What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.
Practical Identities, Singular and General: Differing Conceptions of “We.”
Spontaneous action, individual or common, has a tragic dimension. Sophocles’ Oedipus is the archetype: although he did not intend to kill his father, marry his mother, and bring the plague upon Thebes, that that is what he turned out to be is as horrifying to him as to anyone, and he accepts blame for the pollution he has caused. As Pinkard observes, “[i]t is not merely the thought that things turn out differently than we might have thought, but the realization that this different outcome turned out to be included in our ends after all and that we ourselves were responsible for these unanticipated results” (33). Although the case of Oedipus is singular, Sartre ascribes the consciousness of “who we turned out to be” to collective action as well.
Collective action may take one of several forms. One is a kind of “togetherness,” which characterizes a group of individuals who share an aim, who understand one another as sharing an aim, but are somehow not engaged with one another in sharing that aim (they are “without any real sharing of the aim” [my emphasis]” (35). A real aim, I take it, would be a reason for action that reaches beyond the “inert” purpose that in fact unites them. Sartre’s term for this is “seriality.” Being one of a series seems to mean being aware that one counts as a member of a set – and no more than that. Thus, the individuals on the corner of 34th and Vine count as members of the set of people waiting for a certain bus, but they perceive no reasons for action, no potential for spontaneity, beyond what they have done often in the past and expect to do often in the future. Given their equivalence as mere members of a set, counting as such owing to a single easily-acquired property, no individual is necessary to the group and each is dispensable or “superfluous.”
There is, however, an identity here: each individual member of the set can rightfully use the first person plural to express what we as those who are waiting for the bus are about. And that is sufficient, it seems, to enable a richer engagement of individuals with one another and a more expansive sense if group identity. Thus, under emergency conditions, such a group might find a new unity around a new purpose. Sartre gives the example of a protest or riot in response to a food shortage, but a perhaps more common occurrence might be a traffic accident in which the group organizes to provide care for the injured parties.
More important to Sartre’s analysis of seriality is the way in which the experience of waiting for a bus, for example, is shaped by the larger social context, and what that makes possible. To understand as waiting for a bus, one must have an understanding of buses, bus drivers, timetables, appropriate dress and behavior on buses, the purpose of public transportation, the difference between distances that are walkable and those that are not, and much else, including, very importantly for Sartre, an understanding of one’s class status. All such items, it seems, are part of the inert. One finds oneself assigned to this or that series or set, membership in which limits one’s agency and therefore dominates.
Is this the best way to understand the social practices comprehended by seriality? Any social practice, from lining up for a seat on a bus to medicine, teaching, or law, is a form of exercising agency as well as limiting it. One exercises agency precisely by apprenticing oneself to a practice and then practicing it. To say that such forms of life are necessarily oppressive is a little like complaining that the rule in chess that the bishop may only move diagonally is an undue restriction on the freedom of the players. Surely the skills exercised in any practice are as enabling as they are restrictive. There can be no scope without limits.
Spontaneity within the Revolt of the Oppressed: The Spontaneous “We.”
But perhaps this is part of Sartre’s view after all, for as the analysis develops he does seem to see an “enabling” dimension to otherwise inert practices. While “material exigencies” have “produced” the agent, the latter can apparently acquire significance by “interiorizing, as a free choice, the signification … which … produced him” (39). This may be something like the practice to whose authority one must subordinate oneself in order to exercise agency within its scope, versus the individuated way in which one practices the practice and distinguishes oneself from other practitioners. These are two sides of the same coin, not two different things. Pinkard alludes to Kant to describe their unity: “spontaneity without the recurrence and exigencies of life would be empty, but those exigencies without spontaneity would be blind” (39).
But if spontaneity and inertia are meant to pick out the feature of practices such that the latter are only ever exhibited in individuals exercising skills (and therefore agency), what is the point of separating them? The point, I take it, is to bring out what Sartre sees as the “dialectical” dimension of agency. Spontaneity and inertia must come apart so that they may conflict and issue in a revolutionary moment of collective action, in which the group is “totalizing” – understanding itself in terms of ever-more-comprehensive contexts – without ever becoming “totalized” – persuading itself that it has acquired Thomas Nagel’s “view from nowhere.” But apart from its consistency with the myth of the great revolutionary moment or crisis, how helpful is the dialectical view?