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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Liberal alienation 2

Early on in Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber makes a point of asking what the rather “pretentious sounding” word spirit meant. Instead of defining it, Weber plays a game of fort/da with the definition – offering some features of the “spirit”, and then saying that the spirit is only recovered at the end, a composite extracted from the historical details. LI loves this answer. Long ago, in grad school, we worked long and hard to produce a schema distinguishing “epistemic” from “doxic” texts, with the major division being that epistemic texts tended to treat the work of the text as the work of stabilizing signifiers, whereas doxic texts tended to treat the work of the text as a circuit in which signifiers are de-stabilized. To put forward a thesis, a metaphor, a literal term, and then claim that the meaning of the term accrues only at the end of one’s work is exemplary of the doxic text, which recognizes that the text is not a transparent and ephemeral thing but has an unexpected density over which one has limited control. And just as in Freud’s grandchild’s game, it is a game of throwing things out and bringing them back as a buffer against an overriding anxiety that one can’t name. For what is the name of the total collapse of one’s world? And if you do speak its name, won’t that speaking cause it? Weber’s text is about one world collapsing and being supplanted by another. The world, in this case, is the world that Scheler calls “precapitalism” – and Weber, wiser than Scheler, calls modern capitalism, to distinguish it from previous forms, and forms that have flourished elsewhere, as for instance in China.

Another note on the text itself before I get to Weber’s point about modern capitalism. Most philosophy texts, since the Platonic dialogues, have presented themselves as epistemic texts, definitions first, thus completely missing the Socratic point, which is that, as the dialogue carries its participants further, the definitions they begin with unwind, prove to be insufficient, decay, and leave us standing more nakedly before the ideas, no longer in the position of the successful hunter or soldier – the one who captures them – but, rather, in the position of the supplicant. One of the things Weber absorbed from the pessimistic tradition is the possibility of regressing to this moment of Socratic irony within the human sciences – but to go on with this would be to go further out on a tangent than I want to.

Anyway: Weber, famously, compares Benjamin Franklin’s advice (rather cherry picked from Franklin’s works) to a passage in the Fugger correspondence.

When Jakob Fugger tells one of his colleague, who had retired and advised him to do the same, since he had earned enough and should let others earn now, that this was “small spirited” and answered: he [Fugger] had many an other idea, wanted to gain (win) while he could,” the “spirit” of this utterance thus obviously differentiated it from those of Franklin: what was expresssed, in the former, as the overflow of the adventurous commercial spirit (Wagemuts) and of a personal, ethically indifferent inclination, takes on in the latter an ethically colored case as maxims to live by. We are using the “spirit of capitalism” in this specific sense. Of course: of modern capitalism. Then that we are talking, now, of this western European-American capitalism is self evident in the face of the posing of the question. ‘Capitalism’ occurred in China, India, Babylon, in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. But just this particular ethos was lacking to it, as we will see.”


Scheler, in the essay to which we will revert in our next post about liberal alienation, pretty much follows Weber, here. Ourselves, we take ethos to be, among other things, the norms governing self understanding and self fashioning – in particular, with regard to one’s emotions. The spirit of happiness triumphant is not a thesis about some change in what the emotions are, but how they are socially understood, and how that understanding, in turn, changes the organization of the social.

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