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Summing up: Should the ‘figurati’ become public intellectuals?

Posted on by Stephen Mennell

[I asked John Lever and Matt Clement to sum up the recent discussion about whether the “figurati” should become “public intellectuals”. Ryan Powell also chipped into the summary below.]

To some extent, the debate about the engagement of “figurati” in current affairs appears to be a generational problem between a more established group of academics following a pure reading of Elias’s work and a younger generation of scholars/ researchers writing about contemporary issues problems. Whilst many of the younger generation would no doubt agree with Artur Bogner’s claims about the significance of the pluralism of values, the problem of making normative judgments, and by the fact that any such engagement is unlikely to be successful, this should not deter sociologists from attempting to have influence. As Ryan Powell and others suggest, one can – whether we agree with the process or not – take a long-term detached perspective whilst engaging with contemporary concerns.  Moreover, to see figurational sociologists as detached from their world, at rest rather than a part of changing reality, misses the active way in which they both shape and are themselves shaped in the process of civilisation. John Rodgers maintains ‘The Civilizing Process has often appeared to be a theory exclusively about the socially integrative aspects of modernity … what Eliasian process-sociology needed to preserve its currency was a coherent theory of the de-civilising processes inherent in neo-liberalism’.The UK riots, and Eurozone anomie in Athens, Dublin and Madrid, are surely of paramount interest to students of human figurations. Weimar sociologists saw their time as one of ‘world crisis’ – Elias was one of many who talked of riding the storm of social contention that blew Germany to its nemesis, intervening in the public sphere as he implored trade union leaders to resist the Nazis and acted as ‘cleaner’ to protect the Frankfurt School sociologists and their families.2 For him, involvement was unavoidable.

New levels of involvement and detachment are now possible in the virtual world and new social media can help us to many of the concerns expressed, if – as Robert van Krieken suggests – we can get people contributing to any new media/ forum on a regular basis. To be successful it is also important for sites/blogs to be innovative and fresh and do something new – and to also send out emails/updates to members. Having debates between figurationalists around the world in a virtual realm would be a good starting start point, as would tweeting these debates to the wider world. As anyone who has used twitter knows only to well, it does no take very long if you are commenting on current affairs and issues – even if it is only by posting links to relevant papers at an appropriate time – to get the attention of politicians, lay people, scholars and, of course, absolute lunatics; but that is the nature of the beast, and of course, an opportunity. There are a number of sociology websites and blogs that tweet about contemporary issues and concerns on a regular basis, whilst of course maintaining a balance between involvement and detachment. Adopting such an approach would allow the “figurati” per se, rather than individuals within it, to become a public intellectual.

1 Rodger, J. (2012) ‘Wacquant and Elias, Advanced Marginality and the Theoryof the De-civilising Process’, in Squires, P. and Lea, J. (eds.) Criminalisation and Advanced Marginality (BristolPolicy, 2012),  p. 1.

2 Elias describes these events in Reflections on a Life (Cambridge: Polity, 1994) and The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge: Polity, 1996), p. 221.

[At the moment, discussion on the blog is handicapped by the fact that although subscribers  receive email notification of new posts, but not about new comments on the posts. We hope to fix this soon. In the meantime, the discussion  summarised here can be found by clicking on “Comments”. – SJM]