“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
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Transgression as innocence
Having tried to get into Paradise through the back door, we have found, instead, a curious gap in the reading of Sade: the fact that Sade’s libertines use a very un-libertine ethnography. Far from extending his hand, so to speak, to his predecessors like Foigny and Lahontan, Sade picks up on the most extreme descriptions of cruelty amassed by the biased witness of priests intent on subduing the savage. Is this irony? Or is this a necessity generated by Sade’s game – the rules of which, as Klossowski points out, depend on a perpetually renewed outrage. In the Sadeian system, the notion of universal perversion – counter-generality – comes into conflict with the ludic necessity for outrage.
In a sense, then, Sade’s system of transgression cancels itself out. It turns out to be the path of pins going forward to the wolf in grandma’s clothing. Counter-generality dissolves in the submission to the iron law that forwards is equal to backwards – the paths are the same. So saith the white magic. Whereas for the black magician…
We are dealing with what James C. Scott, in a series of articles in the seventies, called the conflict between the Great tradition and the little tradition. He took those phrases from Robert Redfield, a University of Chicago anthropologist who studied Mexican villages – like his friend, George Foster, the man who wrote the paper on the image of the limited good. Scott, in the seventies, was mulling over his field work in Southeast Asia. At the time, there was, of course, a lot of interest in peasant revolts – one of them seemed to have blown away the American behemoth in Vietnam. Meanwhile, in the material shadows, the Green revolution was eating away the very substance and fiber of those peasant communities. Scott, in Indonesia, had a chance to see the part world (to borrow Kroeber’s phrase, which had been borrowed by Redfield) of the peasant. Bateson, Geerz, Scott, Danzinger – Indonesia was obviously one of those cold war peripheries in which the metropolitan culture experimented.
Scott’s theory in the early seventies, before he codified it in the book on hidden transcripts and resistance, was that peasant culture exhibited a double structure. On the one hand, it was on the peasant’s ability to supply food that the urban elite culture of the Great Tradition depended. On the other hand, it was on the Great Tradition, implanted by numerous avatars in the part world – the priest, the teacher, the commissar – that the Little Tradition of the peasant depended. But that Little Tradition was not a transcription of the Great Tradition, it was a variation of it, substituting concrete objects for abstractions, and local cults for Great cults. The part world lacked the institutional means to reproduce itself, which is why it reproduced itself, as it were, inside the Great Tradition.
“The very particularism of the little tradition has two important implications. First it means that, by itself, the village lacks the institutional means for a direct confrontation with a vastly more powerful great tradition. The peasantry constitutes a local society or, at best, a county society, while elites are linked together at the provincial and national level. While confrontations may nevertheless be im- posed, the historic strength of the little tradition has resided in dissimulation, foot-dragging, and passive non-compliance. One might even call this kind of Brechtian tenacity the normal pattern of class struggle for the peasantry.139 Second, it means that the peasantry is, by itself, ill-equipped, in terms of both knowledge and interest, to sustain a national struggle for broad goals. Thus, most peasant movements or armies are coalitions of local groups which, like Zapata's forces, operate locally, champion local issues, and are relatively indifferent to national issues except as they affect the fortunes of the local struggle.”
That dissimulation is immediately recognizable in the greatest allegory of the great/little tradition, Don Quixote, although Scott doesn’t mention it. This is where the modern begins. We’ve been circling around transgression because it is central to a form of resistance to the happiness culture that traverses, in effect, our three traditions of alienation (liberal, radical, reactionary). In the doubles which we keep coming across, the sage and the fool, Dom Juan and Sganarelle, Diderot and Rameau’s nephew, we see embodied the versus of the Great/Little tradition. The savage is certainly one of the figures in this constellation. Adario, who, shockingly, speaks in the tones of the Great Tradition – the infallible mark of his ficticity, to Lahontan’s many, many critics – is defending the golden age that the Little tradition dreams of. This is the innocence that forms another modality of transgression.
“In fact there is good reason to believe that within every great tradition rebellion with mass support there is also a little tradition revolt that threatens to usurp that rebellion for its parochial ends. This "revolution in the revolution" is typically denounced by radical elites as adventurism, deviation, or anarchy. Just as often, of course, it is the radical elite which attempts to usurp a rebellion begun by peasants and to put it to ends which its supporters do not recognize and, indeed, might disavow. One may even detect an additive, temporal dimension to these "layers" of rebellion akin to syncretism in religion. That is, the goals of purely little tradition rebellions have something of an ahistorical, permanent quality to them, like animism. When self-consciously revolutionary elites emerge to link up with these older patterns, they tend to add a new dimension to the revolt but not to eliminate the parochial forms in the process.”
We are going to turn to the science of myth, next.