Towards an Exhausted Sociology

Wednesday 25th October, 2017

Keith Kahn-Harris

My entire career as a sociologist has been carried out in the face of exhaustion.

In 1993, in my second year as an undergraduate, I developed glandular fever (‘mono’ for American readers) and I have never fully recovered. Over time, post-viral malaise progressed into ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and it has been my constant companion during my MA, PhD and subsequent career in research, teaching and writing. My condition is relatively mild, but it is stubborn and prevents me from taking up full-time academic work. I will never be a professor.

There is, of course, much more to be said about the intricacies of living with my condition. There is even more to be said about the difficulties of pursuing an academic career with a chronic condition, not to mention the challenges of conducting ethnography with limited physical capabilities. And, of course, the sociology of ME/CFS is a worthy research topic in its own right. But it’s also worth considering how a chronic condition like mine can help in developing a ‘sociological sensibility’ that can be a resource in developing unique insights across a range of sociological fields.

Working with ME/CFS requires the continuous, reflexive monitoring of energy levels. Living under the shadow of exhaustion produces a constant awareness of the costs and benefits of expending energy on particular activities. After 24 years of this exhausted reflexivity, I have become acutely attuned to the ways in which the human world is the product of ‘work’ in most literal sense: the body’s expenditure of energy. Nothing is free, nothing is effortless, the whole towering social structure that we humans have built can only remain standing through continuous, strenuous effort.

In theory this is hardly a novel insight. But the embedding of an awareness of the costs and benefits of work into the very heart of my exhausted existence, has imbued me with a particular sensibility that runs through my work. The kind of ‘exhausted sociology’ that I practice is both impressed and intimidated by the energetic quality of everyday life. My ability to contribute to this energetic practice varies, but my sociological work can at the very least pay tribute to the sustained effort of others.

The ethnographic research for my PhD on extreme metal scenes (which formed the basis of my book on the subject and subsequent publications), was conducted during the same period in which I was forced to acknowledge and come to terms with my condition. It’s no coincidence then that a major preoccupation in my work was the constant ‘mundane’ work through which what I call 'scenic infrastructure’ is reproduced. I came to understand boredom and even drudgery as intrinsic aspects of even this ‘transgressive’ scene. I was in awe of my some of respondents whose commitment to the scene lead them to work long into the night writing letters (this was the 1990s), making tapes, rehearsing, touring in battered transit vans – all of which at the same time as earning a living (often in a dull ‘day job’) and, frequently, bringing up families. Even when scene members abused their bodies with drink and drugs, I saw the work it took to balance such transgressive pleasures with the mundane work of the scene and the wider world.

My later research on the British Jewish community has also been preoccupied with the continuous individual and collective effort that it takes to build communal institutions. I see ‘community’ as going to endless meetings, as making the tea, as committing to spend a major part of one’s life in labour that rarely receives acknowledgement, let alone material reward.

While some of my work might seem like an awed tribute to the capacities of humans to expend energy, to achieve levels of exhaustion way beyond my own puny limits, I also appreciate the labour necessary for darker human practices. In recent (as yet unpublished) work I have been doing on antisemitism and Holocaust denial, I have been reading biographies of Nazi genocidaires such as Franz Stangl and Adolf Eichmann. I can almost ‘feel’ the exhausting labour of genocide, the sheer effort it took to kill millions, just as my own limited capacities give me a limited glimpse into the exhausting forced labour of the victims.

In writing this short piece, I have to confess to an ironic sense of exhausted struggle: I fear that what I present as profound bodily insights into sociology may come across simply as banal truisms. Maybe this defines an ‘exhausted sociology’; a sociology that strains against its limits to represent an enduring human condition just beyond itself. All humans, both individually and collectively, have limited capacities and cannot ever truly grasp the essential nature of the world (if, indeed, one exists). We are finitude and yet we continue to strive for something more. An exhausted sociology might be one that is aware of its inevitable constraints, yet constantly tests them, risking their destruction.

I’m not sure whether my own sociological sensibility represents an exhausted sociology. Living comfortably with ME/CFS requires one to try and restrain oneself from overshooting one’s physical limits. Maybe there is further I can go. I know physically what awaits me should I push myself too far, but do I know what sociologically could await me? Is exhaustion the corollary of insight? Or is it the opposite?

I have no answers, only questions. I do know though that, at the very least, my own sociological practice is different from what it might have been had I never developed ME/CFS.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, an associate lecturer at Birkbeck College and a fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. All these posts are part-time. His website is kahn-haris.org.

Here's more you may be interested in: