Touchstone Terms: The Accursed Share

This is a part of a series on terms and concepts that I find particularly resonant.

We usually say that the fundamental rule of economics is scarcity: there are never enough widgets (food, housing, gadgets) to meet all the demand And even where we seem to be endowed with wealth, we still face opportunity costs for doing one thing rather than another: we have finite time and attention, and at a fundamental level we cannot both have the cake and eat it. Economists study the allocation of that scarcity and costly selection among those opportunities. Thus (in his famous call for the reintroduction of slavery in the Carribean) Thomas Carlyle called economics a dismal science, since it forced such unhappy choices upon us. All the more reason to explore alternative framings, just as George Bataille did in his book The Accursed Share.

Imagine you and your friends are splitting a pizza, and there is an extra piece. Who gets it? And what happens next? Perhaps it becomes the prize in a game of trivia. Perhaps the winner has a little extra energy, perhaps they get fat. Perhaps it goes to one of your friends who is pregnant, because she is “eating for two.” Perhaps the most popular or amusing member of the group gets it. Perhaps you decide to throw it out. If your group always gives the extra piece to the same person, though, patterns of preference emerge.

In George Bataille’s three volume The Accursed Share, he imagines a primitive subsistence society that gathers just a little more food or other basic goods than it needs: who gets the extra share? What do we do with the remainder? Bataille uses this simple concept to construct a remarkably compelling just-so story of the political economy of both inequality and culture. Even recognizing that it is a kind of ahistoric just-so story, I continue to find the “accursed share” deeply intriguing and I return to it often.

As a framework, it strikes me as particularly important for those who work on political economy, like an artist using a camera obscura to see a scene differently for more accurate drawing or painting. The “accursed share” allows us to rethink economic problems in terms of the distribution of the excess rather than scarcity. It takes the economist’s tool of limited resources and flips it on its head. As Bataille puts it: “it is not necessity but its contrary, ‘luxury,’ that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.” (pg. 12)

As he spins out the concept to apply it to historical and traditional societies like the Aztecs and Tibetans, or to 20th century questions of political economy, societies that find themselves with growing productivity and wealth become increasingly stressed by the excess. They often develop techniques for expending their growth, like potlatch gift ceremonies, monastic non-working sects, or invasion of other countries. Yet these are, fundamentally, coping strategies for a problem: there is more than enough to go around. And he claims that the modern industrial capitalism has broken all of these coping strategies by creating not just an excess but a growing one, a continual disruption that gets reinvested and accelerates the next crisis of extravagant, opulent luxury.

Luxury and Culture

On Bataille’s account, culture just is the by-product of the accursed share. As patterns of “who gets the surplus?” develop, societies produce not just subsistence but hierarchy, not just inequality but cultural justifications for that inequality.

In other times and places, societies cultivate a class of religious or scholarly ascetics to whom the “accursed share” is owed. Perhaps, as in Tibet, monks adopt ritualistic poverty alongside disciplined unproductivity: they beg for their meals and yet do nothing to participate in the agricultural labor that makes their meals possible. In this sense, the remaining share is “accursed,” but also blessed and sanctified.

On Bataille’s view, then, variations in culture are the product of the patterns in our distribution of the excess. In that sense, Bataille has a version of Tolstoy’s dictum: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” All subsistence societies are equal; richer societies develop patterns of inequality that make them distinct.

In a deeper sense, the allocation of the surplus is closely tied to meaning-making, as well as to status. Sometimes it is easier to simply burn the excess. But someone must do the burning, and esteem and status are be left over as a residue of that role (along with, perhaps, a few items or treats snatched from the fire before they are consumed.) Or the excess can be expended on a class of artists, who make art, music, or literature that aspires to be uselessly beautiful. (Some part of the excess might even be devoted to philosophers….)

Still, the remainder is a kind of live grenade in an egalitarian culture. It (and its recipient) is cursed unless it can be invested in increased productive capacities or expended harmlessly. Industrial innovations have historically been quite difficult, so instead the extra is given over to some class whose “true” purpose is to expend the remainder harmlessly in mere luxury, in the creation of beautiful things, in the telling of stories that bind the community together, or in the maintenance of norms of sexual abstention and productive authority.

The problem is that most of these “useless” projects find their way to a kind of usefulness: authority guides and directs labor efficiency; communities bound by solidarity better weather crisis and better plan for the future; beauty can motivate and inspire. The useless has a dangerous tendency to become useful, and even necessary.

The General Economy as Economic Existentialism

Bataille’s general economy is like a kind of metaphysical macroeconomics: it includes not just the financial economy but tries to be an economics of energy, time, attention, and lives itself. It’s supposed to capture the way that economic thinking can be applied to ecology and physics and art and pornography.

Perhaps this goes beyond mere accuracy, but there’s something temptingly provocative about his great insight that there is a convincing way to turn our protestations and anxieties of finitude and lack into realizable superabundance and excess. For Bataille himself, this was a reason to reject the instrumental attitude almost completely. He sees human reason and culture as servile to a base pragmatism that fails to take seriously the teleological issues with our efforts to perpetuate endless growth.

By focusing his “general economy” account on excesses instead of limits, Bataille flips the script of ordinary economics. The focus on “scarce resources” and “opportunity costs” tends to emphasize the idea that economics is about not having enough to go around: surpluses and profits then become a fortunate break from the unfortunate status quo. And yet a moment’s reflection shows that any stable economy has “enough” to sustain its current distribution. Certainly some people have better or worse lives, some people die later and others earlier. Infant mortality has been 50% in some places or 2% in others, but everyone dies eventually. It’s the patterns that matter, that mean something: it’s the patterns that make meanings. (And economics itself has tried to capture this insight with its work on signaling theory.)

Absent supply shocks an economy can plod along doing what it does in equilibrium, but the negative shocks (famine, plague, war, revolution) aren’t the only sort of shocks that should concern us. In fact, the positive shocks of population growth, the industrial revolution, the green agricultural revolution, and the digital revolution have shown themselves to be even more disruptive. When fewer workers can produce more stuff–but not yet enough to distribute it equally–what are we to do with the extra?

Often there’s something vaguely eroticized or pointedly orgiastic about efforts to expend the accursed share, Bataille argues, because the natural “primitive” response to plenitude is to have more babies. But societies usually learn that this kind of response to excess is not a good idea: when the accursed share is gone, there will be more people to feed and not enough to do it. Thus, eroticism–and indeed fetishes and perversions–are a “safer” alternative, culturally. Yet for cultures that are built on sexual propriety, this safety is also unsettling.

The Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution are supposed to have led to our downfall: the combination of normative thrift, sexual repression, and massively increased productivity created a massive and growing accursed share. In Bataille’s time it seemed that the most likely outcome of all that postponed saving and investment would be a final, self-destructive nuclear war! Bataille thus prescribed perversion and indolence as an alternative, which is why he was able to write provocative and gripping political economic theory as well as surreal fetishistic pornography. (Or perhaps because he felt driven to write both he found ways to meld them.)

I don’t see Bataille’s main value in his role as a romantic defender of uselessness, though he does help illustrate some of the consequences of that view. Instead, I find the concept of the accursed share most apt when we talk about wealthy societies that somehow, still, face budget crises or allocation problems. It’s never that there’s not enough: we’re well past “enough,” nor is “more” often the solution. We’re usually fighting over the particular patterns of excess and deficiency we’d like our society to embrace, and the fight itself is always one of those luxuries. So when we talk about wealth and inequality, I think it behooves us to keep the “accursed share” in the back of our minds.

Touchstone Terms: Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation

This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting. It also extends the post from last week of metaphysical deflation in Nietzsche. Here, I begin an account of Arendt’s metaphysical deflation, and its intimate connection to a kind of skepticism about personal identity.

Though Hannah Arendt began her intellectual career as an existential phenomenologist, she declined to elaborate her own theory of perception. Implicitly, she takes our encounter with the world to begin with the world, and not a particular object in that world. As she writes in her first attempt to describe the vita contemplativa: “[Facts] must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence.” (Arendt 1968, 238) The disorder of phenomena must be ordered even before we can encounter them, and Arendt was content to begin where she found herself, in an ordered world where experience was already endowed with sense.

Withdrawal from the Sensible

For Arendt, the phenomenological basis of thinking lies in the withdrawal from experience into what she calls “invisibility.” The world gives us phenomena, both visual and otherwise; it presses us with its sensational gifts until this generosity threatens to overwhelm us. In its withdrawal, thinking encounters invisible aspects of its now-absent experiences.

When we think, Arendt suggested, we focus on re-imagined appearances preserved by our memory. These ‘invisibles’ strike the thinker as further appearances, beyond or on the far side of appearance. Reflection on this process reveals a double movement: from sensation to image, and from image to thought. “[T]he thought-object is different from the image, as the image is different from the visible sense-object whose mere representation it is.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Arendt borrows her account of this process from Augustine: first, “sense-perception” gives way before an “image that re-presents it.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Memory holds this image in abeyance until thought calls upon it to provide this image, and here “the mere image of what was once real” is separated from “the deliberately remembered object.” In this bifurcated form, memories come to us either as abstractions and impressions of the experience, or as stored presentations of a past moment.

Arendt here splits sensory data from the imago, and asserts that we develop concepts or ideas of the appearance from the imago. She gives a similar account in her reading of Kant’s “Schematism,” where she argues that intuitions and concepts are naturally combined in any particular encounter with an object through the faculty of imagination. The schema “table” is available to anyone who has encountered at least one table, and can even be relayed verbally or abstractly, through description or a quick sketch. (Arendt 1992, 82-3)

The thinker encounters past appearances anew, re-presented through memory, altered, manipulated, combined, and dismantled until they offer insights that the thinker calls by many names: category, cause, or concept. Some of these names actually obscure the phenomena they describe. The thinker may develop the distinction between appearances and invisibles into metaphysical systems. She may encounter her own activity and posit a subject or a soul. Many of these efforts to cement the movement of thought into certainty are more or less obviously flawed. “[O]ur tradition of philosophy has transformed the base from which something rises into the cause that produces it and has then assigned to this producing agent a higher rank of reality than is given to what merely meets the eye.” (Arendt 1978, I, 25) According to Arendt, the long history of ontological mistakes is itself reducible to this confusion of cause and ground, and the normative dimension that it takes on.

The ‘Two-World’ Theory and the ‘Two-in-One’

Arendt refuses to grant professional philosophers a privileged capacity or relationship to thought, and she stakes few claims about the relative superiority of various metaphysical schemes. The frequent exception to this rule is her rejection of idealism: she constantly points out the errors of speculation that posit the invisibles as a ‘truer’ world than the appearances, since these tempt the thinker to attempt to dwell in the withdrawn world of invisibles. She calls this the ‘two-world theory,’ in which the thinker privileges the world of his withdrawal over the appearances from which they are derived. In those cases, Arendt applauds the derisive laughter that brings the philosopher back to the present and obvious, confronting him with the appearances he has ignored. Yet she emphasizes that the potential errors available to metaphysical thinking are not an indictment of the project of thinking altogether.

The speculative play of these invisibles is entertaining, even engrossing. It leads its practioners astray as often as it corrects them. Arendt’s account of the role of thought in avoiding evil focuses on two lines from the Platonic dialogues, developing a version of thinking as ‘account-giving’ or a narrative self, through reference to Socrates’ self-relational ethics. She claims these are the only non-aporetic assertions in the Platonic version of Socrates: that “it is better to suffer an injury than to inflict one,” and that “it would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me, than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me.” (Arendt 1978, I, 181) The Gorgias’s account of wrongdoing, Arendt argues, depends not upon a given self-identity established through logical assumption, but rather on the reflective work of producing this self-identity.

Thinking brings the many propositions about intentions, desires, beliefs, and experiences that must share the intimate space of the psyche into harmony. This is why Arendt emphasizes the Socratic parenthetical, “…I, being one, should….” The force of this imperative to maintain consistency and avoid wrongdoing lies in the success of the work of unification of the self; so long as the self does not, or cannot, achieve unity, the force of the imperative is lacking. Thus, she cites the Hippias Major, where Socrates ends with a playful account of his jealousy of Hippias, who is not discomfited by self-contradiction, while Socrates must return home to cohabitate with “a very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him,” that is, himself. (Arendt 1978, I, 188)

Hippias does not feel the sting of the imperative to avoid wrongdoing. His ‘blissful ignorance’ secures him against the self-injury that contradiction entails. Hippias contains many men, just as Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Hippias is not one, cannot be one, but is many: the man who claims that beauty is a woman or that it is gold, a man who maintains that it is a thing or object and then also that it is a life lived so as to bury one’s parents and be buried in turn, and yet another man who is unconcerned with the contradiction because opinions are just bits of speeches to be collected and wielded as needed.

Of course, Hippias is not Adolf Eichmann. But like Eichmann, there is a lingering threat that he will act without knowing, behaving in such a way as to take a bold stand unconsciously, ungrounded in conviction or courage. Because he simply cannot become one with himself, the plurality within him threatens to engage the plurality without in a manner that destroys the common world.

Like Eichmann, Hippias fails to supply a consistent account of himself to himself. Unlike Eichmann, however, Hippias’s self-contradiction will not result in genocide. Thoughtlessness becomes evil only in those circumstances when the deed and the account of the deed we give ourselves diverge. In that divergence, we approve an act that we would never forgive. In those situations, we say we ‘ought to have known better.’ Yet Arendt argues that the Socratic conflation of knowledge and virtue is flawed, because action does not always depend on forethought, and the quest for certainty actually threatens to overwhelm the capacity to act with an impossible demand: to know the results.

The Unfinishable Work of Self-Unification

Thought is a process of self-reflection aimed at bringing oneself into agreement with oneself. Thus the ‘I’ who thinks in the Cartesian formulation is not a metaphysical given, but a product, a work of fabrication. (Arendt 1978, I, 187-9) For Arendt, internal consistency is an achievement garnered through the work of thinking, not an assumption to be granted. Once achieved, even the metaphor of unity or consistency will have to be jettisoned.

How do we make ourselves whole? How do we weld our psyche into a persona? How do we channel the diverse currents and movements of mind into a single intention or position upon which we can act? For Arendt, this is the wrong question: though thoughtlessness threatens evil, thoughtfulness does not promise goodness. (Arendt 1978, I, 191) In fact, thoughtful action appears to be a contradiction in terms for Arendt, as does thoughtful politics: the capacity for action is the will, and the same impulse that wrongly seeks certainty of results will also fail when it seeks to contain the human capacity for novelty within the bounds of some internal narrative or personal ethic.

Arendt writes of thought that, “the guiding experience in these matters is, of course, friendship and not selfhood; I first talk with others before I talk with myself.” (Arendt 1978, I, 189) My relations with others give me a model for my self-relation, and the two continue to inform each other so long as I am afforded both interlocutors and opportunities for solitude. Thinking, then, is not an encounter between desires and intentions, but rather between perceptions, concepts, and most of all, propositions. It takes on the tone and rhythm of my conversations with others, and finds there the language to explain my experience.

Arendt modeled this self-reflection on an ideal of self-friendship in the midst of a divided, democratic polity. Aristotle argues, that we do not govern our desires and intentions, but master them. If he is right, then the moment we attempt to apply these same techniques publicly, the republic becomes a tyranny. One cannot dwell in self-dissensus: we must struggle to achieve consensus between these intentions. As such, it seems that a citizen-thinker must enslave herself in order to act as an equal with others. How else can we acquire the agreement of rage and lust with the conclusions of reason or duty? Arendt draws on Aristotle, then, when she rejects the image of a body-politic, to be ruled by the soul as the city is ruled, where diverse interests and intentions struggle for recognition just as vigorously as they do in the world we share with other citizens.

There cannot be a polity-within, because the psyche is too intimate for politics. Thinking cannot be reduced to an act of the will, whereby we force ourselves to believe something, overcoming the resistance of counter-arguments through the threat of intellectual violence. It remains a question whether thinking enforces some kind of logical syntax, or is enforced by it, just as it remains a question how friends can remain friends in the face of disagreement.

Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
———. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1978.

Touchstone Terms: Personality Disorders and Ego-Syntony

I find the distinction between psychological disorders and personality disorders fascinating.

Consider obsession and compulsion. Someone suffering from the anxiety disorder OCD will often engage in ritualistic actions: locking and unlocking a door a set number of times, carefully arranging furniture, repetitive washing, or hoarding. A person with the personality disorder OCPD may do some or all of these things, but the key difference is that the anxiety disorder feels invasive and unwanted by the sufferer, while the sufferer of a personality disorder will endorse his maladaptive behaviors, finding them appropriate, suitable, or correct. He’ll even judge others for failing to behave likewise.

This makes personality disorders particularly difficult to treat; they may be heavily maladaptive, but the sufferer doesn’t experience the personality disorder as an illness. Someone with OCPD instead experiences the world’s failure to live up to their standards or accommodate their behaviors as the major source of their suffering. Personality disorders are thus ego-syntonic: closely tied to the person’s sense of self and their view of the nature of existence. This is different from ego-dystonic disorders, which the sufferer experiences as alien or other: a set of invasive thoughts, reactions, and compulsions at odds with the life and goals she wants.

So far, so good; this is textbook psychology, the normal science hammered out in the last few Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals (DSMs), since the revised third edition in 1988. But there’s a lot to think through here.

Sigmund Freud coined the term “ego syntonic” in his book On Narcissism, where he tried to show that what makes many disorders untreatable is our ability to find support in a partner or a group. This “cure by love” crystallizes a maladaption in what he calls “happy love,” but is supposedly anything but happy. It is merely self-assured “intact narcissism,” because it has intimate social recognition.

Is this the first account of group polarization? Anthony Greenwald thought so. In his essay, “The Totalitarian Ego,”  Greenwald argued that there was a clear connection between the narcissistic ego’s tendency to find self-supporting information and ignore self-critical information and the totalitarian state’s tendency to suppress dissent:

Interestingly, characteristics that seem undesirable in a political system can nonetheless serve adaptively in a personal organization of knowledge.

Conceiving of the ego as a self-protective organization of knowledge strikes me as a useful metaphor for some elements of our thinking. But as always with analyses of bias, especially those like Greenwald’s or Freud’s that take it as a given that everyone is biased in her own way, it raises interesting questions about where to identify disorders and illnesses: the individual ego or the community.

Like Freud, the first DSM classified things like homosexuality as “sociopathic” personality disorders. From one perspective, this makes sense: gays and lesbians don’t experience their sexuality as invasive, but rather experience the world’s hatred as the main impediment to their flourishing. But as we learned then, sometimes it is the world, and not the deviant individual, that must change.

The same thing could be said for a perfectionist with OCPD; perhaps the real problem is that the rest of us are too sloppy or not conscientious enough. Am I wrong to give so little to charity, or is Peter Singer wrong to demand I give so much? Certainly, the personality disorder carries with it a maladaption, a kind of ill-fit between self and world. What empowers the medical establishment to decide where the blame for that misfittedness lies?

It took gays and lesbians activists, sympathetic researchers, and philosophers several decades to remove homosexuality from the DSM. But perhaps other such errors are still present. Some things, like anxiety, depression, or the word salad that schizophrenia produces can be safely recognized as disorders because sufferers experience them as such. But many mental illnesses aren’t precisely ego-dystonic; they merely create a mismatch between self and world: it is the sufferers who decide that it is they who must change and not the world. In their treatments, psychologists put their finger on the scale of that decision, placing the burden on the sufferer and not the world.

That’s why philosophers who have tried to make psychological disorders contained in the DSM into viable worldviews. Activists and sympathetic researchers have embraced depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and borderline personality disorder as healthy adaptations rather than maladaptive disorders.

“We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours … I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [domination free] about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. I come from a better province.” (Richard Rorty, “Universality and Truth,” in Richard Rorty and His Critics, edited by Robert Brandom, 2000.)

Now, if you take someone like Richard Rorty as your guide, this is the particular mission of philosophy: to supply a justification for our pre-philosophical worldviews. It’s not hard to see that what many philosophers are doing is engaging in a defense of their own lives. Bourgeois liberals defend bourgeois liberalism; excluded groups challenge their exclusions; conservatives and theists defend these perspectives. What if this is all just the process of coming to terms with our misfit with the world; all just a kind of narcissism, rooting out ego-dystonic feelings and becoming more fully ego-syntonic?

My sense is that many philosophers understand themselves to be “merely” engaged in this kind of justification and activism on behalf of excluded lifeworlds. And I think that “merely” is a product of their own disillusionment, sometimes quite legitimately. They believe that any greater project of reconciliation or unification is really destined to failure or is propaganda for permanent domination, and so we should settle for this “good enough” work.

But I’d like to believe that we’re doing something more than that: that we’re engaged in a kind of discovery, that we’re working towards some telos in that scholarship, rather than mapping incommensurables. Philosophical justification is not merely a conflict between mutually exclusive personalities, cultures, and ideologies, but the expansion of our shared horizons to find a frame of reference that is inclusive. Rorty’s deflationist account opens us up to the nonsense of Jonathan Haidt (previously here, here, and here.)

In this I find the imagery of Kant’s “kingdom of ends” (at least as interpreted by Christine Korsgaard) evocative: a world where each person finds her own connection with a rule–and a metaphysics–we make together. This necessarily involves some movement back and forth between the diversity of human personalities and the rule that allows us all to flourish. This, it seems to me, involves accepting Korsgaard’s gloss on Kant:

“If you view yourself as having a value-conferring status in virtue of of your power of rational choice, you must view anyone who has the power of rational choice as having, in virtue of that power, a value conferring status.” (Christine Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, 123)

All that is left is to determine how to make each act of value-conferral harmonious with all the others. It’s a difficult practical and philosophical problem that will involve regular digressions into difficult metaphysical and meta-ethical matters, and it can no longer be accomplished while embracing Rorty’s deflationism.

(This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting.)