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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.


Anonymous said...

LI, this comment might not go with this post but your recent series of posts have me thinking - among other things - of discoveries and Adamic naming. Scientifically speaking of course. Or is it science fiction.


Also of the backdoor to Paradise and La Philosophie dans le boudoir (ou les instituteurs immoraux, dialogues destinés à l'éducation des jeunes demoiselles.) With its questions of names and their usage, counter-generality, innocence and transgression.

Eugénie, maniant les testicules de Dolmancé: Oh! que je suis fâchée, ma bonne amie, de la résistance que tu mets à mes désirs!... Et ces boules, quel est leur usage, et comment les nomme-t-on? (...and these balls, what is their use, what are they named?) [...]
Mme de Saint-Ange: Le mot technique est couilles... testicules est celui de l'art. (The technical term is genitals...) [...]
Eugénie: Ah! ma bonne, que tu me fais de plaisir!... Comment appelle-t-on ce que nous faisons là . (Oh, dearest, what pleasures you give me!... What do you call what we're doing there?)[...]
Eugénie: Je suis morte, je suis brisée... je suis anéantie!... Mais expliquez-moi, je vous prie, deux mots que vous avez prononcés et que je n'entends pas; d'abord que signifie matrice? (I'm dead, I'm shattered...I'm destroyed. But explain to me, please, two words that you've pronounced and that I don't understand: first of all, what does womb signify?) [...]
Eugénie: Que je suis aise d'en être la cause! Mais un mot, chère amie, un mot vient de t'échapper encore, et je ne l'entends pas. Qu'entends-tu par cette expression de putain? Pardon, mais tu sais? je suis ici pour m'instruire. (...But a word, dear friend, a word has just escaped you and I don't understand it. What do you mean by this expression whore? Pardon me, but you know, I'm here to learn.)
The "writing lesson" in Lévi-Strauss' La pensée sauvage. As within, as without.

roger said...

Amie, I read those lines and I am torn between laughter and awe. Sade is quite the instructor - it isn't just the writing lesson in La Pensee sauvage, it is the writing lesson in the Penal Colony. The sentence must be written on the body. I am tempted to say that Sade's great perversion is to refuse, ever, to allow nudity - all must be clothed in one way or another, either with the names of art or their place in the division of labor. Of course, the writing lesson of Levi Strauss has a different ductus than that of The Penal colony - the native in the Penal colony can't read the sentence that kills him as it is being written on his chest, and the machine, of course, is a blind writer that misfires. Levi Strauss, on the other hand, harbors no doubts that writing is the white magic. Actually, I think Sade doesn't either. Although... it creeps into Sade.

I looked up, and decided, perhaps stupidly, not to quote from a section of Justine where one of the libertines goes on at length reviewing the cruelties cast up by the classics and the ethnologues, because it is a catalog that, viewed in one way, is very much in the mainstream. Civilization, the white magic, is all about putting these things down. But seen in another sense, I can't help but think that Sade was being very, very ironic. For it would be all too easy just to say yes to all the interdits. That is not counter-generality. It is the not knowing that you will say yes to an interdit - that moment of divorce between the self and desire, self and belief. This is when the whole world jumps out of the trap.

I haven't quoted a lot of Sade, have I? Hmm, perhaps I should have.