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Saturday, October 10, 2020

Happiness, 2020


I’ve been thinking about a long ago abandoned project lately.

In 2007, I was suddenly struck with a vision – or a trifecta of visions. The first vision was that happiness, in Western culture, was a total social fact – the name Marcel Mauss gave to concepts that pervade social relations and social representation in a given culture. Happiness, like mana (the primal power spoken of by Polynesian people, which served as the object of Mauss’s study in The Gift) was located in three conceptual places: as an immediate feeling – I am happy about some x; as a judgement about a whole life or collective institution – for example, in survey questions about whether the respondent is “happy”, which elicits a life judgement – and finally as a social goal against which social systems should be judged – the well-being promised, for instance, by market-oriented economists. This threefold set made me wonder how it was all connected – for these were not simply different definitional aspects of happiness, but truly ontic differences that were, at the same time, understandably linked.

Vision number two was that the happiness culture was built in the early modern era. This was accompanied, or quasi caused, by the beginning of the idea of economic growth – in contradistinction from the older, Malthusian restrained, society of the image of the limited good, and by a change in fundamental family patterns in which, increasingly, males and females married and started their own households, instead of remaining in the paternal house. The destruction of the society of the limited good – the idea that your goods, or luck, take from a restricted common pot -  was, as well, the destruction of a larger worldview in which nemesis, or God’s judgment, played a predominant part.  The old notion of fortune’s wheel was laid aside in the name of a new notion in which economic activity actually intertwined beneficently – the vices of the rich were the profits of the jeweler and hatmaker, etc. and equilibrium was disconnected from non-growth.  The second phenomena, which was first postulated by an obscure scholar named John Hajnal, who proposed, in 1965, that that, in essence, starting with the end of the 16th century, you could draw a line from Trieste to St. Petersburgh and allot two different household formations to each side. On the West, you have what Hajnal came to call the simple household formation, in which one and only one married couple were at the center of the household; in the East, you had what he called a joint household formation, in which two or more related married couples formed the household. Hajnal claimed that in the sixteenth century, the Western type of household was new, and characterized by a demographic shift in which marriage occurred significantly later in life. For women, for instance, the average age moves from 20 to 25. Meanwhile, in the East, the marriage age remained very young, and so a married couple of, basically, teenagers remained in a household with an older couple, usually the husband’s family. This, to me, was a fascinating fact – even if later scholars messed about a bit with the neatness of Hajnal’s theory. What this meant was that a window in biographical time opened up between independence and marriage. For both males and females, that window was something new – it was youth. As it shifted down in the twentieth century, it became adolescence and young adulthood. The effects of this were enormous.

Vision number three was of the effect of combining the treadmill of production, accelerated by technology and the revamping of the social structure, and the happiness culture. That effect was, essentially, to remove the limits on the human. The human limit, once rigidly defined by the gods or necessity, and the scarcity of luck, now expanded to include the world. The world became the instrument for making humans happy. It had no more “rights” than any other instrument.

Well, I added to my fundamental thesis for a number of years, and then I sorta took on other projects. But I’ve been reading my notes and blog posts back then, and I do think I was onto something. I was especially thrown back on this material by Ruth Leyes’ The Ascent of Affect, which gives a genealogy to the affect theory that has grown up over the last sixty or seventy years, since WWII.  I also delved into certain areas – such as deconstructing Paul Ekman’s emotional universals – which Leyes also does, with a heavier scholarship, but less concern, I think, for the amazing anthropology of affect that has helped us re-view our sense of, for instance, the European and Anglophone schema.

So I am thinking about working out, 12 years after thinking this through, some pieces of the happiness culture puzzle.

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