Sunday 20 April 2014

All That Is Solid ...

Names matter. Take A Very Public Sociologist, for instance. What does it say? Well, it suggests the author is a self-defined sociology fan. That's pretty unambiguous. What then is a public sociologist? If you're not party to the discipline's debates, chances are you wouldn't know public sociology is a movement that, surprise surprise, seeks engagement with the public. Why is it that criminologists, economists, journalists and even psychologists get a look-in when it comes to opinion pieces and talking-headery. Where's our slice of the action? But there's more to it than courting the dubious celebrity of punditry. Sociology is the study of society, of social organisms from basic one-on-one interactions (sometimes involving humans, sometimes humans and their machines) to our increasingly global civilisation. It is the one discipline capable of assimilating the insights of the aforementioned, and much else besides. Sociology, if it's doing the job properly, should be able to speak to everyone. We're all members of a society, so research and theory about how that society works should avoid being a stranger to the people who populate them.

Okay, so we have public and we have sociologist. But A Very? It's a bit nonsensical, really. It bends grammar and underscores with thick eyeliner the public part of its coupling with sociology. For those who care about such things, it suggests yours truly is desperately trying to make a statement. Of explicitly and unambiguously aligning oneself with a camp. But worst of all, A Very Public Sociologist's biggest crime is not the crude positioning, nor even the faint whiff of pretentiousness. No, what it is is bloody ugly. True enough, if it sits uneasy in the mouth, if you have to repeat the name whenever someone asks what your blog is called then it probably isn't right. And if I'm truthful, after nearly eight years of filing digital copy off and on I'm sick to death and bored with the name. It's time for a change. The moment is here for a re-skin.

And this is it. All That is Solid ... is lifted straight from the Communist Manifesto, but in this context owes more to the late Marshall Berman's classic All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. This work, which I will never forgive my undergrad and postgrad lecturers for not recommending I read it, crams into its 384 pages what it's like to be a 'modern'. It takes you through Marx, Goethe, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and the streets of Paris, St Petersburg and New York. The book tracks and pins down a shifting, wriggling, contradictory, transforming experience that resist the tacks Berman pushes into it. But what he brilliantly conveys is the dynamism and dialectics of the modern world. Who needs postmodernism and its fripperies when it is Marx - that most despised, maligned and wilfully misunderstood magister of 19th century social thought - who sketched out the processes that blindly throw human development at breakneck speed into the future.

Now I've had time to read substantial pieces again, I've been rediscovering that most modern (and modernist) side of Marx. His was an unfinished work, but it is fundamentally open-ended - just like the fates of human societies themselves. Marx praised capitalist modernisation for the wonders it had accomplished, but condemned it for the potential it systematically throttled. Fundamentally, the task now remains the same as when his famous document was penned. That is to look unflinchingly at the world, to understand it, and to change it. This impulse motivates many hundreds of millions now, even if they don't use the same language to express it. And this is the tradition I remain attached to. Hence why this blog has taken a new name that is an equally explicit and clumsy act of position-taking. But let's not stay lofty and principled - the truth is All That Is Solid ... sounds much better than the old one. And that's despite now sharing a name with a Glaswegian coffee shop's defunct blog.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The fare will continue the political and social commentary. The forays into theory. The sectariana. The Labour hackery. The dance music. There definitely won't be any poetry. The blog's eclecticism, one man's experience of and projection onto a digital canvass of transient whimsies will keep on keeping on in its own merry, dizzy way. The URL remains the same, no need to play with links or - for me - to lose the tiny ledge this blog has hacked out of Google's edifice.

Funnily enough, I didn't time the blog's makeover and rebirth with Easter. But doing so doesn't make it redolent of the holiday's religious significance. Rather think more of your average Easter egg. Crack them open, hold it, let it melt over your fingers before it turns to chocolatey mush in your mouth. It is fleeting - their shells are gone in the blink of an eye, its memory a trace for however long its garish over-packaging lies around. The Easter egg condenses much more than sugar and cocoa. The velvety textures that glide over the taste buds explode with the flavours of modern civilisation itself. They, like every other commodity, are a cell packed with the social DNA that can be decoded and read. Unravel that and you can read how our society works, how it makes things, arranges things, and wastes things. The Easter egg exemplifies the temporary, fleeting character of modern experience. It therefore is appropriate that this blog, which is primarily dedicated to make sense of such things, rebrands itself today.

Image credit


howard fuller said...

Well that caught me by surprise, thought I was in the wrong website for a second, but good luck with the new look.

Still think you are wrong about Marx and the resulting "ism's" but then I remain an unrepentant iconoclast.


Mark Walmsley said...

Good move. The old name was just a little too obscure, and thanks for reminding me about Berman.

I liked the laundrette theme but I can see the reasoning behind abstraction. If you're going that way perhaps you should get someone you know to paint you one :)

Phil said...

I might go for another theme entirely yet. My significant other tells me this particular template is horribly dated, so we shall see!

Anonymous said...

oh well, farewell laundrette! of course, domestic labor is generally one of those all too often overlooked and under appreciated categories. but i do like the new layout. sort of a post-abstract expressionist look (which doesn't make it dated, just timeless).


p.s. i always wondered about the use of the word "very" in the title of your blog. i assumed it was just a british thing, a very british thing, actually.

Phil said...

It was, Les. I guess I am unconsciously very British in a number of ways. Just wish I'd kicked the name a long bloody time ago. But still.