Issue 124, October 2014

On Luc Boltanski: Contradictions and Critiques


t11 124

“Boltanski is described as challenging formulaic approaches in sociology and as developing instead novel theoretical insights and an innovative pragmatist methodology. It is suggested that these innovations are complemented by Boltanski’s substantial investigations into empirical developments. Links are drawn between the themes of Boltanski’s work, especially on the new spirit of capitalism, and Peter Murphy’s book The Collective Imagination, which is the subject of a review essay article by Craig Browne. Peter Murphy is one of the other contributors to the issue, along with Paul Blokker and Simon Susen. The papers engage with various features of Boltanski’s work, especially the topics of critique, democracy, capitalism, and ideology.”
from Craig Browne’s Introduction to Special Issue on the work of Luc Boltanski


‘Experience is a mixture of violence and justification’: Luc Boltanski in conversation with Craig Browne

Craig Browne

Abstract: In this discussion with Craig Browne, Luc Boltanski comments on how his recent work reconsiders the questions of agency and the nature of social explanation. Boltanski reflects on the connections between his investigations of grammars of justifications and his later work with Eve Chiapello on the historical transition to a new spirit of capitalism. The significance of politics, conflict and critique to Boltanski’s sociology are highlighted. Boltanski explains why he regards May 1968 as a major disruption of the capitalist social order and how the conservative response to this contestation subsequently prevailed in France. The reorganisation of capitalism in recent decades has increased social division, yet Boltanski believes that the recent recession and existing discontent could lead to unexpected outcomes.


The institution of critique and the critique of institutions

Craig Browne

Abstract: My paper argues that Luc Boltanski’s pragmatic sociology makes an important contribution to two central concerns of critical theory: the empirical analysis of the contradictions and conflicts of capitalist societies and the reflexive clarification of the epistemological and normative grounds of critique. I show how Boltanski’s assessment of the limitations of Bourdieu’s critical sociology significantly influenced his pragmatic sociology of critique and explication of the political philosophies present in actors’ practices of dispute and justification. Although pragmatism has revealed how social life involves considerable uncertainty, Boltanski contends that critique needs to take into account how institutions generate semantic security, as well as symbolic violence. Boltanski’s endeavour to reformulate critique is compared with influential alternative conceptions, notably those of Habermas, Castoriadis, and Honneth. Despite its potential deficiencies and weaknesses, Boltanski’s reformulation of critique is found to be of considerable theoretical significance. In particular, Boltanski’s analysis of the role critique has played in the reorganization of capitalism can be extended, and his work is suggestive of how some of the intentions of critical theory can be pursued in new ways.

Luc Boltanski and democratic theory: Fragility, auto-nomos, and critique as democracy’s end

Paul Blokker

Abstract: In Luc Boltanski’s On Critique, various dimensions of democracy as a political regime and form of society are evident, but never explicitly conceptualized. There is, however, something to be gained by making the democratic dimension in Boltanski’s work more explicit: the normative and political standpoints become clearer, but also the real-life possibilities for and significance of critique in contemporary times. The paper will first discuss the (latent) democratic theory in On Critique by focusing on the differentiation between reality and the world and the conceptualization of institutions. In a second step, I will relate a rather rudimentary democratic theory to the radical-democratic dimensions of the work of Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis in order to make its contours more explicit. In a third step, I will discuss a tension that exists between the radical-democratic dimension in On Critique and Boltanski’s portrayal of contemporary capitalist-democratic societies as largely immune to critique.

The enigma of capitalism and the French cul-de-sac

Peter Murphy

Abstract: The article is an evaluation of the economic, organizational and social theory of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism 15 years after its publication. The role of network capitalism, state capitalism, and aesthetic capitalism in French social life is analysed. The article concludes that flexible network capitalism was largely a chimera of the 1990s and that French political and economic life today is dominated by an ailing state capitalism.

Reflections on ideology: Lessons from Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Boltanski

Simon Susen

Abstract: The main purpose of this article is to demonstrate the enduring relevance of the concept of ideology to contemporary sociological analysis. To this end, the article draws upon central arguments put forward by Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Boltanski in ‘La production de l’idéologie dominante’ [‘The Production of the Dominant Ideology’]. Yet, the important theoretical contributions made in this enquiry have been largely ignored by contemporary sociologists, even by those who specialize in the critical study of ideology. This article intends to fill this gap in the literature by illustrating that useful lessons can be learned from Bourdieu and Boltanski’s critical investigation, as it provides crucial insights into the principal characteristics and functions of ideologies, including the ways in which they develop and operate in advanced capitalist societies. The article is divided into two main parts: the first part examines various universal features of ideology; the second part aims to shed light on several particular features of dominant ideology. The paper concludes by arguing that the ‘end of ideology’ thesis, despite the fact that it raises valuable sociological questions, is ultimately untenable.

Review Essay:

From the creativity of collective imagination to the crisis of postmodern fantasy

Craig Browne

Abstract: The Collective Imagination explicates the media of social creativity and explains how the imagination has shaped historically significant social institutions. It focuses on the media of wit, paradox, and metaphor, and develops a distinctive and original interpretation of the imagination’s appositional quality. Murphy’s conception of the collective imagination is compared with that of Cornelius Castoriadis. The discussion suggests that Murphy’s claims are likely to be disputed, particularly because they diverge from the common equation of contemporary creativity with social progress. Murphy draws attention to a kind of conservative disposition that is necessary for imagination to have substantial social efficacy. Murphy claims that the creativity of the collective imagination has to a large extent been eclipsed by fantasy and kitsch. The deleterious effects of fantasy’s denial of reality are explored in relation to four domains of collective creativity: art, society, economy and politics. It is argued that the ramifications of Murphy’s profound interpretation of the imagination may be developed in ways that differ from some of his conclusions.

Book Reviews

The Politics of Survival

Dylan Taylor

Modern Privacy: Shifting Boundaries, New Forms

Mark Scillio

Utopia in the Age of Globalization: Space, Representation, and the World-System

Chamsy el-Ojeili

Media Representation and the Global Imagination and Ubiquitous Photography

Tony Schirato

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s