Institutions

Have just finished reading Luc Boltanski’s On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (Polity, 2011), a terrific book.  Hope to post at least three or four times with comments and thoughts it inspires.

Right now, I want to work through his account of institutions, since I have been complaining for months that the allergy to institutionalization found in contemporary social movements and in Hannah Arendt (as well as in many other places) severely hampers the potential effectiveness of a would-be leftist politics.

Boltanski recognizes that there are many competing definitions of institutions out there.  Boltanski takes a roughly functionalist approach himself (although I am sure he would hate to see it characterized as such).  He accepts the William James (he doesn’t cite James, but he does call himself a pragmatist) notion of our selves embedded in a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” the “flux” or the “flow” of time and events that generates the “stream” of consciousness as one perception or thought succeeds another.  Boltanski calls this flux, this onslaught, “the world.”  We can assimilate his notion of “the world” to James’s interest in “the more.”  The world is always more than we can take in; it always exceeds our conceptual and perceptual powers; any picture or representation we might produce of the world will always fall short of fully, completely representing it (we might want to go Heideggerian here and think of the “age of the world picture” but without Heidegger’s insistence that this is a modern pathology).

To survive in the flux, any society must construct some stabilities, some things that can be taken for granted.  Boltanski calls that construction “reality.”  Crucially, reality is necessarily a collective product—and Boltanski’s reasoning for that claim (which he underwrites with an appeal to J. L. Austin’s notion of “felicity”) could be tied back to James’s radical empiricism essays (“How Two Minds Can Know One Thing,” and “Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic”) as well as to Wittgenstein’s denial of the possibility of a “private language.”  “An institution is a bodiless being to which is delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is” (Boltanski, 75)—i.e. of fixing in place a certain version of “reality” that has a stability and permanence that stands over against the “uncertainty” that characterizes individual existence in the flux.  “That is why the phenomenology of institutions attributes to them as an essential property: their capacity to establish enduring or even, in a sense, eternal entities.  Unlike the individual bodies of those who give them a voice, serve them, or simply live and die in spheres of reality they [institutions] help to cohere and to last, they seem removed from the corruption of time” (75).

The “more” however, the world, insures the ever present possibility of critique.  There is always something (shall we call it the “excluded” as Derrida or Butler would, or the “remainder” in a Bataille sense?) that the current version of reality fails to take into account—and critique will, in the most radical instances, launch itself from the effort to bring that remainder back into the picture.  Reality can be shown to be insufficient to the plenitude of the world.  Reality, a radical critique insists, must be deconstructed because of that insufficiency.

In two senses, then, Boltanksi actually sees critique as dependent on institutions (the two exist in an endless pas de deux that resists any resolution in some Hegelian aufgeheben.)  First, some stability is required for there to be any common language at all, for entities like “nation” and “society” or concepts like “freedom” and “justice” to make enough sense to allow us to argue about them.  If neither social orders nor selves ever cohered enough to be identifiable (to be describable), critique could not get off the ground.  Humans would not be able to speak to one another—or to make any kind of sense of experience. Sociology, in Boltanksi’s view, must always have both a descriptive and a critical mission.  We can generalize this point to any political discourse: it must offer an analysis/account of current political reality and normative judgments about that reality.  It may, also, offer an imaginative (projective) vision of an alternative configuration—but this third leg is not strictly necessary.

Second, critique must always have a target—and that target is the currently prevailing version of reality constructed and preserved by institutions.  Without the work done by institutions, no critique.

How do institutions do that work?  Primarily, in Boltanski’s view, it is semantic work.  Institutions fix the meaning of things, most importantly “the establishment of types” (75).  He adopts the pragmatist emphasis on “situations,” that is, the notion that selves (because of the flow of time) continually find themselves in new settings, faced with different people, different environments, different needs, different demands upon them, different bodily abilities (today I am sick, yesterday I was well; today I am 60, yesterday I was 35).  Novelty and change are constant—and are the source of the “uncertainty” that institutions exist to manage (although without ever achieving complete control; the flow of time and the novelties it introduces cannot be stopped.)

Following Dewey’s account of judgment (although, once more, without any actual nod to Dewey), Boltanski offers a dualistic definition of situation: “The situation is identified, on the one hand, by reference to a certain context in which the action occurs and, on the other, by the meaning given to this context by relating it to a determinate type of action” (69).  Confronted by a novel setting, the individual processes it by judging what kind (or type) of situation this is.  Analogy and similarity—subsuming the singular into a more general set—allows us to escape complete befuddlement.  Judgment moves from the particular to the general: this object is a chair not a sofa; this painting is beautiful; that action is wrong; this context is a lecture not performance art or surgery.  And it does so by constructing (asserting) some kind of similarity between this instance of beauty and other instances of beauty—and so on for the other examples.  Wittgenstein loosened up the requirements for similarity by talking of “family resemblances” as contrasted to shared “essences” (of a Platonic or any other sort).

The work of judgement (as Aristotle and Kant both acknowledged in their own way) is notoriously imprecise.  The rules that might govern judgment are severely under-determinative, especially for aesthetic and moral judgments.  But even scientific and empirical judgments are iffy.  Think of a medical diagnosis.  We say two people have Parkinson’s disease, but the trajectory of their condition and their response (or lack of response) to attempted treatments can vary widely.  Aristotle falls back on “practical wisdom” (phronesis) as the guarantor of good judgment, while Kant (at least for aesthetic judgments) relies on “good taste.”  Such groundings don’t look much better than hand-waving.  And then along come the post-structuralists to insist that every assimilation of the singular to a generalizing category represses all that is not similar, all that is unique and (it is implied) should be cherished.

Institutions exist, then, for Boltanksi to create and maintain the “types,” the categories—a necessarily collective enterprise (both the creation and the maintenance). I can’t unilaterally declare this lecture absurdist theater and expect that judgment to stick—but if I trade on the authority vested in me by an institution (I am a New York Time reporter) or convince a significant of number of people that my naming it so is sound, then that judgment might just hold—or, at least, be taken under serious consideration.  Creativity in the arts and in politics, after all, is very often re-naming something.  You call that a labor contract, I call it exploitation—and the battle is engaged.

Most formally, institutions fix categories (types) by establishing laws—and can enforce their categories with sanctions. (Hence the law distinguishes murder from self-defense, and even distinguishes among first-degree, second-degree, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and the like, specifying the appropriate sanction for each gradation.  Case law then concerns itself with determining—making a judgment—about where in the available general schema does this particular instance of inflicted death belong, a point open—quite obviously in the courtroom setting—to contention.)

Institutions, thus, are powerful; they are sites where power is collected, the power to create and the power to enforce.  There are other sub-legal institutions; a university, for example, cannot legally punish a student for failing to come to class (although truancy laws give elementary schools that kind of legal power) but can sanction them with a bad grade or by refusing to grant them credit.  Professional organizations wield similar kinds of power, as does any institution that controls participation (who gets to participate and who does not) and insists on allegiance to certain shared principles, aims, and definitions, while also arbitrating how particular behavior is to be categorized (as ethical or not for instance, or up to professional standards or not).

It is no wonder, then, that the left is so often allergic to institutionalization—because the left remains terrified of power and temperamentally loath to punish.  (Let me say that a deep distaste for punishment of any kind is deeply ingrained in me.  I have never understood negative reinforcement of even the mildest sorts; my response to it has always been to walk away, with an outraged sense that no one has the right to talk to me or treat me in that way.  I am equally averse to using negative reinforcement myself.  I have always, in my teaching, used praise and exhorting a student to push her talents to the utmost as my mode of feedback.)  The ruthlessness of Communism (with its purges, violent in Russia, but painful enough in the non-violent forms used in the West—read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for one vivid picture) from 1930 to 1956 only heightened the suspicion of institutions which policed membership for many on the left, seeming to reinforce the conviction that when politics strays from the path of anti-institutionalism, only disaster can result.

How do institutions function on the ground?  Boltanski imagines them as sites of justification; they not only establish reality, but also must submit that reality to “tests” that reveal its 1) strength and 2) justice.  Strength tests are about the maintenance of a particular regime of reality against competitors.  So, for example, we can say that the nation-state was the preeminent institutional form from 1660 (or so) until 1945.  But now globalized capital and the rise of international organizations/law have challenged the nation-state’s hegemonic ability to create the common sense of those who live within its territory (my use of Gramscian terms here is deliberate.)  Institutions that are not organized primarily in relation to jurisdiction over a territory have arisen to challenge the nation-state form.  The ability of the nation-state to collect corporate taxes poised against the trans-national corporation’s ability to evade those taxes would count as a test of strength.  If the state fails that test, citizens will begin to question its effectiveness and may look for more effective institutions to serve their needs.  Certainly one central test of strength in today’s world is the contest between the state and the market.

But there are also justificatory tests.  An unchallenged (or mostly unchallenged) institution will conduct what Boltanski calls “tests of truth.”  Such tests are close to tautological; they function to reinforce the already hegemonic common sense (or reality) that the institution exists to maintain.  An example of a test of truth would be the staging of elections that are then taken to demonstrate the democratic nature of the political order.  Democracy is defined in terms of elections while having an election serves to prove one lives in a democracy. Perhaps a virtuous circle, but recognizably a circle. Institutions constantly trumpet examples that demonstrate that the institution is what it says it is, that it is functioning in alignment with its stated purpose and/or ideals.

The first level of critique comes with what Boltanski calls “tests of reality.”  Here the critic criticizes how the “tests of truth” are actually being performed.  Thus, someone who says US elections are not truly democratic because of the influence of money is pointing to the flaws in the test—and calling for a reform of the test such that its enactment would actually prove what it is claimed that it proves.  Criticizing tests in this way can take a variety of forms, but the point is always to show that the existing test does not demonstrate the fact it is claimed to reveal—and to show how a different test would do the job better.  For Boltanksi, such conflicts over tests are everywhere—but they are not radical critiques because they do not question the overall goal or telos.  The ideal of democracy is not questioned, only whether our regime is truly democratic and what exact tests would accurately reveal if the regime is democratic or not.  So these tests are “pragmatic” in the sense that they focus on doing the job at hand better; they do not question whether we should even be invested in doing that job.

Finally, there are existential tests, which do raise those kinds of radical questions about both ideals (goals) and about fundamental structures.  Such critiques, as I have already indicated, rely on a claim about “the world” (existential conditions) in order to question the more limited “reality” that institutions create and maintain.

Boltanski’s pragmatic sociology calls on the sociologist to focus on “disputes,” on actual instances at existing social sites where members of a society disagree about the “tests’ being conducted or about the very ends being pursued.  This move is particularly important because it also entails identifying the norms (as well as the interests) that underlie such disputes.  Boltanski wants to avoid a) importing the norms of critique from outside the existing social sphere; he wants an immanent critique that grows out of the things that current social members evidently care about, as demonstrated by where they take their stand in current disputes and by the kinds of reasons and arguments they proffer in waging those disputes; and b) he wants to avoid any sense that social actors are deluded, are dupes, or exist in some kind of false consciousness.  In taking their stands at various sites and in various contestations, actors demonstrate where their commitments are as well as their understanding (judgments) of the situations in which they are embedded.  Any work of emancipation should begin from—and honor—those commitments and judgments.

And yet . . .

More to say on this topic—but I will leave that for the next post.

 

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