Suspicious Minds

On Luc Boltanski

Luc Boltanski, Mysteries & Conspiracies. Translated by Catherine Porter. Polity, 2014.

“Where does power really lie, and who really holds it?” the sociologist Luc Boltanski asks at the outset of his book Mysteries & Conspiracies. “State authorities, who are supposed to take charge of it, or other agencies, acting in the shadows: bankers, anarchists, secret societies, the ruling class  . . . ?” Questions like this are not new for sociologists: an investigation of “power” — what it is, how it works, who has it, who doesn’t — has been one of the dominant concerns of the social sciences for more than a century, and it has received considerable attention from historians, political economists, and literary critics as well. After Marx, Freud, Foucault, and all the rest, who could doubt that the intellectual’s job is to ferret out sinister operators hidden behind the placid surface of everyday life?

Yet there’s something hyperbolic, even embarrassing, about this sentiment when stated so baldly, in Boltanski’s emphatic italics. Suspicion of the powerful is all well and good, but if one is not careful, a research agenda can easily become a paranoid obsession. Then you end up in a John le Carré novel.

In fact, Boltanski is not really asking where power lies — though he certainly would like to know. He’s asking why sociologists ask the question. The similarity between the questions typically raised by sociologists and those dramatized in more than a hundred years’ worth of popular fiction is the starting point of Mysteries & Conspiracies. It is in detective and spy stories, Boltanski argues, that we find the clearest expression of many of the paranoid attitudes and ideas expressed more apologetically and self-consciously in the social sciences and in everyday political life. The sense that the reports we hear from official sources aren’t really true, that people act from motives that are secret or obscure, that a far-reaching power — call it government, organized crime, the Illuminati, neoliberalism — invisibly determines the apparently self-evident facts of our existence: these are all familiar contemporary topoi, but they have a history that stretches back into the 19th century.

Luc Boltanski is, himself, a slightly mysterious figure, at least to American readers. A star pupil of Pierre Bourdieu’s in the late 1970s, he has since established himself internationally as a powerful social theorist in his own right. His idiosyncratic body of work on subjects including class formation, love, theology, decision-making, capitalism, trade unions, philosophy, the left after May ’68, TV news, comic strips, and abortion has been gradually appearing in En-glish translation over the course of the past two decades. Mysteries & Conspiracies is yet another surprise in an endlessly surprising oeuvre: it is, at least in part, a work of literary criticism. In it Boltanski deals with endlessly rich source material — the canon of French and English detective and spy fiction from roughly 1880 to 1970 — and draws knowledgeably on scholarly predecessors like Siegfried Kracauer, Umberto Eco, and Carlo Ginzburg. Yet despite its three-hundred-page length, Mysteries & Conspiracies feels sketchy and occasionally dilettantish. Like many sociologists, Boltanski is a schematic thinker who likes to craft neat conceptual categories and then slot works of art into them, and he is not much concerned with interesting anomalies or border cases. Though he discusses dozens of books by authors as various as Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, John Buchan, Agatha Christie, Jack London, Maugham, le Carré, and Orwell, many of them are merely glanced at or summarized. For a book about suspicion, there’s precious little close reading here.

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