Between 1840 and 1900, the character of economic man, or homo economicus, was formulated not so much as a sociological type observed empirically, but rather as a theoretical necessity arrived at deductively. In the model of the market economy as a sort of variant of the electromagnetic field of Maxwell’s, there was need for some molecule upon which market forces could work, and economic man was elected for the task. But, admittedly, this molecule had a backstory, one that was smoothed out no doubt to make him the infinitely rational calculator of myth, and yet still one that imposed a certain historic weight. John Stuart Mill, in the System of Logic (1843), suggested that there should be, at the center of the social sciences, one that was devoted to character itself – ethology. In the twentieth century, ethology was hijacked to describe the study of animal behavior, while the science that Mill suggested died in its cradle. Its object, too, has lead a marginal existence in sociology and economics – far better to speak of the self, the subject, the agent, the actor, than of character. Economists evoke the latter mainly when they turn away from the day’s business and turn to the slightly sickly rhetoric of uplift to raise morale among the newspaper readers and businessmen.
In picking up on character as my thematic to lead me through the transformations wrought by capitalism (or the Great Transformation, or modernization – names that attach to the great sweep that has lead to the artificial paradise we know in the developed economies today, with their great chemical alterations of the environment, their predominantly non-agricultural populations, their electricity, their eight hour a day lifestyle rhythms – a historical epoch that could be said to have been founded by the industrial revolution, or the trans-Atlantic revolutions, or the scientific revolution, and that I think took its start when Magellan made the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1519), I am making use of a category that bears a slightly dented aura. Even in the humanities, where characters still populate novels and films, the study of the unity and peculiarity of character is démodé. My impression is that character has little standing in the social sciences as well. And yet character more than self, subject, agent, personality, actor, traverses much more naturally the three spheres of human existence – the sphere of waking life, the sphere of dreams, and the sphere of third life – of media.
Character was the general study of the moralistes of the 17th and 18th century. When Marx uses the term “character mask” in Capital I, he is pressing on a trope that had a long circulation in moralist literature. La Bruyere wrote, in his Characters: “The difference between a man who puts on an alien character and who he is in the privacy of himself is that of a mask to a face.” [1692, 461] This contrast between an aspect that is not fixed, that can be put on, and that adheres to another, fixed aspect without mimicking it in every detail is a very old trope, suggested by the theater of masks.
A. Körte (1929) traces the word character back to the Greek verb for inscribing and wounding. The verb took on two technical meanings – inscribing in stone or wood, and the second was for the impressing of coins. It was nominalized first to designate the instrument that stamped the coin, and then for the stamp upon the coin. Thus, by a nice etymological coincidence, we find that the transformation of the meaning of character, in the ancient world, already brings us to the subject of money and standardization.
Körte points to the relative paucity of the word in the texts we have up until Aristotle. However, even then the metaphor was working that would link the stamp on the coin to the stamp on the soul. Although, Körte points out, the intermediate link is the stamp of the body:
“The image of the stamp, of the impress, was applied rather early to people, but not to the designation of their spiritual impress, the ineradicable individual type, as we mostly use the word ‘character’ today. It went rather with the bodily appearance, as in Herodutus in the scene of the recognition of the young Cyrus by Astyages: “While the boy thus spoke, there came upon Astyages a sense of recognition of him and the lineaments of his face [karaktes tou prosoepon] seemed to him to resemble his own, and his answer appeared to be somewhat over free for his station, while the time of the laying forth seemed to agree with the age of the boy.”
According to Körte, the final step towards the psychological meaning of character was taken by Aristotle, who liked the idea of using the idea of a wrought appearance – the lineament that is inscribed in a material – to speak of the stamp of habits upon the soul.
James Diggle, in his edition of Theophrastus, claims that the work should be translated as something like Behavioral Types or Distinctive Marks of Character. The metaphor, still working on a flat surface, was a drawing, or the portrait. But the drawing was of a general type – generated from Aristotle’s vices, as well as the vices of other moralists of antiquity. It was immediately seen that these characters had something comic about them, and they were transferred to the comedies of the stage. The comic was, perhaps, a stiffness in the stamp – an obsessiveness which rubs against reality, and which makes the character vulnerable to the stratagems of those he encounters.
At the same time, certain of the moralists took seriously the virtues of character. “The Stoic Posidonius (fr. 176 Edelstein-Kidd ap. Sen. Ep. 95.65–7) proclaims the utility of ethologia, his term for charakterismos: to display a model of virtue is to invite its imitation.” [Diggle, 11] The chain of meanings that lead us from the instrument that scratches on a surface to the surface that invites emulation is a trope that is taken up in Roman culture, especially by the stoics, and again in the early modern era.
At this point, the question of the relation between the mask and character takes a certain turn – and it is one we know well. It is a turn that resembles all the beginnings of a split, a branching off of the natural, a doubling – all the conjectural histories that, taking off from Rousseau in his two great essays on the social contract and inequality, saw the doubling as something suddenly sprung on the human animal… who was of course a Greek. The Greek, back in the days when the world was whole, would don the mask and become the mask, be possessed by it just as the devotee of vaudau would be possessed by a deity. French classicist Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux, in an essay, A Scandal in Athens: doing the comos without a mask, presents this viewpoint well. Her point of departure is an Demosthenes’s accusation that his the brother in law of his enemy, Eschines, went through the comos, the nocturnal procession or charivari, with dancing, singing and apparently indecent pantomime and the like, in honor of Dionysos. In the essay, Frontisi-Ducroux uses this accusation to understand the use of the mask in classic Athenian culture:
What is the import of this infraction? The question returns us to our interrogation concerning the significance of the mask, in Dionysian rituals, of course, but also generally in the practices and representations of the Greeks. Thus the values which permit us to disengage the term prosopon and its uses does not absolutely go towards the sense of incognito. Recall that the Greek language only possesses a single term to designate mask and visage, and that the two notions, far from opposing one another as in our cultures, are apprehended similarly in terms of faces, since the prosopon is “what is offered to the gaze”. The visage is what each one presents of itself to the eyes of others, and which, in a culture of exteriority, coincides with its authentic being. Thus the prosopon will designate the personage, then the grammatical person, before being applied, in the Christian epoch to the psychological and moral person. In such a context, in order to remain incognito, it is necessary to hide one’s visage, as Ulysses did in Alcinoos’s palace, during the song of Demodocus. But to put on a mask refers to putting on a new personality, which temporarily abolishes the first, which no longer matters. The prosopon that the actor dons is not a mask, in the sense that we understand it, but a new visage which presents its wearer to the eyes of others with other traits, under another aspect and a new identity.”
Frontisi-Ducroux’s difficulty in finding the words to express the person is part of the history she is telling – “personage:, “person”, “personality,” and “identity” are all words devised under the semantic regime of doubleness, of the artificial man. The natural man, of course, does not know his naturalness, and the moment he does know it, that naturalness slips into the retrospective view, never to be inhabited again. This is a variant of the story of the Other, codified in the 18th and 19th century grapple with ’man’ as an object of study and the subject of history. And it is thus – if we accept this story – that the mask and the character, which may seem like a natural couple, are somewhat at odds. To return to our history of metaphors, if the stamp on the coin is to work as the mark of authenticity, it cannot be lifted off – although in actuality coins can be pounded back into blank counters and restamped. But the mask can be lifted off and put on – it is the nature of the mask. It is also in the nature of the convention of masking that the mask represents another face than that borne by the masker. Still, the possibility of the mask hovers over the chain linking the character on the coin to the character stamped on the psyche. And so the mask does couple with the character in one tradition, which leads to the comic character, and eventually the cynical one – the man whose character in public is a strategic mask, an incognito through which he proceeds secretly to his ends. Whereas, in another tradition, the character is that which remains under the mask, that which is the very cast of the moral self.