“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

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

the place of women II: A digression

In the Philosophy of Money, Georg Simmel speaks of money as the “absolute tool”. Simmel begins with one of those foundation stories with which philosophy is littered - the baby who sees his mother point, the man on the deserted island, the two men handing each other tools and instructions. In this story, the stress falls upon the disparity between what an individual wants of another individual and what he has to trade for it. What this situation is supposed to show us is that, in the encounter of the two individuals, everything is too personal. They are too much themselves, they are persons whose qualities require some intermediary to make them collaborate, to make them less personal one with the other. In this encounter, the peculiarities and situations of both individuals are highly pertinent – they are, so to speak, rooted in their situations. They are, one could say, the prisoners of their own authenticity. Simmel postulates that what is required, here, is some third, some intermediary, some absolute means that will enable these situations to interrelate. And in so doing, that means will uproot them. This might not seem to be the obvious result of money, the absolute means. It turns out, however, that money does change the situation of the men not only in regards to their relation to each other, but in regards to their identity with their situations. Their places. Which have been constructed so far on the premise of opposition, and which now encounter the social symbol of absolute indifferent. It is this indifference to what it is a means to, this openendedness to ends, that makes money such an absolute and finally subversive means.

As we fall into the habit, then, of thinking not of the ends, but in terms of this means, money begins to penetrate other social niches. It is the “nature of the instrument to persist through its individual applications or to be called into service in a generally not foreseeable number of occasions.” And this, Simmel thinks, is the secret of the dominance of money: “Out of this particular value of money, its complete lack of connection to all things and moments of time, its complete renunciation of any proper end on its own behalf, the abstraction that derives from it mediate character, flows the superior weight of that which money offers over that which the commodity offers.”

Now, it is under the sign of its penetration into all spheres, as a pure instrument, and its domination of commodities, as being disconnected ideally from all situations – from production itself – that Simmel introduces the effect of money on the style of modern life. Of the style of life, Simmel gives an account that emphasizes the ‘circle’ as the essential community form:

"One of the most common images under which the organization of the substance of life is made clear is its assimilation into a circle, in the center of which stands the actual ‘I’. There is a mode of relationship between this I and the things, people, ideas and interests that we can only designate as the distance between both. An as far as we deal with an object it can, remaining substantially unchanged, come near to the center or be pushed back to the periphery of our range of vision and circle of interest; but this doesn’t effect, for instance, the fact that our inner relationship to this object is changed, but just the inverse, we can designate certain relations of the I to its contents only through the intuitive symbol of a specific or changing distance between both.” These distances are not separated for the I from the object, in other words, but “according to its distance from our organs - differences not only of clearness, but of quality and of the whole character of the felt image – it is easy to extend this symbolization therein that the differences even of inner relations to the things are interpreted as differences of distance to it. (My translation)


To get near a thing, in other words, symbolizes a stage in the understanding of a thing. To be “near” a person is to be in a particular relationship with a person. In the world picture given to us by science, Simmel says, this relation of near and far is displaced from its instinctive, or at least traditional, coordinates: our instruments for getting near – like the microscope or the telescope – at the same time tell us how far we are from the objects we are pointing at. How far I am from the piece of skin that, under the microscope, I see is a much different looking thing than the skin that I thought I was as near to as… my own skin. Accordingly, “the anthropomorphizing of nature leaves us, in the subjective perspective, after the side of the feelings and of the, as always, misleading beliefs, a littler distance between men and things that we have at present.” And in this double process, Simmel says, money plays a role.

I’ll return to what that role is after I interpose some excerpts from Rousseau that continue the theme we began to see take shape under Morgenstern’s suggestion about the place of women, or rather, a woman, Julie, in the autarky of Clarens. Though Morgenstern doesn’t mention Simmel, I think the Philosophy of Money gives us an appropriate framework within which to see more clearly why Rousseau’s heroines end unhappily – and more generally, why women, in the moment that they are set in their place, collapse a whole ideology of places.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A woman's place




Let’s take up where we left off: with Madame de Stael’s remark that, in our current social arrangements, women are “neither in the order of nature nor in the order of society.”

D’Agoult cites de Stael not to refer to Rousseau’s time, but to the new, post revolutionary society. However, since the very staging of that opposition is, in a sense, signed by Rousseau, it is natural to think that Rousseau would have something to say to women and about women. In fact, when d’Agoult writes that Rousseau “spoke” to women, she could well be referring to the introduction of Emile, in which Rousseau literally says that he is speaking to mothers. Less literally, the Nouvelle Heloise was an event in the third life of women all over Europe, and surely the letters of Julie speak to women, in d’Agoult’s sense.

Certainly, d’Agoult is onto something when she contrasts Condorcet, with his eagerness to end the system of submission that shackles women in the civil sphere, and Rousseau, for whom it would seem that a woman’s place is in the private sphere. By the social logic that opposes independence and dependence, women, then, should be dependent. And yet, this can’t be all the story. Rousseau could see, and even advocate for, the transformation of the order of dependence, the traditional order; by committing himself to this change, he deprives himself of the traditional reasons that women should be dependent. He deprives himself of the social sanction of that hierarchy. Moreover, how can women have a place at all if all places are to be rearranged? If the old order’s corruption calls for revolutionary action? In fact, as Helena Rosenblatt has pointed out in an article defending Rousseau from the charge of misogyny, even in the Letter to D’Alembert, which has often been seen as the most misogynistic of Rousseau’s writings about women, a closer reading will find that Rousseau is not writing against all women, but pleading the case for women of civic virtue. For Rosenblatt, one should never forget that Rousseau wrote: “Every revolution began with the women. Through a woman Rome gained her liberty, through a woman the plebians obtained the consulate, through a woman the tyranny of the decemvirs was ended; it was the women who saved Rome [when besiged by Coriolanus].”

In all of these examples, Rosenblatt claims, we see women in a different light than in the usual Enlightenment discourse about the ‘softening’ power of women. Rather, Rousseau aimed at the opposite.

And yet, those examples of women outside the house are also examples of states of emergency. If the revolution begins with women, doesn’t it end by putting women back in their place?

The theme I’d like to follow, the effect I’d like to investigate in Rousseau, is, in a sense, a detour around the question of whether D’Agoult is right, or whether Rosenblatt is right. It is the question of the place of these beings who are not in nature or society. I am inspired here by the starting point of Mira Morgenstern’s book on Rousseau. Why, Morgenstern asks, is it that the model of a woman’s place in Emile and the Nouvelle Heloise is in such discord with the arc of the narrative in both books? For surely if the author of Emile is right about women, then the education of Sophie should be crowned with success, rather than tragedy. And Julie’s ultimate failure to be happy in her marriage to Wolmar in the Nouvelle Heloise – Wolmar, the man who her father chose, and who does his best to get her to love him – condemns absolutely that marriage and all the arrangement of the idyll of Clarens, their utopian estate?

Why is it that Rousseau does not gild his theme of women’s place with happy endings, in other words? Why does the narrative force seem to perversely turn upon the conceptual advice? Where is a woman’s ‘place’ in all of this?

I am not taking that as a starting place for an examination of the narratives so much as an allowance for seeking the source of the tension created in Rousseau’s work by women. Ultimately, I want to focus on a suggestion of Morgenstern’s in her brilliant chapter on the household set up by Wolmar and Julie in la Nouvelle Heloise. In a subsection about women and power entitled The Benevolent Patriarchy, she shows that the utopian arrangement of the household set up by Wolmar at Clarens, she writes:

“On the face of it, then, Clarens would appear to be the perfect example of benevolent paternalism. However, here the paradox reappears: using the familial metaphor based on love to operate an estate that must be run on the principles of order, although perhaps in a different guise than expected. Wolmar does use love to run the entire estate, servants and family alike. But this love is not a true emotion. Rather, it is a disguise for absolute control. This use of love as a cover for authoritarian domination emphasizes Wolmar’s cynical realization that while different principles ostensibly underlie the organization of family, citizens, and servants, any relationship involving people can be translated into a matter of politics and power, albeit in different strengths and forms.” (208)

The problem of dependence for Rousseau is the problem of attachment. As St. Preux himself remarks about the Wolmar’s schema, the whole thing is based on attachment.

‘They [the servants] well know that their surest fortune is attached to that of the master, and that they will never lack anything so long as the house is seen to prosper. In serving it, therefore, they serve their patrimony, and augment it in rendering their services agreeable. This is their greatest interest. But this word is hardly in its place on this occasion; for I have never seen a place where the rules [police] or the interests are so wisely managed, and where, however, they have less influence than here. Everything is done by attachment: one might say that venal souls are purified in entering into this abode of wisdom and union.” [1873:430]

Rousseau’s utopian solution to the problem of interest has not drawn enough attention, Morgenstern thinks. Underneath Wolmar’s benevolence is a very manipulative economic structure:

The second obstacle to the servants’ developing any independent notions of their own good as distinct from the well-being of their masters lies in the economic structure of Clarens. Wolmar’s aim is to make the small estate of Clarens as self-sufficient as possible. To this end, outside trade is discouraged unless it is strictly necessary. Further enforcing the autarky of Clarens is the internal exchange system fostered among the inhabitants and workers of Clarens. Thus, for example, the grocer is paid with grain for his supplies, while the rents are used to furnish the houses owned by Wolmar. This economic system, dispensing as much as possible with the circulation of money, finds its philosophical justification in the avoidance of any intermediaries that can render human exchange potentially inauthentic. A most important side effect of this self sufficiency, however, is that this exchange system effectively prevents the servants and workers of Clarens from ever leaving.” [212]

Here, indeed, is place – place closed upon itself. It is here that the problem of the place of women finds a solution – a solutin which, on another scale, is the solution for society as a whole. But the problem with this solution is two-fold: it fosters desperate attachments, rather than love; and it prevents and minimizes the chance of a stranger appearing. The latter is, I think, crucial to Rousseau’s unresolvable problem of reconciling love and place.