Bodily experiences of what Durkheim refers to as ‘collective effervescence’ are sociologically significant as they have the potential to transform people’s experience of their fleshy selves and the world around them. The somatic experience of the sacred, ‘something added to and above the real’, arises out of these transformations, and expresses a corporeal solidarity between people which can bind them into particular sectional groups, or into the social collectivity as a whole. It was Durkheim’s view, in fact, that the very possibility of society is contingent upon individuals being incorporated into this corporeal experience of solidarity. If this incorporation did not take place, if the beliefs, traditions and aspirations of the group were no longer felt by the individual, then ‘society would die’ along with the sacred.Durkheim’s writings have been interpreted in a wide variety of ways, yet sociologists have often been influenced by what Donald Levine has called Talcott Parsons’s ‘strikingly partial’ reading of Durkheim. In a similar vein, Bryan Turner has noted the influence of Parsons’s reading of Durkheim’s sociology as ‘the heir of social contract theories’ concerned with solving the ‘Hobbesian problem of order’. In consequence, many sociologists have tended to focus on the, admittedly important, rationalist dimensions of Durkheim’s thought, while being far less attentive to those other aspects of his work which reflect a concern with forms of embodiment and the transformative capacities of effervescent forms of sociality.
In contrast to this, however, Collins, Lindholm and Turner have suggested that Durkheim’s work can be read as a direct, corporeally oriented challenge to such a cognitive and rationalist emphasis. Furthermore, Célestin Bouglé’s recognition that for Durkheim society was a ‘fiery furnace’, as much as an ordered realm of ‘social facts’, has been developed by sociologists such as Stjepan Mestrovic. As Mestrovic highlights, Durkheim and Mauss emphasised the irrational bodily bases of human sociality. This is not to say that Durkheim did not place enormous importance on the rational dimensions of human experience.
Nevertheless, it is clear that for Durkheim the rational demands of society are intimately related to the irrational and sacred ‘fires’ of effervescent sociality. Nisbet emphasises this in his comment that Durkheim rejected as ‘untenable and meretricious’ any attempt to see contract as either historically or logically primordial, since it only gives rise to ‘transient relations and passing associations’. The pre-contractual, ‘irrational’, foundations of contract, in contrast, rest in the effervescence which allows certain forms of bodily experience and knowing to become possible, and certain types of relationship to be sanctified as normal.”