Monday, 12 March 2012

Inaugural Address: The College of Sociology (2012 - …)

In the late 1930s the dual decline of Christianity and the world economy had left a vacuum being filled by cultish politics of both left and right. In response, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois and others set up the College de Sociologie to identify, understand and harness the power of the sacred for good. The College explored sacred ideas from around the world, trying to discover something essential and transferable. The College itself disbanded when war broke out and partly because Christianity proved more resilient than originally thought; partly because new faiths arose to fill the vacuum; partly because economic circumstances improved; and partly because people’s aversion to Christianity had turned out to be only part of a wider aversion to hierarchical representation of the spiritual, the ideas of the college slowly became unpopular. Yet today in a new age of spiritual and economic uncertainty, many of the same problems identified by the college are coming to the fore once more. Moreover the resilience of Christianity and the emergence of new faiths may turn out to be an advantage in the project: we can learn lessons from people with whom we share a common language and culture. With this in mind, I propose to revive the College of Sociology.

Against the backdrop of the decline of Christianity, much work towards identifying, understanding and harnessing the power of the sacred had already been undertaken by Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss and Gustave le Bon. Michele Richman tells us that while Durkheim and Mauss certainly influenced fascism, we know that the more cynical work of le Bon was actually read by Mussolini (2002). Although much of the rational support for fascism was economic, as a movement fascism filled a spiritual vacuum. In Russia, communism was similarly taking on spiritual dimensions. The most famous response at the time was surrealism. Surrealism began in the early 20th century as a response to excessive rationalism. It proposed to convey the deepest thoughts possible, undisturbed by rational ideas. As fascism arose, the conveyance of the deepest thoughts possible remained important as a way of criticising control.

The College of Sociology felt surrealism’s response was inadequate; it was too subjective. For the College, the only way to convey the deepest thoughts or to experience the most intense feelings was as a collective. Surrealism’s ability to convey the deepest thoughts possible could not adequately criticise fascism because the latter was more equipped to convey those thoughts. Instead a response to fascism had to beat it at its own game - it had to create a collective euphoria more powerful than that of fascism. Fascism had itself been a spiritual response to excessive rationalism in politics. So as Dennis Hollier explains, the College wanted “to find out what united men and to study the sacred…human activities “as they create unity”” (1979: xi). This often meant denouncing art that encouraged individualism - surrealism, the novel generally - as much as celebrating that which encouraged unity - theatre. It also meant denouncing liberal democracy. By promoting individualism, liberal democracy had disintegrated unity to the extent that when threatened with war, the French lacked an intense reaction (1979: xv).

The “ sacred human activities” that the College studied in the hope of restoring unity ranged from the clergy and the military to cults and secret societies and avant-garde art communities, of which the College considered itself one. Today we can extend this to community organisations, football supporters, book clubs, riots, raves and many more.

Despite its interest in hierarchically structured groups, and is critique of liberal democracy, the College tended to denounce top-down unity in favour of bottom-up communities. Moreover, while Caillois seems to continuously seek something essential and transferable in the sacred, Hollier has related Georges Bataille to poststructuralism (1992: ix). Although sacred human activities are always collective, the form, structure and style these activities take is different for each time and people.

Today the work of the College is once again significant. One broad reason for this, Benjamin Noys explains is that “rather than the [Second World] war violently resolving the political debates between proponents of fascism, democracy and communism, it violently put an end to those debates’ (2000: 54) Another reason the work of the College is significant is we are once again in a time of spiritual and economic uncertainty, and the vacuum is being filled by cultish groups of both left and right. Sticking to the UK, we have the BNP and EDL on the right, Islamic fundamentalism sat somewhere in the middle between Fascism and Marxism, and more moderate groups such as the Green Alliance and Citizens UK on the left.

Fortunately we also have more material to work with today: Christianity has remained resilient; other faiths have come to fill the gap where Christianity has declined; and other institutions and activities have come to serve the spiritual needs of those that remain radically individualist. Like the original College de Sociologie, the intention of the College of Sociology is to raise awareness of, critique and honour these various movements, as well as promoting "Sacred Sociology, implying the study of all manifestations of social existence where the active presence of the sacred is clear" (Hollier 1979: 5). We will look at movements in religion, spirituality, philosophy, sociology, politics, art, literature, film, theatre and more. 

Why a College?

The College of Sociology was not so called because it provided formal education – it did not. Rather it was a college in the sense of an organised group of professionals with a shared set of aims – rather similar to a think-tank. Yet the name “college” remained important because it suggests unity of purpose. Today the name College of Sociology is important for another reason: it recalls the good work of those thinkers that originally set it up!

It was the intention of the original College to make its work accessible to people in the fields it studied, meaning it had to be accessible to those outside the field of academia. In honour of this intention, this blog will call on writers from all fields: experts and laymen, academics and casual observers.

Perhaps most importantly, the College sought alternative ways of exploring sacred human activities and beliefs: in novels, erotica, poetry and plays. The new College of Sociology aims to go a step further, asking from contributions not just from writers of all fields, but also for pictures and videos from artists, graphic designers, architects, dancers, whoever thinks their work or leisure represents sacred human activities. Send a picture of an act you have observed, post a video of the crowd at a football match, this site hopes to be a hub for exploring everything and anything anyone or anything deems sacred. 


Timothy Stacey

Works Cited

Hollier, Denis, The College of Sociology (1937-39), University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1979

                        ---Against Architecture: the writings of George Bataille, MIT, Cambridge, 1989

Noys, Benjamin, Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction, Pluto Press, London, 2000

Richman, Michele, Sacred Revolutions: Durkheim and the College de Sociologie, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2002

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