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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

false consciousness - recycled

A post I am recycling from 2007


We all know that false consciousness can be manufactured by the yard, like ribbon. We have merely to pick up a newspaper or see a movie to confirm this belief. In fact, the most popular story about false consciousness, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’ New Clothes, uses thread as the emblem of false consciousness – for in its essence, false consciousness is that nothing at all for which someone gets paid. And haven’t we seen them sewing the invisible thread? What was Tarp, what was the Iraq war, but the work of the tailors? Who wove justifications through which it was quite easy to see – it was quite easy to see that Iraq, a country that had been crippled by ten years of sanctions, couldn’t even properly attack its breakaway Northern half, much less threaten a power that spends more on the military each year than the rest of the world spends in five years. Just as it was quite easy to see that the middle and working class, hit by a business cycle that had been put in motion by the financial sector, were going to pay the people, pay them richly, who had caused the disaster, all in the name of an essential function that they had not performed in years, and have no plans to perform in the future: moving capital into venues productive of the social good.
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The problem is that false consciousness implies true consciousness, but who manufactures it? Or are we to assume that it isn’t manufactured at all? The Anderson tale indicates this problem as well, but only on a more subtle level.  In the second paragraph of the story we read:

“In the great city where he [the Emperor] lived, life was always gay. Every day many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two swindlers. They let it be known they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.

The term “swindlers” is the tell. True consciousness has already been woven into the cloth of the story – we, the reader and the author, have a wonderful way of seeing the tailors for swindlers, and the empty looms for empty looms. Thus, when the little boy proclaims that the emperor is naked, he is saying something that we already knew.

“Small Zaches”, has never achieved the popularity of Anderson’s tale. It is not one of the E.T.A. Hoffman stories that has entered the vocabulary of all mankind, or at least the part of it that occasionally goes to the opera. But it tackles a more difficult matter than Andersen’s story: what if we tell the story of false consciousness by putting the ‘tell’ in doubt?
The plot of the story concerns a dwarf. The dwarf is Small Zaches. He is a snarling, barely civilized creature. He does possess an unusual gift, however. He projects upon the people around him the impression that he is another thing altogether – named Zinnobar. Zinnobar is not simply a projection – rather, it is a projection collector. If a man at the table with Small Zaches reads a beautiful poem, the poem is attributed by those at the table to the dwarf, not the poet. Meanwhile, the dwarf’s habits- say, of sticking his face into his plate and licking up the food on it -  will be attributed to the poet. The shifts produce the humor in the tale: Zinnober is introduced to the Furst, but merely mumbles and growls at him while smearing food over himself. The Furst congratulates the little monster on a memo he has received. A courtier comes forward and claims that he has written the memo – and we know he has, because the authorial p.o.v. makes us know that he has.But the Furst gets angry at the courtier not only for his false claim to authorship, but for eating like a pig, smearing food on himself, and dropping a piece of melted butter on the Furst’s uniform.  Like children, we laugh at this – or at least I laugh at this – because I know that the true version of events is the one told to me by the author. He, at least – this anonymous, organizing voice – has a true consciousness of the events that are unfolding in the tale.

Yet this same author calmly describes magical metamorphoses in other parts of the tale, with the same sense that this material happened as it is described. Meanwhile, in one of those strokes of mad genius to which Hoffmann is heir, even his hero, Balthazar, who sees through Zinnober to the Small Zaches inside, has moments of doubt – while Zinnober’s most ardent defender, the advocate of enlightenment, and the man whose daughter wants to marry him, Professor  Mosch Terpin, experiences moments when his eyes deceive him – that is, moments when he sees clearly: “ It is true that it often seems inconceivable even to me that a girl like Candida could be so foolishly fond (vernarrt sein) of the little man. Otherwise, women mostly are looking for a handsome exterior, than for particular intellectual gifts, and when I look at the special little man for a while, it begins to seem to me as if he were not at all pretty, but even a humpy… st …. St…be still, the walls have ears. He is the favorite of the Furst, always climbing higher. Higher, and he is my future son-in-law.”

But it is Balthasar, who makes the most uncanny confession. Balthasar is one of our anchoring characters, whose perspective, vis a vis the truth about the special little man, is the author’s own. He hates the special small man precisely because Candida loves him (and it is here that Balthasar and the author part ways, so to speak – Balthasar’s  love for Candida, it is made abundantly clear, is itself based on a fundamental delusion in which he confuses his sexual excitement about her for some merit she herself possesses – when we can see she is vain and rather empty). But there he is, sitting in the forest (which represents the anti-entlightenment by its very existence – and yet also represents the place where projection is neutralized) at the beginning of chapter four,  making a confession:

No, he cried out as he sprang from his perch and with glowing glances looked into the distance, “no, all hope has not yet vanished! – it is only too certain that some dark secret, some evil magic has broken into my life, but I will break this magic, even if it kills me! – as I finally fled, overcome by the feeling that my breast would explode unless I confessed my love to gracious, sweet Candida, didn’t I read in her look, feel by the press of her hand, my blessedness? But when that damned mishmash was seen, it was to him that all the love flowed. On you, execrable misbirth, hung Candida’s eyes, and longing sighs flew from her breast, when the clumsy boy came near her or touched her hand. … Isn’t it fantastic, that everyone mocks and laughs at the completely helpless, misshapen little man, and then again, when the small man slips in between, cry him up as the most intelligent, learned, even handsome Studioso among us?   – What am I saying? Doesn’t it come over me in the same way, as if Zinnobar were clever and pretty? Only in Candida’s presence  does the magic have no power over me: then is and remains Mr. Zinnober a dumb, dreadful mandrake!”

Who does not feel these terrible moments of surrender to the sly devil’s voice of the consensus omnium? And must projection drive out projection and so on, without end?

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