the birth of financial capitalism from under the mask

I feel out of place
Just look at my face...

In volume 5 of Georges Daru’s classic Histoire de la Republique de Venise (doesn’t the mock scholarship of this beginning send a little frisson up your spine? LI is trying out a Poe like style – but hark, we are in the midst of a very non-Poe like parenthesis!), there is a description of the famed Redoute, Venice’s casino:

“The most frequented of the places to play (cassins) was called the Redoute. This was an establishment not unworthy of the attention of the observer. In existence since 1676, it was a vast edifice consecrated to games of chance. Usually, there was sixty to eighty tables, where only the patricians could sit like bankers. They were in their robes, with their faces uncovered, while the other players were masked. but these patricians did not represent the bank in actuality: they were on the payrole of companies who associated for this speculation, that is to say greedy capitalists and even the Jews. They were on a yearly, or a monthly, or a daily stipend. It was a singular spectacle to see around a table persons of both sexes in masks, and grave personages in magistrates robes holding the bank, both the one and the other praying to chance, passing from the anguishes of despair to the illusions of hope, and this without offering a word.”

Among the masked players, we know, was John Law – who went on, in a stroke of genius, to devise something like a twentieth century financial system, and tried to impose it on an economy transitioning from feudalism and an ancient code of war – the France of the Regency – with, of course, disastrous results. And at this point I could start wondering about the chain of chains that I’ve been dragging through this blog, lately – but I’m more interested in those masks. In 1670, on the other side of the world, the Pacific northwest, a very sophisticated mask culture, the Kwakiutl, were using more elaborate masks in ceremonies that, to some extent, survived to be studied by Franz Boas in the early twentieth century. Boas was opposed to the culture evolutionists who would see the gamblers in Venice as a higher civilization to which the Kwakiutl were related as a primitive stage. Rather, he wanted to slice these cultures up into units governed by pattern rules that weren’t in that progressive order one with the other. Certainly at least here, in Venice, the masks under which financial capitalism was born should at least give us pause. But – another promise I have no idea if I will keep - LI will get to Boas later.

As LI pointed out in our Caillois post, we have a feeling that the mask and the game, which Caillois associates with each other, have something to do with imitatio, the segmentation of life according to figures – call them Gods or spirits – attendant upon different ages. It is interesting to think of imitatio as, in some ways, the donning of a mask – a persona.
The mask in “European” culture is mostly studied in relation to the ancient world. There was, for instance, the Roman custom of having a buffoon at a funeral don a mask resembling the deceased. Suetonius tells a famous story about the funeral of Vespasian, famous for being tightfisted: “Even at his funeral, the leading mime actor Favor, who was wearing a mask of his face and imitating the actions and speech of the deceased during his lifetime, as is the custom, asked the procurators how much the funeral and the procession had cost and, hearing that it was ten million sesterces, exclaimed that they should give him a hundred thousand throw him [Vespasian] into the river.”
Herder had the idea that the mask was a form of alienated imperfection – the mask was our ugliness. We are gorillas in masks.
“From this point of view, have you considered what advantages such masks gave Greek art, what nobility they gave the human form? Through them, what distorted our nature, what was unseemly, was cut away from us. All caricature was transferred, classified and ordered. Therefore it remained separated from the noble human body: no Hogarth could be a Prometheus and make images of men; but the child, the boy could play with masks, even Jupiter and Mercury could act in masks, if they so pleased. They were now not gods, but deformed beings: for whoever wears such a mask, thereby certifies that he is now not a man, or god, but the beast, the fool, in whose shape he appears. The noble human form, that for the Greeks reigned over everything, has such a one renounced.”
- Herder, Letters for the Advancement of Humanity (Werke, 5.2 292)

Caillois did not associate masks with games of chance. The more natural move is to associate them, or at least one of their functions – the production of hyperbolic fear – with ilinx, the games that play with vertigo and its avatars.

Okay, enough tonight.

PS – Like Marcel’s aunts in Swann’s Way who combine discretion with politeness to such a degree that the remarks they make to each other when Swann brings the family a gift from his garden, which seem random and a little bizarre, are actually carefully phrased to convey with a surcroit de tact a gratitude that would be entirely spoiled by its open declaration, like a gift presented without any gift wrapping, so, too, I coyly designed this post PLUS boosting the great photograph of the Kwaikutl mask all as a way of enticing a comment from certain of my web pals. But alas, no comment relevant to the substance of this post has been unsheathed in the comments to this thing. I feel like I want to cry.

However, there’s another reason for this postscriptum.

Lately, I’ve been perversely interested in the pro-ana community. That anorexic girls just don’t suffer in exemplary victimhood, but actually go out there, swap malign diet tips and encouraging words has not only destroyed a certain image of anorexia, the ‘silent’cry for help, but it has pushed the envelop of identity politics perhaps beyond the point of no return. Plus, there is the Goddess Ana, a rumor and a collective creation that has made me think a lot. There’s even been some question in U.K., a country that likes to combine the barbarism of the unfettered market place with the hypocrisy of the smothering nanny state, of officially censoring pro-ana sites. Now, I’m not ridiculous enough to be pro pro-ana – that would be a usurpation of experience even LI is not arrogant enough to indulge in.


if I were a therapist, I would take seriously the connection between the elements I am associating here: imitatio, ilinx, and the hyperbolic mask of fear. While this might sound like so much crazy LI shit, it is pretty easy, if you open your eyes, to see this stuff working like a well oiled machine all around us.

Okay, post scriptum is over. And now for some gratuitous pictures of penises. Meanwhile, I think I’m going to use the motto of this site as my sign off line.

I’m so bored. I hate my life.


roger said…
Dominic, The onion should hire me - I'm so much more to the point!

Although what is going on there seems to be a parody of Danielewski's House of Leaves.
P.M.Lawrence said…
A minor point: the casual reader might suppose that John Law was a late 17th century figure, whereas he was more an early 18th century one.

A major point: France was not emerging and transitioning from Feudalism then. That happened during the Hundred Years' War, Feudalism being succeeded by the system of "Livery and Maintenance", sometimes called "Bastard Feudalism", which empowered magnates and the monarch (sometimes one more than the other) at the expense of the lesser aristocracy and any remaining free peasants. The traditional structure and self-policing aspects of Feudalism proper - the exchange of binding promises, usually of protection for service, backed by honour and oaths which it cost to breach - had largely gone, replaced or supplemented by cash transactions and the force of law backed by a policing structure. Michael Crichton's novel "Timeline" contains an interesting and well researched discussion of related economic developments: the obverse, in their way, of the collapse of the cash economy under the Merovingians to which Pirenne ascribed the rise of the Feudal (poltitical) System and associated Manorial (economic) System in the first place.

This in turn was succeeded by the Ancien Regime's arrangements, with classes and privileges and so on, all within a state structure (Tom Paine describes it moderately well, though with bias). However, just as the French Kings captured the Feudal System well enough to work it against the Angevin Empire, so also absolutism worked by capture and co-option of unstandardised and often localised structures, using the carrot of office and privilege to bind the magnates in chains of gold. The Noblesse de Plume vaunted and vaulted over the Noblesse de Robe...

In sum, what the French Revolutionaries were pleased to denounce as Feudalism - wasn't. Rather, it was a new creature wearing the shell of the old, hermit crab fashion, and it had taken it over from yet another later tenant at that, not from the original occupant.
Anonymous said…
LI, thanks to your post I came across a reference to a dvd that I am totally dying to see. A 1930 film by Boas on the Kwakiutl as part of his research on rhythm, song, dance.
Anyone know if the dvd was ever released?

We will dance when our laws command us to dance, and we will feast when our hearts desire to feast. Do we ask the white man, “Do as the Indian does?” It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you come to forbid us dance, be gone.

If not, you will be welcome to us.

(O’waxalagalis Chief of the Kwagu’ł “Fort Rupert Tribes”,
to Franz Boas, October 7, 1886)

roger said…
Amie, famously, Boas' tapes were supposed to have been stolen. Hmm, but the status of those tapes is ambiguous. You probably know this, but Boas' daughter, Franziska, sort of started the cultural study of dance - she was associated with all the biggies - Martha Graham, Kathrine Dunham. Anyway, her story was that only copies of the tapes were stolen.

One thing about Boas - he was surrounded by women, and his most famous students were mostly women - Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, etc.
roger said…
Which - as I was saying until I so rudely cut myself off - is interesting because these women were all internationalists. They were all about cultural relativism. And they were all about art. It is a secret society in the heart of Ann Douglas' mongrel modernism. A friend of mine, whose book on Eisenstein is coming out from the University of Chicago press soon, turned me on to another of Boas' students, Anita Brenner, who basically guided Eisenstein around Mexico when he was there in 1930, and connected him to the Greenwich village avant garde - which was drifting into Mexico City after Gotham took the big, black monday dive in October, 1929. In turn, Brenner brought, like, Diego Rivera to New York. Boas also had Mexican students, lectured in Mexico, and the minister of culture in Mexico in the 20s was one of his students. Cross stitching, cross stitching.