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Monday, November 21, 2011

Rousseau, the solitary: 1

Let’s jot down a highly speculative suggestion concerning the different angle of vision that separates Hume from Rousseau, and – more generally – separates the culture of Britain and its white colonies from the ‘Continent’.

The difference between Hume and Rousseau is found, textually, in the way each envisions the present in which they are writing. Hume, as we have seen, envisions that present as an endpoint along a line of intellectual and, in general, cultural progress, from which it is possible to look back and judge the past. Rousseau, on the other hand, does not see the present in terms of historical ‘success’ – and he does not see the past in terms of one unilateral progress. Famously, with Rousseau, the notion of rupture enters history. A historical region – say, the region encompassing ‘primitive man’ – can be described, outlined, and even phenomenologically analyzed – but the total social fact that counts, in that region, is not whether it tends towards the present. The present becomes a much more tricky thing, in Rousseau’s hands – much more malleable, much less describable under general terms.

The harried barbarian of Hume’s account of religion feels the steps of an invisible power through the events of his life and makes his limited speculations on what to do to manipulate that power. Hume’s middling class of man, his ideal avatar of common sense and sentiments, can look back from his present, holding Newton’s Principia in his hand, and see what the barbarian doesn’t: that the real invisible power is held by the designer of the universe, whose design has been revealed in the course of civilization to the scientist. The middling man, however, turns away from the monstrous discovery of the young Hume, which is that the invisible course of intellectual progress has not brought him any nearer to explaining cause itself.

Rousseau shares something of Hume’s idea of intellectual progress. As he makes clear in the Discourse on Inequality, human perfectability is not just a fact of history, but of natural history – it is what distinguishes the human animal. But Rousseau, much like Darwin later, tends to erase the teleological import of this idea.

Which leads us to another difference between Rousseau and Hume, and I think I can say, generalizing madly, between the cultural assumptions of their separate semiospheres: on the existential plane, where Hume sees the middling man – the individual – as the hero of the historical present, Rousseau sees the solitary.

Continuing this line of thought – the individual of individualism is necessarily heroic. And tends, necessarily, to be ‘self-made’. Even the dullest textbook of mainstream economics bears traces of the fairy dust of this mythic character. His self-madeness makes him much like Prajapati in the Golden Egg, a product of his own desire, his own father, son and mother.

The solitary of Rousseau’s more dire account of history is, on the other hand, anti-heroic, and his solitude is existentially conditioned by his break with myth. The Rousseau of the Confessions is not simply the progenitor of the anti-heros of the literature of solitude – the Raskolnikovs, Leverkuhns and Mersaults – but also marks a certain incoherence that will come to trouble all politics in that cultural semiotic. The self-made man is a political creature, whereas the solitary has a more difficult time inserting himself into the discourse of rights. The right to solitude is not founded on property. It is threatened by a society of unleashed individualism.

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