Thinking in times of social hypochondria

30 Oct 2008 | 1633 words | sociology xenophobia netherlands review books

Finally finished reading ‘Denken in een tijd van sociale hypochondrie‘ (‘thinking in times of social hypochondria’) by the Dutch sociologist Willem Schinkel a couple of weeks ago. By the standards of Dutch sociologists, Schinkel is fairly young (31) and relatively famous (he was one of the 6 summer guests appearing on VPRO’s zomergasten in 2008 [torrent-file here]) which however does not mean that there are any english language references or translations of his work or available on the net (hence all the quotes in the remainder of this post, have been translated by myself and might contain translation mistakes).

The book is rather long and at many times hard to read as he cultivates a way of writing that is obsessed with tracing every single observation/thought/proposition back along the entire back-catalog of philosophers & sociologists. This of course is common among theoretical social science scholars (and probably the reason why most people don’t read these kind of books) but in his case it seems to serves a special purpose: Distancing himself from all pre-Schinkel sociology and declaring most of it worthless. According to Schinkel, Niklas Luhmann (who’s theoretic work already constituted a fairly radical departure from the works of many of his colleagues and predecessors) was the last of the line of ‘old Europeans’ all of whom worked based on a misleading concept of ‘society’. Schinkel, who borrows heavily from Luhmann’s work1, comes to the conclusion that even Luhmann was wrong where it comes to conceptualizing ‘society’ (Schinkel uses the term ‘society’ (‘maatschappij’/’samenleving’ in Dutch) exclusively in quotes) and that it rests on him to demonstrate that there is no empirical entity called society:

We therefore leave behind the fictional character of ‘society’ and exploit it. A ‘society’ is a creative fiction, a map that pretends to be a landscape. Or at least a map that pretends to be a map of a landscape – within the metaphysics of society thinking has never advanced further than this. It is the fiction of a ‘together’ and co-existence, and therefore we now refer to ‘society’ as a certain kind of confiction. We are talking about the fiction of a ‘con’, and ‘with’ or ‘together’ […] The observation ‘society’ is such a confiction. This term is a fictive representations (representation fictives) and has a fonction fabulatrice which we will call a fiction function in this context. ‘Society’ is just one example of such a confiction but conficties exist in all types and sizes and at different levels of aggregation. A ‘neighborhood’ is a confictie, as well as a ‘club’, a ‘nation’, a ‘people’. […] The ‘society’ is a fiction which must be believed in. (page 286 f.)

Throughout the book Schinkel continues this arrogant way of writing/reasoning but for me he manages to get away with it: The entire book seems to be torn between two main objectives: One the one hand he tries to develop his own sociological grand theory (including an appendix of 20 or so pages to explain the terminology that he introduced in order to do so) and on the other hand he delivers one of the most powerful analyses of contemporary Dutch ‘society’ that i have come across since i am in the Netherlands/stopped studying sociology (which – to those not familiar with my biography – is a direct casual relationship). For me, this second aspect of the book is much more interesting than the first (and makes it a must-read in the current political discourse in the Netherlands). His analysis is not limited to Dutch ‘society’ alone and he places the current Dutch obsession with [integration] (the term is used in brackets throughout the entire book) within a wider analysis of late/developped capitalist ‘societies’ at the beginning of the 21st century2:

The only remaining collective project after the demise of the credibility of the projects of the Enlightenment and Modernity is thus what we call Operation Obesity. This concerns a residual-organicistic discourse that conceptualizes ‘society’ in terms of growth. In this discourse, unguided but necessary growth has taken over the position of progress within the project of modernity. For society Operation Obesity results in all the accompanying feelings of guilt that are characteristic for overconsuming obese people: concern about weight, fitness and health, guilt with respect to those less fortunate and the environment. Where it comes to the politics of [integration] this manifests itself in adressing the problem of [integration] spcifically growth inhibitors are observed. “Integration policy revolves around the words ‘modern citizenship’ and ‘economic participation’. By this the government means that citizens feel involved with each other and with society.” In short ‘the society’ is largely defined in economic terms. […]. The words “goal of integration policy is a society in which everyone actively and fully contributes”, must therefore be taken literally: ‘Society’ is compromised by those who ‘work’ in economic terms. (page 379 f.)

In other words the process of [integration] that is primarily defined and debated in cultural terms is – above all – a mechanism that attempts to ensure the as total as possible inclusion of migrants into the economic system. He argues that migrants (and other outsiders) are not placed outside of ‘society’ but that they rather form the (economic) underside of the system that perceives them as outsiders. Schinkel is certainly not the first one to point out that the concept of [integration] implies that that migrants are somehow languishing in a place other than ‘society’ and he devotes much energy (and many pages) to illustrate the more or less obvious point that there is no place outside of society where those that are expected to [integrate] could be located (the moment they are identified as objects in need of [integration] they are already part of ‘society’). Consequently he concludes that the persistent demands to [integrate] are primarily aimed at reproducing the position of migrants as ‘outsiders’:

When it comes to [integration] of the n-th generation migrants the bar is raised so high, that the result is a permanent somewhat weak state of [integration]. This is illustrated by the themes that make up the curriculum of the current naturalization courses: A pre-modern conviviality sentiment (voormodern gezelligheidssentiment – ‘What do you when your neighbour has her birthday?’), a responsible eco-consumerism (‘to what category of waste do frying fats belong?’) – things characterizing the Dutch ‘Judaeo-Christian-Humanist culture’. This is also evident from the [integration]attempts from neighborhoods such as the ‘greeting zones’ and the ‘street contracts’ mentioned in the intermezzo that intend to promote a sentimental disciplined ‘street contact’. [Integration] is everything except in-corporation (the real and literal inclusion in the social body). […] [Integration] is thus also the symbol of the utopian ‘self’ observation that is based on a provincial petty-bourgeois community-rhetoric. In fact [Integration] reflects an observation that is contrary to the postmodern hyperindividual constantly looking for connection-opportunities, mobility, self-transformations and reinventions. […] That the ideals of naturalization and [integration] are so petty-bourgeois and confer so little integrity, has everything to do with their ridiculous nature in a time of ‘self’description crisis on a global scale. (page 390)

For Schinkel this ridiculous vision on [integration] is functional. The constant pressure on migrants to participate in the ‘host society’ needs to be read literally: They can only become part of the imagined ‘society’ if they contribute their labour to the economic project of perpetual growth without progress (‘Operation Obesity’). At another point in the book (and i think that was the example from the current Dutch debate around integration that for some reason most disgusted me) he quotes from a website providing information at migrants that are expected to [integrate] in Dutch ‘society’ through taking ‘citizenship’ courses:

See: [pk: the site is not active anymore and forwards to A pdf (see excerpt below) with the content of the site is still available here] On this site we find the following vision as a normative decoration: “During the naturalization course, I met a couple of nice people. I am still in contact with one girl. She is Vietnamese and she also works for Shell. We speak Dutch with each other.” Typical migrants trying to become citizens work at Shell, or: directly see ‘how we live together in the Netherlands’: preferably working for Shell. (page 394 footnote 63)

  1. For example in this crucial passage on page 211: “Dat differentiatiedenken dat zich oriënteert aan hand van het systeem/omgeving-schema gaat precies aan die grenzen voorbij door een sociaal systeem (bijvoorbeeld een ‘maatschappij’) te conceptualisieren als iets dat alleen bestaat in een bepaalde verhouding tot een omgeving van dat systeem en dat bovendien mogelijkerwijs functionele relaties onderhoud met die omgeving. In geval van het onderscheid systeem/omgeving is de omgeving een ‘unmarked space’ die verder geen informatie biedt. Maar word de omgeving systeemintern gethematiseerd als bestaande uit andere systemen en gaat het om wat Luhmann ‘Systeem-zu-System’ relaties noemt dan is ook de ander kant van de vorm iets dat gemarkeerd kan worden. Kortom het onderscheid systeem/omgeving betrekt een systeem altijd noodzakelijkerwijs op iets buiten dat systeem en ondertekend daarmee dat systemen. hoewel ze autopoietisch en dus operatief gesloten zijn , nooit bestaan onafhankelijk van een systeemomgeving.” ↩︎

  2. At another point in the book he makes a rather interesting observation about the process commonly called globalisation: “De Globalisering was bovendien het meest anti-filosofische dat het westerse denken had kunnen overkomen: en immanent geheel van niks anders dan banale connecties. Een geheel zonder buitenkant ook, met alleen maar nog interne omgevingen. een ruimte van eeuwige herhalingen van steeds iets anders: andere connecties. Een ruimte die niet te bezetten is, maar waarin ieder zich slechts kan redden door kwetsbaarmakende connecties aan te gaan. Het gaat hier om de teloorgang van van iedere historische taak en de implausibiliteit van iedere filosofische constructie , zoals bijvoorbeeld Sloterdijk die ondernomen heeft, om die te herstellen.” (page 386) ↩︎