Rousseau as puritan?

Not really – but his Calvinist background clearly shows – as for example in his seemingly square and unromantic condemnation of unproductivity he deploys in his prize-winning rant against the arts and sciences that  kick-started his career as a writer

« Si nos sciences sont vaines dans l’objet qu’elles se proposent, elles sont encore plus dangereuses par les effets qu’elles produisent. Nées dans l’oisiveté, elles la nourrissent à leur tour ; et la perte irréparable du temps est le premier préjudice qu’elles causent nécessairement à la société. En politique comme en morale, c’est un grand mal que de ne point faire de bien ; et tout citoyen inutile peut être regardé comme un homme pernicieux. »

How does this tally with the fact that Rousseau went on to become the patron saint of the Romantic movement? Certainly not in that the Discourse was taken off the Romantic reading list – to the contrary: it’s uncompromising turn to Nature set the tone.

What is more likely that this is an anachronistic occurrence in which Romanticism’s Puritan legacy surfaces. In his genealogy of modern consumerism Colin Campbell argues that the fact that the most avid consumers came from the the same Protestant middle classes which, some generations before, had produced the pioneers of industrial capitalism is linked to the transformations Protestant spirituality underwent – transformations that started with cold Calvinism and ended with emotional Romanticism.

So can we see Rousseau’s Franklinesque condemnation of idleness and inefficient time use as a lapse – a use of a familiar argument out of the Calvinist repertoire which Rousseau had picked up growing up in Calvin’s old city which is slightly misplaced in a Romantic context? I don’t think so.

What the Romantics share with the Puritans is an intuitive belief in election and grace. While there are various ways of getting there – the status of being among the elect, of having grace is not one that can be achieved by following set rules, by performing well-defined good deeds. It must be a state of being – an inner state. For the Puritan this would be true belief – for the Romantic it is inspiration or even genius. Both can be longed for and found – but they can’t be acquired by taking lessons, reading up recipe knowledge etc. And both need external confirmation, need to prove themselves. The Puritan, who could never be sure of their state of grace, was on the lookout for external signs of grace – and, as Max Weber’s famous argument goes, capitalism provided a handy mechanism in that the odd admixture of meritocratic and random distribution it afforded could be interpreted as one of God’s ways to favour those he elected for eternal life in the beyond already in this world. While the Puritan was aware that the reprobate could reap great returns from immoral business practices and this was one of God’s ways to lull him in false security on his way to damnation – and that as in the story of Job God may test the believer by not granting him success, the (ideal-typical) answer was to commit to an ascetic, frugal and economically productive life and hope for the best. Being lazy was not an option since, while economic success could not be a sure sign of election, a propensity to idleness was a sure sign of reprobation.

The Romantic, too, had to validate his version of grace: inspiration. God has been replaced by Nature and the reward of eternal life has been replaced by a cult of infinity, but how do you know whether you’re inspired and creative if you don’t create? Charles Taylor(1989: 374) speaks of an ‘expressive turn’ – he claims that

‘the idea of nature as an intrinsic source goes along with an expressive view of human life. Fulfilling my nature means espousing the inner élan, the voice of impulse. And this makes what was hidden manifest for both myself and others.’

The Romantic must produce just like the Puritan must produce. The modes of production are as different as the inner natures to be proved are – but both need to be at work relentlessly. And there are overlaps and cross-fertilisations Campbell (1989: 185) points out that Wesley had read Rousseau… and I have previously highlighted that imagination is a key ingredient in post-Puritan entrepreneurship. Both come together in Blake’s famous line that ‘my business is to create’ which, as Eric Wilson (2011) argues, very much sums up the frantic productivity of this Romantic par excellence.

So even when Jean-Jacques is hanging out meditating in the park – as in this painting by Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy – he’s working, really…

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Discours qui a remporté le prix a l’académie de Dijon. En l’année 1750. Sur cette Question propoſée par la même Académie : Si le rétabliſſement des Sciences & des Arts a contribué a épurer les mœurs. Par un Citoyen de Genève, in: Oeuvres complètes de J J Rousseau, Tome quatrième, Paris: Chez Lefèvre, 1839, p.14

Taylor, Charles (1989): Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Wilson, Eric G. (2011): My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Consumer eccentricity and subjectivity fetish

As I am gearing up to re-working my paper on Plessner’s notion of eccentricity and Campbell’s analysis of romantic consumer selfhood I notice that a reference to Sennett’s Fall of Public Man is not quite contemporary enough to highlight the concerns about the dissolution from ceremonial division of (mostly public) roles and the (mostly private) person behind the mask of the roles (which appears as the authentic subjectivity behind and constrained by the roles – but in fact is the realisation of an opportunity afforded by the existence as mask-wearer, role-performer).

The existence online, the more or less public display of authentic selfhood in social networking sites which – as Daniel Smith shows – culminates in the public existence of the celebrity vlogger: a persona who seems to exist, entirely, as presented and constructed for his or her audience on YouTube and whose (social as much as commercial) value is determined by the number of hits and subscribers.

My response to the concerns (not the phenomenon itself) around this consumer virtuality as de-civilisation and collapse of the difference between role and person was as follows:

Ceremonial roles are insufficient in an individualistic culture – they remain necessary! – there is a shift to prestige in a trivialised artistic, creative existence:

‘The rigid masks of an arbitrary and interchangeable office, which imparts to the most different personalities the same aura, gives way here to a counter-picture appearing in the unique work brought to permanent form of the person who created it.’ (Plessner 1999: 141).

Such objectification (e.g. as a Facebook entry) necessarily creates a distance – and hence establishes a subject that is not to be defined by the sum of their performances. The struggle for prestige as “struggle for a true face” hence still constitutes an “unrealisation” – the true face just as another role. This is not a repetition of the medieval situation where “man never was alone” – it is a performance of a private self that is detached from and thereby constitutes a subjectivity ‘behind’ the private self, thereby realising even further the potential that lies in the anthropologically given eccentric positionality. This implies a higher degree of integration of self in style, not as alternately bemoaned and celebrated, dissolution into “multiple personalities”.

But of course the potential loss of eccentricity is not to be dismissed out of hand. A well constructed authentic selfhood nowadays can be as important as functional role-specific capabilities. The presentation of individual selfhood in social media can have economic consequences when employers check applicants’ or current staff’s Facebook pages. Political scandals that thrive on the erosion of privacy – such as the MPs expenses claims scandal in the UK 2009 – are further signs of such a collapse of the separation of the mask of the role performer and the performer as a person (Thompson 2011). It can be argued that it is the importance of this difference as argued by Helmuth Plessner that makes it a matter of concern for so many. As Thompson (2011: 64) puts it:

For it is precisely because we continue to value this distinction, precisely because what is made public and kept private really does matter to people, that the blurring of the boundaries has become the source of such intense concern. The ability of individuals to exercise control over the territories of the self and to restrict access by others is constantly challenged and in some contexts  compromised, by the capacity of others to avail themselves of new means – technological, political and legal – to gain access, acquire information, exploit it for their own ends and, on some occasions, make it public. the shifting boundaries between public and private life become a new battleground in modern societies, a contested terrain where individuals and organizations wage a new kind of information war, using whatever means they have at their disposal to acquire information about others and to control information about themselves, often struggling to cope with changes they did not foresee and agents whose intentions they did not understand, a terrain where the established relations of power can be disrupted, lives damaged and reputations sometimes lost.

Something is at stake here – personal autonomy. The paradox of individualism: that being different is to be socially recognised (Popitz 1987: 642), seems to move from recognition of the fact of difference as such to recognition of a specific, desirable difference. While postmodern writers used to speculate about the coming of a multiple personality as norm, the danger here is that we are witnessing a re-centring of the subject around the advertised personality performance. A wide consensus in exists not necessarily among students of consumer society, but among the liberal media analysts that there is a cult of the self that seeks expression in consumption and now primarily in social media. Bauman condenses this view to a formula of commodification of subjectivity.

‘“Subjectivity” in the society of consumers, just as “commodity” in the society of producers, is (to use Bruno Latour’s felicitous concept) a faitishe – a thoroughly human product elevated to the rank of superhuman authority through forgetting or rendering irrelevant its human, all too human origins, together with the string of human actions that led to its appearance and was the sine qua non condition of that appearance. In the case of the commodity in the society of producers, it was the act of buying and the labour capacity of producers that, by endowing it with market value, made the product of labour into a commodity – in a way not visible in (and hidden by) the appearance of an autonomous interaction of commodities. In the case of subjectivity in the society of consumers, it is the turn of the buying and selling of the tokens deployed in the construction of identity – the allegedly public expression of the “self” which is in fact Jean Baudrillard’s “simulacrum”, substituting “representation” for what it is assumed to represent – to be effaced from the appearance of the final product.’ (Baumann 2007: 14f.)

Now it is important to insist that this idea of the subjectivity fetish is overstated in the same way in which, at least in the Baudrillard-informed reading, that of the commodity fetish is. As Rosen (1996) has forcefully argued, the interpretation of the commodity fetish as a complete and inevitable distortion in which people cannot see that commodities are products of human labour is just absurd. Only very deluded individuals do not know such things as that clothes are made in factories (and most likely by underpaid workers in Bangladesh, India, Turkey etc.). And even less does production disappear as completely as suggested by Baudrillard. Similarly, I would argue, the commodification of subjectivity may well be a fact (or rather: an apt metaphor), but that does not mean that the denizen of the world of material and virtual consumer goods falls for the illusion of authenticity of the selfhood on display. To the contrary: the general suspicion is that people are not really as they present themselves on Facebook. Facebook is not the Matrix.

The artistic performance of individuality as a role in itself, the aesthetisation of self in the pursuit of a consistent style still is a role performance, be it one twice removed. The self itself becomes a mask – and a mask affords the non-identity of its wearer. Of course – as Plessner says, this is only an opportunity and the wearer does not need to realise this potential. So just as there indeed were and are one-dimensional persons who manage to achieve nigh complete identity with the ceremonial roles they perform, so there will be an performer who is not identical with the performed, exceeds the personality on display and takes incommensurability to a new level.

If the individuality/subjectivity that exceeds one’s roles is transformed into something that is displayed rather than something that is lived out in the retreat of a Habermasian Lebenswelt, then the question emerges if not a new level of agency behind that performed individuality role which now has become a subject to recognition. The person maintaining their Facebook profile from their bedroom or kitchen table will carefully control what kind of information about their everyday activities makes it onto the Wall or is tweeted away. Just as the diaries of 19th century novelists must not be mistaken as revelation of unfiltered private life because the authors wrote them with posthumous publication in mind, so of course it is only the not quite savvy user of such sites who will fail to make a difference between the person typing away and the person presented online. And thus, of course, there is now a much wider awareness that authentic subjectivity is produced rather than a natural given to be expressed. The difference between the presented/represented and the presentation/representation remains – and it is not at the cost of the former. Baumann suggests just that (and expresses a common sentiment):

‘In the carnivalesque game of identities, offline socializing is revealed for what it in fact is in the world of consumers: a rather cumbersome and not particularly enjoyable burden, tolerated and suffered because unavoidable, since recognition of the chosen identity needs to be achieved in long and possibly interminable effort – with all the risks of bluffs being called or imputed which face-to-face encounters necessarily entail. Cutting off that burdensome aspect of the recognition battles is, arguably, the most attractive asset of the internet masquerade and confidence game. The “community” of internauts seeking substitute recognition does not require the chore of socializing and is thereby relatively free from risk, that notorious and widely feared bane of the offline battles for recognition.’ (Bauman 2007: 115)

This of course is highly contestable – the prediction of a society of loners glued to the screen has not materialised and the myriad of (social-network induced) rendezvous, raves, riots and revolutions indicates that face-to-face is a thing of the past.

Throughout the anthropological fact of eccentricity remains – it is impossible to capture or trap human subjectivity for long. As the collapse of totalitarianism has shown, “greedy” sociality cannot even be enforced for very long even with the most violent and ruthless means. And it can also not be achieved through entrapping authentic expression in a consumer society. The eccentric consumer moves behind the publicised private persona. The persona becomes a mask in its own right (but a more elaborate one) and the subject exceeds their social existence even further. As Simmel emphasises: every socialisation produces a way in which the members of society is not socialised, beyond society – and the way that they are not socialised co-determines the way they are socialised  (Simmel 1992: 51).

Baumann, Zygmunt (2007): Consuming Life, Cambridge: Polity

Popitz, Heinrich (1987): ‚Autoritätsbedürfnisse: Der Wandel der sozialen Subjektivität‘, in:Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Vol.39, pp.633-47.

Rosen, Michael (1996) On Voluntary Servitude. Cambridge: Polity.

Simmel, Georg (1992): Soziologie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1992

Thompson, John B. (2011): ‘Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life’, in: Theory, Culture & Society, Vol.28, No.4, pp.49-70

PS (21st September 2011)

The slightly uncouth translation of Simmel’s statement on the non-sociality within the social in the AJS has:

‘Another category under which men (Subjecte) view themselves  and one another, in order that, so formed, they may produce empirical society, may be formulated in the seemingly trivial theorem: – Each element of a group is not a societary part, but beyond that something else. That fact operates as social apriori in so far as the part of the individual which is not turned toward the group, or is not dissolved in it, does not lie simply without meaning by the side of his socially significant phase, is not a something external to the group, for which it nolens volens affords space; but the fact that the individual, with respect to certain sides of his personality, is not an element of the group, constitutes the positive condition for the fact that he is such a member in other aspects of his being. In other words, the sort of his socialized-being’ (Simmel 1910: 381)

Simmel, Georg (1910): ‘How is Society Possible?’ , in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.16, No.3, pp.372-391

The Ancient Mariner Goes Hollywood

(this is a follow-up to my last post on Kierkegaard and romantic consumption which ends on a reference to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner)

Yesterday I listened in to the “Vox Project” on Radio 4, a programme on voice over artists, one of whom mentioned Don La Fontaine as the inventor of the “In a world…”  phrase. This phrase, as has his obituary on CNN, was ‘used by seemingly dozens of movies determined to create an otherworldly atmosphere’. It is telling: For those in that world it is the world and hence inescapable; they have to act within its iron laws of causality – while for the viewer/listener it is just a world, not the world. Actually it’s not so difficult to imagine Don La Fontaine doing a trailer for the Ancient Mariner. Imagine a

‘world of a hard moral law. There exists a ruthless code of justice, under which a trivial act – like shooting a bird or eating a piece of fruit – can earn a dreadful punishment.’ (McDonald 1964: 547)

Coleridge’s sailor despairs under, as literary critic Daniel McDonald put it, ‘too much reality’. His narrative is “epic” in Bakhtinian terms as it has no open future, is final, fixed as opposed to the openness to the future, the potentiality of the novel.

‘As he carries this message of reality through the world, the Mariner acts in the tradition of Old Testament prophets who invaded civilized societies with a message of savage truth.’ (McDonald 1964: 549)

This is in stark contrast with the Wedding Guest who is, basically, a consumer.

‘He is the archetype of one living a frivolous, surface existence, ignoring the deeper realities. The wedding is a key symbol here. First, it is a formal convention, a means of masking the several mysteries of sex, instinct and animality – mysteries which the Mariner faced in seeing the rearing water-snakes and the thousand slimy things. Second, a wedding is a religious ceremony, a means of masking the fearful reality of supernatural presences – a reality which the Mariner faced in his relation to Life in Death, “a troop of spirits blest,” the Polar Spirit etc. Significantly, the surface nature of the Wedding Guest is emphasized even more. He is not a part of the wedding, only a guest. He is not at the religious ceremony; he is going to a gay party which follows it.’ (McDonald 11964: 550)

By consuming a narrative the Wedding Guest/Moviegoer avoids the despair of the superficial ritualised existence of the philistine, by anchoring his imagination in realisticworlds he avoids the despair of the fantasist, and by not being deeply touched and temporarily totally absorbed – but remaining outside the epic reality, he avoids the tragic despair of having a destiny. The romantic technique of imaginative hedonism makes sure that the move from “ceremony” to “art” in constructing masks and selves (Plessner) does on collapse in one-dimensional immediacy. He can reconnect to all those “mysteries” of animal existence, without being reduced to it. Such immediacy would be intolerable – which is why for the Mariner

‘even death would be welcome. He cannot bear any more reality.’ (McDonald 1964: 553)

The Wedding Guest gains depth, is affected, changed – but not trapped in a world. He has many worlds (precisely because he has less reality). He therefore is envied by the Mariner who

‘rather than coming proudly and courageously to challenge the Wedding Guest’s superficial philosophy, the Mariner says explicitly that he would prefer it.’ (McDonald 1964: 553)

references

McDonald, Daniel (1964): ‘Too Much Reality: A Discussion of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, in: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol.4, No.4, pp.543-54

Consumer Daydreams and Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death

I realised I should read a bit more Kierkegaard when one of our undergraduates made reference to him when writing on consumer culture and commodified selves/identities – and I found I had overlooked a thing or two in my first reading of him a decade ago. Delving into the Sickness unto Death, what I found was a romantic concept of the self that not only supports to the notion of the Romantic self as “occasionalist” (Carl Schmitt), built on an never-fading horizon of endless possibility, but it also adds to the distinction Colin Campbell (1987: 83ff.) makes between daydreams and fantasies.   (For romantic consumerism according to Campbell and beyond see my earlier post. Campbell does not elaborate on the consequences of this distinction – but it may be crucial for an argument that the consumer self is not “de-centred” after all, but only “eccentric” – and thus quite centred.)  As an extra, Kierkegaard also insists on the initialtheologicalnature of this self (again, adding weight to Campbell’s argument for a genealogy of the Romantic ethic of consumerism that goes back to “the other Protestant ethic”) – and by doing so highlights the need of the romantic self for an anchor that is not at its disposal (at least not in the same way as its imagination is).Kierkegaard defines the process of selving as follows:

‘The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude, which relates to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can only be done in the relationship to God. To become oneself, however, is to become something concrete. But to become something concrete is neither to become finite nor to become infinite, for that which is to become concrete is indeed a synthesis. The development must accordingly consist in infinitely coming away from oneself, in an infinitizing of the self, and in infinitely coming back to oneself in the finitization. If, on the other hand, the self does not become itself then it is in despair, whether it knows it or not. Yet a self, every moment it exists, is in a process of becoming; for the self κατά δΰναμιν [katà dúnamin – potentially] is not present actually, it is merely what is to come into existence. In so far, then, as the self does not become itself, it is not itself; but not to be oneself is exactly despair.’ (Kierkegaard 2008: 31)

Of course, the need for God has gone. But only to be, in Durkheimian manner, be replaced by Society – “selving” cannot be done in isolation. With Gehlen and Plessner (again: see below), one can argue that infinity and potentiality are part of the human condition, inherent in the blueprint of the human organism. But traditionally the infinitising aspect, the openness to the world, was not necessarily seen as an opportunity but an outright nuisance (as still for Gehlen). “Becoming” at best was an inconvenient run-up to “being” (or, as in Plato, an unsatisfactory surrogate for unavailable Being). The glorification of adventurous infinite becoming (as opposed to serene eternal being) is a Romantic innovation. Before, the openness to the world was a threat – it was the vulnerability of what Charles Taylor (2007) aptly termed “the porous self”. Religious practices made sure that where becoming is unavoidable is made relatively safe (rites of passage…), but otherwise be avoided altogether. (Taylor, [2007: 45ff.], drawing on Victor Turner’s analysis of the carnivalesque, suggests that in the world of codified and structured belief a recourse on anti-structure, indeterminacy etc. is nessecary from time to time in order to avoid the total ossification of the social order). The Romantic enthusiasm for becoming, growing, venturing into the unknown in the world and inside reverses this. Not to develop, not to long to become, is to be as good as dead. Anti-structure is not something to be dipped into occasionally, but something that needs to be present all of the time. For Kierkegaard, narrow mindedness and fatalism are modes of despair (and hence of sin). As for the Romantics, and as for the romantic consumers of today, potentiality is a central category in there ordinary lives:

‘For only possibility saves. When someone faints, people shout for water, Eau-de-Cologne, Hoffman’s drops. But for someone who is on the point of despair, get me possibility, the only thing that can save me is possibility! A possibility and the despairerbreathes again, he revives, for without possibility it is as though a person cannot draw breath.’ (Kierkegaard 2008: 43)

So far, this backs up the point on occasionalism – but there’s more. Schmitt denounces the Romantics as lost in their dream worlds, as unable to act in the real world as any realisation would curtail the realm of possibilities. Kierkegaard sees that danger as another form of despair:

‘… the self is a synthesis in which the finite is the confining factor, the infinite the expanding factor. Infinitude’s despair is therefore the fantastic, the boundless; for the self is only healthy and free from despair when, precisely by having despaired, it is grounded transparently in God.’ (Kierkegaard 2008: 32)

Again – for “God” read “Society”… or “Reality”, actually: any Third will do (so we might as well read: “God”).   Despair is the failure to be a self – a failure that can come about through a lack of imagination (i.e. a one-dimensional narrow-mindedness that by denying or being ignorant of possibility kills off anything that could be called a “self”) – or by an over-indulgence in the fantastic (i.e. imagination that loses touch with reality – and hence cannot add to a self that lives in that reality).

‘Fantasy is, in general, the medium of infinitization. It is not a faculty like the other faculties – if one wishes to speak in this way, it is the faculty instar omnium[for all faculties]. What feelings, understanding and will a person has depends in the last resort upon what imagination he has – how he represents himself to himself, that is, upon imagination. Imagination is the infinitizingreflection, which is why the elder Fichte quite correctly assumed that the imagination is the source of the categories even with regard to knowledge. The self is reflection and the imagination is reflection, the self’s representation of itself in the form of the self’s possibility. The imagination is the whole of reflection’s possibility; and the intensity of this medium is the possibility of the self’s intensity. The fantastic is generally speaking what carries a person into the infinite in such a way that it only leads him away from himself and thus prevents him from coming back to himself.’ (Kierkegaard 2008: 32f.)

Earlier critiques of consumer culture tended to see the bourgeois self being destroyed in a one-dimensional mass society (the Adorno tradition), a world in which is devoid of transcendence, imagination – more recent critiques (the Baudrillard tradition) and celebrations (e.g. Firat/Schultz 1997) focus on the fantastic nature of consumer culture. Colin Campbell is occasionally cited as a witness for that fantastic nature as anticipated by the Romantic movement of the 19thcentury – with the emphasis on the desparate longing emerging from the discrepancy of achievable realities and romantic consumer dreams (e.g. Brown et al. 1998: 7). And surely, frustration is a key element in the romantic consumer experience. But it is a frustration that does not amount to the despair of an unachieved selfhood. I think this is backed by experience: It is quite difficult to locate the de-centred, fragmented, discontinuos self when speaking to people: most will, in their narratives, construct a multi-faceted selfhood that is host to quite a number of contradictions that are often openly admitted to – but all in all most narratives achieve an integration of these contradictions and complexities into a coherent personality, a meaningful biography, a reasonably consistent moral agency. In contrast to the projected schizophrenic character we’re supposed to be dissolving into (Baudrillard 1983: 133), most are pretty good at defining the boundaries between self and world, are not lost in the fantastic mediatic delusions. Not, as Baudrillardprojects, the impossibility of distancing, mirroring oneself (i.e. the loss of the ability to actualise the anthropological potential for autonomous selfhood described by Plessner) is the hallmark of the romantic imagination. As Campbell points out:

“It would seem that, at least in principle, fantasies present greater possibilities for pleasurable for pleasurable experiences than do day-dreams, as no restrictions are set upon the circumstances and events which can be conjured up. This advantage is offset, however, by the loss of ‘possibility’ associated with the more extravagantly fanciful scenarios, and thus some of the vividness and power which comes with a sense of ‘reality’. There is thus a basic tension in imaginative hedonism between the pleasures of perfection and those of reality potential, between the joys of unbridled imagining and those of anticipation. It is for this reason that dreaming of a fairly modest alteration in an existing pattern of life may actually provide more pleasure than the most magnificently impossible fan-tasy, an awareness that the former might come true more than compensating for the greater theoretical pleasure afforded by the latter.  As this observation suggests, day-dreaming possesses a dimension which is not present in fantasizing proper, one which stems less form the nature of the images brought into view than the contemplation of these becoming real.” (Campbell 1987: 84f.)

The imaginative consumers (following their prototype: the imaginative readers of fiction), comes back to themselves – if there is one antidote against both forms of despair diagnosed by Kierkegaard, it is reading novels, watching movies… realistic novels, realistic movies that is. Strangely, fiction serves the purpose better than factual narratives – particularly if the latter are badly written. The point is not to be realistic in the sense of “likelihood to what actually is or was”, rather it is what Gregory Currie (1998) calls “realism of character” – not that the events and situational contexts are plausible or even possible, but that the way the characters react to them and act within them resembles ways we could imagine to act ourselves; so that we, in turn, can imaginatively interact with those situations and characters:

‘… one very important way of understanding the minds of others is by imaginatively projecting ourselves into their situations in imagination. To the extent that our own minds are models of theirs, we are then able to understand their thoughts and actions on the basis of our own imagined response. I say that a work possesses realism of character when it enables us to engage in that same kind of empathic understanding with its characters. When we can respond that way to its characters, we are responding to fiction as to life.’ (Currie 1998: 173)

Currie points out that according to that definition, in fact, most works of fiction are realistic – as those few that are not just don’t manage to hold our interest. A common pattern in popular fiction (be it movies or books) is to repeat the experience of the reader, the transposition into another often wholly unrealistic world while retaining a realism of character is repeated as part of the plot. Classic examples would be the Narnia books where the adventures do not even disrupt the temporal structure of the Victorian and WW II daily routines of the protagonists. But even where events do not connect to a realistically portrayed historicaltime, parallel routine existences are often constructed to do the same job (the rural idyll of the Hobbits, for example).  And like the readers themselves, the protagonists mostly return from the adventure into the everyday. They are changed by the experience (Currie acutallysuggeststhey can be better moral agents), they transcended themselves… but in doing so also become themselves.

In a way there is a template for this in one of the most important works of early Romanticism – Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”. Here the story of the despairing sailor is not related directly to the reader but to the reader’s representative within the poem, the Wedding Guest. The Wedding Guest is, as it were, reenacting the Ancyent Marinere’s journey and adventures and is transformed by them. He is absorbed in the story, in a way lives it through and is transformed by this employment of the imagination as

A wiser and a sadder man / He rose the morrow morn

But in contrast to the Marinere he is not lost in the narrative, and hence does not share in the despair of the sailor who cannot exit his fantastic world. By leaving his self behind for a fictional journey and returning to his everyday existence he has continued becoming himself…

Baudrillard, Jean (1983): ‘The Ecstasy of Communication’, in: Hal Foster (ed.): Postmodern Culture, London: Pluto Press, pp.126- 34

Brown, Stephen/Doherty, Anne Marie/Clarke, Bill (1998): ‘Stoning the Romance: On Marketing’s Mind-forg’d Manacles’,  in Stephen Brown/Anne Marie Doherty/Bill Clarke (eds): Romancing the Market, London: Routledge,  pp.1-21

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Currie, Gregory (1998): ‘Realism of Character and the Value of Fiction’, in: Jerrold Levinson (ed.): Aesthetics and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.161-181

Firat, A. Fuat/Schultz II, Clifford J. (1997): ‘From Segmentation to Fragmentation: Markets and Marketing Strategy in the Postmodern Era’, in: European Journal of Marketing, Vol.31, No.3/4, pp.183-207

Kierkegaard, Søren (2008): The Sickness unto Death, London: Penguin

Taylor, Charles (2007): A Secular Age, Cambridge MA: Belknap.

hat tip: Daniel Smith

the eccentricity of the romantic consumer: campbell, simmel, and plessner

(Paper presented at the 4th International Plessner Conference, 16th to 18th September 2009, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands)

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Consumer culture has few defenders and there are even fewer who dare to argue that consumer culture may in a sense make us broader and deeper personalities. In this talk I will try to make the case for a sociologist who does claim just that, Colin Campbell – with his “Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism”. I will argue that his theory of the “romantic consumer” – particularly if underpinned by Simmel’s analysis of the psychological implications of the money economy – can account for a simultaneous increase in flexibility/complexity of contemporary selves and their persistent integrity as autonomous persons. To argue the latter point I will recur on Plessner’s work, especially his adaptation of role theory and his critique of the ideology of community (Gemeinschaft).

Plessner is a likely ally for the unpopular defence of the popular culture of consumption. There is more than only an elective affinity between consumer culture and Plessner’s defence of society (Gesellschaft) as consumer culture significantly contributes to what he calls the “increasing possibilities of play that civilization makes possible” (1999: 78)[i]

Such Gesellschaftlichkeit throughout the twentieth century has had more intellectual critics than defenders… and hardly any admirers. Notably, one of the prime targets of those critiques always was consumer culture (even though it wasn’t often called that). It was seen as a major threat to occidental culture, dissolving and corrupting the very essence of European man. Prominently, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit denounces everyday trivial sociability manifested in curiosity, idle talk, and ambiguity as the pinnacle of inauthenticity. For Plessner, in contrast, it is this very ambiguity that is the deep ontological trait (1999: 109; 1981:63) To take another example, Arnold Gehlen, bemoans the sensual overload (Reizüberflutung) of the mediatic consumer society as fundamental threat to the ordering power of tradition and routine. In contrast Plessner explicitly asks us to embrace such sensual overload as civilisational achievement, sees strength in the embrace of ‘the refinement of life, and the intensification of possibilities for stimulation’ (1999: 69).

In his 1924 Limits of Community Plessner indicates a specifically human form of desire for the imaginary that seems to me to be at the heart of a developed consumer culture – a desire for the unreal, dreamlike rather than the material and immediate. He asks:

‘Is there deprivation (excluding naked hunger) that urges not towards that unreal satisfaction, that demands satiation more with the magic of indeterminate promises than with what actually can be had?’ (1999: 114)

This seems to fit into 1920s big city life – but hardly strikes us as something “universally human”. Here Colin Campbell can help out as he focuses on this particular element in consumer culture – understanding it as an historical achievement, a novel intellectual/emotional skill developed in the Romantic Period – rather than something that’s just human. At first sight a contradiction, this ties in with Plessner’s assertion that for the most of human history the infinity of the psyche is something that is reconciled by giving it space behind, but also hiding it behind, ceremonial orders: Masks that do not give off anything of the personhood they facilitate.
Campbell’s (1987) starting point is the conundrum of the insatiability of the modern consumer – an insatiability that cannot be fully explained by the generalisation or trickling down of aristocratic luxury consumption. Such luxury in “traditional hedonism” typically is not innovative but merely a quantitative excess over need satisfaction. Having moved beyond necessity the traditional hedonist tries to recreate the pleasure of need satisfaction by intensifying and refining the sensual stimuli involved. But in relying on sensations such hedonism still remains bound by the absolute limits to possible physical arousal. Its central function of asserting social rank (Veblen’s conspicuous consumption) also militates against the possibility of achieving genuine pleasure.
To allow insatiability, Campbell argues, the link to sensual stimuli must be severed and pleasure seeking must shift to emotions instead. Pleasure then no longer is a property of external objects but of internal “spiritual” processes, gained by conjuring up emotional states through a mastery of the imagination, by indulging in daydreams. While these daydreams are facilitated by the use of commodities, the pleasure is not in the immediate sensual effect of those goods on the consumer but in the consumer’s self-illusionary engagement with them. Campbell speaks of autonomous imaginative hedonism. The imaginative hedonist enjoys involvement in fictitious worlds, shares the adventures of invented characters, or dream him/herself into a semi-fictional identity by, for example, adopting a certain style of clothing, driving a particular car, or creating an online avatar.
The imaginative hedonist not only uses consumer goods as launch pad or aide for daydreams, but also is able to anticipate the pleasure to be had from objects not yet acquired. Thus not only the desired object is a source of enjoyment, but desire itself becomes an object of gratification. This leads into a dynamics of longing in which the acquisition of the desired object nearly always must disappoint as daydreams will be more perfect than any reality they anticipate. This frustration then triggers new longings which fuel demand for novel products and thereby accounts for fashion as “most central of all institutions of modern consumerism”.

“Modern hedonism presents all individuals with the possibility of being their own despot, exercising total control over the stimuli they experience, and hence the pleasure they receive. Unlike traditional hedonism, however, this not gained solely, or even primarily, through the manipulation of objects and events in the world, but through a degree of control over their meaning. In addition, the modern hedonist possesses the very special power to conjure up stimuli
in the absence of any externally generated sensations. This control is achieved through the power of imagination, and provides infinitely greater possibilities for the maximization of pleasurable experiences than was available under traditional, realistic hedonism to even the most powerful of potentates.” (Campbell 1987: 76)

Self-illusion here does not lead to a loss of reality in a world of simulacra (as Baudrillard famously claimed) since it is performed in an emotionally involved yet intellectually detached mode: the illusions are “felt to be true” – but “known to be false” (or as Coleridge calls it: performed under a “willing suspension of disbelief”). It is a skill that we consumers unthinkingly employ when we open a book, watch a movie or a football match, flick through a fashion magazine… entering other worlds, stories, struggles – while often remaining firmly attached to our sofas.

As the title of his book suggests, Campbell constructs the Romantic heritage of consumerism as a parallel to how Max Weber construed the Protestant legacy of capitalism. Written as a companion book to Weber’s Protestant Ethic it goes about in the same three step logic. As you will know Weber’s strategy was to first identify the “spirit of capitalism” (disciplined work towards the sole aim of profit and re-investment; “inner-worldly asceticism”), then secondly to trace the historical roots of this mentality (an ironic turn in Calvinist teaching of pre-destination) and thirdly to show how the economic system “selects” this type of character into leading positions and hence establishes new cultural heroes, leading to a self-perpetuation of the capitalist spirit beyond Calvinism itself)

Campbell’s strategy accordingly is to identify the “spirit of modern consumerism” (autonomous imaginative hedonism), then to trace its historic roots (the “other Protestant ethic”, leading to Romanticism) and finally find out why this mentality is “selected” even after its original source has dried up. Campbell mainly investigates the historical roots. These are interlinked with those of the protestant ethic of capitalism.

Campbell tracks down a transformation of optimistic, emotionalist, sentimentalist streams of Puritanism into the Romantic movement of the late 18th century. The latter retains a doctrine of signs in which feeling and taste, vision, imagination, expressiveness, creative energy, and unhappiness with the status quo replace economic success as vindication of the individual soul.

While Campbell, over the last 20 years or so, successfully defended his historiography, the third step (to which he dedicates only one or two pages), is problematic: How does the Romantic Ethic survive the fall of Romanticism? Like Weber for his Protestant Ethic

‘… there is no part in this thesis to suggest that the Romantic Ethic still persists or indeed continues to perform any such vital role.’ (Campbell 2003: 796)

But while Weber can enlist capitalist competition and in particular the labour market as selection mechanism: What selects the romantic consumer over the utilitarian? (after all: the latter as saver and investor will end up with greater economic resources…)

Campbell falls back on the Parsonian nuclear family for an explanation:

‘… middle class families successfully transmit both rational utilitarian andromantic values to their offspring, the father and the mother having a different responsibility in this respect. The “romantic” values are likely to be given expression first probably under the mother’s overall guidance, and the more “puritanical” ones imposed later (when the father becomes more important).’ (1987: 226)

This, at least at first sight, does not look very convincing – mainly because it presupposes a stability in the assignment of “instrumentality” and “expressivity” to “masculinity” and “feminity” that may or may not have been plausible in the 1950s – but certainly no longer is.

I will come back to this, as there actually is some use in a Parsonian reference to the family and the position of the middle class mother and wife.

For now, however, I complete the Weberian parallel by going back to the economy.

With Simmel one can argue that money – having become the central medium of social exchange – is in two ways structurally romantic: in a negative and in a positive way. Money mediates, distances people and things and removes the person from the felt immediacy of more direct traditional relations.

‘as an intermediate link between man and thing,’ Simmel says, money ‘enables man to have, as it were, an abstract existence, a freedom from direct concern with things and from a direct relationship to them, without which our inner nature would not have the same chances of development’ (1990: 469)

This alienation means that, I quote:

‘… our whole life becomes affected by its remoteness from nature, a situation that is reinforced by the money economy and the urban life that is dependent upon it.’ He suggests: ‘the distinctive aesthetic and romantic experience of nature is perhaps possible only through this process.’ (ibid)

So money opens a gap, a space that entices a longing for that which is now no longer directly at hand. But it does not only distance things – it also brings the distanced things within reach. Money encourages daydreaming: everything is possible, everything is available. While creating distant longings, it also is the means of acting on those longings, of realising some of them. As Simmel put it

‘The mere possibility of unlimited uses that money has, or represents, on account of its lack of any content of its own, is manifested in a positive way by the restlessness of money, by its urge to be used, so to speak.’ (1990: 212)

Crucially, while for the money owner possibilities represented by money disappear when spending it on a concrete option, money as such keeps representing those relinquished possibilities as not yet chosen, as still available at a later point in time. While, with every choice we make the horizon of possibilities (against we choose) shrinks, the consumer lives under an impression of a horizon of opportunity that can’t collapse – and that’s a further characteristic of their romantic mentality: what Carl Schmitt dismissed as romantic occasionism. He sees Romanticism marred by an unfulfillable yearning to be and create everything:

‘In commonplace reality, the romantics could not play the role of the ego who creates the world. They preferred the state of eternal becoming and possibilities that are never consummated to the confines of concrete reality. This is because only one of the numerous possibilities is ever realized. In the moment of realization, all of the other infinite possibilities are precluded. A world is destroyed for a narrow-minded reality.’ (Schmitt 1986: 66)

While consumers (following the romantic example) therefore deny or ignore death as limit to infinite choice their opponents tend towards necrophilia.  Death as ultimate commitment (for Schmitt in his agonistic concept of politics as well as in both German and French existentialism – for Sartre the proving pudding always is affirmation of fundamental choice in death…) – the committed, genuine self can only proven in death. The survivor can always go on to become a traitor. In this respect consumerist ambiguity may be shallow – but at the same time life-affirming. Decisionism, radical choice, fundamental irreversible commitment (religio) stands against indecisionism… or rather against micro-decisionism, radical reversibility of casual choices.

Of course, choice always has irreversible consequences – but in a consumer culture they are systematically denied – hence the Romantic obsession with childhood, and the consumerist obsession with youth: the commitment to an open future – the celebration of openness to the world as infinite potential.

A potential that is not nothing (or “nothing yet”), but a valid aspect of being. As Simmel put it:

“The potentialities of a being are not just hovering intangible prophecies of a future actuality, but something positive, a characteristic presence which exists not only as a candidature to another, future form.” (“Die ‘Möglichkeiten’ eines Wesens sind doch keine ungreifbar über ihm schwebenden Prophezeiungen einer einmal eintretenden Aktualität, sondern schon jetzt etwas durchaus Positives, eine charakteristische Gegenwart, die keineswegs nur in der Anwartschaft auf eine andere, zukünftige Formung besteht.“ Simmel 1919)

Instead of seeing it as an existential threat and closing it off in traditionalisation and regulation, as under an ancien régime, the culture of modernity creates, according to Plessner, social arrangements that allow and foster individuality that dwells in potentiality. The vehicle for this development is the existence in roles.

Evidently there is an affinity between the structural romanticism of money and this central element of societal life (Gesellschaft) – as Plessner says:

‘The distance the role creates, in the life of the family as well as in that of work, occupations, office is the detour to the other which characterises human beings, the mediation of their immediacy.”

Such distance, Plessner argues, is not just necessary to facilitate social contact beyond close community – it also enables or even demands the emergence of a personhood behind and beyond the mask of the role.

In simple cases, and under strict ceremonialisation, a role set may define person and the role functionary may mistake themselves for nothing more than a function in a social organism. Even then, it’s difficult to construe oneself as nothing more than that – and once (to apply Merton’s terminology) a multiplicity of role-sets are combined into a (always slightly contradictory) status-set autonomous selfhood becomes nearly unavoidable

Selfhood is not submerged under the superficiality of the role existence – superficial role existence precedes authenticity, makes it possible in the first place. As we play a role, accept an existence that is not intrinsically our own but one that conforms to the normative expectations that are part of the role set. It is as if we

‘change our existence’ – thus creating – I quote – a ‘distance to our social existence which can be consoling: Man, the individual never entirely is what he is. As office worker or doctor, politician or shop owner, husband or bachelor, member of his generation and his people, he is always more than that, a possibility, which does not exhaust itself in such modes of being, cannot be subsumed under them.’ [ii]

Against this background – should we not see the selfhood that is constructed through consumer choices as a similar mask, a development that goes beyond the more formal, clearly defined roles of occupation as the more clearly defined roles in public office, professions and occupations? While they on the one hand are communicated as expression of an underlying authentic self, the reversibility and the fact that the immediacy of the expressed is commercially mediated makes that underlying authenticity a role/mask in its own right.

Ceremonial roles are insufficient in an individualistic culture – they remain necessary! – there is a shift to prestige in a trivialised artistic, creative existence

‘The rigid masks of an arbitrary and interchangeable office, which imparts to the most different personalities the same aura, gives way here to a counter-picture appearing in the unique work brought to permanent form of the person who created it.’ (Plessner 1999: 141)

Such objectification (e.g. as a facebook entry) necessarily creates a distance – and hence establishes a subject that is not to be defined by the sum of their performances. The struggle for prestige as “struggle for a true face” hence still constitutes an “unrealisation” – the true face just as another role. This is not a repetition of the medieval situation where “man never was alone” – it is a performance of a private self that is detached from and thereby constitutes a subjectivity ‘behind’ the private self, thereby realising even further the potential that lies in the anthropologically given eccentric positionality.

This implies a higher degree of integration of self in style, not as alternately bemoaned and celebrated, dissolution into “multiple personalities”. In order to enact ourselves in a convincing way, we need to have distance. As Plessner in his reflection on Huizinga’s theory of play says about the actor:

‘The submersion into our selves – mark of personality – corresponds to an exteriority in relation to our corporeal figure which enables us to make our body the medium of expression (and by this a threat to its authenticity, the authenticity of feeling, which it conveys). The observation that an actor who gives himself over to his genuine feelings in order to make his part convincing loses evidence reflects how our ability to experience refracts on the communicability of our emotions.’[iii]

Consumer culture offers the opportunity to play out the potential to be actors of ourselves. I would venture to claim that, because consumers are so good at that nowadays, that they managed to convince quite a lot of academic researchers of their unmediated genuineness.

Some civilisationist (or pro-Gesellschaft) theorists have expressed grave concerns about a culture of emotional expressivity leading to the erosion of distance and formality that – as Plessner argues – is essential in the emergence and perseverance of independent personhood most prominently maybe Richard Sennett – currently most vociferous being Frank Furedi who directly links this to a feminisation of culture.

This concern brings us back to the part the bourgeois wife/mother plays in romantic consumerism. Concerns about feminisation of culture seem to (secretly) rely on the picture Georg Simmel presented of the bourgeois wife in his Female Culture: While division of labour and specialisation is the realm of the man, woman resides in an undifferentiated world in which she leads a holistic existence in which intellect and emotion, reality and unrealised potentiality still form a unity.

In one respect Simmel does have a point in that the situation in which the bourgeois mother and wife lived is one that deprives her of (or – from Simmel’s point of view spares her) the existence in differentiated role sets, role complexity that, in Rose Laub Coser’s terms, is a “seedbed of autonomy”.

If consumer culture were a generalisation of such reduced differentiation Furedi may be right that such holism, emotionalism, domesticism are a threat to the autonomous individuality that the existence in formal roles afforded.

I would suggest a different take. The holistic existence Simmel celebrates was already a broken one – and that brokenness is closely related to Romanticism. The legitimacy of the bourgeois marriage is romantic love, love between autonomous and equal subjects. But the result denies women precisely this precondition of romantic love: autonomous personhood. To quote the least likely theorist to confirm this, here’s Parsons:

“Put very schematically, a mature woman can love, sexually, only a man who takes his full place in the masculine world, above all its occupational aspect, and who takes responsibility for a family; conversely, the mature man can only love a woman who is really an adult, a full wife to him and mother to his children, and an adequate ‘person’ in her extrafamilial roles.” (1956: 22)

But, of course, there are no real extrafamilial roles for her. So she finds herself in a structurally hypocritical position where the feeling that ‘this can’t be all’ is inevitable. The urge to consume is the urge to ‘be more than that’.

I would argue that in this situation the apparent lack was compensated for by imaginary means, commercially mediated worlds beyond which partly made good for the denied role complexity – and partly became a vehicle to the outside, was utilised as a means of building personhood by mediating immediacy, by unrealising the presentation of the “true face”.

This is why the novel was so central in the development of consumer culture as they allow the bourgeois subject, in Tenbruck’s (1986: 271) words, to ‘habitually unlock and extend inner spaces of experience’ (my translation mzv). It was only a question of time that this fed into a desire to unlock outer spaces of experience as well. What they take outside is not a replication of the un-detached absorption into a one-dimensional domestic role – it is also not a de-centred uprooted self; rather, I suggest, it is a skillfully ex-centred privacy that has become a major element of our consumer culture.

Campbell, Colin (2003) ‘On Understanding Modern Consumerism and Misunderstanding the Romantic Ethic Thesis: A Reply to Boden and Williams’, Sociology 37 (4): 791-7.

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Parsons, Talcott (1956): ‘The American Family: Its Relations to Personality and to the Social Structure’, in: Talcott Parsons, Robert F. Bales (Eds.): Family. Socialization and Interaction Processes, London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, pp.3-33

Plessner, Helmuth (1999): The Limits of Community, New York: Humanity Books

Plessner, Helmuth (1983): ‚Der Mensch im Spiel’ (1967), in: Gesammelte SchriftenVIII, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Plessner, Helmuth (1981): „Grenzen der Gemeinschaft“ (1924), in: Gesammelte Schriften V,Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Plessner, Helmuth (1976): Die Frage nach der Conditio humana, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Schmitt, Carl (1986) Political Romanticism, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Simmel, Georg (1990) The Philosophy of Money, London: Routledge

Simmel, Georg (1919): Philosophische Kultur Leipzig: Alfred Kröner.

Tenbruck, Friedrich H. (1986): ‚Bürgerliche Kultur.’ In: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Sonderheft 27: Kultur und Gesellschaft, pp.263-85

Update 12th November 2009 : Women’s Romanticism…

I am currently reading Kari E. Lokke’s Tracing Women’s Romanticism: Gender, History and Transcendence (London: Routledge 2004). It is mainly an analysis of Germaine de Staël, Mary Shelley, Bettine von Arnim and George Sand who, according to Lokke

all envisage self-transcendence, both artistic and spiritual, as participation in historical process. (2004: 1)

I am not even half through the (slim) book, but I’m already quite enthusiastic about it – this really seems to confirm the point about “female culture” at the heart of romantic consumerism not being one of diffuse emotionality and a collapse of role-distanced autonomous personhood. To the contrary, Lokke shows how in those novels

disappointment with Romantic passionate love becomes a catalyst for the cultivation of heightened political, spiritual and historical awareness (2004: 7)

In the chapter on de Staël Lokke demonstrates how detachment – which women cannot achieve otherwise as they are excluded from public roles – is central for her in a way that calls for a full realisation of the potential that lies in our “eccentric positionality”. Detachment and emotional expression are no detrimental opposites, as

Staël is not advocating insensitivity to or a numbing repression of pain and feeling. Rather, she suggests focusing a clear and self-conscious eye on one’s passions and desires, thus acknowledging their power and then, through an act of will, freeing oneself from them. “In a kind of pleasurable abstraction, we rise some distance above ourselves, watching ourselves think and live … We are now placing ourselves in relation to our own consciousness, instead of fate” (p.168)[1] (2004: 26)

This is the core skill of the romantic consumer – and it is, I think, more than plausible that it is refined if not in reading and writing novels as parallel universe into which the reader can immerse herself (as till today, the majority of readers of novels are women) – but in a way that she can observer herself doing this from an eccentric vantage point.

Lokke also shows that de Staël’s Corinne – in whom she realises the enthusiastic eccentricity she theorised in the Influence of Passions – maintains detachment beyond the formalistic role in an passionate way (along the lines that Plessner saw as the move from ceremonialism to art). Like Diderot, de Staël’s Corinne rejects the total identification of actor and dramatic character, is all for a double-existence of person and role, but

it is the doubling of self that results form the exaltation that she believes  art alone can inspire rather than the more calculated repetition of coded gesture that characterizes Diderot’s pragmatic actors. (2004: 42)

This is important as it is evidence against Simmel’s notion that “female culture” is one of non-differentiation. While this is to an extent true (due to the exclusion from occupational role existence), it is also true that in Romantic culture, women have found innovative forms of detachment that may, in the end, prove to be fuller realisations of our anthropological potential than the ceremonial role existence of the modern occupational system. For Simmel, the fact that dramatic acting was, in his time, the most prominent field for female artistic expression, is just further proof of his non-differentiation thesis:

There is no art in which performance and totality of the personality is forged into such close unity (Simmel 1919: 279)[2]

Whereas, in fact, as Plessner points out (I repeat from the quote above)

an actor who gives himself over to his genuine feelings in order to make his part convincing loses evidence.

Finally, I also very much like the way Lokke delineates Romanticism by going back to Schiller’s notion of sentimental poetry in which, in her words

the appeal of the sentimental or the sublime is its ineffability which is that of the infinitely receding horizon (2004: 19)

… i.e. the occasionism Schmitt bemoans… (and that escaped Campbell’s attention).


[1] Lokke quotes de Staël’s 1776 The Influence of the Passions on the Happiness of Individuals and Nations from An Extraordinary Woman: Selected Writings of Germaine de Staël, New York: Columbia University Press 1987

[2] Es gibt keine Kunst, in der die Leistung und die Totalität der Persönlichkeit zu so enger Einheit verbunden sind.


[i] „Gesellschaft bejahen um der Gesellschaft willen, die ihr eignes Ethos, ihre eigene, der Gemeinschaft überlegene Größe hat, und einsehen lernen, daß eine unendlich zu steigernde Anspannung des Intellekts für die immergrößere Souveränität gegenüber der Natur verlangt ist, die Maschinen bejahen, an deren Sozialfolgen die Gegenwart leidet, die ganze Pflichtenlast der Zivilisation, wie sie das Abendland erfunden hat und ausbildet, um der wachsenden Spielmöglichkeiten, die sie bringt, auf sich nehmen, das ist die wahrhafte Stärke, auf die es ankommt.“ (Plessner 1981: 31f.)

[ii] „Daher billigt man unter dem Begriff der Rolle dem Menschen einen Abstand von seiner gesellschaftlichen Existenz zu, der etwas Tröstliches haben kann: der Mensch, der einzelne ist nie ganz das, was er ‚ist’. Als Angestellter oder Arzt, Politiker oder Kaufmann, als Ehemann oder Junggeselle, als Angehöriger seiner Generation und seines Volkes ist er doch immer ‚mehr’ als das, eine Möglichkeit, die sich in solchen Daseinsweisen nicht erschöpft und darin nicht aufgeht.“ (Plessner 1976: 66)

[iii] „Der Versenktheit in uns selbst, Kenn-zeichen der Personalität, entspricht eine Exteriorität im Verhältnis zu unserer leibhaften Figur, ide es uns ermöglicht, unseren Körper zum Mittel des Ausdrucks (und damit zur Quelle der Gefährdung seiner Echtheit, der Echtheit des Gefühls, das er vermittelt) zu machen. Die bekannte Erfahrung, daß der Schauspieler, welcher sich seinem echten Gefühl überläßt, um eine Rolle überzeugend zu machen, an Evidenz verliert, spiegelt die Gebrochen-heit der eigenen Erlebnisfähigkeit an der Mitteilungsfähigkeit unserer Gefühle.“ (Plessner 1983: 311)