Wednesday 11 March 2015

'It's not a pathology, it’s a project!—Sociology, anomie and atmosphere'

I'm very much looking forward to speaking at a seminar run by the Performance Research Group at King's College London next Monday (the 16th). The theme of the series is 'the anomalous' and this session in particular is titled 'The Anomaly in Art and Modes of Existence.' I'll be speaking alongside Penny Newell, the organiser. I'll be presenting something drawn from my ongoing interest in the 1972 science fiction film Silent Running. I'm in the slow but gradually progressing process of turning this interest into something concrete.

The presentation will have three parts: first, an illustrated summary of the film; second, a consideration of Émile Durkheim's concept of anomie relative to the themes presented (the main idea I take from the film is that of 'tragic modernism'—where the basic tenets of modernism are fully and naively accepted but lamented as a tragedy); and third, a reconstruction of this concept in dialogue with the AIME project, trying to understand its socio- or geo-political importance with respect to, in a phrase, air-conditioning our collective atmospheres (this then linking back to the film and its beautifully, movingly nuanced illustration of what happens when affective and social atmospheres, no less than oxygenated ones, are stripped away).

The title captures the essential point I'm trying to make: anomie is poorly understood as an anomalous pathology afflicting the social organism, as per Durkheim. Anomie—defined by Durkheim as the destructive de-restriction and derangement (dérèglement) of collective moral-legal bonds—is precisely the objective of the modernist project! To remove all bonds, all obligations with regard to other humans and, crucially and most intensively, to non-humans is precisely the point. They called it 'rationalisation.'

Durkheim cannot see this, or at least he cannot see it fully (his condemnation of economic theory for its anomie-inducing reductionism notwithstanding), because he has already fully and completely accepted the primary consequence of the anomie of the moderns: the fundamental separation of the social and the natural.

Durkheim was actively participating in this anomie-exacerbation (ever the 'rationaliser'). His condemnations were failures since he was reproducing the most fundamental principles of the very ideologies that he was condemning. This, I think, can be demonstrated through a close reading of the film, although I am still figuring out just how to construct this argument (very much a work in progress!).

To what extent the concept of anomie can (or should) be reconstructed is debatable but, I hope, it is at least worth debating. Connecting Durkheim to Latour's work is undoubtedly a provocative move! However, I think it could be a productive one (albeit one that will inevitably raise more questions than I am able to answer at present).