Orhan Pamuk and the ‘as if’ device

I suspect I am not alone in having more ideas than I am able to follow up or write about. And I have arguably been part of a lucky baby-boomer cohort with more negotiating space than young academics have now. Anyway, too many seeds are planted, watered for a while, encouraged to grow and then abandoned. One recent idea – ‘familiarity bonds’ as protective of health in the last resort – entered the public domain recently as a ‘comment’ in the current issue of http://www.medicalsociologyonline.org. It fits in loosely with another project I am conducting with co-author Aklsel Tjora, an edited volume on ‘Café Society’.

The idea I introduce in this blog is withering for lack of TLC. Maybe a reader will water it, or even take over responsibility for its wellbeing. It occurred to me as I read Pamuk’s wonderful novel ‘The Museum of Innocence’, published in English in 2010. It concerns’ human’s ubiquitous use of ‘as if’ reasoning in the conduct of their everyday affairs.

Kemel Bey has lost his young lover Fusun to a mix of his own indecision, his pre-existing engagement, and the cultural norms of a Turkey on the cusp of modernity. Apparently abandoned, Fusun has married Feridan, with whom she is less than besotted, and lives with her parents. Kemel Bey and Fusun remain fiercely in love but are constrained by traditional conventions internalized less by Kemel Bey than by Fusun and her parents. When the former’s visits to Fusun’s family home become an addictive ritual it is apparent that, the benign but distracted Fusun apart, everybody present understands the bond between the erstwhile lovers but act ‘as if’ they do not.

The reflections Pamuk ascribes to Kemel Bey would do any symbolic interactionist proud: ‘The love I felt, like the dinner table at which we ate, was ringed with so many refinements and prohibitons that even if every fibre of me shouted that I was madly in love with Fusun, we would all be obliged nevertheless to act ‘as if’ there was absolute certainty that such a love could simply not exist. At times when this occurred to me I would understand that I was able to see Fusun not in spite of all these exquisite customs and proscriptions, but because of them’.

This is Goffman territory, and Pamuk is no less shrewd. To oil dealings with others, from family and friends, casual acquaintances and employers to business or political rivals, people learn to react to most of what is said to them ‘as if’ it is appropriate, sensible and jejune. Smooth social interaction, as Pamuk observes, requires as much. To trespass directly on Goffman’s domain, the ‘as if’ convention is a necessary condition for fruitful or effective interaction? In this brief blog it is suggested that this practical assent to the ‘as if’ rule is not just or only a prerequisite for meaningful interaction but also a device that favours interaction in line with the status quo. In other words it tends to carry ideological baggage: it is a micro-device that requires macro-sociological analysis to expose for what it is.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Habermas’ critical theory, his distinction between ‘strategic’ and ‘communicative’ action is relevant here. The former denotes actions oriented to outcome or results, the latter to actions oriented to understanding and consensus. When people chat in the local launderette, pub or at their bingo or book clubs, they assume they are engaged first and foremost in communicative action. But are they? Ok, maybe they may have a strategic item or two on their agendas: to talk someone into collecting the ticket monies at the next village concert for example. Habermas analyses this as a form of distorted communication. But the ‘as if’ device brings to mind an altogether more subtle form of distorted communication, Habermas’ systematically distorted communication.

Systematically distorted communication occurs when nobody attending a gathering intends to manipulate others. Rather, manipulation occurs behind everyone’s backs. So here’s a scenario. A gathering of regulars is taking place at the local pub. Those present seem a familiar and heterogeneous enough group, and most seem disengaged from politics in their own or the global village. The ‘as if’ rule is being applied. It is understood that certain topics are to be avoided or approached only briefly and with immense circumspection, especially in fields like politics, religion and so on. ‘Stances’ mitigate against sociability. Any persistent offender or social deviant is likely to be quietly put down or excluded from future get-togethers.

In the absence of second-order sociological constructs it may not be apparent that: (a) a ‘stance’ tends only to be recognised as such if it offends against prevailing – local, area, regional, national or transnational – orthodoxies, be they beliefs, attitudes or the generalised cultural norms in which these are embedded; and (b) the offence of the unsociable is to hold a minority position. To define and treat an individual as unsociable, for a de facto refusal to apply the ‘as if’ rule, is in effect to underline, ratify and police the political, religious status quo. Nobody present needs or is likely to be aware of this.

This account is obviously tentative and provisional. I wonder, however, whether it is capable of useful expansion across a range of other interactional fields, like encounters between doctors and patients, head teachers and their staff, politicians and policy advisers. Is there a sense in which what seem like basic building blocks of normal(ised) social intercourse double up as legitimating devices for extant hierarchies and structures of power? It certainly calls to mind a string of feminist arguments developed as part of the second-wave. Maybe it’s old hat? I can take it.


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