The Sociology corridor of the French ivory tower is under siege: a few weeks ago, two academics pulled a rather uncomfortable prank on the academic journal Sociétés, by managing to place in the prestigious publication a ‘fake’, or rather ‘hoax’, article.
The story is quite complex, but to sum it up: two sociologists, Manuel Quinon and Arnaud Saint-Martin, wrote an article on the Autolib’ cars, which are electric cars available to the general public for short-time rentals in Paris (think Boris bikes, but cars). They submitted the article, entitled ‘Postmodern automobilities: When Autolib’ makes sense in Paris’ under a pseudonym to Sociétés, where it was immediately accepted and published. So far, so good; except that, as Quinon and Saint-Martin explained in a long and fascinating article, their analysis is a hoax, a hollow and meaningless text, full of – they say – ‘inanities’, written by scrupulously following the methodological and epistemological line of Sociétés.
To give you an idea of what the ‘hoax’ is like, here’s a representative sample from the introduction, translated by me (I’ve done my best to convey the academic ‘wordplay’, sometimes changing the ‘meaning’, but, as you shall see, the ‘meaning’ is pretty obscure anyway):
It is hard for the man in the street not to notice them: in Paris, the “Autolib’s” have now settled in the urban ecosystem. They do not fail to interrogate our relation to the city and to driving – a driving of/in the city. In many ways, they foretell a new paradigm. In this double movement of an electrified urban mobility and of a sharing of common vehicles, we indeed find at play a (sub?)terranean postmodernity. Although communication campaigns, political marketing and economico-industrial aspects escort the deployment of those little grey Bluecars® conceived by the Bolloré group, we can nonetheless note that they mobilise us, as much as we mobilise them: in the contemporary city, the sovereign subject gives way to the nomad, to the puer aeternus.
Because the flux of urban Lebenswelt is woven into a series of perfectly connected socio-technical webs, it is now indispensable to work towards a comprehensive, or rather “formist” sociology of (de)ambulatory contemporary sociality. […] We will detect in Autolib’ the mark of a libido mobilis, a libidinal self-centred energy, a kind of “subterranean centrality” which is literally automobilistic. All this expresses, maybe, the impulsive need to reconnect with a “je-ne-sais-quoi” which is that of the matrix, of originary, vital energy […] The Autolib’ indeed participates of the contemporary imaginal; it reshapes not just forms of sociality, whose tribal future goes without saying, but also contributes to the creation of a new “semantic pool”, for which we need to elaborate a hermeneutic sociology.
The point, of course, was to ridicule Sociétés and a certain school of French sociology; to show that there is nothing in such studies behind a façade of jargon, preconceived ideas about contemporary society, and smattering of Deleuze and Derrida. As such, the researchers followed in the footsteps of Alan Sokal, a physicist who published in 1996 a prank article in cultural studies journal Social Text in order to denounce what were, according to him, the pretences and unsoundness of much French-theory-inspired American cultural studies.
Importantly, the hoax was also an attack on a particular person. Sociétés is headed by, and federates the disciples of, a charismatic Sociology professor called Michel Maffesoli. The ‘Maffesolian’ school of sociology (I would personally call it ‘cultural sociology’ or ‘cultural studies’) has a particular appetite for French-theory-heavy descriptions of everyday objects, practices and behaviours, basing their analyses on a conception of the ‘postmodern individual’ – a fragmented, non-rational and nomadic subject.
According to the two authors of the prank (and here I can’t take sides, knowing very little about the politics of French academia) Maffesoli’s influence on French sociology and on the media is undeserved, toxic, almost guru-esque. Worshipped by his disciples, who write article after article according to the ‘Maffesolian’ formula, the professor, they say, failed to notice even in his own journal the grotesque exaggerations of his own theory and concepts. Indeed, the hoax article goes to great lengths to celebrate the works of Michel Maffesoli with energetically sycophantic sentences, using what the two authors identify as Maffesoli’s key contributions to sociology: the drama of postmodernity, the meaningfulness of the quotidian, the hedonistic subject, ‘presenteism’, etc.
To sum up, Quinon and Saint-Martin’s aims with this hoax were to bring into disrepute Sociétés, Michel Maffesoli himself, but also, through him, the kind of sociological study that he represents. That is, as far as I understand the issue:
- Studies which emphasise everyday practices and objects, finding meaning in apparently meaningless familiarity;
- A jargon-heavy, French-theory-heavy, pompous language, relying on ‘keywords’ (buzzwords) coined by French and German theorists and/or Maffesoli(ans);
- Predictable conclusions, ‘confirmation bias’ for the school of thought’s vision of postmodernity;
- A strictly non-empirical methodology. The two authors are very clear that this was, to them, a major issue. Maffesoli’s motto appears to be that ‘no fieldwork’ is needed in sociology – so, in this particular case, there is no data collected on users of Autolib’s, for instance. Instead, the ‘empirical’ part of the sociological study should lie in the researcher’s felt experience of the studied object. The hoax article conscientiously respects this dismissal of fieldwork, explaining instead that the author ‘experienced’ the Autolib’, exploring what it ‘feels like’ to the driver. Of course, neither researcher actually bothered getting into an Autolib’ car; their ‘phenomenological’ approach was entirely imaginary.
- A sloppy peer-review process, letting through slapdash and absurd articles; it was later revealed that one reviewer had rejected the manuscript, but that the editor had gone with the positive opinion of the second reviewer.
The revelation of the hoax caused a modest but palpable stir in French academia as well as in the media, with Le Monde in particular amply covering the story (see also here and here). Michel Maffesoli, it was announced yesterday, has resigned from his Editor position at Sociétés, acknowledging that the article should never have been published, and that he had been careless not to have read it. But he refutes the accusations of intellectual sloppiness and academic mystification, denouncing what he felt was the ‘jealousy’ of Quinon and Saint-Martin; for Maffesoli, in short, this hoax is a spiteful attack on an eminent figure of sociological research from two frustrated younger colleagues.
Where does this leave us? Beyond the fact that the story itself is quite revealing of the legendary cliqueyness and ruthlessness of French academia, it is difficult not to feel uncomfortable when reading the hoax article and the accusations levelled at the type of sociology it represents. While there is no doubt that the article was profoundly silly, it raises an important question: to function as a hoax, was the article principally relying on 1) meaninglessness, or 2) ridicule?
Meaninglessness is easy to pinpoint. When the article states: “in the contemporary city, the sovereign subject gives way to the nomad, to the puer aeternus”, the use of the Latin expression is simply meaningless; ‘puer aeternus’ means ‘eternal child’; it makes strictly no sense in the context there; it is pure mystification.
If the article was entirely meaningless, it would be, in some way, less problematic: its publication could be put down to a tired reviewer and editorial oversight.
But it isn’t entirely meaningless. Instead, most of the article instead works as a hoax because it sounds, in some way, ‘ridiculous’. For instance, here’s the description of the use of the Autolib’ as opposed to owning a car:
No contract; just nomadism. No property; just use and reliance. No petit-bourgeois trophy, pretentiously exhibited to neighbours, parked/ parking class, sex and age identities, but a grey, floating medium, open to alterity, to différance as well as to differing views, silently and ecologically passing from a “high place” of the city to another…
There is certainly meaning in this extract. In fact, it makes a relatively interesting point: the Autolib’ allows the contemporary petit-bourgeois individual to be liberated from the cumbersome and ‘blingy’ external sign of wealth that a car represents, offering himself, instead, the luxury of a flexible and eco-friendly vehicle.
So why can it be considered ‘ridiculous’? For three main reasons, which I think can be categorised as ‘language’, ‘interpretation’ and ‘subjectivity’.
- Firstly, language: it plays on many clichés of French theory language and rhetoric: bizarre declensions of words separated by slashes or brackets (‘parked/ parking’), conscious misspellings heavy of Derridean extraction (‘différance’), random italicising, poor wordplay (‘différance’/ ‘differing views’ (‘différends’ in the original text)) etc.
- Secondly, interpretation, or rather overinterpretation: if the passage sounds ridiculous, it is in part because we are made to feel that the authors are overinterpreting a banal everyday object – that they are spending too much time and intellectual effort trying to decode and decrypt an object that isn’t there for that purpose. This is what many people who want to dismiss academic research call intellectual masturbation.
- Thirdly, subjectivity: the researchers having not done asked ‘real people’ what they think, their claim that the Autolib’ users are rejecting conspicuous consumption appears spurious; there might be many other reasons for not owning a car in Paris, including cost and general needlessness in a well-connected city.
The fact that most of the hoax’s power comes not from its utter meaninglessness but from the feeling that the language is vacuous and the study (over)interpretative and unscientific asks really quite problematic questions for cultural studies or cultural sociology scholars.
Let’s take language first. I am no French theory fan at all, and I understand the frustration that comes from ploughing through lines of undecipherable words, random puns and sporadic brackets. Some writers, like Derrida, are particularly annoying, because they are both eminently incomprehensible and worshipped by all the cool kids. It’s difficult not to believe that they’re all just pretending to understand and actually part of a worldwide conspiracy, like those people who thought the dress was gold and white.
But let’s have a little faith here. There’s no reason why academic language should be directly accessible. I do use thinkers who have specific jargon and sound difficult: Bourdieu, for instance, is legendarily obscure… at first sight. Once you get into it, and understand what it’s about, and read it carefully with the help of secondary texts, it’s not obscure anymore. It makes sense. The jargon makes sense.
I’m always very wary of attacks on jargon, because jargon is only ‘difficult’ if you don’t know the field. Jargon sums up decades of research in one word or expression. Once you know and understand it, a word of ‘jargon’ becomes a neat little package for years of intellectual work. It’s actually quite a beautiful thing.
But then, of course, what Quinon and Saint-Martin denounced is the empty use of jargon – they accuse the Maffesolians of quoting the necessary keywords with no knowledge of the texts and intellectual history behind them. If it’s this easy to mystify everyone, and to use keywords to hide a lack of original thought, then yes, we do indeed have a problem with jargon.
It’s particularly tricky in cultural studies because the jargon is ‘applied’ to everyday objects – so jogging becomes a way of being-in-the-world, washing-machines are a sublime object of ideology and dog-walkers are a new type of rhizomatic subject. The suspicion is strong that the ‘big word’ becomes a way of concealing the pointlessness of the studied object, and that the researcher is solely engaging in intellectual play verging on surrealism – Quinon and Saint-Martin actually compared their own hoax article to an ‘Oulipian exercise’.
This leads us to the question of overinterpretation, which is particularly stingy for people who, like me, have studied children’s books, comics, ludicrous social phenomena like the Mozart Effect, and routinely use secondary sources from newspapers, pop culture, visual culture and educational documents. This kind of (now not so trendy, but still sexy) research is based on the notion that these different types of discourse are equally worthy of interest. But the Quinon and Saint-Martin academic hoax seems to ask: is it ridiculous to study such things?
Reading it, I was reminded of those Amazon reviews of Mr Men picturebooks by a (bored and highly entertaining) parent with more than a smattering of literary theory. These reviews are of course hilarious, but, from the perspective of a someone who has just published a book on existentialist approaches to children’s literature, they can be a little uncomfortable:
An infant’s primer in Existentialism, we find in this book a weighty treatise on the personal politics of agency and empowerment, taking ownership and authorship of one’s own life. (Mr Bounce)
And many a children’s literature article from a Marxist perspective concludes to the conservatism of much children’s literature in the very manner of the Amazon reviewer:
In a thinly-veiled reference to the oppression of the workers by the ruling class, we are told that Mr Uppity is rude to everyone, and the detail that he has no friends in Bigtown explicitly informs us that the masses are on the brink of revolution. Are we about to bear witness to class war, Hargreaves-style? To see Mr Uppity brought to account by the revolutionary power of the proletariat? Vanquished and overthrown by the party of the workers?
Not so. Mr Uppity is no Marxian analysis, no Leninist prescription for class action. As always, Hargreaves’ inherent and essential conservatism comes to bear. His critique of the bourgeoisie comes not from the proletariat but from the feudal aristocracy.
Well, to be honest… he’s right. If there was a systematic study of the Mr Men series, it would probably be along those lines. Would such a study be ridiculous?
I don’t think so. I bemoan the lack of studies of highly commercial, ‘trashy’ children’s books like the Mr Men series; given their huge success, there should be more effort to study them. But researchers in children’s literature are understandably wary of studying such texts – they (and I include myself here!) prefer to study ‘good’ picturebooks, so-called postmodern picturebooks, because they are understood to have artistic and literary content – while the Mr Men series are principally interesting as a cultural studies/ popular culture phenomenon.
So in children’s literature for instance, there is a striking lack of scholarship on humour, on seriality, on chapter books; and a huge amount on highly sophisticated texts, realistic YA, political fiction (guilty) – which are by no means the most popular nor the most influential. Even authors like Roald Dahl or Jacqueline Wilson have been shockingly underresearched (there are exceptions, of course: much has been written on Harry Potter, dystopian YA, etc).
But it’s hardly surprising, given the amount of suspicion we’re under – by ‘we’, I mean people like me who are perhaps more interested in the cultural sociology than in the literary/aesthetic aspects of popular culture – when we study ‘banal’ texts. In an already-marginalised subdiscipline, we often don’t want to further marginalise ourselves.
Yet such studies can be immensely interesting and revealing, and should absolutely be conducted, however ludicrous it might sound to do a Butlerian critique of Gossip Girl.
Hoaxes like the Quinon/Saint-Martin article are useful to denounce specific people, journals and schools of thought, but also problematic because they weaken the credibility of an array of subfields – popular culture studies, media studies, film studies, video games studies, etc – which they didn’t actually target, but which are already constantly under threat because they sound ridiculous – which shouldn’t mean they are.
I’ll end with what Quinon and Saint-Martin denounced as a ‘non-scientific’ type of sociology. According to them, sociology proper should include empirical research and be strictly field-based. Maffesoli, again, refuted these accusations, by saying that he never understood sociology to be a science. According to him, sociology is ‘a knowledge’, and sociological research can absolutely stem from the researcher’s particular sensitivity to the world and interpretation of it; it doesn’t need to be ‘objective’ nor quantitative, as it is, again, not a science.
Here we need to remember that Sociology is in France very much still considered a ‘soft’ subject – Bourdieu described sociology in the 70s as the discipline picked by lazy middle-class kids with a charismatic disposition. So it is unsurprising that some sociologists should strive to establish it as a ‘science’.
But, however little I want to side with Maffesoli [EDIT: I’ve just seen that someone has tweeted this post ‘quoting me’ as saying ‘I side with Maffesoli’, which is completely absurd: learn to read, espèce d’imbécile], I agree with him that it is pointless to argue that sociology is a ‘science’, or at the very least to base our defence of the field on that claim; and (of course I would say that, being a non-empirical researcher) I certainly reject the notion that fieldwork is the only type that should be ‘valid’ in the field. This notion relies on an extremely naïve view of what constitutes internal validity, ‘objectivity’, and ‘data’.
Sociology, since its inception, has striven to downplay the ‘scientific’ portrayal of individuals as rational decision-makers, to transcend the objective/ subjective dichotomy, and to highlight the biases of any observation – ‘scientific’ of not. Its ‘data’, from the start, has been gathered from a wide array of various sources, giving a voice to types of texts that were not considered useful before. Internal rigour has been ensured not just through testing of hypotheses and replication (though of course many sociological studies do do that), but also through academic debate, intense work on concepts, multiple methodologies, a breakdown of the quantitative/ qualitative divide, and, yes, a phenomenological or even poetic approach to the world.
A lot of the most interesting work conducted in sociology is not falsifiable, not replicable, not, in short, Popperian in the least. A lot of it, specifically in the cultural subfields of sociology, is not scientific. Nor should it be.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding around what cultural theorists do. It’s quite similar to what cultural historians do: they might study the cultural and social changes brought by the democratisation of cycling in the 19th century, and we might do an analysis of the cultural and social changes brought by the Boris bikes now. Cultural historians do not do ‘fieldwork’, and similarly cultural theorists do not have to. They could – you could tackle the topic by doing a case study of Boris bike users, but you could also not do that.
It’s also quite similar to what literary scholars do, except that what is considered ‘text’ is more elastic, encompassing objects, practices, behaviours, etc. You can ‘read’ such things much in the same way as you read literary texts, focusing on their metaphorical content, on their aesthetic aspects, on their embedded ideological assumptions, on their history, etc.
If you don’t do ‘fieldwork’, and if you do use jargon, and if you do focus on the banal and the ordinary, it doesn’t mean you’re basking in your own ability to spout out caustic Barthesian analyses of anything under the sun, and despising the man in the street.
However, it could mean that, in certain cases; and that’s why academic hoaxes such as the Sociétés one are sometimes much needed.