Sociology of the Present: No Way Home

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Spider-Man: No Way Home yet but plan on doing so…do not pass go!

The beginning of Spider-Man: No Way Home, starts with a wish of erasure: that no one remembers that Tom Holland’s character is, well, Spiderman. Except for MJ (his girlfriend). And Aunt May. And maybe a bunch of other people too…it turns out, cutting off the past isn’t so easy to do. But by the of the film, that’s exactly what happens. Spiderman loses everything that tied him to his world: his friends, his family, his girlfriend, his home, even his beloved high-tech Spiderman suit made by Iron Man. In other words, he sheds his past and, with it, his future. The end of the film shows Spiderman finding an amnestic MJ–as he promised he would–but contrary to expectations, he fails to inform her of the past she’s forgotten. He just walks away. Too much risk in repeating the damage already done. With a homemade Spiderman suit, sewn from scratch, and a barren apartment, Spiderman has let go of all things extraneous to his super-hero ethic. Marie Kondo would be proud. To those who have complained that the Spiderman Triology glossed over the origin story of Tom Holland’s Spiderman: the entire trilogy, as the finale of the final film reveals, is Spiderman’s origin story, one that is grounded in transformative loss…a transformation that brings Spiderman right back to who he’s always been.

Upheaval–personal or collective, individual or structural–does strange things to us. Most certainly, it breaks us apart in ways that cannot be repaired. We lose things–things like people, relationships, habits, ways of thinking, ways of being, beliefs, moral codes and ideologies that are comfortable, secure and dear to us and that, we know on some level, can never be replaced. We might cling to the illusion of having our cake and eating it too, but if we are lucky to be brave enough, we find out very soon that that only gets us further into trouble. I write “if we are lucky” because the only thing worse than facing head-on what upheaval means is sticking our heads in the sand and refusing to read the writing on the wall.

While many wide-eyed students come to sociology because we want to “save the world” (in one way or another, and yes this is a gross paraphrase, and no I’m not comparing grad students to Spiderman…wait, yes I am!), we are not, on the whole, a discipline of superheroes. Though there are important exceptions, sociologists throughout the discipline’s history have tended to buttress the status quo for governments and corporations, sticking close to the terms of liberal consensus while desperately clinging to whatever remains of neoliberalized higher education. This is both an intellectual and professional failure: again, with important exceptions, we frame our research agendas in terms that are out of sync with the demands of the day (because that’s how we–personally, and as a discipline–have always done it), and we conduct our training programs as if a PhD in sociology meant–with just a little tweaking on the edges–the same thing it meant in 1950, 1970 or even 1990. Both of these are ultimately failures of the imagination–the sociological imagination.

Many sociologists are fond of citing the brilliant invitation of C. Wright Mills into sociological imagination. We introduce it to undergrads as if it’s a revelation for them (and news flash: it often isn’t), but we’ve largely forgotten what it means for us as a discipline. In other words, we’ve largely forgotten that Mills wasn’t asking us to join him on a one-off event to create a Be All, End All Sociology. He was instead hoping we’d embrace sociology as a dynamic mode of seeing that is as ever-changing as the world is around us. You don’t have a sociological imagination, you practice it–not unlike you practice mindfulness. And to practice a sociological imagination is not to recite the boring talking points of the qualitative/quantitative divide or the agency/structure divide, nor is it to throw up one’s hands at the thought of budget cuts or job market collapse. To practice a sociological imagination means retooling sociology to always be a sociology of the present–in other words, to be a mode of seeing, engaging, and being that is in productive tension with the world as it is and aims to–fundamentally–provide tools for people to better navigate that world.

It’s possible that you think sociology already does this. And we do, in some corners and at some scale. Sociology is already, in some ways, an incredible guiding light–but a world in crisis asks for more.

…As conspiracy theories soothe people groping for an explanation of the political and epistemological crises around them

…As climate crisis elevates the trauma of inequality to scales largely unimaginable just a few generations before us

…As government agents (police, border patrol, corrections officers and also social workers, teachers) and self-assured vigilantes adjudicate daily on the terms of the basic right to exist for people marginalized on the axes of race, immigration status, gender, sexuality and other lines of difference

…As desperate people desperately cling to the individualistic notion that “everyone just has to do the best they can” while the healthcare system collapses

…As the US economy teeters unnervingly between boom (consumer spending highs, stock market crests, etc) and bust (historic inflation, plummeting consumer confidence, rampant inequality) because the main way Americans know how to fix something is to buy something

…And, as established scholars train emergent thinkers in the barren arts of scarcity thinking and competitive individualism while the academic job market dries up and higher ed institutions double down on the neoliberal opportunity

…where is the sociological imagination?

To answer these questions, there’s one thing that bears mentioning: it’s a fact (and yes, I’ll call it out as a fact) that few people want to listen to us and our “sociological perspective” (doesn’t that sound wonky?). Although lots of sociologists have the privilege of contributing to public debates and conversations, our voices are largely crowded out by economists and criminologists who dominate how social problems are imagined, prioritized and ultimately solved. But in my view, clinging to that “fact” risks another instance of throwing in the towel and rescinding our own sociological imagination as an excuse to do nothing, rather than using it as a call to be a little braver in how we might reimagine sociology–and re-engage the sociological imagination as a sociology of the present.

This isn’t a call to action as much as it is a response to a nagging feeling I’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic: as a tenured professor of sociology who purports to study society, my sociological imagination has felt barren and enfeebled. Pointless. Useless. Don’t get me wrong, I have been working hard at pivoting my expertise to speak to this moment. I’ve written op-eds and provided news commentary; I’ve given public lectures and served on panels; I’m wrapping up a book on conservative politics and democracy that uses the gun sellers of 2020 as interlocutors into the present moment of political crisis. I’ve done “the things” I’m supposed to do. But none of that has felt quite right, or quite enough…maybe because upheaval isn’t about hustling more or doubling down on what you already know and already do. Instead, I have felt an increasingly jarring gap between what I am doing versus what I could be doing if I face some of the baggage (such as the refusal to engage with trauma) and let go of some of blinders (such as the scarcity mindset) that seem to come along with the discipline, with academia, with the world as we have taken it to be.

  • The blinder of scarcity: the academic enterprise runs on scarcity: budget cuts, journal rejections, limited job opportunities, teaching loads, etc. It’s become so much of a norm that I’m not even sure we could handle it–collectively–if we suddenly had abundance (of public funding, of open source publishing, of jobs, of time) rain down on us. We’ve accommodated scarcity so much that we’re practically co-dependent with it.
  • The baggage of refusing to engage trauma: because of the widespread scarcity mindset that breaks us , and because of the inherent break of self in any knowledge venture (hello, Icarus!), trauma of some form is all over the place in academia. Add to that, sociologists often seek out research topics that are replete with trauma and its social imprint on our selves, our relationships, our communities and our government: mass shootings, schools as hostile institutions, transphobia & homelessness, settler colonialism as an ongoing axis of inequality…the list goes on and on and on. And yet, we somehow conduct ourselves as if none of this really affects us–it’s “just a job,” after all. There’s nothing in the discipline that’s there to orients us to process primary or secondary trauma as part of the collateral of doing rich, relevant sociology work. There’s little to guide us in touching loss—both personally, and as a topic that is in dire need of sociological insight.

There’s a lot to say about what a “trauma-informed sociology” would look like, and how we might pursue an “abundance mindset” amid the ongoing neoliberalization of higher education. But for now, I don’t see how to cultivate a sociology of the present–that is, one that reinvigorates the sociological imagination as a practice that responds to, engages with, and is up to the task of the multilayered crises we are currently experiencing–without facing these two elements (and there are surely more…). And perhaps, like the Spiderman trilogy, what we thought was the real story was really just the origin story…perhaps the old sociology is dying, and the new is now ours to be born (sorry for butchering Gramsci). As I open up 2022, then, you could say that I’ve been having a Spiderman moment. And I hope sociology ends up having one, too.

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