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Thursday, October 7, 2010


Fourth Post

In the course of this fourth segment, I shall refer to some books that I consider especially suggestive or helpful in understanding society. I think of these books as "recent," but you need to remember that I am seventy-six, so to me, recent can mean dating from the middle of the twentieth century. Sorry about that.

My purpose in starting with a small medieval village, and then spending time on the rabbit eating fantasy, was to demonstrate that even in the simplest, most apparently transparent situations, there is still a great deal of conceptual opacity in our understanding of society. Before moving on to the real subject of these remarks -- our cognitive grasp of modern, complex societies -- I want to spend some time talking about two important aspects of this conceptual opacity.

The first point is that society, even at the apparently simplest level, is essentially mystified. In using the term "mystification" I do not mean to suggest that society is puzzling, or difficult to understand, or that it requires special sorts of knowledge to understand. All of that may be true, of course, but mystification is something else entirely. To say that some aspect of society is "mystified" is to say that it systematically presents itself as other than what it is, in such a way that it resists being understood as it truly is. [With these remarks, I recommend that you read my little book, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, which is a literary/philosophical interpretation of the first ten or fifteen chapters of Volume One of CAPITAL by Karl Marx.] The heartland of mystification of course is a Roman Catholic Mass, where the ancient language [I refer to the old style of the Mass], the incense, the supposed transubstantiation of wine and wafer into the blood and body of Christ all conspire to delude the communicants into believing that they in the presence of a miracle. But, as Marx persuasively argues, the market is as thoroughly mystified as the alter, or indeed as the throne, where ordinary mortals present themselves, and are experienced, as Kings. In the market, the inverse of transubstantiation takes place. At the altar, the accidents [i.e., properties -- smell, taste, etc] of the host remain unchanged, but the substance changes, so that what was bread becomes the body of Christ [hence the word "transubstantiation".] But in the market, during the sale of a commodity, the accidents change [cloth becomes money, money becomes bread], but the substance [value] remains unaltered, for equals exchange for equals. Marx shows us that the mystification is so successful that none of the participants in the market exchange are aware of any mystery at all. [All of this is gone into at greater length in my book.]

Marx loved the novels of Charles Dickens, and for very good reason. One of Dickens' most successful literary devices is to present people as though they were objects [The Aged P being fluffed up in his chair from time to time like a pillow that has sagged] and objects as though they were people [the fog in the famous first chapter of BLEAK HOUSE.] In just this way, in Capitalism, workers are treated and conceptualized as though they were things -- inputs into production -- while things, "product," take on the allure and life of people, growing and expanding in value as though they were reproducing.

Later, I will return to a crucial point that I do not want to belabor here, namely that the mystification of society is ideologically encoded. Indeed, I shall argue [this is really the boffo conclusion of this entire multi-part exposition] that society is essentially, unavoidably ideologically encoded. There is not, there could not be, a neutral objective standpoint from which society could be viewed scientifically, in a non-ideological fashion. But it will take me a while to get to that.

The second point I want to make is that the conceptual opacity of even the simplest societies is rooted in the processes by which the newborn infant grows into an adult member of society. Here I draw my insights from Sigmund Freud, especially from his theory of primary and secondary thought processes and the way in which, in response to the inevitable frustrations and adjustments attendant upon interactions with independent reality, the infant and young child internalize ways of emotional and conceptual being that constitute us as persons. By the time a child is old enough actually to put words to its experiences, it has so thoroughly internalized habits of being, ways of managing its rages and desires, its bowels and its hungers, organizations of erotic energies in structured roles and practices, that it is recognizably a child in some particular culture and social stratum. It is not open to the child, or the young adult, to choose completely to change this foundational organization of personality. The child, or adult, then experiences such roles as father, mother, son, daughter, worker, and eventually citizen, as objectively determined and given, hence as unalterable. Even radical rebellion has its styles, and different cultures organize those deviances differently.

Several reading suggestions, since Luke's Mother started all of this by asking for some book titles. If any of this interests you, I would urge you to read Capital [and my book], to read some Freud [THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS wouldn't be a bad place to start, but also Richard Wollheim's splendid 1971 book, called simply SIGMUND FREUD. Then read Erik Erikson's classic work, CHILDHOOD AND SOCIETY. After that, rake a look at any of Erving Goffman's wonderful books, such as THE PRESENTATION OF SELF IN EVERYDAY LIFE, or ASYLUMS [Reading Goffman is like eating nothing but chocolate deserts. Every page is delicious.]

All right, enough for today. Tomorrow, I will expand my discussion to modern, complex societies, which is really what I am interested in. I do hope you are finding this useful. It is fun to write.


NotHobbes said...

Rapidly becoming as addictive as were your memoirs

luke's mother said...

Thank you again!

Your discussion has anticipated a lot of
the major questions I had in mind.
Your recommendations are greatly appreciated
and your commentary even moreso.

Given your admiration of Kierkegaard and
your interest in analyzing society, did
you ever find him to have interesting
comments on mass society? If I recall correctly,
Kierkegaard lived during an age when mass society
was emerging in Denmark, thus making him an eyewitness
to much of the change. I remember Kierkegaard
having some good comments on the role of
normalizing institutions in mass society
as well detached reflection vs. engaged commitment.
These comments may be veering too close to
the role of the individual in society vs.
a study of society.

I am looking forward to the future installments.
I hope it isn't taking away too much of your
time for FreeCell and Spider Solitiare. ;)
(My family's father figure, a mathematics major
and engineer, often cites games of Solitaire
as the one thing that kept him from reading
through any of Russell's works on mathematics.
"Oh, just one more game...")

LFC said...

The paragraph on Dickens and commodity fetishism is esp. interesting. (It is taken, I assume, from your book 'Moneybags...', which I haven't read.)

JP said...

Prof Wolff, thanks for this series, I am really enjoying it. Please do keep going.

A question I wish to ask: You say that "To say that some aspect of society is "mystified" is to say that it systematically presents itself as other than what it is, in such a way that it resists being understood as it truly is."

I much prefer a formulation like "people tend to systematically reify social facts, i.e. they misinterpret the result of social and historical processes as timeless and 'given'".

You have any objection to such a formulation, or is it 6-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other?

I do agree that this phenomenon (reification/mystification, etc.) is pretty much the first thing to grasp when studying society. I also think uncovering this tendency is the chief merit of Marx, even though, (as you may have guessed), I do not believe in Marxian economics.