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The aestheticised mode of social theorising

One of the targets in Kieran Healy’s Fuck Nuance paper is connoisseurship in social theory, the tendency to “call for the contemplation of complexity almost for its own sake” and “remind everyone that things are more subtle than they seem”. As he astutely observes, this tendency sits uneasily with abstraction as a practice: “throwing away detail for the sake of a bit of generality” means that things are always more complicated.

The paper as a whole convincingly argues there is no necessary relationship between theoretical nuance and explanatory gain (even though in particular cases, nuance might contingently be helpful) which raises the question: what work do these calls for nuance actually do? His answer is that connoisseurship concerns the performance of status within theoretical circles:  

Social theory in this aestheticized mode operates in a similar way to the discourse surrounding fine wine, cuisine, or art. A logic of sophisticated appreciation prevails, combined with a hierarchy of taste based on one’s knowledge of the world, or knowledge of what people have written about the world. Aestheticized theory resembles these institutional spheres because connoisseurship thrives best in settings where judgment is frequent but measurement is hard. This favors the development and expansion
of specialist vocabularies that are highly elaborated but only loosely connected to measurable features of what is being talked about. Tere are rules governing the use of these vocabularies, but they are hard to learn. Moreover, while you may be confident that there is some sort of reliable connection between the vocabulary and the object, you cannot really be sure you are competent unless you have been certified by another expert in the field. A Master Sommelier probably knows a lot more about wine than you, but it is still reasonable to be skeptical whether detailed wine-talk has any sort of codifiable connection to the taste of wines. Sociological theory in this style is carried on in a similar cloud of terms that allow for rich verbal expression that carries with it clear signals of the sophistication of the speaker.

He argues earlier in the paper that “nuance flourishes because of the relative absence of shared standards for the evaluation of theory”. Under these conditions, aesthetic criteria easily substitute for intellectual ones: theory develops through the verbal sparring of theorists demonstrating their connoisseurship, rather than as a crucial component of and supporting apparatus for sociological inquiry. Theoretical literature tends towards fragmentation and density, as the core moves of the connoisseur lead nuances to proliferate in a way that further divides an already divided field of activity. It strikes me that scholasticism, as described by David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules, thrives in this environment:

No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.

There’s more at work in the operation of academic celebrity – particularly in the field of social theory – than nuance alone. But it’s interesting to consider the aestheticised ways in which the work of these towering figures is invoked, as well as how this feeds into the tendencies Healy identifies in his paper. Do their texts function as a replacement for shared standards? Do their concepts serve as reservoirs of potential calls-for-nuance that are endless in number and basically incommensurable? How does demonstrating mastery of these texts entrench the aestheticised mode of social theorising?

Categories: social theory Thinking

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