“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

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

on the new society that forms within the old one

In Ma Nuit chez Maud, Jean-Louis, the Catholic engineer, bumps into an old college friend of his, Vidal, who is now a philosophy professor. Jean-Louis confesses that he is still an observing Catholic; but, he says, he has his own ideas about Catholicism. For instance, he recently read Pascal and felt that if Pascal’s rigorism was Christianity, he would rather be an atheist. Vidal, on the other hand, claims that, as a Marxist, Pascal has a peculiar meaning to him. His choice of Marxism, he claims, was decided by something like Pascal’s wager about the existence of God. As Vidal sees it, there are two ways of looking at history. Either it doesn’t make sense or it does. If the first view, A, has an 80 percent sense of being true, and the second a 20 percent chance, it is still rational to bet on the second view – as it fills one’s life with meaning.

I doubt that there are many Marxists today who would say, with Vidal, that Marxism is identical to the decision to see a meaning in history. They are far more likely to explain that Marxism points to the way in which the meaning of history changes with the historical circumstances of the interpreters – which tends to undermine any objective claim to discern the meaning of history. And, to an extent, I would agree with the disabused Marxist. Vidal is the mouthpiece of a fairly common strain of rhetoric in the years after WWII, when the defeat of Nazi Germany and decolonization of the Third World seemed to be objective proof that history was ‘on our side’. Which isn't to say that this was the only sense one could see in history – it could be an infinite abasement, as it appears to have been to Cioran. By the sixties, however, the notion that there was some inevitable development in history – inevitability being one way to construe the ‘meaning’ of history – was on the wane. The notion that there was a discontinuity in history tended to make the idea that there was a sense in it seem quaint. On the other hand, there was also positivist variant that stretches from the Rotary club booster to the University of Chicago prof, which opined that the progress of science was, in some general and vague way, the progress that had brought us liberal capitalist society. In the late 80s and 90s, a variant of this idea was that capitalism as globalism was the end of history. This sounded more apocalyptic than the Babbit insistence in this snatch of dialogue from Flannery O'Connor's The Life you Save May Be Your Own:

Mr. Shiftlet's eye in the darkness was focused on a part of the automobile bumper that glittered in the distance. "Lady," he said, jerking his short arm up as if he could point with it to her house and yard and pump, "there ain't a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn't fix for you, one‑arm jackleg or not. I'm a man," he said with a sullen dignity, "even if I ain't a whole one. I got," he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasize the immensity of what he was going to say, "a moral intelligence!" and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.The old woman was not impressed with the phrase. "I told you you could hang around and work for food," she said, "if you don't mind sleeping in that car yonder."
"Why listen, Lady," he said with a grin of delight, "the monks of old slept in their coffins!"
"They wasn't as advanced as we are," the old woman said.

Marx had a strong sense of history. This, it is usually said, is his inheritance from Hegel; however, even a glance at the Enlightenment and Romantic culture of Germany would show us that history as a “force” of some kind precedes Hegel. Herder, the translators of the Scots like Gentz, romantic critics like Schlegel were very invested in seeing history as a force. And who could blame them? Looking about, it was hard to find institutions that would help overthrow the impediments to modernity - everywhere were crappy small landholders and tax collectors, peasants and pastors. History was treated as all the more autonomous as the historian was all the more feudally dependent. The peasant society of the limited good was particularly strong in the German states, and the distrust of growth was shared by peasants and Junkers alike. Faith in history as a force was the face of the modernity longed for by a section of the intelligentsia.

Marx’s original views about history were, I think, entangled with his sense of Germany’s underdevelopment. The double aspect of Marx’s description of the capitalist system – on the one hand, as the expression of the revolutionary force of the bourgeoisie, and, on the other hand, as a system that had to be overthrown – lead to a certain confusion in reading Marx chronologically. That double aspect allows Marx a lot of elbow room for his irony – and Marx always viewed irony as a high intellectual gift. I need to find that passage where he laughs about the political economist's blindness to irony. That was a fatal flaw.

It is in the Manifesto that Marx makes certain statements about history that, themselves, have a history leading up to the conversation of Jean-Louis and Vidal in Ma Nuit chez Maud. As with Baudelaire’s notion of the modern, history is obviously a bit of an intoxicant to Marx. And why not? Who has not known the sublime feeling of standing with the devil above it all, at say 6,000 feet above all human kind – although it is best not to bow down to the devil at that moment, no matter what he promises you.

“One speaks of ideas, which revolutionize a whole society; one thus only expresses the fact, that within the old society have been moulded the elements of a new one, for the dissoluton of the old ideas keeps pace with the dissolution of the old relations of life.”

The uncompromising phrase, a “whole society,” seems to infer a unilateral motion, pressing on all levels of society. Everything goes at once, for all pieces of the old relations of life are connected to each other. And we do see this. Who can’t see, for instance, that the old ways of human locomotion – mainly by walking, sometimes by horse – were so completely swept away, first by the railroad, then by the automobile, that walking in many places in the developed world – for instance, Texas – has become a minority option. The old times – the week it would take to go from London to Edinburgh – have disappeared – or exist only in the minds and careers of bums and tramps. But bums and tramps can’t simply walk across the countryside like they could in 1900 or 1800 – they are bounded by the roads they can travel, as they cannot walk besides a highway, and would certainly draw police attention if they walk along other roads. At the present time, China, in one of the greatest engineering feats ever attempted, is automobilizing its human locomotion. All over the world, the car is uprooting and changing the old relations of life.

And yet, is it true that the surface of life is so homogeneous that it can simply change like this?

That question gets to another aspect of Marx’s ironic praise of the bourgeoisie: that homogeneity is the result of capitalism. The homogeneous society, in which the archaic has no place to hide, is the effect of the features I’ve already alluded to in past posts. And, if we at this point give capitalism much more time than Marx could give it in the nineteenth century, we can watch the process. A recent book – which I must get! –about the pharmaceutical/psychology industry, Crazy like Us, by Ethan Watters, has pointed out that the variegated understanding of emotions in different cultures are being confronted with the American model – for the American model is the model of Big Pharma. This is from the NYT magazine article:

“We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.

This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. In some Southeast Asian cultures, men have been known to experience what is called amok, an episode of murderous rage followed by amnesia; men in the region also suffer from koro, which is characterized by the debilitating certainty that their genitals are retracting into their bodies. Across the fertile crescent of the Middle East there is zar, a condition related to spirit-possession beliefs that brings forth dissociative episodes of laughing, shouting and singing.”

The marketing of mood management is by now a well known ongoing scandal – one that has produced almost no opposition. Whenever marketers change the laws to allow for the mass advertising, over tv, of various anti-depressives, the amount of anti-depressives goes up far, far over anybody’s estimate of the real number of pathological depressives. And so it goes – what, in an earlier age, would be considered an illness in itself, can now be dismissed as a side affect and become the locus of a new marketing campaign and a new drug. Here, the homogenization promised by the term ‘whole society” seems armed and should be considered dangerous.

And so, I’d contend, Marx began to think in the years after the Commune. I’m going to jump to that thought tomorrow – I’ve been rather pointed to this by some references Amie gave me, which have the excellent effect of throwing a certain retrospective ambiguity on Marx’s notion of historical ‘necessity’.

1 comment:

roger said...

Or perhaps I should say, less grandly, that the retrospective lightthrowing is being done by myself, wrestling with Marx's coherence.