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The Social Beyond Words: The Case of Harold Garfinkel

From: New Literary History
Volume 39, Number 4, Autumn 2008
pp. 957-969 | 10.1353/nlh.0.0060

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No one who thinks about education for long can remain ignorant of the intimate and ambiguous relation between religious passions and the impulse to theorize.

—Kenneth Minogue1

Once literary criticism was set free to travel roads other than canonical literature, it was always likely to reach unexpected places. One of these, the subject of this paper, is sociological theory, a genre sometimes satirized for its turgid prose and ponderous neologisms even within sociology itself. The aim, however, is not to find fault but to appraise generic pressures in “writing the social” and to examine literary responses to them. In particular, the paper examines the writing style of Harold Garfinkel, notorious in the discipline for its oddness and difficulty.2 My interest, however, is not in the difficulty of the writing but in those features that give it a sometimes religious, sacramental, even rapturous tone—a tone conspicuously alien to normative social science. There is, for example, in the following passage, something like a consecration of the humdrum. Garfinkel is comparing the rational orderliness of written instructions (in this case, how to assemble a chair from boxed parts) with the in vivo work of turning a projected pattern into an actual thing recognizable as the pattern. He stresses the ineffably strange properties of any such process (which would include making socially real things from laws, rules, plans, or any other representations of actions): “Wheresoever you are engaged in vivo in finding and following instructions, THAT is where those properties will be given . . . So we’ll say: In the first place, they occur massively. Massively is too weak. We need something in the order of the heavens’ multitude, and then beyond numerosity . . . I mean to be talking about something awesome and beautiful, which is what I take it that Merleau-Ponty spoke of as the familiar miracle of ordinary society” (EP 206).

Elsewhere, Garfinkel reinforces this sense of reverence in the presence of the social by placing “the congregationally witnessable coherence of the most ordinary things in the world” (EP 139) beyond the reach of even the most refined methods and formal concepts of social thought, speaking of God to make the point:

Consider that immortal ordinary society evidently, just in any actual case, is easily done and easily recognized with uniquely adequate competence, vulgar competence, by one and all. Yet, for all that, by one and all it is intractably hard to describe procedurally. Procedurally described just in any actual case it is elusive. Further, it is only discoverable. It is not imaginable. It cannot be imagined but is only actually found out, and just in any actual case. Absent that and God knows how it is put together. More to the point of strange: in God’s silence, formal analysts, by exercising the privileges of the transcendental analyst and the universal observer, do not know, yet still somehow they know they need not hesitate to say.

(EP 96)

The language is almost biblical and sacerdotal, capable of creating a reading spell. But what is it doing in a programmatic declaration of sociology? Is it only a momentary taking leave of scientific sense? A mere idiosyncrasy? A curious textual folly? Or is there a deeper interpretation to be found, one rooted in the sociological enterprise itself? It is the latter I want to argue. In particular, that sociology’s founding object of knowledge, the social, is resistant to representation in ways that have something in common with objects of religious, mystical, and some kinds of poetic discourse. Something sufficiently similar to push deep reflection on the social as such into literary touch with those regions of language, even against rational intention and discipline norms. To pursue this claim, I will focus on a literary strategy that links these regions together: the strategy of saying by unsaying, technically called apophasis.

I. Apophasis and Unsayable Things

Some things are so overflowingly significant they defy words to express them. At least this is the ontological way of stating the point. Stated rhetorically, one way for a writer to create reading effects of overflowingly transcendent significance is to signal the inadequacy of mere human language to describe it. Among the effects created are those...