Saturday, August 01, 2015

On Norbert Elias

Today marks twenty five years since the death of the German historical sociologist Norbert Elias. So far I have only seen that anniversary marked in German-language publications, so I thought I would briefly note it here.

Norbert Elias (via Wikipedia)
For me, Elias has been an inspiration and intellectual companion of sorts for about twenty years. He was one of the main theoretical guideposts for my dissertation, which I started thinking about in the mid-1990s.

I can still remember my dissertation advisor at the University of Maryland recommending in a rather offhand way that I take a look at Elias's main work -- The Civilising Process -- while we were in the early stages of discussing what was then my aim of writing about changing standards of behaviour in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with regard to "recklessness".

In the end, I wrote about violence in nineteenth-century England, but Elias -- and the historical and sociological work that he had inspired -- remained important to me, even if I struggled at first with both Elias's ideas and his style of writing. (This is one of the many, many instances in my life where chance meetings and comments have led to life-long interests and even obsessions. Given Elias's emphasis on the unplanned nature of historical development, this seems maybe appropriate.)

Elias's imprint is certainly unmistakable in what resulted, published in 2004 as The Shadow of Our Refinement. (Review)

In my post-doctoral Wanderjahre, I tried to build on this work, exploring ways of combining the essentials of Elias's "figurational sociology" with both cultural history and evolutionary psychology. I think, actually, that I might have been the first person to try in any sustained way to combine all three of these ingredients. It's still relatively rare to see all of them brought together; however, there has been a great deal of increased interest in this kind of combination well beyond the historical field itself thanks not least to the enormous resonance that Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature has received since its publication in 2011. (A book to whose development I'm happy to have made some small contribution.)

I've also had a go at applying Elias to literary violence and civilisation, in an essay on de-civilising themes J.G. Ballard's novels High-Rise and Super-Cannes (published in a remarkable essay collection that resulted from an excellent conference). 

In recent years, my historical research has moved away from the history of violence and crime (to intellectual religious's a long story for another time), so I haven't had much to do with his work directly. (Though one of the figures who plays a role in my current project is Karl Mannheim, with whom Elias worked in Frankfurt in the inter-war period before both were compelled to leave Germany. So some slight connection remains.)

While Elias's ideas are far from uncontroversial among historians of violence (which I've had the mixed pleasure of experiencing first-hand on some occasions), they have in one way or another inspired much of the most important work on violence history over the last thirty years. Of course, like all theoretical systems, Elias's is certainly in need of constant testing, reconsideration and revision.

Still, for me, Elias's work has been important well beyond the academic battlefield. Rather than being something that I simply apply "in my work", his ideas have also helped shape the way I see the world more broadly. Even Elias's meditations on death -- in his book The Loneliness of the Dying -- helped me when I was coming to terms with the death of my mother some years ago.

On the long list of deceased intellectuals from the past with whom I'd like to have had the chance to have dinner, Norbert Elias is at the top. And I can't think of all that many other intellectual influences I had in my 20s that I still have in my 40s.  

Elias himself had a complicated, dramatic and in many ways rather sad life, and he remained very much an outsider in his field until the 1970s, when he was well into what for most scholars counts as retirement. Since then, the process of rediscovering his thought and applying it in new ways has gathered pace.

Looking back, I'm happy to have been involved -- in at least some small way -- with that.


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