In which I stick my tongue into the mouth of world history

Ah, LI felt a sort of roast beef-y satisfaction about our last post. At last, we said at the editorial staff meeting, we are getting somewhere! meeting our thesis quota! taking world history by the hand and giving it a big french kiss! Then we passed out cigars and crystal meth and had ourselves a ball and a biscuit, sugar.

However, it may be that others did not have such feelings about our last post. Tedium and mal de mer might have been the more common response.

Well. Here’s the deal. We have long had the intuition that the mystery of how a number of apparently interlocking phenomena – the rise of natural philosophy, and of the industrial system, and of a market centered economic system, and – most crucially – of the free labor market – came together at the same time in certain societies in Europe could not be explained by projecting back upon pre-capitalist societies categories that were developed to explain capitalist ones.

In particular, we have thought that there was a fundamental difference in the way that wealth or treasure was perceived by pre-capitalist societies. We find Bataille’s notion of expenditure extremely helpful here. Foster’s image of the limited good simply outlines the conditions in which sovereignty, on Bataille’s model, exerts its power – a power that is based on a radical externality.

All of which points to a fact that is consistently underplayed in the intellectual histories of the 17th and 18th century, even by Foucault. That is the fundamental shock given to European societies by the discovery of the New World. That discovery is the true before and after in world history – before, there simply was no world history. Really, 1492 should be the year zero.

Before world history was the time when, as the first line in the first Grimm brother’s tale accurately puts it, wishes still worked. That is another aspect of the image of the limited good. When labor and wealth are radically disassociated in an economy that is static, one just over its Malthusian line (that line determined by the ratio of population to the resources that can sustain it), wealth is a matter of accident, or magic, or deception, or predation. The poor fisherman can fish his whole life long, but he will remain pretty much a poor fisherman – unless he pulls up a talking fish that is really an enchanted fish who can grant wishes. Otherwise, though, the fisherman might as well behold the lillies of the field, for he wasn’t going to ever be arrayed in such splendor, no matter how much he, or his wife, spun and toiled.

This static society is defined by its closure. And it is just that closure which was opened up by the discovery of America. Which jolted - “disoriented” – every thing. “Discovery” is a pleasingly dialectical term, on the border between two systems of production. It implies, on the one hand, the finding of something pre-existent – which is of course well within Bataille’s restricted economy and Foster’s limited good. But it came to be used for inventions – that is, additions to the stock of what is. That internal shift parallels the systematic social shift that is the condition of the happiness culture.

In the 17th and 18th century, these shifts could still be envisioned under an older system of categories – magically, as it were. A system in which the older exchanges were all governed by an essential and irresistible scarcity. When Ricden Ricdon gives Rosanie a magic wand to spin as much cloth as she wants to, it turns out to be a magical deception, a ploy for an exchange – one in which Rosanie has to give her soul. That form of exchange disappears, but leaves a trace – we do give our souls to the company store, but souls, in the new world, aren’t currency.

If we are looking, then, at the conflict between the “cognitive orientation” fixed by the image of the limited good and the cognitive orientation of the expanding economy – ruled over by the certainty that God was Man all along – we can get a better sense of why, for instance, the struggle against “superstition” was conducted with such ferocity in the 18th century. We understand its meaning not on the level at which it was framed by the philosophes – as a question of truth – but on a more fundamental level – the level of the human limit.


Anonymous said…
LI, you know I'm wondering why these last couple of posts of yours have occasioned no comments?
And you might well wish I hadn't added this comment after reading it, but I have a question that your post has me thinking of, even if I formulate it rather badly.It relates to the question of time and when wishes still "worked" and the limit where they seemingly went away - for good. Did they ever, "really"? I wonder if there is not always a non-contemporarity of time, a multiple and disjointed time, in which wishes and hopes still hold sway, return and burst forth.
This might come across as a "Derridean" question. But why did George Oppen call that last book of his "Primitive"? And why did Marx respond and change, late in his life, when asked about the Russian peasant communes, when he basically admitted and acknowledged something irreducible of the "archaic"?
Well, I was going to say something about songs and singing in this context, but that for another day. And I know I said I wouldn't link to further vids but

P.M.Lawrence said…
"In particular, we have thought that there was a fundamental difference in the way that wealth or treasure was perceived by pre-capitalist societies".

Compare and contrast the Latin cognates pecunia, money, and pecus, beast, from which it derived (paradoxically, the easier and more regular declensions and conjugations which we learn first were the less common usages; it was familiarity that taught people the oddities of the harder ones, while oddities among less common usages fell away). Anyway, wealth in such early societies consisted in chattels - cognate with cattle, of course - precisely because land was not then at a premium and such working or food animals had value in use; they were operating rather than working capital. That lack of premium made slavery part of the same approach, of course.

On sale of souls - most deals with the devil were set up analogous to mortgages on land rather than sales proper, echoing the practice of an era in which land was at a premium, and wealth largely consisted in that considered as fixed capital which nobody would ever willingly alienate.