on the fetish character of theory and the regression of reading

The seductive power of sensual charm survives only where the forces of denial are strongest. If asceticism once reacted against the sensuous aesthetic, asceticism has today become the sign of advanced art. All “light” and pleasant art has become illusory and false. What makes its appearance esthetically in the pleasure categories can no longer give pleasure. The musical consciousness of the masses today is “displeasure in pleasure” — the unconscious recognition of “false happiness.”

–Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” 1938

Jeff Guhin innocently posted to Facebook that “doing a lecture on Habermas is ridiculous.” He may well be right, for many different kinds of reasons. But in the (lengthy!) conversation that followed, two critiques were raised that I think deserve separate treatment. They are:

  1. That much theory, including Habermas and, all the more so, his Frankfurt predecessors, is too difficult to read to make it worthwhile; and
  2. Reading theorists like Habermas is really mostly about the history of social thought and has no payoff for empirical or analytical sociology.

I think both of these are wrong.

First, on the “too difficult to read” claim, represented on Facebook by Fabio Rojas (I use the names to identify the comment; I don’t mean to criticize Rojas, or Abrutyn below, or their scholarship in general):

My sense is that the effort needed to grok a lot of critical theory renders the cost benefit ratio out of whack. At least with a lot of post Marxism, a basic grasp of class analysis will let you get into it…. I think just as I get older, I get less and less patient with work that does not have direct application to concrete social processes…. “

In the general case, I think it’s really problematic to assess the value of a given theory based on how difficult it is to read. Society is itself a very complex object of study, and its dynamics and totality particularly fraught. People love, for example, to deride Bourdieu’s “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures.” Not exactly elegant–but in a sense, poetically representative of the tangled web that is habitus. Sure, it takes work to decipher that clause. But does it take more work than to decipher screenshot-from-2017-01-18-15-25-18I don’t think so. The fact that we resent the work it takes to grasp theoretical texts more than we do the work to grasp empirical modeling is a problem!

For the specific case we were discussing (Adorno), it’s particularly wrong. As the quote I put above shows, Adorno argues in part that the difficulty of experiencing art (or music, or language, or, by extension, theory) is part of its value. Adorno writes of the value of “struggl[ing] through… conflict” in music and how “Light music is polarized into schmaltz–expression that is both arbitrary and standardized, torn away from any objective temporal organization–and the mechanical, that tootling whose ironic imitation schooled Stravinsky’s style” (Philosophy of New Music, 145).

The problem is that society as an object of study is particularly difficult. It’s difficult because the task involves apprehending a totality of which one is a part, and in particular in modern society (vergesellschaftete Gesellschaft, or “utterly socialized society”) can be apprehended only through immanence, which can be understood as experiencing complexity and contradiction without reducing or collapsing them. In short: experiencing art, music, or theory too easily makes it worse.

That’s frustrating to readers, who would love a summary or shorthand. I get that. But if Adorno is right–and I think he is–it’s simply not possible to produce such a thing, because that thing would serve to reduce the essential complexity and therefore fail at the core task of the theory. That would be the fetish-character of reading.

Second, the position taken by Seth Abrutyn is that “it isn’t teaching theory. It’s teaching the history of sociology and the history of social thought…. Moreover this method of teaching theorists reproduces a cult of personality that doesn’t do justice to what sociologists actually do. And how real science progresses and creates knowledge.” That position echoes a controversial essay a decade ago in the Theory Section newsletter, “Reforming Theoretical Work” by Stephen Sanderson (it, with several replies, is here).

I think the implication–that the history of social thought is esoteric and disconnected from the concrete work of theorizing social behavior–is wrong. Many of these theorists grapple with precisely the difficulties we continue to face: how to understand scientific representation from within that which is represented; how to study totalities when our access is mostly to partialities; how to consider potentiality when we can observe only actuality. These are complicated problems without simple answers, and of course it would be convenient if they weren’t true. But they are true! The impulse to say, essentially: “just tell me concretely how I can understand why person A performed action X, and save me all that mumbo jumbo” involves simply ignoring the particular epistemological complexities implied by theories of society and the innovations past theorists have proposed to handle those complexities.

There are other good reasons to read and consider these texts too–for example, that they may provide critique and aspiration, or links to interdisciplinary theoretical programs. My plea here, though, is that sociologists should welcome and relish complexity and the difficult reading it entails; theoretical shortcuts and insistence on the concrete threaten the scope and vision of our field.


Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

9 thoughts on “on the fetish character of theory and the regression of reading”

  1. In essence, I tend to agree with the defense and criticism leveled against my Facebook comments. I am inclined, when teaching theory, to assign Marcuse and Mannheim to my undergrads in the context of classical theory, because both of those books (one-dimensional man and utopia/ideology) were so inspirational to me as an impressionable first year graduate student. My larger point is that the pedagogy that continues to dichotomize theory into classical and contemporary – which, while maybe not reproduced by every professor at every university – continues to (1) hamstring the creation and dissemination of cumulative knowledge and (2) leads to the unnecessary division between “theorists” and empiricists. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard respected colleagues or grad students I meet tell me how boring their theory course was, and how disconnected it was from their research questions. While this is, of course, a function to some degree of the faculty member teaching the course and his/her own interest, skill in teaching, and syllabus, it is also a function of the old way of doing things that leads to readings by Habermas or Marx or Durkheim that not only are crystallized in some ancient esoteric universe, but often dry.

    Thus, to the contrary: I think everyone should read the primary texts and I think Adorno should be taught in the right contexts. And, I think every department needs a history of social thought class that is an extension or preliminary theory course designed to both professionalize new students, as well as introduce them to theoretical and philosophical treatises that help them develop their sociological imagination. But, I also think they should get courses that try to elucidate how sociologists use theory in their research which would both center on theorizing, and on the art of methods meant to realize theory. By no means am I advocating the demise of theory or the importance of epistemology or ontology. I think, rather, that epistemics is something that should be part of every substantive course as students learn how and why different theoretical frameworks have shaped different methodological tools in the study of phenomenon A or B.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would make the distinction, Andy, between presenting difficult ideas and presenting execrable writing of (difficult, easy, or, often, vacuous) ideas that give the illusion of difficulty.


  3. I like to fuck nuance as much as the next person, maybe even more, but struggling with difficult and even obtuse theoretical ideas is an important exercise. It may not be “useful” for our research, but kernels of understanding often fall from even the hoariest of bushes. And, once the struggle is over, you should be able to dazzle in those lectures. I’d almost prefer to teach nothing but advanced courses on the history of sociological thought, but nobody wants to struggle with that crap…..and neither will they become innovative sociologists.


  4. Thank you for raising these important issues again. I strongly believe that theory is central to how sociologists write and to the future of our discipline. Thanks for motivating me to take how I use theory in my own work and think about how I would generalize it to bigger questions.


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