Monthly Archives: January 2016

YVONNE HOWELL – Apocalyptic Realism The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky


Yvonne Howell    Apocalyptic Realism The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 

New York, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt/M., Paris, Wien, 1994. X, 170 pp.
Russian and East European Studies in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Culture. Vol. 1 General Editor: Willis Truitt 

Book Synopsis:

The brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky have been Russia’s most popular science fiction writers since their first publication appeared in 1959. The enormous and consistent popularity of their works over three decades of fluctuating political and literary conditions is all the more interesting when one considers that their primary readership has been the Russian scientific-technical intelligentsia – a sector of society whose values
and attitudes were instrumental in transforming the Soviet Union. This lively and original study of the Strugatskys’ development as writers and as spokesmen for a generation of Russian scientists is as timely as it is unique. It is also the first English language study of the Strugatskys’ previously unpublished novels. 

The Author: 

Yvonne Howell is an assistant professor of Russian at the University of Richmond. After graduating from Dartmouth College with a double concentration in Russian language and biology in 1981, she spent a year doing field work and studying zoology at Leningrad State University. Her doctoral degree is in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Michigan. She travels to Russia regularly for teaching and research purposes.


Yvonne Howell’s study is structured into four chapters: Apocalyptic Realism, False Prophets, Apocalyptic Settings and Aliens of Our Time. Howell describes general aspects and some of the literary and philosophical driving forces behind the brother’s work. She not only introduces major theme complexes surrounding the novels, the study constantly relates to a Soviet and Russian collective mental realm. Howell makes the convincing argument that the Strugatskys engaged in a constant feedback loop between SF storylines and contemporary daily lives in the Soviet Union. In other words, the novels mirror elements of culture, political and other real life occurrences and tendencies. Howell describes the Strugatskys’ textual tree in its entirety, with the roots taping into a rich East-Western literary heritage.  

The Strugatskys take inspiration from strong source texts such as the biblical Revelations or mythological tales which they then sophistically adapt, transform and interweave into their SF stories. In her postscript, Howell writes ‘In any case, it seems likely that the Strugatskys’ science fiction will gain new relevance as science history-as a portrait of the intellectual, inter-personal, political, linguistic, and mundane concerns which formed the fabric of scientific culture in the Soviet Union.’ (p. 153)

I chose the following extracts with a couple of thoughts in mind. They show the generosity and precision of Howell’s approach to literary criticism, as the passages include extended reflections on Soviet – and Western – culture at large. The passages mention a cultural subconscious sphere, which acts as fundament and support structure for the brothers literary endeavour. In Apocalyptic Realism, you read about the Strugatskys, but you will also gain additional, deep, interdisciplinary knowledge. Howells writing and reasoning is insightful, lucid even. Images by Hieronymus Bosch and Sandro Botticelli. Some highlighting in blue by myself.  MG


Towards the end of his life, the Russian philosopher and religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev summed up the essence of the Russian national character, as he perceived it, in a book called The Russian Idea (1946). He stated that Russians are either apocalyptiscists or nihilists; thus, the ‘Russian Idea’ is eschatological; it is oriented towards the end, and it is this which accounts for Russian maximalism. Such generalisations are important insofar as they reflect a society’s mythical perception of itself – often transformed into a self-fulfilling prophesy. At least since the time of Peter I, Russian intellectuals have been occupied with defining their national identity in a land which occupies the crossroads of East and West, the old and the new, anarchy and authoritarianism, Orthodoxy and scientism. The binary oppositions by which Russia defines itself have always had a decidedly religious character – depending on one’s orientation, one pole of any given opposition is equated with the antichrist, the other with universal salvation. (For example, Peter ‘the great’s’ decision to open up Russia to the West convinced his opposition that the reign of the antichrist had arrived; just as many today associate Russia’s transition to a market economy with swerving from the road of Orthodoxy and salvation). Accordingly, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was perceived as the final confrontation in history between all oppositions; and Marxist-Leninism, no less than any overtly religious movement, promised the dawn of a utopian new age of universal brotherhood (communism in the ‘radiant future’). The importance of the ‘Russian Idea’ (extremist and eschatological) to contemporary Russian literature, even when the Revolution’s millenarian claims have long since become the punch line of sardonic jokes, is that it continues to survive and influence scientific, religious, and political culture. (p.16-17)

The most basic underlying structure of all the Strugatskys’ mature works is described by two axes suggested in the generalisations above, and the hypothetical axes take as their zero point the sociopolitical event of the Revolution and the founding of the Soviet State. This moment was supposed to divide history into two periods: the exploitative and degenerate old world was to be transformed into a new, proletarian paradise. The Strugatskys do not reverse this vector to claim that the old world was better than the new; they simply describe contemporary, everyday life in the Soviet Union as appallingly banal, bureaucratic, imperfect, and spiritually bankrupt. (…) We might posit a horizontal axis of description which runs the gamut of the mundane aspects of a Soviet citizen’s contemporary existence. This axis should properly be called the axis of byt. ‘Byt’ is an untranslatable Russian term meaning, roughly, the dull, routine, hopeless dreariness which inheres in the physical reality of one’s everyday life. (…) Clearly, much of the Strugatskys’ irony is aimed at the sorry condition of the ‘new millennium’. If the Revolution signalled the end of history, than what has followed is not the Kingdom of Heaven, but its ludicrous parody: contemporary byt. However, the starting point of the Russian Revolution is also crossed by another, vertical axis. This axis is best understood as an unbroken continuum of cultural memory. That is, a succession of literary styles, philosophical trends, historical events, and religious debates which had been suppressed by the regime and largely forgotten during the Strugatskys’ lifetime is pieced back together by way of frequent symbolic or intertextual allusion. As the preliminary work for this study progressed, it became increasingly evident that a significant source of meaning and imagery in the Strugatskys’ ‘future’ or ‘alien’ worlds is derived from the literary and philosophical/religious heritage of Russia’s Silver Age and post-Revolutionary avant-garde. The authors’ intertextual allusions to Bulgakov, Bely, Platonov, and the Russian Absurdists (Oberiu poets) represent a conscious effort to respond to the theme of apocalypse present in Russian literature during the immediate pre- and post-Revolutionary era. Furthermore, the Strugatskys, like their Silver Age and 1920s predecessors, attempt to redefine the relevance of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic thought to contemporary Russian life by incorporating into their fantastic world imagery from the gnostic and Manichaean heresies, the cosmology of Dante, and – of course – the biblical Revelation.
The coincidence of allusion to Bulgakov’s Margarita and the Divine Sophia, of Bely’s Petersburg and Manichean dualism, of Platonov’s Foundation Pit and Dante’s Inferno also suggest the influence of Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Fyodorov on the shape of the Strugatskys’s science fiction from the 1970s on. Generally speaking, both Solovyov and Fyodorov based their eschatology’s on a distinctly Russian interpretation of the meaning of Christianity. Fyodorov, in particular, sought a grand synthesis of scientific rationalism and mystical idealism. (p.18-19)


In any case, they are among the first post-war Russian writers to retrieve this important thread of Russian culture and give it new literary shape. In short, one finds that fantastic images in the Strugatskys’ late works are taken neither from high-tech realm of cybernetics, nor from magical world of the fairy tale. Rather, they draw their images from the metaphysical systems of the early Christian heresies and dualist cosmologies, and the incorporation of these systems into the Russian modernist movement at the beginning of this century. (p.19-20)

One way in which the Strugatskys began to increase the complexity of their fiction was to incorporate the philosophical and metaphysical issues they wished to address as elements of the plot. Whether consciously or not, the authors developed a form which would let the nature of the extra-textual or intertextual material actually affect and predetermine the course of events in what was ostensibly a purely entertaining, action-packed plot. Once this was achieved, the science fiction, detective, or adventure story plot was not merely a vehicle for allegory; rather, it could in some way be shaped and anticipated by the underlying philosophical agenda.  (p. 20)

However, the contemporary, mundane setting of Soviet byt is also used as a symbolic repository of literary and cultural allusions. The trick is to create a double-vision of the modern age: ‘realistic’ depictions of contemporary Soviet life reveal a banal and godless landscape , while symbolic motifs within that landscape point to its true location somewhere on the battleground between Christ and the antichrist (where the antichrist, for the time being, has successfully established an anti-millennium!). Frances A. Yates’ fascinating study of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance Art of Memory provides the most useful relationship between wetting and theme in the Strugatskys’ science fiction. In the classical world, before the invention of the press, the ability to store in proper order a large or complicated set of information was of utmost importance to any intellectual endeavor. An accomplished orator of could recite lengthy speeches without the use of notes; a lawyer in Greek or Roman antiquity could keep innumerable facts about a case straight in his head (…) We should understand what kind of mnemotechnics the ancients used to achieve a prodigious ‘artificial memory’. (p. 23)

A consistent theme in all of the Strugatskys’ mature works is the catastrophic loss of cultural memory which has occurred in the Soviet Union within their lifetime. In the Strugatskys’ handling, the genre of science fiction itself is subordinate to this theme, since a culture which cannot remember its past cannot ‘remember’ its future either. The Strugatskys’ non-extrapolatory science fiction is based on the notion that the rapid loss of cultural memory has shortened the approach of the future, which, in fact, has already merged with the present. The stylistic result of this conflation of the present with an unimaginable and unimagined future is most noticeable in the description of the setting.
As we shall see in more detail, the Strugatskys’ settings provide the loci and the images to jog one’s memory of a long and complicated subtext – the Western cultural heritage of the Russian intelligentsia. The settings of all the novels discussed in this chapter are intentionally – to the point of stylistic didacticism – designed as fictional ‘rooms’ or ‘landscapes’ cluttered with half-familiar ‘images’ which represent the concepts and the texts the authors wish the reader to recall. (…) In The Doomed City, the protagonist’s daily walk home to the suburbs leads him past workers digging a foundation pit. At the same time, the reader must mentally ‘walk by’ Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit: i.e., the device insures that the reader will recall both the content of Platonov’s long-suppressed anti-utopian masterpiece, and its proper ‘location’ (order) in the broken and distorted continuum of Russian intellectual history. (…)  In The Doomed City and A Lame Fate, landscapes and interiors harbour the imagery of a rich and eclectic selection of the literary and philosophical ‘monuments to the spirit’ inherited by the Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the century. A closer examination of these settings is crucial, since it should reveal exactly what part of Russia’s cultural memory is being sculpted into the literary landscape for preservation, and why. (p. 25-26)


How are the apocalyptic and gnostic motifs underlying plot formation and sculpted into the landscape reflected in the characterisation of the protagonists? How does the relationship between the human protagonist and the alien change over time? The study of characterisation culminates the process of discovering how the Strugatskys’ unique brand of science fiction has served the needs of the Russian intelligentsia so well for three full decades. On eight expect that the intelligentsia readership has found a reflection of itself in the Strugatskys’ heroes, and this is indeed the case. Furthermore, by using the fantastic licence to model reality, the authors have actually provided a kind of cultural myth to live by. The Strugatskys’ heroes not only embody the values of the intelligentsia at any given time; they carry these values into the experimental future or alternative world of the fantastic, where they find either rejection or affirmation.
So far, we have predicted that a prefigurative plot or a ‘loaded’ landscape can refer the educated reader to a variety of other texts which are important for cultural memory. The pattern of subtexts discovered by the reader lends considerable philosophical depth to the superficially straight-forward, popular-genre format. Clearly, the more the reader knows about the inter-textual world the Strugatskys refer to, the greater the meaning (and didactic value) of the novel. A reader les literate in the cultural experience of the Russian/Jewish intellectual in the twentieth-century Soviet Union will understand the novel accordingly: as a more or less self-referential, purely fictional entertainment. Before connecting this aspect of reader-reception to the ‘myth-making’ function of the Strugatskys’ science fiction, it is necessary to look at the more obscure subtexts which inform and change the image of the hero in the late works. (p. 26)


now forward to pages 74-77, the analysis of The Doomed City. I was particularly interested in this part because of the idea of a Dantean descent into a subterranean, ‘subconscious’ compound – what I essentially explore in my In the Museum 1-3, adapted to a museum complex that Christopher Walken visits. MG


In part 1, chapter 3 of The Doomed City, Andrei has just been catapulted out of a fantastic ‘Red House’ onto a square in the city. The ‘Red House’ appears in a different location in the city on different nights; it seems to exist at will in different places at different times. (…) The physical parallels in the two stories are made significant by paralleles on the spiritual or legendary personages who are suffering the consequences of their various willed perversions, they are also allegorical figures representing the potential for evil inherent in the poet’s own soul, and within any individual soul. It is a gross, but not inaccurate simplification of the allegory to say that until each individual recognises the hell within, it will be impossible for any community, or country, or humankind as a whole to achieve the harmony of Paradise – in secular terms, social utopia. Virgil is chosen to accompany Dante in his journey through Hell, because he represents the composite cultural and artistic achievements of Western civilisation. His art and philosophy and morality  cannot in and of themselves open the gates of Heaven, but they can awaken and guide the sinful soul onto the path of righteousness and salvation.
Dante’s epic poem is also a political jeremiad, aimed at the critical sociopolitical situation in thirteenth-century Italy. In her introduction to The Divine Comedy, Dorothy Sayers formulates the point of the historical Dante’s political concerns as ‘a protest against that drive towards theocracy… (which he viewed as) an attempt to establish the Kingdom of God here and now as an ecclesiastical-political structure’. The great twofold pattern which unfolds in Dante’s epic poem confirms a view of history as a process of redemption within time and salvation as a process of redemption outside of time. (pp. 74-75)


However, the Strugatskys’ Afterworld is not entirely imaginary or fantastic. On the contrary, it is contiguous with Andrei’s world and has a palpable quality of empirical reality – it is, after all, physically extant in many works of art. For example, the old man has no trouble identifying the location of the phantasmagoric ‘Red House’ in the temporal world, thereby ’rationalising’ its existence in the Afterworld:

‘It’s not hard to recognise it, said the old man softly.
‘Before, in that life, I often saw it depicted and described. It is described in great detail in the Revelations of St. Anthony. Of course, that particular text has not been canonised, … For us Catholics… Well, anyway, I’ve read it. ‘A house appeared to me, it was alive and in motion, it made indecent gestures, and I could see through the windows that inside there were people who walked through the rooms, slept, and ate…’ I can’t claim that this is an exact quote, but it’s very close. Then, of course, there is  Hieronymous Bosch. I would call him Saint Hieronymus Bosch, and I’m very much obliged to him preparing me for this…’ – he motioned broadly to his surroundings…
I recognise a great deal of what I see here, and it pains me to even think of those who have arrived here without understanding, and without the capacity to understand, where they are. A tortuous incomprehension of what surrounds them, compounded by tortuous memories of their sins. Perhaps this is also the great wisdom of the Creator: eternal consciousness of one’s sins without the realisation that one is being punished… Take for example, you, young man – for what sins were you healed into this abyss?’
‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about,’ grumbled Andrei. ‘Religious fanatics are the last think we need in this place….’ he thought to himself. (The Doomed City, 271-272)


Thus, not only the ‘Red House,’ but the entire city, and even its geographical location, has a solid precedent in artistic and cultural icons of Western civilisation. The pattern of intertextual allusions is already evident: the setting is prefigured by artistic depictions of the Apocalypse and the Underworld. In the interplay between the Strugatskys’ ‘fantastic’ setting and its ‘real’ intertextual precedent, the discrepancy between the two planes of reality is, in fact, neutralised. Both Andrei’s perceptions and the old man’s perceptions are correct simultaneously: they are living in the Soviet Union in the latter half of the twentieth century, and they are living in Hell. If one distills and specifies the source of humour in the Strugatskys’ text, one finds that the humour of the situation arises as a kind of inevitable byproduct of the ‘neutralisation’ process: the realisation that the real and the fantastic – the contemporary reader’s world and the ‘infernos’ of world literature – are one and the same thing, evokes the ironic laughter of recognition. (pp. 76-77)


IAN HACKING – On Mary Douglas


Ian Hacking

How institutions think by Mary DouglasSyracuse, 146 pp, $19.95, July 1986

This is the delightfully short, exuberant, slightly jerky and certainly tumultuous product of five lectures that could have been advertised under the ponderous title ‘Human Knowledge and the Social Order’. The lectures were weighty, I think, but ponderous they were not. Douglas dances over an amazing array of topics. The effect is some sort of intellectual hopscotch; the reader hops from square to square, sideways, diagonally, sometimes landing with feet in different squares. The squares have amazing titles like ‘Institutions remember and forget’ or ‘Institutions do the classifying’. The second square is titled ‘Institutions cannot have minds of their own’, but only as a proposition to be rebutted. The assertion that institutions think is never seriously put in question. But what does it mean?

Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning, or rather the end, for in her preface Douglas engagingly says that she has been writing her books in reverse order. The first one should have been the latest, while this one should have been first. In 1963 she analysed her fieldwork in Zaire among a people who are very conscious of pollution in every aspect of daily and ritual life. Purity and Danger of 1966 explains, among other things, how rules on uncleanness help define a people and keep it together – and apart (Jewish dietary laws being an outstanding success story). These themes recur in Implicit Meanings, even down to the English Sunday midday meal that she calls lunch but a majority calls dinner, a distinction which with its different menus itself helps unite and separate.

Then there was an essay written with a political scientist, Risk and Culture of 1982. It is mostly about the ecological sects of modern times, obsessed with the risks of power plants or the evils of environmental pollution – with purity and danger, for short. Some such groups fall apart almost at once, while others serenely continue untroubled by schism. Perceptions of purity, community border, evil and authority are invoked to explain the differences. There is more about risk in the book she has just published, Risk Acceptability according to the Social Sciences.​* It chiefly addresses our present pressing problems of how to think and act about catastrophic danger. It is most powerfully against the idea that disagreements arise from conflicts of vested interest. Institutions and modes of formation create the chasms of misunderstanding and confrontation. Nor is this some accident, some byproduct, for the institutions are both constituted by beliefs and define the beliefs of their members.

That thought takes us close to the originating book: namely, the present work that Douglas says she wishes she could have written at the start. ‘Half of our task is to demonstrate [the] cognitive process at the foundation of the social order. The other half of our task is to demonstrate that the individual’s most elementary cognitive process depends on social institutions.’ That is the agenda for Chapter Four (eight pages!), but also, when generalised a little, for the book as a whole. The earlier books were also about why and how people band together and are bonded into social units. The explanations tended to be in terms of practices or rituals of enforced separation, where outsiders are made out as dirty or as dirt, to be counteracted by cleansing. That idea is in no way abandoned now. But the talk of purity and danger suggests that groups form themselves in terms of values (pollution being evil). Now we move back; it is beliefs, not values that work the trick. So we are offered a theory of epistemologies, not moralities.

Is there a question about why people get together and often stay together? People are naturally gregarious, herons are not. Asked to explain that, perhaps one resorts to sociobiology. Douglas starts where the putative biology gives up. Every human group, whether it be the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (a splinter from Greenpeace that scuttles whalers) or the Japanese people (homogeneous and indivisible, according to their prime minister), has its own peculiar and specific set of practices and characteristics. As Douglas observed of herself after her initial fieldwork, I ‘discovered in myself a prejudice against piecemeal explanations’. She would like an entirely general account of how groups get together and stay together, forming intricate and often fragile patterns of stabilising relationships. She is sure that self-interest, be it in the form favoured by Hobbes or by today’s rational choice theory, won’t do. Naturally there can be some meeting of minds out of pure self-interest, as in a fiercely controlled structure like a prison, or in wide-open entrepreneurial competition where deals are made and alliances formed. Douglas is more struck by the universality of self-sacrifice, despite the fact that opting out, being a free rider, is almost always more enticing. Moreover, when there is secession, be it from Greenpeace or the Papacy, rational self-interest usually has precious little to do with it.

So what institutionalises a social group? If we have the individualist, liberal, traditionally Western picture of people banding together, then the answers must be couched in terms of choice, will, desire, wants, But even to think of one of the older sorts of European establishment is to become wary of that: it is creed, not need, that defines our religious institutions.

It has long been sociologically unfashionable to characterise religions in terms of beliefs, but Douglas, ever avant-garde, wants to put back the clock. In particular she wants to return to ideas propounded by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss at the beginning of the century. The two men jointly wrote a monograph, ‘Primitive Classification’, in 1903. In 1912 Durkheim published his Elementary Forms of Religious Life. That was about Australian totemism. Douglas improbably pairs this book with one about European syphilis, Ludwig Fleck’s 1935 The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Fleck was a Polish epidemiologist who made substantial contributions to public health. He published extensively before the war, managing to continue writing about medical topics up until 1943 in the underground medical journal of the Lvov ghetto. After 1945 he went on to print some sixty more professional studies. His ‘philosophical’ book went almost unnoticed, however, until recently.

What brings these disparate figures together is the theme that Douglas shares with them: the notion that ways of thinking derive from and sustain what is social. Durkheim and Mauss proposed that the classifications of aspects of nature by ‘primitive’ peoples are structured in analogy with their own social organisations. The social bond is held in place in the following way: people converse; to comprehend each other they need shared categories; as these categories are the reflection of the social order, their very conversation confirms the formal ordering of their society. Later Durkheim’s study of mid-Australian clans was used as a self-professed work of general epistemology. Space, time, substance, causality and the rest of the Kantian ragbag were presented as analogues derived from social organisation, so that space was structured as the plan of the village habitation. The spatio-temporal structure was locally a priori, inescapable for the clan, part of the organisation of its thought. Yet it is no Kantian universal, for different societies produce their own conceptions of space in their own images.

The Durkheimians spoke thus only of primitive peoples and religion. They were positivists living in a world of facts, and these facts were couched in terms of categories liberated from the social. Enter Fleck, whose organising concept was the ‘thought-style’ of a ‘collective’. ‘Knowledge is the paramount social creation,’ he wrote, and held that the prevailing thought-style in one’s milieu ‘exerts an absolutely compulsive force upon [one’s] thinking … with which it is not possible to be at variance’. His own detailed case-study was venereal disease, with its shifting classifications, and a long inability to distinguish diseases we now say are utterly distinct except in superficial means of transmission. He has an account of how thought-styles changed in order to make new facts constructible out of experience and enquiry. He wrote precisely of the positive science that Durkheim treated as inviolate and post-sociological. For Fleck and Douglas, the religious life is just one more body of knowledge. Primitive classification is just one more kind of classification. Durkheim himself was locked in his thought-style in which the sacred had to be distinct from positive knowledge. Otherwise, he was on exactly the right track.

Sociological theories of knowledge, sociology of science, and the ‘social construction of reality’ are much in vogue at present. In a quite different tradition, that encouraged by Michel Foucault, one reads of an ‘historical a priori’ (an idea adapted from Mauss), which could perfectly well characterise part of Fleck’s notion of a thought-style. Douglas is, however, quite unusual. Although she writes in a context of this kind of talk, she restores an aspect of the original Durkheimian project that most students of society now want to forget. She is, like Durkheim, an avowed functionalist.

A functionalist is one who favours functionalist explanations of some human behaviour, practices or institutions. I’ll try to explain the idea in a moment. What it comes to for Douglas is this. The concepts, classifications, judgments, even notions of justice, possessed by individuals are not free formations of the individual but consequences of being part of a network of social groups, participating in or at least being part of certain institutions which effectively define who the individual is. Individual thought, as she says at one juncture, is social thought writ small. It is a consequence of the social order. But (and here’s the functionalism) it also sustains the social order: without those shared classifications and judgments, the order would collapse. One function served by human knowledge – that is, the knowledge of a community of relevant people – is the preservation of the community itself.

Aware that functionalist explanations in social science are now regarded as disreputable, Douglas leaps to their defence, admitting many past ones have been disgraceful, but urging that they can be logically sound. To this end she takes a formal characterisation of functional explanation from Jon Elster. Because it is not easy to grasp abstractly, I’ll venture a colourful example.

A well-known phenomenon of the British Dominions up to 1939 was the remittance man. English sons who fell out with their fathers due to disgrace, dissension, stupidity or simply being supernumerary were given a lifetime’s standing banker’s order and sent to the ends of the Empire, and told not to come back. One effect of this was that rather empty regions which would in the normal course of things have been populated by vigorous upwardly mobile and rebellious people, glad to get away from the homeland, were also populated by dull, stupid, incompetent, but because of their substantial remittances by no means uninfluential characters. They were loyal to king and country, and pined to be like father. Thus they damped down tendencies towards independence, encouraged complacency (and contributed to an officer cadre that would willingly follow orders at places singled out for the slaughter of colonials such as Gallipoli or Dieppe). Moreover there was a certain feedback mechanism: the more vulgar and uppity a region might become, the more attractive was that as a place for a father to exile his son.

This has the logical form of a functional explanation. There is a pattern of behaviour. It has an effect. It is beneficial to the ruling classes of the Empire. Fathers from these classes don’t intend this effect. Nor do they see the causal connection between remittance men and dour but loyal Dominions. Finally there is a feedback effect: whenever a region might get out of hand, it tends to be stabilised by pumping in more remittance men.

This ‘explanation’ has a virtue of many functionalist explanations: it has corollaries. Why in general were remittance men not sent to Kenya or the USA? The former was an unworrisome colony and the latter was uninfluenceable, and hence there was no feedback effect. Why (as Mavis Gallant observes in a short story, ‘Varieties of Exile’) were there no remittance women? Because they would inevitably marry the vigorous independent stock and hence with their remittance would encourage tendencies towards disloyalty.

This ‘explanation’ also has the common vice of functionalist explanations: that all the phenomena seem adequately accounted for in terms of the professed intentions of the fathers, and the effects (if they were effects) are just casual byproducts of these intentions. But I have wanted only to illustrate the logical form of a functionalist explanation: behaviour, effect, effect unintended and unrecognised as an effect, effect beneficial to agents who produce the behaviour, and feedback loop.

Douglas takes just this structure from Elster. She also offers three instances of such explanations which, combined, are to explain how a completely non-authoritarian ‘latent’ group can form. The social behaviour in question is characterised by constant credible threats to withdraw from the group, and by an insistence on complete equality and 100 per cent participation by everyone in group affairs and responsibilities. Consequences are weak leadership and a firm, sharp boundary between members and non-members.

Douglas’s faithful readers will notice that the example goes back to the work in Zaire and to the discussion of ecofreaks in Risk and Culture. Here her idea is to give a functionalist account of how people can band together, make individual sacrifices, and for some time stay stable without there being any coercion (and hence behave in apparent violation of rational choice theory).

Unfortunately the attempt to reconstruct a sequence of three functionalist explanations ends in disaster. In the first explanation she inserts the thing to be explained into Elster’s schema at that place where we should have the consequence that does the explaining. I do not see how to rectify this slip. In the second example she puts the feedback loop in the wrong place, but this can be corrected easily. In the third case her feedback mechanism will, I regret, strike most readers as a sequence of non sequiturs; this reader could not put things right.

Douglas thinks that ‘sociology can … little afford to do without functionalist arguments … ’ In fact, it is easy to find reasonably distinguished Schools of Social Science none of whose members believe in or practise functionalism. They may be wrong. If so, then someone must either do a better job on the formal logic of functionalist explanation, or else argue that it is not a type of discussion that lends itself to formalisation. The rest of Douglas’s book suggests the latter alternative.

The rest is immensely rich: it has to be read to be believed. I’ve said this book is about beliefs and epistemology, but beliefs require categories and classifications, and these in turn need notions of identity and difference. Lots of her sentences deserve essays, and many could serve as titles of learned dissertations. How about ‘One well-instituted tool can ruin the career of a theory that cannot use it’? Each of the following three consecutive sentences would do, for example: ‘Nothing else but institutions can define sameness. Similarity is an institution. Elements get assigned to sets where institutions find their own analogies in nature.’ The last could title a thesis on Durkheim; the first, one on the American nominalist philosopher Nelson Goodman, also very much admired by Douglas.

She’s very good at posting notices guarding against opposition approaches. I mentioned that she won’t let contemporary rational choice theory explain how small groups of people band together out of self-interest. At the end of the book she fends off a different kind of marauder. Maybe institutions do the thinking on routine matters, allowing us to go on automatic pilot most of the time, leaving us to think about difficult matters? Not at all. ‘The individual tends to leave the important decisions to his institutions while busying himself with tactics and details.’ Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the fundamental principles. They are the ones that keep the social edifice together, and they are the ones that must be made sacred, like Durkheim’s religion, or at least venerable, immutable, perfect, distant. Principles of justice, for example.

David Hume enters, not for the first time, as an ally here. ‘The sense of justice and injustice is not derived from nature,’ he argued, ‘but arises artificially, though necessarily, from education and human inventions.’ People resent this. It is all right to say that the sacralising of totems and the eternalising of taboos is artificial, but not justice! Douglas takes on a couple of philosophers who try to naturalise justice. I find her arguments as good as her opponents’ – which is no compliment to anyone. In the background, of course, is John Rawls’s naturalist doctrine of justice as fairness, and also the fear that if you go with Douglas you end up in cultural relativism.

She tries to dispel the worry. We do compare systems of justice. As part of their stabilising function they must be simple, coherent, and not arbitrary. When, in the course of legislation and precedent, ours becomes heavy with complexity, contradiction and arbitrariness, we embark on reform. Likewise we can compare systems of justice for their efficiency, for their closeness to the populace, for their contextuality (could old English witchcraft law have made for justice in colonial Sudan? Does English law of bigamy bring justice to Muslims in Bradford?).

We may well agree that these matters can be studied, as she puts it, ‘objectively’. We may also agree that our tinkerings with justice must be piecemeal, diversified, and that there is no one virtue, such as equality or fairness, that is always and ineluctably the best or most germane. We may agree with her further remark: that our systems of justice rely on a great amount of knowledge of the world already incorporated into our institutional fabric. A system which decrees that a third of its population is not fully human may be known on the basis of experience to be in error. None of this cheers the person scared of cultural relativism. One does not have to look far in our own history to find efficient, pertinent, non-arbitrary coherent systems, co-ordinated with vast amounts of empirical data that have been internalised in the social fabric, and which have been or are monstrous, not to mention unjust.

I’ve given no indication of the pace of the book. Eight pages innocently labelled as an introduction take us through a contest between a radio-immunological team that saves lives, and radiophobic partisans opposed to any kind of irradiation. It takes us through the four speleologists caught in a cave who eat their fifth colleague, and through the five opinions about the case given by five judges of the Supreme Court. And it ends with Durkheim and Fleck.

Maybe my favourite quartet of sentences is in Chapter Seven, of nine pages:

His story is full of ironies. The expert on memory had himself managed to forget his own teachings. He who taught that intentions guide cognition forgot his own intentions. Looking for a cybernetic system, he had the extraordinary luck to meet the inventor of cybernetics.

All background is provided. The ‘he’ is Frederick Bartlett, premier Cambridge psychologist of memory and learning. He ‘forgot’ a programme of studying learning and memory in a societal context that he got from his anthropological mentors – men who had sailed off together to study the evolution of human cognition on a suitably primitive people, Melanesians in the South Pacific. We get glimmers of the intellectual hanky-panky on that 1898 expedition to the Torres Strait, that connects the Arafulfa and the Coral seas. The ‘inventor of cybernetics’ is 19-year-old Norbert Wiener, Harvard PhD in hand, come to sit at the feet of Bertrand Russell and casually teaching Professor Bartlett how to design his experiments. You won’t be bored by this book. It is the sparkling product of a sparkling mind.