Canonizing. Sociology is apparently in the process of de-colonizing itself. A strong point of the project is the recognition that sociology emerged during the age of imperialism and that this gave the field a cosmopolitan and comparative ambition lost after the Parsonian synthesis which was both grand, and a bit boring. The weakness of the decolonizers lies in their deadening approach to ideas. For the enthusiasts of this project, such as the Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell for example, the elevation of Durkheim and Weber (then joined at a later period by Marx) to the status of classics is the result of translations, edited volumes and curricula. In the past, per Connell, there were different figures such as Spencer, Comte and Martineau. In the future there might be new ones. Undoubtedly there is considerable truth in all this, but what the decolonizers never get around to is the analysis of ideas. Why is this? It is connected to a cluster of epistemological and ontological assumptions shared across sociology from the most ardent exponents of post-colonialism to hardcore positivists. It could be called the dogma of the shapeless flux. Its picture of intellectual history is something like this. There exists a massive body of texts of more or less equal quality (Connell equates Sumner’s Folkways to Weber’s sociology of religion and Comte’s theory of progress to Hegel’s philosophy of history for example). Some of these texts are arbitrarily elevated to the status of must-reads because their study serves some latent function for sociology such as reinforcing professional pride and presumably also the interests of the white middle-class men who embody it. Occasionally the time comes to shake up the texts; this is an especially urgent task in the current period because of the need to diversify in demographic terms the voices in the curriculum. Without falling into a lazy traditionalism, it should be obvious that this set of protocols for understanding the history of sociology is guaranteed to produce nothing but cynicism, both concerning the previous canon, and concerning whatever new candidates are forthcoming. What it forgets is that the first step in an analysis is the critique and reconstruction of the ideas. Whatever one might say about Parson’s Structure of Social Action at least he got this starting point right. The decolonizers, in contrast, are producing nothing more than more or less extensive annotated bibliographies.
Sunk costs. It is hard to avoid the impression that ‘canonical’ struggles are really a misrecognized clash of quite specific material interests. The importance of ‘sunk costs’ in academic life should never be underestimated. Every professor has a large stock of written materials, images, graphs, reading notes and ready-to-hand interpretations which she has accumulated over years of study and thought. Although one really must avoid the slipshod analogies encouraged by the term ‘cultural capital’, these artifacts have a certain resemblance to ‘fixed capital’ in the Marxian lexicon. They provide a basic framework through which new information can be easily digested or ‘valorized’. In a material sense a challenge to the ‘canon’ poses the threat of the rapid devaluation of fixed assets. The rational response of these asset holders is ‘stand and fight’, to preserve the value of their assets even if their intellectual equipment is somewhat dated. They can at least make good use of it to valorize their ‘circulating capital’. The challengers in a material sense have quite opposite interests. They would like to leapfrog the incumbents and set up shop on the basis of an entirely new set of fixed endowments. This is the material meaning of the various projects of syllabus revision underway across the sprawling complex of US higher education, although ideologically this campaign is carried out under the sign of ‘decolonizing the syllabus’ or similar slogans. A couple of observations are in order about this struggle. First, it is important to point out the limits of the analogy. For in academic life there is no field of natural selection operating to weed out less efficient producers (as much as the managers of the neoliberal university would like this to be the case). Nor is there any analogue to exploitation. Second, the highly paradoxical character of the conflict should be emphasized. The most conservative actors in any struggle over the canon are likely to be in the least prestigious positions with the fewest opportunities to retool. To make matters worse, these are also the actors most likely to be the most vulnerable to negative student evaluations and the bureaucratic apparatus. Thus, we can fully expect that the costs of ‘de-colonizing the syllabus’ will be borne by those least able to bear them. Conversely those likely to win the most from the struggle will be those actors most well-placed with the lowest teaching loads and the most time to retool. The openness of this stratum to student demands for transformation is largely an index of its academic privilege. The outcome, in any case, will hardly be an overthrow of the canon, but a heightening of ‘barriers to entry’ for all players. A final note to the reader. The message of these lines is contained both in what they say and in how it is said.
Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘Lockdown Limbo’, NLR 127.