Letters

Sociology, model minorities, pornography

What Sociology?

Dear Editors,

“Too Much Sociology” (The Intellectual Situation) describes the diffusion of ideas from the sociology of culture into the elite worlds that sociologists of culture study. In your account, this crossover marks, at best, the exhaustion of sociology as a critical project and, at worst, active collaboration between elites and their supposed critics. This view significantly overestimates the influence of the sociology of culture and misunderstands the intentions of the elites who borrow from it.

Sociologists laid the intellectual foundations for the New Left, neoconservatism, and the Third Way, but the discipline has no comparable political influence today — that belongs to the economists. Quite simply, not every educated person is a sociologist or even sympathetic to sociology. Most sociologists, in turn, are not sociologists of culture. That particular line of theory, while dear to me, does not constitute the mainstream of American sociology. Keeping these facts in mind, the problem addressed by the essay appears quite differently: Why have certain elites adopted a reductionist reading of a small subfield of a discipline with diminished public influence? I would suggest that there are at least two explanations.

First, theories of specific capital are performative and can become real for groups who take them seriously. No sociologist I have read, Bourdieu included, believes that art is merely precipitated social structure. Some cultural producers, however, may adopt this view in the interest of their own advancement, taking The Rules of Art as their version of The Prince. The doldrums of contemporary art may owe in no small part to the widespread use of an overly deterministic version of the sociology of culture and related bodies of scholarship.

Second, contemporary elites who view themselves as open and meritocratic must engage in self-criticism in order to justify their continued existence. Structural self-criticism can provide legitimacy for nonclosed elites by reaffirming the claim that individual merit is, or should be, the only basis for success. As personal merit remains closely related to social structure, this individualistic rhetoric can be an effective disguise for group privilege.

But critique is not meant to grant the privileged license to seek their own interests in the belief that social structure is immutable. To draw this conclusion, as the essay nearly does, is to think socially about everything except one’s own existence, repeating the mistake of the “critical critics” savaged in The German Ideology. The essay contends that universities are both a source of critical ideas about society and a key institution for authorizing and reproducing inequality; its criticism of sociology is a permutation of the magazine’s long-running critique of higher education. Though one must acknowledge some truth in the criticism, it does not follow that universities, and academic ideas, are irredeemable. Rather, this criticism should be the basis for practical intervention in controversies within the academy and without.

I suspect that the disillusionment of the editors is also common to many of the magazine’s readers and to those who spend any amount of time engaged in social criticism. The danger is for this feeling to harden into a sense of powerlessness or indifference. For all its critical maneuvering, the essay leads me to a question that it does not attempt to answer for sociology or for n+1: What constructive possibilities can be realized when addressing people teetering between cynicism and commitment?

— Ben Merriman

Dear Editors,

The decline of critical sociology into mere cynicism is to be regretted whenever it occurs, but this does not describe the current intellectual situation. At least, it doesn’t describe my intellectual situation, which hasn’t looked anything like the one invoked in n+1 for quite a while. That may be because I am an academic of a certain stripe, or because I live on the West Coast, or because I’m in my forties, or whatever. Or could it be that, after an impressive run, n+1 is beginning to lose its feel for the moment, that thing that has enabled it to straddle different sectors of the intellectual situation so effortlessly? How else to describe how n+1 could offer, as an analysis of our situation, what looks to me like the belated product of a different intellectual situation altogether?

For quite a while now scholars have been positively obsessed with defending the aesthetic from cynical sociological critique. That is our intellectual situation. To some degree it has always been our intellectual situation — sociology never having had anything like the full sway, either within academia or without, imagined for it now by n+1. But one can locate a more recent swerve in Bruno Latour’s blockbuster essay of 2004, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Granted, Latour’s target in this essay was much broader than the sociology of culture per se. Even so, he arrived at the crucial question nine years ahead of n+1: “Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu?” His answer, in effect: Way too little.

Since then — but responding to forces much broader than this one essay — scholars have been falling over themselves finding new ways to protect and promote literature, setting out to conduct what Eve Sedgwick had in 1997 already dubbed (distinguishing them from the paranoid kind) “reparative” readings. This tendency came to full fruition four years ago, with the publication of a special issue of the journal Representations on what its editors approvingly called “surface reading,” whereby the meaning and worth of the text is taken at face value. Since then the surface reading concept has been inescapable, the topic of conferences, talks, debates. If there weren’t already “too much sociology” going on, one might be tempted to link the “aesthetic turn” (as it is often called) to the real or imagined existential threat to the humanities and literary studies, which are now defended by proxy of a renewed love of our objects of study.

In this atmosphere, even those of us who strongly identify with sociological methods have tended to talk less about the scandal of distinction than about the necessity (existential and otherwise) of aesthetic experience and the institutions that make occasion for it. Speaking just for myself, this would be the difference between my first book, The Novel Art (2001), and my second, The Program Era (2009). The first is concerned with the question of cultural capital in the making of the modernist novel. The second defends the institution and discipline of creative writing from those who would simply be scandalized by it.

— Mark McGurl

Dear Editors,

The idea that “Sociology has ceased to be demystifying because it has become the way everyone thinks” strikes me as the kind of staggeringly naive claim that a writer only makes if he spends all his time around intellectuals. That is, intellectuals working in the humanities, because sociological concepts — bastardizations of some sociological concepts — have deeply permeated that realm. But how has this happened, and why have sociological concepts become “too much”?

My explanation is simply that you have no ideas of your own. You have destroyed your own field, or perhaps it imploded from the pressure of debates that advanced few insights (Where do we go from poststructuralism, deconstructionism, and so on?). And so, finding your house in shambles, you moved into mine. And proceeded to complain about it — how the furniture is uncomfortable and in the wrong place and not suited to your life. Well, you’re right. But I can’t help but wonder, Why is this my fault? It’s not your house. You ruined your house.

I will admit that I also suffer from this disarray. Not because the quarters are cramped, but because we can’t have an intellectual exchange if you bring nothing to the table. Sociology’s problems, from my perspective, are unrelated to those you identify. And they’re partially present because the insights literary and aesthetic thinkers once provided are no longer forthcoming from them. From you.

— Shamus Khan

Dear Editors,

I showed “Too Much Sociology” to a friend who works in cultural studies, and he had two trenchant things to say. One was that this is the view from Brooklyn, and I kind of loved that because it appears to confirm the claim that the sociological demystifying move is ubiquitous. The other, with which I tend to agree, is that some of this hand-wringing is endemic to the world of left cultural criticism. It’s been a feature of this kind of work since Walter Benjamin remarked that the bourgeois apparatus can assimilate any number of revolutionary themes and critiques without changing its SOP (that’s not in the original German). Less generously, if you’re annoyed by New York’s approval matrix (which I tend to like, and which owes so much to the work Spy did twenty-five years ago), you’ve missed a lot of similar things over the past sixty years, all the way back to the discussion of “U and non-U” English in the 1950s. See also Robert Benton and Harvey Schmidt’s IN and OUT Book, published in 1959, long before anyone in the US had heard of Bourdieu.

That said, I think there is something awry about Bourdieu’s Distinction. The rage at its heart — and it took me three or four reads to see that it really is rage, really a case of “all this appreciation of Rites of Spring is bullshit, bullshit I tell you, meant merely to distinguish oneself from the sods who like ‘The Blue Danube’” — is a dead end. So I am largely sympathetic to the spirit of the essay. John Frow’s Cultural Studies and Cultural Value (1995) demonstrates quite nicely that Bourdieu’s findings do not correlate aesthetic “refinement” with social class so much as with level of education. Yes, level of education is not unrelated to social class, in France or in the US, but they are also not equivalent to each other. Cultural capital is not readily convertible into economic capital, or arts and humanities professors would be at the apex of the global financial system.

Another way of getting at the Bourdieu problem was suggested by Bruce Robbins twenty years ago, in a review of John Guillory’s book. As Robbins put it, “From the moment when knowledge of rap music or rape statistics or the genealogy of the word homosexual is measured on examinations and counts toward a degree, there has been some change, pace Bourdieu, in access to credentials.” In other words, what we consider an “elite” education really does matter, curriculum matters, and twenty years ago conservatives were right to believe they were losing that cultural skirmish, even as they were winning the larger neoliberal war.

— Michael Bérubé

Dear Editors,

There is too much sociology, at least in contemporary media, especially online. But whether we should blame the trend pieces in Slate or the lazy daydreaming of the sinister David Brooks on the writings of Pierre Bourdieu is probably not a question worth answering. While it can’t be a total coincidence that the academic pendulum has swung toward French sociology (and arguably away from Adorno and the Frankfurt School) at the same time that Freakonomics and its pop-sociology successors have achieved domination of the trade presses, it’s just as likely that Steven Levitt was priming the pump for Bourdieu as the other way around.

When we’re very young, many of us subscribe to the “great man” theory of history: things are the way they are because someone wanted them to be that way. As we become educated, we learn that adults see beyond individuals and focus on systems (hence the elevation of “process” over substance, which in journalism leads to the exaltation of media reporters at the expense of other beats). The problem with the worldview of Slate, where all events are phenomenalized and all outcomes foretold by demographic destiny, is not that it threatens the “inexplicable nature of genius” or steals the spotlight from the litterateur, but rather that it erodes our sense of history, delivering us into a postapocalyptic reverie where individuals no longer shape the world except to the extent that they represent certain types. Learning to view the world from a mature, aerial perspective often coincides with losing the revolutionary sensibilities of childhood and acquiring the fatalism of the urban professional.

For those who obtain real power, though, or witness it in action, there lies the further insight that the great man theory is mostly correct, and that false consciousness lies not so much in clinging to the fantasy of individualism but in failing to realize that many seemingly impersonal institutions and processes — from Fordism to the Metropolitan Opera to the Justice Department — are in fact the expression of individual wills. When assessing the ways that Wal-Mart, one of the world’s largest employers, is shaping the 21st century, we make a grievous error if we lose sight of the Waltons, who stand directly behind the corporate Leviathan as majority shareholders.

Too much sociology doesn’t mean too much apprehension of power. A while back I had dinner with a friend who works in finance, who made the claim, simultaneously stunning and banal, that Barack Obama doesn’t really have any power. As an example, my friend brought up the nomination of Elena Kagan. “It’s not like he could have nominated anyone he wanted — he was constrained by Congress and the legal establishment and popular opinion. He had to nominate someone with her views and record.” Even if we grant that Obama was forced to pick from a pool of, say, a couple dozen closeted, liberal lesbians with experience in both academia and government and no history of putting pubic hairs on their secretaries’ Coke cans, the fact that Obama chose this particular lesbian and not another could be read as the elementary definition of power: This, not that.

The answer to the abuse of sociological categories, which often but not always coincides with a pseudostatistical rigor, is not to retreat into the pseudospirituality of aesthetic formalism. Some phenomena lend themselves to systematic explanations; others do not. What’s crucial for commentators is to acknowledge the limits of modeling human behavior. We should welcome contributions from the likes of Nate Silver, who for every confident prediction issues seven warnings about how prognosticators overplay their hands. The answer to “too much sociology” is not to fall back on myth, but to embrace the priority of individual choice in the face of epistemological humility.

— Christopher Glazek

Marco Roth responds:

I’m grateful for Ben Merriman’s letter and his succinct formulation of one of the major arguments of “Too Much Sociology”: “theories of specific capital are performative and can become real for groups who take them seriously.” I would broaden the first part of this claim to “theories in general are performative,” as in the case of religions and various “aesthetic ideologies” down through the centuries. Performance or practice then changes theory and requires the theory to change with it.

Cultural sociology is no different, and we never said it was. But we did have to demonstrate that the performative or mainstream moment of this particular strain of sociology — not all sociologies and not sociology in general — has arrived. Is there a lag or gap between cultural sociology as articulated in New York publishing and Amazon boardrooms, and as taught in university departments? Of course. It’s also true, as Michael Bérubé’s helpfully notes, that different creative as well as pernicious misreadings of cultural theories arrive in different parts of the country at different times. But to suggest, as does Bérubé’s friend, that because parts of America haven’t heard of Bourdieu our critique is false or misguided strikes me as a non sequitur. There are parts of the world where evolution is considered a heresy, but we can still articulate annoyance with the pseudo-evolutionary biology peddled by Dennis Dutton, Richard Dawkins, and Scientific American.

The reception of psychoanalysis in America in the late 1940s and ’50s presents another instructive parallel with contemporary cultural sociology. Words like narcissism and hysterical and penis envy began to circulate, at first among small groups of coastal intellectuals, at a moment when these and other key Freudian concepts had already undergone sustained critical revision within psychoanalysis by Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, Lacan, Ferenczi, and others. Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out in 1960, took its motivational structure from an outdated, almost caricatured Freudianism, but that didn’t stop it from being “cutting edge” in other ways.

Which is to say we’re sorry that our intellectual situation is no longer identical to Mark McGurl’s and Michael Bérubé’s, especially because theirs sounds like the better place to be. That said, I think McGurl misreads the end of our argument. Cultural sociology has already made room for the aesthetic, says McGurl, but we wanted to go beyond a simple accommodation. The aesthetic sphere of life, we suggested, is as primary as the social. Choosing “this or that” is not just the basic form of political power, as my colleague Christopher Glazek says, but also of aesthetic power, and that’s no myth. The discussions of aesthetic value in McGurl’s Program Era, in my understanding of the book, derive from and are almost incomprehensible without the sociological structure. Cultural sociologists remain sociologists first, which is good for them, but perhaps less so for others. In this sense, we completely agree with Shamus Khan: disciplines and cultural forms rooted in aesthetic principles abandon them at their own peril. We are, however, less categorical about the ruined state of humanistic disciplines: n+1 is still called n+1 for a reason.

Decolonization

Dear Editors,

The idea of the model minority — whose compliance, consent, and investment in nonthreatening behaviors only further stigmatize and close opportunities for other communities of color — is an important one to bear in mind when appraising the United States and other diverse societies. But it is also a blunt instrument, analytically speaking, and “White Indians” (The Intellectual Situation) deploys it on South Asians in America with a rather stunning lack of nuance, based on a highly suspect body of evidence.

You present a universe in which desi presence of any significance in America begins in the mid-1960s, the community is “uniformly rich,” and its mentality is so “smug” that “even [its] crimes” — here you mention convicted insider trader Raj Rajaratnam, neglecting to mention that the prosecutor in that case, US Attorney Preet Bharara, was desi as well — are “sources of unctuous pride.” You line up the usual cartoonish villains — Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, Dinesh D’Souza — alongside the pliant desi characters currently found on TV. And you posit that if there is any sign that desis might emerge from this morass of complicity and self-loathing, it resides in Kal Penn’s Kumar character, “who uses his textbooks to roll joints” — in other words, drops out.

But there is a third option, besides consenting to race and class hierarchies or getting baked. You see it in Penn himself, whose progressive commitment is well known. You see it, too, in the large desi contingent in civil liberties and public interest law, a group motivated not only by post–September 11 and “war on terror” abuses but also by the accumulation of racist microaggression of the “dot-not-feather” type that desi kids and their parents underwent even in rich suburbs. Your editorial makes no mention of the Sikh Coalition and allied groups that are at the forefront of today’s fight against all — not just Sikh or desi — racial profiling. A host of South Asian national progressive groups, such as South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and local ones, such as South Asian Youth Action (SAYA) in New York, appear to have escaped your notice as well. The New York Taxi Worker Alliance, founded and led by Bhairavi Desai, and now with affiliates in other cities, is a model of cross-ethnic labor organizing. Your wry mention of a token “pliant South Asian” on magazine staffs disregards the desi journalists who have filed hard-hitting reports from Afghanistan to the Bronx. Jindal notwithstanding, a new survey shows that a huge majority of desi voters are Democrats. Show me a right-wing gastroenterologist who finances RSS youth camps in India, and I’ll show you a quiet suburban auntie who raised money for Barack Obama at the temple or masjid.

If Hollywood has failed to portray the breadth of the desi experience, that is neither here nor there. It is certainly not sufficient grounds to turn the knife on ourselves and excoriate the South Asian American community writ large for collaboration with the oppressor’s portrayals. That’s too easy. In America, ethnic identity certainly does contribute to class position and privilege, and without a doubt, certain desis have leveraged their difference from black and Latino Americans in ugly ways. Obsessing about this, however, devalues the large desi contribution to the progressive movement and self-exonerates the critic from the task of decolonizing his or her own mind — which is not a one-time cleanse but rather, like basic hygiene, a daily necessity.

— Siddhartha Mitter

Dear Editors,

While “White Indians” might provoke many responses, it is foremost a reminder of the dangers of conflating cultural identity with complexion. You write, “the brown people who arrived here were not even very brown in their mother countries.” What is “brown” intended to mean here? Poor? It surely doesn’t correspond to the actual complexions of South Asian immigrants (which are quite variable). Similarly, I find the statement that “Raj Rajaratnam has been convicted of the whitest of white-collar crimes, insider trading” to be incoherent, given the strong evidence that Rajaratnam and his colleagues were engaged in a conspiracy that largely involved a South Asian subgroup within the financial industry.

“Brown” is not a coherent cultural identity nor is it a measure of an immigrant’s resistance to assimilation. Morever, neither “brown” nor “white” should be allowed to have the easy association with a politics of resistance (“brown”) or access to privilege (“white”) that the piece assumes. This association elides real cultural and ideological complexities and reinforces the idea of a hard racial divide, which grows increasingly obsolete as the demographics of American society continue to evolve.

— Amardeep Singh

Nikil Saval responds:

Siddhartha Mitter argues that “obsessing” over the problem of the model minority is an easy excuse, a way out of — Mitter here follows Ngugi wa Thiong’o — “decolonizing the mind.” But surely self- or autocritique is an essential part of this process; in any case, it’s far from a self-exculpation. Many of us who count ourselves part of the desi left agonize over the unfortunately large number of the diaspora, and their allies on the subcontinent, who are either blandly neoliberal or vigorously reactionary. “White Indians” was an expression of this frustration; it was aimed at the peculiarly large number of powerful, conservative desi elites and tried to account historically for their rise. Meanwhile, reading the invocation of Kumar as an incitement to “drop out,” as Mitter does, strikes me as a humorlessly literal response to a provocation. The point was to imagine how a popular culture producing images of desi assimilation might also produce strange allegories of resistance to dreary professionalization — indications of a more varied diaspora (in class and geographic terms) than the one created by the waves of immigration immediately following the Act of 1965. None of these arguments are intended to occlude the contributions of the desi left, though Mitter’s acknowledgment of its existence and vibrancy is certainly welcome.

Singh is right that “brown” and “white” are labels that don’t have any essential relation to good or bad political positions. There are plenty of white radicals and — as “White Indians” clearly holds — plenty of South Asian reactionary elites. But the significant influence of the diaspora on India’s retrograde policy on Kashmir, to choose only one example, suggests that solidarity along the lines of ethnicity is not so empty an activity after all. One need only look at the examples cited by Mitter to see that the desi left often organizes “brown” people to combat the depredations of “brown” elites, even if the form of organization or the goal is not always defined by a specific ethnicity.

Against Kink

Dear Editors,

Emily Witt’s personal meditations in “What Do You Desire?” revolve around the failure of her life to conform to an idea of romance and her suspicion that porn is a kind of release from the tyranny of that idea, but a destructive one — one that deforms our desires even as it proclaims it will satisfy them. I suspect she’s onto something there, but I see a real difference between the people who participated in the Kink.com shoot she attended and the people who consume that experience as porn.

The truly suspect position is not that of a participant in this type of event. She or he is, in a sense, participating in a much more extreme version of immersive theater that I really appreciate. Everyone who attends is implicated by his or her presence. One of Witt’s more striking discoveries is the degree to which participants do more than merely consent to participation: they remain courteous and, beyond that, genuinely attentive to their own and others’ feelings.

The suspect position is ours, viewing from a safe distance. The porn viewer is “free” of what makes him most essentially human — his communion with other human beings. And porn, inasmuch as it is porn and not art (because nothing in life is all one thing or the other), is designed to exacerbate and deepen that isolation. Which in turn feeds the desire for more of the same mediated “experience.”

In the internet age, all the more or less happy freaks now have their own corners of the media edifice where they can replicate the same alienating dynamic of selling us alternate selves. My suspicion is that even if Kink.com’s Princess Donna says (as I suspect she would) that her work is more honorable, ethical, and even artistic than porn was, say, thirty years ago, her industry’s mindshare is so much larger than it was then that the ways in which it fosters alienation matter more.

— Noah Millman

Dear Editors,

Emily Witt’s essay about Kink.com gives director Princess Donna’s explanation of why the audience should not be concerned about what they are about to witness. “You might think we are doing things to the model that are mean or humiliating, but don’t,” Princess Donna says. “She’s signed an agreement.”

She signed an agreement. In other words, she “consented.” The model, Penny Pax, even told Witt after the shoot that she enjoyed it. And I believe she enjoyed it. I believe that people connect pleasure and pain. I understand how playing with power and subordination and domination and fantasy turns people on.

The question that came up for me was: Whether there’s consent and even pleasure, is the production and distribution of this kind of film ethically defensible?

In feminism, as well as in other liberal-type circles, we talk a lot about consent. “Anything that happens between consenting adults,” we say. But this understanding removes context and social impact from the conversation. When it comes to the ethics of explicitly depicting violence and degradation and the humiliation of women, the question of consent distorts the issue.

Ethics aren’t only about individuals. Ethics are about the ways in which our actions and behaviors affect those around us. They’re about society. To say “she signed an agreement” says nothing about the ways the production of this kind of pornography affects men and women in general. In this case, this individual is OK. The performers in this particular film enjoyed themselves this time. But a conversation about ethics doesn’t end there.

Witt’s descriptions of the scene didn’t upset or disgust me. The scene, as Witt describes it, is titillating in many ways. I considered watching the episode, but in the end decided against it. I’ve seen enough porn in my life to know how watching women being degraded and abused on-screen makes me feel. I don’t particularly want my sexual fantasies to involve electrocution or fisting or being hit with a belt. I’m not convinced I need to watch a woman wearing a sign that reads “worthless cunt” be groped and prodded and hit by strangers in a bar to understand what’s going on.

Rape fantasies exist for a reason. I don’t want to shame women who have them or who even play them out in the bedroom. (Although men who play out rape fantasies on women in the bedroom? Sure, go right ahead and feel ashamed.) Power is sexualized in our culture. Sexual violence is all twisted up in our psyches and in our lives.

So while the question of why many of us are turned on by sadomasochistic fantasies and experience should continue to be explored (and is by many), when it comes to profiting from the production and distribution of depictions of sexualized violence, there is much more to the conversation, in terms of ethics, than simply “consent.”

— Meghan Murphy

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