Saturday, 7 June 2014

A dialectic of "the savage mind"

Roland Barthes maintained that literary criticism that bases its assessment of text on the biography and political leanings of the author is just plain wrong, that we necessarily bring our own experiences, prejudices and expectations into the interpretation of the text, that the work of literature "mutates" to accommodate the reader rather than the author.

I think the best of political satire tends bears this out (especially This Hour has 22 Minutes in English Canada and Et Dieu créa... Laflaque in Quebec—as per a reliable source, of course, because I myself do not speak French). And so with any good reading and exegeses of the holy text relies on this Barthesian insight where the "author" is deliberately diminished and downplayed in favour of the text itself.

Much of the social theoretic/critical discourse (of all stripes)—or any derivative scholarly work, for that matter—suffers unduly from "giving" the text to the author where ultra-fine distinctions and "original" argumentation rely quite heavily on the pedigree of a given stratagem. Arbitrary gradations of social evolution (pre-; now; post-) are treated as if they were real.

Don't get me wrong; many, if not most, of the thinkers I admire and cite regularly suffer from this Barthesian ailment. It is, after all, very Western to attribute ideas and discoveries to people. Immortality is very important: "long will such and such live on even as so and so is long forgotten..."

I recently went back to Barthes and people he influenced—Jean Baudrillard, in particular—because of a request for technical advice that seemed, on the surface of it, entirely unrelated to what got me thinking of these giants of social criticism.

On the surface of it...unrelated...but the insights of Baudrillard bear heavily on the responses I gave, especially the distinctions he begins to make in his justification for the need to transcend the Marxist criticism of the capitalist productivism (for which he was famous for) by shifting his attention over to Georges Bataille's notion of "symbolic exchange":

The term “symbolic exchange” was derived from Georges Bataille's notion of a “general economy” where expenditure, waste, sacrifice, and destruction were claimed to be more fundamental to human life than economies of production and utility (1988 [1967]). Bataille's model was the sun that freely expended its energy without asking anything in return. He argued that if individuals wanted to be truly sovereign (e.g., free from the imperatives of capitalism) they should pursue a “general economy” of expenditure, giving, sacrifice, and destruction to escape determination by existing imperatives of utility. (

This fundamental need for freedom as affected by way of symbolic exchange is further justified:

Bataille and Baudrillard presuppose here a contradiction between human nature and capitalism. They maintain that humans “by nature” gain pleasure from such things as expenditure, waste, festivities, sacrifices, and so on, in which they are sovereign and free to expend the excesses of their energy (and thus to follow their “real nature”). The capitalist imperatives of labor, utility, and savings by implication are “unnatural,” and go against human nature.

Baudrillard argues that the Marxian critique of capitalism, by contrast, merely attacks exchange value while exalting use value and thus utility and instrumental rationality, thereby “seeking a good use of the economy.” For Baudrillard:
Marxism is therefore only a limited petit bourgeois critique, one more step in the banalization of life toward the ‘good use’ of the social! Bataille, to the contrary, sweeps away all this slave dialectic from an aristocratic point of view, that of the master struggling with his death. One can accuse this perspective of being pre- or post-Marxist. At any rate, Marxism is only the disenchanted horizon of capital — all that precedes or follows it is more radical than it is (1987: 60).
(ibid, Douglas Kellner, 2007)

My take on this insight is that we need not go so far as invoking "expenditure, giving, sacrifice, and destruction to escape determination by existing imperatives of utility"; or, "the master struggling with his death"—for these are rather too abstract and heroic for practical application in the here and now. The differences between "pre-" and "post-industrial" societies (ie, the "savage" and the "civilized") is really not a difference in kind but degree—one is totally inculcated and resigned to Weber's "iron cage" while the other yet struggles with and resists the alienation and the dehumanizing effects of a rational-legalistic structures and institutions of the modern world, and to whom society comprises still of individuals and human relations (ie, of symbolic exchange). Where grief and "cultural" clashes occur is this difference of frames of reference.

This, I think, is what Baudrillard and Bataille are intimating though I doubt they've made explicit enough and clearly prescribe for their thoughtful diagnosis.


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