For Christophe Boltanski




Translated by Catherine Porter


First published in French as Énigmes et complots © Éditions GALLIMARD, Paris, 2012
This work, published as part of a program providing publication assistance, received financial support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States and FACE (French American Cultural Exchange).
This English edition © Polity Press, 2014
Polity Press
65 Bridge Street
Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK
Polity Press
350 Main Street
Malden, MA 02148, USA
All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8344-7
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.
Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.
For further information on Polity, visit our website:
Polity would like to thank Penguin Group (UK), in addition to the following entities for permission to use the extract on page vi:
“The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”, from COLLECTED FICTIONS by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley, copyright © 1998 by Maria Kodama; translation copyright © 1998 by Penguin Putnam Inc. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
From Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © Maria Kodama, 1998. Translation and notes copyright © Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada Books Inc.
Extract from ‘Theme of the Traitor and Hero’ from COLLECTED FICTIONS by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1995, Maria Kodama, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.


1  REALITY versus Reality
2  The Inquiries of a London Detective
3  The Inquiries of a Paris Policeman
4  Identifying Secret Agents
5  The Endless Inquiries of ‘Paranoids’
6  Regulating Sociological Inquiry
Epilogue: And History Copied Literature

The idea that history might have copied history is mind-boggling enough; that history should copy literature is inconceivable.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Theme of the Traitor and Hero’


Written between 2008 and 2011, Mysteries and Conspiracies benefited from discussions with many colleagues – so many that I shall not attempt to list them all here – about the themes I had set forth in On Critique. But the current book is above all the fruit of friendly and even familial exchanges. Friends better informed than I about the sociological questions raised by literature, journalism, law, films and television generously offered skills that I lacked, and I hope they will not feel betrayed by my admittedly often awkward attempts to put what I learned from them into practice. Gabriel Bergounioux, Sabine Chavon-Dermersay, Philippe Roussin, Arnaud Esquerre and Marcela Iacub were of special help during the preparation of this book, and they offered well-informed and perspicacious readings of a preliminary version.

I also took excessive advantage of the little ‘think tank’ that I am lucky enough to have at hand almost without leaving home. My brother Jean-Élie Boltanski, a linguist and specialist in British literature, transmitted his passion for Anglo-Saxon detective stories and spy novels, as well as for the films they inspired. My daughter Ariane, a historian who specializes in sixteenth-century France and Italy, taught me a great deal about the origins of the problematics of conspiracy. My son Christophe, a war correspondent for a major news magazine, helped me understand the similarities and differences between sociological and journalistic writing. I exchanged ideas daily with my wife Élisabeth Claverie, whose current research focuses on the anthropology of genocide and the establishment of international tribunals designed to judge suspected participants; her work bears especially on questions about the meaning of ‘organized crime’ or ‘common criminal enterprise’, questions that directly concern problematic relations between individual and collective entities, and thus the problematics of conspiracies. I express my deepest gratitude to these family members here.

The text also owes a great deal to the attentive rereadings undertaken by Mauro Basaure, Emmanuel Didier, Damien de Blic, Corentin Durand, Jeanne Lazarus, and, more generally, to the highly stimulating intellectual atmosphere in the laboratory – the Groupe de sociologie politique et morale of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) – in which I have been working for more than twenty years. Éric Vigne, without whom this text would never have achieved the status of a book, was also, as always, an attentive and vigilant reader. He has earned my warmest thanks for the stubborn determination with which he persists in defending the social sciences against all odds. Finally, I thank the Gallimard copy editors who put their precious knowledge of spelling, syntax and typography at the service of the text and helped turn the typescript into a book.

In addition, I would like to thank the organizers and participants in the seminars in which I presented my work; their questions and critiques were very useful. Several occasions stand out: the October 2010 conference organized by Élie Kongs on new directions in critique; the joint EHESS-Université Paris-VIII seminar on processes of attribution that I gave in 2010–11, with Damien de Blic, maître de conferences at Paris-VIII, and Cyril Lemieux, director of studies at EHESS; the EHESS seminar organized by Marcela Iacub on the relation between law and literature, where my work was presented in January 2011; the seminar organized in April 2011 by Mauro Basaure in the context of the Instituto de Humanidades at Diego Portales University (Santiago, Chile), which gave me the opportunity to discuss the ideas developed in this work with Chilean colleagues from several disciplines (literature, philosophy, sociology) over three especially intense hours; the lecture I gave in June 2011 at Humboldt University in Berlin, at the initiative of Professors Jean Greisch and Rolf Schieder. Intermediate versions of chapter 2 appeared in the collective work Sozialphilosophie und Kritik published by Rainer Forst, Martin Hartmann, Rahel Jaeggi and Martin Saar in honour of Professor Axel Honneth (Suhrkamp 2010), and in the journal Tracés, published by the École normale supérieure lettres et sciences humaines in Lyon, under the direction of Arnaud Fossier, Éric Monnet and Lucie Tanguy (spring 2011). Many thanks, too, to Professor David Stark, who invited me to spend some time at Columbia University in April 2010, enabling me to complete the documentation for this book.

In conclusion, I have to say that my decision to embark on this project was spurred to a large extent by the so-called Tarnac affair, in which Julien Coupat, a militant French leftist whom I had known when he was enrolled as an EHESS student in my seminar and who later became a friend, was one of the principal individuals unjustly accused of having tried to cut the power supply to a train; he was arrested, charged under anti-terrorism laws, and imprisoned for six months. I began writing a month or so after the beginning of this affair in November 2008, and the process of constructing the book helped me manage my emotions and my indignation by shifting them onto a zone of reflection. I very much hope that the court’s rulings, which have not yet been issued as I write, will exonerate the ‘Tarnac Nine’, although this will obviously not eliminate the prejudice produced by the relentless police efforts directed at Julien Coupat and his companions.


With this volume, Polity completes its admirable task of making the principal works of the sociologist Luc Boltanski available in English. This makes accessible to British and American readers one of the major bodies of post-Bourdieusian European social theory. Undertaken in France between the 1980s and the present, oriented to solving problems left by the previous generation of theorists associated with post-structuralism and pensée ’68 – that age of ‘heroic’ theory, from an apparently revolutionary opening within the frozen post-war consensus – Boltanski’s project transpired amidst a historical chastening of hopes for élite theoretical understanding and radical political transformation. Yet Boltanski did not make the turn to liberal (or neo-liberal), anti-totalitarian (or deradicalized), or banal Americanizing themes, as did those of his countrymen who created that self-abnegating pensée anti-68 which has made fin-de-siècle French thought often look so barren when viewed from abroad.

In many ways, Boltanski has been a man out of place. Despite individual books, translated earlier, which have had enormous impact in particular sub-fields of Anglo-American scholarship (specifically Distant Suffering [1993], essential to theorists of humanitarianism, and The New Spirit of Capitalism [1999, written with Eve Chiapello], a fundamental analysis of the postmodern workplace), the coherence of his project had not been visible in anglophone countries until now. His reception abroad was blocked, on one side, by hostility to his early-career separation from Pierre Bourdieu, making him seem more alien than necessary to the ‘reflexive sociology’ so ardently received in the English-speaking countries. On the other, it suffered from too much of a sensation of familiarity, as Boltanski’s commitments showed close affinities with Anglo-American intentions to rediscover the agency, resistance, and vernacular self-understanding of ordinary social actors.

Boltanski commenced his career as a student, assistant, and close associate of Bourdieu. He collaborated on the founding of Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales with ‘the boss’ (as Boltanski calls him in a recent memoir and reflection, Rendre la Réalité Inacceptable [Rendering Reality Unacceptable]) and co-wrote notable work on the ‘production of the dominant ideology’ in French media and society. As Boltanski formed his own distinct research programme in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, he drew up strong objections to the god’s-eye view that belonged to the sociologist in his mentor’s system. Their difference, and ultimate theoretical competition, is remembered as acrimonious up to the time of Bourdieu’s death in 2002.

In more recent summaries of his sociological life’s work including On Critique (2009), Boltanski has stressed that his research into the pragmatics of moral contestation and everyday critique ‘was fashioned both in opposition to [Bourdieu’s critical sociology] and with a view to pursuing its basic intention’ (x). Bourdieusian critical sociology had tried to fuse the quest for emancipation in Marx with the value-neutrality of Weber. It would unmask ideology and domination – the ways that privileged groups get to say what reality is like – but remain scientific, committing itself to no concrete interest or normative particularity. It might inspire readers to indignation, but always remained coy about its personal involvements. And the scientist would stand in for the revolutionary, but stood apart from political constituencies, somberly alone in knowing how things ‘really are’. So Boltanski’s moral and political sociology tried to plunge back into the perspectives of narrow interests and communities of limited view – but seeing multiple sides and approaches at once. He produces a ‘sociology of critique’, anatomizing the philosophical bases and rationales for different actors’ multifarious challenges to institutions. Instead of the super-sophistication of the god’s-eye observer, he traces the dynamics of unsophisticated ‘affairs’ and scandals (like the Dreyfus Affair) for practical social change. In place of the unconsciously incorporated dispositions of habitus, he explores the ‘unofficial’ ratiocination and unacknowledged moral philosophy that goes on where official discourse prefers to close its eyes (as in his ethnography of French women’s experience of legal abortion, The Foetal Condition [2004]). During Bourdieu’s lifetime, this tack could seem hostile to the predecessor’s sociological edifice. From the standpoint of today, Boltanski’s moral-philosophical and actor-centered perspective has come to seem the earlier system’s vital complement and completion.

Mysteries and Conspiracies is not a departure for Boltanski, though the transposition to literary accounts of social order may seem unexpected. The underlying architectonics of how ‘reality’ is constituted, challenged, and stabilized through social forms belongs to On Critique. The last chapter in this book (‘Regulating Sociological Inquiry’) openly continues the meditations of that earlier apologia. The discovery of profound sociological significance in fictional media, too, goes back to some of Boltanski’s earliest research on comic strips and is perhaps not altogether methodologically unlike his later uses of the literature of management theory. It also alludes silently to Boltanski’s other life as a poet, librettist, and occasional writer on art. The incredible pleasure and good humor of Boltanski’s unfolding of the detective novel and the spy novel, genres wholly familiar to us revealed in entirely unfamiliar ways, is as much a wonder of artistic and readerly ingenuity, however, as it is a surprisingly convincing scientific strategy to capture a difficult social reality.

This book turns to popular fictions as a new means of cracking open the State and the law. This maneuver is not new. Literary scholars will certainly make it. But because Boltanski is a sociologist first, the outcome is uniquely felicitous. He knows what to look for – where the bodies may be buried, so to speak. State and law are simultaneously social fact and fantasy: anxiety-producing impositions of iron upon our soft reality, and highly personalized, fleshly protagonists of reassuring stories. Thus where literary scholars often seem undeservedly surprised and impressed at distilling any social order from fiction, Boltanski uses novels to attack very particular problems in our theorization of the place of ‘the official’ in the daily, unofficial experience of instituted power. He explores ‘social causality’. He pries open such topics as the intimacy between police and social science; the idea of ‘inquiry’ as such and its delineation of the formations it looks into; the concealment of one order of reality and causation by another. (Hence his neutral interest in disreputable ‘conspiracy theories’, and the basis of distinctions between social causation we – the ‘educated’ – ratify, and those which we disdain.)

One will not find here the discussions of language and form that define literary criticism; the quarry is altogether different. Through detectives and secret agents, Boltanski discovers shoring-up processes, in social fantasy, of forms of order necessary to the state which the state may not, juridically, contain (like the moral law, the agreements of gentlemen, the ethos of a civil service – or the ‘deep state’ and global-financial-racial conspiracy). In Mysteries and Conspiracies, Boltanski thus confirms his admission to the fraternity of great literary sociologists and sociologists of literature – whether we speak of the distinct orientations of a Raymond Williams, Lucien Goldmann, Franco Moretti, or Pierre Bourdieu. Through this most recent of Boltanski’s books, originally published in French in 2012, the English-language audience has the opportunity to have ‘caught up’ on his work at last, in two senses. We can await the new books to come.

Mark Greif

Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, New York, and a founding editor of n+1.


This book takes as its subject the thematics of mystery, conspiracy, and inquiry. It seeks to understand the prominent place these thematics have occupied in the representation of reality since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It focuses, first, on works belonging to two literary genres intended for a broad public in which these thematics have been featured: crime novels and spy novels, grasped in the forms they took from their beginnings in the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century (chapters 2, 3, and 4). Then, by developing the thematics of inquiry (which is at the heart of crime fiction) and the thematics of conspiracy (the main subject of espionage fiction), the work veers towards questions that concern not only the representation of reality in popular literature but also the new ways of problematizing reality that have accompanied the development of the human sciences. These sciences have made inquiry their principal instrument. But they have also sought to establish a procedural framework allowing them to distinguish inquiries that can claim ‘scientific’ validity from the many forms of inquiry that have developed in the societies they study. These forms include police investigations and/or their fictional stagings, and even inquiries undertaken occasionally by social actors in order to unveil the causes, which they deem real but hidden, of the ills that affect them.

For this project devoted to the human and social sciences, I have drawn essential material from three fields in particular. First, psychiatry: at the dawn of the twentieth century, psychiatry invented a new nosological entity, paranoia, one of whose chief symptoms is the tendency to undertake interminable inquiries and prolong them to the point of delirium. Second, political science: this discipline has taken up the problematics of paranoia and displaced it from the psychic to the social level, looking on the one hand at conspiracies and on the other at the tendency to explain historical events in terms of ‘conspiracy theories’ (chapter 5). Third, sociology: this discipline pays special attention to the problems it encounters when it seeks to equip itself with specific forms of ‘social’ causality and to identify the individual or collective entities to which it can attribute the events that punctuate the lives of persons and groups or even the course of history.

The articulation among these seemingly disparate objects is established by positing the analytic framework presented in chapter 1, which serves as a general introduction. This framework seeks to pin down the social and political conjuncture in which, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the thematics of mystery and conspiracy became tropes destined to play a prominent role both in fiction and in the interpretation of historical events and the workings of society. The thesis proposed here links questions about the representation of reality with changes that affected the way reality itself was instituted during the period in question. The relation between reality and the state is at the heart of the analysis. Mysteries can be constituted as specific objects only by being detached from the background of a stabilized and predictable reality whose fragility is revealed by crimes. Now, it is to the nation-state as it developed in the late nineteenth century that we owe the project of organizing and unifying reality, or, as sociology puts it today, of constructing reality, for a given population on a given territory. But this demiurgic project had to face a number of obstacles, most critically the development of capitalism, which ignored national borders.

As for the thematics of conspiracy, it is the focal point for suspicions about the exercise of power. Where does power really lie, and who really holds it? State authorities, who are supposed to take charge of it, or other agencies, acting in the shadows: bankers, anarchists, secret societies, the ruling class … ? Here is the scaffolding for political ontologies that count on a distributed reality. A surface reality, apparent but probably illusory even though it has an official status, is countered by a deep, hidden, threatening reality, which is unofficial but much more real. The contingencies of the conflict between these two realities – REALITY vs. reality – constitute the guiding thread of this book. We shall follow the conflict, as it unfolds, from several different angles. For the appearance and very rapid development of crime novels and then spy novels, the identification of paranoia by psychiatry and the development of the social sciences, sociology in particular, were more or less simultaneous processes that also coincided with a new way of problematizing reality and of working through the contradictions that inhabit it.

Rather than offer an impossible conclusion to a history that is presumably far from over, the book’s epilogue returns to the terrain of literature by looking at Franz Kafka’s The Trial. That text concentrates – with an intensity whose brilliance has been endlessly praised by the novel’s many commentators – the principal threads that I am seeking to disentangle at least to a limited extent here. The Trial takes up the thematics of mystery, conspiracy and inquiry that are at the heart of crime novels and spy stories. But by inverting their orientation and perverting their mechanisms, Kafka’s text discloses the disturbing reality that these apparently anodyne and diverting narratives conceal.

It is certainly possible to challenge an approach that consists in grasping the question of reality by relying at the outset on a documentary corpus made up of works intentionally presented as fictions. All the more so since, in the narratives at issue, it is conventional to leave a maximum of free play to the imagination for the explicit purpose of entertaining the reader – that is, precisely in order to remove the reader from the pressures and constraints of daily life and thus of reality. Nevertheless, crime novels and spy stories have arguably been the chief means for exposing to a broad public certain concerns that, precisely because they go to the heart of political arrangements and call into question the very contours of modernity, could not easily have been approached head on, outside of limited circles. According to this logic, it is precisely because uncertainties about what may be called the reality of reality are so crucial that they find themselves deflected towards the realm of the imaginary.

It is generally acknowledged today that crime novels and spy novels count among the principal innovations of the twentieth century in the domain of fiction. These genres made a sudden appearance in English and French literature at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth, and they spread very broadly with remarkable speed. Initially associated with so-called popular literature, these narrative forms, organized around the thematics of mystery, conspiracy and inquiry, were rapidly extended to more ambitious literature, which took over their predominant themes. But the appearance and very rapid development of these genres are more than interesting phenomena within the history of western literature. Detective stories and tales of espionage, which have been proliferating continually since the early twentieth century, first in written form1 and then through films and television, are the most widespread narrative forms today on a planetary scale. Thus they play an unprecedented role in the representation of reality that is offered henceforth to all human beings, even illiterates, provided that they have access to modern media. In a sense, these narratives constitute objects of predilection for a sociological approach that is turning away from a strictly documentary function and seeking new ways to grasp certain symbolic forms, especially political thematics, that have developed during the twentieth century,2 somewhat the way history and philosophy have been able to make use of the Homeric poems to analyse the symbolic structures of ancient Greece, or the way classical tragedy used those same texts to explore representations of power in seventeenth-century France.

On the conceptual level, this project has given me an opportunity to deal with questions that I had carefully avoided earlier, questions that I not only was unable to answer but that I did not even know how to formulate. The first of these is the question of the state, which is probably the hardest for sociology to address, precisely owing to the foundational ties that link the apparatus of state power with this apparatus of knowledge. I should also mention the question of social causality, one that has been largely abandoned by contemporary sociology; the question of which entities are pertinent for sociological analysis; the question of relations of scale (micro- and macrosociology); and the question, finally, of the place that should be attributed to events in the descriptions proposed by our discipline. Let me reassure the reader: none of these major issues will find a satisfactory solution here. But it has nevertheless been a relief to me to dare to look at them straight on.

This book also gave me an opportunity to use concepts that were better broken in because I had worked with them in earlier studies, for example the concepts of uncertainty, trial, affair, critique and especially reality, constructed reality understood as a network of causalities based on pre-established formats that make action predictable. In On Critique (2011 [2009]), I sought to show that the idea of the ‘construction of reality’, which belongs today to the organum of normal sociology, is meaningful only provided that one analyses the way reality comes to attach itself to the surface of what I call, in that same work, the world (a distinction that is taken up again with more precision in the first chapter of the current book). Everything that happens emanates from the world, but in a sporadic and onto-logically uncontrollable fashion, while reality, which is based on a selection and an organization of certain possibilities offered by the world at a given moment in time, can constitute an arrangement apt to be grasped synthetically by sociologists, historians and also local actors. One goal of my present endeavour is thus also, in a way, to flesh out the conceptual system proposed in On Critique.

I must add, nevertheless, that in writing this book I have hoped that readers who are not sociologists but practitioners of other disciplines (or even of no discipline at all) could read the text with interest. I have undertaken this project with a concern for grasping symbolic forms that, situated as they are on the borderline between social and political reality in its most tangible aspects and in particularly fantastical fictional representations, are not easily grasped either by using the methods of classic sociology or by resorting to the means available to literary studies. This approach implied taking as given the links that have always brought sociology into proximity with the vast realm of the ‘humanities’. In this way I have hoped to contribute to the analysis of the political metaphysics that, without necessarily being inscribed in the canonical forms of political philosophy, have nevertheless marked the previous century and that to all appearances still haunt the century that is now our own.