One should not assume that economic effects always derive from economic causes.Without any forethought, imagine very quickly the following:
You are near someone who is not wearing a deodorant. Someone comes to your house, and you have nothing to offer them to drink or snack on. You encounter a woman who you notice does not shave her legs. You encounter a man who natters on about new age mysticism. You find yourself in public before noon on a weekday, drunk. You walk into someone else's house, and it has not been cleaned recently. An old woman is sitting on a public bench in ratty clothes; she is smoking. A woman who is checking you out at a store is wearing heavy makeup, an extravagent coif, and a bout five pounds of bangly jewelry. A child on the bus with you farts loudly and laughs. An urban neighbor is keeping chickens in his yard, and he doesn't cut grass very often.
Hold those first reactions in mind; and think about the reactions that others who may be unlike you might have.
Each example is likely to trigger a "respectability" impulse, at least for some people - that is, each example will strike someone as an offense to respectability.
In Randall Kennedy’s Race, Crime, and the Law, he notes of the struggle for respectability in African America:
A … core intuition of the politics of respectability is that, for a stigmatized racial minority, successful efforts to move upward in society must be accompanied at every step by a keen attentiveness to the morality of means, the reputation of the group, and the need to be extra-careful in order to avoid the derogatory charges lying in wait in a hostile environment.
This kind of grasping at respectability, especially among classes of people who are trying to "move up," for whatever group in whatever time, is not primarily motivated by economic concerns - but for status - but as the quote above points out, it has economic consequences. Respectability has fashion and consumption codes; and these require the circulation of money.
Now I will enclose a lengthy piece from Ben Franklin, the very same one whose portrait graces American five-dollar bills.
Franklin lists thirteen "virtues," or rather rules for "rectitude of conduct," and they do not correspond exactly with either the classic cardinal-four plus theological three, which only make seven, though there are some in common.
Benjamin Franklin was doing early self-help publishing. He is pedantically describing his own notion of something we can call "respectability."
Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
Make no Expence but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
Lose no Time. Be always employ'd in something useful. Cu off all unnecessary Actions.
Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your duty.
Avoid Extreams. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Tolerate no uncleanliness in Body, Clothes, or Habitation.
Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at accidents common and unavoidable.
Rarely use Venery but for health or offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
"Now" - the point between evitability and inevitability
The finality of history once made – another function of time’s arrow being pointed in only one direction – can create the impression of inevitability. In fact, once anything becomes past, its actuality is inevitable, but only because we can’t go backward in time. What I mean by an impression of inevitability is the sense that history is working according to some supra-plan.
One example is the claim by neoliberals of the Thatcher-Reagan era that “there is no alternative,” that neoliberal capitalism was the inevitable system arising from human nature, given the proper amount of time for its development.
Some Marxists also claim a kind of inevitability in stage-theory, or the theory that human society inevitable evolves through certain, somewhat predictable, stages – tribal to primitive communism to estate and-or feudal property relations to capitalism to socialism, then with the "withering away of the state" to an advanced form of communism. (the last as yet unrealized, but still inevitable).
Even people who are not well-versed in the political economies of right or left often share an idea, a notion a least, that something called social “development” has a kind of linear direction “forward,” with those of us who are alive now occupying the leading edge of this trajectory.
“Progress” is an idea based on this secular teleology, this idea that things as they are now were always somehow inevitable. To think otherwise is to imagine oneself not ever having come into existence, even though our existence now is inevitable. This is not a comfortable or comforting thought, that each of us as presently constituted might not be necessary at all, and a kind of uncritical acceptance of a constant-inevitability – as opposed to something becoming inevitable only when it comes into being – is an effective remedy for the aforementioned discomforts.
Consumer capitalism is like that, and we are tempted by notions of inevitability to reach for singular forms of “development” that suggest this development is more than merely change. We have seen, however, that by using various perspectives – Gregory’s, Polanyi’s, Hornborg’s, Merchant’s, MacIntyre’s, et al – we can trace the genealogy of our current world system through various influences whose confluences were not inevitable. Nassim Taleb theorized something called a “black swan,” which is (a) a big surprise to most observers, (b) has some major effects, and (c) is rationalized in hindsight as predictable. In fact, in history, there have been a good number of “black swans.” Constantine's conversion is a perfect example. The plague epidemics. September 11, 2001.
Meaning and Performance
One of the most under-researched and under-reported cultural developments in the history of capitalism has been the emergence of a (once) totally new idea – that of “respectability.” Woodruff Smith has written a very good book on this topic, named Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800 (Routledge, 2002). Just as we learned important things about money by looking at it as a sign – a signal that produces specific kinds of changes on personhood, culture, and nature – we can profit by looking at consumer goods from the perspective of what they mean. Popular commodities have meanings, and those meanings produce and reproduce changes in personhood, culture, and nature.
[A] very large portion of the demand in Europe and the Americas for consumer goods in the nineteenth century arose from people’s use of those goods to signal and maintain their respectability. It is not uncommon to connect Victorian behavior of all sorts, from sex to purchasing, with respectability, but few systematic attempts have been made either to analyze what “respectability” is or to trace its history. It is normally linked discursively to the “middle class” or to “bourgeois society,” but the history of the linkage is seldom pursued. I decided o focus my attention on respectability. I discovered that the set of sociocultural phenomena to which the word respectability (and its cognates in other languages) came to be applied in the eighteenth century constituted a distinct and enormously significant cultural pattern that was central to the “modernity” of the Western and imperial worlds. Respectability gave meaning – moral and political as well as social and economic – to consumption., thereby permitting the construction of a host of connections between purchasing commodities and thinking and acting appropriately. In other words, by looking at the relationships between respectability and consumption, it is possible to place the latter in many of its historical contexts. (from the Introduction to Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800)
Respectability is not just a status; it is a performance. Not a performed action; a performance, for an audience. When we perform, we are sending an actor’s signals to the audience, which in consumer society can mean everyone but myself. These performances are ritualized in order for them to be correctly recognized and received. But what respectability coincides with historically are performances that require props which must be purchased on the market – consumer goods.
When Jesus calls people “hypocrites,” he is using the Greek word for play-actor, someone who takes the stage to pretend. In his case, he was rebuking authorities who had lost touch with the spirit of the law; but what of our society, where the pretenses of respectability are a deeply inscribed cultural norm?
In the successive assimilations of various sub-cultures, nations elaborate class structures consistent with various economic means of production; and in the modernist project – for reasons we won’t cover here – a growing domestic middle-class became an ever more essential part of an imperial nation in the US. This middle-class did not conjure itself out of cabbage patches, but emerged from poorer classes with aspirations to “move up.”
These aspirations in societies that are forming middle-classes are part of a collective and subjective terrain; and characteristic of that terrain has been the desire for acceptance by those who are on the next rung up. It is this desire that creates a felt need for something we can call “respectability.” It’s a ruthless idol, respectability; and so it is very effective at enforcing various kinds of conformity. Though respectability is a relatively new phenomenon, some cognate of it was at work when Jesus was accused of gluttony, drunkenness, and was rebuked for eating with ne'er-do-wells or touching menstruating women and corpses.
In Woodruff Smith's book, he traces respectability along the democratization (at least in imperial cores) of the availability and use of particular commodities - calico, silk, spices, tea, coffee, and sugar. He simultaneously traces developments in "gentility" and fashion. To get a few handles on the latter, he identifies the realignment of "virtue" with ideas of personal optimization, and the development of "rational masculinity" and "domestic femininity" as markers of respectability.
Respectability in History
Interestingly, after we have cited Brad Gregory's book on the Reformation - wherein Gregory sees the real takeoff of modern capitalism in the Dutch Republic - Smith also gives a privilege of place to the Netherlands, as the commercial center that gave rise to the Dutchs East India Company (VOC, or Verenigde Oostindiche Compagnie, est. 1602), which began providing the necessary quantities of these new consumer goods to Europe to transform up and coming Europeans into consumers of Asian commodities. The English East India Company (EEIC)had been founded two years before the VOC, but the greater sophistication of Dutch commercial institutions (to which Gregory alluded) allowed the Dutch to out-perform the British for some time. The VOC was more "closely connected to the primary business structures that supplied all of Europe with commercial capital and to the central nodes of the networks that distributed overseas imports in Europe." (Smith, p. 48)
The VOC was the largest international business operation in the world under at least nominal central direction in the seventeenth century, and it was, within limits, able to formulate policies in Europe that would be carried out in Asia. (p. 48)
Both the VOC and the EEIC would come to dominate Asian trade, though the VOC pushed the EEIC out of the spice trade, forcing the British to concentrate on a special Asian fabric - calico, printed or painted heavy cotton, and eventually even printed silks.
Anyone today can understand or at least recognize the power of fashion, especially among urban dwellers, and some of us (I include myself) are mystified at its apparent and seemingly irrational power.
Originally used mainly as tablecloths, calico became a clothing craze in the mid-17th Century that spread from Parisian salons - the fashion center of the day - throughout Europe rather like a highly communicable disease. While the salons, presided over by French aristocratic women who had become the umpires of "taste," gave calicoes their initial impetus, it was the surfeit of the material in Asia and the capacity of the EEIC to import them that sustained the craze and allowed lowering prices to percolate the use of calicoes to greater and greater numbers of people. In England, calico use expanded and gained in popularity for a century, even after rival textile-makers had persuaded the English government to ban their import. The EEIC simply shipped the calicoes to neighboring states, then depended on smugglers to finalize the distribution.
What the entrepreneurs of the EEIC found was that the craze could be sustained indefinitely by changing the print designs about as frequently as we see changes today in computer operating systems. Everyone who could simply had to have the latest design; it had become a matter of status; and the EEIC had gone from responding to demand to creating it.
It also created the beginnings of mercantilist resistance, angering French textile traders and even evoking violence from London silk-weavers.
The reason calicoes were so popular was because they functioned as what Smith names a "substitute status commodity" for silks. They allowed more people to participate in the "culture of gentility." It wasn't merely the "conspicuous consumption" identified by Thorstein Veblen in his sociology, these items had meaning beyond mere display of wealth. Gentility meant being "in," and "in" meant "well-mannered." It was actually a very complicated social hieroglyphic "through which the complex status of hierarchy of Europe manifested itself in, among other things, fashionable consumption behavior." (p. 23)
One of the fashions that began to define genteel respectability was underwear. There was a rising premium placed on cleanliness, and underwear - which was not affordable for many poor people - was proof of one's hygienic suitability. Anyone who is offended today by young men's display of underwear beneath their trousers with the "prison sag" would likely be apoplectic if he or she were transported through time back to the early 18th Century. Apparently displays of one's undergarments went by the rule, "more is better."
It is not entirely clear why his fashion change occurred. Presumably, the people who adopted it wanted to let others know they were wearing undergarments. It is not unlikely that they wanted to display the quality and costs of their shirts and the like, and possibly also the fact that those garments were either new or clean. Such motives could readily be associated with gentility in the form of conspicuous consumption, especially if the garments displayed were made of silk or silk and linen mixtures. They could also be connected to courtesy: clean undergarments as a sign of refinement. Even cleanliness could be associated with status display: it showed that the wearer had servants to keep his or her underwear in order. (p. 60)
Until the post-Reformation era, sensuality and luxury were considered by most European Christians to be moral hazards. With urban habituation to consumption and its powerful associations with gentility and respectability, Christians of several confessions found themselves able to rationalize consumption; and the door to a capitalist Europe opened wider.
Europeans had yet begun to think in the terms that neoclassical economists today take for granted. But a few had started to move in that direction - in which the the value of anything and everything is by definition what people are willing to pay for it, everything has its price, and all values are therefore commensurable. As Hobbes put it with characteristic bluntness, "The value of all things contracted for, is measured by the Appetite of the Contractors," including "the Value, or WORTH of a man" which "is as of all things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power." Human beings were no different than any other commodity: "As in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves at the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others." ... [T]hose who had begun to think in this way were prompted to do so in part because of the social practices around them, which affected them whether they liked it or not, and which taken together were forging a full blown market society regardless of individuals' intentions or disapproval...
Especially in northwestern Europe, other rulers and their subjects, Protestants and Catholics alike, heeded what was afoot in the United Provinces [Netherlands]. Led by Dutch precedent and before it was theorized, European Christians began more deliberately to create what would become a capitalist society out of late Medieval capitalist practices midwifed by Reformation-era relgio-political disputations. (Gregory, pp. 278-279)
The church's contradictory adoption of state power and war, the deadly games of men motivated by masculinity constructed as domination (of David, not Jesus), had after several centuries born its peculiar political fruit - the market society.
Even more by the end of the Thirty Years War and the English civil wars, frustrated with failed goals and fed up with the catastrophic financial, military, and human costs of waging war for God, in religiously divided areas Christians across confessional boundaries increasingly drew the unsurprising conclusion that they would rather learn somehow to live alongside, if not in harmony with, those with whom they disagreed. In this way, early modern Christian rulers and their subjects paradoxically became the agents of their self-colonization by capitalism and consumption. By their actions, they essentially turned their backs on biblical teachings about material things, teachings that had largely been shared across confessional lines...Necessary for these developments was the division of life into two spheres - public and private - the former in the polis and the latter in the home, spheres that were divided along gendered lines and would give rise to the gendered core of genteel respectability among residents of the urban imperial cores, "rational masculinity" and "domestic femininity," which we will see in more detail when we return to Smith. Gregory's reference to the privatization of religion here is part of that move, and would be critical in the subordination of churches to the emerging capitalist nation-state.
The material payoff, it was hoped, would be more and better stuff for all regardless of their beliefs - the goods life. The related social payoff, many hoped, would be at least toleration and perhaps even neighborliness across confessional lines - if affluence could work the magic of softening hardened confessional antagonisms. The price would be the de facto repudiation of Christian teachings about and practices related to material things - the service of Mammon rather than God. The mechanism would be the privatization and individualization of religious belief and practice, and the political insulation of economic life from religion - the disembedding of economics from traditional moral constraints. The bridge would be a legitimation of acquisitiveness centered on families... and a shift in the social referent of the common good to the state... a precondition for modern nationalism... he supra-confessional intellectual justification would be the articulation of truth claims about human beings, rationality, and reality that increasing numbers of people would come to believe, and in accord with which many more would act - the secular ideologies of Western modernity. (Gregory, pp. 278-279)
The historical irony of this development is that the nation-state was and remains inseparable from the project of warmaking. The impasses of inter-confessional wars among relative military equals in Europe did not give rise to the same concerns about imperial wars of plunder abroad; in fact, these were absolutely necessary to guarantee the increasing flows of goods required to sustain what Gregory called "the goods life."
Hegel would eventually theorize what was apparent to nation-builders, that bourgeois life was almost too genteel, and that men (specifically males) still required some transcendent purpose to prevent urbane life from becoming an effeminate "bog" in which nothing transcends individual interests; and, of course, that transcendent purpose was the state itself - Hobbes' Leviathan. Military conscription was the practice that embodied this reorientation of the sacred from God to the state.
Imperial war and nation-worship were both the compliment to gentility and the antidote to its threats to feminize men; and we can see in the literatures of Kipling and the like how these two aspects of masculinity were fused into a single masculine ideology - a real man had to have good manners and be comfortable in a drawing room, but he had to occasionally test his mettle against the brigands of the darker races and stand his watch between civilization and barbarity; and he was obliged by the code of "rational masculinity" also to be a good head of household - hence the complimentary development of "domestic femininity" as constitutive of respectability in the "private" realm.
That does not mean women had no agency in the matter; many women embraced domestic femininity as an improvement over the past - and let's not forget, this standard was exercised by women who already enjoyed a certain affluence. Urban men frequently showed women who were good at domestic femininity a special courtesy and ceded household matters to them, while they did business and hung out in coffee houses talking politics - with restraint and courtesy, of course.
Caffeinated beverages marked both realms within the public-private, men's-women's spheres: tea at home and coffee in the male hangouts, coffeehouses, as we just pointed out, which represented a new kind of public square. Tea and coffee became in-demand imports, and their consumption became markers of respectability.
So along with powdered wigs and underwear, caffeinated beverages were commodities that had meaning in the construction of respectability. Another addictive stimulant also made its way to the coffeehouses, and that was tobacco.
Interestingly, the custom of a Sunday suit and dressing up for church was part of this trend - one was under pressure to buy special clothes in a respectability performance for a church that began with an advocate for the poor.
Sugar was lambasted by a few physicians, who had observed an association with dental caries and obesity; but that did nothing to stem its use, and the obligation to provide it at tea time or in the coffee houses, and there were many people who still lauded it as medicinal - likely a position supported by importers. A respectable household served tea to guests, with sugar, and in a rather ritualized fashion. Gentleman's coffeehouses, likewise, provided the signature beverage with sugar, and were filled with tobacco smoke that swirled through the sounds of well-mannered, and self-importantly male political discourse.
And so respectability and consumption of luxury goods were historically conjoined.
The term "respectability" first appeared, as far as historians can tell, in 1785, and by 1813, when Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice, she used it in iterations too numerous to sensibly count.
The term "respectability" appeared alongside these definitions of genteel domestic femininity and rational, coffeehouse masculinity at about the same time that another new word appeared: "civilization."Ah, progress.
Civilization (like respectability) entered the western European languages in its modern form quite suddenly in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson's dictionary (1755) carries a technical legal definition of he word (the conversion of a criminal process into a civil one), but that is all. The earliest nonlegal citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1772, and in fact refers to Johnson and his dictionary. The OED quotes Boswell's Life of Johnson: "I found him (Johnson) busy, preparing a fourth edition of his folio Dictionary.... He would not admit civilization, but only civility. With great deference to him, I thought civilization, from to civilize, better in the sense opposed to barbarity, than civility." Apparently, Johnson regarded civilization as an unnecessary neologism. His definitions of civility are "Freedom from barbarity: the state of being civilized"; "Politeness, complaisance; elegance of behavior"; and "Rule of decency; practice of politeness." These definitions catch a fair amount of what we understand by civilization, but not its expansive (indeed, all encompassing) historical sense and its connections with the concept of progress. (Smith, pp. 178-179)
Johnson's "civility" encompasses many of the values and behavioral norms that had come o be associated with gentility, virtue, and rational masculinity by the late eighteenth century. "Civilization," however, actively brings these values and norms together and makes them part of a historical process that supposedly leads humankind to general improvement: in other words, "progress." (p. 179)
Now might be a good juncture a which to depart for a moment from the historical record and unpack this idea of "progress."
The Metaphor of Progress
The word "progress," used in the figurative sense as it is above didn't appear until around 1600, and then only occasionally. It was not a regular term in capitalist ideology until the 19th Century, and then mostly in the United States, especially around the time of the Civil War. The British long considered it to be an Americanism.
By the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century, the term became the root of a new American noun that was explicitly ideological: progressive.
1. Movement, as toward a goal; advance. 2. Development or growth.Progressive:
1. Moving forward; proceeding onward; advancing; evincing progress; increasing; as, progressive motion or course; — opposed to retrograde. [1913 Webster]
2. Improving; as, art is in a progressive state. [1913 Webster]
3. (U. S. History) Of or pertaining to the Progressive party. [Webster 1913 Suppl.]
4. Favoring improvement, change, progress, or reform, especially in a political context; — used of people. Contrasted with conservative. [PJC]
Note: The term progressive is sometimes used to describe the views of a politician, where liberal might have been used at one time, in communities where the term liberal has come to connote extreme views. [PJC]
5. Disposed toward adopting new methods in government or education, holding tolerant and liberal ideas, and generally favoring improvement in civic life; — of towns and communities. [PJC]If I am travelling from San Francisco to Baltimore, and I have reached Lansing, then I can say fairly literally that I have progressed – I have literally closed the distance between where I started and where I want to end up.
The literal understanding is of movement from departure to arrival… arrival being a necessary construct for progress to be meaningful. And the literal meaning is spatial as well as temporal. It is literally about moving across material space and using up some time to do that.
Philosophers call the notion of figurative movement toward an end point “teleological,” from the Greek teleos, meaning result. In figurative progress, result is treated metaphorically as arrival, even though they are not the same. Progress is aimed at, or pulled toward, a result.
Biological evolution has occurred in the same shared spaces, limited to the crust of the planet, and we don’t mean to imply by the term progress that amoebas emerged in the Horn of Africa and traveled to Siberia where they were transformed into reindeer along the way.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, our metaphorical use of the term implies a value-judgement; we believe that certain living creatures are superior, or “higher” on something called the evolutionary scale, that others, even though there is no reference to actual altitude here. At the top of this scale – unsurprisingly – we have placed our own species. We see ourselves as the teleos of biological adaptation.
Yet if we try and unpack this notion of superiority, what we find is that our dominance – which is implicitly synonymous with our “higher” status – within the biological realm can only be measured, if we continue to rely on natural scientific measurements, by our niche maximization, which in turn can be most consistently correlated with our entropic signature: our energy consumption footprint, if you will. So progress can be measured by how wasteful of energy we are.
That’s the problem with metaphors. When we forget they are metaphors, and begin to treat them as if they are actualities, we delude and confuse ourselves. Or we unpack them and find ourselves confronted not with some axiomatic reality, but with our own fantasies… in this case, of superiority. Our claim of objectivity is unmasked as a status-claim.
Other creatures show no interest in progress, or even the capacity to share concepts as we experience them. That certainly differentiates us from other creatures – our capacity for complex symbolic and creative communication – though differentiation does not necessarily imply superiority, unless you define difference as superiority, in which case you have constructed a tautology: repetition of meaning, using dissimilar words to say the same thing twice.
Our difference is our superiority is our difference.
It’s interesting that in the Christian view, also teleological, that we don’t aim at becoming God – as metaphorical progress might have it – but at reconciliation with God, which implies something far less linear, and something that reaches backward as much as forward… metaphorically, to something called the Fall – which is a kind of loss. Redemption and eternity are in past, present, and the future - like the Eucharist.
This “scandal of particularity” with regard to progress is that it is not universal and axiomatic; it is a particular notional construction of a particular culture and epoch, not an objective fact (but a reified metaphor).
Given this particularity, we have to turn the embarrassing question again about the result. If this is just our idea, what is our idea of the teleos of progress? What is the final result that progress aims at, or that it is being pulled toward?
Natural science, ironically enough, which in many ways defined the Enlightenment, honest natural science, at least, has confronted us with some pretty scary answers about where our current progressive trajectory has aimed us. Ronald Wright, in his book A Short History of Progress wrote:
Material progress creates problems that are — or seem to be — soluble only by further progress … the devil here is in the scale: a good bang can be useful; a better bang can end the world.In fact, progress constructed as growth economics, as we saw in an earlier installment, has thrust humanity into simultaneous and terrifying ecological and cultural impasses. Progress has given us the ability to wreck the biosphere and blow ourselves up, yet the very people who seem most interested in turning these trajectories around insist on calling themselves “progressives.” This to some degree accounts for why our record at turning things around has been so dismal. We keep chasing progress to amend progress.
Smith documents the emergence of cleanliness, respectability, and progress as part of the same movement of cultural meaning in Western society - at least as part of the newly affluent class - and he shows how consumption was part of that movement, tangential but essential to it. He also shows how this constellation was inscribed on a world view that divided the civilized imperial cores from the barbaric (we now say "underdeveloped") peripheries.
I want to jump now to a book written by Amy Laura Hall on the evolution of the meaning of hygiene, which grew out of the 17th and 18th Century quest for respectability. Her book is entitled Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction (Wm. D. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008).
In the 20th Century, the United States of America documented itself as no other place has ever been. We wrote down everything we thought. We took a lot of pictures. No realm of American life has been better preserved for posterity than public relations, because the product of public relations becomes this peculiar and anachronistic artifact – a reflection today of what we thought then, from the persuasive material that designed what would only later be understood as common sense. We can see an ideology in the making.
Hall, a Methodist Reverend and Ethics Professor at Duke University, collected old ads from throughout the latter 19th and 20th Centuries that pertained to children, childbirth, motherhood, and family. Dozens of these ads punctuate her entire book.
Smith, in his book, noted that women were charged with and valorized by their participation in upholding civilization, respectability, and progress through the roles that corresponded with domestic femininity. Hall's book shows how, in the 20th Century, this cultural correspondence was still in force; and how it linked capitalist consumption to the experience of one's own body, the boundaries between the civilized and uncivilized (clean and unclean), and to the apotheosis of the nation-state.
Smith's book also included a fascinating account of the evolution of bathing and its association with "cleanliness." Western Europeans did not bathe for hygienic reasons - since the idea did not yet exist - prior to the 18th Century. They bathed occasionally in baths that were reputed to contain health-inducing minerals and other qualities, the idea being that one could soak these qualities up through the skin. The maternal side of my own family comes from Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the geothermic activity there heats springs to which many people still attribute almost magical qualities, including the belief that drinking the water will increase male sexual vigor. And people pay well to bathe along the somewhat famous Bathhouse Row.
Daily immersion or shower baths are a very recent custom in history, and only a few nations consider it necessary (it is not, for health reasons, that is).
The natural odor of the body, washed or unwashed, was not considered offensive (it is a learned antipathy) until it came to differentiate those who had to do physical labor from those who did not. Reducing the intensity of one's natural scents came first to be associated with gentility (and respectability), not hygiene. The hygienic aspect was introduced with the popularization of the idea of "germs" only in the 19th Century. Inexpensive soap (made from palm oil, an African import) was not generally available until after 1800, and soap manufacturers were, of course, quick to tout its more frequent consumption (which became a weekly bath). The separation between civilization and barbarism, especially during the Victorian era, came to be the separation between the "washed" and the "unwashed."
Figure 1.1 in Amy Laura Hall's book is a poster published by the American Social Hygiene Association, circa 1922. On the poster is a plump, healthy, smiling, naked white baby, sitting on a blanket. The poster title is “The Baby.” The script beneath the baby photo reads:
Human beings, too, are mammals, and fertilization and development take place within the mother. The period of development or pregnancy is nine months.
At birth the muscles contract and push the baby through the birth canal (vagina) into the outer world.
The human mother can bring more than the simple animal instincts to the aid of her new-born child. Real motherhood develops by the addition of knowledge and understanding to the mother’s instinctive love.The story of this baby – this hygienic baby – is specifically a white American baby, of the proper sort. The story, however, begins with a vagina (birth canal). In the narrative above, the woman has been reduced to an incubator for a new citizen, her body providing a birth canal to facilitate the birth. The poster was part of a campaign for “better hygiene.” This hygiene extended from the microcosm inside the baby to the hazardous social macrocosm, where hygienic babies and unhygienic babies had to be kept separate to prevent the contamination – the infection of the desirable infant.
But the hygiene came at a cost, for the benefits were socially, economically, and racially encoded. “The baby” on which the domestic hygiene effort focused was too often a specific baby – a baby the logic of the day judged to be worth the effort. At the same time that social and medical scientists focused on “the baby,” they established what were touted as objective. factual, indisputable tools for determining just which babies were worth the effort. The same language system by which the mother s, social workers, and physicians could measure gains lent scientific legitimacy to a calculus of human life. This calculus reflected a growing sense that the individual baby was a precious but fragile commodity to be quantifiably evaluated, carefully habituated, and hygienically safeguarded from those humans and households on the other side of a divide. (italics in the original) (p. 23)
This nationwide push for social hygiene was coupled with the rise of a self-conscious, aggressive, and protracted eugenics movement. The same leaders, thinkers, and advertisers who crafted and sustained the social hygiene movement and its emphasis on eugenics were those who promoted a new vision of “the right” family – nuclear, white, affluent, and obedient. This writer was born almost dead center in the 20th Century, so we had television to data-stream these ideas directly to us every day.
My generation was one of the first that was weaned on television, and for the children so raised in the USA, our staple viewing was all produced by Disney. It was Disney who made me want to be a Mouse-keteer, Disney who indoctrinated me on the unlimited wonders of technology, and Disney’s “Swamp Fox” character that schooled me in American Revolutionary mythology… undoubtedly “Swamp Fox” – a character whose forte was unconventional warfare – pointed me in a direction that eventually led me to the Army recruiter’s door and from there into the male death-cult of Special Operations.
In 1945, six years before I was passed through the birth canal into American citizenship, Disney produced a social hygiene short film, called Wanted: Better Babies: How Shall We Get Them? The title was cribbed from a eugenics essay by the same name written for People magazine in 1931. This essay is online, and I can only suggest that readers read what was then considered state-of-the-art applied science.
Eugenics, Capitalism, Progress
Capitalism was racialized from the point that it began to require distant inputs. The world had to be divided between the civilized us and the barbaric them.
Excerpt from "Wanted: Better Babies: How Shall We Get Them?": Any scheme for obtaining a more favorably balanced birth rate by economic means must be judged by at least two main criteria. First, how far does it exercise the right kind of selection and thereby satisfy the requirements of eugenics? Second, how fully does it satisfy the economic requirement of insuring the selected families against the decline in the standard of living which is often the penalty of having children? For our present purpose, and in the present nebulous state of knowledge, the right kind of selection means one that increases the number of children in families where both parents rise well above the average in intelligence, strength of character, and general value as members of society. Insurance against a decline in the standard of living means more than relief of the sudden financial strain which often accompanies the birth of a child. It means also that as the number of children increases up to reasonable limits, the family is not obligated to economize to a degree that it is painful or humiliating, but can live essentially as before. Some sacrifice on the part of parents for the sake of the children is doubtless desirable, but it is obviously too much to ask ordinary human beings to step down to a lower economic level and build a new set of social relationships because they have three or four children. It has been suggested that some kind of insurance might solve the economic phase of the problem of the dangerously low birth rate among the finest of our middle classes. Such insurance might provide for the payment of specific sums whenever a child is born, or for the education of the child after it leaves the public schools.By the early 20th Century, the US government was actively involved in eugenics. Mainline Protestant churches lent a justifying hand in the national campaign with the development of a unique theological amalgam called “natural theology,” which appeals to nature instead of revelation - but in this case those appeals were directed by a very specific understanding of nature that included social Darwinism.
Orthodox and neo-Orthodox Christians continue to decry this theology as an attempt to domesticate God, part of the slide into deism, and finally atheism. It was an attempt to continue the merger of Protestant theology with capitalism, so remarked in Weber’s opus, though it did so using the language of social Darwinism, making social Darwinism synonymous with Nature. Nature dictates natural selection, and since nature is of God, then capitalist modernity is the progressive fulfillment of the promise of the Kingdom of God.
The term “hygiene” came to be associated with describing and policing the boundaries of this emerging and ordained Future. This meant not only keeping “germs” out of your food; it meant keeping the elect separate from the others. Eugenics was at the center of this project.
With this new moral framework in hand, the US state felt not only entitled but obliged to take up the task of building the eugenic paradise, the new future.
It was in 1927 that Oliver Wendall Holmes spoke on behalf of the Supreme Court of the United States, reviewing Buck v. Bell, regarding involuntary sterilization of the “unfit.”
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.The scientistic frame of mind that led to the eugenics movement in the United States and elsewhere in the world was based on this very unscientific extrapolation of the ideas associated with, for example, boiling drinking water, to disinfecting the body politic. Hall writes:
As a white, Methodist clergywoman in a church considered by many historians to be the most characteristically American, I have a vested interest in this wake-up call. The irony beneath this book involves my belief that the very Protestant tradition that should have emphasized a sense of divine gratuity, human contingency, sufficient abundance, and the radical giftedness of all life came in twentieth-century America instead to epitomize justification through meticulously planned procreation. To put this point in its starkest possible form: a tradition that had within it the possibility of leveling all believers as orphaned and gratuitously adopted kin came instead to baptize a culture of carefully delineated, racially encoded domesticity. (pp. 9-10)Dr. Hall’s book is a genealogy of perceptions, and in this I place her in the same category as both Barbara Duden and Ivan Illich. Her reflections and criticisms of this hygienic chain of being, with its microcosm in mother’s womb and macrocosm in a world divided between fit nations and unfit ones, using these many examples of the persuasive publications of the times, is particularly resonant with this 61-year-old, who in this book relived the epistemological markers of my own formation as a white, male American.
Her thoughts have added power because she is most critical of the extremely influential role of her own and other mainline churches in promoting the Hygienic Life and worshiping this very sly idol called progress.
The term “progressive” has a dubious pedigree that most people who call themselves political “progressives” tend to suppress (if most are even aware of it).
The Progressive Movement at the beginning of the 20th Century enjoyed a period of unparalleled belief in the power of social engineering to create this new future. Progress and eugenics were inseparable in the ideological field of the progressive period. This vision was highly nationalistic, and its racialism was open and accepted.
Randall Kennedy has a very lucid description, at the beginning of this piece, of the fetish of respectability for all aspiring and emergent classes; and in the American middle-class it became part of that class’ core identity remaining well after this class had established itself. That respectability is imbricated with nationalism. It is consolidated in this relation for the functional reason that it serves as a baseline for a national, self-policing ethos. The desire for status locally – which respectability serves – determines a more general conformity that serves the stability of the nation-state and its dominant fractions of national society. Stability is the core value for the dominant fractions and their political institutions. The cultivated craving for respectability expresses itself in stability.
The fetish for progress is also a middle-class preoccupation, which is associated with the desire for upward social mobility, in turn a supportive premise for the idea of meritocracy – a core article of faith in the ideology of liberalism. That this idea of meritocracy is hypocritical in practice does not take away from its cultural and political power.
Historically speaking, then, respectability and progress are fraternal twins. It is this twinship that accounts for the capital-P Progressive movement at the turn of the 19th/20th Century embracing the notion of eugenics, which they didn’t let go until Hitler gave us an example of how eugenics looks in practice on a wide scale. In the US, progressives – including many mainstream eccumenical churches – were supporters of multiple involuntary sterilization campaigns conducted in the US. This is one reason feminism – as it is understood in the popular imagination – has been forced to live with the embarrassment that conservatives and other anti-feminists can cite blatantly eugenicist – and racist – positions taken by high-profile early feminists like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.
An ardent Malthusian, Sanger left her self-indictments etched on the annals of history. A few Sanger quotes:
“No woman shall have the legal right to bear a child… without a permit for parenthood.”Those who know me know that I am not anti-feminist. Quite the contrary. I am, however, convinced of the wisdom of Amilcar Cabral when he says “tell no [convenient] lies.” The bad leavening in this bread is not women’s emancipation, but progress, which included, and still includes, the delusion that we can “improve” our own species. This is God-playing of the worst kind, the poison pill we swallowed when we learned to do natural science – not science inherently and in-itself, but science in the saddle of (ironically here) masculine arrogance and capitalist growth economics. And lest anyone think that this Progressive vision has disappeared or was limited to early feminists, let me introduce some other quotes:
“Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race.”
“We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population. and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”
“Eugenic sterilization is an urgent need … We must prevent multiplication of this bad stock.”
“Eugenics is … the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.”
“Birth control itself, often denounced as a violation of natural law, is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.”
“As an advocate of birth control I wish … to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit,’ admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation…. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”
“The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.”
“Our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying … demonstrates our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism … [Philanthropists] encourage the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste. Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant … We are paying for, and even submitting to, the dictates of an ever-increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.”
“The undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind.”
“Give dysgenic groups [people with 'bad genes'] in our population their choice of segregation or [compulsory] sterilization.”
Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind…. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum…. Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizens of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. The great problem of civilization is to secure a relative increase of the valuable as compared with the less valuable or noxious elements in the population… The problem cannot be met unless we give full consideration to the immense influence of heredity… …I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them… The emphasis should be laid on getting desirable people to breed…
- Theodore Roosevelt, 1913 (elected by Progressives)
There is no permanent status quo in nature; all is the process of adjustment and readjustment, or else eventual failure. But man is the first being yet evolved on earth which has the power to note this changefulness, and, if he will, to turn it to his own advantage, to work out genetic methods, eugenic ideas, yes, to invent new characteristics, organs, and biological systems that will work out to further the interests, the happiness, the glory of the God-like being whose meager foreshadowings we the present ailing creatures are. (emphasis added)
- Herrmann J. Muller, 1935
Galton’s eccentric, sceptical, observing, flashing, cavalry-leader type of mind led him eventually to become the founder of the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists, namely eugenics.
- John Maynard Keynes, 1946
I do not pretend that birth control is the only way in which population can be kept from increasing… War… has hitherto been disappointing in this respect, but perhaps bacteriological war may prove more effective. If a Black Death could be spread throughout the world once in every generation survivors could procreate freely without making the world too full… The state of affairs might be somewhat unpleasant, but what of that? Really high-minded people are indifferent to happiness, especially other people’s… There are three ways of securing a society that shall be stable as regards population. The first is that of birth control, the second that of infanticide or really destructive wars, and the third that of general misery except for a powerful minority…
- Bertrand Russell, 1953
Natural selection must be replaced by eugenical artificial selection. This idea constitutes the sound core of eugenics, the applied science of human betterment.
- Theodosius Dobzhansky, 1964
Problem-makers reproduce in greater percentage than problem-solvers, and in so doing cause the decline of civilization… In short, if capable, intelligent people had most babies, society would see its problems and solve them.
- Elmer Pendell, 1967
In order to stabilize world population, we must eliminate 350,000 people per day. It is a horrible thing to say, but it is just as bad not to say it.
- Jacques Cousteau, 1991
The first century or two of the new millennium will almost certainly be a golden age for Eugenics. Through application of new genetic knowledge and reproductive technologies…the major change will be to mankind itself…[T]echniques…such as…genetic manipulations are not yet efficient enough to be unquestionably suitable in therapeutic and eugenic application for humans. But with the pace of research it is surely only a matter of time, and a short time at that.
- Glayde Whitney, 1999
Here is Barbara Marx Hubbard, with a very explicit claim to human God-hood:
Out of the full spectrum of human personality, one-fourth is electing to transcend…One-fourth is ready to so choose, given the example of one other…One-fourth is resistant to election. They are unattracted by life ever-evolving. One-fourth is destructive. They are born angry with God…They are defective seeds…There have always been defective seeds. In the past they were permitted to die a ‘natural death’…We, the elders, have been patiently waiting until the very last moment before the quantum transformation, to take action to cut out this corrupted and corrupting element in the body of humanity. It is like watching a cancer grow…Now, as we approach the quantum shift from creature-human to co-creative human—the human who is an inheritor of god-like powers—the destructive one-fourth must be eliminated from the social body. We have no choice, dearly beloveds. Fortunately you, dearly beloveds, are not responsible for this act. We are. We are in charge of God’s selection process for planet Earth. He selects, we destroy. We are the riders of the pale horse, Death. We come to bring death to those who are unable to know God…The riders of the pale horse are about to pass among you. Grim reapers, they will separate the wheat from the chaff. This is the most painful period in the history of humanity…
Finally this very sly one from our contemporary, Richard Dawkins, who coined the term, “the selfish gene.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous – though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change.
Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from “ought” to “is” and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as “these are not one-dimensional abilities” apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.
I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?
Damn that Hitler, he set progress back decades!
Eugenicists tend to be very respectable. White, too.
Progressive churches, like Methodists and Unitarians among others, were strong supporters of eugenics. The racialism of eugenics was already inside the seed named “progress.” At one point, “progressive” Protestants actually talked about searching for a “cleanliness” gene!
Amy Laura Hall noted in an interview how, while churches have rejected the “excesses” of early eugenics, their members still carefully “plan” their families and seem to have selected progress over the basic tents of their own faith:
While studying bioethics at Yale, I served at a merged, downtown church — African-American and white, working class and bourgeois-bohemian, professors and homeless folks — a church trying to know every child as part of the Body of Christ. In this context, I wanted to ask why so many mainline Christians are frightened to put our children in schools with children with disabilities or children who speak Spanish or children who live in impoverished neighborhoods?
How is it that white Protestants, who worship a babe born in a manger, came to view a birth planned through in vitro fertilization as more legitimately a gift than a child conceived by an undocumented Latina teenager?The progressive periodical Nation bears its name from the 19th Century – explicitly nation-alist. It was, until after World War II, an active proponent of eugenics. The Nation featured the works of arch-eugenicist Margaret Sanger.
Sanger, who is more well-remembered for her advocacy of birth control than of eugenics (in her mind, they were inseparable), is still seen by many as a kind of feminist founding mother. Her apologists can take some responsibility for the efficacy of right-wing abuse of her eugenics-advocacy to tar feminism with the same brush as Hitler. The reason some of her apologists are partly responsible is because by downplaying or disappearing Sanger’s ideas on eugenics to preserve her image after eugenics (named as such) has gone out of style, they have opened themselves to the accusation of propagandizing through selective truth-telling. So they can be effectively silenced by anti-feminists who are at least wielding word-for-word reproductions of Sanger’s own words to indict her. Hall cites an article by Sanger for the Methodist magazine Together (1957!):
“History’s greatest race is speeding to its climax: Population versus world food supplies. And the way it looks now, there may soon be Too Many People.” With a stock photograph of turbaned, brown-skinned men in a gathering, the essay, in image and word, calls on Methodist readers to endorse the exportation of family planning. “The World is exploding at the seams,” Sanger warns. “From the Orient to South America, from Eastern Europe to the U.S., soaring birth rates are posing future problems potentially more dangerous than the H-bomb.” Sanger thus begins her article by portraying a world beset by a danger even greater than the ever-present Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation. In characteristic style, she goes one to name “teeming Asia” in tones of infestation: “Have-not nations, with millions more mouths to feed each year, must spill over their borders in unending aggressions, searching for more and more food producing areas.” … [M]ainline Protestants in the United States came to see themselves as the forgers of a new worldwide domestic order through the promotion of properly calibrated, usefully capable children.
If planned domesticity is the hope of the world, and the United States is the world superpower, then aptly ordered domesticity is arguably the salvation of the planet. (Hall, p. 16)
Amy Laura Hall
Domestic femininity becomes domestic "fitness" in the discourse of social Darwinism; and that is mapped onto new (progressive) forms of consumption. Citing General Electric’s campaign in the 40s and 50s to promote nuclear power (with no mention of Hiroshima or Nagasaki), Hall quotes a GE infomercial film short: “Truly the superpower which man has released from within the atom’s heart is not one but many giants… But all are within man’s power, subject to his command.”
The language of domestic fitness and the rhetoric of atomic progress are related through what seem, on first glance, to be some fairly bizarre examples. While certain readers of this book may recall first hand images such as the one from a General Electric handout touting the domestic advantages of nuclear power. I see such images as somewhat macabre. My generation [Hall was born in the 60s] held no illusions that the Civil Defense Department’s “Duck and Cover” safety drill would save us from nuclear attack, and a good number of my cohort suspected that the adults running our country could not ensure we would live into adulthood. The mixing of happy homemakers, hamburgers, and atomic energy seemed quite odd, at first look. The idea that the “superpower” released “from within the atom’s heart” was “within man’s power, subject to his command” – to quote the General Electric film A is for Atom – was extraordinary. But what passed as ordinary sense during the Atomic Age was made up of images that intertwined national progress, orderly families, and the obedient atom, “subject” to human reason. (pp. 292-3)
In Chapter 2, “The Corporate Breast – ‘Scientific Motherhood’ during the Century of Progress,” Dr. Hall includes an eight-page sub-section on the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, an event that had a World Fair atmosphere and World Fair hype. The exposition featured baby food giant Gerber, which advertised loudly that it was the cutting edge for “progress in infant feeding.” The fair also featured a new invention: the baby incubator… with live white babies in them for demonstration purposes.
The baby incubator with live babies offers a conceptual link between the exposition’s “Forward, Ever Forward!” exhibits of science and industry and the Midway, at the center of the fair, with such attractions as Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium, a sampling of “freak shows,” Darkest Africa, and the Old Plantation Show. Positioning the “odd,” “freakish,” “mysterious,” and “quaint” right in the midst of the overall message of the Century of Progress may seem at first counterintuitive. But at second, deeper glance, the arrangement makes sense. As “mankind” progressed upward, forward, and away from merely mortal limits, it seemed necessary to those crafting the exposition to place at the center a midway – a titillating reminder of the “uncontrollable” and “accidental” in nature and culture. The scientifically prepared wombs with “live babies” offered fairgoers a chance to view human life in a palpably vulnerable and nascent form – struggling at the point of viability – as a sort of scientifically macabre cross between the fully mechanical Wonder Bakery and the Midget’s Midway Village. Would these babies make it, or would they not? Were they destined to die, as freaks, of an older Mother Nature, or were they creatures on the cusp of progress? The barely live babies presented the question of the Century of Progress Exposition in symbolic form. (pp. 158-9)
Hall shows that most of the assumptions of progress, including the eugenics movement, were in fact internalized by white America, and that these assumptions are embodied today in testing for genetic defects of adults as prospective parents and of the unborn. They are embodied in the ideal of the nuclear family, which was forged by the eugenics movement (Grandma and Grandpa have some retrograde ideas about raising children!), and in the notion of “responsible” family planning. And still, today, these hidden assumptions operate in tandem with gender, racial and class preconceptions dating back to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Chief among those ideas is the idea of raising “productive citizens,” children who will “succeed,” for lack of success is a marker of unfitness, and a stain on the reputation of parents on the other side of the imaginary hygienic divide. To prove one’s family’s membership among the elect, then, we have learned to measure how many and what kind of kids, and how to enroll them at ever earlier ages into the child-success industry, lest they be suspected of being one of the tainted.
Ancient purity codes created the sense of taint, of contamination; but modern taint is also associated with lives that are managed by technocratic monopolies, like the medical-pharmaceutical establishment. The taint of undesirability came dressed up in theological clothing, not in relation to unfitness, but with the idea that an unborn child is a forming citizen (in the nation-state of the elect), and a woman’s body is the incubator. Without this conceptual leap from unborn person to unborn citizen (to whom many insist we offer constitutional protections while in utero), the social hygienists would lack the teleological basis for determining how to cultivate this good, white citizen.
Taint is cooties. An invisible form of contamination that can clothe the other. It is the secret ingredient in racism, in imperialism, and in patriarchy – which describes Woman as tainted.
Hall features ads for Lysol, marketed as a “feminine hygiene” product in the late 40s. One is written, “Still ‘the girl he married.’ That is because, as the ad tells you in the finer print, the smart, modern wife has learned “the correct practice of feminine hygiene,” using, of course, Lysol disinfectant (yes, as a douche). Another ad shows a distraught women in the living room, with her husband’s back to her. “Love Quiz… for married folks only,” it says. Beneath that, “Why does she spend evenings alone?” We know, because the ad goes on to say, “Because she keeps her home immaculate, looks as pretty as she can and really loves her husband. BUT, she neglects that one essential… feminine hygiene.” She is tainted.
Progress and Taint. Carrot and stick. Riffing on a 1957 article in the Methodist Together magazine, Hall writes in a sub-chapter called “Spiritual Efficiency,” perhaps meaning the marriage of God and Taylorism - the theory of capitalist mass productive efficiency pioneered by Frederick Taylor (1856-1915):
Together‘s purpose might also be pithily described by way of its monthly feature Little Lessons in Spiritual Efficiency. By methodically gathering up the flotsam and jetsam of domestic life, ordering the home with spiritual efficiency, a household might become the epicenter of Hope itself. The decade from 1950 to 1960 involved a characteristically American push to the fore, and the small details of family life held national import. The organized family schedule on the avocado-colored refrigerator; the discrete domestic prayer closet; the homemade, creche inspired holiday cards – these were the pieces of incarnate, embodied life through which a newly fragmented world was to be made whole. Anxiety about the future is certainly not unique to that decade and this nation. But the emergence of the nuclear family ideal (what Stephanie Coontz has aptly termed “the way we never were”) warrants close interpretation.
As the decade progressed, unease over the role of the United States had undeniably played in the creation of nuclear weaponry mingled with growing Cold War tensions over Communism.
To quote one 1956 Together essay, the postwar period was feared to be a time of “hunger, disease, and ignorance,” where “evil and terrible men” would “undertake to entrap us with all manner of mental, bodily, and spiritual poisons.” It was through small efforts, “little by little,’ that those who believed in Jesus would “win the victory,” enable the “Kingdom,” and save the world. The mainline Protestant model for parenting reflected and reinforced the way forward.
The Methodist mothers, fathers, and grandparents to whom Together was addressed were vital for securing a hopeful future. With effort, “the Christian home” would become the crux of the age – the site at the intersection of scientific progress, national security, and blessed, divine providence. As Lysol was to grant a “fresh, clean, wholesome feeling” to “restore every woman’s confidence in her power to please, so would a properly cleansed and situated family restore every person’s confidence in America’s power to provide. What was hidden in the Manhattan Project would be disinfected during the 1950s, allowing a hygienic, safer, happier future for our children, and for the children worldwide.Maria Mies is another author that exposes many post-Enlightenment notions whose origins are concealed in the mistaken idea that they preceded The Age of Reason.
The Bodin Effect
That conceptual leap in The Baby poster that reduced woman to a birth canal, and the unborn child to a citizen-in-the-oven, was first taken during the Enlightenment, as influential men were talking about – in Bacon’s terms – tearing nature open to reveal HER secrets, Bacon’s rape-torture metaphor for the practice of science.
Specifically, Jean Bodin – the 16th Century jurist and philosopher, first to articulate the philosophical foundation for mercantilism. He articulated a duty for women to bear children to populate the nation-state. Women were a means to produce more hard-working citizens.
A nominal Catholic, Bodin is remembered rightly as principally a lawyer and political philosopher. His political philosophy revolved around social order, which was perceived to be in short supply during his life (1530–1596), specifically calling for the establishment of powerful central states (what would come to be called a modern nation-state). He called for dialogue between the various Abrahamic religions, and placed minimal emphasis on church as a political actor. He is rightly seen as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, and yet his life will always be notorious for his enthusiasm to kill women as witches.
One seldom noted fact with regard to capitalism is that it was born out of patriarchal systems and was explicitly male supremacist from its very beginnings.
Maria Mies, writing about Bodin in her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale – Women in the International Division of Labor (Zed Books, 1999), deserves an extended quote here.
The persecution and burning of the midwives and witches was directly connected with the emergence of modern society: the professionalization of medicine, the rise of medicine as a ‘natural science,’ the rise of science and of modern economy. The torture chambers of the witch-hunters were the laboratories where the texture, the anatomy, the resistance of the human body – mainly the female body – was studied. One may say that modern medicine and the male hegemony over this vital field were established on the base of millions of crushed, maimed, torn, disfigured and finally burnt, female bodies.
There was a calculated division of labor between Church and State in organizing the massacres and the terror against the witches. Whereas the church representatives identified witches, gave the theological justification and led the interrogations, the secular arm of the state was used to carry out the tortures and finally execute the witches on the pyre.
The persecution of the witches was a manifestation of the rising modern society and not, as is usually believed, a remnant of the irrational “dark” Middle Ages. This is most clearly shown by Jean Bodin, the French theoretician of the new mercantilist economic doctrine. Jean Bodin was the founder of the quantitative theory of money, of the modern concept of sovereignty and of mercantilist populationism. He was a staunch defender of modern rationalism, and was at the same time one of the most vocal proponents of state ordained massacres and tortures of the witches. He held the view that, for the development of new wealth after the medieval agrarian crisis, the modern state had to be invested with absolute sovereignty. This state had, moreover, the duty to provide enough workers for the new economy. In order to do so, he demanded a strong police which above all would fight against witches and midwives who, according to him, were responsible for so many abortions, the infertility of couples, or sexual intercourse without conception. Anyone who prevented the conception or the birth of children he considered as a murderer, who should be persecuted by the state. Bodin worked as a consultant to the French government in the persecution of the witches, and advocated torture and the pyre to eradicate the witches. His tract on witchcraft was one of the most brutal and sadistic pamphlets written against witches at that time. Like Institoris and Sprenger in Germany he singled out women for his attack. He set a ratio of 50 women to one man for the witch persecutions. This combination of modern rationality, the propagation of the new state and a direct violent attack on the witches we also find with another great master of the new era of European civilization, namely Francis Bacon. (pp. 83-4)Bodin is sketching out a post-aristocratic society that will be ruled by his own up-and-coming merchant class (and the lawyers like himself). Note how the role of women has changed in Bodin’s rationale. Whatever degrading beliefs preceded this era about women, Bodin has introduced a new and utilitarian instrumentality to the proper role of women; that is, breeders. They are required to produce workers to power the New Future being mapped out by an emerging, male, European bourgeoisie.
This notion is actualized full-bloom in Hall’s account of medically-managed motherhood (by a male-dominated medical establishment). As Mies herself described, women were undergoing housewifization: they were recast as household consumers, sex-objects for hubby, and breeders of citizens.
Conceiving Parenthood shows how enthusiastically post-Reformation protestants picked up this idea of child as productive citizen, merging it with the novel notions of the 19th Century that were stimulated by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which were mapped onto the individualist meritocracy of the social Darwinist fantasy, which was adopted as a principle justification for capitalist accumulation and the so-called free market.
Reverend Hall traces the evolution of the popularized notion of adaptation, transferred inappropriately from actual adaptation in nature onto social dynamics, which revolved around the idea of “fitness,” by reviewing the ideas of 19th Century Protestant thinker George H. Napheys (1842-1876).
Napheys wrote a eugenics manifesto in 1871. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was only published 12 years earlier, and Napheys riffed like Herbert Spencer on its supposed implications for human society, in a publication called The Transmission of Life: Counsels on the Nature and Hygiene of the Masculine Function. Hall:
Choosing a mate carefully for the sake of producing stronger, keener, and more efficient offspring had been business as usual for slaveholders in the South. Marriages among the elite across the United States may have been founded on the acquisition of more intangible forms of power, but slaveholders sought wherever possible to force intimacy between slaves who would produce better workers. Naphey’s advice, characteristic of his time, can be interpreted as an effort to encourage those who were, in a palpable sense, the building blocks of a post-Civil War economy to internalize the kind of discriminating criteria that would make for a better crop of future workers in an industrialized era. What [historian] Matthew Fry Jacobson notes regarding the rhetoric of immigrant workers – that those few who brokered the meaning of American citizenship did so in part as a function of waxing and waning needs for cheap labor – arguably applies also to those who brokered the meaning of procreation for the native-born to whom Napheys wrote. (p. 224)Napheys proclamations with regard to scientific hygiene seem worthy of ridicule today. He used the word “taint” to describe both biological “defects” and “infections” within the body politic. His claim that “cowardice, jealousy, anger , envy, and libertinage” were inherited may have gone by the wayside in the scientific community, but it is still retained to some degree in racist pop-culture. We still hear the term “teeming” in conjunction with poor people in big population centers, and we are still warned by many of declining birthrates (of the right kind of babies) in contrast with the rising populations of babies on the wrong side of the hygienic divide.
Just as importantly, perhaps, his framework has remained intellectually respectable, albeit couched in different terms to survive post-Hitler, post-Civil Rights moral scrutiny.
Hall tells an anecdote about James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix openly advocating Napheys animal-husbandry approach to women and children, which Watson called simply “making better human beings.” He even called for selective breeding to “make girls prettier.”
Hall’s book actually opens with an ad for a boutique birthing center in Durham, North Carolina. Motto: “finally, a childbirth center that’s as stylish as you are.” It is called “just the right place to find something perfect to take home with you.”
Eugenics is still practiced. But it’s been privatized. And it is still based on the woman-and-child-as-professional-client, and no longer adheres to the crude formulations of “fitness” from the past. The “medical monopoly,” so named by Ivan Illich, had locked the technologically-liberated, modern, expectant mother into being a passive recipient of service. Like a car.
We require experts to mediate every aspect of our lives, and doctors have become a kind of priesthood. "Germs" - an undifferentiated fear-word - are still a daily preoccupation for us, and these "germs" are strongly associated with cleanliness and respectability on the one hand, shame and ostracism on the other.
I have frequently criticized a still-prevailing kind of biophobia. Conceiving Parenthood shows dozens of examples of this phenomenon, and how that fear of living contamination jumps the epistemological tracks from science, to pop science, to manufactured compulsions for “cleanliness,” to mistrust of freshly grown food, to racial beliefs, to genocide.
We oughtn’t forget that every modern campaign of genocide is accompanied by the portrayal of the target population as germs, rats, or cockroaches – the biotic symbols of impurity. The same “bug killers” we use today were used to kill humans en masse in war, are still stockpiled as “chemical nerve agents,” and that the insecticide ad on your TV uses the double-metaphor of pestilence and war.
Clean, unclean. Fit, unfit. Nurture (with expert intervention), or convert, or exterminate.
While late modern citizens of the US seem to have eschewed the eugenics of the past, the idea of a “successful baby” still suggests – as its opposite – the idea of unfit babies. Much populationist speech today, even combined with ecological speech, reminds us of Margaret Sanger’s words, quoted here by Hall:
It was Margaret Sanger who first warned of the “indiscriminate fecundity” of the poor, arguing that charity only “encourages the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it… a dead weight of human waste. (p. 277)Medicalization
There is a retail tag on respectability still, on progress, as we all know only too well. Privatized eugenics is but one aspect of capitalist medicine, where medicine makes a lot of money for lot of physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and credentialing institutions, and keeps our own population functional as consumers of these “products” and as workers.
More and more, the medicalization of modern capitalist life involves psychotropic drugs to treat newly named “disorders” that before they were disorders were just part of life. “Stress,” for example.
Working the kinds of alienating jobs we have under the Domoclean swords of debt and our incapacity for subsistence, while raising our kids to be well-adjusted to a system that no one ought to adjust to, and living in an environment that is bombarded 24-7 with the agitations of a world that is ever more commodified, creates tension in our bodies, including our psyches. Does medicine enlist in activities to escape from or overturn said system? No. It names our natural reaction to this extreme and ceaseless alienation as a disorder called “stress” – which is in fact the most natural reaction in the world, fighting or fleeing before a dangerous or uncomfortable environment – and “treats” said stress, usually with chemicals, and sometimes with “therapy,” that is, serial suggestive conversations and exercises, led by a credentialed expert of course, and designed to help us readjust(!) to this reality.
Progressives have been proselytizing for greater access to this phenomenon for quite some time, with no criticism of what it is to which we seek this access. But there is a more visceral objection that can be raised against medicalized culture, and it is how this phenomenon is reflected in our very consciousness.
Barbara Duden is a historian of the body. She looks at the cultural construction of the body, of how we “know” ourselves as embodied creatures, and at the successive alienations from ourselves as bodies throughout history. She and Silya Samerski have been investigating what they call the “pop-gene,” the gene in popular imagination, and their insights reveal the connection between the Progressive eugenics fetish of the early 20th Century and our own subjugation by the radical monopoly of medicine.
The describe how the pop-gene and our seeing ourselves as immune systems, the measuring and mapping of the body, have objectified us to ourselves, have placed us outside of ourselves, led us to regard ourselves as object of study, as positions in probability tables and statistical scatterplots. As David Cayley articulated this, self-objectification “has deprived us of our story,” and what Barbara Duden called “the propagation of risk management” as the essence of our lives. Like every system of control, it is based fundamentally on the propagation – before risk management – of fear. Fear of life. Fear of aging. Fear of every indiosyncracy.
It’s no wonder we think we need psychotropic drugs. We see ourselves on the outside, as nowhere-and-everywhere, as nothing-and-everything. The pop-gene, the body as a carefully monitored immune-system instead of direct experience, has unmoored us.
Progressives have no account of this monumentally signficant aspect of medicalized culture, and they resist this account because it undemines their campaign for universal access to the radical monopoly of instituionalized medicine. Progressives certainly don’t have much account of how this episteme of the objectified body might link to the eugenics fetish – still extant in selecting for desirable children – or even to the generally woman-hating content of ever more ubiquitous pornography, which progressives defend as free speech (because examination of the actual content of most pornography undermines their perennial campaign for “free speech,” another liberal abstraction that gives equal validity to Nazi propaganda or a haiku).
I have a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) right here in my hand. This is a medical manual published by the American Psychiatric Association. I want to list a few of the “disorders” from that manual, and the reader can make of it what s/he will.
A. Reading achievement, as measured by individually administered standardized tests of reading accuracy or comprehension, is substantially below that expected given the person's chronological age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education.
B. The disturbance in Criterion A significantly interferes with academic achievement or activities of daily living that require reading skills.
A. Mathematical ability, as measured by individually administered standardized tests, is substantially below that expected given the person's chronological age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education.
B. The disturbance in Criterion A significantly interferes with academic achievement or activities of daily living that require mathematical ability.
Disorder of Written Expression
A. Writing skills, as measured by individually administered standardized tests (or functional assessments of writing skills), are substantially below those expected given the person's chronological age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education.
B. The disturbance in Criterion A significantly interferes with academic achievement or activities of daily living that require the composition of written texts (e.g., writing grammatically correct sentences and organized paragraphs).
Expressive Language Disorder
A. The scores obtained from standardized individually administered measures of expressive language development are substantially below those obtained from standardized measures of both nonverbal intellectual capacity and receptive language development. The disturbance may be manifest clinically by symptoms that include having a markedly limited vocabulary, making errors in tense, or having difficulty recalling words or producing sentences with developmentally appropriate length or complexity.
B. The difficulties with expressive language interfere with academic or occupational achievement or with social communication.
A. Failure to use developmentally expected speech sounds that are appropriate for age and dialect (e.g., errors in sound production, use, representation, or organization such as, but not limited to, substitutions of one sound for another [use of /t/ for target /k/ sound] or omissions of sounds such as final consonants).
B. The difficulties in speech sound production interfere with academic or occupational achievement or with social communication.
I’ll stop here, because it only becomes more bizarre; It's horseshit, actually - the pathologization of everything that deviates from an arbitrary statistical median.
A critique of “education” follows that exists with these disorders in a tautological vice. If you don’t perform well at education, you are medically deficient, and in either case you shall require the intervention of expensively credentialed experts to correct your disorders or to administer and deliver your education. Want to hear the common language of some of these disorders?
The essential feature of X disorder is X ability (as measured by individually administered standardized tests of X calculation or reasoning) that falls substantially below that expected for the individual’s chronological age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education.Welcome to institutional medicine. Welcome to institutional education. Welcome to the brave new world of progress.
I simply must insert some comments from my dry-humored friend De Clarke, after I pointed out the above DSM-IV definition list:
Agh! More weird taxonomy. I mean, we all do it — think how phrases like “he’s so anal [retentive]” or “she went all OCD on me” have migrated into the vernacular. And hell, they’re useful, descriptive, terse, and often funny. But the underlying project of taxonomising is really no funnier than it was in Hitler’s day – the descriptive so swiftly shifts to the prescriptive and then to enforcement and/or purification. Sorting out the “normal” from the “abnormal” and the Tainted from the Pure. In fact the vernacular uses are a kind of pushback, showing that these medicalised “sins” are in fact present in all of us to some degree… no purity, only our varying bundles of idiosyncrasy.
My sense of irony will not be satisfied until the DSM V includes “taxonomic compulsion disorder,” “violent control fantasy disorder,” and “conformist anxiety disorder.” Oh yes, and how about “cornucopian fantasy disorder,” “biophobia,” “obsessive misogynist disorder,” “gender panic disorder,” and a host of other mental illnesses of patriarchy? “hermetic border hallucination” would be high on my list of socially dangerous brain farts.Medicine has come to “treat” menopause with hormone replacement “therapy,” not for a disease like malaria or influenza, but for getting old. It treats something called ADHD in children when they show no inclination to sit still in a prison called a classroom for six hours a day and apply themselves to “studying” some of the most boring test-taking drills and damaging state propaganda imaginable. The treatments for this “disorder” are chemical stimulants. I’ll have more to say about mandatory education further down, another progressive preoccupation that compels its advocates to prevaricate, evade, and lie.
Now we are faced with a daily television bombardment from unchained pharmaceutical companies who are creating drugs then defining new disorders to match them. My leg twitches. I need a new drug.
I don’t object to the campaign for single-payer health care per se I suppose. I understand that the people trapped in the system as it is are made dependent on the radical monopoly of medicine, and that access can, in the short term, ameliorate certain kinds of pain and misery. I object to the refusal to define the real character of institutional medicine before we cry out for more access to it.
Progressives fought for the maze of regulations that mandate expensive and exclusionary licensing, resulting in the criminalization of everything from refusal of medical intervention to the corner taco stand to raw milk. That corporate predators were the target of these regulations at one point, and that uber-capitalists use libertarian arguments to bypass regulations that are inconvenient, again creates the campaign-environment that ignores the fact that the cure is worse than the malady. Regulation, licensure, and credentialing have served, more than anything else, to exclude smallholders and encourage monopolization by the well-resourced… or forced people to go into debt to become players, whether in business, agriculture, medicine, etc.
Bureaucratic management and credentialism are purported to protect us; but they also serve (conveniently) as the latest form of capitalist enclosure.
Perfection, Optimization, and Education
The accusation by the polemicists of the right that progressives want a nanny-state, while misogynist and gender-baiting in its articulation, appeals to many non-elites precisely because it is – divorced from its gratuitous gender-slap – true. Polemicists raise the argument because it has teeth. It unmasks the delusion that the world can be made risk-free, pain-free, death-free. It also makes explicit the fact that progressives can be control-freaks every bit as much as conservatives.
We return to the question: What is the result that progress aims at? What is the teleos? It is, in fact, another delusion based on an abstraction – perfection.
Perfect: entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings.The word as it is used now did not appear until somewhere between 1250-1300. That’s why theological claims of the perfection of Christ, in the modern sense, make no sense, because the notion did not exist in 1st Century Palestine. One could be righteous or unrighteous, faithful or unfaithful, but not perfect (without deviation from norms). Translations refer to “perfect” as complete; the way we might say “you know perfectly well…”
The way we use it now, it’s a name for the nameless, like the number aleph naught – a countable infinity.
If we want to see the result of this trend toward perfection, think about the fallout from notions like the 4.0 GPA, the Perfect 10 woman, or the uber-mensch. We modern people have critiqued each of these manifestations, substituting our own version of "perfection" as teleos, but watering the same root. Progress. Toward the end of suffering, disease, death.
We can’t see past our own axioms because we confuse them with laws of nature. We share this misperception because we have mostly been conformed in the same forge, our mandatory education. Yet another article of faith in the progressive cosmos.
I said above that education damages our young as it has damaged us.
Progressives were and are the biggest proponents of mandatory, publicly-funded education - as a product, to which everyone is born with a right (which translates into a duty!). Proponents of “rights” and “diversity” support the idea that the state ought to compel, by force if necessary, every parent to send her/his offspring to a 13-year program that consumes their years from five through 17 (sometimes earlier now), forces them to memorize and regurgitate the propaganda of conformity and nationalism, disciplines them in florescent cells, forces them to sit for hours – the equivalent of a torturer’s stress position – and compels them to silence and significations of abject obedience before institutional operatives.
School groups people according to age. This grouping rests on three unquestioned premises. Children belong in school. Children learn in school. Children can be taught only in school.Neither Illich nor I am suggesting we ought to hang children, of course. He is simply showing that childhood is a recent invention, one that corresponds to both the rise of capitalism and to the development of the product - education.
I think these unexamined premises deserve serious questioning. We have grown accustomed to children. We have decided that they should go to school, do as they are told, and have neither income nor families of their own. We expect them to know their place and behave like children. We remember, whether nostalgically or bitterly, a time when we were children, too. We are expected to tolerate the childish behavior of children.
Man-kind, for us, is a species both afflicted and blessed with the task of caring for children. We forget, however, that our present concept of "childhood" developed only recently in Western Europe and more recently still in the Americas.
Childhood as distinct from infancy, adolescence, or youth was unknown to most historical periods. Some Christian centuries did not even have an eye for its bodily proportions. Artists depicted the infant as a miniature adult seated on his mother's arm.
Children appeared in Europe along with the pocket watch and the Christian moneylenders of the Renaissance. Before our century neither the poor nor the rich knew of children's dress, children's games, or the child's immunity from the law. Childhood belonged to the bourgeoisie.
The worker's child, the peasant's child, and the nobleman's child all dressed the way their fathers dressed, played the way their fathers played, and were hanged by the neck as were their fathers. After the discovery of "childhood" by the bourgeoisie all this changed.
Only some churches continued to respect for some time the dignity and maturity of the young. Until the Second Vatican Council, each child was instructed that a Christian reaches moral discernment and freedom at the age of seven, and from then on is capable of committing sins for which he may be punished by an eternity in Hell.
Toward the middle of this century, middle-class parents began to try to spare their children the impact of this doctrine, and their thinking about children now prevails in the practice of the Church.
Until the last century, "children" of middle-class parents were made at home with the help of preceptors and private schools. Only with the advent of industrial society did the mass production of "childhood" become feasible and come within the reach of the masses. The school system is a modern phenomenon, as is the childhood it produces.
Since most people today live outside industrial cities, most people today do not experience childhood. [written in 1970 - now most children do live in cities -SG] In the Andes you till the soil once you have become "useful." Before that, you watch the sheep. If you are well nourished, you should be useful by eleven, and otherwise by twelve.
Recently, I was talking to my night watchman, Marcos, about his eleven-year-old son who works in a barbershop. I noted in Spanish that his son was still a "ni–o,” Marcos, surprised, answered with a guileless smile: "Don Ivan, I guess you're right."
Realizing that until my remark the father had thought of Marcos primarily as his "son," I felt guilty for having drawn the curtain of childhood between two sensible persons. Of course if I were to tell the New York slum-dweller that his working son is still a "child," he would show no surprise. He knows quite well that his eleven-year-old son should be allowed childhood, and resents the fact that he is not. The son of Marcos has yet to be afflicted with the yearning for childhood; the New Yorker's son feels deprived.
Most people around the world, then, either do not want or cannot get modern childhood for their offspring.
But it also seems that childhood is a burden to a good number of those few who are allowed it. Many of them are simply forced to go through it and are not at all happy playing the child's role. Growing up through childhood means being condemned to a process of in-human conflict between self-awareness and the role imposed by a society going through its own school age. Neither Stephen Daedalus nor Alexander Portnoy enjoyed childhood, and neither, I suspect, did many of us like to be treated as children.
(from Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich, 1970)
Schoolteacher and education critic John Taylor Gatto made the following observations in 1990:
We live in a time of great school crisis. Our children rank at the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing and arithmetic. At the very bottom. The world's narcotic economy is based upon our own consumption of the commodity, if we didn't buy so many powdered dreams the business would collapse - and schools are an important sales outlet. Our teenage suicide rate is the highest in the world and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not the poor. In Manhattan fifty per cent of all new marriages last less than five years. So something is wrong for sure.
Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent - nobody talks to them anymore and without children and old people mixing in daily life a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the name "community" hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some strange way school is a major actor in this tragedy just as it is a major actor in the widening guilt among social classes. Using school as a sorting mechanism we appear to be on the way to creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wander through subway trains begging and sleep on the streets.
The disagreements between progressives and conservatives is over some content, several techniques, what the funding streams for this militarized (and militarily-derived, read Manuel DeLanda on the roots of standardization and centralization - from the military, transferred directly to schools) environment will be, and – again – whether or not certain policies prevent equal access to this cultural product. Progressives claim that children (and adults now) need education, like it’s oxygen or glucose, even though throughout 99.9999999% of human existence, the overwhelming number of humans had no such thing.
We've come to believe that without school, there is no learning, even though the steepest learning curve in our lives is in the four or five years prior to school, whereupon the process is channeled, restricted, regimented, and dramatically slowed down. In fact, education - as Gatto points out - sorts people into castes that correspond to the creation of demand for greater consumption. Education is the ultimate consumer good, because it credentials us for greater individual price and greater social power.
The university graduate has been schooled for selective service among the rich of the world. Whatever his or her claims of solidarity with the Third World, each American college graduate has had an education costing an amount five times greater than the median life income of half of humanity. A Latin American student is introduced to this exclusive fraternity by having at least 350 times as much public money spent on his education as on that of his fellow citizens of median income. With very rare exceptions, the university graduate from a poor country feels more comfortable with his North American and European colleagues than with his nonschooled compatriots, and all students are academically processed to be happy only in the company of fellow consumers of the products of the educational machine.For every Horatio Alger story related to education, there are thousands of untold stories about tracking, humiliation, and class-sorting that expose those happy-endings as a fraud when told alone - a story designed to make young people "behave" and "study" so they can be a "success." None of these stories point out that in capitalist society, success most often comes with a price paid by others. The lie is that we can all succeed. In fact, the 3R literacy required before youngsters can "graduate" is enough to ensure they can function as effective workers in a highly Taylorized and standardized consumer society.
The modern university confers the privilege of dissent on those who have been tested and classified as potential money-makers or power-holders. No one is given tax funds for the leisure in which to educate himself or the right to educate others unless at the same time he can also be certified for achievement. Schools select for each successive level those who have, at earlier stages in the game, proved themselves good risks for the established order. Having a monopoly on both the resources for learning and the investiture of social roles, the university coopts the discoverer and the potential dissenter. A degree always leaves its indelible price tag on the curriculum of its consumer. Certified college graduates fit only into a world which puts a price tag on their heads, thereby giving them the power to define the level of expectations in their society. In each country the amount of consumption by the college graduate sets the standard for all others; if they would be civilized people on or off the job, they will aspire to the style of life of college graduates.
The university thus has the effect of imposing consumer standards at work and at home, and it does so in every part of the world and under every political system. The fewer university graduates there are in a country, the more their cultivated demands are taken as models by the rest of the population. (Illich, Deschooling Society)
School initiates, too, the Myth of Unending Consumption. This modern myth is grounded in the belief that process inevitably produces something of value and, therefore, production necessarily produces demand. School teaches us that instruction produces learning. The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling. Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all nonprofessional activity is rendered suspect. In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.Mandatory education, indeed education itself, is one of the most powerful idols of modernity, specifically of liberalism, and worshipped as well as vigorously defended by “progressives”; and by education I do not mean learning, but “education” the product, again run by a vast cadre of state-credentialled technicians within the technocratic monopoly.
In fact, learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being "with it," yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.
Once a man or woman has accepted the need for school, he or she is easy prey for other institutions. Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction, they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. "Instruction" smothers the horizon of their imaginations. They cannot be betrayed, but only short-changed, because they have been taught to substitute expectations for hope. They will no longer be surprised, for good or ill, by other people, because they have been taught what to expect from every other person who has been taught as they were. This is true in the case of another person or in the case of a machine.
This transfer of responsibility from self to institution guarantees social regression, especially once it has been accepted as an obligation. (Illich)
“Do nothing. Time is too precious to waste,” said Buddha. If that sounds like nonsense stop reading now, but if you feel you've been conditioned like a laboratory rat by the pervasive propaganda of 20th century institutions like schools and banks and hospitals, read on. One quick way to tell if mechanism has invaded your living tissue is to consider how important lists are to your life. Home improvement lists, self-improvement lists, lists of meetings, appointments, responsibilities, things to remember? Does list management fill much of your time?
And does your social life consist of watching actors pretend to be real people or telling your friends what you bought, what you nearly bought, and what you are going to buy? (John Taylor Gatto)
We are all part of the progress-respectability-performance- perfection axis, that aims at standardizing humans like products.
Education, once a person has survived this social-Darwinian gauntlet, does credential, and credentials in the technocratic monopoly to open doors to advantages, but they are advantages that are part of the problem and certainly not of any solution. Conservatives want to maintain the harshest sorting methods to maintain existing social hierarchies, but at least they are not deluded about what they are doing. Progressives want a more “equal” distribution of (1) the product and (2) the outcomes, but they cling to the delusion of “improving the [human] race” through these regimens of standardized training in institutions called schools.
Members of previously excluded groups aspiring to the norms of "middle class" modernity, those who Randall Kennedy cited, for example, the black middle class that can be obsessed with "respectability," like other previously-excluded groups before them, see education as a panacea, and frequently tout the virtues of becoming a capitalist middle-man - an entrepreneur - to achieve "progress" by moving away from "underdevelopment." Virtue equals "success," being a "winner." So says the dominant capitalist culture.
Jesus, of course, was a loser - unwashed, humiliated, crowned with thorns in mockery, executed while soldiers gambled for his clothes.
Speaking from my own memories of mandatory schooling, it was more miserable in many respects than my experience in the army, school being a place where we were sorted by age and subjected to the relentless cruelty of in-crowds, where we were fastened to seats, regulated by bells and buzzers like lab rats, subordinated to a lot of teachers who bored us out of our minds for hours and hours and hours or humiliated us at every turn, and where we suffered chronic performance anxiety. I learned to read at home before I ever started school, and I learned more by running wild on weekends or following my own interests around in a library than I ever did in a classroom.
At the very core of the education enterprise are (1) the regime of “meritocracy” and (2) the valuation of some people over and against others (until we can clone them into our own image of “improved” or "developed").
But personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else's achievement. In such learning one can emulate others only in imaginative endeavor, and follow in their footsteps rather than mimic their gait. The learning I prize is immeasurable re-creation.In the United States, we now drug 1 out of ten youngsters for ADHD - a "disorder" wherein inattention to the canned curriculum, inability to sit still for an hour at a time in a deadly boring classroom while the world waits outside, and the impulses to do anything else except what they are doing, are called "symptoms." Reports are that the diagnosis is still rising.
School pretends to break learning up into subject "matters," to build into the pupil a curriculum made of these prefabricated blocks, and to gauge the result on an international scale. People who submit to the standard of others for the measure of their own personal growth soon apply the same ruler to themselves. They no longer have to be put in their place, but put themselves into their assigned slots, squeeze themselves into the niche which they have been taught to seek, and, in the very process, put their fellows into their places, too, until everybody and everything fits.
People who have been schooled down to size let unmeasured experience slip out of their hands. To them, what cannot be measured becomes secondary, threatening. They do not have to be robbed of their creativity. Under instruction, they have unlearned to "do" their thing or "be" themselves, and value only what has been made or could be made.
Once people have the idea schooled into them that values can be produced and measured, they tend to accept all kinds of rank' ings. There is a scale for the development of nations, another for the intelligence of babies, and even progress toward peace can be calculated according to body count. In a schooled world the road to happiness is paved with a consumer's index. (Illich)
School sells curriculum--a bundle of goods made according to the same process and having the same structure as other merchandise. Curriculum production for most schools begins with allegedly scientific research, on whose basis educational engineers predict future demand and tools for the assembly line, within the limits set by budgets and taboos. The distributor-teacher delivers the finished product to the consumer pupil, whose reactions are carefully studied and charted to provide research data for the preparation of the next model, which may be "ungraded," "student-designed," "team-taught," "visually-aided," or "issue-centered."Growth economics.
The result of the curriculum production process looks like any other modern staple. It is a bundle of planned meanings, a package of values, a commodity whose "balanced appeal" makes it marketable to a sufficiently large number to justify the cost of production. Consumer-pupils are taught to make their desires conform to marketable values. Thus they are made to feel guilty if they do not behave according to the predictions of consumer research by getting the grades and certificates that will place them in the job category they have been led to expect.
Educators can justify more expensive curricula on the basis of their observation that learning difficulties rise proportionately with the cost of the curriculum. This is an application of Parkinson's Law that work expands with the resources available to do it. This law can be verified on all levels of school: for instance, reading difficulties have been a major issue in French schools only since their per capita expenditures have approached U.S. levels of 1950-when reading difficulties became a major issue in U.S. schools.
In fact, healthy students often redouble their resistance to teaching as they find themselves more comprehensively manipulated. This resistance is due not to the authoritarian style of a public school or the seductive style of some free schools, but to the fundamental approach common to all schools-the idea that one person's judgment should determine what and when another person must learn.
Even when accompanied by declining returns in learning, paradoxically, rising per capita instructional costs increase the value of the pupil in his or her own eyes and on the market. At almost any cost, school pushes the pupil up to the level of competitive curricular consumption, into progress to ever higher levels. Expenditures to motivate the student to stay on in school skyrocket as he climbs the pyramid. On higher levels they are disguised as new football stadiums, chapels, or programs called International Education. If it teaches nothing else, school teaches the value of escalation: the value of the American way of doing things. (Illich)
Illich calls education-the-product "the ritualization of progress."
[G]growth conceived as open-ended consumption-eternal progress-can never lead to maturity. Commitment to unlimited quantitative increase vitiates the possibility of organic development. (Illich)
Consider the fact that compulsory public schooling in the United States was originally conceived as an antidote to a wave of immigrating Catholic families - a way of indoctrinating their children in the values and beliefs of the Protestant majority. This was the main impetus for the development of a network of Catholic private schools in response.
Compulsory public schools are specifically designed to take young people out of their homes and families and ensure their standardized indoctrination by the state.
The dilemmas for anyone who even tentatively accepts this thesis are overwhelming in a society with more than a century and half of public schooling - a society that has been organized around school schedules, within which any parent who rejects the system is subject to criminal prosecution, and a society where failure to see our young people through this system of indoctrination, standardization, and credentialing can have punitive consequences for those same young people.
No one here is arguing that classrooms cannot be sites for learning in many circumstances, or that people can simply check out of the system without a great deal of prior privilege. What I am arguing is that there is a side of schools - a substantial side to education-as-product - that is part of the larger program of respectability-progress that is by its very nature both antithetical to the organic development of human beings and to the teachings of the Gospel - where meritocracy is absolute anathema.
The dilemmas presented by this analysis are powerful enough to elicit an almost automatic reaction against them, and I expect there will be reactions against them. Progress has ensured that such an analysis is far outside the proverbial box.
For those who take these critiques seriously, however, especially Christians who recognize the ways in which this society is structured against our deepest convictions; these dilemmas are an occasion for discernment... difficult to be sure, and in every case discernment of particular circumstances and not reaching for standardized counter-solutions and entering yet again into an iatrogenic spiral of creating new problems to fix past problems, ad infinitum.