilthey called his philosophical position "hermeneutics" (after Schleiermacher), and he emphasized, above all, the significance of interpretation as compared to observation. Interpretation must be central for the human sciences because, Dilthey insisted, there is an inner, invisible life pivotal for social action and order. To concentrate on the outer visible shell of human actions, as compared to this inner invisible spirit, is to mistakenly import into the human sciences concepts from the natural sciences, such as objective force and efficient cause. Insofar as the inner life of society becomes our focus, we must eschew the project of predictive science and universal law, though we can still strive for abstraction and generalization and create models that withstand the march of historical time.
Dilthey's argument was extraordinarily controversial and remained very much a minoritarian view in modern social science, despite the valiant, if also ambivalent efforts of some Weberians, Durkheimians, phenomenologists, pragmatists, critical theorists, Parsonians, Geertzians, and Foucauldians to keep it alive. What developed, instead, was a split inside of the human studies, a split that has produced the grand canyon between the humanities and the social sciences across which we continue to peer today.

Texts, not Things

The standard objects of social science are social structures that seem objective, obdurate, and constraining to human will. According to Durkheim's famous, and famously ambiguous phrase (1894), "les faits socials sont comme les choses": Social facts are things, and meanings are formed in response. But we can see how this is precisely not the case if we cross to the other side of the street, to the humanities side. Yes, our objects remain social and structures, but they must now be seen as texts. Rather than following Durkheim's methodological stricture, we need to be responsive to Paul Ricoeur's declaration that "meaningful action must be considered as a text." We must learn to see organization, state, class, market, technology, commodity, ethnicity, race, gender, and urban space from the other side of the street. As patterned meanings, we must learn to read their texts. What are their culture structures? How do they mean? How are these subjective meanings crystallized and projected outward as essentalized facts? How are these textual messages received? How is their power variable? What are the texts that audiences form in response?

Binary Codes

Texts are composed of signs, not individual words; rather than practical and pragmatic speech acts, they are languages structured relationally as patterns of signifiers. We must get away from the side of the street that addresses social facts as the things, for this is only what they often seem to be. What is visible, what appears to be natural and thing-like, is actually a carrier for invisible meanings the signifiers for which are not there to be seen. We learned this from Ferdinand Saussure. His other, more specific semiotic insight, that the relation between signifiers is deeply binary in its form, was fully developed by his carping Russian disciple Roman Jacobson (the founder of the Prague School), and later refined by Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Marshall Sahlins. The meaning of a thing never stands alone; it can only exist in relation to other meanings. They are binary at their core. Social facts may be "thing-like" in the sense of supra-individual, coming to individuals from without. But their collective status is textual, not material, and it rests on binary codes. For social science to become a human science, it must draw all this from the humanities, but it must not do so without remainder. The manner in which binaries are applied involves social weighting, good and evil, in the late Durkheim's terms the sacred and profane. Binary categories are eminently social classifications. Morally and affectively weighted, they fuel scape-goating, oppression, and exclusion, but can inspire inclusion and liberation too. Boundary making illuminates social closure, boundary-crossing how it can be overcome (Barth, Alexander, Lamont).
Think, for example, of technology, of the first steam driven locomotives or computers in their early days as main frame and lap top. Should we see these as objects in the material sense? Only as material means invented and produced to more efficiently make money, achieve power, or conduct surveillance? Should we measure their impact only in terms of speed and calculation, as sustaining economic modes of production or political regimes of violence? Certainly social scientists would not wish to ignore any of this, any more than any humanities scholar would deny the social context that prevents or allows this or that aesthetic genre to come fully to life. But technology is also a text, a material embodiment, or referent, of signifiers that have propelled it into being every bit as powerfully as the physics, chemistry, and mathematics that have contributed to its invention. And this textuality has contributed even more than these objective sciences to technology's effect.
I am thinking here of how the steam engine and computer signified the sacred and the profane. They were heralded as machines that embodied the hopes of modernity and would allow us to rise above the dreck and dirt of civilization. They were vehicles of salvation, promoted and capital invested as much for their dreams as their efficiencies. These new machines brought nightmares as well. They were feared as Frankenstein monsters whose advent would promote bloody industrial and postindustrial capitalism and new brutalities of war. They were condemned as iron horses and infernal new calculating machines. They would dehumanize the world, colonizing the life world in their wake. The great technologies of Western modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth century modernity were texts. They were defined relationally, not only denoted but connoted. They were instantiated in binaries, not only dichotomous variables but agonistic signs. The textual status of these technologies was more than metaphorical. These semiotic machines figured prominently in the great epic novels, poetry, and paintings of their times, and in the movies, television shows, and virtual visions of our own times as well.

Social Narratives

As my reference to salvation implies, exploring the textuality that makes social facts more than things also means going beyond the synchronic to the diachronic, from semiotic coding to narration. Signs not only dichotomize the meanings of their social referents but map their passage through time. Sacred and profane are plotted as protagonist and antagonist, and their conflicted relationship is explained as coherent causal sequence stretching from beginning, to middle, and end. Aristotle created narrative theory in his Poetics and employed it to explain the difference between the tragic and comedic Greek plays. Northrup Frye updated this sturdy account of meaning in reference to Shakespearian drama, explaining how ascending romance brings readers closer to the actors and stokes fervent feelings, while descending comic plots deflate passion by pulling reader identification away. Contemporary literary theory has demonstrated how narrative forms can be applied socially. Paul Fussell shows how ironic narrative replaced romance after World War I, fueling the pessimism that had such disastrous consequences in the interwar period. Peter Brooks interprets the simplifying certainty of nineteenth century melodrama as a response to the post-French Revolution destruction of religious faith, suggesting that such good guy/bad guy plots fueled the radical, all or nothing social conflicts of the day. Fredrik Jameson wields his critical, so-called negative hermeneutics to illuminate how capitalism creates tensions among genres that only hopes for revolution can assuage. Inspired by such social possibilities for narrative shaping, Victor Turner created his ingenious and fertile, if rather vague and remarkably underspecified, idea of social drama.

Narrative molding shows that any conception of merely material conflict fails to illuminate the manner in which social groups construct plots that feature themselves as dramatic sacred protagonists and cast their opponents as evil antagonists, narrative constructions that weight their rational arguments with moral immanence, predicting salvation with victory and apocalypse with defeat. The explanatory resources provided by game theorizing and rational choice pale in comparison. Yet, while ideas of narrative show that social facts are not things, the manner in which plots structure society can be specified only when this humanities theorizing takes on social form. Weber developed a four-fold typology of salvation, contrasting this-worldly and other-worldly and cross-cutting them with mystical versus ascetic forms. Whereas Weber restricted the reach of this implicitly narrative theory to pre-modern religion, Philip Smith has created a full blown narrative theory of modern war which allows, for the first time, political legitimation to be explained in a dynamic, fully cultural way.

Material Icons

If the kind of socially oriented human studies I have elaborated here leads away from materialism, does it make impossible an understanding of the power of things? This would certainly be a serious problem if it were so. Contemporary capitalist societies are filled to overflowing with magnetic commodities ranging from the beautiful to the grotesque, sensuous bodies, fashioned wrappings, music and muzac, addicting tastes and smells, and always the promises of even more, more, more. Can a culturally reconstructed social science explain such powers? Do we need to return to materialism to explain materiality? There is a wide swath of contemporary social science that says we must. Bruno Latour's "actor network theory" (ANT) describes person-thing interaction as mechanical and behavioral; actors respond not to the meanings of things but to information that is embedded in them. The suggestion is that, with digitalization, we live in societies increasingly ruled not by humans but by animated machines. In postmodern political economy, ANT combines with extravagantly revisionist Marxian theories about commodification and branding. Once again, things are the saddle, this time in dangerously capitalist ways.
If we are to mount a sociological response to these provocative but, in my view, deeply regressive tendencies, we new to draw from the humanities once again, but this time from the plastic rather the literary arts. Aesthetic writing about painting and architecture conceptualize densely mediated encounters between actors and their objects. Faced with objects, we sense surface stimulation through form, through the lightness, smoothness, and symmetry of beauty, through the rough and painful darkness of the sublime. As Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has suggested, we continuously convert materiality into aesthetic experience, rejecting materialism even as we resist discursive digression into cognition and away from sense feeling. While such contemporary aesthetic philosophers as Martin Seel and Bill Brown would actually substitute presence effects for meaning effects, and things for significations, Rom Harré is right to insist that objects are transformed into social stuff by their embedment in narratives. In empirical studies that follow up on such humanities insights, anthropologists like Daniel Miller and sociologists like Ian Woodward are bringing material things back in, but they are doing so in a cultural sociological way. As I have recently shown in my own work, materiality allows iconic consciousness, but iconic power is variable. It, too, must be understood in a performative way.

Against the Great Divide

In this talk, I have tried to explain why the great divide between humanities and social science is a bad thing. Only by overcoming this gulf can we understand how it is that social facts are not things but texts. When symbolic binaries and narratives anchor their referents in society, they constitute cultural structures of a social kind. As such, they can possess a collective force that recalls the irresistible power of the physical world. What differentiates social from physical force is the signifying nature of its power, which comes from collective energy and authority but also from the hermeneutic character of action itself. We weave our own webs of meaning, even as we are entrapped, and inspired, by those that preceded us. Performance mediates between the strictures of individual and group motivation and the meanings that structure institutional life.