Tuesday, November 9, 2010

owe-riginal sin

So I'm reading Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia in preparation for a paper I'm writing (which will maybe be published!), and I've come across an interesting insight that will likely not make it into my paper, so I'm preserving it here for now. Much of the book, I'm sorry to say, won't have much of an impact on my paper, not because it is a bad book (it is excellent) but because it is so focused on its subject matter (capitalism and schizophrenia). The twin institutions of psychoanalysis and capitalism are subject to rigorous critique, but most of the discussion is a technical analysis of psychoanalysis that is both outside my discipline and unconnected to my topic.

The chapter I'm looking at now partitions human history into three phases: the savage, the barbarian, and the civilized man. These terms are to be understood in relation to the tradition of anthropology and ethnography; while "savage" and "barbarian" are heavily prejudicial terms, their technical use, however problematic, is meant merely to apply to specific cultural epochs. I am taking their use in D+G's book to be a strategic necessity without which they could not communicate and engage with anthropology as it intersects both psychoanalysis and the study of capitalism.

But I am in danger of digressing beyond rescue. The point that caught my eye was an argument concerning what they are calling primitive society. Primitive society is placed at the beginning of this tripartite progression, as the phase of civilization characterized by the structure of filiation and the extension of filiation through family alliances. (I think...The model seems to be that pre-savage societies have family lines but no structure of relation between lines. Alliances--marriages--intervene to code and extend filiation, establishing social taboos, for example against incest. Their discussion of this, which of course involve Oedipus rather a lot, is very interesting and a topic for another time.) At this stage capitalism doesn't exist in any useful sense. There is barter, there is production of goods, but there is no system of exchange. This last point is emphasized by D+G because some anthropologists refute it. To demonstrate why exchange doesn't exist in savage society, they draw a distinction between exchange and debt, which they imply are confused by those who read savage society as capitalist. This is the point that is interesting to me.

Drawing on Nietzsche, they argue for debt as a regulating mechanism in society. Debt is incurred whenever we benefit from society (always) and the cohesion of society depends on debt's enforcement. The purpose of debt is "to breed man, to mark him in his flesh, to render him capable of alliance, to form him within the debtor-creditor relation..." (190) We cannot confuse debt then with owing money, or with the levying of a fine (though these can be forms of debt). "Far from being an appearance assumed by exchange, debt is the immediate effect or the direct means of the territorial and corporal inscription process." (190) It is not revenge, not ressentiment. (191)

And to a large degree, I think we "know" this to be true--and I mean know in the same way one knows there is a god, for example. If debt operated under exchange, there would be a much smaller prison system. That debt and exchange are fundamentally separate is evinced by the fact that one cannot pay a fine for murder, or, in the opposite direction, that we know it to be unjust for a rich man to be charged some small fine for committing a crime. I suspect that they will soon go on to explain that in a post-savage society such as our own, a society which has passed through and incorporated despotic barbarism, these debts are linked to religion, through the face of the despot (who ruled through his own divine authority). And through capitalism, religious despotism is recoded into new forms of repression (Oedipus, presumably).


Steven P. Black said...

Hey Peter, I really like your blog, glad I decided to check it out. With regards to the anthropology aside in this one, I have to tell you that the notion of a progression from savagery to barbarism to civilization is really a 19th century idea and that, in my opinion, very few contemporary anthropologists would support it. Specifically the problem is the assumption that lack of complexity in one area (eg. lack of agriculture) is in any way correlated with lack of complexity in other areas (eg. language, philosophy).

ThePeat said...

Thanks Steve!
Yeah, I'm a little uncomfortable with that particular aspect of the book. I've gotten to the part where they're talking about the intersection of capitalism and Oedipus, and I can see rhetorically why it's useful, but in terms of actual history or anthropology it seems only to make it less stable for having a foundation that is borderline racist. Their main sources, fyi, are E. R. Leach, Marcel Griaule, and, of course, Levi-Strauss.