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Sunday, May 03, 2009

To fall into the hands of the lord is a fearful thing

The word comes, and like a misbegotten fetus, it tangles itself in its own feeding tubes and dies. The word comes, and it takes up its place in the midst of meaning that that primitive, the monkey handed mind, would so like to put down, make materialize, bring out of nothingness into somethingness – and yet those other words aren’t there, and the word lacks the mind’s private conversation.

I wrote this post yesterday evening, and I re-wrote it this morning. And I’m re-writing it again, against the curse on all violations of the law, first thought, best thought. The curse is one of a certain gloominess of aspect, a certain loss of freshness, a lack of the look of spontaneity.

My quotes from the little known Justus Moser have to be more connected to the trails we have danced or sneaked down. In particular, to the persistence, in these notes, of the theme of the closed economy. The peasant economy summarized by George Foster like this:
“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.”

A leitmotif in this work is that the separation of the “old’ and the “new’ worlds, the pre-Columbian attitude in intellectual or cultural history, needs to be smashed. The opening up of the world, literally, dissolved one of the great defining features of peasant culture. The dissolution of peasant culture may well be the most important fundamental thing that happened in the last four hundred years, underneath every other feature of modernity.

Moser’s importance, in that story, is to express, in Enlightenment terms, a great tradition explanation for the closed social system that, in effect, is out of synch with the movement of the great tradition in his time. He was expressing, if you will, the way the great tradition had impressed itself upon the closed world. Even as that world was giving way – and certainly it was, certainly, as people like Charles Tilley have pointed out, capitalism of a primitive kind, with the centralizing features of factory life described by Marx, was already present in the countryside in France, England, Prussia – it was, of course, still dominant, and well able to interpret itself.

This is not of course the first time I’ve written about satanic pacts – they keep coming up. Just as the contract as a text object keeps coming up. When the peasants of the Cauca Valley in Colombia baptized their money with their children, or when Balzac’s Raphael makes his wish on the talisman made out of wild ass skin, they are, in a sense, giving us a sense of the life of the contract before the sharp differentiation of the written and the body. The text itself is part of the body – in the case of Haitzmann, the contract with the devil is written in, or signed in blood – if of course it was written at all. Freud claims that there was never a text object there to begin with. That the life of the name I sign on the thing that I sign should become my double is, perhaps, an image of the social contract (a contract like Haitzmann’s pact with the devil in that it is a mindforged thing) upon which we should reflect.

Okay, this is done. Now, onto what I wrote this morning.

Justus Moser wrote a number of fragments about serfdom. They are all oriented by the desire to show how the feudal structure began, for Moser was enough of a child of the enlightenment that he believed in the efficacy of the origin story. His editor sort of mashed them all together in his collected works, under the title, On Serfdom.

Moser begins by taking a defensive tone, writing that while all right thinking people now abhor feudalism, they fail to explain why it ever existed in the first place.

Moser explanation of the ancient institutions is advanced under the principle that a people shouldn’t be supposed to be simply stupid. This remark is directed against the predominate Voltairian tone concerning superstition taken by the philosophes – but Moser’s wording is startlingly similar to the remark in Wittgenstein’s notes on Frazer, made one hundred fifty years later:

“Already the idea of wanting to explain the practice – for instance, the killing of the priest king – seems to me to miss the mark. All that Frazer does is make it plausible to men who think as he does. It is very remarkable that all these practices are finally so to speak portrayed as stupidities.
But it will never be plausible that people did all this out of stupidity.”

Unlike Wittgenstein, however, Moeser doesn’t think that the practices are simply there, and the point is to describe them. They do have a rationale, and that rationale can be unlocked by means of a speculative reconstruction of the first feudal act, so to speak. Yet he ends up telling us a number of origin stories. The story that is most consistent with his point is one set at the beginning of the world. Abraham – “or whatever the name of the fellow was who owned the first large flock of sheep’” – allows his shepherds to herd their flocks with his while they tend the entire flock. The result is that the sheep of the shepherds fatten while Abraham’s sheep decline; the sheep of the shepherds flourish while Abraham’s sheep are seized by wolves; Abraham’s sheep sicken, the shepherds’ sheep do not. Finally, Abraham’s wife, making an Eve like appearance, said to him:”Husband, if we don’t change this, we will become poor, and our shepherds rich.” Abraham agrees. He not only forbids his shepherds to herd their sheep with his, he forbids them from owning sheep. ‘Everything that the servants produce should belong to me as Lord.”

Moser varies this story with other produce and other households, in all of which the paterfamilias must either prey upon the servants or be preyed upon. The dynamic of predation is the dynamic of hierarchy – every higher level demands of every lower level a certain symbolic disarmament of its ability to prey, until we reach the king’s position. Thus, to fall, in Moser’s schema, is to fall among wolves – you either keep your level or you expose yourself to attack and dismemberment.

Moser, like Freud, as we will see, justifies his theory by referring to ‘traces’, survivals: “From whence does it come then, that so many traces of serfdom are found in all states where the people live by means of agriculture?”

Now here, indeed, is father substitution in which ambivalence is inscribed in the system. The good father is a father at all due to the fact that he is a predator. Moser expressly compares the children of the paterfamilias to the servants. To fall, in this system, is a dreadful thing, and hard to see the end of.

And so we come to the de Certeau.


P.M.Lawrence said...

You may find it helpful to maintain the conceptual distinction between the feudal system and the manorial system, intertwined though they were and though their intense symbiosis led to one body of practice. Just as chloroplasts and mitochondria now only exist within larger cells but once existed separately and still work distinctly, so also it is with feudal and manorial.

Oh, and do read Chesterton and Belloc for a recent but different perspective on these matters.

roger said...

Moser was no slouch, Mr. Lawrence! He, after all, had to administer the institutions of Osnabruck bakc when you could, indeed, find serfs if you were looking for them.

Of course, by the 1700s, the system was splitting, broadly, with serf duties becoming even more onerous in some parts of eastern europe (Transylvania, Russia) and in Western Europe, the retreat into a symbolic order.

Which will, I assure you, bring us to Figaro! Eventually.

P.M.Lawrence said...

The thing is, it is something of a misnomer to call the sort of thing still going on in Europe that late "feudal", where "manorial" would not be.