The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: November, 2012

The Work-worship Nexus: Niall Ferguson’s Civilization (2011)

I have been reading historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), an exploration into the reasons western Europe began to dominate the world from 1500AD, and later America continued the western heritage and hegemony, and the reasons why this domination appears to be coming to an end, threatened economically by China, and physically by Islamic Jihadism. The first threat isn’t really so bad, as Ferguson considers China to be reasonably westernized, more western than the current crop of westerners themselves, in some respects. With their emphasis on hard work and thrift, the Chinese are a sort of neo-protestant people. And Ferguson reports with glee on the growing number of actual Protestants, and to a lesser extent Catholics, in China. He has a case study, one Hanping Zhang, a big deal in the pen-manufacturing industry. Zhang is a Christian, and likes to employ Christians: “he knows he can trust his fellow Christians, because he knows they are both hard working and honest” (285). Meanwhile, the nominal “west” is becoming godless and consequently lazy – “Europeans not only work less; they pray less” (266). Ferguson is very insistent on the work-worship nexus.

Niall Ferguson

At the book’s close, Ferguson writes: “maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam, or CO2 omissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors” (325). At this point, Ferguson has linked civilization so closely with Protestant Christianity as to create the impression that “this loss of faith” (and that particular phraseology reinforces it) is explicitly religious, and that until we rediscover religion, we cannot hope to fend off the Yellow and Brown Perils. Now, it does not appear that Ferguson himself is religious. Religion to him is a social convenience. It is not quite an opium of the people, as that drug causes physical lethargy – religion prescribes moral and political quietism but dutiful industriousness. This attitude has been hanging on for centuries now. It is a long time since intellectuals like Ferguson actually believed in religion, but there have always been those who wished to prescribe it for the masses. John Stuart Mill took this up in 1873:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, and to make their dissent known […] The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete sceptics in religion. (Autobiography)

Yet the issue drags on. There are always a few ready to speak for religion, and there is always a public to hear them. As long as Ferguson and the like are content with the sham of religion, the sham will perpetuate itself among certain sectors of the public, with considerable politico-moral consequences for western society at large. Synonomizing “western” and “protestant”, Ferguson is able to give the protestant ethic credit for everything that occurs in the western world, just as he now attempts to give it credit for China’s progress. Religion has hitched onto too many trains already, though, and we would do well to remember all those great ornaments who have gone on without religion or in spite of religion, but who haven’t had the stomach to expressly and openly fight it. Much less praiseworthy are those like Ferguson who wish to carry on with the old forms, now far past their sell-by date, when their greatest effect is to alienate the more intelligent and thoughtful members of society from those in whom discrimation or sincerity is secondary to convenience, conformism, complacency and moral self-indulgence, while pandering to and encouraging the latter.

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane [Penguin]: London, 2011).

Carlyle and Shklovskian Defamiliarization

Though Thomas Carlyle is often classified as a historian, or perhaps a social critic, to his contemporaries he was a poet. This may seem odd, as he wrote almost no poetry, yet evidently his writings contained something identified as poetic. John Stuart Mill, another social critic, but one in style and ideology very much opposed to Carlyle, wrote in his Autobiography, recalling his one-time adulation for the Sage of Chelsea:

I felt that he was a poet, and that I was not; that he was a man of intuition, which I was not; and that as such, he not only saw many things long before me, which I could see only when they were pointed out to me, hobble after and prove, but that it was highly probable he could see many things which were not visible to me even after they were pointed out.

There are many definitions of poetic writing, but the one which Carlyle seems to fit best is that by formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who sees poetic language as “defamiliarizing”, preventing the automatic and mechanical perception of the object presented, and thus causing it to be perceive as if new. The artist, quoth Shklovsky, “make[s] the stone stony.” Art, he finds, is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” (20)

Viktor Shklovsky

The defamiliarization of experience was Carlyle’s central goal. This was not just for art’s sake, though, but for society at large. Just as Shklovsky found that “perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic” (19), Carlyle had found the same thing. The important difference was, though, he historicized this finding: perception was automatic because of the times (to quote Kings of Leon). It was the industrial society become internalized. It didn’t have to be like that, said Carlyle, and he wished to open men’s eyes to life as it fundamentally was.

To do this he presented things, everything, in a defamiliarized light. This is especially evident in Sartor Resartus (1833-34). This book purports to be a biographico-critical study of Prof. Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, author of a book on the origin and meaning of clothes. The Professor writes as follows:

[I] have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly. (Bk. I, Ch. VIII)

And so forth. He’s talking about clothes, but his real aim here and in many other passages of this very odd book is to defamiliarized customs and habit, and indeed to defamiliarize the human subject itself, as we see in this passage when a man becomes “a moving Rag-screen.” Through this process Carlyle asks a profound, and almost postmodern, question: Is man a coherent entity or just a hodge-podge of internalized social conventions and prejudices? Is he a body or just an empty suit of clothes? Do clothes really make the man, and if so where does that leave the human race?

To the end of defamiliarization is the character of Teufelsdrockh specially engineered. He lives far above the crowds of Weissnichtwo, rarely conversing with his fellow mortals, but regarding them both figuratively and literally from a great height. Indeed, so unworldly is he that he is “like a man dropped thither from the Moon” (I, IV). Therefore, everything Teufelsdrockh sees and experiences is defamiliarized, and everything he reports on becomes defamiliarized to the reader – known yet not known.

Beginning with the chapter on Dandyism in Sartor, Carlyle used defamiliarization to question specific social norms, and to call for the reorientation of society. From Chartism (1839) comes the following:

The faith of men is dead; in what has guineas in its pocket, beafeaters riding behind it, and cannons trundling before it, they can believe; in what has none of these things they cannot believe. (Chapter 5)

In both Chartism and Past and Present (1843) Carlyle attempts to defamiliarize basically everything about English society. He used once again a persona of a German professor, Sauerteig, in many sections of both works to pass judgement on the English. From the point of view of a serious cultural critic, this technique is bizarre, but from a defamiliarizing point of view, it’s key. Taken in themselves, institutions like the beefeaters or parades featuring trundling cannons are not much, just harmless amusements for the people. But defamiliarized and then reconstituted as symbols of a culture of materialism and show, they gain potency. Carlyle had great success in exposing the frivolity of English society to his contemporaries, much less in offering a new value-system to replace the old. He was a poet, in the defamiliarizing sense, but he was not content that it was only in poetry that this interruption of automatic thinking took place, he wanted it everywhere and everywhen. What he didn’t realize, perhaps, was that “mankind cannot bear very much reality”.

The US Elections and Carlyle’s “Stump Oratory”

Thomas Carlyle insisted that the leader of any people should be the ablest man among them, also known (to him) as the “strongest” man. Should the Ableman come to power, all would be well; should an unable man come to power, all would not be well, but very much the reverse. There are, of course, many ways of seeking the appropriate leader, but the worst of all ways, according to Mr C., was through democratic elections. This was because through these was found not the man who was ablest, exactly, but the man who was ablest to get elected. That is not the same thing at all.

To be able to get elected a man must have one skill above all: talking. Therefore, once democracy becomes established, then “Vox is the god of the universe”. A democratic society is a talking society, a show society, where the man who would be elected to any post at all must talk his way into it. He need not be wise, but he must be plausible. And plausible to the greatest number, who Carlyle found to be inevitably “blockheads”. So, if to be plausible is not to be wise, as Carlyle felt it was not, then society has a problem. The Chelsea Sage asked: “Is society become wholly a bag of wind, then, ballasted by guineas?” and implied that the answer was a resounding Yes.

Barack Obama

Thomas Carlyle, rhetor and anti-rhetorist

In the wake of the US presidential election, one may reflect that Carlyle’s diagnosis, though blunt and perhaps unnuanced, still holds some central truths about the democratic process. Barack Obama’s victory speech, for example: was this a wise speech, or a plausible one? Did it even aim for wisdom, or just plausibility? If we allow that Obama is, relatively speaking, an able man, if not necessarily the Ableman of Carlyle’s philosophy, how do we find that his ability and intelligence is manifested in his speech? The speaking of a president, I would contend, is almost always of the bag of wind variety. Thus Obama’s speech began with an appeal to jingoistic pride:

Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to  determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward.

Then there’s a lot of formulaic, generalized rhetoric about “spirit” and “dreams”, also touching the buttons of “individuality” and the national “family” – America is both individual independence and community:

It moves forward because of you. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the  spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted  this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief  that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American  family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.

Then “the road has been hard, the journey has been long, etc.” So many words, so many cliches, so little substance, so little focus. So much generality, so little detail. So much rhetoric, so little originality and personal vision. So much “flinging up of caps” in celebration  from the congregation, so little stopping to think whether the speech contains even a germ of truth or meaning. To top it all off at the end, Obama invoked “God’s grace” to help guide America forward. It’s always a good move, once the crowd are fired up with enthusiasm, fellow-feeling, nationalist pride, to bring in the G-word: so much resonance, so little meaning. And that was the thread of the whole speech, the old rags of idealistic language, worn thin but enough to get the cap-flinging started. In the cold light of day, it’s all meaningless, but many people never see the cold light of day.  They don’t want to, and as long as Obama (or whoever) is prepared to feed them the old cants, they won’t have to.

So to return to Carlyle: he had grave misgivings that all of this talking was by its nature insincere, that doing brings us closer to truth and our own natures, but that talking brings us away from truth towards plausibility. Eventually, we can’t tell the difference, but are very sure that the plausible on which we have been nourished must be truth. We no longer see with eyes, but with the spectacles of public opinion, to use one of his favourite metaphors. Obama’s victory speech is another example of that: its banality is hardly even a reflection of him, but of the sum of social factors to which he must respond to become the most electable man. The problem is, one can’t simply assume the role; like with any role, one ends by becoming it. To indulge in too much stump-oratory is “to have your bloated vanities fostered into monstrosities by it, your foul passions blown into explosion by it, and perhaps your very stomach ruined with intoxication by it”, says Mr C. A bit excessive? Perhaps, but yet we must admit, and it is shown starkly in the victory speech of the US president, that we live in a time of cant and jargon, with who knows what consequences for the human soul.

Obama, Barack, “Election 2012 victory speech”,, 8 Nov 2012.”

All Carlyle quotes taken from: “Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets (London, 1850)


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