Tuesday, July 21, 2009

more notes on functionalism

Without going into the vexed question of functionalism in modern society, and how it is to be reconciled with the idea of "gradations of rank", which is no doubt much more complex than I described...

what I'm interested in is the notion of a functionalism that is imagined to work for a whole society, and a society which is ordered hierarchically, and whose real "gradations of rank" are imaginatively carried over as a necessary organisational principle underlying this functionalism...

since society is to be reproduced as a single intentional entity, a "spiritual" entity, and not a monist system where everything is as important as everything else, or a composite of rather prosaic functionalist parts that do not yet crowd out human subjectivity

We already have a model of "cultural functionalism" (where functionalism works through a hierarchical order etc) in Kandinsky's text. This text makes explicit claims, and its contemporary prestige can be more or less well reconstructed.

According to the logic of "cultural functionalism", truth is concentrated in a single point. This circumstance problematicises humanist culture, the social structure of which is predicated on the idea that people in general are capable of making distinctions between what can be considered "true" and false". If we take humanist culture to be necessarily polyvalent, it might be represented as a horizontal section cut through the "triangle", such that it formally comprehends a "lower section" that supports it and from which its subject matter is drawn, while this culture is itself formally comprehended by an "upper section" it in turn supports.

As I mentioned the question of how an interplay of functionalisms contributes to human culture in any particular society is too complex to adequately address. We can, however, draw some conclusions from the limit case of "cultural functionalism" for which we have Kandinsky's description. What might we expect of a humanist culture inflluenced by these ideas?

1. culturally consistant "upper" and "lower" sections

2. the sacralisation of a practically dormant "upper section" (in bourgeois society, bourgeois humanism would have to invent an imaginary "upper section")

3. the idea that there is a natural trade off between the security of humanism and the inactivity of the "lower section"

Friday, July 17, 2009

Vienna 1900

These quotations were chosen by more erudite writers, first Stefan Zweig, from his autobiography:

"Everyone knew just what he possessed and what he would inherit, what was allowed and what was forbidden. Everything had its norm, its specific mass and gravity. The man of means could calculate exactly ho much interest per annum his fortune would bring him, the civil servant or officer with equal exactitude the year in which he woud gain promotion and the year in which he would retire ... everything in this great realm had its fixed, immovable place; and in the highest place of all the aged Emperor; but should he die, one knew (or thought one knew) that another would take his place, and nothing would change in all this carefully planned order..."

and from a visitor to the Paris World Exhibition of 1900:

"The Austrian section possesses this great interest - that it represents not only the individual efforts of artists and craftsmen, but also the "official" decorative art movement of the State schools. Viewed from this last standpoint there is nothing in the entire Exhibition more admirable, more thoroughly commendable, than the display in question. Is it not wonderful indeed that a Government should have entrusted to those, and those alone, capable of acquitting themselves with credit, the task of decorating and arranging its Exhibition? And is it not still more astonishing that, instead of contenting itself, as most other nations have done, with the reconstruction of ancient styles, more or less national in character, a country should have displayed so much independence, so keen an appreciation of freshness and modernity?"

I intend to look at the problems of the Viennese Secession style as problems of functionalism.

Functionalism, where it is applied to social formations, can be a productive method for analysing societies that are complex and decentred, where rationalistic logic is difficult or impossible to apply. Hence its use develops alongside the development of capitalism, where capitalist development is attended by increased social compexity and the crumbling of central authority.

In American society, and in the Americanised popular culture predominant in Western society, functionalism tends to validate the actions of the popular classes. This could be called "democratic functionalism". It's expressed almost everywhere, but can be seen very clearly in things like The Economist's fetishisation of McDonalds. It has the advantage of fostering a democratic culture, but has the weakness of tending to discount the undemocratic aspects of modern society: centralisation of corporate power, corporate bureaucracy, waste.

A democratic culture develops alongside the development of capitalism in the US, France, China, even in Britain, a sort of monarchy, where a sort of "high" culture is willed into existance, but nevertheless remains stilted, amateurish, out of place in a resolutely modern society*. In France and the US the idea of excellence also becomes mixed up with the idea of democracy, complicating things further.

In Kandinsky's monograph a different kind of fuctionalism is outlined, in which precisely those aspects of the social system relegated to the subjective by "democratic functionalism", are conversely presented as the truly functional aspects of society.

Looking at it today, Kandinsky's monograph might be seen as indirectly describing the apparent logic of one section of contemporary society: that part of the culture industry that doesn't deal with kitsch. But it's surely intended as an explicit description of the society in which he lived: Imperial Germany at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The composite system of capitalism, government bureaucracy and monarchy that existed in Germany also pertained in Austria-Hungary and the principle cities in Russia, though not Russia as a whole.

I think it might be interesting to look at Viennese culture in the early Twentieth Century as if it was informed by the "cultural functionalism" exemplified by Kandinsky. This is to arbitrarily apply a rather incomplete hypothesis, it is not to establish a historical fact.

Things like last year's banking sector bailout point in the direction of the consolidation of an almost feudal degree of class power. Under these circumstances Americanised democratic culture can only be put under further strain. This raises the question as to whether in looking at Vienna at the turn of the Twentieth Century, we aren't looking at the future, with the possibility of understanding that future, and understanding how it is historical.

*I quite like the idea of just writing "notes" about things, and so displaying the fragments of a polemic outside of their functional order, like pictures of antique rifles in an encyclopedia of weaponry. I could have gone on:

"in this respect Coleridge's epic poem can be seen to metaphorise the threadbare hobby humanism of the useless classes, set adrift on a sea of democratic absolutism."

What a thing to say!

Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Klimt seems to be quite innocently eulogising bourgeois princess Adele Bloch-Bauer. Klimt was just as innocently enthused by the possibilities of factory production, so it couldn't be said that for Klimt, polite society and the factory floor represented the contrasting faces of the bourgeoisie. And in 1907 the Austrian bourgeoisie could still be considered a progressive force.

(Does this seem right? To try to be more accurate, I feel like this picture praises unambiguously but messes with the oppositional pairs bourgeois-aristocratic and natural-artificial, if that makes sense.)

I don't think you would do something like this now because you would be tempted to cut the goldleaf out from B&H cartons. Or perhaps tastes have changed as much as technology. A contempory picture showing, say, Tony and Cherie Blair embracing on a haptic field of depleted uranium, might neither praise nor naturalise.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

about old man Freud

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud recounts a story about his father being picked on for being a Jew, in their former home village in Moravia:

"I might have been ten or twelve years old when my father began to take me with him on his walks, and in his conversation to reveal his views on the things of this world. Thus it was that he once told me the following incident, in order to show me that I had been born in happier times than he: "When I was a young man, I was walking one Saturday along the street in the village where you were born; I was well-dressed, with a new fur cap on my head. Up comes a Christian, who knocks my cap into the mud, and shouts. "Jew, get off the pavement!"" - "And what did you do?" - "I went into the street and picked up the cap," he calmly replied."

...which is meant to demonstrate what maturity can be, and how it can be distinctly counter-intuitive. Despite Freud's father having no real choice, and the subsequent history of European anti-semitism, it's hard not to see this story, cut out from history this way, as prefiguring, almost justifying, Mahatma Gandhi's idea of passive resistance,

but on the very next page we learn that:

"One of the first books which fell into my childish hands after I learned to read was Thiers' Consulate and Empire."

So you can imagine old man Freud, suffering being victimised this way, and making his way home, where he sits reading Thiers! I don't think this is an indictment of either Freud, it just illustrates how life is.


For various reasons, I was trying to get a copy of Gerard de Nerval's book Visionaries, or the Precursors of Socialism, in English. That it's not available may or may not be a good thing. In restoration France, socialism seems to have been imagined as an obscure menace potentially afflicting the resuscitated old society, somehow mixed up with conspiracy and occultism. Theophile Gautier, somewhere, says all his friends, with the exception of Sainte-Beuve, were medievalists, and this would be a properly medieval outlook. I think it's more disconcerting to encounter people who think we really do live in a total society, than people who think we ought to; like Agamben, who is madder than Cabet ever was. The younger Freud, later author of Civilisation and its Discontents, simply could not understand that societies could exist, had existed, and did exist, in which one faction was permanently pitted against another. Despite that fact that socialism, if it is ever built, can and ought to accomodate aberrant or eccentric behaviour, where possible, the idea of a total society, insofar as it prefigures a rational total society, is a prefiguration of socialism.