“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

Saturday, June 13, 2009

false consciousness - real happiness

Note 1: I think I can trace the career of the concept of false consciousness across the Other sciences, across literature, across the adventures of all of my alienated marginals (for yes, instead of a ‘career’, they lead, or are led by, an adventure, even if they never leave home at all). For liberals, false consciousness is the disturbing power of projection; for radicals, it is the inverse image of what is really happening in capitalism, as commodity exchange sinks deeper and deeper into all personal relationships; and for the reactionaries, it is original sin, which finds, in the non-Christian, the undertakers of Christendom – the decadents, the positivists, the Jews, the homosexuals, the half breeds. Although, in truth, false consciousness, as original sin, is a feature of man’s very nature – and in that sense it is false to call it false. Rather, it is consciousness itself which is permeated with sin.

Yet, the liberals and the radicals felt there was a limit somewhere. Their alienation from the happiness culture represented, or rather, was represented as a stance for true happiness. And so we have another duality, perhaps derived from the notion of false consciousness. One that is less codified. For the most part, the alienated did not feel that happiness itself, as a social phenomenon, could be questioned. Rather, happiness has the wrong objects. Why? Because of social and cultural conditions. To dissolve those conditions, which are always disguised in false consciousness, is to take the first step to real happiness.

Note two. I am sick, the summer is boiling, and for a long time I’ve wanted to write about Herzen. I’ll start with the following:

L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers. Rousseau’s famous phrase imposed a kind of shibboleth on intellectuals in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – before the revolution, the phrase is read with an emphasis on the imposition of those chains, for surely someone or something has shackled man; indisputably, those chains were forged and affixed by some institution, or perhaps even by many. And if this is so, if this injustice has been enacted everywhere, everywhere one has the duty to strike them off.

But after the revolution, in the wake of the reaction that succeeded Napoleon’s fall, the focus. If man is everywhere in chains, this is a statement not about what has been done to man, but about what man has preferred. Such gloomy thoughts came to William Hazlitt. And, after 1848, they were expressed by one of Herzen’s characters, a doctor, in a dialogue between him and his companion, a woman of the Left, in From the Other Shore. The doctor claims that Rousseau’s phrase is “famous nonsense”:

“Can you repeat with irony this cry of indignation wrung from a free man?”
“To me, it is a coercion of history, contempt for the facts, and I find it unbearable: I am hurt by the arbitrariness of it. Added to this, there is the obnoxious method of deciding in advance just what the crux of the matter is. What would you say to a man who, shaking his head, would make the melancholy observation that fish are born to fly and yet are constantly under water?”
“I would ask him why he believed that fish were born to fly.”
“You are becoming more exacting. But a true friend of fishkind would find a ready answer. In the first place he would tell you that the skeletons of fish incontrovertibly show the tendency of limbs to develop into legs or wings; he will point to an array of quite superfluous bones which suggest the rudimentary bones of feet and wings; finally, he will cite the flying fish which demonstrate in practice that fishkind not only strives to fly, but sometimes actually does so. Having made this requisite reply, he will be justified to ask why you do not demand an explanation from Rousseau who says that man is born to be free on the grounds that he is constantly in chains. Why do all things exist as they should exist, while man alone does not?” (I'm using the translation that is contained in Selected works. With a preface by Lenin! Check it out at Archive.org.)

Herzen’s doctor is a premonition of Nietzsche, or of those characters in Ibsen who defy the masses. A new theme, a new form of liberalism, one alienated from the banalities of positivism, is born on the other shore. It is, however, easy to lose track of this sensibility if we simply accept the easy oppositions of universal history. I’ve been treating Hoffmann’s tale as a way of opening us up to the versions of universal history that can be projected

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