Seeing it Whole: Staging Totality in Social Theory and Art

Toscano, Alberto. 2012. Seeing it Whole: Staging Totality in Social Theory and Art. The Sociological Review, 60(S1), pp. 64-83. ISSN 0038-0261 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Can, or should, social theory try to 'see it whole'? This article explores some of the aesthetic, political and conceptual issues that arise when we pose the problem of representing social totality today. It revisits two influential assertions of theory’s calling to generate orienting and totalising representations of capitalist society: C. Wright Mills’s plea for the 'sociological imagination' and Fredric Jameson appeal for an ‘aesthetic of cognitive mapping'. Mills and Jameson converge on the need to mediate personal experience with systemic constraints, knowledge with action, while underscoring the political urgency and epistemic difficulty of such a demand. The article contrasts these perspectives with the repudiation of a sociology of totality in the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour. It explores this contrast through the 'panorama' as a visual practice and a metaphor for theory itself. Against Latour’s proposal to reduce and relativise totality, it argues that sociology can learn from contemporary artistic efforts to map social and economic power as a whole. ‘Panoramic’ projects in the arts, such as Allan Sekula’s and Mark Lombardi’s, can allow us to reflect sociology’s own deficit of imagination, and on the persistence of the desire to ‘see it whole’ – especially when that whole is opaque, fragmented, contradictory. A live sociology can only gain from greater attention to the critical experiments with forms and methods of representation that are being carried out by artists preoccupied with the staging of social totality.

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June 2012Published

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14 May 2012 10:22

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29 Apr 2020 15:50

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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