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Friday, February 01, 2008


Ernst Kris was a Viennese art collector, historian, and psychoanalyst who taught Freud to the great Ernst Gombrich. When he died in 1957, he left behind a large reputation. Even in the seventies, when his papers came out, a review came out in the New Republic. One of his papers, from 1956, left a phrase that has been lifted, since, by many - especially Jungian analysts: the personal myth.

“Kris found that certain patients when routinely probed about their pasts were able to respond with detailed, fluent, and highly consistent autobiographies embracing all their past history. Now this is somewhat unusual because most people do not usually have ready access to a well worked out autobiography in which themes of different lifetime periods are highly consistent with one another and smoothly extend across the lifespan. During the process of analysis, Kris determined that these personal myth autobiographies were in fact being employed as part of the process of repression to keep from consciousness other traumatic autobiographical knowledge. For example, in one of his cases he eventually discovered that the myth, which included the patient leaving home when 16 years old, was in fact incorrect and the patient had actually left home when 18 years of age. The missing two years, it later transpired, referred to a period in which a sequence of events had repeated (repressed traumatic events from earlier in childhood and the myth, by editing out the memories of the repeated events, was able to maintain the repression.

Kris proposed that personal myths constitute a central part of the self but that in the nonpathological individual the myths are constantly changed and updated. (Collins, Theories of Memory, 113)

Of course, in the late eighties, this whole matter of repressed memories of trauma led to mythmaking in the moral panic mode. LI has no patience for that. Leaving aside the dubious claims of the repressed memories crowd, Kris’ notion does seem intuitively right: there are individuals who have the story of themselves down, and there are those who seem oddly unprepared for their own history, as if consisted of information that they hadn’t studied. As a writer, I hugely prefer the former type of person, and have always found the latter puzzling. Of course, as a quasi-pathological type of individual myself, I am ever ready to believe my own lies – but the interesting twist in Collins summary of Kris is that the non-pathological constant changing and updating of myth leads to – well, to those puzzling, inconsistent myths with which we are greeted whenever we look seriously into Greek or Indian or Egyptian or any kind of rich mythological data base. Or, for that matter, even into something as simple as the facts in Jesus’ case, which are shuffled differently in the different gospels.

A recent book by Sophia Heller, The Absence of Myth” takes a self consciously ‘deconstructive’ approach to personal myth:

“Personal myth represents a particular response to the collective loss of myth and religious meaning. Though it may profess otherwise, the personal myth approach does not and cannot seek to remedy this absence because it utterly depends on it. Its philosophy basically says that what the collective has lost, the individual can and should reclaim. And how one reclaims myth and meaning is through knowing and telling one’s personal story. However, what separates a personal myth from a mere autobiography, biography or memoirs is the underlying belief or hope that if a personal story is contextualized within myth, it carries an archetypal and numinous significance and, as such, is elevated and geared to replace the metaphysical void created by the departure and death of the gods.” – Sophie Heller, The Absence of Myth

For Heller, myth is myth – she is unwilling to countenance the metaphorical transfer of myth to a world view that depends on truth claims. “What makes a myth a myth is, in part, the fact that it is absolutely true because it is real.”

All of which has LI wondering about the emotional customs he is tracing. Are we dealing with myth when we deal with the capitalist discourse of happiness? Is happiness triumphant a sort of weaving together of personal myths into a collective one, where a ‘feeling tone’, a transient mood, is projected onto social circumstances and transformed into a judgment about life?

LI has been pursuing happiness as the central notion in the way in which emotions are interpreted socially, and thus as one of Mauss’ total social phenomena, like the gift-giving.

If we provisionally take it that Heller is right, and that personal myth is a sign of the breakdown of myth, then we have a different angle from which to look at what Engels called the uprooting of a population from ‘apathy’. And here we touch on a sore point in the radical tradition. Engels condemns the life of the factory worker, who is watched and beaten down worse than a slave, in no uncertain terms. Yet, he is, or at least his class is, finally thrown into the vortex of history by capitalism, and that is, in the long term, a good thing. The emancipation of the working class begins with the formation of the working class.

Gramsci, in an essay on the factory worker, writes:

The working class, on the other hand, has been developing towards a completely new nad unprecedented model of humanity: the factory worker, the proletarian who has shed all psychological traces of his agricultural or craft origins, the proletarian who lives the life of the factory, the life of production – an intense, methodological life. His life may be disorderly and chaotic where his social relations outside the factory are concerned, and his political relations within the system of the distribution of wealth. But, within the factory, it is ordered, precise and disciplined.

The working class has come to be identified with the factory, with production: the proletarian cannot live without working and without working in an orderly, methodical way. The division of labour has unified the proletarian class psychologically: it has fostered within the proletarian world that body of feelings, instincts, thoughts, customs, habits and attachments that can be summed up in the phrase: class solidarity. (Gramsci, Pre-Prison writings, 152)

Gramsci is, of course, sounding the modernist note. Engineering would not only be art – it would be the art of life. Modernity consists of knowing that things can be reduced to their parts, and that the parts can be put back together to make the things. In the chaos outside of the factory, this may not be true – and so much the worse for that chaos! If one can take apart and put back together the personal, then the mythic would seem to be on its last legs – here there will be no more fantasy or repressed trauma, but methodology, discipline and, of course, class solidarity.

But if class solidarity comes at that price, who wants it?

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.

And... I can't stand the rain...


Anonymous said...

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.


Anonymous said...

Engineering would not only be art – it would be the art of life. Modernity consists of knowing that things can be reduced to their parts, and that the parts can be put back together to make the things. In the chaos outside of the factory, this may not be true – and so much the worse for that chaos! If one can take apart and put back together the personal, then the mythic would seem to be on its last legs – here there will be no more fantasy or repressed trauma, but methodology, discipline and, of course, class solidarity.

But if class solidarity comes at that price, who wants it?

I think—and am surprised you're posing it as such—that an "either/or" choice of solidarity or fantasy isn't the choice that faces us—unless you have your tongue firmly in your cheek. Heck, I doubt a choice is what operative here.

When the topic of solidarity comes up these days, what comes to mind is Frederic Rzewski's mammoth work for solo piano, "Thirty Six Variations on 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated'". At the risk of sounding like the liner notes, it's a complex meditation on the notion of what solidarity might be, and how long and difficult it might be to achieve it. To be specific and personal, for me, its musical characteristics—highly varied, virtuosic, improvisatory, yet always building on the same theme—provides a hint. Solidarity that's not only worth having but actually has a chance against capital has to provide for these things this post covers under the term 'myth'—personal fantasy, a desire for awe, affirmation, etc., etc., etc.....

Are we dealing with myth when we deal with the capitalist discourse of happinesss?

I don't see in the various brands of happiness a myth either in the sense of collective" religious meaning" or a personal narrative to replace it. I'd say has more to do with the capitalist mode of production specifically than anything that's said here about myth. The current state of "happiness triumphant" isn't a "weaving together of personal myths into a collective one," but a specific personal myth that you don't have yet. From Seligman's authentic happiness to the credit card/real estate scams to diet products to <fill in the blank>

At the risk of completely abusing the Heideggerean idiom, if Dasein is always mine, then the capitalist discourse of happiness is about something that is always not mine. It isn't even inauthentic, although if you were to actually have it, you'd be inauthentic, but (lucky you) that'll never happen.

—et alia, waaaay out on a limb here.

Roger Gathmann said...

E.A., I like your comparison of solidarity to Rzewski's piece, but the problem in these things is to take carefully limit the philosophic ideal from what happens in ordinary speech and practice. Are you saying that Rzeewski's piece is an apt metaphor for the solidarity shown in, say, a strike? Gramci's idea of solidarity is not just an ideal - it existed as an actual factor in the discourse of the left in Gramsci's time. Now, I'm aware that the usual soft Marxist move here is to claim that there was a perversion going on, what with the letter on the Gotha program and such. But the tone of Gramsci's had much more real import. It is important for my project to show how much the capitalist and socialist traditions share - and this is certainly one of the things they share from the beginning. As Schumpeter realized, Engels and Marx are, if anything, overenthusiastic about capitalism at the same time that they are hoping for the revolution that will end it. Herzen got on Marx's shit list for, among other things, going on about peasant communes in Russia. Peasant communes, for Marx, produce peasants - and who wants that?

I don't even think Marx was totally wrong, there. I'm no fan of peckerwood society. But let's face it: the dissolution of peasant societies, which is what the twentieth century has been all about, is a humanitarian and ecological disaster.

And again - working class life is more than a prison. But the prison side of it was precisely what Gramsci was elevating. On the other hand, let's not get too nostalgic for the assembly line. One of the reason working class solidarity dissolved was that it appealed, as per the Gramsci quote, to a condition of life that was cordially hated by the children of those workers. I think this failure reflects a subtle failure on the part of intellectuals, who fall for that speech Stoppard puts in Herzen's mouth about the people preferring potatoes to freedom. In fact, these aren't rivalrous products - but there is a long history of leftist party elites acting as though they were. Acting as if the emancipation of the working class demanded the degradation of all things bourgeois - like freedom, like the third life, etc. The presupposition here is that it is potatoes all the way down.

But that's completely bogus. I think there are plenty of evidences of the 'people', at various times, preferring strong leaders, or watching civil rights being crushed, but - there's plenty of evidence that the middle class engages in the same thing. And usually - just as in 1848 - it is the working class parties who defend the republican liberties (formed partly to stick them in the ass) to the bitter end.

This is why I wanted to explore Heller's notion of the absence of myth. I like the fact that Heller is not going to countenance any metaphoric move, the kind of thing that makes any system of thinking mythical. On the other hand, happiness in this culture isn't just a matter of conceptual systematizing - it is something like mana, a power, something that is embodied in circumstances (hence the political use of happiness), that stretches over lives, and that also names a mood or feeling. It thus seems to have a tripart embodiment.

You are right about the weaving together phrase - insofar as it makes it seem like each is weaving together this personal myth from some personal, endogenous notion. It isn't a bottom up procedure, but it is not a totally top down procedure, either. The good part of the weaving metaphor is that it produces an impersonal product - if you weave together a large piece of cloth, your boundaries, your contribution, is erased.

Anonymous said...

E.A., I like your comparison of solidarity to Rzewski's piece, but the problem in these things is to take carefully limit the philosophic ideal from what happens in ordinary speech and practice. Are you saying that Rzewski's piece is an apt metaphor for the solidarity shown in, say, a strike?

Not at all, and I didn't even mean to give that impression. It was speculation, pure and simple, and why I only said it provides a hint. Furthermore, I agree about your characterizations of, hrm, let's call 'it actually existing solidarity. Mass discipline being the thing that erases the distinction between work and the rest of life—totally undesirable, horrible, made of fail, which it did. And I also concur in the judgment that E. & M. are also overenthusiastic about capitalism...

Long story short, Stakhanovism was a horror and I don't think it was a perversion of Marx as such. It was there in ovo, but along with other things. The conditions of "actually existing socialism" made it hatch first. If it isn't dead, let's put it out of our misery and look at—or build our own—other things.

I can't speak about the historical manifestations of capitalistic discourse on happiness--at least not beyond one or two trivialities about Pride and Prejudice, and then I'm just riffing on Auden's lines about her. But I look around today from what most people would call a doing-OK-middle-class 'Murican perspective, and the prominent sources of happy talk come from product manufacturers and services providers. I think that by Heller's stipulations, those things aren't myth. They ain't happiness either.

Maybe saying that solidarity worth having would include certain aspects of myth gets it backward (to be clear: all speculation now...maybe also normative statements against which people who'd corral dissent into following a particular line should be measured, too): maybe the accurate thing would be to say when these aspects of myth re-emerge in group activity without erasing people's individuality or being commodified, then...well, maybe I won't even call it solidarity. Just that from that some sort of group co-ordination could emerge that could have transformative power.

—et alia

Roger Gathmann said...

Amie, I hope you forgive me my Rilke quote - right next to Precious Wilson!
But I thought it was appropriate.

EA -I think our disagreement, here, might be about how, exactly, one gets to the point of a 'solidarity worth having'. I've gotten perilously close to wanting to uncouple happiness and politics completely. I'm not to that point yet, because I think - or the Rawlesian liberal in me thinks - that politics can dissolve second order structural unhappiness - for instance, that of hunger.

But I should do a post on this.

Anonymous said...

I'm not even sure we disagree. All I have as far as a "solidarity worth having" goes is a vague idea/mood based on piece of music. Unless I've egregiously misunderstood you, we agree that the old fit-in-or-fuck-off forms aren't anything to build on, to put it mildly.

Does not thinking I'll live to see structural changes in the US count as uncoupling happiness and politics? Then again, I'm 45, eat too many fatty dead animals and don't exercise enough. At least I stopped smoking.

—et alia

Anonymous said...

"Herzen got on Marx's shit list for, among other things, going on about peasant communes in Russia. Peasant communes, for Marx, produce peasants - and who wants that?"

Napoleon, for one. Many people, particularly in the English speaking world, criticised the Common Market's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for being a very inefficient way to produce food, or even food security, without realising the origins of the French position. Starting with Napoleon, land reforms optimised small family farms and inheritance laws favoured transmitting them down the generations (see the passage in The Count of Monte Cristo describing how children could not legally be left out of a will). What Napoleon was after, and French policy until modern times was as well, was not optimising the suply of food but of peasants, as a means of ensuring a supply of conscripts.

Anonymous said...

LI, hey, the quote from Der Panther is more than appropriate. Indeed, it has me thinking of the Eighth Duino Elegy re the question of the animal and the human, and of the last stanza of the Tenth Elegy re rain and happiness!

Und wir: Zuschauer, immer, überall,
dem allen zugewandt und nie hinaus!
Uns überfüllts. Wir ordnens. Es zerfällt.
Wir ordnens wieder und zerfallen selbst.

Sorry if I'm going off on a tangent. This really is a great post and thread. I've a question re myths and solidarity, uncoupling happiness and politics. I'm wondering if it would involve uncoupling politics and myth? And, as music has come up, uncoupling politics and music as myth?


Roger Gathmann said...

Amie, those are great questions, to which I don't have answers. I'm sorta trying to crawl to the answer. I've intentionally made music come up because, as you know, I've got a stake in using music and dance as one way in - one teeny vector into what alienation really meant as the Great Transformation, the embedding of the social in the economic, took place. Singing was important enough to be specifically prohibited in Manchester factories. The barricades in 1848, and in 1870, were often the scenes of spontaneous outbursts of singing - and there is that great scene in La Commune in which the non-actors Peter Watkins has gathered together, under the stress of circumstances, themselves burst into song. Songs were the way the French population, apparently, learned French in the nineteenth century. So is song just some kind of epiphenomenon, or is there something happening here? I'm reminded of what Elias says in the Civilizing Process about how people learned not to blow their noses at the table, to use forks and knives, etc. - obviously, one learns not to sing in the factory. But look at the assembly line of cars that go to and fro work on the highways - I think a poll of those cars would find many people singing along with the radio, or the CD, or whatever. I'm just curious about this.

Anonymous said...

LI, I wasn't trying to put you on the spot with the question re music, or expecting a pat answer. I think you are onto something in trying to trace the thread of music, singing and dance through the Great Transformation. It is something that fascinates me as well. Fascinates and terrifies. The mythical force of music, its binding and fusional force, is terrifying - politically terrifying. Music that seals the deal as it were.
Ah, but there is also the spontaneous outbursts into song you mention - the barricades in 1848 and 1870. Could one call this the insurrectionary force of song as against the mythical type? I don't know, and don't want to make overly simplistic distinctions. But I would be tempted to call such a spontaneous outburst of singing a naked moment.

Et Alia mentioned Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated!(Incidentally, the first variation of the piece bears the instruction - "weaving: delicate but firm", which made me think of your previous post about looms and singing.) I like the piece and admire Rzewski. But I wonder if virtuoso improvisations is all there is to that piece? After all, the Chilean chant El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido is a song. Doesn't it need a voice breaking into song? It's such a voice that makes it a naked moment.

About the prohibition of singing in factories. In the Peloponnesian War, one of the first laws passed in the cradle of civilization that was Athens was to prohibit women from lamenting in public. Military marches and music is the order of the day, but women singing and lamenting is you know bad for the public.


Le Colonel Chabert said...

July 1848. The citizen Eugène Delaporte, former student at the Conservatory and a musician in the town of Sens, submitted to the members of the Assemblée Nationale a project with the approval of the citizen Minister of the Interior. It offered a mighty weapon "propager la Sainte Fraternité" and "dissiper avec l'aide de la science les ténébres du fanatisme et de l'ignorance": the development of choral music. In evidence, Delaporte brought forward the workers of the faubourg Saint-Antoine who had gone to dig the canals of the Marne and initially recieved a cold welcome from the local workers. Quarrels had errupted when some of the Parisian workers emerged from the ranks and began to perform "quelques-uns de ces choeurs qui remuent les masses, calment les haines et exaltent les populations en leur rappelant l'origine céleste commune à tous." Fraternity from that moment on reigned in the Marne, and would soon reign throughout the Republic, by means of a unifying organisation for musical instruction and choral societies to the direction of which citizen Delaporte was prepared to devote himself. November 1853. The same Delaporte who had for five years been organising his orpheonic societies in Yonne, Aube, the Marne and Seine-et Marne, wrote to the Minister of the Interior to remind him of a profound truth: music is "le plus sûr moyen d'arriver à la moralisation du peuple". It isn't that it elevates them to a kind of celestial fraternity, but it keeps them out of the cabaret. And as the years passed, the high dignitaries of His Majesty himself testified to the truth of it: seedy neighbourhoods and bad doctrines lost out, religion, family, and the social ordered gained with the expansion of choral singing: was not this practical evidence of the impossibilty of achieving anything great and beautiful without the authority of un chef? A fact to which all the Empire was soon witness, granting to M. Delaporte a post as Inspector General of Musical Societies.

Beyond demonstrating the opportunism of an individual, this shows how a singular timeliness allows grand socialising initiatives to succeed. Social harmony brought about through the artistic education of the people reflects the inner logic of social invention. Such projects follow, stubbornly, their own dynamic, whether committed to the royal road of reform or to that of governmental revolution, most often following the paths of the thousands of connectionc which sustain the daily demand for new ideas to welcome new populations of students, distract new populations of workers, revivify deserted countryside, instruct conscripts or moralise convicts, but also to beat new paths, assure expansion and give consistency to political alternatives. Everywhere a bond needs to be created, social inventors can be found, washing over every existing regime and facilitating new political investments, less by opportunism than by that spontaneous aristotelianism that wills that every particular regime insures its own survival by installing the form of sociability best suited to it. What government would not applaud the project of reforming public morals through the arts? Everyone appreciates the celestial fraternity or earthly tranquility, and socialising ideas follow their route to draw the portrait of an objective socialism often quite far from the hopes and travails of politics. This is not just to say that six of one equals half a dozen of the other, but more that roles and meanings are found already distributed by an autonomous logic, forming a finite set of alternative solutions before which even the most successful theoretical and political novelties cannot but bend. The Unending History of the "Theatre of the People" offers an excellent illustration of this. Very early the idea of it was inscribed at the heart of possibilities for the Art Of The People, which are at once contradictory among themselves and equally available for conservatives and revolutionaries. Tossed around for a half century between the accelerated revolutions of art and the weighty constants of theatrical administration, it resulted around 1900 in an established set of possibilities which the Marxist novelty could not undermine. Later the Brechtian critiques offered proof in their reproaches to the TNP of Jean Vilar regarding his project to incite a people socially indistinct "to commue" in the same "ceremony" and in opposing to this a theatre creating real critical distance for a real people, different from petty bourgeois consumers. The diagnosis was as correct as it was pointless. In fact Jean Vilar, like Copeau, like Gémier, like Pottecher and several others was playing for the people of Michelet. Our popular theatre had no other people to recognise. Its project had no greater proposition than to avoid being a theatre of class. The "good" people, the people "non mêlé" are not in play where the desire for the theatre of and for the people resides. They belong to a different tradition, that which wished precisely to subtract the people from the social mélanges and the communal passions of theatre. The people who don't intermingle is the foundation of a certain idea of popular art, art without representation: that art to which belong fairytales and legends, faîence and embroidery, prolonging the ways of the artisanal life and of rustic forms of leisure. In the places and the no-places arranged by the contradictory investments of art for the people, a popular theatre with neither communion nor identification had effectively it's place in criticism, not on the stage.

. - Jacques Rancière, Le théâtre du peuple