One of the pleasures of Jorge Arditi's A Genealogy of Manners: Transformations of Social Relations in France and England from the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Century is that the author, a sociologist, brings his disciplinary perspective to material usually studied by historians and literary critics. Sociological studies of pre-1800 European culture are rare and form a small branch of a discipline largely concerned with theorizing contemporary culture. A few works in this subfield of historical sociology like Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism or Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process are classics, but historical sociology has not yet created a substantial body of work familiar to academics in other disciplines. (The Journal of Historical Sociology began as recently as 1988.) More and more interdisciplinary studies of the pre-modern period address social and cultural issues, but these are largely written by historians, literary scholars, and art historians making forays outside their field of training, and not by sociologists. This is why Arditi's work in the social relations of Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment is of consequence. Historical sociology has its own concerns which are not to be confused with cultural history.
In order to appreciate Arditi's work, it is necessary to understand that the primary goal of sociologists has been to devise theories. They inevitably lay emphasis on the structure of the social sphere, and are less interested in amassing detail, or in telling a historical narrative. This basic methodological technique separates historical sociology from the trend of interdisciplinary historical studies. If the mammoth History of Private Life project exemplifies interdisciplinary cultural history, it owes more to traditional intellectual history than to historical sociology, because it repeats familiar historical narratives with a new look at technologies and practices. Arditi's book is far more theory-driven.
A Genealogy of Manners: Transformations of Social Relations in France and England from the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Century consciously follows the work of earlier sociologists like Durkheim, Weber, and Elias, proposing at the outset to analyze "transformations in infrastructures of social relations in Europe..." (1). Arditi admits that he is, in many ways only revising Elias' groundbreaking work from the early part of this century, stating that, like Elias he argues that "the change from courtesy to civility [was] a sign of far-reaching transformations in the constitution of social reality" (3). But Arditi should be commended for wielding a new theoretical framework for this insight with aplomb. Where Elias' account in Volume 2 of The Civilizing Process subordinates the creation of absolutist-courtly society to political machinations, Arditi lends sophistication to essentially the same phenomenon by constructing a theory of power relations that touches on spiritual, moral, and intellectual aspects of social life as well as political ones. He is able to push Elias' work on civility in this significant new direction by borrowing directly from Foucault, and writing under the influence of Bourdieu, if not following the latter directly.
The crucial idea of "infrastructures of social relations," defined in the first chapter as "historically specific modalities of being" (6) is meant to be understood as a logic behind the structures of a group's social relationships, with different modalities in different periods, analogous to Foucault's account of modalities of thinking in The Order of Things. This theory of infrastructures of social relations signifies nothing less than new ways of relating to things and people, new ways of thinking and acting, and the changing logic producing these new modalities. Yet, Arditi's scope in the following chapters is more limited. Works about manners, fictional and non-fictional, are the basis for showing how aspiring classes learn to dominate and succeed in perpetuating their domination. Arditi attempts to show that social power moved from the ecclesias to the monarch to the aristocracy (the latter in the case of England only). He is interested in the collective self and the production of similarity and, by logical necessity, in the creation of social difference; the ecclesias, the monarch and the nobility, each in turn, are able to rise to social dominance through collective beliefs and practices that allow some members become masters over the others.
In a chronological sketch, he moves from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth, tracing the changes in manners from courtoisie to courtesy to civility, and finally, to etiquette; these are the terms in which social dominance is constructed. Arditi also argues for an evolution in the change from courtoisie to etiquette. The sets of social relations in each period from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment turn out to have a shape, and that shape is altered in each successive period: the dominant group in medieval Europe, the ecclesias, is "an order" based on "centeredness." This centeredness changes when the monarchy becomes the single most significant societal power and changes again when, in England the aristocracy, ushers in a multi-centered form of social relations.
Throughout the book, the theory is promising. Arditi's conclusions about centeredness and multi-centeredness in forms of social dominance echoes current work about people's understanding of themselves and the social world in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but reformulates some accepted ideas in a fresh way. Arditi has a historian's sensitivity to anachronism when discussing the Middle Ages and Renaissance in particular, because he refuses to see social groups as constituted by discrete individuals as we would now. He is adept at explaining how the notion of the individual subject and collectivity were formed differently in the past.
Nonetheless, the reader is left with several questions about how these mega-phenomena of manners, social dominance and infrastructures of social relations are related to one another, and we are not aided by the language in which the arguments are formulated. Courtoisie, civility and etiquette are, all at the same time, forms of ethos, aspects of the infrastructures of social relations, modalities of being, etc. Then, the centeredness and multi-centeredness of social reality seems to be another aspect of the infrastructures of social relations, but we are not told how these aspects are related within an infrastructure, nor how any one infrastructure is related to another. The reader struggles with the enigmas of the infrastructure which is not singular and stagnant, but dynamic and complex. How it works, what it's made of and how we know that it really exists behind the perceptible phenomena of practices does not become clear in his textual interpretations. This concept of the infrastructure as something operating behind more obvious expressions of social relations as a kind of logic seems compromised by the argument that these infrastructures aren't singular or specifically locatable, and that the study is limited to only one their aspects--manners. We can appreciate Arditi's attempt to create a dynamic rather than mechanical explanation, infusing his language with a sense of complications and multi-dimensionality, but the object of the argument often becomes elusive in its ambitions at general theory.
A Genealogy of Manners may also be difficult for readers who do not take for granted that France, England and Italy shared much the same culture from the end of the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment; Arditi puts them all in a single pot. Despite the title, the study also covers the Italian Renaissance, and does not treat France and England comparatively, but moves from the one to the other as if the evolution of manners naturally moved northward. Because of this large western European scope, Arditi's readings must be highly selective; he often rereads familiar and predictable works like Machiavelli's The Prince, Castiglione's Il Cortegiano, and Shakespeare's Hamlet, but he also surprises us with valuable readings of texts like Lord Chesterfield's letters and Samuel Pepys' Journals that provide insights into changes in manners. If there were a better balance between the familiar guidebooks to the history of manners and more new material, the general arguments would be extremely convincing. Combined with a historian's extensive use of archival material to provide a variety of examples, the sociological theory in A Genealogy of Manners would prosper, and historical sociology would make an important leap into current academic research.