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Saturday, August 15, 2009

News and evil

Today, LI must brag that we high styled it on our News From the Zona piece. And in the next week, we are going to take a radical turn towards soap and water before we march on to Mde de Stael and Jane Austin.

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Use your evil

Thursday, August 13, 2009

a walk of her own


I have not been entirely happy with the way I am developing the theme of solitude in the previous posts – perhaps I am simply bumping against the limit of developing an idea in the hit and run of a blog. I have been concerned from the outset not to make this another totalizing history – that melancholy child of universal history, but here and there, I do just that, or make just those gestures, impose unconsciously the manicheanism of the sides, of the bad and the good in deathgrapple. To shake this out of one’s head is an intellectual victory that is never enough, for it creeps back in the next day. So it goes.

I started out with Marie D’Agoult’s account of the revolutionary tradition in achieving women’s rights – which, appropriately enough, is found in her history of the revolution of 1848. The trend line, here – in as much as the trend line is under my control – is to try to show something about women and the culture of happiness. This is vitally important, as, from one perspective, one could say that the culture of happiness has been uncommonly favorable to women – bourgeois women, peasant women, proletariat women. The aliens from happiness culture, in fact, often seem to suffer from nasty cases of misogyny.

And yet and yet… In the turn towards the republican idea in the 18th century, as Maria D’Agoult notes, women were left out. There is an old tradition of blaming Rousseau for this or that aspect of the French revolution, and it always does something that I am careful not to do, erasing the mediation between intellectual and social history. But there is, as I’ve pointed out, a moment in Rousseau’s work in which both D’Agoult’s criticism and the countering idea, that Rousseau was actually an enlightened figure with regard to women, both have some justification. Examining that moment, in which the difference between men and women speaks in a new way, and the equality between men and women is foreclosed upon in an old way, brings to light a theme that is separated from Rousseau’s political and cultural politics – the theme of solitude. Todorov, for instance, speaks of Rousseau’s notion of solitude as an exception that applies to Jean-Jacques alone, or at least to the rare extra-societal figure. That notion of solitude, conveniently enough, conflates the solitary with the stranger. I have already, in several posts in 2997 and 2008, alluded to the importance of the adventurer in understanding the libertine fissure in the old order - the adventurer who loiters about the village economy, the society of the limited good, the dependence of the little on the great tradition. The adventurer who sails the ocean with his fevers, and destroys populations. The adventurer who becomes a politician in the late nineteenth century.

Like the adventurer, the solitary is not a type categorized by any division of labor. I’m concerned – and here I depart from Rousseau, having taken a hint – though, with solitude as an existential and original condition that founds equality. It is at this moment, in this dream of an exceptional solitude, that an almost unnoticeable division occurs between solitude and individuality. Intellectual historians have noticed that individualism – a word that was first coined in France at the end of the eighteenth century – connoted something disrespectable and a-social up to about the 1830s. Solitude was, of course, eclipsed by individualism. That eclipse inflects, in particular, the history of women. In founding equality on access to solitude, one is not promoting a lifestyle of solitude. Rather, one is promoting the kind of community that allows, in its very structure, access to solitude as one of the basic interstices of the moral life. It is not the community of the hermit or the shut in, but as a possibility available to every member of the community to walk unseen. To change the title of Virginia Woolf’s essay slightly – an essay about the lack of solitude for women, by the way - equality for women means, here, ‘a walk of her own.’ A solitary promenade of her own.

Rousseau was not, of course, the first to discover the conjunction of daydream, meditation, walking, and solitude. There is a famous letter from Descartes to Guez de Balzac, written in 1631, about the solitary walk. It has been translated a number of times into English – some of the translations are a little bizarre. I’m going to translate the famous bits here, and then – I’m going to move on. I want to go to Madame de Stael and Jane Austin next.

On to Descartes, then.

Guez de Balzac was a school friend from La Fleche. He has now fallen into obscurity even in France, and was never very famous in the English speaking world. His fame in the seventeenth century was as a refiner of the language, a rhetor. Or a corruptor of the language – as Stephen Gaukroger points out, Balzac’s style was the court style. In 1631, the court was on a collision course with the nobility – the proto-Fronde. And the Fronde was friendly to the Gassendi circle. Frondeurs were prominent patrons of Epicurian thought. Moliere’s Dom Juan is definitely a Frondeur.

Descartes’ letter to Balzac begins with a movement that startles us, so much does it evoke the Descartes of the Meditations:

“I lifted up my hand against my eyes to see if I was not dreaming when I read in your letter that you had a plan to come here, and still I dare not rejoice at the news otherwise than as if I had only dreamt it: however, I don’t find it strange that an intellect (esprit) as great and generous as your own cannot accommodate itself to these servile constraints to which one is obligated in the court; and since you sincerely assure me that God has inspired you to quit the world, I would consider myself to sin against the Holy Spirit if I tried to turn you from your holy resolution; but you must pardon my zeal if I press you to chose Amsterdam for your retreat, and to prefer it, I wouldn’t say not only to all the convents of the capuchins and chartists, where necessarily good men do retire, but also to the most beautiful spots in France and Italy, and even to that celebrated hermitage in which you stayed last year. However well stocked a country house, it always lacks an infinity of commodities which are only found in the cities; and the solitude that one hopes to find there is never quite perfectly encountered after all. I’d like to see you find a canal that would make the greatest talkers daydream, a valley so solitary that it can inspire them to transports and joy; but unfortunately, it can also be the case that you will have a quantity of little neighbors that will importune you on occasion, and whose visits are more discommoding than those you receive in Paris: instead in the great city where I live, there being no man except me who is not engaged in the market, each is so attentive to his profit that I can remain there all my life without being seen by anyone. I go walking every day among the confusion of a mass of people with as much liberty and repose that attends you in your country lanes; and I never consider the people that I encounter otherwise than I would the trees I would meet in a forest, or the animals I would pass there; even the noise of their tumults no longer interrupts my reveries any more than they would be interrupted by some stream: and if I makes some reflection on their actions, it is with the same pleasure that you have to see the peasants who cultivate your countrysides; for I see that all their work serves to embellish the place of my residence, and to make it the case that I lack nothing. If you find pleasure to see the fruits in your vineyards growing and to exist there in such abundance under your eyes, don’t you think that there is as much to see coming here ships which carry us abundantly all the products of the Indies, and everything that is rare in Europe? What other place could one chose in any other part of the world where all the commodities of life and all the curiosities that could be wished for are as easy to discover as here? In what other country can one enjoy such entire liberty, where one can sleep with less inquietude, where there are always armed men on foot expressly to guard you, where poisonings, betrayals and calumnies are least known, and where there still exists remants of the innocence of our ancestors?”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fund drive post

My aim is to make 200 dollars during this fund drive – then I’m cutting its throat. But I'm not near the throat cutting point yet.
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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

the end of the nineteenth century: November 8, 1998

The nineteenth century ended on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Following this supposed death blow to the state’s central management of the economy, the intellectual fashion of the nineties was to pretend that the long nineteenth century – 200 years long! – was a huge mistake. The French Revolution was immediately followed by the Gulag, Freud was a crackpot, and Rational Choice would reign as queen of the human sciences forever and forever. Thus, there was a move back to the 18th century, before the French Revolution, when, under the newly mythified ancien regime, something called the public sphere happened. Instead of dwelling on enclosures and factories, prisons and madhouses, the new fashion was to dwell on coffeehouses and newspapers. Sociability was the new phrase. The birth of sociability. Not, never, solidarity, because solidarity implies action of the masses, which leads to the French Revolution and the Gulag, of course.

LI gests. We joke. We have a little joke. Did you enjoy our little joke? But in fact this sketch is not all joking, all fun and games.

And so we come to Todorov’s Living Alone Together. This essay, published in translation in New Literary History, 1996, is not a bad intellectual history – a history, that is, of a theme transposed, consciously or unconsciously, among great thinkers. In this case, the great thinkers are Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Hegel. One can think of this essay as spadework around Hegel’s idea of recognition – what the slave demands from the master, what the master refuses the slave. Rousseau, in Todorov’s version, begins the thread with a new sense of man as a creature born with a lack that distinguishes him from all the beasts. In this story that is played over and over, all the beasts form an extensive but blurred crowd, from parrots to monkeys. Their particular habits are not pulled out – we don’t hear that the spider is distinguished from all the beasts by her thread. The only animal that is pulled out and made the equal of the beasts is, of course, man. And this moment is not questioned, of course – the equal weight accorded to man and the beast – even if the place of the weighing, nature, doesn’t support our one-to-one. If there is a founding myth of the human sciences, it is here – man vs. the beasts. Not some beasts, not man as a beast vs. some other beasts, but the equivalence so silently and sufficiently summoned up: man on one side, the beasts on the other. Man as culture on one side, nature on the other.

It has been a long, long time since Aristotle said that the contemplation of man was the contemplation of an essentially minor and ignoble figure against the more noble contemplation of the Gods the fabric of the world.

Todorov, working within the assumptions that make that versus plausible, writes that Rousseau understood, as the Greeks didn’t, and as the early pre-moderns didn’t, that man was born with a lack. Sociability, a postive extension of man in the early enlightenment, appeared, to Rousseau, rather as the response filling this lack. As Todorov says – telling the beads of French lit – Rousseau departs from the moralist tradition in distinguishing amour de soi from amour propre, whereas for a moraliste like La Rouchefocauld they are the same thing. Rather, the former is care for our survival; the latter is concern for what others think of us, or vanity. Out of this dualism, Rousseau, according to Todorov, finds a middle ground – a synthesis:

“Rousseau's merit consists precisely in having envisaged this other type of social relationship and having sighted its effects on human identity, even if the term which he uses to designate it is not comparable in generality to either amour de soi or amour-propre. This third sentiment, halfway between the two others is the "idea of consideration" ( OC, III, 169). From the moment men live in society (for Rousseau this means, in relation to historical time, always), they feel the need to attract the gaze of others. The eye is the specifically human organ: "Each one began to look at the others and to want to be looked at himself" (OC, III, 169). The other no longer occupies a place comparable to mine, but a contiguous and complementary place; he is needed for my complete ness. The effects of this need resemble those of vanity: one wants to be looked at, one seeks public esteem, one tries to interest others in his fate. The difference is that we are dealing here with a constitutive need of the species, such as we know it, and not with a vice. Rousseau's innovation is not that he sees that men can be moved by the desire for fame or prestige - all the moralists know that - but to make of this desire the sole threshold setting humanity apart. The need to be looked at, the need for consideration, these human faculties Rousseau discovered have an extension perceptibly greater than our aspiration for honor.
Sociability is neither an accident nor a contingency: it is the definition of the human condition.”

What about solitude? Well, Todorov grants that solitude plays a role in Rousseau’s personal writings. But this role is exceptional – it is under that exception that Rousseau, as it were, exists outside of the society of his time.

From this interpretation of Rousseau, Todorov moves forward to Adam Smith, and the Theory of the Moral Sentiments. Todorov supposes that the need for consideration is assimilated, in Smith, to his notion of the basic motives that move mankind:

“The need to be gazed upon is not one human motivation among others; it is the truth of the other needs. The same with material riches: they are not a goal in themselves, but a means of assuring us of the other's consideration. "Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the senti ments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty" (TMS 50). The rich man is happy because he has succeeded in attracting society's attention. The same with pleasure as well: the most intense are those that we receive from a certain gaze we get from others. "Nature, when she formed man for society . . . taught him to feel pleasure in their favorable, and pain in their unfavorable regard" (TMS 116). The other pleasures are negligible, next to those: "It is not ease or pleasure, but always honour, of one kind or another, though frequently an honour ill understood, that the ambitious man really pursues" (TMS 116). It follows, as Jean-Pierre Dupuy notes in his commentary on Smith, that "the Smith subject is radically incomplete," because he cannot do without the gaze of others "he desperately needs his fellow men in order to create his identity" (Le sacrifice et l envie, 86). Smith is indeed, in this sense, a disciple of Rousseau.” A need evolves a function – and so it proves with Smith. It turns out that humans are sometimes outside of the gaze of others. But happily, that gaze has been internalized. It is the conscience. It is the impartial spectator.

The place of the third figure, Hegel, is, in a sense, lightly etched in this history already. What is needed, here, is to show that the gaze and its effects are not matters of coincidence, but matters of struggle. And this leads us to recognition – that good held – mysteriously – by the master and demanded by the slave.

I will return to this in another post.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fund drive post

I have high hopes that we will make 200 dollars during this fund drive – then I’m cutting its throat. Contribute to LI and to News from the Zona!
And tonight is a Happy Mondays song:

You used to speak the truth but now you’re clever

Rousseau and Mrs. Bennet

“But I can assure you,: she added, ‘that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, and not at all worth pleasing.”
- Mrs. Bennet, commenting on Darcy’s behavior at the ball at which he and Elizabeth Bennett met in Pride and Prejudice.

According to a German sociologist, Harald Uhlendorff, Einsamkeit – which we can translate as solitude, or loneliness (although Alleinsein might work better for the latter) had a mostly positive use in the fifties. In the sixties, however, it began to accrue negative meanings, and is now, Uhlendorff claimed, seldom used except to denote something sad, some condition from which one would want to get away. (Wege zum Selbst, 226-227) My notes on solitude seem to entirely ignore this, besides going against the notion that the self is a social construct.

Unless I have to, I don’t like lifting a word from the mainstream of ordinary life and endowing it with special meanings. In the case of solitude, however, I think my notion of the state is well rooted in a tradition. I have not, unfortunately, read Barthes lectures on “how to live together” – I’ve only read Diana Knight’s essay on it – but from Knight, I think that Barthes, too, was after some sense of solitude that reconnected it to a tradition – for instance, that of renunciation. Myself, I’d mark a break between the Christian notion of the hermit, the person who suspends the human appetites, and Rousseau’s vision of solitude. Of course, in the first of his reveries as a solitary walker, he tells us that the solitude he seeks is reactive – it is in reaction to his disappointment with all of human society. Yet he soon develops another track, a more fruitful one, I think, of solitude as being not so much in reaction to human society as in reaction to the imperative to be of use. Solitude is the mode in which he daydreams; these daydreams are of no use to anybody. It is here, I think, that we start to meet with a form of existence that has more than a reactive force. Against Rousseau’s own cautions, I do not take the Reveries as the expression of an exception – rather, I take them as founding the possibility of a useless existence. A moment, that is, of pure uselessness – much like the oak tree in the Daoist tale I’ve referred to more than once, here.

Solitude not as communion with God, or the giving up of the appetites, and thus a form of socially instituted continuity, but as daydream, wandering and uselessness, existing below any social institution, never determined by any regime of the division of labor – this, I want to say, somewhat paradoxically, is an essential element of republican equality. This solitude, I’m going to maintain, is what is taken from women – the first and greatest theft of the patriarchy. Solitude is exactly what Rousseau does not want to restore to women.

Now, I want to be clear that sexism here isn’t something Rousseau invents. It does take a new form, a new arbitrariness, after Rousseau. Marie D’agoult is quite right to reproach Rousseau for wanting to raise women to be vain; however, Rousseau is merely assimilating a dominant theme in the prevailing old order – that of the woman as companion. This was taken from ordinary speech. My quote from Pride and Prejudice is not to show how Rousseau influenced Mrs. Bennett, but to show how the Mrs. And Mr. Bennett’s of the world influenced Rousseau. Indeed, I could walk up the street to the grocery store and find Mrs. Bennett’s assumptions staring me in the face from twenty magazines.

I’m going to write about Todorov’s essay, Living Together Alone, in the next post.