Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Stjepan Mestrovic
Anthony Giddens: The Last Modernist.
New York: Routledge, 1998, 242 pp. $37.99 paper (0415095735), $111.25 cloth (0415095727)

Faced with the enormous volume of work Anthony Giddens has produced in the last quarter century, should we start dividing it into periods and themes? Couldn’t we say, for example, that there is an early Giddens of structuration theory who tries to overcome the ‘Parsonian’ dilemma of agency and structure, and a late Giddens who writes on time-space distantiation, globalization, and the third-way between capitalism and socialism?

Stjepan Mestrovic argues instead for the wisdom of reading the whole of Giddens as a single project. Mestrovic draws a continuous line between the ‘early Giddens’ concept of agency, and ‘late Giddens’ reading of the enlightenment, and its project of modernity. He places Giddens in an intellectual tradition of the ‘rational enlightenment’ that runs from Kant and Comte to Talcott Parsons and on into ‘mainstream’ sociology. Giddens is a modernist because, like these ancestors, he believes in an absolute rupture between tradition and modernity, in emancipation through universal reason, and the possibility of a globally applicable social theory. He is the last modernist because, at a time when most of his contemporaries have either forgotten about the emancipatory promise of the enlightenment, or railed against it in the name of post-modernism, late Giddens remains committed to a sociology that fulfills what Habermas has called the “incomplete project” of modernity.

Over the last decade, Giddens has tried to steer a ‘third way’ for sociology between the two dominant images of modernity as an iron cage (Weber) or a prelude to utopia (Marx). Avoiding both of these alternatives, he has instead identified modernity with the experience of an open future which is at once the troubling cause of uncertainty and anxiety, and the exciting condition of new forms of freedom and agency. What Giddens’ third way amounts to though, according to Mestrovic, is a watered-down, ‘Disneyesque version of the enlightenment’. Giddens irons out the contradictions and ‘wildness ‘ of enlightenment thought to give us an image of agency as cognitive reason that, free of all non-rational and emotional demands, is able to rationally synthesize its own traditions and create social order. This vision of agency is “so nice that it might seem uncharitable to criticize it” ( p. 23). But what is missing from this picture is any measure of emotion, faith, or ‘caritas’. Agency, Mestrovic wants to argue, cannot be equated with universal reason alone. For in order to act, we need to care about the social. Rational agency is always filtered through non-rational emotion, which is not in opposition to cognitive life, but completes it. It is emotion, or ‘caritas’ to be precise that makes possible a degree of non-rational ‘faith’ that, we are told, is necessary to produce belief in the objectivity of social institutions. Without this element of faith, Giddens’ vision of the invention of synthetic tradition amounts to a kind of “neo-Orwellian” program of social engineering.

This reading of Giddens is clearly motivated by Mestrovic’s efforts to promote his own theory of modernity, developed in the dozen or so other books he has published in the last decade. Mestrovic’s position is that ours is not a post-traditional world, as Giddens would have us believe, but a post- emotional one. We live in the aftermath of various ‘modernist’ attempts to separate reason and emotion. Bosnia - the most widely publicized event of genocide the world has known - is the end result of this development. World-wide media coverage of ethnic-cleansing did little to stop the barbarity, because knowledge alone of Bosnia did not create concern about the atrocities committed there. And without concern, or ‘caritas’ there is no agency. Giddens’ social theory is not only an unfaithful picture of the social world then, it is directly implicated in these sorts of horrors : “The West’s complicity in the genocide in Bosnia is the most serious indictment of the goals and values that Giddens holds dear” (p. 213).

Like Giddens, Mestrovic wants to complete the project of modernity, but in his case this means overcoming the separation of reason and emotion. He tries to accomplish this by following an alternative genealogy of sociology which sees it coming out of the nineteenth century’s “counter- enlightenment”, or what he calls the “emotional enlightenment”. The key figures here are Schopenhauer, Dilthey, Wilhelm Wundt, Freud, Nietzsche, and Simmel. What unites this tradition is the recognition of an emotional component of the subject : the will in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Freud’s unconscious desire, or Simmel’s description of life as a non-rational force that bursts through the forms in which we try to structure it.

Durkheim is the sociological ‘access point’ to that other enlightenment. Mestrovic’s Durkheim is not the functionalist one you will find in Talcott Parsons, Robert K. Merton, or Nilkas Luhmann, but rather the one who discovered a non-rational passion at the foundation of agency. Giddens misses this Durkheim because he “throws out Durkheim with the bathwater of Parsonian functionalism” (p. 45). In what is by far the best section of the book, Mestrovic quite rightly rescues Durkheim’s important concept of anomie from its conventional interpretation as normlessness, and reads it as a thesis on an insatiable, non-cognitive desire at the root of human agency. The normalization of this idea by Merton and Parsons, and its reinterpretation as a breakdown in social order is read as a metaphor for all that is wrong with ‘mainstream’ sociology. For it is through the concept of anomie that Durkheim tried to translate the wildness and contradictions of the enlightenment into social theory. When it was subsequently interpreted to mean a pathology of social order, or a “norm of normlessness”, the element of desire was weeded out of the garden of sociology, leaving it to Mestrovic now to retrieve and fulfill the promise of a wild and passionate agency.

In the final analysis, Mestrovic is most interesting and most convincing, not when he reads Giddens’, but when he presents his own readings of Schopenhauer or Durkheim. The readings of Giddens’ major themes are often so obviously strained that, to use the book’s own terminology, the reader cannot find the element of faith necessary to believe in the objectivity of the claims. Too much of Giddens is left out or simplified. The work on intimacy and life-politics is quickly glossed over and made to fit the image of the rational agent that Mestrovic wants to knock down. As for reflexivity, it is not at all clear to this reader that this term was ever meant to refer to a detached, universal reason. One thing it means at least is the embeddedness of reason in the situations in which it must operate. In the end, this book functions more as an introduction to Mestrovic’s very interesting program for re-thinking the basis of agency and the history of theory, than an informative gloss on Giddens.

Stephen Crocker
Department of Sociology
Memorial University of Newfoundland
March-April 2000
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