Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Mucking About in the Recesses of Theoretical Memory...

One of the most treasured moments in my life were those days when I frequented one of downtown Athens, Ohio's 20 plus pubs with my Socialist Worker Party friend Jake and a group of political science and sociology students from Ohio University in the 1980s to explore, discuss, and debate social theory, Marxist and beyond, to try to figure out the world we lived in. Another was the years I spent hiking the American and Canadian West with another one time friend but that is another story.

What I enjoyed most about these experiences, apart from the intellectual stimulation, was that they were not dogmatic. While Jake was a Socialist Worker he was not a fundamentalist Marxist. Jake did not, or at least this was my impression, need to believe that every jot and tittle that Marx wrote was infallible and true. In these gatherings we were able to talk about and critique a variety of social theories civilly and respectfully and, of course, enjoy a beer or three at the same time.

I have been studying social theory, including Marxism, history, religion, and the social sciences for forty years. I have taken much from Marx particularly his emphasis on economics and his discussion of the fetishisation of the commodities if in its broadened social constructionist form. I have also borrowed from Weber, who I still find the most compelling of the great social theorists though I do not regard him as infallible. I have taken much from Lukacs (a student of Weber), Gramsci, the Frankfurt School (who were responding to Weber), Keith Thomas, Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, EP Thompson, Foucault (who expanded on Weber), Baudrillard, Geertz, Victor Turner and a multitude of others. I have long sought to understand the world we live in and all of these theorists have helped me do just that. I have had the opportunity to learn not only from friends and theorists but from a handful of wonderful teachers.

Because of all this I think that I, because I recognise that social theory like life itself, is dynamic and must attempt to come to grips with a world in flux, have a better understanding of a world that has changed dramatically since the mid-19th century, the world Marx was writing about. Some of what Marx said, of course, is still instructive and helpful. Some of what he wrote has been proven wrong, the labour theory of value which he took from Ricardo, for instance. All of what I have taken from these host of theorists has helped me understand that we now live in a world, a postmodern and postindustrial world, where consumer capitalism and service sector capitalism, are dominant. They have helped me understand that we now live in a world where digital media bread and circuses anaesthetise much of the population and the old media anaesthetise most of the rest.

Historical changes require, in my opinion, a broader social theory, which, while it recognises the centrality of economics, requires and demands a more subtle and nuanced notion of base and superstructure. Marx. of course, hinted at a more subtle and nuanced view of base and superstructure on several occasions, something many of his more fundamentalist dogmatic disciples could learn from. Weber, who like Marx argues for the centrality of economics, offers a more nuanced view of culture, politics, and geography that have been very helpful to me in comprehending both the modern and postmodern worlds I have and continue to live in. I am so glad that social theory in the service of understanding has been a significant part of my intellectual life. I wouldn't have had it any other way.

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