Rereading texts 30 years later

I went to university to study sociology at the age of 32 after having a fairly chequered career up until then in the world of work including, amongst others, periods in electronics (selling photo-electronic control systems), an order picker in a warehouse (groceries), financial services (selling life assurance and unit trust investments), laying concrete bases for a construction firm (North Sea Gas), publishing (selling Caxton encyclopedias) and running a couple of my own businesses (fencing and importing racing tyres for bicycles). My introduction to social thought and sociology came between 1976 and 1978 when I was driving a bus for the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive in Leeds and listening on most days to my conductor (the buses were front loaders and before one man operated buses became the norm) talking about Marxism, class warfare, the coming revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat. He happened to be the garage shop steward for the TGWU. I went to Leeds University to study sociology under Zygmunt Bauman in 1978 after wandering around in the labour market for 16 years fairly aimlessly (although, as it turned out, learning quite a lot).

Several things struck me when I started my sociological studies – how hard it was to understand anything I was told or read, how narrow and inexperienced where most of (but not all) my lecturers and fellow students however clever and erudite in other respects, and how it seemed de rigueur to have a specified guru (Althusser, Marx, Elias, Weber, Habermas, Marcuse,  Luhmann, etc. ) and rely mainly on a fairly restricted range of canonical texts.

Now, 33 years later and after continuous habitation in the world of higher education and professional sociology, I am turning (for fun!) back to some of the texts I read in the early days with so much difficulty and feelings of inferiority. Many I have not looked at again since those days. However, rereading some of them has been a revelation. I now think H Stuart Hughes’ Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought (1958) is magisterial. He was one of the very first in the English speaking world to recognise and comment upon the importance of Gramsci. When I first read it I found it almost impenetrable.

Speaking of Gramsci, another book I am reading that I haven’t looked at since the late 1980s and really struggled with is A Gramsci Reader (2008) edited by David Forgacs. Now I am finding it written clearly and succinctly and of enormous relevance to today’s political changes and unrest. Quite a few forthcoming notes and quotes in this blog will be from this book.

I am not, however, looking for the holy text or texts that will answer all my questions and tell me what to think and do. I have had a couple of dispiriting exchanges recently where individuals who I otherwise respect have said when, for instance, I have expressed an interest in Bauman’s ideas on the changing role of public intellectuals from legislators to interpreters and what this means for their relation to civil society and politics, that he is mistaken and his work so flawed it is not worth spending time on. This usually comes with a recommendation to read some other thinker who has got it right. I have had similar reactions, from different individuals, when I say I am rereading Capital, or Elias, or Foucault. I really don’t know what their problem is, unless a fear of the messy and uncertain real world. Social, political, economic and cultural processes are unimaginably complex. I will read and take from anyone who has made a principled attempt to understand society and social change. For instance, Alhusser was on dodgy ground when he characterised individual actors as mere ‘bearers of structure’ but his views on identity formation and ‘interpelation’ are useful and are saying something important, as is Foucault when he talks of ‘regimes of truth’ and Elias when he elaborates his ideas on sociogenesis, or Marx on surplus value. At the end of the day these are all resources to think with and about in discussion with others to make sense of the world we live in and to work out what we believe and how we should act,  how we should live, what sort of world we want to live in and how we might achieve it. Pre-eminantly, how do we want to relate to and live with others with respect, in common humanity in harmony with ourselves and the environment.  None of the putative gurus can answer this for us. This is a job we must do for ourselves by means of a bit of intelligent collegiate ‘winging it’.