Suspicious Minds

On Luc Boltanski

Kishio Suga, Parameters of Space, 1978/2016. Courtesy of the artists and Blum & Poe.

Luc Boltanski, Mysteries & Conspiracies. Translated by Catherine Porter. Polity, 2014.

“Where does power really lie, and who really holds it?” the sociologist Luc Boltanski asks at the outset of his book Mysteries & Conspiracies. “State authorities, who are supposed to take charge of it, or other agencies, acting in the shadows: bankers, anarchists, secret societies, the ruling class  . . . ?” Questions like this are not new for sociologists: an investigation of “power” — what it is, how it works, who has it, who doesn’t — has been one of the dominant concerns of the social sciences for more than a century, and it has received considerable attention from historians, political economists, and literary critics as well. After Marx, Freud, Foucault, and all the rest, who could doubt that the intellectual’s job is to ferret out sinister operators hidden behind the placid surface of everyday life?

Yet there’s something hyperbolic, even embarrassing, about this sentiment when stated so baldly, in Boltanski’s emphatic italics. Suspicion of the powerful is all well and good, but if one is not careful, a research agenda can easily become a paranoid obsession. Then you end up in a John le Carré novel.

In fact, Boltanski is not really asking where power lies — though he certainly would like to know. He’s asking why sociologists ask the question. The similarity between the questions typically raised by sociologists and those dramatized in more than a hundred years’ worth of popular fiction is the starting point of Mysteries & Conspiracies. It is in detective and spy stories, Boltanski argues, that we find the clearest expression of many of the paranoid attitudes and ideas expressed more apologetically and self-consciously in the social sciences and in everyday political life. The sense that the reports we hear from official sources aren’t really true, that people act from motives that are secret or obscure, that a far-reaching power — call it government, organized crime, the Illuminati, neoliberalism — invisibly determines the apparently self-evident facts of our existence: these are all familiar contemporary topoi, but they have a history that stretches back into the 19th century.


Luc Boltanski is, himself, a slightly mysterious figure, at least to American readers. A star pupil of Pierre Bourdieu’s in the late 1970s, he has since established himself internationally as a powerful social theorist in his own right. His idiosyncratic body of work on subjects including class formation, love, theology, decision-making, capitalism, trade unions, philosophy, the left after May ’68, TV news, comic strips, and abortion has been gradually appearing in En-glish translation over the course of the past two decades. Mysteries & Conspiracies is yet another surprise in an endlessly surprising oeuvre: it is, at least in part, a work of literary criticism. In it Boltanski deals with endlessly rich source material — the canon of French and English detective and spy fiction from roughly 1880 to 1970 — and draws knowledgeably on scholarly predecessors like Siegfried Kracauer, Umberto Eco, and Carlo Ginzburg. Yet despite its three-hundred-page length, Mysteries & Conspiracies feels sketchy and occasionally dilettantish. Like many sociologists, Boltanski is a schematic thinker who likes to craft neat conceptual categories and then slot works of art into them, and he is not much concerned with interesting anomalies or border cases. Though he discusses dozens of books by authors as various as Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, John Buchan, Agatha Christie, Jack London, Maugham, le Carré, and Orwell, many of them are merely glanced at or summarized. For a book about suspicion, there’s precious little close reading here.

There are also some questionable generalizations. In his desire to justify the importance of his chosen theme, Boltanski is prone to dubious statements like “Detective stories and tales of espionage . . . are the most widespread narrative forms today on a planetary scale.” (As Franco Moretti convincingly argues in his 2001 article “Planet Hollywood,” it’s probably actually action thrillers and children’s films.) And some of the local observations he makes — like the insight that detective stories never feature supernatural events, because they take place against the background of a stable social reality — are less than revolutionary.

But if Boltanski misses opportunities to dig deeper into the mysteries of genre fiction, it’s because he’s after bigger theoretical game. The early chapters of Mysteries & Conspiracies, with their talk of “formatting” reality, have a strongly metaphysical flavor. (No wonder Chesterton is one of his favorite authors.) “A mystery arises from an event, however unimportant it may seem, that stands out in some way against a background,” Boltanski writes. “The mystery thus leaves a kind of scratch on the seamless fabric of reality.” The “reality” in question is the one constructed by the modern European nation-state as it developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The detective then becomes a kind of avatar of the nation-state, even when (as is common in English crime fiction) he is not a policeman or official state representative but an amateur, like Sherlock Holmes or Chesterton’s Father Brown. “The detective,” Boltanski argues, “is the state in a state of ordinary exception.” That is, the detective, like the state, is always engaged in an effort to restore order, to get things back to normal: “An enigma exists as such only through reference to the possibility of a solution. . . . Once the solution has been found, everything falls back into place.”

The spy’s job is a little different. The difference between detective novels and spy novels is that in the former, private citizens are under suspicion, whereas in the latter, “suspicion falls in the first place on the people in power.” In spy novels, the state itself often becomes an antagonist, which explains why leftist and radical authors like Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and Thomas Pynchon have been so fond of them. The detective novel, meanwhile, has remained a primarily conservative genre. It is also in the spy novel that “suspicion, the driving force behind detective fiction, is taken to the extreme. . . . Suspicion arises everywhere and at every moment, whether or not there is an attested crime.”

Boltanski spends some time with the classics of English detective fiction — in particular Holmes, whom he describes as “the detective of the worthy,” whose primary job is to help members of the respectable upper classes avoid scandal (meaning, in many cases, investigation or prosecution by the state). It is Boltanski’s discussions of French detective fiction, however, that are most illuminating, if not necessarily for the reasons he intends. “The Inquiries of a Paris Policeman,” the book’s third chapter, centers for the most part on a single character: Georges Simenon’s Commissioner Maigret. In French crime novels, unlike English ones, the detective is usually a policeman or civil servant loyal to the state rather than to the upper classes. Boltanski is at pains to demonstrate that detectives like Maigret, despite their affiliations with the state, exhibit a sort of schizophrenia — a split personality — that allows them to identify closely with criminals. This is no great shakes as a literary argument, and fans of Simenon (whose ranks have swelled in the US in recent years, thanks to NYRB Classics’ translations of his novels) will not learn anything especially revealing about the character of Maigret from this account. But the Maigret sections have a special interest when read against the grain — suspiciously, as it were. Boltanski’s prolonged analysis of Maigret (by far the most time he spends on any individual fictional character) can be seen as an encrypted portrait of his late, estranged mentor Pierre Bourdieu.

Boltanski and Bourdieu had a complicated oedipal relationship, marked first by intense fidelity and then by serious acrimony. In the early 1980s, Boltanski broke with Bourdieu and his disciples to form his own highly regarded sociological school, which has been called, variously, “political and moral sociology,” “the sociology of critique” (as opposed to Bourdieu’s “critical sociology”), and the “pragmatic” school of French sociology.

Where Bourdieu (on a certain reading, anyway) sought to unmask and denounce hypocrisy and illusion, Boltanski and his fellow travelers were more interested in studying acts of denunciation, or justification, or criticism in general. In recent years, and particularly since Bourdieu’s death, in 2002, Boltanski has sought to reconcile his sociological program with his mentor’s legacy — publishing a short, admiring memoir of him in 2008, for instance — but there is still a fundamental rift between the thinkers that has yet to be fully repaired.

Bourdieu is only one of many sociologists and theorists cited in Mysteries & Conspiracies in passing, yet his spirit looms large throughout, and especially in the detailed, ambivalent description of Simenon’s hero. In his police work Maigret seeks to understand the “Milieu” — a French equivalent of the Mafia — by studying a whole galaxy of different social milieus, just as Bourdieu sought to understand the social world as a whole by launching empirical investigations into a variety of “fields”:

Like a sociologist, or a socially conscious novelist, Maigret begins by immersing himself in the milieu where the crime was committed. He identifies its hierarchies, habits, customs and implicit norms without ever passing judgement on them. His increasing familiarity with the milieu is what puts him on the murderer’s trail.

This much could perhaps be said of any sociologist, but listen to these excerpts from Boltanski’s extended description of Commissioner Maigret:

Maigret is a civil servant among countless others, an ordinary person like everyone else. He is not presented as having superior intelligence; he is even somewhat suspicious of intellectual prowess and scientific methods of investigation. Born into the rural lower-middle class . . . he attended the local elementary school (and the local church, where he was an altar boy), then the lycée, as a boarder, before beginning to study medicine. . . . It was by chance and by default, not by vocation, that he joined the police force at the age of twenty-two. He held a modest position at first . . . then began to climb the ladder. . . . Like a sociologist . . . Maigret possesses both ordinary social competence and a specific competence that allows him to carry out successful investigations in relative independence, which means that the enthusiasm with which he approaches his task is not constrained by too much concern over the uses that will be made of his work.

Readers of Bourdieu, and especially his autobiographical Sketch for a Self-Analysis, will recognize many of the characteristics listed here: the son of a provincial postman, Bourdieu was born into the rural lower-middle class and studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris before falling, more or less by chance and by default, into sociology, a field he would go on to revolutionize and dominate. His intellectual project was founded, from the start, on a suspicion of intellectuals and intellectual prowess, an attitude many attributed to class resentment and that, by his own admission, owed a great deal to his working-class roots. He proudly acted in the capacity of a government adviser, working with François Mitterand’s government to reform and “rationalize” the state educational system in the mid-1980s; yet he insisted, from first to last, on sociology’s relative independence from the institutions that enabled it, whether they were governmental, educational, or corporate.

How does Maigret — who is, after all, a human being, and not just a detective — feel about his work? He struggles to remain committed to the posture of objectivity, even when that clearly goes against his natural instincts. “Isn’t Maigret’s motto ‘to understand, not to judge,’ ” Boltanski asks, “a formula in which one can see the moral version of the famous ‘axiological neutrality’ that is the first thing taught to sociology students?” Maigret, like Bourdieu, always suspends judgment — or tries to; against ferocious odds, sometimes, he strives to remain neutral. This is especially true when he is tasked with investigating people who inhabit a social position distant from his own. “Maigret is not equally at ease in the various milieus in which he is called upon to intervene,” Boltanski tells us:

Lumbered with a heavy, slow-moving body, described as possessing characteristics stereotypical of the lower classes (he is taciturn, fond of hearty food, beer and strong drink, generous, courageous) and also some lower-middle-class traits (he likes regularity, simplicity, modest, unpretentious restaurants), Maigret is ill at ease when his investigations lead him into bourgeois milieus. The criminals he prefers because he is on the same footing with them, those who trigger feelings of humanity in him . . . are criminals from the lower classes. Simple people like himself, but who haven’t been lucky; circumstances have tilted them to the wrong side.

Maigret’s feeling for the unlucky lower classes is sincere, even sentimental, yet he never lets it interfere with the objectives of his profession. One thinks of the dozens of anonymous proletarians who inhabit the pages of Distinction, Bourdieu’s landmark study of aesthetic judgment, or the immiserated masses interviewed in The Weight of the World, his late-career survey of contemporary poverty. Yet despite Maigret’s compassion, he stays out of politics (as Bourdieu mostly did until his late-career rebirth as an engagé public intellectual), and avoids taking sides: it’s not his job. Nor is he a liberal softy: Maigret’s “anthropology,” or view of human nature, which Boltanski compares to Hobbes’s, is also reminiscent of Bourdieu’s: for Maigret, people are driven by a relentless desire for sex and money; for Bourdieu, they are driven by an equally relentless desire for prestige and distinction.

In Boltanski’s final analysis, both men, however moral and professional they may be, have something sadistic about them: the sanguine temperament of a government torturer. They like dominating people. “This sadism,” Boltanski writes,

is never more evident than when, giving free rein to his properly human qualities, Maigret lingers over the humanity of the persons he is led to pursue, suspect, interrogate, entrap and, finally, imprison. . . . The effect of sadism is inherent . . . in the differential between the man’s humanity . . . and his loyalty towards the administrative system that he serves with passion.

One thinks of Bourdieu’s innumerable pages of harsh critique and vicious character assassination, undertaken and justified in the name of axiological neutrality, which nonetheless depend for their effect on something beyond objective argument: the cruelty that can’t quite be justified in the name of science, the author’s obvious pleasure in expertly, surgically twisting the knife.

This book about popular fiction, then, is also secretly a book about power struggles within academic sociology, over what the social sciences are supposed to prove, be, or do. The secret is out in the later chapters, which frequently leave detective fiction behind completely to expound on the themes of “paranoia” and “conspiracy theory” more generally. The largest stakes of Mysteries & Conspiracies, it becomes clear, have to do not with crime novels but with the legitimacy of sociological critique.

Boltanski is aware that the parallel he has set up between genre fiction and sociology is not an entirely flattering one. “Like detective fiction, and perhaps especially like spy fiction, sociology constantly tests the reality of reality, or, to put it another way, it challenges apparent reality and seeks to reach a reality that is more hidden, more profound and more real,” he writes. Given this structural similarity, it is relatively easy for skeptics to condemn the entire discipline of sociology as a haven for paranoid fanaticism. In a bravura piece of intellectual genealogy called “The Endless Inquiries of Paranoids,” Boltanski traces the development of the term paranoia in the social sciences, demonstrating that, while sociologists and psychologists have long used the word as an explanatory term in their conceptual arsenal, they have also frequently been accused of indulging or reflecting paranoia in their own work. “The fantasy of the conspiracy, the idea that an evil will is responsible for everything that happens in the social world, haunts critical social thought,” Bourdieu once wrote, and the latter half of Mysteries & Conspiracies can be read as a diligent gloss on that maxim.

It is in the realm of politics, of course, that accusations of conspiracy and paranoia are most widespread, and most effective: “It would be hard to find an area today, on the margins of political life properly speaking, in which intersecting accusations of conspiracy, conspiracy theory or paranoia are not exchanged,” Boltanski observes. You’re paranoid is a way to win an argument while simultaneously positioning your opponent outside reasonable civilized discourse: in a sense, outside “reality” itself. You’re not only wrong, the critic of paranoia says, there’s no use even talking to people like you.

In Boltanski, this is a distinctively liberal style of argument. He deals at length with Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), a canonical work of midcentury American liberalism that, he argues, did much to stigmatize all political ideas not comfortably directed toward centrist consensus as “conspiracy theories.” In a celebrated passage that Boltanski quotes, Hofstadter writes of “ex-Communists who have moved rapidly, though not without anguish, from the paranoid left to the paranoid right, clinging all the while to the fundamentally Manichean psychology that underlies both.”

Thus Hofstadter, Boltanski points out, establishes the “paranoid style” as “a universal model of political pathologies.” Yet “what is problematic about Hofstadter’s analyses,” he goes on to note, “is the solidity of the position from which they are developed and whether the perspective implied in that position is external, one of overview . . . or whether it is simply one point of view among others, itself also associated with traditions, interests, and prejudices.” Is “paranoia” an objective quality related to the divergence between individual suspicions and ascertainable facts, or is “paranoid” simply a name you call the people whose beliefs are furthest from your own? Liberals like Hofstadter have no interest in answering this question: to do so is, quite literally, not in their interest. But this, according to Boltanski, means that they are incapable of founding a truly sociological theory of paranoia. It’s easy to dismiss those to the extreme right and left of your own position, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a scientific, or even a historical, insight.


One hopes that all this is a preamble to some future Boltanski book that will treat the history of liberalism head-on. This isn’t at all unlikely, nor would it be the first time a Boltanski book contained the seeds of the next. For someone so obsessed with categorization and schematization, Boltanski has a tendency to let the ideas in his books bleed into the margins: there are dozens of pages in Mysteries & Conspiracies that have nothing at all to do with detective fiction but bear on themes addressed explicitly in previous works like On Justification, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Distant Suffering, and On Critique.

Insofar as Mysteries & Conspiracies has a guiding thread, it’s not crime stories but critical sociology, embodied in the iconic figure of Bourdieu, and those who would like to dismantle or dismiss it. “The sociologist will be reproached for taking an imaginary entity — such as ‘the ruling class’ — as his target, and for doing so out of a personal passion associated with political causes,” he warns. “He may even be accused of producing an equivalent . . . of the conspiracy theories that nourish the resentment of ‘losers,’ the envious and the insane.” Sociologists are always in danger of being seen as paranoids, all the more so when they oppose powerful vested interests; on this point, despite their myriad differences, Boltanski and Bourdieu agree.

In Mysteries & Conspiracies, as in his other recent books, like On Critique (2011), we see Boltanski returning to the project of critical sociology that he and his contemporaries have done so much to call into question. How can one move beyond the endless, debilitating suspicions of a Bourdieu without settling for ratifying the liberal consensus of a Hofstadter? Boltanski himself still seems to be struggling toward an answer.

The mystery Boltanski wants to solve, ultimately, is the mystery of sociology. What is this suspicious science for? What does it allow us to know? How can it be practiced, not only responsibly but effectively? “Sociology is not a detective story,” he insists, “still less a spy story, even if it sometimes tries to solve mysteries and even if it finds itself confronting the question of conspiracy.” OK, fine. But what is it? Mysteries & Conspiracies doesn’t solve the enigma; it doesn’t even come close. But it does add a valuable chapter to the story Boltanski is writing, one that may yet end in any number of surprising ways. It confirms, yet again, that he is heir to a tradition that he is intelligent enough to realize is in decline, and committed enough to care about revitalizing.

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