Two fishers go out in their boat one day and their engine fails. After drifting for a while, they find themselves caught at the edge of a huge tidal whirlpool. They can see and feel their boat being sucked inexorably towards the centre where it will sink and they will drown. The horrible gurgling of the whirlpool’s funnel, the sound of death, draws ever nearer and louder. Terror grips their hearts. But one of the fishers detaches herself from her fear enough to take a closer look at the situation. She sees other debris in the water and notices that larger objects get pulled in to the whirlpool more quickly than smaller objects. Counter-intuitively, jumping in the water and leaving the boat behind seems to offer the best chance of survival. She tries to convey this to the other fisher, but he cannot detach himself from his fear enough to grasp her message. Unable to do anything more to help her comrade, with grief in her heart the first fisher straps on her life vest and leaps into the churning water. Soon after, the ship disappears under the sea while the lone fisher continues to circle further away from the spout, wondering about her fate. As luck has it, before she too gets sucked down, the tide abates and the whirlpool disappears. With her last strength she swims to a nearby lighthouse whose keeper had already called for a rescue tug that could not arrive in time to save her boat or her friend.
Norbert Elias uses this aphorism to illustrate his concept of detachment, which provided one of the cornerstones of his approach to social science. Elias theorized the world in relational terms: every thing or event we experience results from the operation of dynamic relations unfolding over time. If a thing seems stable and self-contained, it seems this way only because we do not notice the relations that produce it. Elias argued that the conventional, dualist, account of the universe, which assumes that we exist separately from the objects around us, is misleading and inaccurate. His account implies a rejection of the concept of ‘objectivity’ as a principle for validating knowledge-claims. For knowledge to ‘be objective’, it must mirror, within the subjective thought process of the knower, an external reality that exists separately from the knower. However, if knower andknown always exist in relation to each other, then there is no such separation. Therefore, detachment, rather than objectivity: not the ability to perceive the universe as if it existed without you, but the ability to pull back from your immediate emotional investment and your habitual, unconsidered perceptions of a situation to perceive it more broadly. Or, the ability to move beyond an egocentric view of the situation to see oneself as one element of a larger figuration, many of whose elements do not directly concern themselves with you. Detachment always appears relative to its opposite, involvement, as a direction of motion rather than an absolute position. The fisher in the story could detach herself enough to observe the physics of the whirlpool but not enough to stop caring whether she lived or died. Without that involvement – her desire to live – she would have no incentive to analyze the situation at all.
I never met Norbert Elias. He died in 1990, at the age of 93, having achieved fame as a sociologist mainly in the last 30 years of his long life. He was Jewish, and his parents died in the Holocaust in 1940 and 1941. Another detail of his life: he was gay. I know this by word of mouth; the biographies I’ve read don’t mention this. I have no idea what kind of sexual or romantic life he had. I got one chance to ask about it, at the conference Norbert Elias in the 21st Century, held at the University of Leicester in 2006. Elias spent the later part of his career at Leicester and had close friends and colleagues there; several of the world’s leading Eliasian scholars work there. During a session on Elias’s life and his personal relationships, I asked those men, who had counted among his closest friends, how much he had kept his homosexuality closeted and how that might have shaped his own sense of detachment. Many of the greatest sociologists see society as a stranger or an outside might see it, with the eyes of someone in society but not of it, and I always find the reasons fascinating. My question met with embarrassed silence, followed by one of those non-answers you get when someone can’t ignore your question but has no idea what to say. Later, one of those men told me that they had never really considered the question before. Their great friend and colleague didn’t volunteer details about his private life and they didn’t ask.
Sometimes as a scholar you fall in love with someone’s work, but I don’t love Elias. I like him. I use his work a lot because I find aspects of it useful, and because once you’ve read a lot of someone’s work you tend to find it convenient to go on reading more. There are moments when his writing gives me joy, but long passages where his repetitive, unfocused prose exasperates me. His lack of consideration for gender or for racialization or for oppression in general disappoints me; like most of the famous sociologists, he inhabited a white middle-class male privilege that he never acknowledged or examined. And despite his formidable intellectual critique of egocentrism, he practiced a fair bit of egotism of his own. He refused to call his work ‘process sociology’ because he felt that all sociology should focus on process, for instance.
But when I consider his life, my heart goes out to him: to him, and all the those dead white male social theorists like him who looked at the world from the inside and the outside simultaneously, leading lives of semi-isolation, different enough from those around them to have something interesting to say but not too different to get heard. I imagine each of them as bearing, under his blustery or blithe egotism, behind his scholarly detachment, the sadness and loneliness of a little boy trying to get others to play with him, unable to comprehend why they do not – and then, later, unable to comprehend why they do.