Absurd Man +/- Absurd World Sociology of the Absurd

 

“The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning. This is a truth nearly all great minds have taken as their starting point. It is not this discovery that is interesting, but the consequences and rules of action drawn from it.” – Albert Camus

 

 

In this article, Michael Hviid Jacobsen Interviews Michael Hviid Jacobsen on the absurdity of every-man looking for meaning every-day

 

pic 1 Michael Jacobsen standing

 

MHJ-I = Michael Hviid Jacobsen –Interviewer

MHJ-U = Michael Hviid Jacobsen –Unauthorized Biographer of the Absurd

 

 

MHJ-I: Thank you for your time or should I say thank you for my time? I am supposed to interview you, or me, on the meanings of absurdity? I don’t even know where to start – with You or with Me?

 

MHJ-U: Let’s start with Every-Man (or Every-woman). He wakes up Any-day in Any-city of the world. The time is 7 am. He lights the stove, puts a pot of water to boil, opens a jar of coffee or tea, and readies his cup. He is still in his pyjamas; yawning, not yet ready to face the world, but he boldly steps out of the door. No, he does not want to greet the world or yell good morning to the neighbourhood; he just wants to pick up his daily newspaper from the front porch. Some do not step outside; their hand reaches out and collects the newspaper pushed into the door-handle by the delivery boy.

 

Isn’t this an everyday practice – a habit for millions? Despite the dwindling sales of newspapers and the waning interest of the youth in newspapers, who would rather be on face-book; what makes every-man reach out for the newspaper every day?

 

Some say every-man is simply seeking information – to know what’s happening in our world. But, is it just about being informed? Do headlines serve the mere function of informing every-man? I think it’s much more. Newspaper reports help him create a larger story of the world around; and shape every-man’s perceptions of the world. Crime reports from his city tend to make him fearful about violence. Stories of corruption in high places change everyman’s ideas of power and his country’s politics. Thus, the every-day newspaper serves a larger function for evenry-man. It helps every-man make sense of the world – it helps every-man create meaning.

 

MHJ-I: I can buy that. But, what is the connection between newspapers and absurdity? 

 

MHJ-U: Let us look at some of the stories that have been published in newspapers in recent years. “Banks responsible for global recession and everyone’s bankruptcy.” The next week’s headline says; “Administration bails out bankrupt banks.” On page 1 the headlines read: “Climate change a serious threat to humankind.” And the business pages say: “Markets celebrate as sales of air-conditioners go up by 500 per cent in China and India.” One headline says: “Health Organization cites mobile phones as potential cause of cancers.” Another headline reads: “Teenagers using smartphones have more sex.”

 

What kind of sense do they make? I have shown these headlines to people. Some said: “It’s absolutely absurd. What’s happening to this world?” Others said: “It just doesn’t make sense.” What they probably meant was that whatever was going on in the world did not make any meaning to them…We are always trying to make “meanings” out of the smorgasbord of events and incidents that unfold around us. However all of the above only makes complete sense when you see them as totally absurd. (See link to article in this issue – The Absurdist)

 

Absurd! Isn’t it?

 

MHJ-I: So, why is absurdity important to understand and to study?
MHJ-U: Well, basically because we all have to die. As soon as we are born we know we will die. Life is absurd already from the onset – the absurdity lies in the fact that we need to create meaning with that ’in advance-limited-timespan’ allotted to each and every one of us – so the absurdity of life incessantly mingles with the horror and reality of death. This makes it even more important to approach, understand, address the inherent absurdity of life.

Pic 2 Tombstone_Albert_Camus

 

Although, Albert Camus may not have personally approved the label, he has been seen as a philsopher of the absurd. Camus’ writings underlines the fact that the human condition is mortal; however, for Camus, this is not a reason for sadness, in fact, this understanding of mortality shuold lead to a greater appreciation for life and happiness.

 

Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman once incisively – albeit merely in a footnote – stated:

“Poets and the religious are wont to argue that if an individual compares the very considerable time he is slated to spend dead to the relatively brief time allowed him to strut and fret in this world, he might well find reason for viewing all of his life as very fateful play of very short span, every second of which should fill him with anxiety about what is being used up.  And in truth, our rather brief time is ticking away, but we seem only to hold our breath for seconds and minutes of it”.

 

An epigram from The Rocky Horror Picture Show:

“And crawling on the planet’s face, some insects, called the human race, lost in time, lost in space … and meaning”

 

So the way humans seem to tackle the absurd knowledge that they are all mortal is by forgetting about it and living life as if death is no part of it. John Lennon’s famous phrase that: “Life is what happens while you’re busy doing other things” – captures the primary human survival-strategy – to live a meaningful and indeed absurd life that is forgetful of death.

 

MHJ-I: The epigram from the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show as well Lennon’s quote captures how human beings are lost in time, space and meaning. You are an academic; you spend a lot of your time studying things. Has the “absurd” been studied formally?

 

MHJ-U: Yes, there is a field of study – “sociology of the absurd.” These sociologists of the absurd touch on issues of how people may act in order to understand and potentially reclaim this lost time, space and meaning. How people may approach the inherent absurdity of a life that is sure of an impending death.

 

Absurdist writer Albert Camus described his nihilistic novel The Stranger as “a study of an absurd man in an absurd world”. In this book (and many others), Camus claimed that the inhabitants of the modern world were becoming increasingly alienated and experiencing a new malaise materialising in their futile search for meaning and in their search for identity. He insisted that the 20th century marked a turning point in the values and ethics of human society, a radical departure from enchanted and community-based traditional society now setting man loose – to absurdity. This diagnosis sets the sombre tone for one of the most overlooked and least recognized perspectives within sociology, namely the ‘sociology of the absurd’.

 

Pic 3 Camus Quote

 

MHJ-I: Have many books been written on this subject: sociology of the absurd?

 

MHJ-U: Perhaps the “sociology of the absurd” qualifies as the most infinitesimal perspective or approach in sociology because only a book or two has been written within the direct scope of the perspective provided by the original proponents. Also, only a handful of articles dealing with, applauding, or critiquing the perspective of the absurd has subsequently been published.

As a consequence, “sociology of the absurd” is a forgotten perspective, seldom discussed in social theory, and hardly ever directly utilised in actual social research. Moreover, references to readings from the sociology of the absurd rarely appear in university teaching curricula with the consequence that new generations of sociologists remain largely ignorant of this “absurd” perspective. (see link to list of readings and references on sociology of the absurd)

 

MHJ-I: Does the lack of attention to this subject mean that the sociology of the absurd is utterly unimportant and useless for sociologists?

 

MHJ-U: Absolutely not. The importance or usefulness of theories or perspectives is not always automatically matched or measured by their popularity or the piles of works published in their honour. There are other reasons that propel a discipline or its books to best-seller status; reasons other than the actual importance of a subject to making human life understandable or better.

 

We have to rectify sociology’s negligence of this overlooked perspective by introducing the sociology of the absurd as an important field of study for everyone because it represents a perspective that in originality and creativity has covered terrain left uncharted and untouched by more orthodox theories.

 

However, the lack of sociological books does not in any way point to the ignor ing of the “absurdity” perspective by writers, playwrights, dramatists, and thinkers. Many intellectuals have tinkered with and dwelt upon ‘absurdity.’ Albert Camus was instrumental in providing lucid descriptions of the inherent meaninglessness and absurdity of life and used the term in his 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”.

Pic 4 Myth Of Sisyphus Book cover

 

Then, there is a long list of scholars and writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Erving Goffman, Harold Garfinkel, Alfred Schutz, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, William Shakespeare, Nicolas Evreinoff, Georg Simmel, Max Weber, Max Frisch, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edmund Husserl, Luigi Pirandello, Franz Kafka, Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche.

 

“Theater of the Absurd” a term coined by critic Martin Esslin  in a 1960 essay, is well known to the public.  These absurdist plays, written mainly by European playwrights in the late 1950s, were a prominent and provocative presence among the performing arts during the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the eminent playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd were Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard. They influenced a distinct style of theatre based on the premise that human existence is generally devoid of meaning or purpose. The plays ranged from tragedy to comedy or parody and often avant-garde plays. ”Waiting for Godot” is termed as one such absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. It has been called one of the most significant plays of the 20th century.

 

There is a strong tradition and star-studded intellectual lineage behind the sociology of the absurd.

 

MHJ-I: So, what is the history of this “sociology of absurd” perspective? Where do its roots lie? 

 

MHJ-U: The sociology of the absurd is a product or phenomenon of the experimental and progressive Zeitgeist of the late 1960s. It can be ranked among the avant-gardist ‘new sociologies’ seeing the light of day during this period, especially among those critical of the status quo of mainstream sociology on the American continent.

 

The late 1960s was a time of social upheaval, a time of confronting ingrained values and norms, of new social and political movements, of the appearance of new forms of life and of new waves of thinking. In the vortex of this development, the sociology of the absurd attempted to describe this new social environment and man’s role within it in what could – at first glance – be regarded as negative terms.

 

These new sociologies reacted to the dominance of the so-called ‘orthodox consensus’ consisting of functionalism, neopositivism and modernization theory, especially dominant in American sociology throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the new sociologies were also so-called ‘creative sociologies’ in that they emphasized a creative and active image of the human actor and his meaning-creating capacity. Among these new sociologies were ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and other micro-oriented perspectives. Although these positions and traditions were not entirely new, the reception and backing they received especially in these early years was unprecedented in sociology.

 

The backbone of the field or perspective of absurdity is a collection of essays titled: A Sociology of the Absurd, by Stanford M. Lyman and Marvin B. Scott in 1970. They were employed at University of California and Sonoma State College respectively. Their research agendas primarily evolved around empirical studies of racial issues, student revolts and gambling behaviour; and therefore it was unsurprising that they would eventually venture into a more theoretical/conceptual enterprise culminating in the book A Sociology of the Absurd.

 

The ‘theatre of the absurd’ (of the 1950s and 1960s) constituted another of the major sources of inspiration for Lyman and Scott and responsible for the original naming of this perspective. On the first page of their manifesto A Sociology of the Absurd, the absurdists attest how this new wave of thinking, to which they subscribe, tries to understand and appreciate the inherent absurdity of life:

 

The term ‘absurd’ captures the fundamental assumption of this new wave: The world is essentially without meaning. In contrast to that sociology which seeks to discover the real meaning of action – a sociological reality, such as the functional meaning of social behaviour – this new sociology asserts that all systems of belief, including that of the conventional sociologists, are arbitrary. The problems previously supposed to be those of the sociologists are in fact everyday problems of the ordinary man. It is he who must carve out meaning in a world that is meaningless. Alienation and insecurity are fundamental conditions of life – though, they are experienced differently by individuals and groups – and the regular re-humanization of man is everyman’s task (Lyman & Scott 1970:1; original emphasis).

 

MHJ-I: But, why resort to the absurd? What is that impulse behind studying or examining “absurdity” – what pushes a sociologist of the absurd to study and think about it? 

 

MHJ-U: While many absurdist novelists and dramatists, take as their starting point of analysis the existential absurdity of human life, it is important to note that sociologists also examine the ‘institutional absurdity’ of modern life. This “institutional absurdity” perspective was developed by Glenn Goodwin in 1971. This perspective finds that there is a deep-seated and deepening dissonance, contradiction, conflict and chasm between self and society.

 

The absurdists therefore represent a dialectical line of thinking in highlighting the dilemmas and discrepancies between the conditions man create, the contradictions of these conditions and man’s attempt to transcend or annul the absurdity of life through action.

 

The sociologist of the absurd is actually trying to transcend the absurd.

 

Glenn A Goodwin has observed how

 

“… the final and definitive synthesis – ‘the good life’ – is an impossibility. Choosing to act in the face of this realization, it is argued, becomes the determinant of man’s freedom. In other words, man’s choosing to act, with the definitive understanding that his action will resolve nothing, is what determines his freedom … Predicated on this realization, social man consciously creates dissonance to which he can then react, and thus he achieves a semblance of meaning (Goodwin 1971:832; original emphasis).

 

MHJ-I: What you are saying is the opposite of commonly held beliefs. You are saying that man seeks dissonance whereas many traditional theories in of human behaviour would say that humans seek consonance?

 

MHJ-U: According to Goodwin, Man is more of a dissonance seeker than a consonance seeker. This creation of dissonance and continuous struggle to solve conflict, confront anomalies or bridge contradictions is fundamental to the absurdists’ view of man’s task in the world. 

 

Because the world is absurd, it is man’s own personal responsibility to make sense of the world and to carve out islands of meaning in a sea of meaninglessness. Because reality holds no inherent, absolute or objective meaning in store for human actors, and because this lack of meaning may frustrate, infuriate or create a sense of apathy and confusion, humans will have to conjure up meaning for themselves. Therefore, the absurdists present an everyday life consisting of people struggling, competing and fighting.

 

Man actually never is – he is always becoming through his endless, sisyphusian struggle to tackle absurdity.

 

MHJ-I: But then how can people possibly address this inherent existential and institutional absurdity of modern living? 

 

MHJ-U: Albert Camus captured it succinctly when he wrote “…there is a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. Conquest or role-playing, multiple loves, absurd revolt are tributes that man pays to his dignity in a campaign in which he is defeated in advance”.

 

The absurdity of everyday life cannot be entirely defeated or eliminated, merely momentarily postponed or transcended. An answer to the question: Can absurdity ever be transcended, would therefore be: to some extent, but not definitively. As Lionel Rubinoff explained:

 

Instead of facing up to the absurd, we either counterfeit or ignore it. Many of our current myths and images of man [such as underlie the practice of the social sciences] have been surreptitiously manufactured for the purpose of counterfeiting the experience of the absurd. I propose to confront the absurd directly by imaginatively living through it … A mind which has achieved a … critical awareness of the absurd … may be said, therefore, to have transcended it (Rubinoff in Goodwin 1971:836).

 

Absurdist poets and philosophers have often described the world as full of suffering, loss, death, despair, nausea and misery. Take as an example Eugène Ionesco’s poignant observation from Dans les armes de la ville:

 

“Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose … Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless” (Ionesco in Esslin 1991:23).

 

When God is dead, as Nietzsche noticed, when there is no providential or metaphysical meaning, and when all traditional systems of thought are undermined, repudiated or found ineffective, man must establish meaning by and through himself. The sociology of the absurd follows this lead but turns it from a defeatist attitude into a constructive sociological agenda.

 

For ordinary people, rebellion, fight or the ability to say ‘no’ may therefore prove to be the ultimate means to transcend the absurd. ‘Man as a rebel’ fits the absurdists’ strategic worldview well.

 

Albert Camus has been quoted as saying:

 

“The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning. This is a truth nearly all great minds have taken as their starting point. It is not this discovery that is interesting, but the consequences and rules of action drawn from it.”

 

MHJ-I: Like other social and cultural theories, are there any principles or tenets to the formal study of the “absurd”? 

 

MHJ-U: At the cost of making a die-hard absurdist flinch, six central tenets may be extracted from the programmatic statements of the absurdists:

 

(1) human existence is in essence absurd and meaningless,

(2) it is so, although to varying degrees, for everybody,

(3) the problems of creating meaning are not exclusively sociological but relate to everyman,

(4) the human responses to meaninglessness is alienation, uncertainty, conflict and confusion,

(5) it is up to human beings, individually or collectively, to counter this fateful absurdity and create meaning,

(6) this can be achieved, for example, by active intervention and/or strategic and reflexive efforts aimed at the re-humanization of life – that is, giving meaning to the meaningless.

 

Pic 6 Camus Quote

 

Since all systems of belief are deemed arbitrary, and since there is no inherent ‘real’ or essential meaning to the world, the human actor is empowered to construct the meaning of the world himself: “It is the meaningless-world-made-meaningful which is the strategic research site for the sociology of the absurd” (Lyman & Scott 1970:27). The ontological foundation for the absurdists is therefore the capacity of the human to be a meaning-creating animal – the ability to carve out meaning where meaninglessness prevails.

 

Furthermore, the idea of an intellectual or a discipline such as sociology as a saviour in the face of absurdity or suffering does not fit into the absurdist perspective. Because sociologists – like ordinary men – are incapable of releasing humans (including themselves) from their sense of absurdity or ambiguity since sociology is itself caught up in the self-same absurdity and only vicariously, through analyses of absurdity, manages to escape the absurd.

 

 

MHJ-I: Is absurdity anarchic? Does the “sociology of the absurd” basically promote the concept of disorder? 

 

MHJ-U: Absurdists define their sociological task as follows: “Every investigation carried out under the aegis of the “Sociology of the Absurd” is approached with a sense of astonishment that a social order exists.

The puzzle, the mystery of how social order somehow emerges from the chaos and conflict predicated by the inherently meaningless is the motive for the study of social phenomena” (Lyman & Scott 1970:9; original emphasis)

 

Despite presenting new perspectives and concepts to capture human existence, the sociology of the absurd actually aspires to provide clarification of or an answer to the classical sociological question: How is social order possible?

 

This ancient philosophical question has puzzled and haunted sociologists throughout history and a variety of widely different answers has been provided and proposed. According to ‘sociologists of the absurd,’ the answer to the question of social order or the problem of society should not be sought in macroscopic institutions or structural arrangements, but instead the answer to this macro-sociological problem might be fruitfully explored in the analysis of the interpersonal rituals and the very stuff of which most rituals are composed. These slightest aspects are, among other things, the daily rehearsed rituals of talk and interaction. The sociology of the absurd provides an original and unconventional framework for understanding and analysing this microcosm of social life and the everyday world.

Pic 7 Prague_ginger_u_fred_gehry

 

MHJ-I: How do the absurdists encounter this everyday world and how do they create meaning out of a world deemed devoid of meaning? 

 

MHJ-U: As such the problems of meaning confronting the sociological absurdist is no different from the problems of meaning confronting every human actor. Making sense and constructing meaning is everyman’s task.

 

Lyman and Scott assert how absurdists reject “the a priori existence of a determined world discovered by the sociologists. It regards man as an actor who builds up his actions on the basis of his goals and his continuing attempts to define and redefine the situation.” The sociologist’s perspective on the world is no more privileged than any other but it may provide important insights into aspects of human sociality that would otherwise remain undiscovered.

 

Taking drama and conflict as the outset of description and analysis, the absurdists proceed to provide a multitude of conceptual and descriptive tools for making sense of the social world. The aim of the absurdists is to provide descriptive knowledge of the social world enabling human actors to navigate in the world and act accordingly.

 

Absurdists, therefore, construct typologies and conceptual schemes of the everyday world showing ways to act (e.g. counter, minimise or avoid the inherent absurdity of life). In order to accurately to describe man’s struggle with this absurdity of life, the focus is extensively on topics such as power, conflict, drama, strategy and manipulation culminating in consecutive situations, episodes and encounters:

 

“It is not that all men are clever calculators constantly matching wits with other men, or that they all boldly stride out with stratagems to challenge fate. Rather, they succeed or fail according to whatever they can do and its effects on situation and chance” (Lyman & Scott 1970:25).

 

A Georg Simmel-inspired focus on conflict – man in conflict with society, man in conflict with nature and ultimately man in conflict with himself – constitutes a fundamental template for comprehending social life.

 

If life consists of encounters, episodes, and engagements, among persons pursuing goals of which they are consciously aware, or about which they can be made aware, then it appears that the fundamental structure of human action is conflict. This is true even if individuals are pursuing the same ends, since each is out to maximize his own interests. Thus, even two lovers in an erotic embrace, as Simmel once noted, may be regarded in conflict since each may be seeking to outdo the other in demonstrating affection or providing the other with feeling (Lyman & Scott 1970:5).

 

When describing and conceptualising the world in such conflictual and dramatic terms, absurdists seek to provide a sober and deep drilling description of social life which refrains from prioritising the views of some specific groups, ideologies or power formations in society:

 

The world has no objective meaning. One can study the social world from the point of view of the superior or the subordinate; of the lover or his mistress; of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat; of management or labour; of the deviant or of the person who labels him deviant, and so on. What is important is that one should have a perspective, but the particular perspective employed is irrelevant to the rectitude of theorizing. One can make true statements from any perspective, including those not consonant with any available ideology (Lyman & Scott 1970:16).

 

Absurdists privilege no particularistic perspective – no vantage point on the social world that may, from a moral or valuative perspective, be deemed better or more correct than another.

 

All perspectives are equal, none being more superior than the other.

 

MHJ-I: Has any research been conducted using the “absurd” perspective?

 

MHJ-U: Despite extensive conceptual and typological development and refinement, the absurdists have surprisingly not been particularly successful in proving a paradigm or general framework for carrying out empirical work within sociology and only a minority of scholars have utilised this perspective for empirical analysis.

 

Lyman and Scott write, “the most appropriate way to gather data for use in studies of the Absurd is by unobtrusive observation of natural settings or by examining reproductions of natural settings – movies, taped conversations, and so on … Today’s democratized prince cannot really be comprehended by survey research”.

 

One of the few studies in which an absurd perspective has been used is in a study by Dragan Milovanovic and Jim Thomas (1989) who empirically highlight the absurdity of conditions of life and the efficacious action of so-called ‘jailhouse lawyers’.

 

Drawing upon a body of absurdist assumptions, they illustrate – based on interviews with inmates in maximum security prisons in the US in the 1980s – how prisoners use the law to counter, and successfully suspend, the absurdity of dehumanized life in prison. Through strategic action, reason and cunning the prisoners are able to avoid oppression and keep absurdity at bay. Instead of silently acquiescing and surrendering, they confront the very base of absurdity – the authorities, the system’s ‘looping policies’ and existing definitions of power – by way of litigation and constant appeals to the law. Milovanovic and Thomas’s analysis might fruitfully be extrapolated to struggles against absurdity in many other institutional settings apart from the ‘total institution’ of the prison by showing how people continuously and laboriously seek to rehumanize a dehumanized existence.

 

MHJ-I: Is there any connection or resonance between the sociology of the absurd and the post-modernist school of thought?

 

MHJ-U: In a more general sense, at the time of its culmination, the sociology of the absurd anticipated much of what later became conceptualized under the acclaimed headings of postmodernism, social constructivism and deconstructivism associated predominantly with the works of Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Therefore, the sociology of the absurd can be seen as a neglected forerunner to postmodernism as well as a critical corrective to some of the ideas advanced by postmodernists. Absurdists were influenced by drama, theatre, literature and intellectuals. Post-modernism and deconstructivism has gone on to influence various disciplines including visual arts, design, cinema, literature, music and architecture (The Dancing House in Prague or Tančící dům in Czech is one such example of the deconstructivist style).

 

According to Stanford M. Lyman in his collection of essays in Postmodernism and a Sociology of the Absurd, the absurdists converge with – and stand as a precursor to – postmodernists in claiming that (1) although the world has no ultimate ontological or objective meaning, it still almost everywhere seems to make sense to human actors, and (2) the self and society are social constructions.

 

The sociology of the absurd, just as many varieties of postmodernism and social constructivism, is, preoccupied with how human actors create, construct and interpret the meaning of the reality they take part in. The absurdists reject the radical postmodernist notion of the ‘death of the subject (the human).’ To the sociologist of the absurd, the subject, the human actor, is still very much alive and kicking in everyday life.

 

 

MHJ-I: So what would an “absurdist” tell me if I were to ask for her help in doing something to change in my world? 

 

MHJ-U: The absurdists are concerned with re-humanization of the world. However, they see it as the task of Every-man. The absurdists are not concerned with instigating rebellion or inspiring revolt in order to obtain such re-humanization.  They are neither policy-oriented nor action researchers as many of the radical sociologists of the 1960s. Moreover, they hold no aspirations to alter the social world they encounter. The sociology of the absurd is a thoroughly analytical and descriptive enterprise that favours qualitative research designs.

 

In his The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus set the tone for the way absurdists approach the social world as human beings and investigate it as sociologists: “For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. Everything begins with lucid indifference” (Camus 1955/2000:87).

 

The sociology of the absurd rests on the classic interactionist dictum that the sociologist should engage with and immerse himself/herself in the natural social environment but refrain from over-identifying with the subjects studied. An ‘involved distance’ is their preferred research strategy – involvement rather than identification.

 

Moreover, there is an everyday egalitarianism in the sociology of the absurd taking Alfred Schutz’s idea that we are all sociologists to its radical extremes. Thus, the absurdists turn their backs on any notions of the sociologist or scientist being superior to or more advanced in escaping absurdity than the ordinary man.

 

Every-man should strive to be a careful observer but not be misled into conceiving himself as a social reformer, muckraker, or social engineer. The absurdists therefore state that “the everyday world provides situations from which truth might be extracted by those who would take the trouble to look with the attitude appropriate to witnessing human and divine performances: wonder, astonishment and naïve puzzlement” (Lyman & Scott 1975:2).

 

In short, it is a matter of NOT taking the world for granted – so that we may approach it, understand it, transcend it and act in it. Like the human actors living in everyday life, the absurdist must try to create or carve out a sense of coherence and meaning from the fragmented, confused subjective encounter with an absurd world thereby allowing for some sort of transcendence. The sociologist of the absurd:

 

… must be a careful observer in any situation, and his awareness and exact description of the political, legal, social, and moral restraints on the individual is part of his task … [He must] locate the person precisely in the continuum between humanism and fatalism. He must uncover ideology and utopia in each man, wish and transfiguration in each situation. The Sociologist of the Absurd, by his very description of society, by his everlasting unfolding and illumination of the modes and styles of social order, can summon men to build the world of their dreams, but he cannot build it for them (Lyman & Scott 1970:10).

 

One way to ‘summon men to build the world of their dreams’ is through the path of ‘defamiliarization’ (link defamiliarization last issue interview with Bauman in April issue).

 

Defamiliarization (questioning and interpreting the familiar in new and different ways) is an important strategy deployed by the absurdists when seeking to comprehend and describe their subject matter – the everyday lives of human actors. By this they aspire to make the familiar world appear strange…

 

…because when the world is made to appear strange to us we may suddenly stop to think – and perhaps ACT.

 

 

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MHJ-U: I have a list of books I would like for you to read. I have provided them (in the link at the bottom of this page).  You seem to have no idea of this very important school of thought – it seems like that your education was absurdly incomplete?

 

MHJ-I: Are you telling me that I have to read these books in order to complete my education?

 

MHJ-U: Yes, that is exactly what I am telling you.

 

MHJ-I: But that’s absurd. Am I not you? Are you are telling yourself to read these books?

 

MHJ-U: How can that be? I have read these books otherwise why would you interview me? That is not only absurd; it also seems a little bit silly.

 

MHJ-I: Are you calling me silly? Now that calls for a fight or maybe a duel?

 

MHJ-U: Are you going to fight with me? That means you are going to fight yourself. That’s weird.

 

MHJ-I: No, that’s absurd. Didn’t you say during this interview that the goal of “absurdity” is to create dissonance within oneself and in fighting that dissonance we humans create meaning.

 

MHJ-U: Well, I did say that. No wonder humans are always fighting?

 

MHJ-I: You mean they are fighting constantly because they are constantly trying to create meaning.

 

MHJ-U: Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

 

MHJ-I: It does. It makes no sense. Violence is absurd and sad. But, there’s nothing like a good fight to pick us up out of our sadness. Really! So do you want to fight? When? Where?

 

MHJ-U: On the pages of this publication….Virtually?

 

 

 

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Michael Hviid Jacobsen suggests a list of readings to Michael Hviid Jacobsen to gain a better understanding of “Absurdity” – (link to readings Page) and welcomes you to add to this list. To add more readings, submit at the bottom of this page or email to essayistcomments@gmail.com

 

READING LIST – Sociology of the Absurd (on separate page) (click here)

 

 

 

© Michael Hviid Jacobsen, 2013; Edited by The Essayist Editorial Team

 

Parts of this interview are taken from Chapter 11: The Sociology of the Absurd: An Absurd Man in an Absurd World from the book edited by Michael Jacobsen titled: Encountering the everyday: an introduction to the sociologies of the unnoticed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

 

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Image references

Camus Tombstone: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20041113-002_Lourmarin_Tombstone_Albert_Camus.jpg

Albert Camus Picture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Camus,_gagnant_de_prix_Nobel,_portrait_en_buste,_pos%C3%A9_au_bureau,_faisant_face_%C3%A0_gauche,_cigarette_de_tabagisme.jpg

The Myth of Sisyphus from:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MythOfSisyphus.jpg

Waiting for Godot from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WaitingForGodot.JPG

Camus Quote: http://weheartit.com/entry/20280365

Dancing House, Prague from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Prag_ginger_u_fred_gehry.jpg

 

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The images have been placed by the design and layout team for illustrative purposes only. The sources of the images and the web-links have been cited in the Image references list above. Please click on the links provided to access those pages.


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