Durkheim’s Ruse: The Concept as Seduction


  • Alan Blum York University




Ambiguity, Religion, Automation, Theorizing, Sacred, Profane


My method of reading Durkheim’s (1965 [1915]) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life recovers as his fundamental interest the following question: How in collective life do we deal with ambiguity as a social phenomenon? The social actor always needs ways and means to bear this burden as something other than oppressive, for example, the conception of a self both finite and infinite, both sacred and profane, both free and constrained. Durkheim challenges the modern conceit that secular society supersedes the attachment to the sacred by exposing the force of the sacred in any society. Durkheim proceeds by formulating the social actor as an automaton and by expanding and enriching the notion of automation to reveal it as having a capacity for a degree of self-affection and affectivity that can be tapped as a resource in creative social action. It is an impersonality towards ambiguity as an impenetrable structure that makes such improvisational action possible as both automated, and yet capable of change through reflective practices that expose such automation.