an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, November 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




Examining Reflexivity: An interview with Barry Sandywell


Barry Sandywell and David Beer







Formulating knowledge as a discursive-social achievement already entails a bracketing and potential critique of all previous theories of knowledge which abstract from or repress the fact that the media of cognition and theorizing lies in the public domain of semio-praxis (and more specifically the material and intersubjective spheres of available language-games and the accepted local rules governing such discursive formations). It follows that all approaches to theory (and practice) that separate theorizing from its grounds in everyday semio-praxis or fail to acknowledge that discourse is both the resource and topic of inquiry are themselves appropriate candidates for reflexive interrogation and critique. (Sandywell, 1979: 4)



DB       Reflexivity appears to be a central theme in your work. Why do you consider the development of reflexivity to be of such importance?


BS       Perhaps I can make two general initial responses. First, the word ‘reflexivity' should be treated with great care as a complex term that enfolds a wide and very heterogeneous range of experiences, approaches and practices of thinking. Expressed somewhat crudely it refers to the self-referential or ‘iterative’ aspects of any kind of thinking. This might be illustrated by the idea that all our expressions, being linguistically and socially mediated, refer back to the life of society implicit in speech and writing. Thus in making even the most innocent utterance or statement we are not only trying to communicate some ‘content' or substantive point, but invariably also displaying the form or structure of the utterance - inviting the other to enter into the speech act and, occasionally, form of life that legitimates and warrants this particular mode of speech and communication. To reduce reflexivity to the self-referential properties of speech or communication would still be inadequate. It would, for example, lead us away from the materiality and contextual horizons of reflexive practices. The field of reflexive experience, however, should not be approached as a fixed continent of objects, but more like a realm of possibilities to be explored and reclaimed. The notion of ‘iteration’ cannot be confined to mathematical algorithms, computational machines, or meta-language operations. In fact it is more useful to understand ‘reflexivity’ as a reminder of our material involvement within a larger whole, of being connected to larger constellations of experience, being involved with others and exemplifying that involvement in the course and conduct of our own practices.


Consider the banal existential claim that we are ‘condemned to meaning', that in our dealings with the world and others we cannot not mean. In fact this banality contains a very important clue to reflexivity: that in striving to make sense of things we are always making sense of others (and other experiences) and also making sense for others in local contexts (this also implies the historicist claim that our versions of the real and what passes for reality have a normative, ethical, and political import). If we take this further, we begin to move beyond narrowly conceived and ‘epistemic' concepts of reflexivity (reflexivity as a type of formal reflection upon our methodological and epistemological assumptions) and move toward more dialogical, ontological, and axiological conceptions of reflection as possibilities of situated dialogue within the full concreteness of social existence. At some point in this problematization the very language of ‘reflection' and ‘self-reflection' has to be questioned - as itself indebted to unexplicated traditions and practices and perhaps to a very particular understanding of knowledge and inquiry dominated by subject-object metaphors or what I have called ‘specular' images of inquiry (Sandywell, 1999). The rather rigid understanding of reflexivity as self-monitoring or self-reflection is perhaps only admissable as an image that will get us started in thinking about knowledge as embedded and embodied in forms of life and ethicopolitical arrangements (as well as in real material and institutional organizations), but we need a much more radical and ‘incarnate' view of thought and inquiry that opens up the implicit ‘ethos' (and therewith ethical and political relations) that are at issue in different forms of thinking, research and inquiry. It is this ‘axiological' turn, this movement toward questions of value and transvaluation, that has been exercising me for a number of years now - particularly with the implicit models of communality and politics presupposed by different images of knowledge, inquiry and thought and, taking a more critical stance, with how we might critique these thought-paradigms and formulate more adequate models of social inquiry. In this context I have been recently working on the difference between what I call ‘major ethics' dominated by stipulative and prescriptive models of communality, politics and ethical belonging and what I have come to call ‘minor ethics' as the hardly noticed, life-world matrix of embodied values and social relations implicit in everyday forms of sociality - I am thinking here of the values of friendship, tactfulness, concern, compassion, and the like as these are presupposed by every form of human life - and not merely in the forms of life we call scientific inquiry, research, or philosophy.


Second, and this is related to the first point, the phenomenon of reflexivity and self-reflection turns out to have a complex history in Western European culture. And, furthermore, this history is a rich source of different conceptions of self, sociality and ethicopolitical life as these have been imagined and lived by different groups and communities. We have to imagine the phenomena of reflexivity as a constellation of rhetorics, practices and institutions that open up human possibilities. These ‘rhetorics of reflection’ and ‘techniques of reflection’ (and their presupposed politics) need to be made the topic of interdisciplinary studies in the ‘genealogy' of societies, cultures, and whole civilizations. At all costs we must avoid reducing the ‘autonomy’ of reflexive practices - I think for example, of the rich institutional life of rhetoric, art, and literature here - to some kind of reflex social causes or ideological determination. Reductionism in all shapes and forms is at base a refusal to engage in reflexive thinking. Some of my earlier writings have been devoted to investigations of the genesis of different rhetorics and discourses of reflection as these have been actualized in earlier phases of Western thought and culture. I would refer you to the three volumes, collected under the generic heading of Logological Investigations (Sandywell1996a, 1996b, & 1996c), that attempt to carry out this kind of ‘archaeology' of reflexive experience.


DB       Does the development of reflexivity in sociology offer any particular routes for the future development of the discipline?


BS       I have always seen sociology as a critical theory of society. If sociology is to fulfil its promise and remain true to its original motivation as a critical ‘science of the social’ carried out with an explicit consciousness of its own historical origins and social, political and cultural ‘situation’ then there can be no genuine alternative to a reflexive sociology. In a sense the word ‘reflexivity’ is also a synonym for ‘critical’ or ‘self-critical’ discourse. Sociology has to be reflexive or not exist at all. If there is such a thing as ‘the sociological imagination’ it must be located in the reflexive potential of sociological praxis. Of course, the history of both classical and contemporary social theory is littered with unreflexive paradigms that completely misunderstand the demands placed upon the idea of sociology as a critical discourse of the social that must be constructed in social terms (here the legacy of positivism and ‘natural science’ models of knowledge still function to deform the possibilities of sociological research and theorizing). Thus while I accept that positivistic, empiricist and other unreflexive models of inquiry are now wholly discredited, it still remains uncertain as to whether we will see a flourishing of alternative reflexive frameworks. To accomplish this practically the current sociological establishment would literally have to countenance a re-education of their most basic ways of thinking and discourses. To some extent this has been a process that contemporary sociology has been forced to undertake in recognizing the claims of more radical accounts of human experience and social life, stemming from what is misleadingly called ‘continental philosophy’ (and, it should be said, from recent developments within the sciences themselves - here I am thinking of the paradigm shift toward models of complexity and new ways of conteptualizing systems and change in non-linear, dynamic, and non-determinist concepts). Thus while the ‘theory wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s have faded into memory, the aftermath for sociology is essentially one of catching up and acquiring some of the basic techniques and ‘methodologies’ associated with phenomenology, hermeneutics, Critical theory, structuralism and poststructuralism, complexity theory, and so on. The field of theoretical sociology risks stagnation if this learning process is shortcircuited by false oppositions and dichotomies - one of the most pervasive being the idea of a chasm that separates the modernist project of the classics - typically identified with the triune ‘founding fathers’ Marx, Weber and Durkheim - and the apparent disintegration of this project at the hands of so-called postmodernists. One effect of this situation upon creative theorizing and teaching is the safe ‘opt-out’ of further uncritical thinking, avoiding the ‘labour of the negative’, the long-march through some of the major dialogues and philosophical conversations of late modernity. We are also subject to conceptual inertia and the dead-weight of earlier ‘socialization’ practices - these act as blinkers that block the possibilities of new forms of thinking and theorizing. Sadly this has been the case with the challenge posed by heterodox forms of ‘postmodern’ thought. However, if sociology can liberate itself from both its positivistic past and the new ‘dualisms’ it has itself constructed in lieu of more radical rethinking and open itself to a genuine encounter with what is ‘other’ in its own tradition and in alternative theoretical traditions there is still a chance for major innovations in speculative sociological thought.


DB       The work of Walter Benjamin seems to have had a particularly profound influence on your work. Would you say that he has been the most influential figure with regard to your studies in reflexivity? Is your position a development of his own explorations of critique and reflexive historicity?


BS       Benjamin is certainly one influence. But by no means the most important or crucial in gaining access to the range and depth of the problematic of reflexivity in modern social thought and philosophy. Benjamin, as you know, is usually regarded as a cultural critic, a figure associated with, if not a member of, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Beyond such allegiances, however, he is the source of a very different conception of critical analysis, one that foregoes all systems and dogmatic theorizing in order to attend to the concrete constellations of phenomena themselves in their dense ‘materiality’. In this attitude he has affinities with Nietzsche's critique of system building and Husserl's original phenomenological project to ‘return to the things themselves' (Zu den Sachen selbst) by way of various kinds of bracketing technique that attempt to exclude naturalistic and dogmatic frames that obstruct our insight into phenomena and thereby into the occluded richness of concrete, historical experience. Benjamin's image of constellation is also a device, or perhaps a strategy, for suspending unreflexive theorizing with regard to historical and cultural phenomena, or as I would phrase this, a reflexive technique designed to return research to the complexities of the concrete. In this respect he is also the source of ‘negative dialectics' and, as you know, had a major influence upon Theodor Adorno. Adorno's lifelong attack upon what he called ‘identity-thinking' is one product of this respect for the incomplete, unfinished, open-character of events and processes. The advantage of this strategy is also its main danger. In an exemplary work like the Arcades Project (2002), Benjamin tries to recover the genesis and dialectics of mid-nineteenth century capitalism and urban experience by recomposing its movements and tendencies from cultural fragments and quotidian detritus. The result is a massive work of montage and bricollage that remains, and perhaps had to remain, unfinished. The danger here, however, is that we lose the wider context, the ‘movements' and long-term structural ‘tendencies' in the blizzard of fragments, citations, and quotations. In sum, we fail to see the wood for the trees. The anti-systemic perspective itself then becomes a dogmatic commitment, a criticism that Habermas and other second generation Frankfurt theorists have levelled against both Benjamin and Adorno.


To return to my own investigations of Western modes of thought and systems of reflection: I also wanted to reconstruct practices and institutions of reflection from the fragments and scattered remains of powerful traditions - inevitably having to return to the ancient Greeks to understand some of the deeper motivations of modernity; I attempted to ‘bracket' dominant interpretations of this evidence (the ‘Greek miracle', Greek philosophy as a discovery without context, explanation or determination, and so on), but I also wanted to contextualize these forms of reflexivity more systematically in explicitly social, political and cultural terms. For the purposes of this project, the constellation methodology of Benjamin could only provide a starting point. We need a much more cultural, genetic or genealogical hermeneutic of whole forms of life and the place of thought and reflection in those forms of life (a theme I try to work out methodologically in the final chapter of the first volume of Logological Investigations (1996a)).


DB       In 'Monsters in Cyberspace' you suggest that 'we need a more concrete, historically embedded phenomenology of the Internet (and other forms of computer-mediated technology) as contested cultural formations restructuring the practices of everyday life.' (Sandywell, 2006). This, you point out, can offer a direction that overcomes the absence of 'important interactional phenomena' from dystopian and utopian visions of the Internet. Do you see this as creating some form of third-way between utopian and dystopian visions, or is that a type of structural image that you would wish to avoid? Are utopia and dystopian visions to be abandoned as phantasmagoria in order for us to re-carve this 'concrete' and 'historically embedded phenomenology'?


BS       This is a very complex (and complicated) question (or series of questions) that deserves a much more detailed response than I can offer here. As a beginning I might say something about the utopian moment in social thought and, more particularly, in recent accounts of the Information Revolution and Cyberspace. In general I should say that I am temperamentally opposed to dichotomic thinking or schematizations of experience that break problems into ‘either/or’ terms. A lot of what I have written in the past was designed to deconstruct such polarities (subject/object, empirical/theoretical, nature/culture, and so forth). In relation to a development such as the Internet it was perhaps inevitable that social theory should be either ‘for’ or ‘against’ this new social technology - either the Internet and World Wide Web is a revolutionary, democratizing force that would generalize enlightenment values and political practices on a global scale, or it would extend the hegemony of global economic and political power based upon multinational corporations and the pax Americana.  Both of these models are deficient and unsupportable as either historical or critical appraisals of the impact of the new electronic media and digitalization processes in contemporary life. More consequentially, both paradigms occlude the complex dialectic of freedom and regulation that have occurred in the actual uses and appropriation of such technologies. Looking back at earlier information technologies it is clear that issues of long-term social and cultural ‘impact’ are difficult to predict, but they are wholly unintelligible when viewed in linear, causal, or deterministic terms. This kind of thinking - often called technological determinism - is another example of unreflexive discourse. Thinking that technology does this and that, changes human beings, shapes practices and institutions, and so on is not without its problems. It typically covers up the ‘openness’ and contingency of historical situations and the ways in which different individuals, groups and communities actually use and incorporate new techniques and technologies in their everyday lives. This is also a consequence of extremely restricted models of historical effectivity and concrete dialectical thinking when trying to analyze social change. Needless to say the ‘utopian’ dimensions of social life also tend to get frozen out of these schemas. To cut a long story short, my sense of non-synchronic historicity, historical openness, and material life suggests that what is needed here is a much more complex understandings of sociohistorical life, of the kind that is perhaps opened out by a suitably reconstructed and wide-ranging hermeneutic phenomenology of everyday life. If we can still use the term ‘phenomenology’ it would have to be radically transformed in the direction of explicit reflexive awareness. In fact the internal critique of phenomenology with its Cartesian commitment to intuitive self-evidence would have to go, and a greater awareness of the rhetorical and linguistic ‘constitution’ of ‘the phenomena’ would have to be established. This is the path from phenomenology to logology, from an obsession with immediacy and immanence, to an understanding of the formative power of the word and logos.


In recent papers (for example ‘E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel. On the Democratizing and De-democratizing Logics of the Internet, or, Towards a Critique of the New Technological Fetishism’ (2002),  ‘Memories of Nature in Bakhtin and Benjamin’ (1999), ‘Metacritique of Information’ (2003), ‘The Myth of Everyday Life: Toward a Heterology of the Ordinary’ (2004a), and ‘Monsters in Cyberspace: Cyberphobia and Cultural Panic in the Information Age’ (2006)) I have indicated some of the directions in which we might pursue such a ‘historically embedded phenomenology’. I am currently working upon the development of a much more systematic and reflexively grounded social theory of information technologies.


DB       Often the construction of typologies, or maps (of fields), appears as a theme in your work. Do you see the construction and analysis of theoretical positions and technological discourse as playing an important part in the development of a concrete foundation for reflexive sociology?


BS       In looking back at some of my earlier work (and earlier teaching practices) you will see that I am certainly not opposed to the development of simplifying heuristics (or, as I have in the past described this kind of thinking, as ‘diagrammatics’ or strategic thinking). These kinds of typologies are the social science equivalent of idealized narratives or fables (I recall that Weber used the term ‘utopia’ in describing his own heuristic use of ideal-types). In principle I have no objection to such diagrammatic formulations although I would distrust them where they move from heuristic supports of thinking to the substance of thought. Conceptual maps should never be confused with the concrete places and spaces of social life. Another opportunity for reflexivity, of course, is the investigation of the way in which many forms of theory and theoretical positions (including discourses on technology, social change, political theory, and the like) incorporate such models in the construction and prosecution of their terminologies and discourses. This would form an important topic for a logological theory of theory construction exploring the different kinds of preferences research programmes display in their preferred thought schemas, models, ideal types, rhetorical schemas, and the like. It may well be that such visual aids to research and teaching will receive a new lease of life with the impact of visual studies and visual media as these are currently restructuring the social sciences.  The choice of underlying conceptual schemas and figurative images - leading metaphors, if you will - is often fundamentally important in understanding the implicit self-image of inquiry and self-conception of the social presupposed by research. Here I would encourage my students to take the theme of ‘map making’ seriously as both a metaphor for a certain kind of knowledge and a useful way of thinking about the way human beings as everyday agents go about making sense of reality at the level of lifeworld praxis. As always the concrete realms of praxis operate as the inescapable horizon for all other investigative practices and cultures of inquiry.


DB       The study of everyday life lends itself well to the construction of a reflexive sociology. However, for you this level of reflexivity appears to be insufficient (Sandywell, 2004a & 2004b). You suggest that we should push these reflexive boundaries even further by removing the conceptual constraints of the discourse - or more accurately, rhetoric - of everyday life. How far can these barriers be moved? Can we both construct concrete and historically embedded phenomenologies of technology in everyday praxis while simultaneously attempting to reflexively abandon the everyday? This appears to be a case of both rigidity (in the construction of a concrete phenomenology and sets of typologies) and fluidity (in the constant questioning of discourse and conceptual frameworks), is this mobility at the centre of your studies in reflexivity?


BS       Again there are a number of difficult questions enfolded here. I think the theme of ‘everyday praxis’ and its specific range of immanent reflexivities is the point of intersection of a number of closely related issues. As I noted above, ‘reflexivity’ has many different senses and this polysemy is certainly not unique to professional discourse. It can be found in the complex layers of reflexivity at work in everyday life practices, not to mention the self-problematizing practices of art, literature and aesthetic reflection. We have only recently acquired a grammar that is sufficiently subtle and complex to handle some of the delicate issues raised by the communicative constitution of everyday interaction and lifeworld relationships (here I would be happy to draw upon recent rhetorical theory, discourse analysis, conversation analysis, text theory, and other theoretical languages as evidence of the kind of complexity we are dealing with). The resurgence of interest in the reflexive possibilities of art and aesthetics as concrete languages of experience - here I am thinking of literary and artistic self-problematizing techniques - would be another important example. Another issue is the task of instituting dialogues with everyday praxis without reifying ‘the everyday’ as if it was a substantial ‘domain’ or ‘region’ of society, a kind of irreducible ‘layer’ upon which other social systems and macro-phenomena were to be constructed. Like the Marxist ‘map’ of base and superstructure, this is one of the most misleading images in the whole canon of soclological thought. This takes us to a third theme, everydayness is more like an inescapable medium or ‘dimension’ of sociality, something that is concretely negotiated and appropriated in and as the organisational practices of social life. This is why I stress the dangers of replacing a discredited ontology or metaphysics of the social by a more insidious ‘metaphysics of the everyday’ (Sandywell, 2004a). What we have to be open to in our post-metaphysical age is a radically material understanding of the dialectics of concrete experience that we struggle to recover and construct through the resources of reflexive discourse.


DB       In 'Beyond Metaphysics and Nihilism' you are concerned with mapping out the direction of a reflexive sociology (Sandywell, 2004b: 486). You use reflexive sociology to offer a way forward that avoids the pitfalls of metaphysical and postmodern forms of sociology. It appears that this direction requires the sociologist to rethink embedded or reified theoretical understandings and concepts, to accept neither universal/transcendental nor nihilistic answers, to demonstrate awareness of context and position (of the self and the other), and finally to reconstitute the details of not only the object of study but also the theory surrounding (or constructing) the object of study. This requires the sociologist to carefully reflect upon the intricate and disjointed details of everyday life. Or as you put it, 'on the other side of metaphysics and nihilism we need to return to the richness and complexity of the ordinary.' (Sandywell, 2004b: 490). I hope that this is an acceptably over-simplified summary of your position and approach. When we return to the richness and complexity of the ordinary should we also keep sociological theory in view? Can sociology be a part of the ordinary, and therefore can we study its richness and complexity?


BS       I notice that the mapping image re-occurs again! Where you use ‘map’ I would tend to use ‘rhetoric’ or ‘language’. Every map, from a logological perspective, is in reality a preferred way of construing or prefiguring experience. We certainly need  ‘maps’ to orient ourselves in the strange labyrinths opened by a reflexive theory of everyday life. I am thinking here of the fact that ‘everyday life’ is a kind of zombie-concept or ‘dummy variable’ with as many variants as there are ‘theories of everyday life’. I am more interested in the diverse ways and means by which agents embedded in their everday lives go about constructing heuristics and pragmatic performances that actively constitute ‘fields’ and ‘worlds’ of meaningful possibilities. ‘Everydayness’ is to some extent made up by actors in the course of their activities. This is also the sense in which I would expand the concept of praxis within critical theory and speak about reflexive semio-praxis, indicating by this term, the heterogeneous forms of knowledgeable action through which we make sense of life in and as those ‘signifying practices’. The image of the ‘richness’ , ‘heterogeneity’, and ‘rhetoricality’ of ordinary life is also something I would stress. Here I think we underestimate the ‘otherness’ of ordinary life, the extraordinary density of our transactional involvements with others, and the difficulties posed by even the most elementary understanding of such basic activities as speaking-together, sustaining friendship solidarities, cooperating, reading, understanding and interpreting experience. Modernist practices of self-reflexivity as ways of resisting naive realism, unmediated understandings of language and textuality also come to mind. To this end I believe we should try to develop accounts of ‘otherness’ or alterity that are sufficiently rich to be able to capture some of the more manifest features of ordinary life. But I have no doubts that overcoming the millennia-long condescension toward doxa, the ordinary and the everyday will be the work of generations of scholars. Incidentally, the first volume of Logological Investigations (1996a) concludes with a chapter that is devoted to a mapping of the various possibilities of what I call ‘dialogical reflexivity’ in contemporary intellectual culture.


DB       In 'The Myth of Everyday Life' (2004a) you argue for the removal of the gloss that is everyday life. 'We need to abandon the false security of everyday life to reveal the complex play of decentered, heterological lifeworlds... (Sandywell, 2004a: 175). It appears that you consider everyday life to be a theoretical constraint that fences off the intricacy, detail, and complexity of praxis. This suggests that you see the development of everyday life as a theoretical concept as being problematic, and, possibly, reinforcing the myths detailed in Steven Crook's paper 'Minotaurs and Other Monsters: 'Everyday Life' in Recent Social Theory' (Crook, 1998). Would you describe your essay as a critique of the study of everyday life? Is this an example of reflexivity-in-action? Do you see the rejection of the concept of the everyday as being important, or is this merely an attempt to prevent the reification of the everyday by illuminating the problems that this approach contains and the myths it perpetuates?


BS       Again, I can only rephrase my observations about the primacy of praxis in social inquiry. For me it it is almost definitionally the case that theorizing has a demystifying purpose, that it questions taken-for-granted positions and assumptions, it is suspicious of received ideas and acutely aware of the ideological presuppositions of many of the forms of cultural expression. Perhaps you will allow me to cite an earlier, unpublished research paper that has the title ‘Theses on Reflexivity’ (1979) and dates back to the 1970s. The first three propositions of this document read:


(1) All theory is produced in and by praxis; (2) What was hitherto called ‘social theory’ needs to be reformulated and respecified as the artful, methodic, reflexive production of specific discursive practices thermatizing the domain of social relations, practices, and institutions. Considered as social practices the characteristic properties of social theorizing also mediate the field of concrete human existence and its manifold orders of experience; and (3) If all theory is a form of ‘doing’, a specific form of human conduct, the materialities, objectivitities, referentialities, and criterial practices of theoretical praxis are primarily constituted and sustained in and through social relations, practices, technologies and institutions - more especially the practical experiences, everyday speech-acts, and language-games of socially embodied and embedded practitioners in a given investigative community. Here the context, situation and practical horizon of activities need to be approached as constitutive properties of organised practices. (Sandywell, 1979: 1)


I perhaps would phrase this differently today, but the problematics of praxis as the irreducible lifeworld of reflection and inquiry remains valid. The idea of ‘reflexivity-in-action’ is also another expression for the kind of praxis that investigates first-order praxes and carries this through respectfully, that is, through reflexive dialogue with the ‘target praxes’. Again, in the same document, I try, schematically to be sure, to set out the implications of this recursivity for any kind of recovery of praxis in and through theoretical practice. The relevant section reads:


The discourses of social theory (including what was traditionally called ‘philosophy’ and meta-theory) like the discourses of myth, religion, ‘official discourse’, ideological discourses, and so forth, have hitherto routinely repressed the social, discursive, and ideological conditions of their material production – implicitly or explicitly they remain silent about their own status as a specific and distinctive practice within a more encompassing field of practices. This process can be described as the occlusion of reflexivity, the active dissimulation and even repression of their own rules, procedures, suppositions and presuppositions as field-specific operations. Such routine field-occlusion strategies tends to further reify and naturalize these practices, to make them appear as if they were necessary, unavoidable, and in extremis, facts of nature; the effect of this naturalization is to elide their own situated, conditional, and reflexive character as particular social constructions, in other words, to repress their contingent, contextual, praxical and field characteristics. By reversing this process of occlusion, by turning toward the genesis and possibility-conditions of a practice, we encounter a characteristic feature shared by all reflexive studies: to continually ‘problematize’ occlusion processes by forcibly returning topics, thematics and problematizations to their ground in specific orders of signifying practice. In this sense we can say that reflexive investigations do not so much display an interest in phenomena but rather in investigations into the grounds of the possibility of phenomena, or more simply expressed, the techniques and strategies of socially accomplished phenomenality. (Sandywell, 1979: 4)


DB       The seeming collapse of, or movement away from postmodern theory (see Beer & Gane, 2004) has presented social and cultural theory with a problem. We can no longer return to the comfort of metaphysics and the collapse of legitimacy has left us in an arid conceptual landscape. In 'The Myth of Everyday life' (2004a) you present the reader with a possible solution to this problem: 'The task of thinking after postmodernism is to imagine more constructive projects of alterity studies, to invent new kinds of heterology in response to the mutations of the globalized experience.' (Sandywell, 2004a: 175). Are you suggesting that we should move toward constructing sets of small-scale empirical case studies in which the appropriation of specific technologies is captured in specific contexts? In other words, should the analyst turn her/his attention to praxis? Is this where the 'richness of the ordinary' can be found? 


BS       I agree fundamentally with the pretext of your question. The concept of semiopraxis that I have been developing in both published works and unpublished writings necessitates a fusion of what used to be called ‘theory’ and ‘practice’. In complete agreement with certain traditions of radical hermeneutics I agree that ‘practice’ cannot be understood as an ‘application’ of theory. In a paradoxical sense ‘practice’ is already a theorization (for example, in our obsessive imposition of specular, ‘theoretic’ images upon experience). This standpoint, incidentally, is a good example of a thoughtless and unreflexive understanding of the dialectical relationships between knowledgeable practices and theoretical work. Those involved in theoretical reading and writing need not be told that this involves an enormous expenditure of energy and that if pursued resolutely can impinge significantly upon some very basic material relations! It is little better to think in terms of ‘theory’ emanating from practice or theory being the codification of practice. All of these stop-gap formulations are simply too embedded in the modern conception of ‘practicality’ (or technicality for that matter) to be fruitful alternatives to instrumental thinking. Against these reductive conceptions I wish to maintain a concrete understanding of reflexive praxis as a heterogeneous field of concerted, knowledgeable, sense-making experience. Forms of reflexivity are quite obviously historically and institutionally bound. This, of course, applies to reflexive sociology, that could not be imagined outside of a complex set of historical and social contexts. The very heterogeneity and differential character of this field makes detailed ethnographies of concerted practices absolutely fundamental for reflexive sociology. And here I would instantly qualify this statement by saying that such concrete studies are not the sole prerogative of sociology - and that work committed to this kind of ‘thick description’ can be found in other disciplines and traditions, from cultural anthropology, to history, aesthetics and literary theory. The implication of these developments is to point to interdisciplinary collaboration or, better, to transdisciplinary programmes of inquiry as the future for critical social theory.


DB       In 'Memories of Nature in Bakhtin and Benjamin' (Sandywell, 1999) you talk of the 'textualisation' of nature and the displacement of 'nature' by 'nature/culture'. Are we required to rethink nature in terms of our everyday interaction with technology? Are technology and nature interwoven and indistinguishable texts? And is the textualisation of nature and technology at the centre of the displacement of nature but nature/culture? And as a further question: What part can nature play in developing the study of reflexivity, do you share Adorno's views on nature's ability to illuminate and regenerate thought and practice?


BS       ‘Text’ of course is an inadequate term in understanding the dialectics of nature and culture. If it is not interpreted metaphorically - in the sense of interweaving or intertwining -it all too readily suggests a too ‘cerebral’, or at least linguistic and discursive model of the kind of phenomena at issue here. But if we understand ‘text’ along the lines of Derrida’s ‘general text’ we might be able to take a step in the right direction. Here ‘textuality’ is a metaphor for the work of anonymous traces, complex inscriptions, and discourse formations that cross boundaries and problematize the unfinalizable differences of concrete experience. Textuality becomes all but synonymous with the sociologist’s ‘institutionality’. In what ways are social technologies ‘text’ based? We should not abandon this unusual conjunction too easily. The thought that many technologies are actually about information or new ways of processing meaning is immensely important. But here again we need to think in field terms. Techniques and technologies are always field-relative and bound up with complex social, political and cultural relations. Here the older Greek term ‘techne is more appropriate, with its suggestion that technai implies a habitus of embodied skills, craft-like training and socialization, and materializations of operative knowledge. Technai also implies a fundamental reflexivity among the possessors and performers of the relevant ‘art’ (think of medicine rather than engineering as a paradigmatic embodied technology). At all costs we have to avoid the conjunctive thinking exemplified by such clichés as ‘technology and society’, ‘nature and culture’, ‘individual and society’, and the like. In recent years I have been developing work in the field of complexity theory (chaos, apoiesis, and self-regulation paradigms for example) that have been explored and popularized in post-determinist natural science. One of the fundamental themes in this area is the idea that we cannot ‘naturalize’ our frameworks by simply ‘bringing back nature’, if by ‘nature’ we are still locked into the Galilean-Newtonian models of mechanical systems. The re-engagement with the problem of nature has itself to undergo thoroughgoing criticism and reconstruction, emphasising self-regulating complexity, emergence, process, and, more generally non-linear dynamics. It would be highly desirable to be able to draw upon a fully reflexive phenomenology of nature - a cultural phenomenology that would enable us to explore the rhetorics of ‘nature’ and ‘naturalness’ and the varied constructions of ‘natural phenomena’ as these have been articulated in literary, artistic, ideological, and philosophical discourses. This too is a long-term project for a community of reflexive scholars!


DB       Clearly critique is of importance in your work. Do you see reflexivity as being central to effective critique? Can reflexivity provide an angle for further critical inquiry? Is critique or reflexivity withering (Sandywell, 2003:115)?


BS       In my terminology, critique is one of the constitutive features or key aspects of reflexive sociology. Since some of the basic terms and vocabularies of critique are themselves subject to criticism (consider the language games of ‘subjectivity’, subject/object, consciousness, repression, domination, and so on). I have for more than two decades now spoken of critique in the idiom of ‘logological research’. By this strange term I refer in particular to discourses that take an explicit interest not only in their specific phenomenal topics, but in the conditions of the possibility of phenomenality, and in the way in which these discourses themselves ‘constitute’ and ‘objectify’ the phenomena they study. But I would not wish to stipulate a ‘canon’ or ‘methodology’ for such logological investigations. As I noted more than a decade ago, it would be a fateful mistake to be constrained by prescriptive rules or stipulative methodologies. Indeed the very idea of ‘academic’ privilege needs to be questioned: ‘Logological studies are not the sole prerogative of academic disciplines. In place of the traditional idea of method, we place the plural and heterogeneous field of critical dialogue, interpretation, and rhetorical self-understanding: each a study must invent its own hermeneutic techniques specific to the texts, experiences, practices, categories of existence and conditions at hand’ (Sandywell, 1996a: 425). All of this comes down to a disclaimer and an incitement. First the disclaimer: ‘[There] are no eternal methods just as there are no timeless questions, formalisms, or impersonal resolutions of human problems’ (Sandywell, 1996a: 425). The incitement:


the commitment to self-reflection means that every interpretation, conceptual vocabulary, framework of thought and critical model must be in principle open to inquiry and subject to dialogical norms of criticism and self-revision. Each act of reflection - like each tradition of self-reflection - is in principle subject to further trials of reflexivity. In this way only reflexive investigations can help loosen the cold hand of closure and totality in our lives and imaginations. But to point this out is only to recall that the findings of logological investigations apply in principle to logological research. (Sandywell,1996a: 425-6)


Forgive me for this act of blatant self-quotation!


DB       What role can digital technologies, and particularly the Internet, play in developing critique or reflexivity? Does the Internet offer an opportunity for, and an acceleration of, critique? Do you think this will further critique or increase its quantity while diminishing its effectiveness?


BS       We can certainly imagine the Internet and the new media technologies as possible incitements for critical reflection and self-recovery. Ideally, the world of hypertext should add to the growing repertoire of reflexive practices. We might expect new kinds of dialogue, novel forms of writing and collaboration, new cycles of self-reflection, new problematics and research programmes. We already have solid empirical evidence of the ways in which digitalization has problematized traditional philosophical questions and solutions, how speculations about cyberspace and virtual reality have precipitated innovative responses to traditional theoretical puzzles. I would thus, in my more optimistic moments, see the new technolgoies as augmenting and extending the reflexive imagination. Again the key issue here is whether we can democratize these new systems and incorporate them into the practices of everyday life. My final thought here is that the ‘dealienation of our social worlds is not a discrete achievement of any one individual, discipline, or community, but the task of a whole culture’ (Sandywell, 1996a: 426). I see my own work as contributing to and prefiguring such a cultural renaissance.


DB       You have suggested that reflexivity must be 'historically specified and critically explicated' (Sandywell, 2004b: 491) in order to overcome the problems of non-reflexive inquiry. Can reflexivity exist without this historical or critical framework? In other words, are there scales or types of reflexive inquiry that need to be mapped out?


BS       I would support your idea of ‘triangulating’ reflexive sociology with the concerns of critical theory and history understood as a concrete recovery and reconstruction of past lifeworlds. Critical historiography, in fact, has been a constant support for my work in reflexive sociology. And here I am in particular thinking of the kind of history concerned with the recovery of everyday life in its dense materiality. Conventional sociological methodology has a lot to learn about the tasks of hermeneutic recovery and understanding from the work of Annales historians, the study of mentalités, everyday life historiography and related developments associated with the study of material life, ‘people’s history’, and the like. This is also another reason why the future of ‘everyday life studies’ has to enter into a serious dialogue with the type of dialectical history carried out by thinkers like Benjamin, Adorno, and others. Exemplary work in this area can be found in the writings of such figures as Siegfried Kracauer, Norbert Elias, Michel de Certeau, Manuel De Landa, Paul Virilio, and Friedrich Kittler.


DB       Is renewal (see Sandywell, 1998b) an inevitable consequence of reflexive inquiry? Does reflexive inquiry cause both crisis and renewal? Does renewal come out of the crisis created by reflexivity?


BS       I would like to think of reflexive interrogations as both a cause and effect of crisis. But that thought lends itself to delusions of grandeur or what, in the history of philosophy, was called ‘idealism’. More seriously, I view crises as both a negative and a positive occasion. Crises are typically junctures or ‘turning points’ in thought and social life where the assumptions guiding previous experience are transmuted into questionable forms, where the limits of existing praxis become thematic and occasion other possibilities and alternatives. In this sense previous conceptions of knowledge have been insufficiently aware of the crisis-bound nature of conceptual change and innovation. Of course not every crisis results in renewal. We also risk regression, disintegration and ruination (incidentally the history of the erosion and ruination of creative practices of reflection, the loss of innovative forms of inquiry and cultural creativity, is an underdeveloped field of reflexive research). In the history of critical social thought and philosophy, however, my guess would be that the dynamic continuity of critical theorizing in the European tradition will not end with the current forms of social or political thought. Rather, that we are going through a period of creative mutation in which radically new forms of thought and practice will emerge. The greatest challenge today is one of fully understanding the collapse of earlier, metaphysical mind-sets and imagining and then materially inventing alternative forms of thinking and inquiry. I might remind you that my own ‘diagnosis’ of the situation of modern critical thought is a response to what I called ‘the crisis of Western reason’ (Sandywell, 1996a). The last chapter of this work is a sketch of alternative paths that might lead beyond this crisis, paths that I group under the heading of ‘dialogical reflexivity’ (Sandywell, 1996a, chapter 12). I am convinced that the project of ‘logological thinking’, that is, of discursive thinking concerned with the origins, grounds and consequences of discursive praxis will continue to be one of the main sites of critical thought in the future.


York, Easter 2005



Bibliography of relevant writings by Barry Sandywell


Sandywell, B. et. al. (1975) Problems of Reflexivity and Dialectics in Sociological Inquiry:  Language, Theorising Difference. London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Sandywell, B. et. al. (1976) Writing Sociology. London.


Sandywell, B. (1979) ‘Theses on Reflexive Inquiry’, University of York, Autumn term. (Unpublished)


Sandywell, B. (1995) ‘Forget Baudrillard', Theory, Culture and Society, 12(4): 125-152


Sandywell, B. (1996a) Logological Investigations, Volume 1, Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason. London: Routledge.


Sandywell, B. (1996b) Logological Investigations, Volume 2, The Beginnings of European Theorizing: Reflexivity in the Archaic Age. London: Routledge.


Sandywell, B. (1996c) Logological Investigations, Volume 3, Presocratic Reflexivity: The Construction of Philosophical Discourse c. 600-450 BC. London: Routledge.


Sandywell, B. (1998a) ‘The Shock of the Old: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Contributions to the Theory of Temporality and Alterity’, in Mayerfeld Bell, M. and Gardiner, M. (eds), Bakhtin and the Human Sciences. London: Sage. pp. 196-213


Sandywell, B. (1998b) ‘Crisis or Renewal?:  On Using the Legacy of Sociological Theory’, Sociology , 32(3): 607-12.


Sandywell, B. (1999) ‘Memories of Nature in Bakhtin and Benjamin’, in  Brandist, C. and Tihanov, G. (eds), Materializing Bakhtin: The Bakhtin Circle and Social Theory. London and New York: Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press.


Sandywell, B. & Heywood, I. (eds) (1999) Interpreting Visual Culture: Explorations in the Hermeneutics of the Visual. London and New York: Routledge.


Sandywell, B. (1999) ‘Specular Grammar: the Visual Rhetoric of Modernity’, in Sandywell, B. and Heywood, I. (eds), Interpreting Visual Culture: Explorations in the Hermeneutics of the Visual. London and New York: Routledge.


Sandywell, B.  (2000) ‘The Agonistic Ethic and the Spirit of Inquiry: On the Greek Origins of Theorizing’, in Kusch, M. (ed), The Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge. Dordrecht: Kluwer. pp. 93-123


Hand, M. & Sandywell, B. (2002) ‘E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel. On the Democratizing and De-democratizing Logics of the Internet, or, Towards a Critique of the New Technological Fetishism’, in Theory, Culture and Society, London: Sage, 19(1-2): 197-225.


Sandywell, B. (2002) ‘Memories of Nature in Bakhtin and Benjamin’, in Gardiner, M. (ed), Mikhail Bakhtin. Sage Masters in Modern Social Thought (Volume 4). London: Sage.


Sandywell, B. (2003) ‘Metacritique of Information’, Theory, Culture and Society, London: Sage, 20(1): 109-122.


Sandywell, B. (2004a) ‘The Myth of Everyday Life: Toward a Heterology of the Ordinary’, in Gardiner, M.E. and Seigworth, G.J. (eds), Rethinking Everyday Life: And Then Nothing Turns Itself Inside Out, Cultural Studies, 18(2/3): 160-180


Sandywell, B.  (2004b) ‘Beyond Metaphysics and Nihilism’, in Gardiner, M.E. and Seigworth, G.J. (eds), Rethinking Everyday Life: And Then Nothing Turns Itself Inside Out, Cultural Studies, 18(2/3): 483-493


Sandywell, B. (2004) ‘Beyond Metaphysics and Nihilism: In Memoriam, Steve Crook, Sociologist and Teacher (1950-2002)’, The Australian Sociological Association Web site (TASAweb),      (published October 2004, accessed April 2005)


Sandywell, B. & Beer, D. (2005) ‘Stylistic Morphing: notes on the digitalisation of contemporary music culture’, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media, 11(4): forthcoming.


Sandywell, B. (2006) ‘Monsters in Cyberspace: Cyberphobia and Cultural Panic in the Information Age’, Information, Communication & Society, 9(1), forthcoming.


Other references


Beer, D. & Gane, N. (2004) ‘Back to the future of social theory: An interview with Nicholas Gane’, Sociological Research Online, 9(4):


Benjamin, W. (2002) The Arcades Project. USA: Harvard University Press.


Crook, S. (1998) ‘Minotaurs and Other Monsters: ‘Everyday Life’ in Recent Social Theory’, Sociology, 32 (3), pp523-540.





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 Volume 2, November 2005, ISSN 1552-5112