Critique of Dialectical Reason. Jean-Paul Sartre, 1960


Social objects (by which I mean any objects which have a collective structure and which, as such, must be the subject matter of sociology) are, at least in their fundamental structure, beings of the practico-inert field. Their being therefore resides in inorganic materiality in so far as, in this field, it is itself practico-inert. I am not referring to the material beings (produced by human labour) which are sometimes called rallying points, or symbols of unity: what I have in mind are practical realities, with their exigencies, to the extent that they realise in and through themselves the interpenetration of a multiplicity of unorganised individuals within them and that they produce every individual in them in the indistinction of a totality. The structure of this ‘totality’ has yet to be determined; but it ought not to be understood in the same sense as that in which a group of machines becomes the unity of its servants by determining tasks: this unity, as the reverse side of a well-defined division of labour, is simply the inorganic inversion of a differentiated unity of functions, and in so far as it turns back on men to produce them, it produces them through distinct exigencies and to the extent that everyone, as a general individual, is the means of a given differentiated function (as Other, as we have seen).

A collective structure, that is to say, a structure of totalising or pseudo-totalising interpenetration, could exist within a mechanical ensemble only to the extent that the mechanical ensemble itself existed as an undifferentiated practico-inert reality — for example, as a factory which, when it closes its gates, throws two thousand workers out of work, or as an ensemble which is a threat to everyone because the employer refuses to take the necessary security measures (though it is hard to draw this distinction in general terms, and the examination of a particular case would take too long). On the other hand, we must emphasise that groups (both as practical organisations, directly established by human praxis, and as present, concrete undertakings) can arise only on the foundation of a collective which, however, they do not eliminate (at least not entirely) and, conversely, that in so far as, whatever its aim, it necessarily acts through the medium of the practico-inert field, it must itself, as a free organisation of individuals with a common aim, produce its collective structure, that is to say, exploit its inertia for practice (this, as we have seen, characterises action at every, level). In the end, for reasons whose very intelligibility will be criticised when we come to discuss them, subject to certain circumstances, and in certain conditions, groups die and then disintegrate. This means that they ossify, become stratified and return into more general socialities, though without dissolving into them, while retaining their own sociality, as true collectives. Any social field is constituted, very largely, by structured ensembles of groupings which are always both praxis and practico-inert, although either of these characteristics may constantly tend to cancel itself out; only experience can indicate the internal relation of the structures in a definite group and as a definite moment of its interior dialectic.

The collective, therefore, will often appear in my examples through living or moribund groups of which it is a fundamental structure. But, in so far as the group constitutes itself as a negation of the collective which engenders and sustains it, and in so far as the collective reappears when a complex of historical circumstances negates the group as an undertaking but does not liquidate it as a determination, we can identify,, at the extremes, groups in which passivity tends to disappear entirely (for example, a very small ‘combat unit’, all of whose members live and struggle together, and never leave each other), and collectives which have almost entirely reabsorbed their group: thus in Budapest, before the insurrection, the Social Democratic Party, which had practically no members left, officially retained its emblems and its name and its headquarters in a certain building. [The majority had merged with the Communists to form a new party. Some elements of the right-wing minority had been put on trial, and others had emigrated. The social-democratic tendency, which was very strong among the workers, became a tendency, an exis, but outside any party. On the other hand, the headquarters as worked materiality became the Party itself, not only for the government (which was concerned to show that the grouping had not been eliminated in an authoritarian way, but that it had simply lost its members), but also for the emigré socialists (who found in it the material, transcendent and distant unity of their dispersal, as well as a petrified affirmation of their hope), and for the socialists who had merged with the Communists (as their transcended and, at least for some of them, untranscendable past being) and, lastly, for the non-party sympathisers as the solidified exigency (their own exigency turned back on itself) of a temporarily or absolutely impossible integration. And none of these people was unaware of what this collective object produced in the others.]

These extreme — though frequent and normal — cases enable us to make a clear separation between the two social realities: the group is defined by its under taking and by the constant movement of integration which tends to turn it into pure praxi’s by trying to eliminate all forms of inertia from it; the collective is defined by its being, that is to say, in so far as all praxis is constituted by its being as mere exis; it is a material, inorganic object in the practico-inert field in so far as a discrete multiplicity of active individuals is produced in it under the sign of the Other, as a real unity within Being, that is to say, as a passive synthesis, and to the extent that the constituted object is posited as essential and that its inertia penetrates every individual praxis as its fundamental determination by passive unity, that is to say, by the pre-established and given interpenetration of everyone as Others.

In this new moment of the spiral, we find the same terms enriched by their partial totalisations and reciprocal conditionings: reciprocity as a fundamental human relation, the separation of individual organisms, the practical field with its dimensions of alterity in depth, inorganic materiality as man’s being-outside-himself in the inert object and as the inert’s being-outside-itself as exigency in man, in the unity of a falsely reciprocal relation of interiority. But specifically, outside the human relation of reciprocity and the relation to the third party, which in themselves are not social (although in a sense they condition all sociality and are conditioned by sociality in their historical content), the structural relation of the individual to other individuals remains in itself completely indeterminate until the ensemble of material circumstances on the basis of which the relation is established has been defined, from the point of view of the historical process of totalisation. In this sense, the contrast between ‘reciprocity as a relation of interiority’ and ,the isolation of organisms as a relation of exteriority’, which, in the abstract, conditions an unspecified tension within multiplicities, is in fact transcended, and merged in a new type of ‘external-internal’ relation by the action of the practico-inert field which transforms contradiction in the milieu of the Other into seriality. In order to understand the collective one must understand that this material object realises the unity of interpenetration of individuals as beings-in-the-world-outside-themselves to the extent that it structures their relations as practical organisms in accordance with the new rule of series.

1 Series: the queue

Let us illustrate these notions by a superficial everyday example. Take a grouping of people in the Place Saint-Germain. They are waiting for a bus at a bus stop in front of the church. I use the word ‘grouping’ here in a neutral sense: we do not yet know whether this gathering is, as such, the inert effect of separate activities, or whether it is a common reality, regulating everyone’s actions, or whether it is a conventional or contractual organisation. These people — who may differ greatly in age, sex, class, and social milieu — realise, within the ordinariness of everyday life, the relation of isolation, of reciprocity and of unification (and massification) from outside which is characteristic of, for example, the residents of a big city in so far as they are united though not integrated through work, through struggle or through any other activity in an organised group common to them all. To begin with, it should be noted that we are concerned here with a plurality of isolations: these people do not care about or speak to each other and, in general, they do not look at one another; they exist side by side alongside a bus stop. At this level, it is worth noting that their isolation is not an inert statute (or the simple reciprocal exteriority of organisms); rather, it is actually lived in everyone’s project as its negative structure. In other words, the isolation of the organism, as the impossibility of uniting with Others in an organic totality, is revealed through the isolation which everyone lives as the provisional negation of their reciprocal relations with Others. This man is isolated not only by his body as such, but also by the fact that he turns his back on his neighbour — who, moreover, has not even noticed him (or has encountered him in his practical field as a general individual defined by waiting for the bus). The practical conditions of this attitude of semi-unawareness are, first, his real membership of other groups (it is morning, he has just got up and left his home; lie is still thinking of his children, who are ill, etc.; furthermore, he is going to his office; he has an oral report to make to his superior; he is worrying about its phrasing, rehearsing it

under his breath, etc.); and secondly, his being-in-the-inert (that is to say, his interest). This plurality of separations can, therefore, in a way, be expressed as the negative side of individual integration into separate groups (or into groups that are separate at this time and at this level); and, through this, as the negative side of everyone’s projects in so far as they determine the social field on the basis of given conditions. On the other hand, if the question is examined from the point of view of groups, interests, etc. — in short, of social structures in so far as they express the fundamental social order (mode of production, relations of production, etc.) — then one can define each isolation in terms of the forces of disintegration which the social group exerts on individuals. (These forces, of course, are correlatives of forces of integration, which we shall discuss soon.)

In other words, the intensity of isolation, as a relation of exteriority between the members of a temporary and contingent gathering, expresses the degree of massification of the social ensemble, in so far as it is produced on the basis of given conditions.

At this level, reciprocal isolations, as the negation of reciprocity, signify the integration of individuals into one society and, in this sense, can be defined as a particular way of living (conditioned by the developing totalisation), in interiority and as reciprocity within the social, the exteriorised negation of all interiority ('No one helps anyone, it’s everyone for himself’) or, on the other hand, in sympathy (as in Proust’s ‘Every person is very much alone’). Finally, in our example, isolation becomes, for and through everyone, for him and for others, the real, social product of cities. For each member of the group waiting for the bus, the city is in fact present (as I have shown in The Problem of Method) as the practico-inert ensemble within which there is a movement towards the interchangeability of men and of the instrumental ensemble; it has been there since morning, as exigency, as instrumentality, as milieu, etc. And, through the medium of the city, there are given the millions of people who are the city, and whose completely invisible presence makes of everyone both a polyvalent isolation (with millions of facets), and an integrated member of the city (the ‘vieux Parisien’, the ‘Parisien de Paris’, etc.). Let me add that the mode of life occasions isolated behaviour in everyone -buying the paper as you leave the house, reading it on the bus, etc. These are often operations for making the transition from one group to another (from the intimacy of the family to the public life of the office). Thus isolation is a project. And as such it is relative to particular individuals and moments: to isolate oneself by reading the paper is to make use of the national collectivity and, ultimately, the totality of living human beings, in so far as one is one of them and dependent on all of them, in order to separate oneself from the hundred people who are waiting for or using the same vehicle. Organic isolation, suffered isolation, lived isolation, isolation as a mode of behaviour, isolation as a social statute of the individual, isolation as the exteriority of groups conditioning the exteriority of individuals, isolation as the reciprocity of isolations in a society which creates masses: all these forms, all these oppositions co-exist in the little group we are considering, in so far as isolation is a historical and social form of human behaviour in human gatherings.

But, at the same time, the relation of reciprocity remains in the gathering itself, and among its members; the negation of isolation by praxis preserves it as negated: it is, in fact, quite simply, the practical existence of men among men. Not only is there a lived reality — for everyone, even if he turns his back on the Others, and is unaware of their number and their appearance, knows that they exist as a finite and indeterminate plurality of which he is a part — but also, even outside everyone’s real relation to the Others, the ensemble of isolated behaviour, in so far as it is conditioned by historical totalisation, presupposes a structure of reciprocity at every level. This reciprocity must be the most constant possibility and the most immediate reality, for otherwise the social models in currency (clothes, hair style, bearing, etc.) would not be adopted by everyone (although of course this is not sufficient), and neither would everyone hasten to repair anything wrong with their dress as soon as they notice it, and if possible in secret. This shows that isolation does not remove one from the visual and practical field of the Other, and that it realises itself objectively in this field.

At this level, we recognise the same society (which we just saw as all agent of massification), in so far as its practico-inert being serves as a medium conducive to inter-individual reciprocities: for these separate people form a group, in so far as they are all standing on the same pavement, which protects them from the traffic crossing the square, in so far as they are grouped around the same bus stop, etc. Above all, these individuals form a group to the extent that they have a common interest, so that, though separated as organic individuals, they share a structure of their practico-inert being, and it unites them from outside. They are all, or nearly all, workers, and regular users of the bus service; they know the time-table and frequency of the buses; and consequently they all wait for the same bus: say, the 7.49. This object, in so far as they are dependent upon it (breakdowns, failures, accidents), is their present interest. But this present interest — since they all live in the district — refers back to fuller and deeper structures of their general interest: improvement of public transport, freezing of fares, etc. The bus they wait for unites them, being their interest as individuals who this morning have business on the rive droite; but, as the 7.49, it is their interest as commuters; everything is temporalised: the traveller recognises himself as a resident (that is to say, he is referred to the five or ten previous years), and then the bus becomes characterised by its daily eternal return (it is actually the very same bus, with the same driver and conductor). The object takes on a structure which overflows its pure inert existence; as such it is provided with a passive future and past, and these make it appear to the passengers as a fragment (an insignificant one) of their destiny.

However, to the extent that the bus designates the present commuters, it constitutes them in their interchangeability: each of them is effectively produced by the social ensemble as united with his neighbours, in so far as he is strictly identical with them. In other words, their being-outside (that is to say, their interest as regular users of the bus service) is unified, in that it is a pure and indivisible abstraction, rather than a rich, differentiated synthesis; it is a simple identity, designating the commuter as an abstract generality by means of a particular praxis (signalling the bus, getting on it, finding a seat, paying the fare), in the development of a broad, synthetic praxis (the undertaking which unites the driver and conductor every morning, in the temporalisation which is one particular route through Paris at a particular time). At this moment of the investigation, the unit-being (être-unique) of the group lies outside itself, in a future object, and everyone, in so far as he is determined by the common interest, differentiates himself from everyone else only by the simple materiality of the organism. And already, if they are characterised in their temporalisation as awaiting their being as the being of all, the abstract unity of their common future being manifests itself as other-being in relation to the organism which it is in person (or, to put it another way, which it exists). This moment cannot be one of conflict, but it is no longer one of reciprocity; it must simply be seen as the abstract stage of identity.