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Why do we read sociological prose?

To accumulate information? – sometimes, perhaps. But prose is rarely the most efficient method of transmitting information but still most people’s preferred form. I think rather we read prose because it takes us out of ourselves; it helps to stimulate the sociological imagination through “defamiliarising the familiar”.

In my opinion Zygmunt Bauman is one of the best writers of sociological prose today. The fact that his writing is engaging and often beautiful is not, however, merely a nice addition to his sociological insights. Rather, it is central to his style of sociology a crucial aspect of which is stimulating ethical engagement.

Prose of any genre is not necessarily an efficient method of data delivery but it enables us to experience someone else’s life, not just the events of their life, but also their thoughts and feelings about it. We can get an understanding of their ethical engagement with the world not just a litany of their experiences. This is perhaps an obvious statement to make about fiction, autobiographies or memoirs but this can be equally true of social science and humanities writing and many other areas of academic work as well.

This can be most cogently expressed through an analysis of the title of one of Bauman’s books which I discussed in a recently published review essay. He called this book This is not a Diary. This is, of course, a direct reference to Renee Maggritte’s painting The Treachery of Images. This painting comprises of a representation of a pipe with the phrase This is Not a Pipe written beneath it. While Bauman does not discuss this painting in the book, nor to my knowledge anywhere in his work, it provides a crucial pointer as to how his work can be read and how we read texts in general.

To understand this kind of writing properly we must follow the trail which Bauman left us and work back to try to understand Magritte’s painting first. For this we can turn to the late French philosopher Michel Foucault who wrote a short book on The Treachery of Images. Foucault suggested that we should read the painting as we “read” a calligram – a picture made up of words. In order to “read” a calligram it is necessary to stand back and not read, to allow the words to blur into shapes. We must do the same in order to read Magritte’s painting. If read literally, for its content, it is a not terribly interesting painting of a pipe with a contrary statement beneath it. But read as a calligram it suggests something about the relationship of the artist to the world and to painting.

Similarly in order to fully understand Bauman’s book This is not a Diary we must stand back and not simply read it for the content or the form but for what it tells us about the character of the writer, of their ethical engagement with the world. The book is not a diary at all, it contains almost no details about his life nor does it tell us what to think about a particular topic or issue or claim to provide a complete or exhaustive account of the world, capitalism or modernity. What it provides, as does all good literature, is an insight into the ethical life of the author.

The sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel taught us the at all cultural artefacts are an objectification of the subjective culture of the individual which is itself produced through the internalisation of other aspects of objective culture. Objective culture, such as a book or painting, is part of the resources with which we build our subjective, ethical lives. Bauman sees one of his key tasks to be “the cultivation of individuals”  through the  production of his own artefacts of objective culture which provide ethical stimulation for others.

This ethical stimulation can potentially be achieved through any cultural artefact but only those that truly embody something of the ethical life of the author or artist are likely to have a real impact. This does not require information about the life of the author but a sense of what “life” is like.  This is not a Diary is not a represention of Bauman’s life, or of a diary, it is an expression of his life, of his ethical being. Through this we come to understand something of what it is like to live in the contemporary world from a perspective different from our own.

In a discussion of his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being novelist Milan Kundera suggested that a novel is not a confession by the author but “it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become”. The same can be said of much of Bauman’s writing and that of many great works of sociology and literature.