What is an Event?” A New Book from Sociologist Robin-Wagner Pacifici

“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful, momentous, idiosyncratic, one-off episodes that stand out in narratives about the past.

Events like 9/11, the Great Recession, or the Paris Commune of 1871—all of which Wagner-Pacifici examines in the book—don’t fit neatly into sociology’s attempts to articulate general laws about societies. Indeed, they may look like exceptions to these laws, and Wagner-Pacifici characterizes a resulting “skepticism about the ways in which events reflect something enduring about society.” From this disciplinary perspective, What is an Event? might read like a departure from typical sociological research.

It does not, however, mark a departure from Wagner-Pacifici’s distinctive scholarship and longtime curiosity about how events help shape our understanding of societies more broadly. The University in Exile Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research says that she has always studied events, drawing from multiple disciplines in the process, precisely to discern what they might illuminate about social relations.

Wagner-Pacifici describes a growing realization about the usefulness of events during the process of writing her dissertation on the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro, subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. She says, “It struck me that I could usefully try to apply frameworks from other disciplines and other societies to contemporary events in large-scale modern societies.” In other words, a systematic study of the concept of events—the forms they take, why they feel exceptional, how they evolve, and how they weave themselves into ordinary life—can play a significant role in shaping how we think about the social world.

In Wagner-Pacifici’s account, we perceive events as breaks in what otherwise seems like the unremarkable continuity of everyday life, or what Wagner-Pacifici refers to as ground. “In order to better understand what makes a rupture feel so disorienting and disquieting, you have to understand how it is we navigate the everyday world that we consider the uneventful world.” Events become eventful when we perceive that they “emerge” from or “rupture” the ground we are used to navigating.

Wagner-Pacifici describes specific events, not just to examine individual ruptures and their respective effects on specific societies; rather, she mobilizes them as cases that help to articulate how the construction of events might be understood more generally. At the heart of this argument lies the assertion that events only exist in the forms of their representation. “Forms matter,” Wagner-Pacifici says, “In fact, they are the matter of events. [Events] don’t live anywhere else.” To put it differently, events exist in the ways that they are mediated: by news reports, paintings, novels and films, legal decisions, the creation of new categories of “enemy combatants,” social media feeds, and memorials.

What is an Event? makes a specific intervention when it comes to this last form: the case of memorials. Wagner-Pacifici argues that memorialization plays a central role in the creation of events. “A monument is about cauterizing the event,” she says. To erect a monument typically marks an effort to collectivize memory and suggest separateness from the event itself. But Wagner-Pacifici offers an alternate interpretation, suggesting “the memorial is as much a part of the event as anything that happened.” Memorials become, in her account, an essential form in the creation of an event. Viewed this way, the building of a 9/11 memorial or the decision to locate an Islamic Community Center near “Ground Zero” has as much to do with the event as the hijacking of planes and the destruction of buildings.

If events like the Great Recession seem trickier to define, Wagner-Pacifici points to the difficulty of pinpointing when events actually occur. “How do we know when we’ve reached that threshold?” she asks, “when it’s no longer just daily oscillations or some probabilistic series, but rather something that has taken form and launched itself as an event?” In her estimation, The Great Recession frustrates those trying to analyze it, partly because of its resistance to formalization, its failure to cohere, and the extent to which the forms and factors that caused it remain in place. “Millions of people lost their homes, their retirement savings,” Wagner-Pacifici grants, “but it was a non-event in a way […] Wall Street continues unabated, banks continue unabated, the accretion of finance in the hand of a few continues.” One interpretation of the Great Recession suggests that the elusiveness of substantive policy responses represents one outgrowth of the “abandonment of an attempt to concentrate that event into some kind of centralizing image.”

In this, Wagner-Pacifici drives home again the importance of understanding aesthetic depictions of events, and she regularly turns to the analysis of images to help build her structure for thinking through events. “It’s really important to do as adequate a job at analyzing images and symbols as it is to analyze discourse and textual materials,” she says. “That’s why, in trying to find various angles into events, I’m also trying to illuminate events through their pictorial apparitions.”

The integration of such humanistic readings into a sociological study marks one more way in which Wagner-Pacifici’s book opens up to diverse forms of interpretation. Running throughout the book is her assertion that our “blunt instrument of a vocabulary of cause and effects is not good enough, not sophisticated enough.” What is an Event? represents an attempt to build a more nuanced lexicon that helps us understand that no event is final, or should remain uncontested. With respect to the forms that comprise a single event, we may return to a sense of what Wagner-Pacifici calls “unremarkability” or “quiescence,” but any event “can always be resurrected.”

If an event is any one thing, then, it is always evolving.