Tag Archives: Sociology – General


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jane Brox.

Brox Slience

The “social history” promised by the subtitle of Silence is pretty limited in scope. Author Jane Brox focuses particularly on two environments: prisons and monasteries. Despite a brief engagement with Thoreau and some short tangential passages about the development of silent reading, silence in Quakerism, and so forth, institutional penitence dominates the account.

The fourth of the five parts is dedicated especially to the social effects of gender on expectations of silence. An extensive discussion of female silencing and related judicial punishments leads into the women’s particulars of incarceration and monasticism. Implicitly, silence is given to be a sign of obedient virtue in women for the history treated, but there is no clear sign of how any masculine silence compares or contrasts with it (let alone the silences imposed on exceptional gender and gender resistance).

Brox’s prose is generally lucid and occasionally beautiful. The history is leavened with reflexive anecdotes regarding her research experience and significant digressions about architecture. A considerable portion of the book is given over to thoughts from and accounts of the twentieth-century celebrity monk Thomas Merton.

I learned some history in the course of this reading. It was surprising that I was a little less ignorant of the ancient and medieval aspects of monasticism than I was of the modern evolution of the US penitentiary. But in any case, I never really arrived at the understanding of the social role of silence that the subtitle indicated would be on offer.

Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Georges Perec, trans John Sturrock.

Perec Brief Notes on the Art-and Manner of Arranging One's Books

In the essay “Notes on What I’m Looking For,” Georges Perec proposes that his writings orbit around four preoccupations or targets for inquiry: the quotidian, introspection, games, and fictions. These are certainly illustrated in the slim book of essays Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books, named after the second-longest selection in the volume.

Perec is known for his association with OuLiPo, a group of writers using ludic constraints to produce texts, and an example of that engagement is in the book’s final and longest piece, “Think/Classify,” which has subheadings lettered in conspicuously non-alphabetic sequence. It’s not until the penultimate section W (directly following K) that he discloses the series to be the order of the appearance of the alphabet in a chapter of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller ….

This book reads quickly and offers a lot of variety while keeping to its central themes. The essays are structured unconventionally, and even when they address rather routine topics (e.g. a “bucket list” in “Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die”) they have surprising and entertaining details (e.g. “Get drunk with Malcolm Lowry”).

The Sacred Canopy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Peter L Berger.

Berger The Sacred Canopy

Here is an older book I should have read a couple of decades ago (when it was not new), in order to apply its insights in my academic work. First published in 1967, Berger’s The Sacred Canopy is subtitled “elements of a sociological theory of religion.” Despite his insistence on sociology as an empirical discipline, the book is not oriented to primary studies of the sociological features of contemporary religious operation. Most of the book is trained on very large-scale phenomena over long periods, using lenses inherited and adapted from theorists such as Weber, Durkheim, and Mead.

Berger hardly touches the term “belief,” but makes extensive use of the closely related concept of “plausibility,” advancing the creation and maintenance of “plausibility structures” as inherent operations undertaken by society in the religious mode. There are useful distinctions between the methods used to maintain plausibility in religions that dominate entire cultures and the different strategies that are necessarily adopted by “cognitive minorities” He also highlights theodicy, taken in a sense generalized beyond the usual theological problem to any religious explanation of the anomic phenomena of death, suffering, and evil.

The later parts of the book are preoccupied with the phenomena of secularization and their relationship to parallel and dialectically related developments in economic and scientific development. Throughout the book, Berger uses examples from a wide diversity of religions, but in these sections he pays special and deserved attention to Christianity generally, and Protestantism in particular. “If the drama of the modern era is the decline of religion, then Protestantism can aptly be described as its dress rehearsal” (157).

Perhaps the high point of the whole volume for me was “Appendix II: Sociological and Theological Perspectives,” in which Berger points out some methodological distinctions, withdraws and revises positions made in a previous book (The Precarious Vision, 1961), and proposes possibilities for constructive dialogue between sociology and theology. He is clear that such possibilities may not be realized, because of the demands for “openness” that they make on both sides.