“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Marx, Gramsci and Honour Penury

A curious thing happened to Jane Ellard in 1738. Ellard was walking in Grosvenor Square when – well, this is her account:

... two Women came up to me from the other Side of the Way, and told me I had a mighty pretty Gown on; - pray, says one of them, what did it cost a Yard? I informed them what I gave for it; Oh! 'tis a sweet pretty Thing they said, - pray which Way are you walking? I told them I was going to look after a Place; they said I should have the Refusal of two or three very good Places, and if I would tell them where I liv'd, they certainly would come and give me Directions about them. I told them that I should be very much obliged to them, and that I lodged at Mr. Pullen's, in George-Alley , by the Ditch Side. The next Day as the Bells rung Eleven, they came up Stairs; I am very positive to the Prisoner; the other Woman that was with her pass'd for the Prisoner's Mistress. I asked them about the Place they were to help me to, but they told me they were Apprentices to Sir Isaac Newton , at Turnham-Green, and that they must first calculate my Nativity; so out they pull'd a great Book with Heads and Hands in it; they told me a vast deal out of the Book with the Heads and Hands in it, and said I must bundle up all the Things I had, - Rings, Money, and Cloaths. I have but little Money, says I, and I don't Care to bundle up my Cloaths, that can relate nothing to my Fortune, - that's quite silly, and if any body should hear this Business besides our selves, they would laugh at us. Well, they argued with me a great while, and said it must be done, and began to be angry because I would not do it. Why, - says one of them, suppose you were Sick, and a Physician comes and prescribes Physick for you, - if you won't take it, what Good can he do you? 'Tis all the same Thing, we can't pretend to do you any Good, unless you'il do as you are ordered. At last I bundled up all my Cloaths, and they went away, but they returned again, and asked me if I had done as they bad me? I said I had, and that I had put them in my Trunk. Then now, says the Prisoner's Mistress, - with the Blessing of God take them out of your Trunk; I did so: Now, says she, with the Blessing of God, get a Ha'p'orth of Brown Paper. I did not care to go for the Paper, so she went herself, and did up all my Cloaths, telling me they must be done up very close, and not a Breath of Air must come upon them. When this was done they bid me down upon my Knees and say the Lord's Prayer; I refused at first, but by fair Means and foul they made me at last say the Lord s Prayer. Then they bid me turn about and open the Windows, which we had shut, for fear any body should see what we were about. I opened the Windows, and in the mean Time they chang'd the Bundle, and left this in the Room of it, - 'tis full of nothing but Hay and Straw; my Bundle was made up exactly like this Bundle, and they carry'd it quite off.”

I find that a fascinating account. In my post last week disputing the simple outline Marx gives of ideology, viz, that the dominant ideas of an era express the ideas of the dominant class, I wrote that, on the face of it, this notion gives us no idea of how, exactly, such a thing would happen. Ideas aren’t communicated via telepathy. Rather, they have to be materialized in symbols and distributed in some material way. Now, this interests me for the following reason: I, too, am dealing with hegemonic and subordinate ideas as I outline a theory about r how a shift in the passional norms in a society came about at the end of the early modern period. In particular, I think the shift towards happiness as a feeling/goal legitimating social and political action made its appearance in Europe in the eighteenth century not only in the writing of political economists, but across the board in the writings of novelists, poets, doctors, philosophers, naturalists, etc. Still, this is a writing culture, and the question is, how was this rooted in the everyday life of the masses?

This is a question that has long tormented historians. Gramsci, in the Prison notebooks, devoted long passages to the relationship between “intellectuals” [which he defined like this: “By intellectuals, one must understand not [only] those ranks commonly referred to by this term, but generally the whole social mass that exercises an organizational function in the broad sense, whether it be in the field of production, or culture, or political administration: they correspond to the noncommissioned and junior officers in the army (and also to some field officers excluding the general staff in the narrowest sense of the term) (133)] and the people. He tried to reshape the Marxist notion of ideology in more palatable sociological terms, find roles and social locations for intellectuals in this broader sense, although – as is apparent from the army comparison – he still toys with a vertical idea of the intellectual, who receives ideas coming on high and transmits them to people lower on the chain. However, Gramsci sets up the relationship so that one can infer, here, a horizontal plane as well. This would be the “psychological” attitude, as Gramsci puts it, to his class. But on the horizontal plane, there is also, necessarily, an interchange that is not simply the relay of ideas from on high. Rather, even the teacher who listens with contempt to some superstitious talk by his charges is absorbing information about attitudes. One of the effects of the social unconscious is just this: that one never quite knows what one has absorbed, or from who, or how it affects what one thinks. And if we remember that, instead of single chains of commands, in reality, in the field of production, culture, political administration, etc., there are struggles and rivalries between different groups on every level – then we have a sense of how ideas from the horizontal can influence ideas from the vertical.

This might seem pretty far afield from my last post, which was about Ekman. But before I go into Ekman’s theory, I thought I’d defend, a little bit, my assumption that the pattern revealed by that theory has a relation to various ‘programs’, as Derrida calls them, that have organized passion, temperament, and national and racial identity in the modern era. It isn’t true that the programs just work through intellectual texts – rather, they also work upon popular culture, whilst at the same time absorbing conceptual schemas from popular culture.

When Honour Penery and her associated decided to gull Jane Ellard, they claimed to be assistants to Isaac Newton. This claim is pretty extraordinary in that it implies knowledge of Isaac Newton in a social scene where one wouldn’t expect that name, in 1738, to have a lot of resonance. But it does. Elite cultural icons, here, substitute seamlessly for the icons of colportage – for Nostradamus, say. And that substitution is relatively quick – it isn’t spread, for instance, over the centuries by a church, the way the name Aristotle was so diffused through European culture by Catholic teaching that his name ended up as the author of a best selling, rather smutty book of pseudo-gynecology. Another oddity here is that, indeed, just as the Enlightnment was sanctifying Newton and conveniently forgetting the man who devoted years to astrology and numerology, his ‘assistants’ with their “great Book with Heads and Hands” accidentally – by a poetic chance – were closer to the spirit of the great man than many a French philosophes.

So if, in my next post, God willing, I make certain assumptions about the physiognomic roots of Ekman’s otherwise structuralist-age theories, I do so in the spirit of Honour Penury.


northanger said...

roger, this is one of the most hilarious things i think you've ever written.

roger said...

B-b-b-b-but North, I'm a regular
wise-cracker if you give me a chance! I've been known to leave them laughing in the aisles from, well, the AT and T Debt collector's association to my local IRS!

Although all my funniness was topped easily by my bank yesterday. They offered me - ME! - a credit card. Zero percent interest for the first six months. How shall I compare this exercise in financial lunacy? It is like offering a crystal meth addict a job as in the antihistamine factory. The idea of somebody loaning me money and expecting to get it back is almost beyond my comprehension. I'm a simple man, North! I do fear for the bank if it is going to start playing these kind of tricks!

northanger said...

let me clarify — it's the most peculiarly hysterical thing you've ever written. even funnier than giving you a six month null point credit card. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!! remember: read the mouseprint

democracyIZus programming note:

What: DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee Meeting
When: May 31, 2008 - 9:30 AM

it'll be on cspan. shux, gotta set the alarm clock.