A Sociological Imagination

In the context of the apparent closure of neoliberalism, I can think of no more profoundly humanist statement than “no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention” (Williams 1978: 125). Raymond Williams’s comment, which he thought important enough to render in italics, is a powerful reminder to those of us who analyze culture that we must both attempt to interpret the present, with all the hazards that entails, and – even more precariously – anticipate the ways in which the future may yet answer back to it. This small essay is written in the spirit of that important goal. I will first give one narrative of the cultural dominant of intellectual life in the twentieth-century United States, and then offer some thoughts on alternatives that may yet emerge, especially in the wake of the financial disaster of 2008. Because I am interested in the cultural dominant, I will take examples not only from academic intellectuals, but also from popular literature, the arts, and ultimately, from experimental social movements.I will therefore necessarily be skimming over the surface of a great deal of complexity, but my hope is that my map will open up interesting places for others to explore. In particular, I am interested in tracing the fate of the “sociological imagination,” which, as C. Wright Mills wrote a half century ago, “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals” (1959: 5). It seems to me this sociological imagination was accessible in the early twentieth-century United States, and continues to be useful, if not crucial, in a moment like ours.

Read on.