Back to top

Boyne's Subject, Society, Culture


Subject, Society, Culture. 2001

Boyne, Roy. London: Sage Publications. 179 p., $22.95, softcover. ISBN: 0803983506.

In all its guises, a reconciliation of the transcendent and the particular, the universal and the relative, the macro and the micro, has been the goal of many social philosophers within the modern era. The notion of a dialectical synthesis between the individual and the other(s), irrespective of the differences between the Hegelian and Marxian approaches, still provides an interesting and important intellectual framework. While the empirical applicability and feasibility of many dialectical approaches to the study of culture remain questionable, the use of a dialectical optic provides a means of recognizing and taking account of the interrelationship between presumed binary opposites. Roy Boyne's Subject, Society, and Culture is an ambitious attempt to include a third party into the dualisms that presuppose dialectical thinking and that have dominated Western philosophy and sociology. Boyne reproaches mainstream sociology's dissolution or denial of the autonomous subject. By moving outside of the confines of sociological analysis, incorporating ideas from contemporary continental philosophy, art history, literary criticism, and feminism, he attempts to locate a third player beyond the social structure and the individual, namely the witness, that can act as an independent entity existing outside and prior to the social.

Sociology's problem of the individual, that is, how to differentiate the individual from society in order to avoid the assumption that the individual is a mere product of context or agent of social forces, is due, in part, to the predominance of the neo-Durkheimian structural-functionalists in the middle decades of the 20th century. Talcott Parsons, the leading theorist of structural-functionalism, and his followers have often been accused of purporting an "oversocialized" view of individuals. While Boyne attacks the neo-Durkheimian legacy in elements of Pierre Bourdieu's sociology, Boyne never aims his critique at Parsons. This omission is both unfortunate and damaging to his overall argument. If he were to address Parsons, and the like, he would have a better target for his criticisms than merely sociology in toto or the two sociologists that he opts to "deconstruct," Pierre Bourdieu and Bruno Latour. While the works of both Bourdieu and Latour have been influential and popular, they are still somewhat on the fringe of mainstream sociology and, therefore, are poor choices as the paradigmatic theorists of sociology's denial of the subject. In fact, Bourdieu and Latour have each respectively made considerable contributions to the linkage of macro-structures and micro-practices, and have more in common with one another than Boyne is willing to admit.

Besides Boyne's lack of a proper target for his critiques, the most glaring omission is of those sociologists who might be helpful for supporting his main arguments. Where are the "micro" theorists (e.g., symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists)? While Boyne does briefly comment on Harvey Sacks and Harold Garfinkel in the same breath, there is no discussion of Georg Simmel, George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer, or Erving Goffman. Without the inclusion of these theorists who specifically deal with ideas of the "self" and problems of identity, Boyne's idea of sociology remains a mere "straw man," flimsy and hollow. Not that his analyses are off the mark, and, for that matter, they are quite informative and thorough, but Boyne's overall argument loses strength and rigor without properly attending to his object/subject of analysis: the sociological abandonment of subjectivity.

Boyne's ideas concerning both the role and the ontology of the "witness" are intriguing, but unfortunately remain too amorphous. While his attempt to provide evidence to the autonomous witness, untainted by the social, by interpreting the works of a few visual artists (along with others' commentaries on these artists) is highly commendable, he never makes the jump back to sociology, or cultural studies, in order to tell us how we can use the concept of the witness in studies of culture.

While this review has highlighted the flaws of Subject, Society, and Culture, it is not without its positive aspects. Boyne's attempt to move beyond sociology to find a more appropriate conception of the self and subjectivity is instructive and important. His discussions of influential and obscure contemporary artists such as Barnett Newman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and David Cronenberg are poignant renderings of the idea of the self. With further development, the concept of the witness, which has an important history in regard to art and law, may become more fruitful for cultural analyses. The problems with this work center around Boyne's neglect of a proper reconstruction of the sociological subject. This seems to be a necessary task before he engages in a mere deconstructive exercise. What he needs is a few more introductory chapters and a solid conclusion that would attempt to provide a corrective to the sociological theories that he denounces.

Michael Ian Borer