Oeil Sociologique: A Case Study on Manet’s Chemin De Fer

Friday, 20 July 2018: 11:00
Oral Presentation
Tzung-wen CHEN, National Chengchi University, Taiwan
This paper uses Edouard Manet’s work Chemin de fer, also known as Gare Saint Lazare, to discuss the concept of oeil sociologique (sociological eye). Chemin de fer was finished in 1872, when Manet was 40 years old, just two years after his time in the Franco-Prussian War. Although selected for and displayed in the Salon of 1873, Chemin de fer was very different, in subject, style and even size, from other paintings displayed in the Salon, such as that of Gérôme’s Éminence grise.

Manet has been a popular research subject for social scientists such as Bataille, Foucault and Bourdieu. However, Manet’s vision of the world was rarely studied in comparison with sociological knowledge. With an oeil sociologique, Manet saw, unconsciously and spontaneously, ‘problematic’ dimensions in ordinary scenes, for example, two symbolically contrasting females, without any interaction, standing in front of a train station. The picture prepares a good starting point for sociological research on the railway’s impact on modern life. As Manet said, “I paint what I see,” and we can find in Chemin de fer an extraordinary arrangement of symbolic elements that come from Manet’s oeil sociologique.

The idea of oeil sociologique is neither the ‘period eye’ of Baxandall nor ‘sociological imagination’ of C. Wright Mills. Oeil sociologique is available only when sociological thinking emerges in a pre-sociological stage before the consolidation of a discipline called sociology or the initiation of a sociological study. By analyzing Chemin de fer, alongside Manet’s career, I propose that personal characteristics, social origin and historical contingency are potential contributors to the oeil sociologique. Manet’s case was a non-reproducible historical experiment that occurred in an age when sociology was about to emerge. However, the conditions and situations that contribute to Manet’s oeil sociologique are heuristic for us in this age of sociology in crisis.