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British Association for American Studies


Issue 17, Autumn 2010: Article 4


Issue 17, Autumn 2010: Article 4

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Continuity and Change―or Routine and Crisis?

Katharina Worch

© Katharina Worch. All Rights Reserved.

Approaching the subject of continuity and change with the Frankfurt sociologist Ulrich Oevermann’s theory of crisis the goal of this article is twofold: first, to summarise Oevermann’s conceptual pairings that accentuate and explain different aspects of continuity and change, and to show their value as an explanation of the emergence of the new; and second, to demonstrate what the theoretical model can contribute when dealing with a fictional personal crisis.[1] For that purpose, this article will present an application and further testing of parts of Oevermann’s theory to a work of literature, Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, published in 1961.

Looking at the conceptual pairing of continuity and change, by which the historical process is divided into a common structure that is at times interrupted by a momentous event, it becomes clear that such an event is only capable of interruption when it brings about something new. If there was no permanent innovation in the societal sphere there would be no historical development. And if this innovation was only generated accidentally according to the principle of contingent mutation then historical development and evolution would neither be meaningful nor capable of systematic reconstruction.

At this point, the problem of the seeming contradiction between explicability and newness arises, which Oevermann solves through the dialectic of emergence and determination of the new. The emergent and the new hold such qualities only in relation to two aspects: first, the idea of something absolutely new seems contradictory, as we would simply not be able to notice it. Something that is new is always new in relation to something that is obsolete, and in its specific negation of the obsolete the new assimilates that which it replaces. Second, the quality of the new is only valid in relation to a form of practice and its process of formation. Therefore, a term is needed for defining the entity that, as a living agent, accounts for the structural processes of transformation that take place in the emergence of the new. Here, Oevermann introduces the term ‘life-practice’ (Lebenspraxis), which describes human life independent of its aggregation or dimension―be it a person, a group, a community or a nation―and which is able to grasp the interrelation of soma, psyche and sociality. Furthermore, the term refers at the same time to specific historical cases and to universal constitutive properties of human life.

In George Herbert Mead’s theory, the autonomous decision-making centre that is also the initiator of the new is called the ‘I’ in opposition to the ‘Me’―another conceptual pairing Oevermann includes in his theory. In the ‘I-Me-relationship’, the ‘I’, in the immediacy of a crisis, has to spontaneously deal with something (a situation, a brute fact, etc.) it does not yet know, and in this process the ‘I’, through retrospective reconstruction of its own actions i.e. through ‘predication’, is complemented by a ‘Me’. This is how the ‘Me’ evolves, and in this act of realisation the ‘I’ becomes apparent again. Identity is thus constituted through the ability to recall crises and their specific solutions, and these dealings and solutions are represented by the ‘Me’.[2]

For Oevermann, decisions (by what Mead calls the ‘I’) and their reconstruction (in what Mead calls the ‘Me’) are not made into open uncharted territory but along lines of algorithmic rules. Hence any decision will have meaning that is derived from its position within a sequence. Meaning is thus generated through decisions based on rules.[3] From the perspective of the preceding sequential position of a course of action, the subsequent concrete act is a meaningful, logical consequence made possible by valid rules for the generation of meaning. And in this way, its meaning is pre-determined, even though, of course, the decision itself is not determined. The possible meanings of a decision are determined in that the meanings of available choices in a given situation are set, but this meaning emerges only once the decision is made by a concrete ‘life-practice’. A ‘life-practice’ may be travelling in a whole new direction and choose to pursue a path it had not taken before because it was not considered a realisable, rational choice―for itself or even for others. The dialectic of emergence and determination―seen from the standpoint of sequence analysis―results from the combination of two basic structural parameters for each course of action in a world structured by rules. First, the opening of possibilities of meaningful continuation which are generated at each sequential position by algorithmic rules and, second, the concrete selection of one of these opened options according to norms, maxims and motives by a concrete ‘life-practice’. This selection will take place in keeping with that individual’s (group’s, nation’s, etc.) ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ for such decisions, and this ‘pattern of interpretation’ or ‘case structure’ has cumulated from similar preceding decisions. In this way, each sequential position is at the same time a selective opening and closing of options and possibilities.

Actions emerge when a decision involves not only the reproduction of a ‘pattern of interpretation’ or ‘case structure’ but also its transformation. In addition, emergence is not a static quality but a sequential and processual one, as outlined above. On the one hand theory has to be able to identify the emergent in its original state as an independent momentum of transitional dialectic in opposition to the present, and on the other hand, to explain, ex post, this emergent from the perspective of reconstruction as systematically generated and motivated all along. Each sequential position holds the potential for emergence, and each determined, routinised, act originally contained the seed of emergence. Emergence is the phase in which something latent is turned into something manifest by a ‘life-practice’.

The structural position of the emergence of the new in Oevermann’s theory of genetic structuralism is identical with the subject in its crisis of decision. He terms it genetic structuralism because it looks for and defines the conditions and parameters that are responsible for the manifestation of a latently held potential for innovation, which takes place in crisis. A crisis can never question or challenge the sum total of sequential rules, only part of it. In Oevermann’s theory, structural reproduction is regarded as the marginal aspect of the more general case of structural transformation because the subject evolves through continuous, future-expanding, cumulative transformations of ‘structure’. Whereas in practical experience crisis is the marginal case and routine the normal one, because otherwise a ‘life-practice’ would simply be unable to act.

For Oevermann, the terms autonomy and individuation are central ones. Based on the  opening of action alternatives generated by rules in a series of sequences each sequential position holds the potential of autonomy (in the ‘life-practice’s’ realisation). Thus, autonomy is, on the one hand, the constitutive presupposition for action as such. At the same time, sequences can be reconstructed and thereby it can be defined, whether at the sequential position the opened potential for autonomy was enlarged or further restricted. From such a reconstruction the relative autonomy of a ‘case structure’ of a practice can be determined. To the amount that a ‘life-practice’ realises (in both its meanings: to perceive and to perform) its potential of autonomy it becomes individuated.

The constitutional model of a self-identical subject that is capable of acting autonomously is expressed by successful individuation. There is no principle criterion for successful individuation, only gradual realisations. The endeavour for individuation and establishing autonomy never stops until the ‘life-practice’s’ death and is therefore the unceasing driving force for coping with crises in life, this interrelation being a matter of probation. ‘Life-practice’ is constituted by the dilemma of being forced to decide and being obliged to give reasons of justification. There is a pressure to make decisions because in a crisis situation facing an unknown future the ‘life-practice’ must choose between possible alternatives which are characterised by the lack of already established rational routines for judging what is right or wrong. At a later point in time, however, the ‘life-practice’ will need to be able to give (rational) reasons for having decided in a particular way—to himself as part of his coherent ‘structure’ or to others. When established routines fail to work or do not yet exist, the ‘life-practice’ has to come up with a new solution, thus, transformation takes place. For that the human qualities of creativity and spontaneity are essential. In the individual’s justification of its decision his premises of action are depicted. These have their seeds in the process of socialisation, which is both historically universal and culturally distinctive. Oevermann regards the evolving subject’s autonomous ability of construction as a crucial driving force, constitutive of which is that it is executed into an open future i.e. the coping with crises that can arise in the first place only when competing future courses of action become conscious.

One is only able to stand up to this dilemma with an internalised maxim of self-confidence, which Oevermann calls ‘structural optimism’. The term describes the basic habitus formation that an individual rather unconsciously develops during the process of a normal birth, which is the first crisis of every human being.[4] There he experiences what can be paraphrased by the positivity formula: in case of doubt there will be a successful outcome. Based on that assumption the individual deals with his future crises. The opposite―’structural pessimism’―describes a disordered habitus formation according to the negativity formula: in case of doubt it will fail.

For the ‘life-practice’, the crisis is present, which refers to its three-dimensionality of time (now), space (here) and social reciprocity (gift), whereas from the perspective of the scientist, the crisis is always gone and can only be brought forth through reconstruction. In the concrete crisis, the ‘life-practice’ is confronted with an Unknown that it realises but cannot classify and that is in some way related to the ‘life-practice’. Thus, in its quality of being present and critical but Unknown, i.e. not positively predicated, it is alarming to the ‘life-practice’. As one cannot not react to an Unknown, one needs to solve it through predication. Therefore, predication is the first form and mode of coping with a crisis. In consequence, something that is predicated from then on constitutes the inventory of routine. Every routine was once a crisis, which is again the reason why we have to regard crisis as the normal case and routine as the marginal one. In its reaction the ‘life-practice’ leaves a record of the solution behind, whose ‘objective structure of meaning’ can be reconstructed after the fact. Hence, the crisis is the relational characteristic between the ‘life-practice’ and the Unknown.

The subject in crisis is the crucial place of emergence that is turned retrospectively into determination. The crisis becomes a routine through its solution and, thus, is detached from the epistemological subject and its concrete conditions of life, and assumes an independent existence. In other words, the subjectivity of experience comes to itself in crises, whereas in the routinisation of the solution to the crisis it merges in the general. Therefore, in routine we cannot grasp the ‘life-practice’ any more because routines vanish into the general rationality. While a routine is past and general, a crisis is present and particular. Thus, if we wish to grasp the subject we need to look at its action in crisis. Still, crisis and routine exist only as a complementary construct, there is no routine without crisis and no crisis without routine.

Recapitulating, Oevermann introduces and works with different conceptual pairings that emphasise the various aspects of change and continuity. They are emergence and determination, Mead’s ‘I’ and ‘Me’, transformation and reproduction, crisis and routine. In the following interpretation of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer the latter pairing, crisis and routine, will be exemplarily applied.

The novel is set in New Orleans during the week before the 30th birthday of the protagonist, Binx Bolling, which falls on Ash Wednesday. As the title suggests, movie-going occupies most of his time, and for Binx movies serve as an exemplary way to lead one’s life. Although almost 30, Binx, both protagonist and narrator, is not an autonomous person. He avoids change, is unsure in his decisions, and always chooses the closest alternative that requires the least effort on his side. For example, he boards with an old lady, he works in a branch office of his step-uncle’s law firm, and his respective secretary is always simultaneously his fiancée, as he has replaced them three times in four years. These observations are expressions of a personal crisis of reaching the age of 30, which brings him to think about his career aspirations, his future companion and his place of residence. Seen from a socio-psychological side, these are all questions of adolescence. The adolescence crisis is particularly interesting because overcoming it results in adulthood (which usually happens in the ‘life-practice’s’ early twenties) but in this case it is also a delayed adolescence crisis. What is the reason for the delay and crisis beyond the approach of a milestone birthday? What brings the crisis to an end? And does Binx’s solution indicate success or failure?

A first hint to the stimulus of the crisis is found in the first chapter in the following sequence, where Binx raises the issue of change after having described his life and customs:

But things have suddenly changed. My peaceful existence in Gentilly has been complicated. This morning, for the first time in years, there occurred to me the possibility of a search. I dreamed of the war, no, not quite dreamed but woke with the taste of it in my mouth, the queasy-quince taste of 1951 and the Orient. I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush. Everything is upside down for me, as I shall explain later. What are generally considered to be the best times are for me the worst times, and that worst of times was one of the best. My shoulder didn’t hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search. Naturally, as soon as I recovered and got home, I forgot all about it.[5]

A sudden change from ‘peaceful’ to ‘complicated’ has taken place in the narrator’s life, but he does not or cannot qualify it any further than just speaking of ‘things’. This might be due to him not being able to reach the ‘things’ because it affects certain parts of his self that lie deep in his unconscious. The change was triggered by an incident―the occurrence of a search, or rather of the possibility of a search, an idea not new to him but long forgotten. Speaking of search also implies that the change in life was not imposed on him by an exterior force because a search requires a person’s activity. That means that the narrator has brought about the change willingly, but he still uses the passive ‘occurred to me’, as if he wanted to conceal this active side from himself. In tracing back the appearance of his search he remembers that he dreamed of the Korean War in such a realistic way that he was even able to recall the taste of it. This is more than a dream, rather a re-enactment, which gives a first clue to his suffering a war trauma. Indeed, he tells of a battlefield injury to his shoulder, which made him lose consciousness, and which is closely connected with the first appearance of the search: when he came round and found himself under a bush―the shoulder not hurting due to the shock―he had the sense that this extremely critical situation was, strangely enough, good for him because watching a dung beetle close to him aroused in the narrator the feeling of being engaged in a search and thus of having a goal to accomplish. In this extraordinary situation―a matter of life and death―it became clear to him that he must prove himself in life. But he calls search what is, in fact, probation. He invented this search because he realises that he experiences a change, then needs this invention as a pretence to not let his crisis of probation become conscious. When the narrator is home again, he is so absorbed by the repression of the trauma that everything else becomes secondary, including the search. But repressing a trauma excludes the process of working through it, and in consequence it will reappear again someday. This very event arrived that morning: the narrator finds himself at the same point in life, where he is now able to resume the search and work through his trauma. Up to that moment he had been too weak to bear facing his trauma and therefore something had a stabilising effect on the state of his psyche.

The above dream ignites a period of eight days where the narrator confronts his crisis of probation in a rather unconscious manner, i.e. he is not able to name it. In the end this leads to a change of his vision of life and his vocation, but most notably, a change of his relationship with his step-cousin Kate. On the first day Binx describes Kate’s thoughts as follows:

In her long nightmare, this our old friendship now itself falls victim to the grisly transmogrification by which she unfailingly turns everything she touches to horror.[6]

Kate’s psychic instability becomes clear immediately when the narrator speaks of her ‘long nightmare’. A nightmare requires sleep, which is, in its characteristics of being detracted from practice and in its darkness and helplessness, similar to the emotional condition of a person suffering from depression. The nightmare is already ‘long’ and has not ended yet, and now it takes the toll of their friendship. Their friendship is ‘old’ because Binx lived with Kate―who is five years younger―and her father and her stepmother, who is his great-aunt, from the age of 15 and still spends every Sunday there: effectively it is a 15-year-long brother-sister-relationship. Binx, assuming Kate’s perspective, perceives this transformation of their friendship as scary and unidentifiable because it means the end of it and the beginning of something new. Here, an emerging love relationship is indicated, and Kate fears that the transition might fail, which would indeed mean the end of their friendship. She is afraid to start, even just to ‘touch’, something because it might go wrong. A person with this attitude towards life is unlikely to be able come to terms with the demands of life. Kate’s psychic instability is due to trauma from a car accident she and her fiancé had when she was 19, in which he was killed and she survived unscathed. Like Binx with his war wound, she regards it as the happiest moment of her life.

Binx spends the fourth day of that week with his new secretary, Sharon, at the beach with the intention of gaining her love. Watching her returning from a swim in the sea he thinks:

My throat catches with the sadness of her beauty. Son of a bitch, it is enough to bring tears to your eyes. I don’t know what is wrong with me.[7]

With the catch in his throat Binx feels the bodily effect of the emotional state of grief; a block that prevents the person affected from speaking or swallowing properly, is strongly directed towards the inside and is likely to end in an outburst to relieve the pent-up feelings. The reason for Binx’s grief is the sight of Sharon’s beauty. He cannot look at her without sadness because a relationship with her is not within reach for him–not because she won’t return his affection, but because Kate already occupies this position. Inside, he has already said goodbye to Sharon but the moment signals more than just a farewell to her; it is also farewell to Sharon as a representative of his life up to this day. He swears at this insight (‘son of a bitch’), which still does not become conscious. This is clear when he states that he has no idea why he cannot enjoy the beautiful woman and his seemingly carefree life any more. Here, Binx desperately tries to hold on to his routine but at the same time unconsciously makes way for the coming transformation.

Both Binx and Kate are scarred by their individual traumatisation, both are currently in a relationship that does not satisfy them, and both end those relationships in the course of the week―Binx gives up Sharon and Kate breaks her engagement with Walter, her fiancé. On a train journey from New Orleans to Chicago they finally sleep with each other (which includes both possibilities of success or failure) and thus consummate a love relationship. This transformation is evident in the following sequence, set on the sixth day of the week right after their arrival in Chicago, where Binx’s reveals his thoughts on Kate:

There I see her plain, see plain for the first time since I lay wounded in a ditch and watched an Oriental finch scratching around in the leaves…[8]

He sees her in a new light, i.e. with the eyes of a lover. Additionally, he is able to see clearly for the first time since the traumatising event. Interestingly, the dung beetle from the dream tale of the beginning has turned into a songbird, i.e. symbolically from something ugly (dung) and low (ground) to something beautiful (song) and high (sky). Here, we find the reference to the dream, which ignited the crisis. From the moment he was wounded in Korea until the night with Kate his sight was indeed blurred. He gains self-knowledge of his internal state, which is a necessary condition for overcoming the trauma, and thus leads to the solving of his crisis. This sequence indicates a successful outcome.

Summarising the reading, the novel begins when Binx has reached the point in life where recovery is possible (to the amount attainable for him) and his present life is not interesting enough and appealing any more. The coming of his 30th birthday sets the time for the appearance of the crisis. During this critical week he thinks of marriage, starting a family or becoming a doctor, but also considers allowing things to remain as they are. He is ridden by nightmares of the war, endures more sleeping problems than usual, and he discovers his interest in his step-cousin Kate whilst nonetheless trying to fall in love with his new secretary. There is an unconscious desire for change that competes with the seeming convenience of his well-established life. As the relationship with Kate intensifies he unconsciously slides into transformation. At the end of the novel, Binx and Kate marry, he starts medical training and they move to her parents’ neighbourhood. With this new vision of life he can prove himself to the extent possible to him, though he still chooses the closest alternative: Kate, with whom he grew up, and medicine, which his father practised and his aunt wishes him to pursue, and a house near their relatives. Regarding Kate’s and Binx’s traumatisation, however, here two people have come together who mutually help each other and are able to understand the partner in his or her limitations. By this means, their life together constitutes the highest amount of autonomy and probation achievable for both.

The fundamental premise of action established in The Moviegoer is in accordance with the model of ‘structural pessimism’ outlined above. That does not mean the protagonist fails every time he is confronted with a problem, but rather that he carries the burden of a lack of self-confidence. It leads to a relatively late and rather unconscious perception of the crisis, and due to an uncertainty of what the best answer might be, finally, to avoid making a decision. But as that is not a possible alternative in the long run (because one cannot avoid taking action), the crisis recurs until delaying it any further would ultimately lead to defeat. At that point in time the protagonist finally takes action with the help of (mostly self-imposed) external circumstances―the approaching 30th birthday―and thus, solves the crisis just in time and with as little commitment as possible. Because of this lack of confidence in one’s ability to tackle crises and in relying on one’s experience, there is a high risk of making a wrong decision, which then serves to reinforce the ‘structural pessimism’ of which it is a part―and it is almost impossible to break this cycle.

Goethe-University, Frankfurt


[1] Ulrich Oevermann, ‘Natural Utopianism in Everyday Life Practice – An Elementary Theoretical Model’ in Jörn Rüsen, Michael Fehr, Thomas W. Rieger (eds.), Thinking UtopiaSteps into Other Worlds (New York: Berghahn, 2005), pp. 136–147; ‘Sozialisation als Prozeß der Krisenbewältigung’ in Dieter Geulen, Hermann Veith (eds.), Sozialisationstheorie interdisziplinärAktuelle Perspektiven (Stuttgart: Lucius & Lucius, 2004), pp. 155–182; ‘Die Soziologie der Generationsbeziehungen und der Generationen aus strukturalistischer Sicht und ihre Bedeutung für die Schulpädagogik’ in Rolf-Torsten Kramer, Werner Helsper, Susann Busse (eds.), Pädagogische Generationsbeziehungen (Opladen: Leske + Budrich, 2001), pp. 78–128; ‘Die Philosophie von Charles Sanders Peirce als Philosophie der Krise’ in Hans-Josef Wagner (ed.), Objektive Hermeneutik und Bildung des Subjekts (Weilerswist: Velbrück, 2001), pp. 209–246; ‘Die Struktur sozialer DeutungsmusterVersuch einer Aktualisierung’, in Sozialer Sinn 1 (2001), pp. 35-82; ‘Die objektive Hermeneutik als unverzichtbare methodologische Grundlage für die Analyse von Subjektivität. Zugleich eine Kritik der Tiefenhermeneutik’ in Thomas Jung, Stefan Müller-Doohm (eds.), ”Wirklichkeit” im Deutungsprozeß: Verstehen und Methoden in den Kultur-und Sozialwissenschaften (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993), pp. 106-189; ‘Genetischer Strukturalismus und das sozialwissenschaftliche Problem der Erklärung der Entstehung des Neuen’ in Stefan Müller-Doohm (ed.), Jenseits der Utopie; Theoriekritik der Gegenwart (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), pp. 267–336.

[2] George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self & Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).

[3] John Searle has something similar in mind when he speaks of ‘Background’.

[4] For the original use of the term see Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Edition de Minuit, 1979).

[5] Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Vintage, 1998), pp. 10-11.

[6] Ibid. p. 63.

[7] Ibid. p. 130.

[8] Ibid. p. 206.