by Rick Rozoff
March 4, 2009
The death of American sociologist C. Wright Mills at 45 years of age in 1962 was an irreparable loss not only to the United States but to the world, and not only to his generation but the three that have succeeded it and on into the indefinite future.
He was as at home quoting Rousseau, Balzac and Jacob Burckhardt, always to good purpose, as he was formulating such concepts and models as military metaphysics, mass society, the higher immorality and the cult of celebrity as early as 1955.
Mills did so in his mature, post-university writings with a simplicity of style and expression matching the profundity and perspicacity of his observations and conclusions.
In his work of the same name Mills defined the sociological imagination as the intersection of biography and history.
The same may be said of politics, particularly world politics, and if the word can still be used in the current ‘postmodern’ and ‘post-historical’ epoch, destiny. Indeed for Mills sociology was no dry discipline, no mere compendium of data and experimental results but living history, the historical dynamic captured in the moment, and perhaps the collective human exemplification of philosophical principles employed in a conscious manner.
History is replete with examples of an individual’s personal trajectory paralleling and illustrating the trends of a historical period and process, for better or worse, with benign or malignant effects. Sometimes with both.
A standard example is that of Talleyrand-Perigord (“Regimes may fall and fail, but I do not”), whose diplomatic career both reflected and affected for the 45 years from 1789-1834 the tumultuous developments in France from the fall of the ancien regime to the abrupt end of its restoration.
A person performing such a role, whether possessed of a more than usual degree of energy and ambition or of a steadily plodding nature, will be the equivalent of a tracer bullet or dye injected into the bloodstream for an angiogram. One can view in the person the intricacy of broader patterns and learn to spot the presence and trajectory of the second by that of the first.