Sociability and Society
Literature and the Symposium
K. Ludwig Pfeiffer


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The Introduction states the main elements of the book in terms of themes and methodology. Starting from the sociocultural diagnosis of disembedding—that is, the disappearance of important institutions of social stability—it defines the crucial distinction between society and sociability and connects this distinction with the further one between individualism and communitarianism. Using these distinctions, the book will relate them in meaningful and productive ways. I have used the symposium in ancient Athens as a model for such relations. The book is original in that it tries to determine to what extent we can transfer that model into modern times. Given the extraordinary nature of contemporary challenges (pandemic, intensely aggressive behavior on a socially disruptive scale, etc.), the Introduction draws attention to the need for an increased methodological sensibility and is based on the joint analysis of sociocultural, historical, and literary materials.

1 Conceptualizing the Symposium
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The first chapter provides a detailed examination of the classical symposium in ancient Athens in the light of present-day theory. It emphasizes the involvement of a socially elite group in activities in which human faculties are engaged across many dimensions—from bodily to intellectual, from playful to serious, from intimate to political. At the same time, the classical symposium practices relaxed and tolerant behavioral controls, which means that, while sociable forms are acted out, the symposium does not lose sight of social relevance. Such an orientation clears the path for possible answers to the question whether, within the huge number of later sociable institutions, successors to the symposium and therefore chances for forms of solidarity that tolerate and indeed encourage individual endeavor are possible. Such an analysis must also come to terms with the much-neglected criterion of group size.

2 Power and Signs of Power in the Middle Ages
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In Chapter 2, the book uses the European Middle Ages as a test case. Aristocratic leaders stage many sociable events, including for their subjects. These events, however, do not deploy potentials for social cohesion because aristocratic families are torn apart by constant internal power struggles. Moreover, families are often ruined by the sheer cost of sociable events put on primarily in order to outdo competitors. To a considerable extent, forms of art come into existence in which lyrical or epic poets and singers must evoke the playful, the pleasurable, and the serious aspects of life. At the same time, narrative forms in particular move toward becoming elements of a culture of writing and thus damaging sympotic practice. On the other hand, looking to the future, universities use their growing power in order to build up sympotic forms with a competing cohesive power of their own.

3 Sociability and the Humanities
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Chapter 3 carries on directly from Chapter 2 by examining the sympotic potential of the humanities, in particular. In the later eighteenth century in Europe, especially in Germany, a one-sided specialization of human faculties makes itself felt in professional life and the sciences. In the early nineteenth century, therefore, thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm von Humboldt formulate blueprints for an all-around development of human potential that center on free sociable intercourse, for instance in salons, and an emphasis on humane values in university education, in particular in what will be called the humanities. In most countries, authoritarian state intervention and ideologies of usefulness make nonsense of these aspirations. After World War I, a new and urgent need for comprehensive forms of human orientation is addressed, particularly in German philosophical anthropology; its impact, however, remains very limited.

4 The Splintering of Culture: Reading versus Salon
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With the advancement of bourgeois culture, mainly in the eighteenth century, sympotic practices take another problematic turn. The century is rich in sociable institutions such as coffeehouses and clubs, but the formation of a bourgeois mentality and conduct of life in increasingly "abstract" contexts of complexity is largely taken over by books. In England, Dr. Johnson epitomizes the split in the situation very well: the expression "Age of Johnson" refers to his immense textual output, but his main role in contemporary culture was in fact that of the symposiarch—that is, the organizer and dominator of very limited smaller private "symposia." It is rather in France that Diderot is able to maintain the general cultural significance of the sympotic salons and, at the same time, especially with the Encyclopédie, to open up vistas of a future technological culture.

5 Proust and Nineteenth-Century Salons
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The French salon began its cultural career in the early seventeenth century (1610) in the wake of the political disempowerment of the aristocracy. From the outset, admission was open to aristocrats as well as the bourgeoisie, all of whom had to satisfy norms of speech, writing, and behavior. As a result, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the elite of the nation underwent the educational refinement exercised by the salons, especially in terms of literary styles and intellectual sophistication. In the nineteenth century, professional specialization and cultural class antagonisms put an end to the reconciliation of sociable functions and the national interests of the salon. Marcel Proust is, among many other things, the chronicler of this decline, which manifested itself in admissions policies based on specious criteria of guest prestige.

6 The Silence of Power: English Clubs or Oligarchy versus Democracy
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The United Kingdom is a democracy with strong but elastic, though often invisible, forms of oligarchic political power wielded by the upper classes. Consequently, class antagonisms, which had already infiltrated the French salon, take on a definite political relevance in the upper-class British club, a sociable institution with an exclusive social—that is, political—function. More than elsewhere, the club is part of a network, one that includes elite schools and universities. Within the club, even sociable activities are limited in the interest of power: the ideal behavior of club members consisted in silence. This is possible because the status of members, once admitted, is taken for granted. In that way, the clubs turned into specially reserved areas for the tacit strengthening of upper-class cohesion, which can then be exported into formally democratic institutions.

7 A Symptomatology of Critical Shifts
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Since the eighteenth century, sociability has had to contend with two major sociopolitical and media developments. There is a growing mutual infiltration of private and public domains furthered by media such as the press. At the same time, the reality level of many important social and political problems is obscured: despite, and to some extent paradoxically, because of the media (especially TV in the twentieth century), people have a hard time finding out what is really going on. The distance from political reality is hidden in the semblance of seriousness in which that reality is couched. At the same time, its exclusion from sociability changes the nature of pleasure, which becomes neutral or self-referential. Neutralization takes place in the varieties of the party ("small talk"), the characteristic form of twentieth-century sociability; self-referentiality is produced by the pleasure industries of our time.

8 Securing Power and Auxiliary Evidence
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Chapter 8 examines additional crucial factors that have brought about drastic changes in the sociability scene. The tightening of social control accompanied by what people perceive as threats or curtailments to their hard-won liberties in the nation-state has provoked critical countermovements, from secret societies to full-blown revolutions. Secret societies, including criminal ones such as the Mafia, develop their own styles of sociability. Communicative techniques and forms such as confession and secrets—central elements in many cultures—acquire additional importance in the control and production of reality. The question of violence—sometimes destroying sociability, sometimes using it in specifically adjusted forms—takes on new importance and has grown into a serious challenge for social cohesion in our time. For the sophistication of reality control, including sociability, an effort to assess the activities of Opus Dei, a Catholic order, has been included.

9 The Paradigm of Isolation and Its Consequences: Joseph Conrad
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Following the methodological recommendation of C. Wright Mills in the Introduction and the example of poetry and drama in Chapter 7, Chapter 9 exploits the observational advantages enjoyed by literature in certain periods. Here it is Joseph Conrad whose life appears to have made him into a privileged observer of the decay of sociability. In the intensification of ideology that sets in during and after World War I, Conrad redirects attention from the value of values to their function under difficult circumstances. In stressful situations, the sociable community of the seafaring life and of politically grounded sociable bonds crumbles away, leaving isolated persons behind. In a second move, Conrad shows how the distinction between sociable solidarity and society or politics melts away in the fusion of terrorist and police, of theft and work, of revolution and corruption, as forms of a perverse human industry.

10 Beyond the Sympotic: Aesthetic Productivity and Sociable Bonding in the Detective Novel
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Chapter 10 presents the most drastic departure from the model of the classical symposium and its partial rebirth in a totally different form and context. This chapter claims a superior status of the detective novel for the human mind because it can handle both the shock of murder and the trust in a basically well-ordered world. This has been called its "metaphysical" quality. In the novels of Georges Simenon and his Commissaire Maigret, this includes a surprising awareness of emerging forms of sociable solidarity in but also beyond, though barely so, the lower classes. In certain contemporary Swedish novels, computer hackers, though basically loners, develop their own forms of sociable solidarity against the pervasive controls of the welfare state. In certain contemporary Austrian novels, finally, the mind of the detective as loner turns into the stage for a mental symposium.

11 Consequences and Conclusion(s): The Anthropological-Institutional Trap and the Resurrection of Literature
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The days of the classical symposium are over. Its embodiment of an implicit anthropology—that is, a comprehensive involvement of human faculties both physical and mental, including rather funny efforts to combine boxing and playing chess in the recent past—has become subject to too many selective pressures. The effort is caught in an anthropological-institutional trap in which any impulse is diluted and deformed by ubiquitous institutions and technologies. But the impulse lives on, and it is essential that it be brought into practicable shape as much as possible. These shapes need to be worked out in the mind, using all the best available evidence, which can be gleaned less from the masses of digital information and more from the traditional medium of literature as the most productive combination of imagination, logic, and the dialectics of literal-metaphorical creativity.