Chabrol vs. Chesterton on cavemen among us

In Error there is truth

The universe includes everything right and wrong that can be said about it, so I always pay close attention to statements that are very, very wrong.  You might learn something!  So too, with nasty and critical comments on this blog.  I have a thick skin.

I received a nasty one recently on my post deriding William F. Buckley:

Gessi Says: March 7, 2010

“But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.” And yet the author of this blog is just as arrogant in his certainties as Buckley.

Well, maybe I spoke too harshly of the recently dead, but no matter.  This jibe at my personality led me to other comments on the same post by a Libertarian Catholic blogger with whom I occasionally exchange views.  He mentioned G.K. Chesterton a lot, a man I’ve never read, and one who came up in conversation recently.  And that led me back to Chabrol, and to my lingering feeling that there was something very unsatisfying about his acclaimed film, Le boucher.

Cavemen among us

In an article by Dorian Bell, Cavemen among us*, the author connects Chabrol’s film to Zola’s novel, La bête humaine, and traces the idea that within modern “civilized” man, there lurks a primeval savage that sometimes finds its way to the surface.  This idea is very much associated with Chabrol’s film in many treatments, and Chabrol himself is quoted in the Bell article as saying, “Je me suis demande´ si l’homme était toujours “cromagnonesque.” [I asked myself, if man is always cro-magnonesque.]

Bell does a very good job of dissecting the presence of this idea in the film:  the images of flesh and meat, dialogue about butcheries, human and animal, the juxtaposition of the pre-historic cave drawings with the young children on an outing with their sophisticated teacher, etc. etc.  Unlike most critics I’ve read, he actually hits the point that Hélène is complicit with Popaul in his murders, stating (my emphasis):

Popaul’s violence seems extreme in part because it was successfully consigned to the periphery for so long.  Now it is back, borne by a returning colonial soldier whose crimes Hélène, the picture of purity, cannot bring herself to reveal. Remember that in the years leading up to Le Boucher, the state-sanctioned torture employed by France in the Algerian war had been met by many with similar silence. Complicity, like Freudian atavism, spares no one, and in the guilty figure of Hélène, Chabrol updates the thematics of atavism for the postcolonial era.

Typically, for an academic, he situates the discussion in the cross-currents of imperialism, Freudianism, and an arcane reading of la representation, but he is on to a lot of things here.  Problem is, what if you reject Freudianism?  What if you are not a Marxist?  The article assumes that these points of view are beyond question, or at least that it is not interesting to question them.  After all, how then would academics meet their quota of publications?  Alas, I wonder if Chabrol questioned them when he made this film.

Freud’s troglodytes

Underneath all this talk of atavism, primitivism, and savagery -walking through the cavemen’s haunts, Hélène asks her students on the outing, “What do we call a savage desire that has been civilized? An aspiration!”  If this were an irony, I would like it more, but I think it represents a serious attempt to make sense of civilization by Chabrol.  Why should we accept this?  Freud’s very influential but very absurd book, Civilization and It’s Discontents was surely more popular in 1970 than it is now, even in France, and it proposes the idea that civilization prospers by repressing and sublimating the savage impulses of mankind.  What is absurd is that the book was written by a man who remarked, “As a young man, I felt a strong attraction toward speculation and ruthlessly checked it.” Ah, well, maybe not quite well enough, because Civilization is little but an extended daydream.

Perhaps our ancestors were just as gentle and artistic as we are?  And here we have Chesterton, who writes of the popular notion of the caveman:

So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff.’ I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded. Nor, as I have explained elsewhere, have I ever been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off.

We know a lot more about pre-historic man now than we did when he wrote, and this image of the caveman lives on mostly in cartoons and satire, even to the point where it has been recycled ironically as the Geico caveman who is insulted at the prejudice directed against him, but it lives on rather untouched among many intellectuals who are more interested in culture than the science of paleolithic archaeology.  Chesterton is absolutely right – what reason do we have to think that the cavemen was a savage in temperament as well as in material circumstances?   If one is committed to the Freudian view of civilization, it’s a no brainer, but what if civilization (culture) are, as someone somewhere said, simply things to make life easier? People haven’t changed that much – we just get better at making our lives run smoothly…most of the time.  The myth of atavism is just a convenient intellectual crutch for those who would rather not think the hard questions of why we are as we are.  Not so hard, after all, because we’ve always been as we are.

Does Chabrol know what a cro-magnon man was like?  Does he care?  Or has he simply used an idea in-the-air to make a taut thriller with an intellectual gloss that dazzles lots of his followers?  Hélène’s student asks her on the outing, “What would Mr. cro-magnon do if he lived with us now?”  She answers, “I don’t know, maybe he would die...”  [Of course, how could he survive in this civilized hell-on-earth?  Really, Popaul is barely making it as it is!]  Ah, but the little girl says, “Too bad, I think he would be nice.”  We are supposed to think that is childish and cute, but perhaps she understands more than her teacher.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Darwinism and materialism were subject to so much polemical vulgarization, that the elegant refutations of them by G.K. Chesterton have no interest for me, an atheist.  We’ve moved on, or at least I have, but his dissection of the caveman myth is wonderful.  Similarly, Freud’s grand theories about sex, death, and culture, whether in his own words or those of his descendants like Herbert Marcuse, should be consigned to the realm of interesting literary ideas that have had too much influence.  Nobody but scholars of French literature puts much effort into fathoming Zola’s reconfiguration of Darwin into Le Rougon Macquart cycle.  We read the books for their literary value.  Atavism, an idea for the dustbin, along with it’s twin fantasy, the noble savage.

*Dorian Bell – Cavemen among us:  Geneaologies of atavism from Zola’s La bête humaine to Chabrol’s Le boucher.   French Studies, Vol. LXII, No. 1, 39–52

31 Responses to Chabrol vs. Chesterton on cavemen among us

  1. You cover a lot of points here, and I’m only going to address a couple:

    Students are often directed to write papers with a Freudian or (fill in the blank) analysis. Personally I think it’s a good exercise in examining the same piece of work through a series of perspectives and I know I’ve learned quite a bit from this sort of exercise. Apply a Marxist analysis and a Freudian analysis to the same Victorian novel and well…it can be enlightening. That said how does that translate outside of academia? Well sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps it just teaches us to think a bit differently–or at least stretch a bit beyond our usual thought structures.

    I haven’t seen Le Boucher(yet)but as a Chabrol fan, I will get around to it one of these days.

    The thing that strikes me about La Bete Humaine (which I am currently reading) is that Jacques’ nasty impulses are a throw back to the family madness trait found throughout the Macquart family–a trait that litters Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. I don’t see more than that.

    As for Zola’s Darwinism, I can’t really see myself getting excited enough about it to delve into it (you make this point), but it is useful to read about Zola’s fascination with making his characters demonstrate his scientific beliefs. And this does help explain why Therese Raquin has its weak moments.

    Lastly, have you heard of J.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday?

  2. lichanos says:

    All good points, really. I have a chip on my shoulder about Academe – not sure why. Still haven’t gotten over my tremendous disappointment at realizing what a rat race most of it is…

    The paper I cited is actually quite good for the reasons you say, but I think the writer endorses the views. But the thing that gets me about papers like that is just what you point out – you can take a point of view, run the analysis, turn the crank, publish the paper…But what does the writer really think? I have little patience for exercises – I’ve read plenty. Too often I have found, when confronting a writer of such stuff, that they think…nothing. They just write papers. A point of view is a hindrance to be minimized. Not my cup of tea.

    I’ve not read La bête – I think I’ll go for La terre first – but your remark, I don’t see more than that, is something I find myself thinking a lot when reading articles like the one I discuss. Just let it alone, don’t over do it, pleeezz! But…publish or perish.

    Gore Vidal is scathing in his remarks about Academe for a lot of these reasons. Take a work like Mimesis, by Auerbach – now there’s a piece of scholarship of the old school to sink your teeth into!

  3. mark says:

    I am sure you know it, but I just thought I would mention the comment by Gessi says nothing about you, and, I guess, a lot about Gassi.

    Moving on, I have always had a soft spot for M. Magnon, thinking him, and his family and friends, probably ‘nice’.

    Sometimes I wonder if the last 150 or so years of intellectualism have been especially silly in the history of ideas. If so, I would put it down to the shift into democracy and science, into a new form of society which has inspired the search for self-standing principles that do not rely upon the assertions of the philosopher-king for their legitimacy. My suspicion is that the humanities have failed miserably in this quest being, probably, unsuited to the task.

    If this is the case we are not left with much out of the humanities – just the happy idea that maybe humans, and their predecessors could be pleasant towards each other. Do unto others, all that. Beyond this ‘human truth’ (as I choose to call it) there is not alot to guide us. Neuroscience is providing the occasional glimpse into the human condition, Dawkins et al probably have useful things to say – but these are slender supports for the building of societies.

    I hope this makes sense – I am a little tired…!

    • lichanos says:

      Sometimes I wonder if the last 150 or so years of intellectualism have been especially silly in the history of ideas.

      Damn, you’re on to something there!

      I would add to you list of possible causes the spectre of positivism. We have invented scientific investigation and numerical analysis, and they are so powerful that we can’t stop ourselves from using them, but we have yet to understand their proper limits. This gives rise to all sorts of trivial science, semi-science, and pseudo-science, and it has given the humanities a monumental inferiority complex that they seek to overcome by making themselves more “technical.” The ultimate absurdity is reached with the great Sokal Hoax of the cultural journal, Social-Text.

      We are in thrall to Lord Kelvin, who intoned, “If your knowledge cannot be expressed in numbers, it is necessarily of a meagre kind.” Utter drivel. Just try learning how to walk by the numbers! But his view, reinforced by the quantizing of everything in the economic sense – the value of life, the aesthetic worth of a view, the proper price of a masterpiece, etc. – and the conviction that this is the only way to assess any set of alternatives keeps it dominant. The notion of human values is given lip service, but everyone feels frightened that they may be unable to explain what they actually are in a crunch…I mean, how do you measure them?

      Numbers are, or seem to be absolute. Values are relative. Nietzsche is considered a “great thinker” for pointing out that obvious fact over and over again. But once you decide on what you value, comparisons and argument can proceed rationally by considering logical consequences and ramifications. Most people share basic values, probably for evolutionary reasons – the sociopath is not considered a valuable human role model.

      Do unto others, all that. Beyond this ‘human truth’ (as I choose to call it) there is not alot to guide us.

      Tut, tut…quality over quantity! There is a traditional story about a Roman centurion who confronted a famously pious Talmudic scholar in Palestine, and jeered at him: “So, learned rabbi, can you recite the Torah to me while standing on one foot?” The rabbi hopped onto one foot and said, “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do to you. The rest is commentary.” (Not sure why it is always phrased in the negative…some wisdom there?) Not a bad start, I say. Don’t sell it short!

      Most discussions of ethical philosophy come back to this, to an attempt to logically demonstrate the validity of this proposition. Not really possible. The cynical Roman could retort, “Well, I think that might makes right, and I’ll live and die by that creed!” What logical rejoinder is there to this? Obviously a difference of fundamental values. Evolutionary investigations are interesting because they shed some light on how these basic values – compassion, empathy – might have arisen, and why they persisted, but if someobdy consciously rejects them you can’t argue. Maybe you just have to shoot such people. Some Nazis come to mind.

  4. Agreed that there’s a lot wrong with academia. It’s an elitist, exclusionary insular world, and like all such institutions, those who inhabit them tend to overestimate their importance. I get so fed up with academics thinking their opinions are more valid than anyone else’s.

    At the same time, I’m glad someone is out there focusing on the minutiae of Trollope or Zola.
    One of my dearest friends was the genuine article–a wonderful, energetic and interested professor who never became rusty or complacent or self-satisfied. You didn’t have to dust her off before heading to the classroom.

    That said I was recently looking for a bio of a long-dead writer. There was nothing in print, so there were no recent books with reviews–just titles of used books for sale. It was easy to tell the ‘genuine’ books from the re-hashed PhD or Master’s thesis.

    One of my greatest memories of graduate school is a professor lecturing about the Lute as symbolic of the male sex organ in 16th C literature. I laughed out loud and then I realised he was dead serious….

    The reason I asked about The Man Who Was Thursday is it’s sitting on my shelf (haven’t read it yet).

    Finally, The Terre is a much superior novel (in my opinion) to La Bete Humaine. I loved that book and I think about it almost every day. It is wonderful.

    • lichanos says:

      I’m glad someone is out there focusing on the minutiae of Trollope or Zola.

      Yep, me too. I wish they’d do more of that instead of all this literary theory! Honestly – the very notion of literary theory strikes me as something of a useless oxymoron.

      I know nothing at all of GK Chesterton – never read him before yesterday…

      About that lute…Did you laugh because you didn’t believe your prof? Surely not, I think? I’m sure 16th century people laughed about it a lot – they weren’t shy. Or did you stop laughing because you suddenly noticed that your prof didn’t find anything humorous here at all? Too bad for him! What’s the use of scholarship if you can’t have any fun?

  5. troutsky says:

    I try not to approach a Marx or Freud or Darwin as either or, correct or incorrect. The insight or breakthrough each provides is more useful than the following elaboration.

    As for the nature of man, geez, hopefully it’s not a critical Truth to uncover to do social theory and though brainwaves are a great tool, it is hard to measure heart-waves.

    Finally, it may be that civilization ended in Sumaria. But it can be re-constituted!

  6. Man of Roma says:

    Chesterton is absolutely right – what reason do we have to think that the cavemen was a savage in temperament as well as in material circumstances?

    I think all speculation on man’s mind (culture) and its past – which is fine in any case but often onanistic lol – would greatly profit from concrete survivals evidence: something we can touch, see, analyse, talk to, record on tape, film.

    In my blog I try to dig sayings, emotions (the Roman laughter, superstitions etc.), language (etymology) and so forth. No big deal but I try to get better.

    As for this good writing theme of yours, there is so much evidence of how palaeolithic and neolithic men are like since they survive until today. Why then abstract masturbation? (not referred to you, or to anyone)

    In pop culture even a flop like Australia does a decent job in showing a bit the down-under aboriginal culture.

  7. The LUTE thing was his theory: he’d written a paper on it or was about to write a paper on it. Can’t remember which. As for the laughter, well you know how those things go, once you start it’s hard to stop.

    I did ask if he was serious, and that started me off again.

    The thing is with ideas such as the lute as symbolic of the male sex organ, once that idea gets into your head, you start reading everything with that angle in mind. It can not only drive you a bit bonkers but it also spoils those 16th C sonnets. The professor would read it saying stuff such as (I’m improvising here): “I’ll take my LUTE” (or some such thing from a sonnet) placing the emphasis on LUTE like it meant something special, and then pausing to look meaningfully around the room.

    I’m sure that over time he became really excited that he’s discovered this amazing thing.

    • lichanos says:

      Yeah, well, that’s an academic for you. They get an idea, maybe a good one, and they just want to make hay with it everywhere. Of course, sexual allusions are not foreign to sonnets – whether his reading was right or wrong, I cannot say. In the next century, it would be wrong to read Donne and not be cognizant of the sexual wordplay, but it sure would be wrong to focus on that exclusively!

      I can imagine the scene in the class.

  8. I don’t think his idea falls into the arena of being right or wrong: it was HIS reading. You and I could watch the same film and come away with completely different ideas of its meaning. Same with the sonnets. I don’t personally agree (think it’s a load of old cobblers) with the lute thing but once he saw it that way, that’s what it became. And there was no room for disagreement.

    It’s just that he had this idea and ran with it. I’m sure he believed it, and I expect the more he read, the more he became reinforced (HA: there’s another lute!). But it was HIS reading, not mine. I laughed because the entire scene could have been a comedy sketch–a parody. And it did rather spoil the sonnets for me.

    Yes on the sex wordplay. There’s loads of it.

    • lichanos says:

      La Lutta Continua, he he!

      In France, Louise Labé, a Lyonnais poetess writing in about 1555, uses the lute in several of her sonnets, always inspired by the absence of a lover.[4] The content of Labé’s poetry is unashamedly erotic: she was a lady, not a courtesan, but she is not discussing chaste, appropriate love within marriage: she is eulogising lust and the power of sex.

      Oxford Ph. D. thesis on your favorite topic.

      The Lute’s Honest Voluptuousness Check out page 139, and passim

  9. Ducky's here says:

    I’m not sure how the cro-magnon would survive today but Helene’s fascination wouldn’t change and she would remain a facilitator and denier of our more violent impulses.

    A “Volvo liberal” in other words.

    • lichanos says:

      Her psychology was rather opaque in the film, don’t you think? I mean, there’s no clue why she is fascinated by his “savage” nature, other than that she likes a good hunk of red meat on her plate…

      The more I think about this film, the less I like it. Just the opposite with his others. Les Biches, for example, is really growing on me!

      I hate to say it, but maybe Chabrol was just out of his depth with these ideas…Artists are rarely very consistent thinkers.

  10. mark says:

    Hi Lichanos,

    I accept your admonition, but still stand by my comments. Since putting them forward I have given them some thought, wondering if they were even worthy of a reply, so thanks for yours.
    The topic is complex, and I do not pretend to have a fully worked out position. It is hard to know where to begin so I will just leap in.
    First I think that ‘do unto others..’ is more than an ethical doctrine. I think it extends to the political. The aggregation of votes commands the government, our servants, to organise the world according to our own needs and desires, and thus extending to all those needs and desires we see as important to ourselves to others. It produces an education system with access to the many, amelioration from economic pressures to the extent the society can afford it, legal regimes promoting access to services, justice, and so on. Marxism, or any of the fashionable isms of the last 150 years appear to me to add little to the basic premises of my society. We do not have a dictatorship of the proletarian here, but we do have good living standards available to most, and, arguably, all, especially when compared with other wealthy nations. We are not imbued with a rights culture here, not yet anyhow, so we are not dependent on that particular metaphysics, and yet we are able to achieve more in terms of what rights pretend to resolve than many other societies. The list might go on. The aim here is not to trumpet the virtues of where I live, because there are many things I don’t much like, but the answers to those things I don’t like do not lie, as I see it, in the various available polular doctrines. Answers to material interests appear to me to lie not in a change in political organisation, but rather in increasing productivity through technological advancement. Any person here can purchase a home and furnish it so long as they have work. They can educate their children, and can eat, and they can enjoy a surplus to those basic things to boot. But we are still slaves to producing all those things. Maybe one day we will be freed further from the tyranny of the material through technological change. I don’t see this as a Marxist concept, but rather a practical one, able to be defined by things like statistical analysis, and resolved through application of science and human innovation. We have the political structures to allow this to happen and for the benefits to flow. I think there is also an acceptance here that as technology allows feedback to be more readily gathered, that the political system can adjust accordingly to a more immediate and grass-roots kind of democracy. Again I see this as a practical issue, not an ideological one, after one has accepted the primacy of democracy. Democracy is an ideological preference or choice of course – but again is little contributed to by recent doctrines I am aware of that busy themselves with such ideas, while attempting to turn them to their own aims – here I am thinking of Ranciere who promotes direct democracy coupled with violence.
    I accept that democratic politics can result in majoritarianism, which can result in, at the democratic level, the toxic expression of your Roman warrior. It is a problem that is addressed in part by Humean sympathy. But it is more realistically resolved by a wariness of the state, a knowledge that the state can act badly to us as well as to others, and that our best interests are served by giving to others their due. It is not fully resolved by these mechanisms, but resolved to a substantial degree. In this country we have a powerful executive that is drawn from the legislature, deliberately designed to be fearful of the population and to do what the population commands. We also have compulsory voting so that all people are REQUIRED to express their interests. These are small things, but it is likely they make a big difference in softening the effects of government.
    So far as you argument re the Roman warrior, of course that is correct. It is a limitation of ‘do unto others’. Do unto others breaks down in the circumstances of sado-masochism. I guess I would contend that most people are not sado-masochists. Most people just want to get about their lives peaceably. Political systems should be designed, and I think are here designed, to avoid allowing the sado-masochist to get power. At the ethical, day to day level, most people appear not to be motivated by sado-masochism, and this fact can find its way into the politcal as much as it is expressed in the personal. At the political level the voice of the sado-masochist is drowned out by the majority who are not motivated accordingly. Thus laws are made to restrain the sado-masochist.
    Again, you are right that not everything, and maybe not much, can be solved by numbers. Maybe I have more hope than you do. I’d have thought that drainage systems are very dependent upon numbers in all sorts of ways for their fruitition. Drainage systems have probably contributed as much to the well-being of society as any other single element. The implementation of drainage systems is motivated by democratic forces and sentiment, and put in place using science. Nowadays we don’t see that much politics in the idea, but in the 1830s it was very much a political project motivated by democratic sentiment. But that kind of democracy was defined before Marx and the rest.
    Right now it is a bit late, and I will stop. It is probably a discussion that is best had fighting and squabbling over many coffees or a decade or two of meals. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my perspective is naive. Maybe it is just that the country I live in is a bit different from others. Beats me.

  11. mark says:

    I should just expand a little upon the executive/legislature thing. Here the exective is drawn from the legislature, and the government is formed in teh lower house. The lower house can generate money bills. Hence the exutive is, effectively, the legislature. This creates a powerful executive able to implement the policies the population has voted for. Our judiciary is not empowered with a rights doctrine, so the implementation of government policy cannot be stymied by the judiciary on these grounds. In practical terms people tend to vote one party for the lower house and the other in the upper. The upper house can prevent legislation getting through, but it only does so when it is confident that legislation is opposed by the majority, because blocking legislation can lead to an election. All in all it means that the government lives in fear of the population, is able to implement what the majority of voters want, but if it goes off track can be brought back under control. Compulsory voting means that everyone has had an input. All this theory and structure might be for nothing if it did not work, but it does tend to produce the outcomes it was intended to produce, and people do tend to vote strategically.
    In designing our system we looked both to the US and the UK, and melded both, creating a US-like federal structure with an elected upper house, but specifically eschewing the principle of the separation of powers as expressed in the US becasue we thought it unduly limited the capacity of the people to govern themselves.

    • lichanos says:

      I think that you are more interested in political theory than I am and the implications of these questions there – not sure how much we actually differ…

      I think that ‘do unto others..’ is more than an ethical doctrine. I think it extends to the political.
      Certainly agree with that.

      …the fashionable isms of the last 150 years appear to me to add little to the basic premises of my society
      Yup – many radical critiques of society are prefigured in Christian doctrine, as is the point of the liberation theology. It’s a strand in medieval europe – see Norman Cohn’s wonderful book. Modern isms give a technical pseudo-scientific gloss to some old, poltico-ethico ideas. One could, and Norman Cohn does, see Marxist historicism as a reworking of Christian eschatological concepts.

      …but we do have good living standards available to most…
      Well, we should have. We have enought stuff! And the worst off here are generally better off than in the slums of Calcutta etc. Not sure what that means – not a reason for self-congratulation, but certainly the material conditions for decency for all exist now in a way they never have in the pre-industrial past, and don’t in many places, The Congo, to take one example… Of course, given the lower expectations in the past, one could probably point to many prosperous societies that did as well on their own terms then…

      Answers to material interests appear to me to lie not in a change in political organisation, but rather in increasing productivity through technological advancement.
      Well, here I’m not sure I agree. If we say that some people in our society are getting less than they should get if we are committed to all living decently, i.e., with some basic list of “givens”, then there is a political problem in making sure that happens. Some groups just couldn’t care less about that, especially if it cramps their style in directing production profits to them. There is production, and there is distribution too.

      Any person here can purchase a home and furnish it so long as they have work. They can educate their children, and can eat, and they can enjoy a surplus to those basic things to boot

      Of course, I’m not sure what ‘here’ you are writing about. Mine is the USA. Again, more chance of doing it here than most places, but not everyone has much of a chance here. Educating your children – yes, public schools for all are a tremendous institution, but sadly, under attack and little supported these days except with lip service. In my relatively cushy although not wealthy suburb, people grumble about the schools endlessly, with their eyes on the super competitive rat race their children must run. The unquestioned notion is that private is better, “if only we could afford it,” they whine. It is very rare to hear a person or public figure stand up for public schools as a basic element of democratic society. Diane Ravitch, noted in the NYTimes recently, is a big exception.

      Democracy is an ideological preference or choice of course – but again is little contributed to by recent doctrines
      Surprising how little the arguments for and against it have changed in 2500 years!

      …here I am thinking of Ranciere who promotes direct democracy coupled with violence.
      I’m curious about this guy. What toxic work of his would you recommend I dip into?

      …but the answers to those things I don’t like do not lie, as I see it, in the various available polular doctrines. Answers to material interests appear to me to lie not in a change in political organisation, but rather in increasing productivity through technological advancement.

      I don’t share your faith in technical advancement alone. Flaubert said, anticipating WWI, technological progress without moral progress yields barbarism. Maybe the answers to the “things you don’t like” are in the revisiting and greater appreciation of the older, simpler ideas. Much as Martin Luther King saw the solution to Jim Crow not in political radicalism, but in a reassessment and reaffirmation of democracy. He made enemies because of that.

      My toxic Roman grows out my thinking about the “ethical Nazi,” the montster who understands ethics and the implications of his thought, and refuses to budge. No argument possible. Humean sympathy? Fine for them that’s got it, but for the monster, forget it…

      [start from]…a knowledge that the state can act badly to us as well as to others,
      Not sure what you mean here. People who decry “criminals” being released on constitutional technicalities don’t realize that the point of those “details” is to protect innocent people like themselves. Maybe this is what you mean…In politics, nobody likes to think of what would happen if the “shoe were on the other foot.” I get endless grief for this. Person A will lambaste the tactics of Politico B. I aver that if Politico B were a liberal, they would support those tactics. Person A lambastes me as a reactionary…Really, the same rules have to apply to all.

      Drainage systems have probably contributed as much to the well-being of society as any other single element.
      Bravo! Have I made a convert!? Certainly, the deployment of that technology requires numerical analysis, etc. A clear-cut and heroic example of number crunching in the public good. Alas, those unambiguous days of engineering heroism are mostly passed….

      The implementation of drainage systems is motivated by democratic forces and sentiment, and put in place using science. Nowadays we don’t see that much politics in the idea, but in the 1830s it was very much a political project motivated by democratic sentiment.

      I’m not so sure of this. The typhus and cholera epidemics of the 19th century spurred action on public health and sanitation most sharply when all social classes were affected. If the problem had been confined to the slums, little would have been done, but the Sanitarian/Public Health leaders of the time knew that the type of city that was being grown by industrialism would inevitably make these problems everyone’s problem. Is that a democratic sentiment? Perhaps, but not a very lofty one. It got the job done, though, didn’t it? In this fallen state of man, can we expect more in general? I’ve read material that goes to great pains to point out this “class bias” in the sanitarian effort, the class-based selfishness, etc. etc. I’m not sure what is added to our understanding by this. The fact is, once the idea was accepted, it came to be embraced whole heartedly as an essential element of civilized societies. People embraced the democratic sentiment almost in spite of themselves, and then felt pretty good about it!

      Do you live in Canada or Australia? Here, our separation of powers seems to produce deadlock, but there’s no way a more parliamentary system will ever be impelmented. All those large states with no population are not going to give up the immense power that having two senators gives them! As you intimate, it was precisely the intention of our Founding Fathers to “limit the capacity of the people to govern themselves.” In a small country, it might have worked all right, but in such a huge one as the USA, it has backfired. I guess you could argue that the Civil War was one consequence of that.

  12. I like the bit about the lute’s rounded shape being like a woman’s PG belly. And where does that leave the guitar? Is there a thesis somewhere about Diana Dors or Marilyn Monroe and the guitar….

    I wanted to add that I came across a few passages in the Bete Humaine in which Jacques (one of the main characters) has the desire to kill, and these passages include references to these “primitive” urges. But mainly Jacques tries to justify murder by comparing it to the sort of thing that wolves would do or primitive tribespeople would do…Yes, the idea of the lurking primeval savage (in your original post) is there but after reading (now) 17 of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, Jacques just comes off as another one of the unbalanced members of the Macquart family.

  13. Well… that’s amazing but frankly i have a hard time figuring it… I’m wondering what others have to say….

  14. mark says:

    I will read Cohn, thanks for the reference.

    Re sanitation see wikipedia re Edwin Chadwick, though one would have to investigate further to get an understanding of a prior commitment to sanitation before the plagues. The plagues, as I understand it, provided the political window to fulfill the prior commitment – if not specifially to sanitation, certainly to improvement generally. I don’t know the full details. Apart from sanitation the group of people that Chadwick was involved with also promoted public parks in cities, and, for good measure, democratic reform to give one vote to ALL adults, among many other things. More importantly, they eventually succeded Hence Adelaide, in Aust, (from Aust here) has parkland surrounding its city centre. And hence SA was the firt polity to give women the vote (continuous to this day) and let them stand for parliament. (NZ first with vote alone.) By the above I mean to demonstrate, albeit briefly, that the political commitment to sanitation was not just a result of a threat to all classes, though the window of opportunity might have emerged from that.
    See Donny Darko for a reference to sanitation as the greatest development of all time, though the film associates this with soap and sterilants rather than drainage – but still the word he uses is ‘sanitation’ and I think you should milk that for its worth…
    All this said, I am sure you have assisted conversion…!
    Thanks for your detailed reply. My political perspective is so different from those I associate with on a day-to-day basis I never quite know where my views stand.
    As I undertand it, the disparity in wealth or at least general living standards is much narrower here than in the US, and in my view this can in part be attributed to the deliberately designed activist parliaments both at state and federal level. It is worth noting that we did indeed look to the US civil war as a lesson, and among other things made the federation unable to be broken.
    In addition to this see Patrick S. Kabat, “Chasing the Cheshire Cat? John Austin and the Trial of Federalism in Victorian England,” Yale University, Kabat suggests that as a result of the civil war democrats could elevate the idea of unitary sovereignty and deflect criticism of democracy into inadequacies in federalism. Australia got a hybrid of this concern, with a powerful form of central federal government which also quickly assumed powers to itself.
    It is late so I have to stop here, which is probably a good thing!

    • lichanos says:

      I mean to demonstrate, albeit briefly, that the political commitment to sanitation was not just a result of a threat to all classes, though the window of opportunity might have emerged from that.

      Yes, sanitation was part of the current of reform in some quarters. I think we see this issue pretty much the same way. I’m just always on guard against the “progressive historicism,” or is it the “Whig version of history?” You know, things were bad, smart people came by, things just kept getting better.

      My political perspective is so different from those I associate with on a day-to-day basis
      What are their views? Knee-jerk liberal? Knee-jerk conservative? Some sui generis Aussie ideology of which I know nothing?

      …we did indeed look to the US civil war as a lesson…
      That’s really interesting, although not the sort of thing I generally follow up in detail. I wonder if one can reasonably say that we, here in the USA, have learned any lessons from the Civil War. Other than the wrong ones, I’m not sure. On the one hand, it’s a pretty good object lesson in the danger of federalism gone too far, states’ rights, and all that, but states’ rights, except when associated with race, is practically a religion here. And the fact that the South was fighting to maintain a society based on slavery is, believe it or not, rarely mentioned prominently. Regional differences, differing views on federalism, perservation of a distinctive regional culture, economics, etc. etc. all that. Thus, prominently flying the Confederate flag over public buildings is considered perfectly acceptable. Yet lawyers who work to give accused terrorists a fair trial under the Constitution are attacked as “treasonous.”

      I wish Thaddeus Stevens had prevailed. Reconstruction is a great void in American memory.

  15. mark says:

    Oh, Austin was part of the same group as Chadwick.

    • lichanos says:

      BTW, trolling through the Net, I came upon an interview with Ranciere. This exhange was there:

      TL: How can those who don’t take part get involved? Should they be educated, should they use violence? How can they be empowered? Should they just be heard? Herbert Marcuse talks about the repressive tolerance, that being heard is not enough to gain the power to change things.

      JR: It’s difficult to know what is enough. There’s that old French joke that democracy means cause toujours, that democracy means that you can speak, but it doesn’t matter, it has no outcome. What I consider to be the real emergence of free speech occurs precisely in places that were not supposed to be places for free speech. It always happens in the form of transgression. Politics means precisely this, that you speak at a time and in a place you’re not expected to speak.

      The interviewer’s comment – …being heard is not enough to gain the power to change things – really tickled me. This frustration is voiced over and over again by intellectually inclined leftists and radicals. Unasked is the question, “Why should you have the power to change things?” The idea seems to be that because I (we) have analyzed the problem (correctly) our solution should be accepted. It’s really quite arrogant and naive at the same time.

      “Nobody is listening to ME! They are all soooo stupid!”

      Of course, they cannot listen and understand because The Spectacle has de-activated their synapses, or The Police Order has “gently” directed their thoughts elswhere. The ultimate in un-falsifiable theories. Kind of like Freud…duh…no wonder those French politico-philosophes love him so.

  16. mark says:

    In relation to state’s rights etc, I suspect once a political culture is built it is quite difficult to adjust the foundations, or, if a ship analogy will do, once it is under way it is difficult to turn it in a different direction. I have a lovely quote used by James Bryce, who was an important British theorist used in the design of Aust federation:

    Bryce opens chapter two of his The American Commonwealth with:
    Some years ago the American Protestant Episcopal Church was occupied at its triennial Convention in revising its liturgy. It was thought desirable to introduce among the short sentence prayers a prayer for the whole people; and an eminent New England divine proposed the words “O Lord, bless out nation.” Accepted one afternoon on the spur of the moment, the sentence was brought up next day for reconsideration, when so many objections were raised by the laity to the word “nation”, as importing too definite a recognition of national unity, that it was dropped, and instead there were adopted the words “O Lord, bless these United States.”
    Thing have not changed I guess!?

    I share your assessment of the interviewer et al. I am always a bit ashamed to give any publicity to R, but at the same time he makes me so cross I find him a convenient whipping-boy! If he was Foucault he would love it. He has been called the heir to F by Alain Badiou. F was into violence, so is R. Here is my assessment of his ‘Hatred of democracy’ trans. Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2006):

    Rancière argues that we do not live in democracies. (p1) The system we live in, referred to as democracy, is a mask for oligarchical control by wealth and science. (pp73 and 78) Rancière identifies within this oligarchy an anti-democratic hatred, fury, (p85) and alarm.(p93) For Rancière, real democracy must ‘wrest’ power from oligarchy. (p96) Rancière believes that real democracy cannot be born from current (non-)democratic practice. (p96) Instead real democracy can only be expressed in acts. These acts ‘can provoke fear, and so hatred.’ (p97) Rancière is unclear as to what acts might provoke fear and hatred. Notably, in what is ostensibly an argument for direct-democracy, Rancière omits mention of the peaceful and successful Swiss model.

    Aussie politics are not so unlike those of the US as I understand them, except shifted one slot to the left. Your right would be seen here as our ultra right, your centre would present as our conservative, and your left is our centre, hence our left is kind of out there weirdo stuff. Not an exact picture, but close enough. So, given that I spend a considerable part of my time involved with university things, my(probably temporary) environment is pretty Marxist. It is a religion here at universities, and the holders of its tenets are completely oblivious to the limitations of these tenets. I have found within this feel-good-feel-angry kind of Marxist politics a bizarre contradiction, being its (reasonably covert) attachment to violence. Ranciere is just a fair example of the kind of slippery way violence is introduced into the debate. I have heard Ranciere’s perspective recommended in lectures.

  17. mark says:

    It is a contradiction becasue its public face is that of love light and peace.

    • lichanos says:

      Not clear – public face of what, the university?

      I find him a convenient whipping-boy! If he were Foucault he would love it.
      Figuratively and literally, from what I’ve read of Monsieur F…but that’s his business….

      I used to complain about people I knew calling Republican politicos “fascists.” What are you going to call a real fascist, I asked. That’s how these academic slummers-with-violence strike me. We don’t live in a democracy, well, not a perfect one. I imagine in a perverse way that some of them might enjoy living in North Korea, at least for a while. It embodies so many of their critiques of the state.

  18. mark says:

    Oh, the public face of Australian academic Marxism. I expect one day a campaign for health-care for geriatric pet rocks, and to free teddy-bears. Or if this fails, I do think Monty Python got it right in Life of Brian. ‘What did the Romans ever do for us…?’

    Exactly re F, and based on his quotes supporting violence, one wonders if his ideal state is not built in his own image.

    Oh, many would LOVE to live in North Korea – so long as they were part of the party elite.

  19. mark says:

    Monty Python even refer to sanitation: clip

  20. mark says:

    Actually the better clip in context of irrational campaigns is Loretta’s desire for babies. At You Tube search for Monty Python – Life of Brian – PFJ Union meeting.
    Sorry about the links coming up as actual videos in the comments – it surprised me the first time and I forgot the second. I just meant to post an innocent little link.

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