Thursday, April 14, 2005

Book Review: Totems, Tropes, and Manifestos in Sociology and Mass Culture

ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)

Patricia Cormack. Sociology and Mass Culture: Durkheim, Mills, and Baudrillard, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Reviewed by Dr. Leonard Steverson
(South Georgia College, Douglas, Georgia, USA)

In her book, Patricia Cormack describes her goal as an exploration into the issue of mass culture as a sociological construct as viewed by three major social theorists – Emile Durkheim, C. Wright Mills, and Jean Baudrillard. These theorists were picked because of their examinations of “…sociology’s relationship to its audience and the influence of modern culture on society”.1 The primary texts of two of these theorists (Durkheim’s Rules of the Sociological Method and Mills’ The Sociological Imagination), were used as tools of exploration into the authors’ explication of the subject.

Cormack makes use of “totems” and “tropes” as tools of analysis to investigate the relationship between “…the dialectical interaction of sociological thought with modern culture…”.2 The concept of totem that is used is derived from Durkheim’s formulation in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life3, rather than the Freudian psychoanalytic interpretation, and is appropriate in providing a distinction between traditional and modern societies. The totem serves as a representation of collective morality, a culturally constructed foundation upon which other social constructs will eventually appear as human societies advance. Due to the static nature of the totem, the author chose to introduce the more dynamic concept of trope to lend a more complementary approach to making a “connection” between the key concepts that are being considered. In this manner, Cormack appropriately provides a foundation for her analysis by using the well-grounded totem and the flexible trope. Her point, which should be quite obvious by this time, is that the works of all three theorists saw the “social” of their respective societies in both totemic and tropic representations.

The first chapter provides a historical introduction of the social and a discussion of how changes in the social order have created various examinations by those observing those descriptions. It further describes how politics and philosophical dialogue were used in attic Greece, in particular the different forms as used by the sophists and Socrates. This is used as a prelude to her discussion of the three sociological theorists.

Durkheim, Mills, and Baudrillard were chosen due to the perspectives, and corresponding periods, that these sociologists represent. Durkheim was chosen from the classical school of sociological theory as his work represents the “intrinsic” aspect of sociology; his manifesto approach in Rules of the Sociological Investigation specifically represents the beginnings of the discipline in this manner. Mills was selected due to what Cormack termed his “intrinsic and instructional” perspective of mass culture, especially as depicted in his major work The Sociological Imagination. Lastly, Baudrillard was chosen because of his “equivalence to mass culture” or what she refers to as “Baudrillard’s (nihilist) silence”4.

In her discussion on the French classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, Cormack begins by associating the early sociologist’s work with the ancient sophist school of discourse, a connection which Durkheim himself makes in the preface to Rules. The author, in her own attempt at persuasion, discusses at length why Rules should be considered (and, as she notes, is in fact considered by other writers) as a manifesto.5 She describes a manifesto, from its original root, as a “striking” form of communication that is appropriately used in a discussion of mass society. To further this issue of manifesto, another scholar of rhetoric manifesto, Janet Lyon, has noted that a manifesto “…declares a position; the manifesto refuses dialogue or discussion; the manifesto fosters antagonism and scorns conciliation. It is univocal, unilateral, single-minded. It conveys resolute oppositionality and indulges no tolerance for the fainthearted”.6 Noting the role of binary opposites, Lyon explains that the manifesto pits a discursive battle between the oppressed and oppressor, corrupt and corrupted, and the usurpers and rightfully entitled, and on a broader level, between the dissatisfaction experienced by the oppressed group that is in direct opposition to the prevailing cultural norms. Characteristics of a manifesto, according to Lyon include:

A chronicle of the oppressive actions leading to the complaints of the oppressed,
A call for change through a forceful listing of demands,
A confrontational communication with the oppressor.
Sounding much like Baudrillard, Lyon further adds that the manifesto “…creates a simulacrum of rupture in the dominant political order”.7 A question then presents itself: does this concept of manifesto then apply to Rules? It is certainly a reasonable claim. However, it could also be argued that the works of Mills (especially in his attacks on the “grand theorists” and “abstract empiricists”) and Baudrillard (his claims about sociology’s lack of ability to adequately represent postmodern social life) could also qualify as manifestoes. This argument, however, tends to belabor the point – Rules can certainly be seen as a manifesto.

Cormack asserts that the basis of Durkheim’s thought involved examination of collective representation, which is certainly the case as collective representations are a salient aspect of his work. She notes his famous study on suicide and his analysis of the totemic ideas and practices of Australian aborigines to expound upon this point. In Rules, Durkheim promotes the new science of sociology as a means of understanding the importance of collective influences and offers a call to social scientists to observe its most fundamental pronouncement: “the first and most basic rule is to consider social facts as things”.8 Although noting the shortcomings of this manifesto, the author credits Durkheim with providing useful tropes and images that can be utilized by succeeding generations of social theorists. However, while the analytical tool of totem is very obvious in this discussion of Durkheim, the appearance of tropes are less discernable.

Next considered is the work of popular American sociologist C. Wright Mills and his classic The Sociological Imagination. This work, published in 1959, is an account of the state of sociology as well as a formulaic exhortation for sociologists to adequately promote their “craft”.9 Cormack adds that in this work, “…Mills simultaneously throws down the gauntlet to his colleagues, challenging them to recognize their relationship to ‘cultural life’ and makes a promise of identity tied with the experiential lucidity to the broader American public”.10 This is an apt description of Mills’ intentions. Mills called for the use of the sociological imagination, one of the most important tools in the discipline: this refers to the ability to see the everyday social phenomenon from the standpoint of social influences, and vice versa. The use of tropes is evident in this concept as well as uses of metaphorical analysis found in Mills’ other work. While Cormack appropriately mentions the use of tropism in Sociological Imagination, a discussion of totemism is less obvious. She correctly adds that Mills emphasized mass culture in his writings and noted that journalists and novelists were often the predominate purveyors of the sociological imagination. This point, however, should be obvious because the goal of these occupations is to represent the individual in a micro level social context and social concerns in a micro level story. In other words, “history” and “biography” naturally find themselves intertwined in the art of storytelling or reporting. Cormack states that Mills provided a bridge between modernity and post-modernity and she explains how Mills saw a need for contemporary social scientists to use pre-modern methods of artisanship to carefully and caringly prepare the craft of the sociologist. She adds this introspective statement, “Here again sociology’s hand or ‘manus’ shows itself—the slap of the manifesto has become the trained caring touch of dexterous manipulation and traditional manufactor”.11

The works of French theorist and erstwhile sociologist Jean Baudrillard are considered last. The first observation that most readers will have is that this analysis does not include a particular text, or more specifically, a manifesto, as with the other two theorists. However, Baudrillard is considered by Cormack as the theorist “…most overtly concerned with treating the sociological as collective representation, with the investigation of its place within popular and mass cultures, and with its influence on the functioning of public action”.12 It is possible too, that of the three, his ideas have changed (and possibly will continue to do so) throughout his career. To provide a better understanding of Baudrillard’s thought over the years, Butler describes three phases of Baudrillard’s maturation – his early phase in which he offers an alteration to Marxist ideology; his second phase which is marked by a desire to apply the critiques of the first period; and the last stage (at least to this point) where he turns more a theoretical and whimsical, using contemplations of social life as fodder for popular books, journals, newspapers, and chapters in books.13 It is thus perhaps difficult to adequately focus on a manifesto that captures Baudrillard in relation to the discussion at hand. A discussion about Baudrillard’s most manifesto-like concept, however, would offer a more heuristic component to the work. It is likely that the concept that is most fitting is that of simulation, and its related ideas – simulacra, signs, and hyperreality. It would seem that the focus on this thinker would center around this concept: if Durkheim concentrated on the function of sociology to understand collective representations (and, thus, society in general), and Mills focused on the discipline as a means of understanding human behavior by the study of social, instead of psychological, forces (through the sociological imagination), Baudrillard’s introduction of the concept of stimulation would seem the next phase in a logical developmental process of mass culture. Simulation, especially as it relates to consumerism (and most especially to entertainment), is certainly an issue which builds on the concepts of both of the antecedent theorists – for example, to explain Disneyland as a simulacra of the real world requires both an understanding of collective representations as well as a vivid sociological imagination. In addition, reasoning that a well reported war never happened requires an even more developed sociological imagination. However, it is quite likely that Cormack does not view the relationship between the three theorists as constituting an evolutionary process in the analysis of mass culture.

Continuing in her analysis of the latter theorist, there is the issue of the philosopher as sociologist: Cormack describes Baudrillard’s relationship with sociology as one that is strained, mostly due to his closeness to the subject. The focus of this book is on Baudrillard’s philosophical, rather than sociological descriptions of the social and his concepts of simulation and hyperrealism are explained in relation to the social. After analysis of Baudrillard’s ideas, the conclusion is reached: “Baudrillard’s story is a repetition of Durkheim’s and Mills’ assertions that the sociological is an imaginary collective representation that necessarily influences, and is influenced by, mass society”.14

Cormack also makes the point that Baudrillard’s thought is contrasted to Durkheim’s belief in the totem as a representation of the collective; again the issue of simulation is evident in this analysis. If the totem has become simply a simulation of the real derived primarily from media exploitation, the totem is a false representation, rendering the analysis of the totem a futile intellectual exercise. She notes that “…late twentieth-century western culture has become thoroughly sociological to the extent of meaninglessness, that is, to the extent that the ongoing Durkheimian ironic and interpretive relation to the social is made impossible because there is no interpretative space between the totemic image and the group”.15 This is a hint to the issue of an evolutionary process mentioned earlier in this paper; however, this idea is not developed.

Cormack also explains the divergent path taken from the work of Mills. She explains that while Mills addressed an impressionable collectivity that is receptive to the message, Baudrillard sees the collective as being one that is “…a mute, stupefied audience titillated by its own image…”.16 However, this comment seems to ignore the fact that one of Mills’ primary concerns was that the American of the Modern Age would become “The Cheerful Robot”,17 an idea also expressed by Herbert Marcuse in “One-Dimensional Man”.18 It is clear that Mills, although obviously hopeful for the uses of sociology, was not optimistic about the future, if people continued to be influenced by, and dependant upon, the mass media.

The book concludes with a general comparison of the three great thinkers and further word-play on the sociological “manus”. Appropriately, in manifesto style, Cormack outlines sixteen possibilities that describe the relationship between sociology and mass society. This synthesis at the book’s close is clearly outlined and helps the reader digest the complex analysis of the work; this is especially beneficial to those without advanced training in the study of mass culture. Cormack’s book is an interesting comparison of the works of three major thinkers of three different periods and the connection between sociology and mass culture and is an important contribution to the study of mass culture. It would be interesting to further analyze the relationship of these three figures by developing the issue from an evolutional perspective, as noted earlier, by considering Durkheim as an early twentieth century pioneer whose focus on social forces was a redirection of previous psychological approaches; by understanding Mills as a mid century benefactor of Durkheimian thought who furthered the approach by describing the media as purveyors of knowledge to an increasingly ignorant and apathetic white collar society; and finally to Baudrillard, as a late century theorist who sees the message presented to the masses as being simply an illusion, a representation of a make-believe world (or earlier world) so adequately reflected in the “reality shows” of today.



1 Pat Cormack. Sociology and Mass Culture: Durkheim, Mills, and Baudrillard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002:6.

2 Ibid.

3 Emile Durkheim. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Tranlated by Karen E. Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995.

4 Pat Cormack. Sociology and Mass Culture: Durkheim, Mills, and Baudrillard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002:28.

5 Pat Cormack (Ed.). Manifestos and Declarations of the Twentieth Century. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1998.

6 Janet Lyon. Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999:9.

7 Ibid.: 16.

8 Emile Durkheim. Rules of the Sociological Method. Translated by W.D. Halls. New York: Free Press, 1982: 60.

9 C. Wright Mills. The Sociological Imagination (c1959). New York: Oxford University Press, 2000:195.

10 Pat Cormack. Sociology and Mass Culture: Durkheim, Mills, and Baudrillard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002:56.

11 Ibid.:82.

12 Ibid.:90.

13 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999:3-11.

14 Pat Cormack. Sociology and Mass Culture: Durkheim, Mills, and Baudrillard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002:105.

15 Ibid.:91.

16 Ibid.:92.

17 C. Wright Mills. The Sociological Imagination (c1959). New York: Oxford University Press, 2000:171.

18 Herbert Marcuse. One-Dimensional Man (c 1964) Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.



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