Sunday, September 18, 2016

Marx, Emerson, Mickey Mouse and the "moral mobilization of nature"

Walter Benjamin's most famous work today is the Passagenwerk, The Arcades Project in its English translation. It wasn't published until long after his death, although some of its material overlaps with his work published during his lifetime.

The Arcades Project isn't a finished work. The published edition is composed largely of excerpts that he had written on note cards, many of which are quotations from other writers. In the evaluation of Peter Osborne and Matthew Charles (Walter Benjamin Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 01/22/2015):

The arcades would become just one of five or six archetypal images of the psychosocial space of 19th-century Paris around which the project was organized—each paired with a particular, thematically representative individual. But it provided the model for the others, and its surrealist origin and liminal utopian impulse, neither quite inside nor out, established the wish-image and the dream-image—on the threshold of sleeping and waking—at the heart of a work that was initially conceived as a kind of ‘dialectical fairytale’. (The figure with whom ‘the arcades’ was paired was the utopian socialist Charles Fourier.) All of Benjamin's major essays of the 1930s derived their impetus and orientation from his Arcades work, and served to defer its completion in the act of elaborating its elements.

The section on Charles Fourier is mostly quotes from others. One of the sections which is a paragraph by Benjamin himself offers this intriguing observation (from the 1999 translation of Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin):

Fourier's long-tailed men became the object of caricature, in 1849, with erotic drawings by Emy in Le Rire. For the purpose of elucidating the Fourierist extravagances, we may adduce the figure of Mickey Mouse, in which we find carried out, entirely in the spirit of Fourier's conceptions, the moral mobilization of nature. Humor, here, puts politics to the test. Mickey Mouse shows how right Marx was to see in Fourier, above all else, a great humorist. The cracking open of natural teleology proceeds in accordance with the plan of humor.
Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was a French Utopian theorist whose social criticism and radical speculations about social reforms were a key part of the development of socialist thought in the 19th century.

Frederick Engels wrote of Fourier in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880):

Fourier is not only a critic, his imperturbably serene nature makes him a satirist, and assuredly one of the greatest satirists of all time. He depicts, with equal power and charm, the swindling speculations that blossomed out upon the downfall of the Revolution, and the shopkeeping spirit prevalent in, and characteristic of, French commerce at that time. Still more masterly is his criticism of the bourgeois form of the relations between sexes, and the position of woman in bourgeois society. He was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of woman’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.
The Brook Farm cooperative social experiment of 1841–46 was a significant effort to implement Fourier's ideas in the United States.

Jessica Gordon describes Fourier's ideas as follows (History of Brook Farm American Transcendentalism Web n/d; accessed 09/18/2016):

Charles Fourier was a French Utopian Socialist who lived from 1772-1837. He was the only son of a cloth dealer, a business which he inherited and despised. During the French Revolution he lost his inheritance and his brush with the Terror of 1793 left him permanently jarred against revolutionary violence. As early as 1803, he called himself the "Newton of passionate attraction." He believed that he had discovered the laws of social psychology just as Newton had the laws of gravity. He devoted his adult life to solving the problems of the market economy and by the early 1830's, he had attracted a small group of followers in Paris who published a journal called La Reforme Industrielle. Fourier believed that the cause of conflict and suffering was the perversion of natural human goodness by faulty social organization. However, he was convinced that reason could discover the laws of harmony and create perfect order by rearranging economic relationships. He went against claims that men were shaped by their environment and considered civilization repressive and against man's happiness. He advocated a solution of small planned communes, and he called then phalansteries. He devised a blueprint precisely indicating the size, layout, and industrial organization of each community or "phalanx." Organized as both producers' and consumers' cooperatives, the communities would escalate economically and fulfill all man's passions. The result was to create social harmony and unimaginable bliss. His main hope was to speed man's process from a primitive "civilization'; to the highest "state of harmony." Fourier believed that God was a "supreme economist" who had devised a plan for a perfect society creating human "happiness" and "riches."
And, in Benjamin's judgment, Fourier had ideas foreshadowing Mickey Mouse!

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about "Fouriersm and the Socialists" (unsigned in the original) in the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial 3:1 (July 1842). There he recounts a speech by a New York Fourierist, Albert Brisbane. He recounts the speech in a respectfully bemused tone:

Mr. Brisbane pushes his doctrine with all the force of memory, talent, honest faith, and importunacy. As we listened to his exposition, it appeared to us the sublime of mechanical philosophy; for the system was the perfection of arrangement and contrivance. The force of arrangement could no farther go. The merit of the plan was that it was a system; that it had not the partiality and hint-and-fragment character of most popular schemes, but was coherent and comprehensive of facts to a wonderful degree. It was not daunted by distance, or magnitude, or remoteness of any sort, but strode about nature with a giant's step, and skipped no fact, but wove its large Ptolemaic web of cycle and epicycle, of phalanx and phalanstery, with laudable assiduity. Mechanics were pushed so far as fairly to meet spiritualism. One could not but be struck with strange coincidences betwixt Fourier and Swedenborg. Genius hitherto has been shamefully misapplied, a mere trifler. It must now set itself to raise the social condition of man, and to redress the disorders of the planet he inhabits. The Desert of Sahara, the Campagna di Roma, the frozen polar circles, which by their pestilential or hot or cold airs poison the temperate regions, accuse man. Society, concert, cooperation, is the secret of the coming Paradise.

Emerson was obviously far from full agreement with Brisbane's declarations and the theory behind them, writing, "Our feeling was, that Fourier had skipped no fact but one, namely, Life." But Emerson was also impressed by the sweeping social criticism in Fourier's vision: "Yet in a day of small, sour, and fierce schemes, one is admonished and cheered by a project of such friendly aims, and of such bold and generous proportion; there is an intellectual courage and strength in it, which is superior and commanding: it certifies the presence of so much truth in the theory, and in so far is destined to be fact."

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