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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Control and Resistance

One day in 1877, the pastor of a town in lower Silesia, Krummhübel, had a talk with a man named Lehnert. Lehnert was twenty seven. He’d served in the army. His father, a wheelwright, was dead. His mother had asked the pastor to have a little counseling session with her son, who’d spent two months in jail for smuggling. Lehnert had been making threats against the Forester, a man named Opitz. The pastor had taught Lehnert when he was a child, and had some affection for him, but he told the young man that frankly, these threats were getting to be too much. Also, he’d heard that Lehnert had been speaking of the ‘republic”, praising ‘happy America’, and seemed to have absorbed some of the radical phrases of the schoolmaster – and this, too, had to stop. Lehnert should stop treating the law as if it was “sinning against him.”

Lehnert defended himself by pointing out that he had been a good soldier. He wasn’t disobedient by nature. But Opitz was jealous of him. He’d been jealous of him when they served in the army. Opitz had made a special effort to deny Lehnart the iron cross. Lehnert had a way of thinking about people like Opitz that reconciled obedience and standing up for oneself:

»Oh, Pastor, you know how it is, and you know, also, that we’re not so bad, I especially not. I was in the army and know, what it means to obey, and no reasonable man can be against obedience. For it keeps everything together. And so does the law, too. But people, Pastor, people, they make the difference, and when one of them is useless, that makes everything bad. I know that, too, from being in the army, and I have to say, and I have it written in my discharge, that I was a good soldier. But it is up to those who have the command, it is up to them, and what different kinds of superiors there are! There you had to appear with your pack on and two hours of exercise in the courtyard, and the sun burns and prickles, and however much you beat yourself up, parade drill is worthless, the sword hilts remain awkward and even if they were right, you have to go this way again and again, you have to go that way again and again, and then a blow under the chin and curses and threats, “I’m gonna throw you into the stock house or jail.” Yes, Pastor, low ranking officers like that – and there are a few – also demand obedience and they find it, but when the time has passed, than you put your leg out and trip em, or you get them into a corner. And those who do that are not against obedience and discipline, they are simply against the low ranking officer. So me, I am not against the law, even if I don’t always obey it, I am simply against this jerk, this man skinner and boozer, Opitz«.

This is from Theodore Fontane’s novel, Quitt. Lehnert is a wheelwright and an occasional smuggler, not a philosopher. He doesn’t explicitly appeal to conventions and codes, but to the ‘way things are’. Historians might baptize the smuggling, and the getting of some sadistic sergeant in a corner where one can beat his face in, as resistance. And the forces of order – the officers, the forester Opitz – as the face of control. Myself, so far in my work on the ‘happiness triumphant’, I’ve been trying to get at the sense people make of their emotions and norms within a capitalist society, or one that is being transformed into a capitalist society without using control and resistance as my fundamental concepts. Anybody who goes to academic talks will get an earful of the word ‘resistance’, as though it possessed an irresistible mesmeric charm – and it does, but I often think the charm is the white magic of identifying, so many years later, and in the comfort of one’s day to day, with the very different day to day of the people one is studying. I wonder if the people who it is used about, those micro-resisters on the resistance frontier, wouldn’t instead come up with a speech much like Lehnert’s – far from being troublemakers, they are enforcing a rule of the game, which is about how far you can go, and how much you enjoy, enforcing the official rules.

I’m thinking about these things in relation to an essay by a medievalist, Barbara Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History”, published in the American Historical Review in Summer, 2002. It is a good overview of the explicit theme of (oh, the ugliness of this word) ‘emotionology’, going from Lucien Febvre’s plea for a history of emotions in 1941. Rosenwein has a critical point to make about the metanarrative going forward from Febvre – and really, she claims, from Huizinga, who Febvre was criticizing in the first version of his essay. That metanarrative makes the common analogy between societies and individuals, seeing history as a process of human growth in which childhood – equated with barbarism, or with the middle ages, or with Naturvolk – is supplanted by maturity. So the childlike spontaneity of emotional expression in the Middle Ages is followed by bourgeois control of emotion, or adulthood, bringing us into the present, where control has become the ‘managed heart’, and organizations reach all the way through to the way we feel. This narrative, Rosenwein claims, groups together two other features: one is the idea that emotions are irrational, and the other is the use of the hydrodynamic model to talk about emotions. Emotions build up, are channeled, explode, are diverted, and so on.

Against this, Rosenwein wants us to see emotions as recent cognitive science sees them. They aren’t irrational. They are part of the way human beings assess situations. They are strategic.

I’m not altogether sure why Rosenwein thinks that the assessment model and the hydrodynamic model are incompatible. The deconstructionist in me thinks that Rosenwein is working in an intellectual situation created by a classically false bind, constructed by the way the term ‘rationality’ is used. This bind generates two strategies – one of which is to use rationality and irrationality as canonical terms denoting the cognitive and the emotional, the other of which takes emotion to be as rational as any other cognitive state without asking whether that doesn’t overthrow the meaning and use of rationality. And the perils of these strategies stem from that moment buried in social rationality which makes the thing depend, ultimately, on an uninvestigated pursuit of happiness. The line which runs through the register keeping apart reason and sentiment is erased at this crucial juncture. The notion of an autonomous rationality, or an autonomous morality, one that will eliminate the passions, will always have this all too human moment. Rosenwein’s notion that emotions are assessment tools and that they have been treated, unscientifically, in a schema derived from the humors, is not without its advantages; yet by capturing the emotions within the paradigm of self-interest, the assessment idea seems, itself, to be invested in an ideology that is anything but scientific. The appeal Rosenwein is really making is to the heuristic of cognitive science, not to the science itself. It is easy to imagine a pluralism that could accommodate both the hydraulic and assessment view of emotions. But the whole affective region seems, in my opinion, to go well beyond both schemas.

Yet I am sympathetic to the larger critique Rosenwein makes of Febvre and Elias: that is, that the supposition that there exists a culture in which the emotions aren’t controlled – a savage or barbarous state – is an illusion. What is happening when the civilized is contrasted with the barbaric in terms of maturity? You find the retrospective tendency to project an image of childhood or parenthood on the past among the Greeks. It is an old, old motif, and it has its advantages. It helps identify the speaker, for instance – either as a master of spontaneity who has put aside the senile presuppositions of the older generations, or as an adult who can appeal to science to settle disputes. And it obviously legitimizes largescale coercion, which is why the idea of indigenous people as children became so popular in the 19th century. Of course, the corollary to coercion is murder, and since murdering children to make them behave has never been popular, the child reverts to the savage when they start charging British troops or bushwhacking French poilus. But as they are, collectively, a child, killing individual members of the collective could be seen, perhaps, as a love tap. This idea cropped up in 2003 among the war fans to explain the ingratitude of the Iraqis. It turns out that they were wounded, in their adolescent sense of honor, by the fact that they couldn’t overturn Saddam Hussein themselves. So they were collectively pouting.

But as I am comparing the happiness culture to something like the ancien regime’s ‘sweetness of life’, I have to ask if I’m not falling prey to the same old myth.
Even though Lenherdt is Fontane’s creation, I believe the case he makes does, in fact, reflect a process of reasoning – or, if you will, of tacit reasoning – about the control exerted from on high by the masses who were, in one way or another, objects of that control. They sought to control back, but for every rare anarchist who succeeded in winging a King, there were thousands and thousands of Lenherdt’s, shooting the middle men in the dark forest. Lenherdt knew why the rules were there; he found reasons to make exceptions, in his case, to the rules, but was perfectly willing to bear the consequences if caught; but he also had a sense of fairness about being caught. If the middlemen enjoyed their power too much – when we meet Opitz, Fontane takes care to describe the way he puts his iron cross on a ribbon that is just large enough to make the cross sway when he moves, thus showing how, even on the most trivial level, Opitz is a showy man – then they weren’t being fair.

Fontane’s story is set before railroad connections made Krummhübel a resort town for skiers and hikers in the Riesengebirge. Nabokov, for instance, skied in that area in the 1920s. And after World War II, after the Germans had rounded up the Jews of Krummhübel and sent them off to the camps, the Poles took Silesia and expelled the German population. Krummhübel is no longer a city on a map.

All those larger events, stage noises off, all of those deadly futures…


P.M.Lawrence said...

There's one thing that it is important to remember with materials like this. In continental European practice the term "officer" is broader than in English, meaning both N.C.O.s and commissioned officers where in English it only means the latter if unqualified by "non-commissioned". It usually slips through translation; N.C.O. would have been a better rendering than officer here.

BTW, I'm glad to see that links for non-google posters have been re-enabled.

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, that's a good suggestions. When I was translating that, the lower officer thing struck me as awkward. My only question is: would privates say non-commissioned officer? or N.C.O?

P.M.Lawrence said...

N.C.O., unless one was being specific (corporal, sergeant, sergeant-major, whatever). The lower, the more direct contact with O.R.s (other ranks, i.e. privates and their analogues).

There's a wonderful story in "Goodbye To All That", in which two privates become so upset by their sergeant that they conspire to kill him, only they get the sergeant-major by mistake. Then they burst into their commanding officer and confess, "Sir! Sir! We've shot the Sergeant-Major!".

"What, did you think he was the enemy?", came the reply.

"No, we thought he was the sergeant".

There is a truism so old that I cannot remember where or when I learned it - but definitely in a hands-on way, not in texts - that the secret of military discipline consists in the soldiers being more scared of their sergeants than of the enemy. But I found it again a few years ago, in both Montaigne and Frederick the Great. As an educated man the latter was not independent of the former, but his endorsement brings the authority of direct knowledge to what Montaigne can only known directly from the observation of troubled times as a civil magistrate. The key point is, the English texts I read used the same term "officer" for what I was told as "sergeant".

P.M.Lawrence said...

Drat, finger trouble - "have known directly", not "known directly".

Chuckie K said...

This comment comes a little late in the day. I just want to put Elias in a little better light. His better work is in Courtly Society, where he expressly identifies the courteous management of emotions as "symbolic violence." The mechanisms of violence change only as the monarchy exercises a more successful monopoly of non-symbolic violence, and the peers can no longer as freely beat up on each other or the crown. A very different narrative than The History of Manners and one much more useful.