Anthropological Fairytales and Mindful Thinking

Another gem from Ben Morgan’s “On Becoming God: late medieval mysticism and the modern western self”.

In their anthropologically colored account of the rise of modern rationality, [Max] Horkheimer and [Theodor] Adorno suggest that a combination of awe and anxiety generated social practices that eventually became modern rationality. Debates about the apostolic life in the thirteenth century illustrate in a more concrete form the process that the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment [warning PDF] imagined as an anthropological fairytale. In the thirteenth century, we find both the sense of connectedness (what Horkheimer and Adorno termed ‘mimesis’) and the anxious need for order and control.

When he refers to debates about the apostolic life, he’s referring to Meister Eckhart’s polemic with the ascetic milieu of his day. Ascetic practices paralleled mercentile “best practices” that also pertained to successful commerce: self-monitoring, reporting, privation, and cultivation of an inner-life. Adorno and Horkheimer locate the onset of these habits in the ancient past, which unhelpfully dehistoricizes its critical content. It shows how bourgeois fairy tales are constructed, but misses how their reading of Ancient Greek myth is how it is for the bourgeois consciousness. In otherwords, they are verging on the contemplation that Marx denounces and deconstructs in Theses on Feuerbach. Morgan’s inspection of spiritual habits aims to encourage mindfulness in scholarly practice that breaks down some elitist barriers it poses to non-scholarly thinkers.

Django Unchained and Hegel’s servant

When I saw Django Unchained a couple days ago, I kept thinking of Hegel’s short essay “Who Thinks Abstractly” and the brief remarks he makes toward the end about how good it is to be the servant of a French nobleman.

…no servant is worse off than one who works for a man of low class and low income; and he is better off the nobler his master is. The common man again thinks more abstractly, he gives himself noble airs vis-à-vis the servant and relates himself to the other man merely as to a servant; he clings to this one predicate. The servant is best off among the French. The nobleman is familiar with his servant, the Frenchman is his friend. When they are alone, the servant does the talking: see Diderot’s Jacques et son maître; the master does nothing but take snuff and see what time it is and lets the servant take care of everything else. The nobleman knows that the servant is not merely a servant, but also knows the latest city news, the girls, and harbors good suggestions; he asks him about these matters, and the servant may say what he knows about these questions. With a French master, the servant may not only do this; he may also broach a subject, have his own opinions and insist on them; and when the master wants something, it is not done with an order but he has to argue and convince the servant of his opinion and add a good word to make sure that this opinion retains the upper hand.

The main characters of the film are English-speaking. Four of them appear as black-white dyads: Django (Jamie Foxx) and Herr Shultz (Christop Waltz), Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Shultz is a German immigrant and his relationship with Django is entirely amicable. Candie is an American, and he likes to call himself Monsieur despite not knowing how to speak French. His hair-style and aesthetic are influenced by the French presence in the Mississippi region. His apparent head house-slave and him have a cantakerous relationship, but Stephen is extremely assertive with his master. Sometimes Candie demands a show of respect that subdues Stephen, but even then he hesitates to “assume the position”. He is described by one reviewer as “imperious” and I found this apt.

Shultz doesn’t really own Django, but he’s “his man” for the duration he needs him. Their relationship is contractual. Django is assertive, but not belligerent. He is Shultz’s equal de facto, as a “natural” marksman and clever, and de jure (kind of) through his purchased freedom. Shultz doesn’t really tell Django what to do, but he does kind of still run the show.

What’s going on between these competing visions of a the master and slave? It seems that the good-guys are those approximating a libertarian contractual relationship. It’s not “really” slavery, except when it is. Many are probably going to look at the Shulz-Django relationship as more enlightened somehow, but the idea is that if you’re a slave, your best hope is to work with a good boss and mind your own business. Django eventually goes free with his wife, but there is nothing infectious about this freedom, even if Django’s badassery evokes a desire to “be like him”.

Sometimes the w…


Sometimes the word ‘exchange’ is substituted for ‘distribution’, but we insist on a distinction. Exchange is a universal principle of economic life but it takes many forms and not all flows of resources should be categorized as exchanges. The payment of tribute to a ruler may be said to bring you his protection in exchange, but this is a misleading representation of an unequal relationship, while welfare payments by a modern state are better seen as transfers financed by taxation—a new form of sharing.

From Chris Hann and Keith Hart’s “Economic Anthropology: history, ethnography, critique”.

On Becoming God

Really liked this passage (pages 35-36) out of Ben Morgan’s “On Becoming God: late medieval mysticism and the modern western self.”

The assumptions that inform the texts of Lacan, Irigaray, and [Amy] Hollywood as well as those Lyotard, Zizek, Derrida, and Adorno suggest a world in which changes is not possible because individuals are too marked by the structures they wish to escape. This is a habit of thought that in some circumstances may be useful. It encourages a form of humility, since it suggests that the individual is shaped by powers he or she does not fully control. It consoles too, since it absolves the individual of responsibility, saying that if changes does not happen this is because the structure does not permit it. But the same assumptions could also be an excuse for cynicism, or for a resignation that justifies its inactivity by appealing to powers the individual cannot possibly master, when it is conceivable that contingent, less-dramatic factors, such as the inability of a man in a particular generation to cry or to talk about disappointment, create the conviction that the whole world is out of joint and the subject is necessarily and permanently exiled from fulfillment. The assumptions shared by Lacan, Irigaray, Hollywood, Lyotard, Zizek, Derrida, and Adorno help to reconcile the individual with a particular sort of loneliness and emptiness.

My alternative approach, drawing on the phenomenological tradition, does not attempt to reconcile the individual with a necessary isolation but instead offers an account of the ways in which the human potential for communication and fulfillment has been lived to a greater or lesser degree in different historical contexts.

This is pretty rad.