Social Science Imagination, 28th November 2013

Notes on Social Science Imagination session, 28th November 2013

Present: Hanna, Peaceful Warrior, Sarah, Joss, Andrew, Mike and Gary

We took as our starting point Andrew’s question from last week: ‘Is it possible to die a good death?’ We remembered that we were reading and discussing this issue within the framing of C W Mills ‘Sociological Imagination’, which includes the question how do social individuals manage to escape from the powerful negative social forces that appear to  overwhelm them, and to do this in ways that suggest the possibility of progressive social transformation.

Our key readings for this week were:

S. Mukherjee (2011) Final chapter from The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Fourth Estate (

J. Butler (2012) ‘Can one lead a good life in a bad life?’ Adorno Prize Lecture, delivered on 11 September 2012, Radical Philosophy, November/December, online at


We started with Butler’s text. This is my reading of her main points:

Butler’s paper does not deal directly with dying a good death, but, rather, how to lead ‘a good life’. For Butler, following Adorno, the problem of leading ‘a good life’ is that the broader structures that constitute social life:  inequality, paternalism, dependency, domination, power differentials, precarity and exploitation,  are already the substantive material of what makes us human in a neo-liberal world: they make up the basic ingredients of  what she refers to as ‘a bad life’.  She goes on: ‘the environments, the machines and the complex systems of social dependency’  within which we live our lives mean that our lives are not our own. And yet, paradoxically,  it is this not owning our own lives that makes us social creatures. Butler calls this  ‘ambiguity’, or ‘life working against itself’.

This is Butler’s way of conceptualising what C W Mills has already referred to as a ‘trap’. Butler further elaborates on how she sees our predicament: ‘If we cannot persist without social forms of life, and if the only forms of social life are those that work against the prospect of our living, we are in a difficult bind, if not an impossible one’.

Butler argues that this impossibility can be resisted through ‘the living practice of critique’: as refusal, silence and the struggle to live within a just world, through the performance of public activity and popular resistance, i.e., ‘no-saying’. This is clearly  a moral issue for Butler, but it is also a political question, or ‘the quest for a right form of politics’ and ‘bio-politics’: ‘the politics that organise life’. But, again she emphasises the paradox:  in the act of creating a good life, what form of our lives  that is complicit in the making of our bad life is being refused.  Or, in other words,  how in the  struggle for social justice or interdependency or radical democracy is it possible to  maintain the essence of our individual subjectivity: ‘the subject of life’.  She is concerned that in seeking to lead a good life through social networks and nurturing environments we must give up some aspect of our own  individual lives in order to be human at all.

Butler provides an answer to her own question:  ‘We do not need any more ideal forms of the human; rather we need to understand and attend to the complex set of social arrangements without which we do not exist at all’. She argues that in the struggles for social justice, radical democracy and interdependency  our individual subjectivities are not lost; but, rather, ‘whoever I am will be transformed by my connections with others, since my dependence on another, and my dependability, are necessary in order to live and to live well’.

The discussion between scholars during the session revealed concerns about the level of philosophical abstraction at which Butler is working. While some scholars defended her methodology, pointing out her very material strategies for resistance  against material and social relations of power,  other scholars wanted a more concrete account of the social predicament which she describes. The point was made of Butler’s position as a privileged white woman who seems to exist outside of the  conditions of  ‘social death’, e.g. slavery, statelessness, unemployment and poverty, which she attributes to others.

Scholars spoke movingly during the session about their own experiences of living with death and dying among friends, relatives and colleagues.  There was a long discussion about the power of ritual as a part of grieving, e.g. attendance at funerals, or through meditation, which,   in the case  Zen Buddhism, offers a way by which life and death might be transcendended, as Enlightenment.  Scholars gave examples of how other cultures remain connected to those who have physically died, through lived memories and other memorials. Grieving is, indeed, a key concept for Butler who highlights the power of the collective funeral as a political act of insurgency against those who do not recognise the lives of those who have died, i,e, those who will not be grieved: ‘the ungrievable’.

There was some debate about the suitability of this text for scholars who are new to the social sciences, as it demands a sophisticated understanding of critical social theory.  One new scholar commented that they had enjoyed the challenge of reading this paper.

As the session drew to a close we spent some time discussing Mukherjee’s final section of his book ‘The Emperor of All  Maladies: A Biography of Cancer’. What emerged from the discussion was the similarity between one of the main points made in this book and Butler’s text. Butler describes a good life as a something that emerges out of a bad life,  but which we must leave behind so that we are able to mutate into a new form of life.  Mukharjee defines cancer as ‘a flaw in our growth, but this flaw is deeply entrenched in ourselves. We can rid ourselves of cancer, then, only as much as we can rid ourselves of the processes in our physiology that depends on growth-aging, regeneration, healing, reproduction.’ ( 462) While these two readings have different starting points, both texts attempt to show how human life, in the form of political struggles against exploitation and as cancer, attempt to mutate and transform itself in order to avoid and realise its true nature. Maybe  life, as Andrew commented, has always been like this.

Next week is our final session. We agreed to spend time during this last session thinking about the Social Science Imagination programme in terms of  pedagogy, power and participation. We decided to produce  a piece of collective writing during this last session in the style of Dada and the Surrealists, as automatic writing, or collage poetry or cut and paste prose.

Finally we discussed the substance of our sessions next year. We thought we should make the Social Science Centre itself the subject of the programme. We agreed to use these sessions to revitalise and refresh the aim and purpose of the Social Science Centre through critical reading and discussion.

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