on an essay by Louis Dumont

In the fifties and sixties, there was a certain amount of interest in Jasper’s “axial age” – the period in which, supposedly, the Greek, the Indian and the Chinese civilizations all established a founding distinction between the transcendent and the temporal. Left out of the axial age are the Africans and the Mesopotamians – Egypt and Sumer.

Daedelus held a symposium on this idea in 1975 to which they invited an article by Louis Dumont. This post is going to be about his essay, “On the Comparative Understanding of Non-Modern Civilizations”. Alan McFarlane’s essay on Dumont is helpful – it is here.

Dumont is doubtful about the suggestion that there was either a hidden connection between the axial civilizations, or that we should us the term from a perspective in which we have chosen “our” civilization – the Greek. His essay is, in part, a standard plea for the primacy of the emic understanding of culture in any comparison of cultures.

“Professor Momigliano has set the basic, indeed, the liminal question, with great clarity. Conscious of being heir to the classical trinity of Greco-Roman-Judeo Christian civilization, we can choose one of two strategies. Either we can remain purely and simply within this established configuration and go on looking at all other civilizations as strange entities, which can nevertheless be approxi mately described by reference to our configurational coordinates, or we can try and transcend this limitation in order to gain a more catholic perspective, con sidering each of the civilizations in question in its own right. The latter alternative, the catholic approach, is not commonly practiced today, though some may naively imagine that it is. Nor is that approach impossible, as others may maintain.”

This plea runs through modernity in correlation with a set of other heuristics – all of which arise in some kind of opposition to the happiness culture. The plea for the imagination, the critique mounted from the notion of alienation, and the anthropological principle of relativism are all, I think, linked. In fact, in a post last year, I made a plea, myself, for seeing the rupture that Foucault takes to be the moment in which Man emerges as the subject of the social sciences as, really, the rupture that defines the Other as the primary source for the social scientific image of Man. The displacement of the human limit within the definition of Man is, I think, symptomatic of the various discourses of the subject.

So much, then, for placing Dumont’s notion in an intellectual geneology. Dumont is best known for his book, Homo Hierarchicus, which is anthropology on the grand scale. Since the symposium was working on the grand scale, Dumont, here, tries to define hierarchy – his great theme – against what he takes to be characteristic of modernity. In Dumont’s schema, Marx is the grand master of modernity – and here excuse me if I quote a long bit. Hey, I know from my own experience that quoting long bits of text make me skip over the quote and get to the meat – but this long bit is essential to Dumont’s point:

“We must go still further and guard against the unwary or generalized use in our field of any and all of our current conceptions. Conflict - I might even say, contradiction - looms large in our ideology. We believe in regulated -and even to a degree, unregulated - conflict, and certainly this is functional or "rational" in our world. To take immediately apparent and widespread representations, we have not only the "class struggle" and "the struggle of all against all" but also the "race struggle" of the Nazis, the perhaps abortive "generation struggle" of some student movements, the altogether more promising "sex struggle" of the "Liberation" movements. When I say that this is an important ideological phenomenon, I do not mean that it exists only in the imagination, and not "out there," but surely a foreigner who might hear of our social life only in such terms would conceive of it in a very unilateral or biased way. Such representations, incidentally, are not eternal, and the "struggle against nature" has perhaps now entered its old age.”

Dumont, in this essay, wants us to see the varieties of this archetype of struggle as a social thematic unique not just to the “West”, but also to modernity. But first, a word about the "West". One of the myths we take for granted is that the West – that we – come from the Greeks, although of course we - those of us who descend from European settlers in America, and those of us who live Europeanly in Europe, come from a whole different group of people who came from Central Asia. But when we say ‘West”, we pretend this isn’t so – except for a few like Rimbaud, perhaps: “J'ai de mes ancêtres gaulois l'oeil bleu blanc, la cervelle étroite, et la maladresse dans la lutte. Je trouve mon habillement aussi barbare que le leur. Mais je ne beurre pas ma chevelure.”

In any case - against this conflict model, Dumont, famously, posed a hierarchical model – a model in which parts could be absorbed by, rather than polemicized by, the whole.

Dumont summarily lists three elements that he believes make up the fundamental modern ideology: individuals as the bearers of ultimate value (whether moral or conceptual, as the final level to which all things social can be reduced); the relation of people to objects (which is the great definer of the individual); and thirdly, wealth – about which I should quote Dumont:

“3. Wealth constitutes an autonomous category centered on movable wealth but in cluding, secondarily, immovable wealth. (Marx noted that this had been the case only in small, exceptional, merchant societies). This point is a corollary of the preceding one. In the traditional, as against the modern, case, immovable wealth is attached to power over men, while movable wealth is disparaged and/or subordinated.”

Dumont summarizes his anthropology of classical Indian society in this way: he believed that he could obtain a “unified view of the religions of India, based on the recognition of the fundamental role of the renouncer, and a revision of the place of kingship in Indian society from an early date.” It is the renouncer – especially put in juxtaposition with the three elements of the traditional ideology – that fascinates me in this essay.

“At the end of our period we find, correlatively with the beginnings of caste, a full-fledged and peculiar social role outside society proper: the renouncer, as an individual-outside-the-world, inventor or adept of a "discipline of salvation" and of its social concomitant, best called the Indian sect. These sects were religio-philosophic movements transcending the Hinduism of the man-in-the-world. They also were to be perennial in India and acted powerfully on this Hinduism, witness the two most prominent of them in retrospect, which appeared near the end of our period, Buddhism and Jainism.”

What is renunciation about? Dumont thinks it is, firstly, about rejecting the sacrificial economy in which the priestly caste plays the primary role; and secondly it is about internalizing sacrifice. But ‘rejection’ already sets this up in the conflict terms we turn to, as of second nature. For Dumont, within the hierarchical society, the fundamental gesture is “relativising”. Dumont works with a fundamental binary between the Brahmin and the renouncer – and it is in this relation that the differentiation between the priest and king – between sacred rule and rule that is sacralized – takes place, with the king, then, in a sense gaining his sovereignty by establishing a latent relationship with the renouncer.

Here, Dumont makes a very interesting observation:

“The main comparative interest of the Indian outworldly individual is perhaps that we clearly understand his origin. It begins when persons of noble birth, questioning priestly rituals and values, go into the wilderness in quest of ultimate truth. Then, while the society, under the preeminence of the priests, hardens into a ritualistic social order, an institution appears by which a man (in principle, a man of superior birth only) may leave the social world and his duties in it, ceremonially die to it, and care only for himself and his liberation from the fetters of the human condition. From a traditional point of view, it is much more difficult to understand the emergence of the modern value, i.e., how the individual can be come, as against the society as a whole, the bearer and embodiment of ultimate values, and how correlatively the society can come to be thought of as merely a collection, a juxtaposition, of such individuals.”

My ears perk up when I reach the word fetters – and when I think of the major textual role that fetters play in Marx. From the viewpoint of a renouncer, what could be more obvious than the statement - you have nothing to lose but your chains – leveled against the supreme product of the division of labor?

This post is a detour - but then, it is part of the genius of the blog form to build a system out of detours, and by so doing, point to the poetic fact that all of the connections between the central points in a system are detours.


michael~ said…
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wow, still not there huh? Fine.

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all the best,

funny guy me~
roger said…
Hey, I'm sorry! I'm putting up your blog on my list. Right now!