for brian

Brian asked me a good question in the comments of the last post. He asked me to write what I’ve been writing in plainer english. Let’s see if I can do that.

My thesis has three parts.

The first part is that there are emotional customs – norms that organize the way people make sense of their feelings and moods in the past, present and future. Moreover, there is a sort of gray area in the West in which the good life has been associated with a certain mood – happiness.

Now, given this, as capitalism took hold as a total system in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century, I’m saying that there was the beginning of a shift in emotional customs – in what counted as the emotional norm. It is, remember, with reference to the norm that emotions are organized as to what is appropriate.

The second part of my thesis is that a vocabulary and models were devised for feelings, beginning in the late 19th century, which codified the hedonistic emotional norm while at the same time attempting to capture the nature of emotions in a science. The science naturally attempted not only to trace emotion back to its causes, but also to classify emotions. Thus arose a classification that increasingly used the idea of negative and positive feelings, or feeling tone, or emotions, as a way to connect emotional species, so to speak. This system was diffused in a number of ways – in the psychology of personality, in the disciplines dealing with motivation, in education, and in therapy. In one sense, this system was recapitulating the Christian project of moralizing the emotions.

And the third part of the thesis is this. As happiness becomes the emotional norm, the idea of impressing the image of happiness on the world – of creating a happy world – was embodied in politics. This happy world, or happiness triumphant, becomes the directing image for all kinds of political action. Often of contradictory political actions.

Now, within this framework, I’m interested in several subthemes. One is about age roles. Polanyi’s Great Transformation produced an unexpected social fact: the traditional age roles dissolved. This wasn’t seen for a long time. There’s a satire of Louis XIV’s court in La Bruyere’s Characters, under the section about children. La Bruyere observes that:

“Laziness, indolence and idleness, vices that are so natural to children, disappear in games where they are lively, assiduous, exact, great lovers of rules and symmetry, where they are pitiless to another’s faults and recommence, themselves, in those things in which they are at fault: a certain presage of the day when they might neglect their duties, but never forget their pleasures.”

Taking up this coupling of technique and laziness, pleasure and the love of rules, La Bruyere writes:

“Children begin, among themselves, in the popular state [democracy]; each there is master and, naturally, they soon don’t get along, easing the passage into monarchy: someone distinguishes himself, either by a greater vivacity, or by a better disposition of the body, or by a more exact knowledge of different games and the little laws that compose them; the others defer to him, and he thus forms an absolute government, which runs on pleasure alone.”

The rule of pleasure can be extracted from its link to the absolutism of the monarch and reinserted into a form of democracy that La Bruyere little dreamed. But the link with youth, with childhood, is as key. In the calculus of pleasure that theoretically runs everything, I think La Bruyere is right – the homo economicus is not so much a rational agent as a perfect child.

Now, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that this change is all bad. Hell, can’t we all get along and be dialectical? as Rodney King once asked. Also, I’m uncomfortable with calling the change ‘capitalism’ – it isn’t as if there were some socialist alternative. Both Marx and the chamber of commerce agreed on the need for industry and growth. Capitalism seems to name a particular economic system that is fundamentally different from socialism. I don’t think so.

So, are you with me so far?


Brian said…
Sure...I just lack your udnerstanding of history as to what th psychological goal was pre-happiness. Survival (for most)? Religious faith and waiting for an afterlife?

My favorite theme is this, though: Both Marx and the chamber of commerce agreed on the need for industry and growth. Capitalism seems to name a particular economic system that is fundamentally different from socialism. I don’t think so.
roger said…
Brian, I can't give you a 'goal' that people had on the long lost continent of the Ancien Regime. Survival, for us, has a Darwinian overtone, and so I distrust that word. Truly, though, to reach the age of sixty in 17th century Germany required some kind of cunning. One had to avoid disease, starvation, plundering armies and the like. So one aspiration was definitely to grow older - to grow into your full estate, and die redeemed. But it is a mistake to look back and see a uniform pattern. Notice how, in Shakespeare's plays, the value of being old is always in play - Lear is a classic example, but seeded all through the plays are old men whose social positions are in contrast to their emptiness: Polonius types.

There's a great bit in Akenfield in which Blythe interviews the 'survivors' - the eighty somethings, the farm laborers and farmers - in that British village. All of them welcomed WWI - such a relief to get away. One of them says, "I had nothing in my childhood, only work. I never had any pleasure." And then he corrects himself: 'But I have forgotten one thing: the singing. There was such a lot of singing in the villages then, and this was my pleasure, too."

Anyway, the point is, this older society had its pleasures, had a strong religious side, but to put together what its psychological 'goals' were is, in a sense, to come at it the wrong way.