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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

where does wealth come from?

My commenter Chuckie D. is none too happy with George Foster’s phrase, “"cognitive orientation" - as he says, what does that even mean? Myself, I obviously have a different take – which is why I introduced Kant’s essay on orientation as a fundamental indication of the subject’s effect in the world – for Kant, the way human’s orient themselves can’t be explained by the Lockean/Newtonian sensualists of the time. Foster spends some time on the question of the meaning of cognitive orientation, all of which is theoretically interesting – but not too much. Foster is not important for his work in theorizing attitudes, but, rather, for his description of a particular set of attitudes that are related to peasant life.

As I have been saying for the past year, it is impossible to understand the emergence of a happiness norm that governs not only one’s personal affective life, but that is, somehow, a collective social ideal and justification for political and economic arrangements without looking at the structure of the early modern political economy in Europe. My crude position was that the class immobility that had been the political ideal began to fragment in the 17th century. But why? Certainly the industrial system had not been put in place, nor do we see the hallmark of capitalism, which is a labor force mobilized by capital. Yet something is happening in the ‘classical age.’ It is something that changed Europe massively, yet has been weirdly underplayed among historians of Europe's intellectual history. It was called the discovery of the New World. Discovery, colonization, exploitation - these, I think, opened up the rigid hierarchies in the European economies. I think one of the factors that come into play, here, has to do with what Foster calls the limited good. Foster does not invoke Malthus, but surely the notion that goods are limited, so that to have a good requires that someone else not have that good – the zero sum sense of wealth – would be a rational response to a society in which the Malthusian limits were tight and visible – a society, for instance, in which famine was an ever present possibility.

I find the connection that Foster makes between the limit good, luck, and a certain image of wealth – wealth as treasure – to be highly suggestive. Foster came to his theory through his field work in Tzintzuntzan. He found it interesting that the peasants in this Mexican village divorced wealth from labor – wealth came from the outside, in the form of treasure. According to Foster, the idea of economic growth that underlines the capitalist ethos just doesn’t penetrate this world: “In fact, it seems accurate to say that the average peasant sees little or no : relationship between work and production techniques on the one hand, and: the acquisition of wealth on the other. Rather, wealth is seen by villagers in the same light as land: present, circumscribed by absolute limits, and having no relationship to work. One works to eat, but not to create wealth.”

It is at this point that the attack on superstition gains its salience. The attack on superstition is an attempt to change the behaviors that group around the limited good. Without changing those behaviors, the project of modernization - the mobilisation of labor, the industrial system, the genesis of this myth called the market - wouldn't have occurred.

Foster points out that the limited good system changes if it opens up – a very important point for anyone trying to assess the affect of the colonization of the Americas and the East Indian trade on Europe:

“I have said that in a society ruled by the Image of Limited Good there 'is no way, save at the expense of others, that an individual can get ahead. This is true in a closed system, which peasant communities approximate. But even a traditional peasant village, in another sense, has access to other systems, and an individual can achieve economic success by tapping sources of wealth that are recognized to exist outside the village system. Such success, though envjed, is not seen as a direct threat to community stability, for no one within the community has lost anything. Still, such success must be explained. In today's transitional peasant communities, seasonal emigration for wage labor is the most available way in which one can tap outside wealth. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican peasants have come to the United States as braceros in recent years and many, through their earnings, have pumped significant amounts of capital into their communities. Braceros generally are not criticized or attacked for acquisition of this wealth; it is clear that their good fortune is not at the direct expense of others within the village. Fuller finds a similar realistic appraisal of the wealth situation in a Lebanese community: "they [the peasants] realize . . . that the only method of increasing their incomes on a large scale is to absent themselves from the village for an extended period of time and to find work in more lucrative areas" (1961:72).

These examples, however, are but modern variants of a much older pattern in which luck and fate—points of contact with an open systen—are viewed as the only socially acceptable ways in which an individual can acquire more "good" than he previously has had. In traditional (not transitional) peasant communities an otherwise inexplicable increase in wealth is often seen as due to the discovery of treasure which may be the result of fate or of such positive action as making a pact with the Devil. Recently I have analyzed treasure tales in Tzintzuntzan and have found without exception they are attached to named individuals who, within living memory, have suddenly begun to live beyond their means. The usual evidence is that they suddenly opened stores, in spite of their known previous poverty (Foster 1964a). Erasmus has recorded this interpretation among Sonora villagers (1961:251), Wagley finds it in an Amazon small town (1964:128), and Friedmann reports it in southern Italy (1958:21). Clearly, the role of treasure tales in communities like these is to account for wealth that can be explained in no other manner.”

8 comments:

roger said...

By the way, James Galbraith very kindly references my review of his book at TPM.

Anonymous said...

I won't leave a substantive comment until I've reread Robert Brenner's article, but I want to suggest that his article "The Social Basis of Economic Development" might be useful here, even if negatively.
Phil

roger said...

Thanks, Phil!

Anonymous said...

I do regret that I could not return sooner to comments. I just wanted to make it clear that my response to ‘cognitive orientation’ has nothing to do with the orientation of your reflections here. Having once trained as a medievalist and adapted in the most preposterous fashion the methods of linguistic anthropology to the interpretation of medieval German verse narrative with the very intent of reducing the anachronistic content in cultural reconstruction, your premises are self-evident. A label like ‘cognitive orientation’ goads me for three reasons.

For my taste, too much writing in the humanities employs inappropriately abstract terms in what I take to be an effort to appear ‘theoretical’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘sophisticated’ or something. The prime example is the indiscriminate use of ‘discourse.’ The object presented as ‘discourse’ is almost invariably writing. Speaking receives no attention. The generalization is already one size too large. The writing in any given investigation again almost invariably belongs to a single genre. The generalization as ‘discourse’ is two sizes too large. This imprecision in the level of interpretation cannot produce the most informative results.

Chuckie K said...

I do regret that I could not return sooner to comments. I just wanted to make it clear that my response to ‘cognitive orientation’ has nothing to do with the orientation of your reflections here. Having once trained as a medievalist and adapted in the most preposterous fashion the methods of linguistic anthropology to the interpretation of medieval German verse narrative with the very intent of reducing the anachronistic content in cultural reconstruction, your premises are self-evident. A label like ‘cognitive orientation’ goads me for three reasons.

For my taste, too much writing in the humanities employs inappropriately abstract terms in what I take to be an effort to appear ‘theoretical’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘sophisticated’ or something. The prime example is the indiscriminate use of ‘discourse.’ The object presented as ‘discourse’ is almost invariably writing. Speaking receives no attention. The generalization is already one size too large. The writing in any given investigation again almost invariably belongs to a single genre. The generalization as ‘discourse’ is two sizes too large. This imprecision in the level of interpretation cannot produce the most informative results.

Chuckie K said...

In my regular perusals of the new book shelf in our establishment, I see the same proliferation of ‘cognitive’ across the disciplines. The term particularly irks me, because it has become a subdiscipline, ‘cognitive linguistics’ which employs a cybernetic model of mind and thought and treats language as an essentially computational process. This model is, unreflexively, derived from the ideologeme central to bourgeois theory of the atomistic individual and its mechanical perceptual and mental processes. In its various disciplinary elaborations, this implicit ideological figuration seems to me the most widespread notion of ‘cognitive.’ This sense of ‘cognitive’ lends itself, to say the least to anachronistic projection. It contrasts starkly with my preferred theoretical view of language as a situated human activity.

Chuckie K said...

My reservations about the level generality of ‘cognitive’ and the possibility that it in itself might introduce anachronism into an historical ethnography are not meant as criticisms of the substance of Foster’s arguments any more than of yours. I guess my concern would be how to articulate cognition as an interpretive level in an historical ethnography in way which minimizes that anachronism. Pardon my presumption here. Without having gone to Foster, it sounds to me like the actual ethnographic object he addresses is ‘ideology’ in the sense in which linguistic anthropologists use the term, namely ‘what people (can) say about a topic.’ In this instance, an ideology of wealth. How would we get from the ideology to the ‘cognition’ as distinct levels or objects? Taking an ideology as an activity, we would first want to distinguish that which people say about things from that which they say when they are interrogated by, for example, an anthropologist. What did people say about wealth to Foster because he thought there was something to know and what did the people say about wealth day-to-day among themselves. Second, in addition to the explicit symbolic, to use a Peircean perspective, meaning, we would want to examine the implicit indexical categories derivative from the underlying categories of wealth. Something as simple as spatial deixis cannot be interpreted without such categories. Finally, we would want to examine these referential feature of both kinds, the utterances and the genres in relation to the activities which they describe and within which they occur. What people say they do and what they do are often very different. The implicit categories through which they constitute activities, the labels they apply to these activities and the goals and outcomes of the activities intersect, overlap and diverge in complex ways. In as much as we can winnow out a coherent structuration of these intersections, overlaps and divergences, we might have a candidate for ‘cognition.’

It seems to me that looking outside the immediate genres of wealth to other verbal genres make an excellent beginning. Although it seems to me a well-founded object ‘cognition’ would also have to refer to non-verbal expressive media and practices too.

So as you see, I greatly look forward to hearing more. Unfortunately, my employer expects me to leave now, because I had a comment on another track altogether, how far back and how pervasive self-expanding wealth was in Europe of the High and Late Middle Ages. Perhaps more than you assume, I think.

roger said...

CK, interesting remarks indeed. I take it that cognitive orientation, in Foster's sense, has to do with impressions and stereotypical responses to recurring situations, and that he draws from his fieldwork, which is pretty longstanding, as well as other accounts of peasant communities.

However, I've written more on this in the posts that came after this one.