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?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

doppelgangers in their cradles

There has been a story in the Western cultures about the Other cultures that has developed over a long, long time – one of the great traditions. In this story, the history of the people without history, the savages, is modeled on an equivalence between the savage’s world view and the child’s. Like the child, the savage naturally and incorrectly projects anthropomorphic characteristics on things, animals, and events. Animism, in this story, arrives as the first stage of our development in our cognitive schedule. The first attitude towards the world sees it as alive. Just as Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, children recapitulate the beliefs of savages, who express the cognitive development of children. In that circle we see expressed the natural, intuitive notions of man.

Piaget reaffirmed this idea, in the twenties, claiming that children go through a period of “animism” – a period in which all things are living, and human intentionality is projected on non-human entities. But starting in the seventies, a set of researchers in childhood development began to disagree.

Pascal Boyer, in his 1996 essay, What Makes Anthropomorphism Natural: Intuitive Ontology and Cultural Representations, summarizes the research on what he calls childhood ontologies to emphasize the following claim:… “there is no such thing as a categorical ‘confusion; or spontaneous over-extension in the child’s ontology. Live things are not artifacts, persons and plants are not the same, events and abstract objects are different. The child applies to ontological categories a set of particular quasi-theoretical principles which do not result in category mistakes.”

By category mistakes he means that children know the difference between simply false statements – grass is red – and false statements that falsify the category in which a thing is – “rocks get indigestion.” Boyer is, I think, over-emphasizing the decisiveness of this research, and even among the researchers who have dethroned Piaget’s developmental animism, there is some dispute about how the child packs, for instance, the idea of continuity into the idea of person (for instance, some researchers have claimed to find that children at four think that they will be literally different people when they grow up).

But the import of this research is to make animism a matter of institutions. It is an adult response to nature, and not an instinctive response. It is, as Boyer says, counter-intuitive. Boyer makes a case that its spread in primitive cultures is due to its counter-intuitiveness – it is attention grabbing. I don’t really know what to make of this argument, since it seems more about the ways in which animism could spread rather than why it arises in the first place. Boyer, hearteningly, is very much into the notion of projection – although he is careful not to quote Freud, which won’t do in the Anglosphere.

Hoffmann’s story knows this story. Or knows something about it.

But before I go back into Little Zaches, I want to contact the thread that I wrote about Les mots et les choses. Little Zaches is published during the threshold period of modernity, that period in which, according to Foucault, Man was born – and according to LI’s backwards reading of Foucault, the Other was born.

“I’ve been thinking about why it is that the l’age classique I’ve been presenting seems, on the surface, to reverse everything in Foucault’s Les mots et les choses. I don’t see that reversal as a contradiction, but a turning inside out – just as you can turn a coat or a shirt inside out. Of course, turning inside out doesn’t have a proper place in logic, or a name in dialectics, but it does in the theory of play – ilinx. And where I have grabbed Foucault’ narrative and turned it inside out is, I think, just at that place where he announces the birth of man and his coming disappearance. For, in my endless bedtime story, the end of the eighteenth century, the laying down of the foundations of the culture of happiness, is about another birth, which by Swedenborgian bilocation might be the same birth: the birth of the Other. To my mind, this is what was busy being born as the guillotine came down on the Ancien Regime.”

It is the Other that forms the locus of interest for the human sciences of the modern era. And the Other to which the alienated marginals, dissidents in the happiness culture, turn as well. The duo of Other and Man is, naturally, a doppelgaenger special, a routine, a horror story and vaudeville. And so we return you to…

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

happy doppelganger 2

In brief, the story of Little Zaches, aka Zinnobar (Klein Zaches, sogenannte Zinnobar) concerns the fate of a dwarf (knirps), who is found one day lying on the ground next to his exhausted mother by an abbess, Rosengrünschön, who has magical powers. Her magical powers have led to her persecution – she is a fairy – and hence to her taking refuge in a vaguely described religious “house”. Zaches is described as a mute, misbegotten child, a changeling. In fact, when we first come upon him, lying in the sack of sticks that his mother has collected from the forest, the author notes that he could be mistaken for a log. Physically and mentally subpar, Zaches, in this story, rises to be the minister of the country, under the name Zinnobar. It is, then, a political fairy tale – but it is also a bit of twisted universal history.

It is under the guise of universal history that logs, sticks and trees play their part. Freud, as we have pointed out, claimed that the psychic process of projection was the source of animism. Hoffmann’s story inverses that insight: projection is, it turns out, the central force in the politics of Enlightenment. In this way, Hoffmann carries through on the kind of project that Angela Carter took up: to understand the kind of politics that takes hold in a war of projections and counterprojections in the midst of a fairy tale landscape.

The key to the little dwarf’s power is his golden hairs. Combed a certain way by Rosengrünschön, he becomes a magnet of projection – any noble, beautiful or elegant act performed by someone in his physical proximity is attributed to him. This is, in a sense, animism squared, or “potentiated”, as Schelling might put it.

Rosengrünschön herself holds “loud conversations with wonderful voices that seem to come out of the trees, out of the bushes, out of the springs and streams.” Hoffmann gives the small duchy in which the story is set a history that satirically encodes the history of Europe: Rosengrünschön and others of her type – fairies – were protected in the land by Count Demetrius. The little principality is very much a paradise: “Surrounded by a high chain of mountains, the little country with its green, smoky forests, with its blooming pastures, with its foaming steams and pleasantly bubbling springs, at the same time that it contained no cities, but only friendly villages and here and there a single castles, was like a wonderfully glorious garden, in which the inhabitants wandered at their pleasure, free from any of the pressing burdens of life.”

When Demetrius dies, the principality undergoes a sort of revolution, instituted by his son and successor, Paphnutius. Paphnutius sees the wandering free inhabitants as, in fact, horribly neglected. Hoffmann remarks that the people scarcely knew they were governed under Demetrius. This, in Paphnutius’s view, is pure misgovernment. And the symbol of that misgovernment is the failure to use the resources of the land. Thus, Paphnutius first thought is to make up big posters and placard the village streets with the announcement that, from now on, the Enlightenment would be breaking out in his lands. But Andres, an advisor, warns him that this would not do – rather, the stage had to be set by banning the fairies. After that, Enlightenment would find no resistance. And what is Enlightenment? Andres’ answer is much more down to earth than Kant’s: “chopping down the woods, making the stream navigable, cultivating potatoes, improving the village schools, planting acacias and poplars, making the youth recite their doubletoned morning and evening song, laying down sidewalks, and inoculating the cowpox.”

A catalog that could be taken from the history of Prussia under Frederick the Great and Austria under Joseph II.

Andres program was initiated. The fairies fled, or became vagabonds. Only Demetrius’ favorite, Rosengrünschön, was allowed to stay, in an abbey. Given this history, the irresistible rise of Zaches could be seen as a revenge; the return of the repressed.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...