Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sigmund Freud – "The Uncanny" – summary and review

Sigmund's Freud's "The Uncanny" ("Das Unheimliche") was published in 1919 as part of his somewhat dismal account of the modern human condition (the Uncanny was complemented my Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle", published a year later). Freud's notion of the uncanny draws on the lingual origins of the German word "Unheimliche", opposed to "heimlisch" which signifies "homely" in the cozy-intimate sense of the word. Unheimliche, translated as "uncanny" is not exactly the opposite of homely but rather a word that describes a sense of estrangement within the home, the presence of something threatening, tempting and unknown that lies within the bounds of the intimate.

Freud was not the first to tackle the notion of the uncanny, and in fact his article is a response to Earnest Jentsch account on the subject. Both Jentsch and Freud relate to E.T.A. Hoffman's short story The Sandman as an example of the uncanny, though they draw somewhat different conclusions.

At the beginning of "The Uncanny" Freud holds that the uncanny is that type of dread which returns to which is long familiar. The uncanny, in that sense, is something new that exists in something already known. But the uncanny for Freud in not simply something which is unknown that enters our consciousness.  After a long lingual discussion, Freud argues that the notion of Heimlich, "homely", relates to something which is known and comfortable on the one hand and hidden and concealed on the other. The home, for Freud, is a type of secret place, and the unhomely, the uncanny, is something which should have been kept a secret but is revealed. This means that the "canny-homely" and uncanny-unhomley are two opposites that bear each other's meaning. To give a concrete example: the mannequin is an example of something which appears to be familiar as a human figure, but is in fact lifeless and therefore a potential cause of dread as a result of this dissonance of not knowing at first glance whether we are looking at a human or a piece of plastic.

For Freud, if psychoanalysis is correct in holding that an emotional effect of any kind can turn into anxiety by means of repression it follows that there must be types of anxiety that are the result of something repressed that has resurfaced. Such a feeling of anxiety is the uncanny, which is something rediscovered only after repression has rendered it strange and unfamiliar – the uncanny, in other words, is something that should have been kept concealed but is discovered. Freud argues that we experience a sense of uncanny when a certain trigger brings back repressed childhood conflicts or primitive beliefs that we have overcome but suddenly, seemingly, receive renewed affirmation.

Freud's concept of the Uncanny is difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain, the best way to understand Freud's Uncanny is simply to read the short book:
More by Freud:
The Ego and the Id

Gaston Bachelard Explained

Gaston Bachelard might not appear on the short list of well known 20th century thinkers, but he is however a very interesting and inspiring writer with influence on contemporary thought which is not always recognized. With an interesting combination of epistemology, phenomenology and poetics Bachelard made some very interesting, beautiful and influential remarks about science, space, human psychology and the nature of our encounter with the world. Bachelard's most famous book today is "The Poetics of Space" but many of his other writings remain relevant.

Bachelard was a predominantly preoccupied with epistemology and phenomenology which he laced with understanding related to psychoanalysis. This interesting mixture of theoretical orientations stood at the base of Bachelard's investigations into the human condition.

One example of Bachelard's thoughts in this regard, and an example of his subsequent influence, is his accounts on the psychology of science. He was the first one to suggest the scientific progress has to do with certain modes of thought and perceptions, and not just the accumulation of knowledge. Bachelard's concept of epidemiological break as a point of change in such perceptions will later echo in the highly known works of Louis Althusser and Thomas Kuhn.

Another notable area in which Gaston Bachelard has something important to offer is that of poetics (not always distinct from his writing about science). Bachelards' most famous work in this regard is "The Poetics of Space". In "The Poetics of Space" Bachelard holds a phenomenological study of private architecture and its relations to the "architecture of the psyche". Bachelard attempts to describe the private residence though the poetic conceptions of its different parts (what he calls "topoanalysis"). In other words, in "The Poetics of Space" Bachelard explores the inside of the house as the inside of the human soul. He views the house as "primal universe" of psychological existence and ascribes different meaning to various images relating to home and space in general.

Max Weber: Religious affiliation and social stratification –summary

In the opening chapter of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, titled "religious affiliation and social stratification" Max Weber notes how statistics show that in mixed religion societies protestant tend to rank higher in socio-economic stances. This for Weber links Protestantism with capitalism and he is seeking for an answer for the link between them. In other words, Weber argues that religious beliefs have to do with economic practices and socio-economic position (for additional elaboration see Max Weber's theory of stratification)

Throughout "religious affiliation and social stratification" Weber shows how differences between Catholicism and Protestantism can account for different professional and economical attitudes produced by different environments which are, as a result, more or less adapted to the capitalist system.  Weber tries to account for these differences as the basis for his whole theory in of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

One explanation offered for differences between Catholicism and Protestantism is that Catholic people are less concerned with material gains and are more focused on gains in the afterlife. But Weber thinks this does not fully account for the differences. He holds that the fact Protestantism works better with capitalism is due to an intimate connection between the two, making them two aspects of the same thing (hint: rationalism).  

From this point in "religious affiliation and social stratification" Weber attempts to show how different features of Protestantism are adapted to, in fact yielded from, capitalism. His main argument which will stand at the core occupation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is that the characteristics of a certain faith can transform into conditions of economic (and not just economic) personal and social behavior. An additional aspect of this theory is how it can link personal belief and religious belongingness to social statues and stratification.   

Suggested reading:


Introduction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (PESC) was originally published by Max Weber in two parts in 1904-05.  Weber later revised and re-published the book in 1920 as part of a more comparative study, Economic Ethics of the World Religions. 

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is not only a theory of the rise of capitalism.   As Weber says it is more about the role of religion in economic life, which addresses only one part of the rise of capitalism. 

One very important aspect in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is its ideal (rather than material) perception. Weber is often opposed to Karl Marx in this regard. Marx argued that social existence shapes consciousness, not vice versa.  Weber's position is more complex and bilateral:
He holds that ideas and perceptions play neither a wholly autonomous nor a purely passive role in history and society.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber wrote:   

"Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men's conduct.  Yet very frequently the "world images" that have been created by ideas have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest".

The central ideas posed by Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism have to do with several important issues.

One aspect of the book has to do with Weber's notion of rationality and rationalization. Weber sees capitalism has a part of a wider strive to organize society and economic life in a rational manner. Protestantism comes into the picture as a parallel attempt in modernity to organize religious life in a rational manner.  

Another aspect of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is question of capitalism's justification. Weber finds the answer to this question in the three-sided relationship between modern capitalism (a system for organizing economic life), the spirit of capitalism (the set of ideas that grant modern capitalism justification), and the Protestant Ethic (a religious attitude toward this world and the next upon which the spirit of capitalism is based).

Suggested reading:


Max Weber - Rationality, Rationalization and Modernity

Three main issues were of central concern to Max Weber: the role of ideas in history and social reality, the nature of power and power structures, and the methodology of the social sciences (see his notions on ethnomethodolgy).

"The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" has to do with Max Weber's first concern – the manner by which ideas and perceptions function in history. Central to these preoccupation is the notion of rationality and rationalization in modernity.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism deals with the rise of capitalism in the wake of the protestant revolution. Weber's agenda is to show how a religious or ideological process can be associated with a political and/or economic one. But what is more important about The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is the manner in which Weber sees capitalism and Protestantism as part of a large process of "rationalization".

Unlike Karl Marx, Weber views capitalism not as the central material feature of modern western societies but as one aspect of a larger process of rationalization which has come to dominate modern thought and society. Weber's discussion of these trends can be found in his work on both ideas and power, capitalism, Bureaucracy and Protestantism are all mutual aspects of modern rationalization.

Weber never really defines "rationalization,". One possible formulation of what Weber intended in "rationalization" is the peruse of a specific goal in a self-conscious and systematically organized manner. More simply, 'rational' according to Weber is the practice of appropriating means to an end.  

Weber did not use “rationalization” and “rational” as necessarily terms of praise.  He was quite ambivalent and critical about rationally organized action and a totally rationalized society as the ultimate goal of modernity.   Consequently, his account of the uniquely rational features of western societies at the beginning of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism does not imply that western societies are better than non-western ones, only different in their orientation and practice.

Rationality and rationalization are, according to Weber, inherit features of modernity which strives for a governed, calculated utilitarian and forward-moving modes of personal and social life.  

Suggested reading:


Max Weber - The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism - Summary and Review

Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is arguably his most important work. On the face of it The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism deals with the connections between the protestant revolution and the rise of capitalism, with Max Weber trying to account for the fact the Protestants seem to do better in a capitalistic environment when compared with other religions (especially Catholicism). However, the main point of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is not only that religious belief has to do with economic behavior, but also the Protestantism and capitalism represent two faces of a modern phenomenon referred to by Weber as rationalization (see a summary about rationality, rationalization and modernity by Max Weber).

At the beginning of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (chapter 1 titled "religious affiliation and social stratification" (see link for detailed summary) Weber points to the links between religious belief and economic behavior. He poses the notion the protestant thinking can be associated with what he calls "the spirit of capitalism" (chapter two of the book). What Protestantism and capitalism have in common is the “willingness to engage in rational conduct.”  Protestant thought serves capitalism in the conception of hard work and aestheticism as a moral duty. According to Weber capitalism and Protestantism actually say the same thing: work hard, accumulate capital, be rational.
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber shows how Calvinist views of salvation implicated changes in practical conduct towards greater rationality and the demystification or disenchantment of the world.

Another very important aspect of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is his account of the interrelations between conceptions and ideas (here, religious beliefs) as social aspects such as economic behavior and social stratification. Unlike Marx who thought that the world of ideas in founded on economic and material reality, Weber held and demonstrated that the relations between the two are more complex and bidirectional.   

Suggested reading:


Friday, February 21, 2014

Jean Baudrillard – Summary and Review of main Theories

Jean Baudrillard is a very varied cultural critic and thinker. His theories span across many fields ranging from technology, gender, international relations, consumerism, history and more. In his theoretical affiliation Baudrillard is considered to be postmodernist in orientation and poststructuralist, an orientation which is manifested predominantly is his occupation with systems of signification. Arguably Jean Baudrillard's most important work is "Simulacra and Simulation".

Perhaps the focal points of Jean Baudrillard's theories is the notion of meaning and self-referential manner in which meaning is produced in the postmodern age. Baudrillard draws on other important thinkers such as Foucault in trying to describe how systems of power relations in society are manifested in systems of representation and ideology (a tradition originating in Karl Marx's "The German Ideology" .

In his most notable book, "Simulacra and Simulation", Baudrillard argues that moderns systems of representation have undergone a process in which the dignified has lost touch with the signifier that now only points to other signifiers with the "real" long gone. In simple words, what Baudrillard says in "Simulacra and Simulation" is that the way we see and understand reality is only through the ever looping circle of representations representing representations.  This condition is referred to by Baudrillard as "the third order of simulacra". Baudrillard ties his discussion in "Simulacra and Simulation" to an interesting account on the relations between Disneyland and Watergate.

An additional important theory posed by early Baudrillard was his theory of object value systems which replaced production in Marx's theory for consumerism and the base of capitalistic society.  Baudrillard said that modes of economic activity are based not the constructed needs for producing but rather on the constructed needs for consuming, thus posing a new way to look at the manner in which an object acquires value. Basic theories such as Marx's and Adam Smith's focused on functional value and exchange value of goods. Modern sociology such as Bourdieu's theories added symbolic value to the equation. Baudrillard added the notion of sign value (such as the example of "brand") that is based on the manner in which the product is associated with signs functioning in a system (one can see how this is related to Baudrillard's ideas in "Simulacra and Simulation).

A late theory by Baudrillard is the one regarding the "end of history". Baudrillard hold the our modern notion of history is based on the notion of accumulating progress, which is nowadays breaking apart.  The West's victory in the cold war meant for Baudrillard not the victory of one ideology but rather the breaking down of the notion that there can be one final winning ideology and historical condition.  In other words, time itself is changing for Baudrillard with the collapse of linear thought.  

Recommended reading by and on Jean Baudrillard:


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Max Weber's Theory and Feminism - Summary

Feminism was one of the earliest movements influenced by the ideas of Max Weber regarding social research. Feminism, as a social theory, is not one unified approach and there are a few types of feminist theory. The most commonly identified forms of feminism are liberal feminism which argues for gradual change in the roles of women, Marxist feminism which sees capitalism and gender as enemies of women and radical feminism which criticises patriarchy and views masculinity as an enemy. Another type of feminism is black feminism sees both racism and masculinity as issues for Black women. The different strands of feminist theory widely disagree on many points, but all of them share a common ground point of apposing patriarchy.

Feminism built of Weber's notions regarding the nature of social inquiry. Unlike positivist thinkers of his time, Weber thought that there cannot be such a thing as an "objective" study of human society. In other words Weber "sociolozied" science and claimed the aspect like ideology influence the manner in which objects are studies. Feminist thinkers drew on Weberian thought when they argued that social sciences are in essence masculine, and in being so are agents in sustaining patriarchy.    

Following Max Weber, feminists tend to argue that empirical, scientific approaches to research (be it social or exact) are masculine in nature and orientation. Feminists reject the notion of value free and objective sociology, claiming that it is 'malestream' and ideological thought (this is especially true with feminism related to critical theory). According to Millen, what makes feminist research feminist in intent is that it is politically motivated and that it intends to have a role in changing social inequality. It considers the experiences of women and provides a context for the understanding of female issues. The researcher may actually become part of the research process. Feminist research acknowledges that the politics of the researcher influences the findings and actually views this bias as a strength of the research process. It is this type of thought that makes feminism a critical theory of society.

Suggested reading:


Max Weber - Summary of Theories

German sociologist Max Weber is one of the founding fathers of modern sociology with a huge influence on social theory, critical theory and cultural studies. Weber's theories regarding economics, religion social stratification and social research methodology were ground breaking at their time as they are considered to be classics today. Here we offer you a brief overview of some of Weber's main theories and contributions to social thought and some links to elaborated summaries of some of his theories and essays (more summaries on Max Weber to come). We include some recommendations on further reading by and about Weber.  

In terms of methodology, Weber is one of the most prominent father of Ethnomethodology – the examination of the manner in which people's beliefs and practices take part in producing social reality (see full summary on Max Weber and Ethnomethodology). An additional aspect of Weber's methodological theories is the problematisazation of social research and the argument that there can be no "objective" study of society. this made Weber very popular with later critical theorists, a lot of them feminist (see summary on Max Weber and feminist thought)    

Weber is often contrasted with the theory of Karl Marx, especially when it comes to describing social stratification and social inequality. Unlike materialist Marx who saw everything in economical terms, Weber's theory of society tried to account for the manner in which various symbolic factors take part in establishing social status, stratification and inequality (see full summaries on: Max Weber on social inequality and Max Weber and social stratification).

One of Weber's most famous and influential theories and books is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (published 1905) which ties the advent of capitalism as a socio-economical system to religious changes in Europe and the rise of Protestantism (see summary of  Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism, one of the most important parts of Weber's theory on the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism). Once central aspect of Weber's theory which can be found in "The Spirit of Capitalism" in the notion of rationality and rationalization in modern times. Here you can find a summary of chapter one "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism": "religious affiliation and social stratification  

Suggested reading:


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Max Weber's Theory of Stratification - summary

Max Weber, like Karl Marx, begins his analysis of class and social stratification from an economic point of view, arguing that 'property and lack of property are ... the basic categories of all class situations'. Weber's use of the word property is similar to Marx's view of capital or means of production. But where property and capital were the starting point for Marx, for Max Weber his starting point is to recognize that people are individuals. He says that within each class there are major social divisions based around status (see: Max Weber on social inequality) and what he calls 'party'. By 'party' he means any organisation (such as trade unions, professional associations, etc) that helps their members pursue their common interests. Such common interests can be summarized from a materialist point of view as market position. Weber's analysis can therefore be described as 'gradational' in contrast to the 'relational' approach of Marx. Weber identified four different 'constellations' of class:
·        The dominant property-owning and commercial class;
·        The white collar intelligentsia;
·        The petty bourgeoisie (owners of small businesses);
·        The manual working class.

These different class groupings have in Weber's view distinct market situations which either privilege them or make them more vulnerable to exploitation. Weber introduced the important sociological concept of life chances which refer to the opportunities (or lack of them) individuals have for success in education, employment, housing, health, etc. Within the market economy individuals without property depend upon the skills they can offer, and the relative scarcity of these skills improves their market position (based on supply and demand). For this reason, the highly qualified have a different class situation from those with no qualifications and therefore better opportunities . Weber's theory of social class is based on the view that class divisions and inequalities reflect different life chances in the market and that a person's class position is determined by the job market. Because such markets serve to divide and sub¬divide classes, the result is differentiation between groups of employees becomes increasingly complex. With this view we could not be further from Marx's dichotomous view of a society of just two classes. An additional aspect important to Weber's stratification theory is that economic characteristics are not the sole determinant on an individual's status and life chances, since aspects of group belonging like ethnicity are also crucial factors.  

Weber presents a view of society as becoming split into smaller groups or increasingly fragmented, in contrast to Marx's prediction of an increasingly polarized society. Weber's view of stratification, in other words, is more of a stretching spectrum rather than polarities. Weber's key point is that within class there is further differentiation in terms of status that reflects the different amounts of social standing individuals and groups have. Weber's analysis of status and market position can usefully, and arguably more accurately, explain social differences in society when compared with Marx's theory of stratification. For example, in the workplace women, the disabled, the elderly and many ethnic minority groups have found themselves discriminated against, irrespective of their class position. Therefore people occupying the same class position may well be distinguished by differences in status. For the individual, their status may be more significant than class as a source of identity. Weber thus sees class, status and party as cross-cutting and offers a more complex theoretical matrix of individual class position that Marx did.

Weber's approach is useful precisely because it allows us to describe the complex reality of contemporary society and comprise of different intertwining features. However, Marxists argue that Weber's concepts of class and status groups lack the close relationship with a theoretical position that Marx's concept of class exhibits. They question Weber's concept of status group, arguing that life chances are primarily shaped by class location more than anything else.

Suggested reading:


Max Weber on Social Inequality

Max Weber, as part of his views on Ethnomethodology and critical inquiry, debated Mark's views on social inequality. Karl Marx saw inequality in terms of the ownership of wealth and the control of material possessions, which are also manifested in ideological perceptions (see: The German Ideology).  One critique of Marx is that this is a very simple view and does not take into account all of the other forms of inequality found in society. Weber was obviously aware of Marx's writing when he disagreed with him. Weber said that inequality is more complex than what Marx described. He defined power as being the ability to influence others to do your will and claimed that power had a number of sources such as ownership of land and capital, social status, physical strength and education.

Weber saw stratification in terms of the triadic relationship between class, status and party. Status according to Weber is related to inequalities that are to do with the way in which people judge and relate to each other. Class is to do with inequalities that have their source in the workings of capitalism and the market place. Party is related to concepts of politics in its broadest sense. Weber says people form groups and organisations tend to look after their own interests, thus sustaining and reproducing  social inequality.

According to Weber Status is formed out of the tendency of people to judge each other (Bourdieu thought similarly). We all value some characteristics and despise others. When we do this as members of a social group towards members of other social categories, then we are according them a social status. Status, in other words, is based on self affirmation of one's social group and the denial of other groups and their members. Some groups will benefit from having a high status, but others may well be treated negatively. In our society, for instance, membership of certain racial groups implies worth, so that non-membership of high status groups then disadvantages those who come from ethnic minorities. The disadvantages of belonging to a low status group, such as membership of an ethnic minority, can leave people in poorly paid, low status occupations and with little hope of advancement. This means that status, according to Weber, is not (just) a personal matter but rather something which depends on group affiliation.

Wealth and economic advantage are a significant element of class. Weber suggested that the increasing bureaucracy that accompanies capitalism leads to status differences between those members of the working class who are manual workers and those who offer services to capitalism through the exercise of professional skills such as the middle classes. Weber suggested that there would be a growth and increase of classes linked to differences in educational skills and qualifications and the power that these confer on workers in the labour market.

Karl Marx believed that the social classes would polarise, leading to the eventual demise of capitalism with some people becoming ever more rich and powerful while others would become poorer until the pyramid can no longer sustain the gap and caves in. Weber said that there would be ever more social classes developing in capitalist society. Class would depend on our life chances and our life styles. Class would be characterised by such things as accents, education, locality, leisure habits and spending, what would later be characterised by Bourdieu as "Habitus". 

Suggested reading: