Thursday, June 23, 2011

Analysing vulgarisation: when a fact is a clue

When Fontenelle wrote the Dialogues on the plurality of worlds, he was working in the libertine tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac and in the heretic tradition of Bruno.

By his own account, he was bringing the new philosophy down from the level of abstraction (and mathematics) in which it was couched, in order to make it understandable for those, for instance, adored novels such as the Princess de Cleves.

And on the account of historians who study the early enlightenment, Fontenelle was a ‘vulgarizer’ or ‘popularizer’ – terms which have been applied to him at least since Emma Marie Sioli’s book on Fontenelle in 1910. In order to answer the question of motive and audience, historians often have recourse to a sort of warmed over classical economics explanation – it is the consumer that did it. That is, there was a ‘demand’ for books on natural philosophy. Sometimes this is expanded into the idea that there was, somehow, more leisure for reading. Or it is mixed with the idea that this consumer class of readers was female. The latter actually does suggest something a bit more sociologically complex, since it links the demand story to education. Women were excluded from academies and colleges of the type that were open to males of a certain class. But they were not illiterate. And so, if we take the demand story a step further, we could link it to the way knowledge was manufactured, and where it was manufactured.
In other words, we can step out of the magic wand model, in which demand is waved in the air, and things simply appear, into another world in which demand is mediated through the division of labor, and division of labor is mediated by organizational settings.

When La Bruyère makes his cutting remark about Fontenelle’s appeal to the “bourgeoisie’ and the ‘provincials’, his idea is that the bel-esprit vulgarization is a matter of cheapening cultural goods, and distributing them among people who don’t know any better. Although one might turn the tables on this characterization – for even as La Bruyère wrote in the confidence that he knew the eternal place of the Ville and the Court, the centralizing politics of Louis XIV and Colbert were producing changes that would quickly undermine the place of those two eternities – his assumption is used even now in defining popularization.

In Marie-Francoise Mortureux’s essay on the formal linguistic properties of ‘vulgarization’ – which the French prefer to popularization – she quotes a definition proposed by Jacobi and Shninn: ‘… to consider the results of research, the objects of knowledge produced by science and to identify the strategies of actors in view of assuring their diffusion among peers and outside the circle of specialists.”

Mortureux makes a sharp eyed assessment of the implications of this definition, among which is the fact that “the evaluation of its effects does not give us any institutional procedure (contrary to teaching beginning classes, and even continual [educational] formation).”

In Gadda’s mystery, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, his police detective, Francesco Ingravallo, thinks, privately, that the usual police procedure of matching an effect to a cause is, in fact, a misunderstanding of our causal cosmos:

“He sustained, among other things, that unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed.”

I belong to the Ingravallian sect myself, and take it that in examining the unforeseen catastrophes that dot the weather system of history, one has to look for points of depression or attraction in which multiple causes are involved. In understanding the production of knowledge outside of the institutionalization of its assessment – in other words, being ‘well informed’ – we have to look at a more complex picture then is given to us by the idea of the ‘rise’ of such and such a class and the ‘demand’ for such and such a commodity. This is my rule of thumb in studying the formation of character under capitalism. We have to be on watch, then, for changes in unexpected regions, of which we have only, in retrospect, blurry pictures taken by, as it were, our satellites, our witnesses, our writers, our surveyors working on quite opposite premises for purposes of their own. We have to understand the fact as a clue – and thus always half imaginary.

– Using this method, surely, surely, on those starry nights in that parc belonging to the country estate in Normandy where Fontenelle teases and instructs and is gently rebuffed by his ravishing hostess, the blonde marquise de G***., what is happening, unbeknownst to both players, is the development of one of those depressions in the weather system of the ancien regime.

Monday, June 20, 2011

division of labor and the writer

In describing the ‘workshop’ of the bel-esprit, La Bruyère is, unconsciously, positioning the writer, the quintessentializing writer, within the factory system. It is a rather fascinating coincidence that a decade after Fontenelle is satirized for being a mere producer, with a p.r. advance man and a bag of rhetorical tricks, we have accounts, for the first time, of how skilled labor – for instance, in the making of ships or watches – can be distributed among workmen so as to make the ships and watches more precise and the output speedier. In the light of that development, La Bruyère’s Characters already looks retrospectively obsolete. Or rather, it looks like an ideological investment in the obsolete: in a classical steady state political economy and order, founded ultimately on preserving Nemesis as the limit of growth.

Addison and Steele were exactly the kind of atelier writers that La Bruyère was warning against. They were very consciously writing for the ‘bourgeoisie’, or the commercial class; they were both involved in Whiggish commercial schemes; and they included, in the Spectator, certain remarks in defense of free trade and commerce that were the exact negation of the ideal monarchical order which underlies La Bruyère’s idea of both the writer and of the plurality of characters.

In this respect, I would like to read the remarks about the character of the bel esprit against Number 232 of the Spectator, which appeared on November 26, 1711. It is still a scholarly puzzle as to who exactly wrote this number – although nobody disputes that the ideas behind it belonged to Richard Steele’s friend, Henry Martyn, one of the obscure who issued a pamphlet defending the East India trade in terms that would have done Adam Smith proud. In other words, one of those figures who always seem to precede more important figures, as though a different sun ruled the sphere of intelligence, where shadows precede substance.

Henry Martyn made plainer the connection between free trade and the increased productivity that comes from well ordered manufacture – or what Smith was to call division of labour – in his pamphlet on the East Indian trade, but it is likely that many more people, even at the time, read his argument – if not his genuine writing of it – in the Spectator. That the signature of an essay about the dispersion of worker responsibility in the assembling of a product is, even now, in dispute is one of those mysterious communications between logical levels that Derrida loved so much. The text is attributed to a fictional character – Sir Andrew Freeport – who combines the leisure of the nobility in his weekend rural retreat with the commerce of the City, as a merchant. The essay gives voice to Freeport after a scene in which his unnamed companion and Freeport are ‘assaulted’ by beggars as they are going from the city to the country,and buy them off with alms. It is the state of the poor that quickly brings us to the state of the nation:

“But of all Men living, we Merchants, who live by Buying and Selling, ought never to encourage Beggars. The Goods which we export are indeed the Product of the lands, but much the greatest Part of their Value is the Labour of the People: but how much of these People's Labour shall we export whilst we hire them to sit still? The very Alms they receive from us, are the Wages of Idleness. I have often thought that no Man should be permitted to take Relief from the Parish, or to ask it in the Street, till he has first purchased as much as possible of his own Livelihood by the Labour of his own Hands; and then the Publick ought only to be taxed to make good the Deficiency. If this Rule was strictly observed, we should see every where such a Multitude of new Labourers, as would in all probability reduce the Prices of all our Manufactures. It is the very Life of Merchandise to buy cheap and sell dear. The Merchant ought to make his Outset as cheap as possible, that he may find the greater Profit upon his Returns; and nothing will enable him to do this like the Reduction of the Price of Labour upon all our Manufactures.”
Andrew Freeport evidently sees things in terms of a system. The system – capitalism – will accomplish things that are accounted as miracles under the old system: giving the unemployed employment; raising wages while diminishing the cost of labor; and encouraging world trade as a means of exploiting the even cheaper labor available elsewhere to make the nation prosperous. His companion shows some astonishment at these propositions, but Freeport has read his William Petty:

“It may seem, says he, a Paradox, that the Price of Labour should be reduced without an Abatement of Wages, or that Wages can be abated without any Inconvenience to the Labourer, and yet nothing is more certain than that both those Things may happen. The Wages of the Labourers make the greatest Part of the Price of every Thing that is useful; and if in Proportion with the Wages the Prices of all other Things should be abated, every Labourer with less Wages would be still able to purchase as many Necessaries of Life; where then would be the Inconvenience? But the Price of Labour may be reduced by the Addition of more Hands to a Manufacture, and yet the Wages of Persons remain as high as ever. The admirable Sir William Petty2 has given Examples of this in some of his Writings: One of them, as I remember, is that of a Watch, which I shall endeavour to explain so as shall suit my present Purpose. It is certain that a single Watch could not be made so cheap in Proportion by one only Man, as a hundred Watches by a hundred; for as there is vast Variety in the Work, no one Person could equally suit himself to all the Parts of it; the Manufacture would be tedious, and at last but clumsily performed: But if an hundred Watches were to be made by a hundred Men, the Cases may be assigned to one, the Dials to another, the Wheels to another, the Springs to another, and every other Part to a proper Artist; as there would be no need of perplexing any one Person with too much Variety, every one would be able to perform his single Part with greater Skill and Expedition; and the hundred Watches would be finished in one fourth Part of the Time of the first one, and every one of them at one fourth Part of the Cost, tho' the Wages of every Man were equal. The Reduction of the Price of the Manufacture would increase the Demand of it, all the same Hands would be still employed and as well paid. The same Rule will hold in the Clothing, the Shipping, and all the other Trades whatsoever. And thus an Addition of Hands to our Manufactures will only reduce the Price of them; the Labourer will still have as much Wages, and will consequently be enabled to purchase more Conveniencies of Life; so that every Interest in the Nation would receive a Benefit from the Increase of our Working People.”

The watchmaker and the shipbuilder and, indeed, implicitly the writer all fall under this beneficent rule. Technology, which one thinks of as a matter of individual invention, is here given a structure. Although it may seem odd to think of the bel-esprit in correspondence to this vision of the ultimate meta-technology, in fact it is historically accurate.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...