Gabriel Tarde

I’ve been reading some of the books of Gabriel Tarde, a French sociologist of the 1890s, once famous, the intellectual antagonist of Durkheim (but Durkheim won). I started looking at Tarde out of idle curiosity, but now I’m glad I did…

In the 20th century, Tarde was almost totally forgotten; but Gilles Deleuze was interested in him, and so (more recently) are some of the students and allies of Deleuze, most notably Bruno Latour (whose remarkable discussion of Tarde may be found here).
Anyway, reading Tarde is an unexpected pleasure. The guy is so brilliantly wacko that I’m amazed that he was ever taken seriously as a sociologist. He’s more a crazy metaphysician of social (and other) forms of organization, than someone who has anything concrete to say about any actually existing society of his time.
Basically, Tarde opposes the metaphor of society-as-organism that has been widespread in political and social theory ever since the Renaissance (and for all I know, before that as well). Instead of comparing human societies to biological organisms, we should rather compare organisms (and inorganic entities as well, for that matter) to societies. The human body is a society of cells; the cell a society of chemicals and organelles; organic chemicals are societies of simpler molecules, and so on down as far as we can go (and we can go a lot further down now than was the case in Tarde’s time). Star systems, atoms, and sand grains on the beach are no different from human societies.
Tarde denies the existence of higher-level entities (like “society” according to Durkheim). This is an atomism not just of composition, but of organization. There is no such thing as social laws and regulations, social norms, social impositions. There are only power relations among individuals. Certain individuals impose on others; certain individuals are imitated by others. Social coherence is merely the result of imitation on a mass scale, together with raw power impositions.
However, Tarde is not advocating the sort of “individualism” one sees in traditional liberalism, from Adam Smith to the free-market fanatics of today. He insists that he does not reduce society to psychology (as Durkheim’s followers accused him of doing), because what he is interested in is not individual psychology, but inter-individual psychology; not interiority, in other words, but relations between – and not even between individuals, so much as among or between smaller units than individuals, sub-individuals. For Tarde there is little difference between how two individuals in a society relate to one another, and how two thoughts or impulses within a single brain relate to one another.
Thus Tarde considers the liberal or bourgeois individual, the self, to be a fiction just as much as anything collective is. Individuals, no less than human societies, are composed of multiple elements that overpower and/or imitate one another. You can’t call Newton the author of the laws of motion any more than you could call 17th Century British society, or King Charles as its representative, the author of those laws. The author is more properly one particular atomistic thought in Newton’s brain, a thought that overpowered the other thoughts in his brain, compelled them to obey it, or seduced them to imitate it.
By a similar argument, it cannot possibly be the case that all hydrogen atoms are uniform and interchangeable. The only explanation for the apparent uniformity of nature is that one particular hydrogen atom dominated the others, forced them to obey it, or induced them to imitate it.
The ultimate motivating forces that move all of the world, whether human beings in society, thoughts in a single brain, or hydrogen atoms in a gas, are according to Tarde belief and desire. There’s nothing else. Rocks and stars, indeed atoms themselves, believe and desire just as we do. At the other extreme, things like ideologies and customs and social classes and bureaucracies can be explained merely as statistical aggregations of particular beliefs and desires, amplified by mass imitation.
Philosophically, Tarde likes to cite Leibniz (for his theory of monads, and his principle of indiscernibles). It is easy to find similarities in idea, if not in tone, to Nietzsche, whom apparently Tarde never mentions.
The reason this is all so brilliant, and so beautifully crazy, is because Tarde simply short-circuits all the bad questions about mediations, representations, and intermediate levels in which social theory has so often been bogged down. This is of course what Deleuze saw in him. Tarde’s naive and delirious metaphysics has the salutary effect of brushing away the tangles of self-reflexive critique that so often leave modernist thought so stuck up its own asshole that it cannot ever take stock of the real world. And he does this in such a way that also leaves no room for the aggressively common-sensical, anti-intellectual positivism and “hard-nosed pragmatism” (read: quantitative social science) that is so often proposed in America as the alternative to “theory.” Instead, we are led to ask questions about beliefs and desires, that work on a microscopic or microsocial level, but that are capable of multiplication and amplification of singular and multiple combinations, with a capacity both for radical innovation, and for co-optation and virulent viral replication. (Sounds a lot like the world of blogs, or of the Internet).

2 Responses to “Gabriel Tarde”

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