Friday, June 12, 2009

what is false consciousness?

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.

The problem is that false consciousness implies true consciousness, but who manufactures the later? Or are we to assume that it isn’t manufactured at all? The Anderson tale indicates this problem as well, in its own terms. 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 the Emperor’s New Clothes, but it, too, is concerned with political and social delusion. And it, too, is centered around – pinned by – an unjustified fact – that Zinnober is Small Zaches, a dwarfish snarling stupid creature, a changeling. The very shift of name, which is unexplained, indicates a social doubleness. The humor in the story is, in essence, bound up with the way scenes are juxtaposed. Zinnober is introduced to the Furst, but merely mumbles and growls at him while smearing food over himself. The Furst, oblivious, 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 from the author's clues that the courtier is telling the truth - in as much as there is truth in this world. But the Furst gets angry at him, not only for what the Furst believes is his false claim to authorship, but, as well, 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 we know that the Furst has transposed a true version of events, the one told to us by the author, to a false version, projected unconsciously by Zinnober. It is a stroke of true psychological insight to make Zinnober less the creator of these projections than the beneficiary of them. Meanwhile, we know what is what because we have an author and a story - an absolute grounding under the ambivalence of the versions. He, at least – this anonymous, organizing voice – has a true consciousness of the events that are unfolding in the tale. This is, after all, the terms of the "contract' between the author and the reader.

Yet , later on, in the sixth chapter, this same author calmly describes magical metamorphoses in the coffee time between Rosavelde and Dr. Prosper Alpanu. There, the truth is, in contrast with the breakfast with Zinnober and the Furst, full of fantastic things, things out of the order of our normal sense of sublunar causality, and yet there is no break in the authorial voice, no sense that here, we have gone off the rails. Rather, we have a sense that all is in order because, outside of the Enlighenment, the order can easily acommodate such "table tricks." Meanwhile, in one of those strokes of mad genius in which Hoffmann seems to rise above the merely satiric or folkloric, even 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.”

At the other end, Zinnober's enemy, Balthasar, experiences the exact opposite. 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). 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? And must projection drive out projection and so on, without end?


P.M.Lawrence said...

"...false consciousness implies true consciousness".

That no more follows than bad guys in a dispute implies good guys there (e.g. Palestinians and Israelis), or than that the north and south poles imply east and west poles. What it does is, it implies the category, just as actual triangular triangles imply the category square triangles via the category triangular triangles - but it doesn't imply that there is anything in the category.

Roger Gathmann said...

I must disagree about the implication - the opposites of true and false are not like the opposites bad and good, in your example, since of course bad and good are not truth claims. Thus, I can claim that there are no bad guys in a dispute without myself being implicated in the statement - that is, it doesn't depend on whether I am bad or good. The same cannot be said for the claim of false consciousness, which, as a truth claim, depends on my access to the truth. Yet your last sentence is true - there may be nothing in the category of the true.

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