On deconstruction, acute social theory overdose, and Guernica

In the first couple of weeks of my PhD, I made the mistake of reading The Structure of Sociological Theory by Jonathan H. Turner. It’s an old book and somewhat out-of-date (at least the edition I had), but I just happened to run into it in India and brought it home. Not that it wasn’t a good book. It’s just that I read the whole thing in one breath. And once the breath was finished, I didn’t seem to be able to inhale.

I was totally deconstructed.

I stood in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, and not knowing quite who or where I was, with precariously low oxygen levels in my lungs.

Before I could think, say or do anything, I analysed it through the lenses of: structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and exchange theory. Needless to say, I was paralysed; I couldn’t think, say or do anything.

All the ‘normal’ things: loving your child, enjoying others’ company, listening to music, wearing a ring, making a call, smiling at the barista, blipping the card in the metro – everything disappeared.

Instead, there was Guernica: things defragmented, twisted out of places, turned inside-out, distorted, disjointed, deformed. Or else, the Matrix. Just ones and zeroes, running in endless sequences which I couldn’t decipher.

Nothing had any meaning; or rather, all the meanings were cancelled, dissected, devalued. There was no beauty, amusement or mystery – beauty, amusement and mystery were immediately explained, theorised, categorised and filed away. Where beauty, amusement and mystery used to be, there was only cynicism and question marks. There was nothing sacred – more than that, the very idea of ‘sacred’ was highly dubious. I am hardly religious or spiritual – and yet I felt like I had nothing to stand on.

If someone were to come up with a term to describe this condition, it would probably be ‘severe cognitive dissonance as a result of acute social theory overdose’.

(Does any of you recognise this far-from-blissful state of mind?)

As luck would have it, it happened to be a day when I had my dance class – the act of going to which I severely and morosely questioned, but performed by inertia. What kind of ritual is it? How does it exemplify magical and ritualistic thinking? What kind of irrational, retrograde practice is this? Who gets what out of it? What hole does it fill and in whom? What function does it serve? What structure does it reinforce? How does it feed into the modern, premodern and postmodern forms of social control?

As soon as I opened the door with the flimsy little lock and stepped inside the dance studio, the sounds and smells of flamenco washed over me. The corridor with a red carpet went down, down into the depths from where I could hear the rasping guitar and the (somewhat discordant) clickety-clacks and stamps of the footwork. It smelled of dusty velvet, wood and many layers of perfume. Off with the shoes, and as I tip-toed onto the drum-like, springy wooden floor laid personally by my teacher (‘Bästa golvet i stan’), the social theory intoxication abated. The wave of sound pushed the toxins out of my brain, and I sobered up.

In between the (ritualistic) exchanges of greetings, the (ceremonial) retrieval of the shoes from the bag, frantic jumping before warm up, warm up, warm up of the shoes, footwork drill, choreography drill, twelve-beat compás (time signature) drill, more footwork drill, all of that interjected with spontaneous explosions of lecturing in flamencology, political ecology of flamenco and our teacher’s life philosophy, then more footwork drill, braceo drill, floreo drill, vueltas drill – there was no time for exchange theory and symbolic interactionism, and even less for structural functionalism.

I saw my own figure in the mirror, disjointed and defragmented, coming together into a more or less coherent silhouette. The same process was applied to me as described in the previous post: manual twisting by my teacher of my uncoordinated body fragments into a flamenco posture which I struggled and failed to maintain, but which existed as a sketch, pencilled into the trajectories of the choreography. Another process, that of verbal coordination, was applied too. ‘Lyft fo-ten!’, ‘Once DOCE!’ ‘Vänster, y!’ ‘Peparación!’ created a tight fabric, a net on which one could land, time and again, after free-falling through the air of the twelve-beat compás.

These manual and verbal coordination processes reconstructed me. From Guernica I was reassembled to – no, not an intricately realist pearl of a Dutch master, which I had never been anyway, but somewhere in between. Maybe to an impressionist painting. Sketchy, but nevertheless whole.

The next day, I asked my friend Mehek, a sociologist:

‘How do you stay sane? How do you keep anything sacred?’

She said:

‘I just choose to. I make that decision.’

I could do nothing but take this highly unscientific, but precious answer and hold on to it for dear life. As I, in the face of the irrationality, incomprehensibility and madness of flamenco, hold on for dear life to compás.

How do you stay sane in the face of deconstruction through social theory overdose, when it creeps off book pages and into your life? Please share in comments below.

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