GSA The Sociological Imagination



Below you can download the 10 key texts for the course. I will give you them on a memory stick in the class. These are what we go over and I’ve written things out so it is easier for you to follow. My task is to explain quite complex ideas in a way you can understand. But remember your voice is important too, your understanding, what the material inspires in you, your questions and criticisms are a big part of the class.

The Sociological Imagination—a brief introduction

The sociological imagination is the “vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society”. To explore it the course examines and combines the classic tradition in social theory and the history of the avant-garde in modern art. It identifies and traces the influence of the ideas that form the basis of how we understand art and culture.

I wrote it to offer the type of education I wanted when I was at art school including the help and assistance you will be offered to produce a 2500 word essay.

Together we look at the social imagination of ten key thinkers. Most of the classes conform to a similar structure whereby the influence of a theorist is outlined along with their main themes and this is related to elements of a particular movement of the avant-garde. Download the texts below (they are quite large and it is best to download them with a laptop—I can give you them all in the class).

Walter Lippmann — To start, the 1938 Orson Welles’ radio version of H. G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ is used as an example of what Walter Lippmann called a Pseudo Reality to introduce his theory of the Stereotype in his 1922 Public Opinion that dealt with propaganda. This is combined with an examination of Henri Bergson and his use of Phenomenology (the study of perception and consciousness) to examine the nature of his influence on the different forms of Cubism. Bergson’s work on intuition, durée réelle (how we experience time) are introduced contrasting the intellectual and intuitive approaches of the early French modernism.  

Emile Durkheim — Durkheim’s attempts to establish ‘Sociology’ as a science are introduced via his conception of: Social Facts, Anomie, Consciousness Collectives and Representation Collectives. These are contextualized using the work of Millet, Courbet, Seurat, Gaugin with a focus on Durkheim’s role in the Dreyfuss Affair. The Parisian avant-garde’s magazines are examined: The White Review, Guillaume Apollinaire and Les Soires de Paris along with Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics. The influence of Durkheim is traced through Tel Quel magazine ranging from Marcel Mauss, Georges Bataille and Collège de Sociologie to writers such as Foucalt. To conclude an overview of how ‘Bohemia Cabarets’ in Monmarte after the Paris Commune of 1871 acted as ‘Anti-Museums’ opposing Bourgeois cultural dominance.

Max Weber — Weber’s sociological imagination is examined in terms of his study of Bureaucracy, Rationality and Authority. This is contrasted to the German Dadaists and Expressionists activities. Weber’s use of ‘ideal types’ is also contrasted to Durkheim to emphasise the Interpretative and Statistical approaches to social theory. The Expressionists (in art and film) are described using the 1911 Blaue Rieter Almanac, Die Brücke and Paula Modersohn-Becker the pre-cursor of Expressionism. Wilhelm Worringer’s (1908) Abstraction and Empathy, is traced to Georg Simmel’s work and the influence of the Heidelberg Circle on the ideas influencing the avant-garde.

Karl Marx — Marx’s sociological imagination is explored via the idea of the role of the Social Philosopher and this is explained as an ideology, a statement of ideals and as a set of social theories. An in-depth focus on Gustav Courbet’s Realism and Andre Breton’s Surrealism also touches on other forms of Realism (and the use of the Manifesto) via examples such as Tatlin, Pevsner and Gabo. The work of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin are outlined in connection with the The Heidelberg Circle and the Frankfurt School. The early Bauhaus and Moholy-Nagy’s argument that artists belonged in the vanguard of social change is contrasted with William Morris’.

Thorstein Veblen — Veblen’s ideas on culture and his socio-economic critique are introduced in the context of the Pragmatist and the Progressive era in the US. Veblen three instinctive aptitudes that relate to creativity at a fundamental level: Workmanship, Parental and Idle curiosity (an impersonal ‘urge to know’ apart from any material benefit to be gained) are explained. The New School for Social Science Research, which Veblen founded, is discussed in relation to the Société Anonyme, initiated by Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp and other small artist’s circles. William Hayter’s Atelier 17 and the New School’s role as a home for the émigré European avant-garde artists who moved to New York in the 1930s and 1940s is briefly described. Additional elements explain Phenomenology and Pragmatism in the US and the relevance of William James.

The Heidelberg Circle — Cultural Sociology is explained within the Heidelberg Circle, as developed by Alfred Weber inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s aesthetical theory. The influence of the work of Georg Simmel on his students including Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács and Karl Mannheim is explored. Marianne Weber’s influence is identified along with other artistic avant-garde Circles that overlapped, such as the Stephan George’s or Mallarmé’s Tuesday Salons. Weber’s (1912) ‘The Sociological Concept of Culture’ and Georg Simmel’s (1910) ‘How is Society Possible?’ are contrasted including themes such as (a) The parallels between art and social form, (b) The principles of sociological ordering in art and aesthetic objects and (c) Where aesthetic and social factors are shown to work in combination.

Karl Mannheim — An examination of Mannheim’s ground breaking work on the sociology of knowledge is explained as the investigation of the interconnections between categories of thought, knowledge claims and social reality: the existential connectedness of thought. Mannheim’s main themes of Ideology and Utopia, the worldview (or Weltanschauung) and the problem of Generations are set out. The focus is also on ideological interpretations of art and on how the avant-garde became the ‘Lost Generation’ in the inter-war years together with Mannheim’s influence on Erwin Panovsky’s Iconology.

Giambattista Vico — This introduces the origins of social theory in Vico’s ‘New Science’ a study of the mythical origins of the histories of customs and institutions in different nations. It focuses on Vico’s use of fantasia and his explanation of common sense (the judgments made without reflection that emerge from customs shared by an entire society that provide the basis of the structures of the human world). Vico’s understanding of myth as a projection of the needs of the inhabitants of a developing society is explained as containing a worldview. This is related this to the history of ideas and the revolutionary effect of Romanticism (and the Counter Enlightenment).

C. Wright Mills — The focus is on Mills’ The Power Elite and The Cultural Apparatus and his influence on the counter culture (the combination of radical feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests and the Ecological Movement). Mills invented an avant-garde sociology that challenged mass society’s maintenance of the ignorance of the disempowered. His work had a major influence on the 1960’s New Left similar to Betty Friedan’s the Feminine Mystique that marked the beginning of second-wave feminism—both knew each other. Eva Cockcroft’s ‘Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War,’ Griselda Pollock’s ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’ and Linda Nochlin’s ‘Why are there no great women artists? also form the basis of this section. Its focus is on ownership and control of art institutions and the effects of the shift from enlightened patrons to the state and the elite. The ideological role of MOMA in the cold war using Alfred H. Barr’s diagram for the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art is explained.

Cornelius Castoriadis — Castoriadis’ work is a mixture of Philosophy, Psychology, Economics, Sociology, Politics and more: one of his key terms is the social imaginary not unlike our sociological imagination. This section focuses on his essay ‘The Crisis of Culture and the State’ that problematizes the idea of the relationship between the state and culture. We follow it closely as ranges over and combines elements of the course to focus on tragedy in ancient Athens and the need for social cathexis.

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