Deviance and the Underground

The discussion of deviance, in the sociology of the Cold War period up to the eighties, was burdened by a vice squad rhetoric and tone, as if the sociologists in question were busy raiding an opium den and kicking the sleepers. Thus, the categories of the academics and the voice-overs in those admonitory films shown in school classrooms to warn young white people against the temptation of various and sundry lurking dangers of the real world, from accepting rides with strangers to sex and drugs, seem retrospectively built out of the same cultural assumptions, under the bulking presence of the same missile system.

Deviance as a sociological concept came out of the 19th century discussion of decadence. Durkheim proposed deviance as a contrast to norms; later, in the 1950s, it was usefully associated with linguistic rituals – both in the way Becker saw how the labeling process works to distinguish the deviant from the ‘non-deviants’ outside of, although not uninfluenced by, the institutional context; and in the rationalizations of the deviant, classified by Matza and Sykes; and it finally fell victim, as a subject in sociology,not only to changing moeurs, which would theoretically simply give us another set of the deviant and the non-deviant, but also to camp. The vocabulary the fieldworkers used to describe the teenage car thief or the marijuana smoker, with its Dragnet cadences, is irresistibly funny, now. It is hard to read, for instance, Howard Becker’s Outsiders, with its search for the one deviant act that begins the career of the deviant (o that fall from grace), without giggling. Even in its time this prose had a period piece flavor. When smoking pot went from an activity practiced by the low life foreigner or the Hollywood blackmailer in a Raymond Chandler novel to one practiced by your average high school kid on the weekend, the subjects captured by deviance – which were always a little ambiguous to begin with, since deviance seems to pulse between crime and weirdness – began their startlingly rapid career of normalization, upending the cops. The camp resonance of the rhetoric employed by the agents of control and their academic minions flowed into the work of writers like Burroughts, Pynchon, and Joe Orton, as well as into underground commix and the prancing beat of rock and the sneers of punk, and in the process part of its seriousness was sacrificed on the altar of stylization, and another part became the basis for a counter-attack, mounted by a left that had learned paranoia the hard way, for the missile wall that protected us had also produced the bomb test and the iodine in the collective thyroid gland. It was style killed the traditional FBI man, and if he still continues to be popular, it is not in the guise of giving the fifth degree to the drug dealer, but as the chaser of UFOs and exotic foreign terrorists, with the new character code demanding that it be his own straightness tht comes into question. Even if deviance retains its terminological privilege in criminology, it has been generally muffled in sociological discourse since the 1970s. Colin Sumner aptly summed up this history in the title of his 1994 book: The Sociology of Deviance: an obituary

However, if the collapse of the sociology of deviance was due to its one-sided blindness to the real social force of style, certain of the classic ideas of the sociology of deviance are still worth rescuing precisely because they predicted this fate – or could be jiggered so as to make it explicable.

I am intrigued myself, as I go after the underground man, by the Sykes and Matza thesis of neutralization. While they were writing about juvenile delinquents in Chicago, Pierre Klossowski was writing about Sade in Paris. The sociologists may seem to inhabit a different realm from the pornographer/philosopher, but in fact neutralization casts light on what Klossowski calls Sade’s philosophy of ‘counter-generalization’.

The Matza and Sykes paper begins by rejecting an idea that, in diffuse form, had gained some currency in the sociology of deviance:

“The basic characteristic of the delinquent subculture, it is argued, is a system of values that represents an inversion of the values held by respectable, law abiding society, the world of the delinquent is the world of the law-abiding turned upside-down and its norms constitute a countervailing force directed against the conforming social order. Cohen sees the process of enveloping a delinquent subculture as a matter of building, maintaining, and reinforcing a code for behaviour which exists by opposition, which stands in point by point contradiction to dominant values, particularly those of the middle class. Cohen’s portrayal of delinquency is executed with a good deal of sophistication, and he carefully avoids overly simple explanations such as those based on the principle of ‘follow the leader’ or easy generalizations about ‘emotional disturbances’. Furthermore, he does not accept the delinquent subculture as something given, but instead systematically examines the function of delinquent values as a viable solution to the lower-class, male child’s problems in the area of social status. Yet in spite of its virtues, this image of juvenile delinquency as a form of behaviour based on competing or countervailing values and norms appears to suffer from a number of serious defects.”

The defects in question stem from a simplifying logic of contradiction. If there is a ‘deviant subculture’, then its norms will be, according to this theory, deviant – they will be the negation of the norms of respectable society – the society of the ‘human product’.

It is here that Klossowski’s interpretation of Sade makes an interesting dialogic partner to this sociological groping around, for in a sense what the sociologists are looking for is what some of the more romantic interpreters of Sade take to be the Sadeian society, which raises the standard of a Satanic revolt against the powers that be. Klossowski, on the other hand, while understanding that romantic moment in Sade, holds fast to Sade’s core Enlightenment belief. It is not Satanism but atheism that drives the Sadeian society. In the Philosopher-Villain, his corrective essay that takes up certain of the errors as he now saw them that populate his earlier book, Sade, my neighbor, Klossowski introduces the useful notion of counter-generality:

“The peculiarly human act of writing presupposes a generality that a singular case claims to join, and by belonging to this generality claims to come to understand itself. Sade as a singular case conceives his art of writing as verifying such belongingness. The medium of generality in Sade’s time is the logically structured language of the classical tradition: in its structure this language reproduces and reconstitutes in the field of communicative gestures the normative structure of the human race in individuals…

With this principle of the normative generality of the human race in mind, Sade sets out to establish a countergenerality that would obtain for the specificity of perversions, making exchange between singular cases of perversion possible. These, in the existing normative generality, are defined by the absense of logical structure. Thus is conceived Sade’s notion of integral monstrosity. Sade takes this countergenerality, valid for the specificity of perversion, to be already implicit in the existing generality. For he thinks that the atheism proclaimed by normative reason, in the name of man’s freedom and sovereignty, is destined to reverse the existing generality into this countergenerality. Atheism, the supreme act of normative reason, is thus destined to establish the reign of the total absence of norms.” [Sade, my neighbor, trans. by Alphonso Lingis, 14-15]

Thus, we have two positions, at least, staked out about deviant or pervert sub-cultures: one in which the pervert sub-culture is in revolt against respectable culture and constructs its own norms while accusing the respectable culture of various hypocrisies and injustices; and one in which the task is to establish, from the supreme act of normative reason, Atheism, the reign of a total absence of norms.

Matza and Sykes take a third position, which is that the deviant sub-culture is held together by an ethos of ‘neutralization’. They reject the idea that the deviant has a consistent philosophy that he follows – rather, they point out that there are a number of respectable people that deviants often admire (they include in this number the ‘mother’ and the ‘priest’, which – for Matza and Sykes – might evoke the Warner brothers films of the thirties, but for me evokes the Sadeian mockery that is directed at just these two figures), and that deviants are not immune to guilt; furthermore, when you listen to what the deviant says when he is caught (that is, for a crime – for again, the deviant in these texts is always becoming a criminal. The idea that the criminal might become the norm, that the respectable might model itself on the deviant, is outside of the ken of the deviant theme), he does not rail against the norms, but rather against his bad luck.

However, man is a creature that needs reasons as much as he needs food. Matza and Sykes suggest that reasons – rationalizations – are needed to actually live as a deviant. But if the deviant is not to make the move of vulgar opposition, nor the Sadeian move of the removal of all norms except that of the death instinct, then he will need some buffer to silence his inner voice:

“Disapproval flowing from internalized norms and conforming others in the social environment is neutralized, turned back, or deflected in advance. Social controls that serve to check or inhibit deviant motivational patterns are rendered inoperative, and the individual is freed to engage in delinquency without serious damage to his self-image. In this sense, the delinquent both has his cake and eats it too, for he remains committed to the dominant normative system and yet so qualifies its imperatives that violations are ‘acceptable’ if not ‘right’.”

This is a fascinating paragraph, for – through the supposed value neutrality of the idea of norms – one receives the impression of a monolithic respectable society that has, indeed, got it right. A society that is so monolithically right that, for instance, there is nothing deviant about said society producing weapons with the power to destroy humanity if it is attacked. At the moment that Matza and Sykes suggest their very useful category scheme, they also produce a moment of neutralization – of style and value – in which one gets a flash of the technocrat working on the human product as the sociological imagination blinks off. Neutralization, I suggest, is not the domesticated genie they take it for, especially if the deviant is not the Other of respectable society, but is rather in a parasitic relationship to the community of human products.

The neutralizations are defined by five cardinal elements, a sociological liturgy:
1. The denial of responsibility In so far as the delinquent can define himself as lacking responsibility for his deviant actions, the disapproval of self or others is simply reduced in effectiveness as a restraining influence.
2. The denial of injury A second major technique of neutralization centres on the injury or harm involved in the delinquent act. The criminal law has long made a distinction between crimes which are mala in se and mala prohibita – that is between acts that are wrong in themselves and acts that are illegal but not immoral – and the delinquent can make the same kind of distinction in evaluating the wrongfulness of his behaviour.
3. The denial of the victim Even if the delinquent accepts the responsibility for his deviant actions and is willing to admit that his deviant actions involve an injury or hurt, the moral indignation of self and others may be neutralized by an insistence that the injury is not wrong in light of the circumstances. The injury, it may be claimed, is not really an injury; rather, it is a form of rightful retaliation or punishment.
4. The condemnation of the condemners A fourth technique of neutralization would appear to involve a condemnation of the condemners or, as McCorkle and Korn have phrased it, a rejection of the rejecters. The delinquent shifts the focus of attention from his own deviant acts to the motives of his violations. His condemners, he may claim, are hypocrites, deviants in disguise, or impelled by personal spite.
5. The appeal to higher loyalties Fifth, and last, internal and external social controls may be neutralized by sacrificing the demands of the larger society for the demands of the smaller social group to which the delinquent belongs such as the sibling pair, the gang, or the friendship clique. It is important to note that the delinquent does not necessarily repudiate the imperatives of the dominant normative system, despite his failure to follow them. Rather, the delinquent may see himself as caught up in a dilemma that must be resolved, unfortunately, at the cost of violating the law.