The Race of Time and the Lives of the Dead*
In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood says “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.” If to write is to get down with the dead, then to write a memoir is the most down and dirty of all negotiations of the kind.
To live in the worlds at hand without due regard for their underworlds is a terrible conceit—that life is a stand taken against death. Against which, Emmanuel Levinas has said in Time and the Other (70): “The unknown of death signifies that the very relationship with death cannot take place in the light, that the subject is in relationship with what does not come from itself.” The time that flies away or runs out is at once dark and shimmering with the meaning that we are other than we had supposed. To the living and the dead, the race of time is filled by the emptiness of the grievous losses that give human suffering its vitality.
Still, we may ask, what have the living to do with the dead? Atwood again reminds of the many and seemingly ubiquitous cultures that not only allow for visits to an underworld, but insist on them. What, she asks, is sought in the descent? Her list—drawn from Odysseus and Gilgamesh, Hamlet and Borges, Rilke and others— is: riches, knowledges, monsters, and lost loves. What are these riches sought in a descent to the land of the dead if not some knowledge of loved ones with whom we are forever bound by the necessity of life’s endings? We negotiate with the dead against monstrous odds, but bargain we must to keep the dead from haunting what remains of life.
Writings of all kinds breach the line that severs the real from the other it becomes when all is said and done. Life with others is lived against the possibility that those who have gone before possess a wisdom that bequeaths the one unqualified value that is beyond all exchanges—the secret of what, if anything, lies beyond. Do they, the Dead, speak to us in the bargain? This is harder to deny than skeptics would admit. At the least (if not the entirety of the matter) the Dead speak to us when we constitute and correct ourselves in the stories we tell of what pasts we think we know.
Life’s time is a race to overcome the dark skin of this most vital of ignorances. The race is won, if at all, only when we cast our stories into the void of those who attend to us. They may listen for no better reason than the wish to preserve the delicate social ties that make it possible for them one day to tell theirs to whomever, if not us. There is no telling without the void our strangers kindly offer.
Telling the stories of pasts are negotiations with the Dead we remember, if at all, only in the telling. A past is always, irrevocably, just as dead as a future. We are dealt a passing moment, the present that we check, raise, or fold on the gamble that we can win a pot against the odds of life. A bet is always against an outcome that is never present in the instant we must play what hands we have. The land of the living, like the time to bet, passes in a flash. Writing stills the light into a negative in which the dark stands in for the real that quickly becomes a false positive. Yet, against the odds, we tell others what we think we saw before the image passed.
Once upon a time in the low valleys of a river town, a boy was born after a flood. He thinks he was told that the waters had forced his parents to flee for higher ground. The next year they built a new home high in the western hills of the river town. Theirs was the first of many to come that would blot their view of the valley below. Just the same, at the first, their new hill home was high enough to secure the modest aspirations of a young doctor and his beautiful Balkan bride. When the boy was still of nursing age, the parents, newly housed but domestically unsettled, sought help of a sort the better, so to speak, white people of the region customarily sought. As he grew older, the boy came to think, so far as anyone can think such thoughts, that she who came may have offered the breast the mother was told she could not.
Late in the 1930s, the younger woman entered the household of the boy and his unsettled parents when the river town, just north of the South, was still segregated. The year before, Florence had followed her family star to join kin in the near North. She came from Florida where, her parents gone, she had been raised by a white woman. She had been thus raised out of time, an innocent outlaw to the deadly racial exclusions. After settling in a room of her own in the dark but dry basement of the doctor’s new house, Florence, her young age and humble status notwithstanding, came quickly to rule the roost. She slept below and ate in the kitchen but she held the family in her hand as had, before and since, so many women of her lineage. Evenings and weekends, the doctor moaned and barked. Weekdays, the mother and wife acted out her stated role as mistress of the domestic scene. Amid the trouble and pretense, Florence made it work in ways that went beyond her prescribed duties. A brother was born to the boy.
In time, war called away the father, Charles. The mother, Helen, was left with more than she was meant to handle. To the amazement of all, she managed well, even after Adele, her mother, being of the old world, insisted that Florence move out. For those years, the boy took to the mother’s bed, or so he believes. Florence commuted by bus from a house of her own in the valley from which the doctor had led his family. Adele worked as a nurse across town but commuted on the same bus line, thus replicating the flow of the races. Mornings, whites rode toward the city, Blacks to the suburbs; evenings they took the seats the others had warmed. The boy does not remember where the mother’s mother slept, though he is certain as certain can be that it is not in Florence’s room.
In time the war came to an end. The father flew home from his far Pacific station. The day he landed at a nearby Air Force base, the late summer air was bright against a cloudless sky. Years later the boy remembers the light, and a strange sort of peanut butter and banana sandwich he devoured while waiting. After lukewarm embraces, the four of them—the doctor, his wife, and two boys—drove home by cornfields freshly cut. On the way, the light disappeared behind some imperceptible horizon. It was already apparent that something had happened to the doctor in the long absence—or, at least, that was the theory. Perhaps whatever it was might have been nothing more than a dimming of the not-yet-latent wishes—or the dawning of the fear the boy would not have the father of whom he had dreamt while sleeping, if he did, close to the mother. Whatever it was, the father thereafter was a missing man.
The doctor returned to his bed by rights and, by necessity, to the private practice of medicine. Legend has it that he was good at what he did outside the house. Mornings, he made house and hospital calls before driving deep into the valley to his downtown office. At noon, he had lunch at the Cricket restaurant just off Vine Street. No matter what, even if in later years the boy had come along, the doctor read the morning papers over a silent lunch. After, he saw patients for three or so hours, then left for home.
On the way home—more often than the boy thought necessary—the father would stop to restock the liquor closet with bourbon and the fridge with meats. At Scheibe’s Market, in the stockroom, he would give the butcher regular shots of whatever medicine doctors then thought a diabetic needed. Once home, the doctor had the first of a string of bourbons with water and rocks. By dinnertime he was irritable or distant according to whichever cloud had passed over his head. After, he would nap on the same long sofa that decades later could be found in the home of the boy’s brother, himself now a doctor. The father’s evening naps would last much of the evening until after the boys had retired to their rooms. The boy, ever keen to his removal from the mother, would listen for the sounds of the father’s awakening. After a shower, the doctor dressed for bed to watch late-night television while sipping one or two benedictory bourbons. It seemed, so far as such things reveal themselves, that the long evening nap refreshed the father enough to end the day, house lights down, perimeter checked, and the last drink in hand, by talking things over with Helen. All these years later, the kitchen scene stands out in the grown boy’s memory as the one and only fully generous parental habit that brought him to the fore of the attentions. He of course heard only the muffled tones of their talk. In the absence of the real thing, this was what comfort there was in the unrequited possibility that the father loved him.
As the boy grew older he accepted the family routines for what they were. Florence remained a presence. He had the idea that she and Helen had become, if not friends, sisters of a remote kind. But as adolescence gained on him, the one the boy loved most faded to the penumbra of his awareness. To fill the empty time, Florence went to night school for the elementary education she had never had. Many years later she told him (or so he believes) that she worked on her reading and writing in order to keep up with the boy. After the parents died on either side of 1970, she and the boy renewed their primordial intimacies.
The boy, once grown, came to terms with the quirky family story. The indefinite terms he had come to were of those of this story—a story of floods, war, migrations, homecomings, and goings; of inclusions and exclusions; and of wishes disappointed only to be acted out with one who was real in her effect but lost to the well-structured realities of the worlds in and between which they lived.
The story, like all stories, is told from memory. Save for the storyteller and his brother, all of the principals of a local drama that played out long ago are dead. Yet, decades later, the dead ones live on at a time when the teller must renew his negotiations with the land of the Dead. His death, like all deaths, will come at some time sooner or later to the present in which he remembers events that could well have taken place. If they did, then what of the one who remembers them? Is he, that boy, alive or dead? If alive, in what sense more real than the stories he tells on the wings of memory’s flight? If dead, then who tells the story of a boy who once lived, and may still, but whose encounters with certain events and persons are buried in the dust of structures now abandoned?
In this telling, the boy’s story is neither true nor false—neither fact nor fiction. Those who dare tell even the simplest story of some boy or girl they think they might have been are negotiating with their dead. The teller of any one story tells but one iteration of the several truths, realities, or accounts that could be told, each different in important ways from the others.
This is how time races on from the lives of the Dead. It is not so much the speed of its passing as the feeble grasp memory allows on the time in which we negotiate with our dead; hence, the riddle of the past that is always fixed somewhere in a land to which we must return without map or clock to mark the way.
Then too, there is the enigma of tellings. Whether written or sung, by pen or voice, stories must find a way between the voice and the text—between speech that has aura of immediacy and writing that puts the story into a nether region that is neither here nor there.
One supposes that when it comes to negotiations with the Dead of one’s personal past, writing trumps speech if only because the past told is always at a distance from the story. Yet, at the same time—the differences Derrida had with Saussure notwithstanding—the telling must call immediate attention to the dead events in the story as if they were still somehow alive. In the difference—which entails but does not contain the differences between presences and absences—stands the essential riddle of social things. They can only be real to us by our speaking of them, yet even our speech in time forms archives—from the neurological to, now, the digital—that in due course are corrupted as they recede into a cyber-ether. Still, the necessary dependencies and differences between speech and writing remain the primary theoretical vectors of serious understanding of the moral conundrum of social life. The between of the individual and her collectivities is a practical negotiation that requires a social contract to and from which no map or clock can guide the way.
On the one hand, for the spoken word to have its effect on those to whom it may be addressed, there must be some reasonably well-inscribed and shared accord by which signifiers, unable to sustain a link to real things, come to convey a world of social consciousness with respect to what things there may be. This would be Durkheim’s insistence that social consciousness is the origin of collective representations that, in principle, are the moral and social codes that make meanings necessary, thus possible. This too is the idea that seems to have influenced Saussure’s theory ofsocial values as the articulation in the waning present of a sound that evokes not just the shared meanings that come to mind in that present but all the worlds of possible meanings that must be left out in the instant of the utterance. If any speaker tried to say everything that could be said at a given instant then he would emit a babble that could certify him for hospitalization, which is to say for removal from the prevailing social order. With Durkheim and Saussure (but also, and shockingly, Marx), social values are without exception marked for exchange not according to their inherent utilities but by a prevailing (which is to say corrupt and deadly) social form covering the modes of production of the meanings offered for sale.
On the other hand, that of writing—let us call it Freud’s (but also to a lesser degree Marx’s)—social meanings are riddled with terrible turns of the table. They may arise from some utterly inscrutable voice—like sleepy slips of the Unconscious in Freud (or of Mr. Moneybag’s secretive modes of production in Marx)—calls out the repetitions of actual human behavior in which the hidden but absent truth of the past. That voice, of course, is never truly spoken to be heard as such. It is always written in the sense that, as Lacan made clear, in the interior discourse of the Other revealed in dreams, the contents are always metonymic, which is to say pictograms that fuse speech with pictures that condense meanings beyond any possible vocalization. Derrida’s famous theory of the priority of writing over the voice was at least homologous to Freud’s broken and condensed voice of the Unconscious. Better yet (and this is the point too often missed in attempts to characterize poststructuralism) the truth of presences is cast adrift in the indefiniteness of structuring wholes of all kinds. Being, power, centers, selves, histories, and the like are, Derrida rightly said, the enemies of the free play meanings signified by arbitrary signs.
At the same time, the whole point of stories, whether written or spoken, is that they occupy an inordinately prominent place in both traditions—let us call them again Durkheim and Saussure’s as distinct from Freud’s and Derrida’s. In the one, Durkheim’s (and only slightly less so Saussure’s and even Marx’s), the primary story is one spoken in the social truth of collective representations (or with Saussure of la langue and with Marx the system of exchange values) that give expression to purportedly sensible (but actually obscure) social meanings. In the other, Freud’s (and, differences being granted, Deleuze’s and Derrida’s) meanings, such as they are, arise not from a well-rooted source but in the folds that generate rhizomatic branches that break open the social space of meaning. In the one case, the stories imply that there is a root from which the social truth of the story springs; in the other the idea is that there is no breaching of the past’s deadly power over what we know or think we know.
Thus, either way one plays it, what remains is that the written story is much more than a deferral. It is itself an incarnation of the storyteller’s negotiations with the dead past. Once there was a boy or a girl . . . then what? This cannot be said absolutely. It can only be told but never in so many words.
My relations over the years to the ever vanishing little boy of the story account for the race of time across which my writing has sprawled. Some have generously told me that this or that one mattered to them. These remarks are always much appreciated but, with no disrespect for those who have made them, they have also been a surprise.
At first, I thought they were confusing me with my uncle Edwin, now dead, but still one of sociology’s finest, most elegant writers, not to mention creative thinkers. In the early days, many did in fact confuse me with him to the point that I had to look up potlatch to understand whatever Edwin had said on the subject. Still, when (in Goffman’s hilarious locution) in some “vasty Hilton field” I realized they were referring to a hobby horse I had in fact ridden, it became necessary to dismount the pleasure in order to adjust the harness. Usually, not always, I came to realize that, if there is a conceit more grievous than taking compliments too seriously, it is that of dismissing them out of hand. The one conceit is the fable that we who negotiate with our dead have slain the monsters and brought back the rich truths others have lost, or not found; the other is that of failing to understand that those who attend to the stories we have told have their own stake on the table—that of respecting conversation that suspends the social whole in a web mysteriously spun in the cool of the night. We awaken to behold the dew-sodden filaments that trap the food we consume. Eventually, the sun dries the dew; the fine filaments collapse into the dust from which we had sprung and out of which, another day, we compose the stories.
The stories that at first seem to be acutely personal are in fact caught up and suspended in social space. All structures, of whichever kind—from stellar to social to mental to molecular—are suspension bridges over times and spaces. Otherwise, they would not endure and, by definition, would not be structures. The story of the boy, on one level, is localized for a few years in a specific river town through which, along the river and across the ferries and bridges, thousands upon thousands found their ways west toward the reputed freedoms of the plains, while other thousands, on a different kind of freedom journey, made their ways north out of the deep South. Neither, in their short runs of time, found the pure freedoms they may have dreamt of. They found, if anything, relief from bitter pasts. Along their ways they met others with whom they forged ties when not forging weapons. In a sense, this one kid in his place and time does not matter. In another sense—that of the threads of a story that bind him to others and their stories of other places and times—he is like (not the same as, but like) all others. Somewhere in the between, social things are structured for a while until they no longer are.
It is not a question of a common denominator of the human condition; nor of a universal truth; nor, even, of one or another of the more potent myths, like that of Oedipus, that recur in many times and places. The boy, in this case the little boy of my recollections, was, indeed, caught up in what, over several generations, had the taint of an oedipal conflict. But, in the race of time, where exactly does such a conflict act itself out? If one were to grant that beyond the particulars of unrequited passions and unexamined struggles over the right to bed down with either of the two women in the family romance, there is another—let us call it, tentatively—still more grand narrative, which is to say: that of the apparent, if not certifiable, universal quest for objects of desire that are displaced by culture beyond what words can tell. Incest may well be the universal taboo, or the next best thing to it. But incestuous desire is certainly well within language—that is the point of the variations on the Oedipus legend, which makes it speakable if not coherent. What else moves a young heart to wish for the unspeakable is beyond words, even if and when it presents itself in the guise of the powerful taboo that only begins to get at the heart of it all.
To be human is to long. All longings sooner or later settle upon a territory one would rule were it not that the ghosts of what and whom we killed within know we coveted a throne much less a prohibited woman. To long for one who cannot be had is, in itself, to slay, however innocently, all who stand in the way of the impossible. In this sense, all well-structured social things—from the domicile to the mosque or fraternal order to the party or the trade union to the state and its cultural apparatuses to the global pathways and networks—these and more are the enduring remnants of the desire to stand up to the ones who would take it all away.
Is there anyone who does not tell some story of her early life? However refracted and opaque one’s story may be—however little she is aware that what she is telling is a story that matters; or, for that matter, however deranged the teller might be in making up a story that could not possibly have much to do with reality—personal stories are what remain of whatever pasts there are. All stories are opaque—that is their point: they serve to hide as much as they reveal. All stories are fictions—that is how they disguise what they reveal; they could hardly be repetitions of original events. All stories are personal—that is why none is truly personal for if it were then the story would lack the power to tell what truths it tells of the larger array of enduring structures against which whatever may be personal is hedged.
Herein stands the most formidable obstacle to empirical social studies. To study the worlds comprising and composed by storytellers leaves the student of the social with but two options, both of which involve the problem of data. All data, before they become data, must be cooked. Data are never, ever evidential if cut fresh from the kill. When it comes to social research the only question is what kind of stew you want and how, if at all, your pot preserves or lends taste to the butchered meat. As many since Kant have known (but few accepted), things in themselves are never directly available to taste as such. By consequence, we who cook the meat of social worlds are caught on the horns of a bullish dilemma. Either to believe, as many do, that their stews have only clarified the sauces of life, leaving the essences to speak for themselves; or (the only alternative) to tolerate the only pure fact of social research: that the pots we stir, we stir by our own hands, leaving the sauces vulnerable to our imperfect ways. Truth be told, when it comes to social things, there are no truths— which is not at all the same thing as believing there is no truth.
How, given this, does it happen that a boy with a story ends up where he ends up? The stories of the stews we make for ourselves are as good an account as we may have, on one unimpeachable condition: that we swallow the whole mess, the bitter with the savory, the bloody with the burnt.
I have, as those who know me best are aware, made quite a few messes. Often against good advice, I have tried to take them all in. I can only suppose that these facts of my life—the messes and the attempts to swallow them whole, have something to do with the domestic soup into which I was born.
No confession of this sort is ever simple. I have also done some things well, and a few very well. In the remainder what counts, or so I suppose, is less the why than the how of cooking my way into and out of the stews of ordinary life. Mine were the stews of hoping for the only thing a little white boy, suspended as I was in a local matrix in the early 1940s, wished for. We whose fathers appeared to us to missing for reasons beyond their or our control wanted to know: Where is the missing man and what does his absence mean? Some boys, of all the races, never have that man around and thus never know what his absence means. Boys of my generation encountered this preoccupying mystery because of war. This did not make us special. It only brought us down into the norm of global boyhoods. Yet, since we were led to believe it was not meant to be as it was, we may have been more confounded by it. This alone does not exact an important measure of sympathy. Boys whose fathers or mothers were sold off in the slave trade or killed off in the Indian wars no doubt stumbled on this mystery long before we did. I can envision what others have experienced but I can only give tell of what I knew and what the boys of my vague acquaintance in those days seemed to have known.
All mysteries wrought of unrequitable desires are deep precisely because they come into emotional play at precisely the point where all should be clear. This unsettled state of confusion—however widely it may be distributed among the classes and races—puts those therein consigned in an impossible situation. One acts on what one knows without realizing that one knows very little, if anything, about the facts of his life. The actions are attempts to stir the pot in ways that will render the meat edible. Still, one desires the raw meat that, sushi aside, is not to be taken in.
When the boys in question are of the higher classes in regions laden with racial hatred, the mystery of the missing man can be more puzzling. What white people have in mind when they entrust their precious babies to women not welcome at the dinner table is itself a good measure of the peculiar way social things work. Where apartheids are well structured into the social fabric, the political economy of intimacies expands and contracts with the heat of perceived needs. In the case of the little boy, the white parents are said to have realized that they were swimming in the deep end when it came to managing small children. It was the colored woman herself who told me that as Charles, the father, lay dying, he rose out of the morphine long enough to say to her, uncharacteristically: “Thank you for taking such good care of the boys. We couldn’t . . . ” All I know about what was said is what was later told me and, crucially, the fact that these were the last words my father uttered before the painkillers took him down below the set point where speech and consciousness are possible. All I can say about these sayings is that they seem right to me.
Thus it was that I was formed not just in any old stew but in one spiced by racial tastes of a particularly ancient, thus refracted, sort. Long enduring evil is cut over time by necessity. Those able pay. In their relations to Florence, for reasons quite out of character, my parents paid the true as opposed to market price for domestic labor. They paid well and, already in the 1940s, they voluntarily contributed to her social security account. Noblesse oblige among the nouveau is an obligation of vague but true recognition either of the failures of the one who pays or (in the instance of my white mother) of an awareness that her station in life was but a hair’s breadth above the misery she had herself known in her childhood. Boy children (and perhaps the girls as well) of these arrangements can suffer the indignity of loving the one whom the prevailing structural order forbids. When this happens it is far from clear to them whom they love. Like all children of the type they are taught to compose affectionate cards and notes to the legitimate parents while keeping silent as to the forbidden one. But who is the parent when the legitimate parent realizes at the end of his days that he was not? When did he realize this? And how did his late-dawning snatch of the arrangements he created affect the children? What, for that matter, does a child understand of these things? If at all, how does he come to understand them?
The mystery deepens when economic fluctuations, wars, and other intrusions upon the civility of the domestic order take away, for however long, the man who, truth be told, may have already been missing in the crucial sense before he went to war or to whatever it was that made him the lead character of a missing man story. War comes down on all wherever they are in the affected regions, tribes, and nations.
Still, the hard penultimate rule of structural effects is that they come down unevenly. Otherwise there would be no differences explicable according to general theories of social justice or, in the case of empirical social studies, of stratifications. Thus, at the extreme, the mysteries of personal life—like the mystery of the missing man—are inextricably bound to the mysteries of structured social things. One supposes that the personal ones are the more poignant. This is true, but it is not the truth. The truth is that there would be no poignancy in personal life were it not for the structured injustices in the uneven distribution of means and ends. Poignancy is as poignancy does, and feelings arising from absences always arise more acutely in individuals. This is not, decidedly not, because any particular class of individuals gathers the only true members of the order of things. Injustices are social things that bear on any and all who are members of the flawed commonwealth. All experience inequality’s differing degrees of pain or pleasure. If there is a primary threat to the ones with more material pleasures, it is that their educations and comforts do not often enable them to feel the pathos of the social wholes except when, in rare moments of collective excitement, their feelings are joined with those of others not of their class.
Why structures like those governing the effects of time, race, locale, war, floods, droughts, and the rest fade in and out of reception is not known. What is known is that they do, which is not to say that collectivities are unable to feel. Of course individuals do not feel anything totally or continuously either. What they do—and do it so much better than do structured wholes—is remember. Tribes have their oral traditions, nations have their archives, ethnic groups have their lingering resentments, but none of these encourages immediate access to the raw feelings that are the uncooked inner fiber of longing and desire.
Access to the truth of these impossible truths is, to be sure, opaque—through a glass dimly. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Unapologetically biblical (Paul, I Corinthians) this oft-quoted line comes agreeably to the point. The mysteries of the personal life are those of the social life, as Émile Durkheim insisted whilst trying to explain away the mysteries. Where they meet, if they do, and how they might be joined, if at all, is the foundational mystery of social theory and social studies in general.
Whether as professional theorists or practical seekers we would like to know now what we know but dimly and may know, if ever, only in some other time than the one with which we must live, and move, and have what being we have. We are left to cook the stews we make. The great failure of social studies, in my opinion, is the failure to heed the lessons Marx and Freud understood dimly—that in the end, nothing is exactly what it appears to be. The only distinguishing difference that separates Marx and Freud from Weber is that Weber knew that the truths, such as they may be, do not present themselves, if they do, on our terms. As he confessed in “Science as a Vocation,” ideas cannot be forced. “No sociologist should think himself too good, even in old age, to make tens of thousands of quite trivial computations in his head and perhaps for months at a time.” Even the slightest idea will not be born without labor. Like politics, science is the work of boring hard boards. Marx and Freud, also hard workers, both took the easier way to politics and science—the illusion that the structures would necessarily provoke the definitive contradiction; the faith that an analytic science would uncover the etiological trauma. Weber was the only true Lutheran—work hard, believe, accept.
It is one thing to work hard at science as a calling, quite another to live according to the rule of irresolute mysteries. They dim the vision in both instances but somehow, in the long run, it seems easier to accept the frustrations of scientific work (even the acceptance takes the form of succumbing to a false confidence in the brilliance of one’s methods). But when it comes to life itself, the ubiquitous truth that we cannot know the truths face-to-face is more disturbing. This is why I do not suppose that I am the only one to make messes along the way. We make trouble, often for ourselves, because not knowing is so unbearable that we take flight hoping against hope that the moment or two in midair will land us in a different place. It never does. We are neither birds nor ghosts. Though, if neither, we are closer to the ghosts than any other creature—this because we live, when we live honestly, with the disembodied truths that come and go as they please.
What, if anything, might all this have to do with a life lived in and around social theories of various kinds? The question, like all questions put to apparently “individual” stories, is of slight general interest—unless, that is, there is some good reason to think that there is no such thing as a completely personal story. Another thing that is known, in this respect, is that in the strictest of senses there certainly is no such thing as the pure, perfect individual—neither in the analytic sense of the pure “one” nor in the practical sense of “perfectly distinct.” The more science-bound social theorists have clumsily conceded this point. Without knowing exactly how it works, students of the social have long attempted to define the means by which individuals are made, or make themselves, qua individuals while remaining plausibly obedient to the social norms without which, individual or other, they would die.
Social death is the border guard between individuals and social things. Cross over, either way, without a valid passport and you are a goner. In this respect, social death is more final than bio-death. The living remember those who died in the good graces of the social whole but the rule of governing the excommunicated is strict and unforgiving. They are to be forgotten or, at least, not spoken of again—otherwise the excommunication fails to put them forever outside the communicating community.
The prospect that the individual’s social death sets the terms within which social studies must think the individual is at the broken heart of the mystery of social theories. Individualism, a shared ethic of the discrete if not supreme value of the individual, is not a complicated problem. As an ethic, it is inherently social. The problem, instead, arises for those who would make a science of the individual’s distance from and relation to the social. No single answer to date is satisfactory. The classic American one is socialization, which as many have shown is just too optimistic in its assumption that social things always and uniformly get inside the hearts and heads of individuals. Talcott Parsons, some time ago, tried to patch Freud into this scheme by proposing the somewhat more subtle dynamic of introjection, which in the long run did little except perhaps call attention to the Durkheimian elements in his theory by which, once the individual was reset within Parsons’s general theory of social action, the action elements became so ubiquitously engaged with each other that the fabled individual was effectively swallowed up in the dynamic.
In due course, after the optimistic liberal era in social studies came to its point of exhaustion late in the 1960s, the eventual “solution” to the status of the individual amid social things was a somewhat Weberian one—that the individual with her subjective needs for intersubjective adequacy is, when all is said and done, of a different order from the organized spheres of modern society. Thus, in time, came the quite useless canonical distinction between micro and macro social things. The distinction was, always, a fraud of sorts, a way of organizing the professional world of studies of the social as between those who attend to the smaller and local aspects and those who direct their efforts toward the bigger structural things. This was, and remains, little more than a methodological distinction without any evident empirical or theoretical merit.
The problem is better left to the more modest, if not quite adequate, resolution of the classical period, which was, in effect, the via negativa of the missing man. For Marx, the human individual was defined by his estrangement—the one expunged by capitalism’s exploitations. For Weber, when he was not troubled by the ethical dilemmas he could not solve, it was the overrationalized subject, a victim of modern methods applied to social life. Even for Freud, hardly a theorist of the individual, the individual was no more than the pathetic solitary ego caught between the forces of nature arising from the id and the social pressures coming down through the superego. In the end, the most mature of the early theories were those that eschewed the micro-macro/subject-object distinctions in favor of sheer description—Simmel’s wandering stranger of many minds; or Du Bois’s doubly conscious American Negro. The striking thing about the interventions of writers like Simmel and Du Bois early in the twentieth century was that, a full half century before Bourdieu and others began to question the benefits of the subjectivism-objectivism dichotomy, they simply set the formula aside in favor a stark but well-formed descriptive approach.
Still, for me at least, the question remains open and in need of attention. What is one to do about the individual as a theoretical and practical aspect of the social? And what might be the meaning of the quandary provoked by personal stories told by the multitudes is that though many in their details, in the long run there are so few stories to be told. River towns or prairies, the missing man family, the lost boys and girls who do or do not find themselves, their lost parents who do or do not triumph over their doubts, the forbidden but intimate strangers in the family mix, the awkward mix of economic and racial as of sexual and sexed differences, the effects of wars and weakly held peaces, of migrations and fears, and so on and so forth— all, and more, are the dramatic elements of human storytelling. Yet, whatever the source of the stories we hear and tell, it is the details that vary wildly while the plots and themes remain disconcertingly similar and few. This, I now believe, is the real and effective consequence of what we still tend to call social structures. Whether the structures are local or global, earthshaking or long-enduring, good or evil, structures do what they do within a narrow range of possibilities—otherwise they would not be structures and social things would slide into a sea of chaos.
This is a lesson that I, for one, required the better part of a lifetime to learn. Why I took so long, I cannot say. But I can make a good enough guess based on what I now know about the story of a quite undistinguished kid who was caught in a series of dilemmas. None were of his making, as with kids they never are. None were his alone. Many, if not all, of the dilemmas were determining if not determinative. He—which is to say, I—came in time to settle on the racial dilemma as the crucial one. Other kids have parents who are transparently incompetent to their obligations. Others, of the several races, call on colored women for help. Others suffer (or benefit) from the missing man syndrome. But somehow in this case the particular woman, Florence, who joined the aggravated family and the aggrieved boy, found a way to break through the veil without crossing the color line.
One reason she did was her religion. Another was that, as a young girl fresh to the near North, she had faced down the color line in her first factory job and did it with her fists. She loved Jesus and she defended herself against the odds. How she, in this setting, affected me is a matter of other stories. What outs in the end is that she was the one who exposed me, so to speak, to churches, several of which we desegregated in the 1940s. What I took from that other than the idea that churchgoing was a great way to get out of the house when the white father threw one of his Sunday morning fits is hard to say.
In college I began studying science, thinking I would follow in the path of the doctor. At a decisive moment late in the spring of 1958 I was faced with a choice— either to accept a summer research fellowship at a leading research institute in the East or accept a summer job as counselor at a very liberal church camp. Had I chosen the former, I may not have been a doctor but I probably would have become an embryologist or some other kind of biology person. Academic science was easy to me, then, because success in the classroom required little more than hard work and memorization. I was not, then, or so I now think, very good at the science itself—the creative aspects of the vocation. I chose the church camp for the summer after my junior year in college. My final year in college was my last in the natural sciences.
In 1959, I accepted a generous fellowship designed to seduce science students to the study of theology. I went off to a seminar in Boston in a Chevy not quite packed with my worldly possessions. I had only the haziest idea as to what theology was meant to do but whatever it was I found it a quite remarkable thing—the very idea of attempting to state in so many words the truth behind truths that cannot be stated in so many words was just the sort of mystery work for which I hungered. That hunger is, I now realize, part of the hard work of serious science, which somehow never moved me deeply. Why not? Perhaps, I would suppose, because the facts of my young life were so indefinite. The whole thing was so unmentionable, thus opaque or, better, stupid in the sense of stupor-inducing. Either way, theology led to philosophy and history eventually to social theory and psychoanalysis, the major disciplines of the unthinkable.
After seminary, I started at Harvard in the Study of Religion doctoral program, which meant Social Relations in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and social ethics in the Divinity School. These were still the days of systematic theology. At Harvard, I attended the lectures of Paul Tillich and Talcott Parsons. I read as much of what each wrote as I could follow. I devoured the concepts and theories of these two very systematic thinkers. The difference between their methods was, to me, negligible. Both required, in Parsons’s terms, an analytic realism, or, in Tillich’s, a method of correlation. Both amounted (or so I then thought) to the same thing—taking analytic concepts and their articulation as real enough in themselves whether aimed at the inscrutable dynamics of social action or the void between God and culture. For Parsons the realism was more or less grounded in a series of second-order historical allusions much like the early pages of Weber’s Protestant Ethic. As his pupil, and as a student of theology, I then found almost nothing about his writing or lecturing abstract. It all made perfect sense to me for much the same reason that I was moved by Talcott Parsons. I experienced him as modest and unassuming, anything but the kind of abstracting monster others from C. Wright Mills on would turn him into. Nor, again, did I find the ideas anything but enchanting—and this because, much the same as the theologians, and especially Paul Tillich, Parsons’s social theory was a bold attempt to write and talk about the mysteries of social action. To me the difference was real but slight.
Like the dark inscrutable place alleged to occupy the space between individuals and structures, the mystery of how and why individuals act as they do—under the guise of freedom, yet within the rules of the game—finds its homologue in the improbabilities of monotheistic religions. Why exactly do people stake their lives on a god who is who he is, nameless and distant? To write or speak of these things, either way, is to engage in a parallel if not identical kind of faith that puts everything at risk. From Søren Kierkegaard I had learned the leap of faith for which the paradigmatic story is that of Abraham, the father of the three monotheistic religions, who proved himself worthy by being willing to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac to the point of raising the knife to the boy’s throat. Whether the leap is into the nether space beyond the individual into the dominion of invisible structures or into the between of the believer and her god, the form of the action is much the same.
Harvard to me was not everything, far from it. In 1963, after my first year of graduate study, I decided to leave to pursue a life in the Protestant ministry. I finished the academic year, was ordained in 1964, began service as a sincere if naïve minister to youth in a conservative parish affiliated with the most liberal of Protestant sects. What I did not count on was that my regard for the mysteries of faith would not be shared by those I was meant to serve—and certainly not to the point of social action. There were good people among them but most in that parish were white folk of means richer than my river town parents could have imagined. They were terrified by changes that were then, in Tillich’s phrase, shaking the foundations. Whatever they believed in respect to Christianity, their practical ethical principles did not, for the most, extend to a hearty embrace of the demands of the civil rights movement. Naturally, I threw myself into all that as did most of the young clergy of my acquaintance. To act at such a time was, we believed, the divine imperative. We hardly knew what we were doing. If we thought about it, we thought of ideas like Tillich’s: “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable” or of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian social ethic that, in thought and deed, exemplified Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. We leapt. None of us died. A few remained with the church. Most of us fled in due course.
By the end of the decade I was back at Harvard to write my exams, then to accept a fellowship at the Joint Center for Urban Studies, where I would write my doctoral thesis. In the fall of 1969, the Joint Center was, after Nixon’s election in 1968, a refuge for Kennedy-Johnson liberals not ready to give up on what they had wrought through the 1960s. We debated urban policy, housing, and poverty with an urgency we thought we had earned the right to (but, also, in order to avoid as long as we could determining what actions were demanded of us in the regard to the war in Vietnam). The center, just off Brattle Street, was as close as we could get to the rumbles of the 1960s—Barney Frank shoeless and brash talking a mile a minute at the Friday afternoon luncheons, while mayors and former secretaries of HUD looked on knowingly, students doing their best to present themselves as in the know.
Somewhere in that time I took a very small group-reading tutorial with Robert Bellah, who was, I thought, brilliant, genial, and generous. With him I read Weber and Durkheim (who were staples in the Divinity School ethics program) but also Freud for the first time. I remember opening one meeting with a version of “What the hell?” The reading had been, I think, Moses and Monotheism. My bewilderment was an academic symptom of the extent to which, all the enchantment with mysteries notwithstanding, I was then ill-prepared to probe below the surface. I was, for the time being, content with the social ethics and applied social theory taught by James Luther Adams and Harvey Cox in the Divinity School. In the wake of the 1960s that was more than enough to handle.
After leaving Harvard for my first job at Southern Illinois University, I soon met Alvin Gouldner, who early in the 1970s had returned from Europe to exile in a tower at nearby Washington University, which could not keep him out but would not let him back in. From Gouldner, I learned Marx, but just as importantly learned the importance of third-way strategies. For him the third way was between Marxism and Sociology. When, about the same time, I began spending time in Paris, I discovered a new kind of Marxism—one beholden to Marx, yes, but also one filtered through Freud and Saussure and much else that for the longest while remained a puzzle of a different kind. Eventually the bifold between individuals and structures folded over again to expose another, more complicated mystery—that of the unknown and unknowable. I read and eventually got the point Foucault was pursuing in the early writings. It took a good long time to come fully to appreciate what he was working toward in his last years, which, we now know, is the vanishing point of articulation with Deleuze’s manifold vectors of social actions.
Given the story and its sequelae it should be no surprise—or no particular surprise— that the river town boy would be drawn from the racial dilemma to the mysteries of the betweens of life and faith, to the perversities of the Unconscious wherein is to be found, if at all, the missing man, who, it turns out, was always there, missing only in the sense that the hopes and wishes for the normal were phantasmagoria of raw desire. The missing man is a glass through which we see dimly, never face to face.
The race of time is always about the Dead. Not death, the abstraction, but the Dead within—those aspects of our being that are never fully spoken of, not even in our stories. Our dead are, yes, those we cherish or loathe who have gone on to wherever the Dead go. The race of time leads inexorably to the land of the Dead. Stories are the negotiations with time’s dark spaces—the betweens, the hiddens, the mysteries, the absences, the longings, the unknowns, and the unmentionables. Our salvation, so to speak, is in the actions we take, most of which are misdirected or just plain messy. Still, from time to time, they are apt to the point of all social actions. We save ourselves by holding up the community—a maxim that Kant put too abstractly as Giddens put it too technically and Bourdieu put it too thinly. The imperatives, the structurations, the habitus, and all the like fall short of the true ethical imperative that we live by our actions that are irrevocably leaps of faith into an unknown. As Al Gouldner said, we often fall flat on our faces. Fallen, we lift our eyes up to the mountains that, as Braudel and after him Wallerstein taught, endure beyond the time of the local events we try to recover in the stories we tell in order to make sense of what we have done and what has been done to us.
Social studies began as political economy, which is to say as a special brand of philosophical ethics. Social theory, since Marx, has always been a social ethic—that is not so much theory as tellings of what we see through the glass dimly. The mirror is really a mirror in which believers imagine they see it all. In fact, we see only what we can say, and that is not so bad, since there are not that many stories to tell or ways to tell them. Everything is in the telling without which we do not negotiate with the Dead without whom we are nothing but idle chatter. Tillich again: “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
*From: The Race of Time: A Charles Lemert Reader edited with an introductory essay by Daniel Chaffee and Sam Han (Paradigm Publishers, 2010)