Glenn on Rieff

by Henry on November 12, 2005

David Glenn has written an entertaining and interesting piece of intellectual history on sociologist Philip Rieff, perhaps best known these days for having once being married to Susan Sontag. While Rieff hasn’t had a lasting impact on his field, he’s inspired the fierce loyalty of a coterie of former students, and appeared as a supporting character in various works of fiction. It appears that he’s returning to the field after thirty years away, with no fewer than four books on the verge of being published. It’s unclear whether these will be important and influential works or intellectual curiosities.

Rieff sounds to be full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; still he seems to be a very interesting and sympathetic character, and an academic type that’s vanishing rare these days. Once upon a time, sociologists and political theorists used to be able to get away with speaking to literary types on their own terms; while they produced a lot of guff, they also sometimes drew some very interesting connections. Rieff’s a sort of academic Rip van Winkle, emerging from a long sleep over decades during which the world has changed. It’ll be interesting to see whether he’s able to reconnect.

{ 10 comments }

1

John Emerson 11.13.05 at 8:40 am

I was told decades ago that the best ideas in his first book were Sontag’s. A malicious but fun rumor.

2

Jon Mandle 11.13.05 at 9:44 am

I signed up for a course with Rieff when I was an undergraduate at Penn – it must have been around 1987. I went to a few classes but got creeped out by the cult-like following that he attracted – especially his graduate TAs. I dropped the class, but kept going for a while even though they insisted that nobody was allowed to audit. Basically, the course consisted in his showing slides or films, and him “reading” them for interdictions and transgressions. He dropped a number of apparently gratuitous comments about abortion that elicited loud groans from the students, but I remember his comments on “Zelig” being very interesting.

3

Daniel 11.13.05 at 9:45 am

no fewer than four books, pleeeeeeasssse. and yes I do make this comment while standing in the “eight items or less” queue at the supermarket, I believe that I managed to effect a change of policy at Sainsbury’s.

4

Qfyfq 11.13.05 at 12:46 pm

Once upon a time sociologists and political theorists were able to communicate to a wider audience, because they understood, as “literary types”[?] always have, that they themselves were members of that wider audience.

Reiff sounds like the perfect match for Sontag: American teenagers playing European intellectuals: Virginia woolf meet Oswald Spengler at the prom.

5

Henry 11.13.05 at 1:09 pm

Ah, thanks. Cosma already pointed out a couple of other howlers in there that I’ve corrected. Not my finest grammatical moment.

6

MQ 11.13.05 at 3:05 pm

Does anyone else here think we’ve lost something in so decisively turning our back on the Marx-Weber-Freud triumverate and the thinkers influenced by them (e.g. Marcuse)? Can anyone look at politics and popular culture over the last couple of decades and not see stuff like class interests and various repressed emotional desires playing a much larger role than oh, say, economic analysis?

7

des von bladet 11.13.05 at 5:06 pm

Does anyone else here think we’ve lost something in so decisively turning our back on the Marx-Weber-Freud triumverate and the thinkers influenced by them (e.g. Marcuse)?

I, for one, am quite convinced you have. The rest of us are still happily reading The Spectre, Chuckles and Unca Siggy, for sure.

8

Dave.L 11.13.05 at 7:20 pm

no fewer than four books, pleeeeeeasssse. and yes I do make this comment while standing in the “eight items or less” queue at the supermarket, I believe that I managed to effect a change of policy at Sainsbury’s.

9

MQ 11.14.05 at 9:30 am

The “we” referred to the vague and shadowy collective civilizational mind, not unimportant individuals like you and I, Des.

10

des von bladet 11.14.05 at 11:32 am

And the “rest of us” extends at least throughout Yoorp, where all these persons are all mainstream.

We deeply regret your individual unimportance, however.

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