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.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020



On a bleak day I lay in the bleak sheets
Eight stories above the puddles in the streets
Where the rain jumped, and the cars were ill:
Everybody in Paris swallowed some kind of pill
In the hope that what the doctor said was just because
He was a sort of negative Santa Claus.
Our anxiety, our numerous internal disasters
Would surely be repaired by duly applied plasters.
And chemistry – for wasn’t this the age of belief
In time released, targeted relief?
I peered out the window, I stretched my eyes to see
Something that didn’t strike me as old or filthy
(sometimes it is like that. A girl’s education
In cleaning up extends at times to the whole nation).
Another party girl, I thought, goes down the drain
-I’d feel oh so much better if it wasn’t for this rain!
Karen Chamisso

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Machine Stops


Michael Kammen’s 1980s book about the Constitution in American culture had one of those great titles, the kind of thing that Bob Dylan might appropriate for a song lyric: The Machine that would go of itself. Kammen took the title from a lecture given in the 1880s by James Russell Lowell:

“After our Constitution got fairly into working order it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the civil war itself but momentarily disturbed.”

Oh these machines! Russell’s phrase gives us that shock of recognition which is something akin to  deja-vu – it is one of those phrases that seem already to have been written or spoken somewhere, to be on the tip of the collective tongue.. A machine that would go of itself is what the classical liberal and the neo-liberal dream of the social is all about – a machine for governance, a market machine, a rational choice machine in the consumer’s head, etc. They are not “turned on” but mystically take their charge from equilibrium itself.

The dream is that the market is our collective intelligent servant and master, knowing everything by its very structure. The state is as small as possible, vis a vis the market, which is controlled by the trade and traffic in private hands (never mind that the company is anything but a private entity). However, the state is as large as it needs to be in order to control the non-virtuous citizens. All citizens, though, are given their turn to vote for a preselected range of “representatives”, from president to city council member.

Lowell continued his speech: “And this confidence in our luck with absorbation in material interests, generated by unparalleled opportunity, has in some respects made us neglectful of our political duties.”

What Lowell sees as a fault, hearkening back to an earlier era of republican virtue, is seen, by the neoliberal, as a virtue: the political economy is de-politicized. The end of history is the end of politics, at least on what Nietzsche called the “Grand scale” – a scale that would attempt, massively, to annul the exploitation and alienation that are not so much byproducts of the machine as its very fuel. The scheme was to drain politics into smaller venues, fights over TV shows and small scale scandals among the disposables in the political class. The feeling of powerlessness that the machines inevitably cause in the populace could be compensated by other forms of power – like the power of choosing to buy one object over another, fruit loops over raison bran, the minimansion over the fixer upper suburban ranch house, ad infinitum. Nobody would notice that their lives were slipping by. And if they did, there were now a number of opioids and anti-depressants that would do just the trick.

That was then. This is now. Now is more the era of Fosters’s The Machine Stops. We’ve discovered that the machines keep not going of themselves. We’ve discovered that the marvelous private enterprise machine, for instance, keeps going up in flames and exploding, and is only reconstructed by the government machine forking out trillions of dollars to bankers and their friends. We’ve discovered the environmental machine is falling apart, quickly. We’ve discovered that consumer choice among the pharmaceuticals hasn’t rid us of our despair, but has dispatched a good many of us via the O.D. And all of this is happening in synch.

In other words, politics on the grand scale is back. It is getting more likely every year that the next time one of the machines explodes in flames, there will be such resistance to putting it back together again that all the machines will have to be … reconstructed.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Lord Rochester

“Such sweet, dear, tempting devils women are”
- of which your hands were by phantoms fathom’s full
Who cursed cunts for coyness but couldn’t dull
your blade to live in any way but as the harmful ham
without ‘em. What is it in your natural history
that makes misogyny the answer to the mystery?
As though drownded dead in some punk’s bawdry curse
You ended, as they all do, dangling and disgorged
Your proud sword all (ha ha,) unforged.
“Bad boys bad boys whatcha gonna do?”
Peerless peers, your society is hella boring
Going to the devil, fucking and snoring.
Lord Rochester, highchurch atheist, didn’t you see
That Bunyan had you in his slough of despond
And God was all the cunt where you were lost and found.
- Karen Chamisso

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...