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  • Balzac, L'invention de la sociologie ed. by Andrea Del Lungo and Pierre Glaudes
  • Scott Sprenger
Andrea Del Lungo and Glaudes, Pierre, eds. Balzac, L'invention de la sociologie. Classiques Garnier, 2019, 345 pp.

The title—Balzac, l'invention de la sociologie—nearly says it all: Balzac invented a proto-typical human science with the purpose of exposing the impact of social forces on human behavior. Although the name for this new science did not exist until Auguste Comte coined it in 1839, Balzac precociously noticed a need for sociology before it was officially invented. Paradoxically, and for reasons that this book explores, Balzac chose narrative fiction over the scientific treatise as his preferred means of scientific communication.

That Balzac invented a form of sociology avant la lettre is, of course, not an original observation, as the editors of this volume, Andrea Del Lungo and Pierre Glaudes, readily admit. Indeed, one of the main goals of the book is to reexamine common assumptions concerning the linkages between Balzac's realism and sociology in order to open new hermeneutic questions pertaining to the relationship between literature and scientific knowledge (8). The editors maintain that while the prestigious sciences of Balzac's time (botany, zoology, chemistry) were interested in developing "objective" typologies, taxonomies and classifications of the natural world, Balzac, in parallel to the work of Comte, was imagining a new science for theorizing the social construction of human reality—something that has yet to be fully appreciated.

In this sense, Balzac should not be considered a "precursor" to be subsumed by subsequent forms of sociology, but as an inventor of a new way of thinking that requires the renewed consideration of literary scholars, historians and sociologists (9). The book thus attempts to accomplish two things: 1) to capture the nuances and complexities of Balzac's sociology with respect to an inchoate, unstable body of emerging sociological thinking, and 2) to re-interpret Balzac's thought vis-à-vis established sociologies [End Page 127] still with us today. It goes without saying that Balzac's differentiating feature is his suspension of a sociology within a poetic system of signs. Thus, while conventional science assumes a correspondence between scientific discourse and an existing human reality, Balzac calls on readers to decipher "signs" of behavior as both a literary and a social invention.

The editors divide the volume's fifteen ambitious contributions into three parts, with an eye to providing three distinct avenues into Balzac's sociological thinking. Part I, titled "Balzac et le moment pre-sociologique," features essays on Balzac's fictionalization of contemporary scientific influences. From Buffon's prestigious animal classifications, for example, Balzac imagines a new method of human classification as social types, but with an ironic distance and a temporality that exposes the limits of pure taxonomy (Noiray). In the two chapters on Louis de Bonald the authors Gengembre and Pranchère remind us of Balzac's reliance on traditional categories (family, religion) as a structuring feature of early 19th-century behavior and, by contrast, a diagnostics for understanding the internal ruptures and "absences" that generate modern psychopathologies. The essay by Del Lungo adopts a tack similar to Noiray by showing how fiction permits Balzac to simulate statistical methods of social analysis while simultaneously detaching himself ironically in order to expose an embedded moral normativity in this emerging "science."

The book's second part, "Lectures Sociologiques de l'Oeuvre de Balzac," focuses on readings of particular novels to illustrate some finer-tuned aspects of Balzac's sociology. Lyon-Caen's essay on Balzac's representations of the petit-bourgeoisie's obsession with social distinctions points to a new and powerful social force called socio-mimesis. Lyon-Caen's emphasis is echoed and expanded in the Tortenese chapter on the social-psychology of the 19th-century bourgeoisie as a contradiction between a desire for social distinction and an imitation of distinctions—a fact which is complicated by a 19th-century context of social disruption and class instability. Heathcote's piece on Balzac's sociology of sexuality underscores Balzac's precocious analysis of performative gender that is untethered from biological identities and that resists the emerging binary between hetero-and homosexuality...


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pp. 127-129
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