ON THE SOCIOLOGICAL UTILITY OF ESSAYS ON POWER AND TRUTH
Author: Dimitar Vatsov.
Title: Essays on Power and Truth. Sofia: New Bulgarian University, 229 pp.2009.
Dimitar Vatsov’s book is so provocative that it allows one to speak as much of it as through it. This is what I shall try to do now, where in a number of cases in speaking ‘of’ I will inevitably be also speaking ‘through’ it. I will begin, however, by speaking ‘around’ it.
In his retrospection on Essays on Power and Truth, the author explains that he has collected in one book separate essays written after his last book, Freedom and Recognition. The Interactive Sources of Identity (2006; in Bulgarian). The obvious idea is to create, through the mutual reflection of those essays, new contexts and to give substance to that which is not articulated in each one of them. And this no doubt happens, as one can see from the ‘Summary’ where some of the key conclusions arising at the boundaries of the essays are formulated. At the same time, as a reader I am not left with the feeling that those are loosely connected parts that once were autonomous. This is probably due above all to the author’s ability to invariably structure his thought in a clear way, reaffirming (as he puts it) through his last interpretation what was said before. The unity of the book comes, in addition, from the systemic effort to consistently test the basic thesis regarding the constitutive role of ‘performatives we perform now’ at the ‘high’ levels of political theory and of the theories of domination in order to demonstrate how exhausted sociopolitical debates can be animated. In this sense, the book feels to me less as panels connected post factum than as an energy centre from which different concentric circles radiate and to which they return. In this review I will focus on the energizing core of the book and, more specifically, on one of its aspects.
Dimitar Vatsov localizes his interest along ‘the boundary between political philosophy and philosophy of language’, that is, he defines his pursuits as ‘philosophical’. I, however, will try to show that Essays on Power and Truth also raises fundamental sociological questions. In this I am driven not by ‘departmental patriotism’ but by a desire to demonstrate a fact that may be surprising to some – namely, that a vision which defines itself as ‘philosophical’ may be sociologically more useful than many of the so-called ‘grand’ sociological theories. For this book does not merely deal with power and language as constitutive for the establishment and reproduction of social ties but does so in a radical and uncompromising way.
Power and domination are traditional sociological concerns. In Vatsov’s book, however, the focus is not on the institutionalized forms of power, and not even on micro-power objectifications, but on power as ‘an immediate evaluative force’ which, precisely as such, unavoidably produces sociality. It is precisely the level of competing performative acts in immediate encounters (mutual contestation, ignoring, recognition) that is crucial for understanding the secondarily sedimented crystallizations of sociality (power), and not vice versa. The analysis of course can also take the opposite approach, starting from the institutionalized forms of power, but it would be sociologically relevant only if it constantly takes into account the dependence of the different objectifications upon ‘the live interplay of actual performatives’.
Although I am oversimplifying the author’s thesis, the issue at stake is very serious. That is because by virtue of a persistent sociological stereotype, the vital element of the social fabric, social action, is, as a rule, grasped through its inert forms, through the effects of the acting, through its externalizations, regardless of how ‘macro-’ or ‘micro-level’ the relevant perspective is. Even Alfred Schutz’s resolute attempt to revise Weber’s concept of the meaning of social action through a careful analysis of the distinction between act and acting ultimately led to the binding of acting as a process to the project of action that lends unity and meaning to the acting itself. In other words, sociological thought, even in some of its most radical variants, takes as its point of departure some petrified form of sociality which predetermines and structures the live social actions/interactions of the actors.
Viewed from this perspective, it would turn out that the unfolding ‘decisionism of actual performatives’ is, at best, a field of ‘pre-sociality’ that would be sociologically relevant (and understandable) only if it is thought of as tending towards a stable form of sociality. If that is so, I would say that, paradoxical as it may seem, the true element of sociology is the ‘pre-social’. Of course, this only seems paradoxical: as Dimitar Vatsov convincingly shows, the level at which sociality is produced and stabilized is in fact one and the same; the codifications of power/sociality themselves (or, in his words, ‘macro-codifications’) are ‘constantly revised and revaluated at the micro-level of actual performances’.
In fact, Dimitar Vatsov also directly demonstrates his sociological interest through his extremely interesting interpretation of Weberian charisma through the already outlined idea of power as an actual performative force. I want to dwell briefly on this last point as it clearly demonstrates the author’s taste for an heuristic reading of long-since mythologized concepts from the so-called sociological classics. Dimitar Vatsov revises Weber’s idea, eliminating the transcendental guarantor, and views charisma as being characteristic of ‘every actual power that receives actual recognition of its superiority’ (p. 65). We may speak of a sort of everyday being of charisma that differs from Weber’s ‘routinization’, the key idea being that the legitimation of power takes place at the level of its actual affirmation, and not as a process that is external to power practices. I believe this is how we should interpret Vatsov’s insistence that charisma is ‘an elementary form of codification of power in social interactions’. I find this to be a very important and productive move which is supported also by a discernible tendency in the thought of Weber himself. Thus, for example, in ‘Basic Sociological Terms’ Weber notes that an ‘order which is adhered to from motives of pure expediency’ or that is ‘upheld on a purely customary basis’ (in other words, an externally secured order) is ‘much less stable than an order which enjoys the prestige of being considered binding, or, as it may be expressed, of “legitimacy”.’ In other words, social order is structured in principle at the ‘basic level’, and not in reference to some external objectification. Of course, it will be interesting to study empirically the interplay of ‘externalizations’ of what is codified in interactions (and of reappropriation of externalized elements), but this interplay cannot be understood unless legitimation is conceived of as an element of the process of affirmation/recognition-nonrecognition/counter-affirmation of the basic level in question.
I will note in passing that contrary to what the author claims, precisely the idea of ‘genuine’ charisma is relevant to such an interpretation. That is because, in my view, the differentia specifica of genuine charisma is not that it is transcendentally guaranteed (as Weber no doubt presupposes) but that – unlike, for example, office charisma – it is in principle irreducible to conceptual normalization and, hence, to power structures that are subject to formal regulation. Such a conclusion can be drawn, for example, from Weber’s distinction between the ‘charismatic character of the membership in the community’ in the case of Puritan sects and ‘office’ in the officially established Church. Weber would hardly contest the proposition that this character of membership in Puritan sects turns them into charismatic communities proper. It is precisely in its capacity as genuine, that is, ‘hostile’ to (crystallized) rules and precedents, that charisma seems foreign to the specific everyday (in the Weberian sense) forms of domination but is a moment immanent to the everyday unfolding in the sense which Dimitar Vatsov seems to have in mind.
I will also look at a problem examined above all in the second part of the book, which complements the notion of the sociological potential of Essays on Power and Truth. Both in ‘The Sceptical Paradox in Wittgenstein’ and in ‘The Temporal Turn in the Concept of Truth’, Dimitar Vatsov resolutely addresses the question of the so-called ‘positivity of actual interpretation’ which, in its affirmativeness, does not distinguish between what is said and what is meant. Every enquiry about ‘what is meant’ is equivalent to de-actualization of the relevant utterance from the position of a new utterance that calls into question the previous one but, in its capacity as another actual affirmation, it again does not distinguish between what is said and what is meant. The act of validation is a temporal turn vis-à-vis a former now-affirmation from the perspective of the last now-affirmation, or as Vatsov puts it, it involves rewriting anew ‘the meaning of all utterances whose validity is referred to’ (p. 147). In the final parts of both essays the author rightly notes the need to develop this idea further through ‘the elaboration of an interactive concept of actuality’. The studies of Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks are unrivalled in this respect. I will only note that in his ethnomethodological experiments Garfinkel shows how the possibility for immediate validation of questionable parts of an everyday conversation (without taking a ‘meta-position’) is offered by the matter of interaction itself, by the temporal unfolding of the sequences in it. The questionable parts are not elucidated through a direct question (‘splitting’ the actual utterance into what is said and what is meant) but, for example, by waiting for the unclear element to be ‘later’ clarified in the course of the conversation itself. This, on the other hand, is to say that something that has appeared later must be immediately identified as elucidating that which was questionable earlier (the so-called reflexivity of everyday interaction). A given utterance can also be questioned through the very modalities of speaking: ironically, sarcastically, didactically in the course of the conversation itself. In other words, the very modalities of speaking are methods for practical production of truth.
By these brief comments I meant to say one simple thing. Essays on Power and Truth is a dangerous book. It is dangerous for every self-comforting, static philosophical or social-science thinking. At the same time, therein lies the lesson and hope that Dimitar Vatsov brings us. That is because by blowing up every illegitimate apriorism, he brilliantly shows not only that philosophy and sociology can come together but also how they can do so, according each other the mutually due high recognition.
 See M. Weber. Basic Sociological Terms. In: M. Weber. Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretative Sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1978, p. 31.
Dimitar Vatsov – Essays on Power and Truth