David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: anthropology

Inga Clendinnen: Ambivalent Conquests

The great anthropologist Inga Clendinnen recently passed away. I had greatly enjoyed her speculative yet rigorous The Aztecs: An Interpretation, which was an audacious attempt to get inside the social and ritual processes of the Mexica (Clendinnen’s preferred and more accurate term for those commonly called the Aztecs) around the time of the 16th century. Clendinnen has both a verbal and moral clarity and restraint that is rare among writers of any sort and certainly among social scientists, and I think this was also reflected in the work she did advocating for Aboriginal rights in her native Australia.

Despite the dry title, Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570 is a more dramatic and linear book than The Aztecs.  The book centers on the conflict between three Spaniards over colonialist approaches to the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, which Clendinnen reconstructs from the memoirs, letters, and other documents of the time. The tale of forced conversion, colonial power struggles, and mass torture is ghastly, but Clendinnen works carefully to contextualize these horrors in such a way that the shifting and conflicting rationales of the Spaniards do not get lost.

What does get lost is the Maya side of the story, which Clendinnen depicts as best she can in the second half of the book. But without any firsthand or even secondhand personal accounts, the overwhelming sense is of a history lost to us forever, and of peoples that can only be seen through the massive distortions of unreliable and uninformed accounts. The tragedy of that loss is palpable. Only one Maya figure, the great resistance leader Nachi Cocom, emerges as an individual, and even then only hazily.

Clendinnen begins with a quote giving one account of the mysterious name “Yucatan”:

When the Spaniards discovered this land, their leader asked the Indians how it was called; as they did not understand him, they said uic athan, which means, what do you say or what do you speak, that we do not understand you. And then the Spaniard ordered it set down that it be called Yucatan….

Antonio de Ciudad Real, 1588

This is not the only origin story of the word and not even the most likely, but it suits the story quite well, and echoes the now-disproven account of Captain Cook thinking of “kangaroo” as an animal when it really meant “I don’t know.” (The Guugu Yimithirr word is gangurru.) These Whorfian tales of linguistic relativism hold a real grip on us for neatly representing more diffuse cultural incomprehensions, and Whorfian modesty can sometimes become its own kind of arrogance, as with the case of Marshall Sahlins, or the Marxist Art & Language collective:

Clendinnen’s account doesn’t depend on theoretical relativism, however, but a very palpable and human fallibility, fueled not by ignorance per se, but by pre-conceived ideas, particularly around religion. For all that colonialism plays into this story, it is the Catholic religion and its doctrine that proves to be the largest shaping force on the three primary figures. Clendinnen’s three figures are the fanatical Franciscan Diego de Landa, hapless mayor Diego Quijada, and the humane, tormented bishop Francisco de Toral. Of these, Landa stands tallest, an overwhelming and terrifying figure of religious conviction and radiance. The Franciscans, an ascetic order ideally suited to colonizing and converting the less lucrative portions of the New World (as Yucatan was), were already a zealous order, aggressively converting the Maya to Christianity “within a context of coercion,” as Clendinnen puts it. Landa was a fanatic even among fanatics, pursuing even small offenses to their end whatever the price, and unafraid to invoke worldly and heavenly authorities alike to make his case. His conviction that he was doing good was so strong it was even able to captivate natives.

Diego de Landa

Diego de Landa


Landa’s zeal led him to learn the Mayan language perfectly, and it appears that his conviction of beatitude was able to win over many Mayans, who did not perceive that he would comfortably employ both love and torture as implements to the end of conversion. He somehow managed to befriend Sotuta chief Nachi Cocom, who had long been leading resistance against the Spaniards. Here Clendinnen portrays the two sides of Landa’s insidious personality, which allowed him to gain the trust of the Maya and access to their inner circles for the express purpose of destroying the larger share of their culture and replacing it with that of Christianity.

The intimacy of [Landa’]s descriptions – recipes favoured by the women, the antics of pet animals, the handling of babies and toddlers – imply an acceptance of the young friar into the huts and house-yards of the Maya with an easiness which goes well beyond mere nervous tolerance. He was to penetrate an even more closed zone with his admission into the society and at least some of the secrets of the elders. They trusted him enough to lament the decline in the chastity of their women from the days ‘before they became acquainted with [the Spanish] nation’.

Even more remarkably, he was shown some of the sacred writings preserved in the folding deerskin ‘books’ which were the jealously guarded, secret and exclusive possessions of the ruling lineages of each province. With Nachi Cocom, head chief of Sotuta and for so long a wily and implacable enemy of the Spaniards, he had an especially warm relationship. Landa described him as ‘a man of great reputation, learned in their affairs, and of remarkable discernment and well acquainted with native matters’ who was ‘very intimate with the author’. He recorded that Cocom ‘showed him a book which had belonged to his grandfather, a son of the Cocom who had been killed at Mayapan’. There can be no doubt that this was indeed one of the sacred and secret books of the Cocom lineage, recording its history and its prophecies. The revelation of that treasure – especially to a Spanish outsider – can only be explained as the expression of a confidence and attraction so powerful as to override traditional prescriptions and even conventional caution.

Some years after being shown these sacred books, Landa, in his official capacity and in company with his fellow Franciscans, was to burn as many of them as he could discover, together with any other sacred objects which came into his hands, precisely because they were so cherished. As he recalled in his Relación:

These people also make use of certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books their ancient matters and their sciences, and by these and by drawings and by certain signs in these drawings they understood their affairs and made others understand and taught them. We found a large number of these books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which there was not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them great affliction.

For the early period of his solitary wanderings, eager as he was to reveal the mysteries of his own faith, and clearly distinguishable in dress and behaviour from the Spanish soldiery the Maya had previously encountered, he had probably been identified by the custodians of Maya religion and learning as a fellow expert in those high matters. Committed to the patient accumulation of knowledge from whatever source, they can have had no notion of the exclusivist zeal which both fuelled Landa’s curiosity, and empowered him to abrogate it so decisively.

Landa became increasingly draconian whenever signs indicated that conversions and practices might not be wholly sincere, or worse, that some pagan practices might be persisting in secret. To this end he employed Inquisition methods of torture to extract confessions, hellbent on purging the impurities of his community. Clendinnen gives numbers of over 4,500 tortured and 158 dead.

Although Landa labelled it an episcopal inquisition, the enquiry bore little resemblance to established inquisitorial forms. In Bishop Zumarraga’s inquisition into Indian idolatries in Mexico between 1536 and 1543 procedures had been carefully prescribed and as carefully adhered to, and where torture was employed it was narrowly regulated. Spanish law recognised the danger of that weapon in the hands of a baffled or frustrated interrogator. In Yucatan records of interrogations were rarely kept, only sentences being routinely recorded. The penalties imposed – floggings, heavy fines, and periods of forced labour of up to ten years’ duration, and these only on lesser offenders – were well in excess of the limits laid down by the Mexican ecclesiastical council of 1555. The unashamed violence of the Franciscan inquisition is at once the best evidence for the political domination they had achieved in the peninsula, their anger at Indian betrayal, and their sense of the desperate urgency of the situation. Landa was later to justify his disregard of legal formalities on the grounds that:

all [the Indians] being idolaters and guilty, it was not possible to proceed strictly juridically against them … because if we had proceeded with all according to the order of the law, it would be impossible to finish with the province of Mani alone in twenty years, and meanwhile they would all become idolaters and go to hell …

That final line gives a sense of Landa’s desperate and fanatical sense of urgency, driven by the conviction that all around him would suffer eternal damnation if pagan practices were not weeded out. In such passages one obtains an idea of how terrifying Landa must have been. He was determined to save you, no matter what the cost. Clendinnen reads his memoirs with a searching eye, as he describes the penis laceration and animal and human sacrifice ceremonies of the Maya and how such rituals had convinced him that “only through punishment could such a people be improved.” Landa’s disgust with human sacrifice is clear, yet Clendinnen finds that “nowhere in the text [of his memoirs] as we have it is there any unequivocal indication that Maya Indians after accepting baptism had reverted to the practice of human sacrifice,” in spite of torture-induced confessions at the time presenting many accounts of such. Had Landa come to doubt the veracity of those accounts? He certainly had had none at the time, when his position and self-worth both depended on the righteousness of his cause and his ability to convince others of such.

There is nothing to indicate that Landa had any conscious doubt as to the truth of the confessions his probings had extracted from the Indians. Such cynicism is incompatible with all we know of his lofty and passionate spirit. He had known, and had known with complete certainty, the ‘truth’: the Indians were idolators, blasphemers and murderers. It had been his task and his duty to lay bare that truth. But he also knew that in performing that task he had been forced into moulding the evidence of their iniquities. He had pointed to mountains of idols as proof of the Indians’ idolatry: he knew that some of those ‘idols’ were not idols at all, but odd fragments and shards collected from abandoned sites by desperate men. He had claimed that the tortures were mild, a matter of ‘some vexation only’, but he had lived through those days of blood and anguish, and he knew that the confessions had been wrung from men in the extremes of physical agony. He had presented the confessions as true accounts, but he knew their confusions and contradictions, and what sustained pressure it had taken to get even a limited measure of coherence. Perhaps some individuals were not guilty of every charge laid against them, perhaps the ah-kines had not said precisely what witnesses had sworn they had said, but these considerations were trivial, and could not be allowed to impede him, for he knew children had died, God had been mocked, and that the Indians had betrayed him.

Landa was right, of course; the conversions were, if not insincere, certainly superficial–how could they not be under the circumstances, given that the natives recited their liturgies phonetically with no knowledge of their meaning, and that religious ceremony was taught to them shorn of most of its context? Yet Landa’s zeal interpreted this unsurprising consequence as the highest betrayal: “I save you from eternal damnation, and this is the thanks you give me?”

Mayor Diego Quijada was more or less powerless to change Landa’s course. Soon after his arrival, he wrote to the Crown about just how frightened he was of Landa:

There is in this province a friar called Fray Diego de Landa who, because I have taken this matter up, bears me ill will: he enjoys broils and having a finger in every pie, and he expects to rule in both spiritual and temporal matters. He is a choleric man, and I am afraid he will write to Your Majesty’s Council to my injury: I wish Your Majesty to understand that he has always been inflamed against those who have governed here, as he is against me … may Your Majesty never believe that I harbour ill will against him or any other man of religion, for they I support to the limit of my strength, for in their hands lies the Christian welfare of the Indians, and without them, all is in vain.

A compromising bureaucrat by nature, as well as one terrified of the Church, Quijada eventually buckled to all of Landa’s wishes. Initially trying to stem the power of the Franciscans, Quijada lost any leverage when Quijada threatened to denounce him to the viceroy. Landa then brought Quijada in as his loyal lieutenant, ordering him to torture the Maya on the government’s authority rather than the Church’s. Quiijada obliged.

There is no mention of the other Franciscans taking issue with Landa’s program. They were his men. But the settlers were perplexed and increasingly distressed by the sheer level of violence and coercion taking place around them, and the increasing likelihood of an all-out native revolt against the Spanish. Yet Landa was utterly intransigent and Quijada helpless.

Into this tense situation came Bishop Francisco de Toral, a well-regarded and fundamentally reformist Franciscan. Hardly radical, his main philosophical difference with Landa seems to have been the realization that natives would not immediately see the light and come to Jesus. For whatever reason, Toral very quickly sided against Landa and his portrayal of the natives as monstrous pagans. Toral immediately banned the practice of torture (to Landa’s objections), viewed the confessions with skepticism (to Landa’s objections), and took the colonists’ recommendation to end Landa’s investigation (to Landa’s extreme objections). Clendinnen suggests that Toral’s decision was made primarily on his judgment that Landa was a dangerous fanatic, and that he was manifestly incompetent in his position. Landa did little to contest Toral’s view, immediately marshaling all of his connections to try to discredit and expel Toral from the community. The two engaged in complicated political chess, which Clendinnen chronicles grippingly.

Francisco de Toral

Francisco de Toral


Toral came to view the confessions as pure fictions, and that the torture victims had all given the same explanation for them:

they had been speaking the truth honestly before the fathers and because when they did not believe them they ordered them hoisted for the torture, they had decided and agreed among themselves that all should speak of deaths and sacrifices lyingly, as soon as they were asked about it, counselling one another and understanding that by this method they would escape the said torments and prison. And that many of those who went to make their confession came back to the prison they had left and told their imprisoned companions how they had told of many deaths and sacrifices … and that they should do the same …

But Clendinnen criticizes Toral for falling into a tendentious view of the natives just as Landa had done. Where Landa had judged them as sinning pagans, Toral, consumed by historical guilt, paternalistically came to see them as innocent victims, holy children:

Within the passage of time he became increasingly, obsessively concerned with the events of 1562. The local Franciscans had not been really ‘Franciscan’ at all, but men ‘of few letters and less charity’, lacking proper training and proper discipline. And they had suffered because of defective, indeed, criminal, leadership. Toral never wavered in his conviction of Landa’s central culpability, or that Landa’s actions had been motivated by those all-too-familiar sins Franciscans had so long struggled against: pride, cruelty, anger, and the passion to dominate.

His attitude to the Indians went through a slow transformation as his social and psychological isolation increased; as he endlessly rehearsed the injustices inflicted on them. In 1562 and 1563 he had believed the Indians to have been brutally abused by the friars, but he also believed them to have been guilty of idolatries, for which he had penanced them. By March 1564 he had transformed them into pure victims, whose idols had lain buried and forgotten until the friars unleashed their murderous rage. These poor victimised creatures were as forgiving as they were innocent:

the best people I have seen in the Indies, very simple, even more obedient, charitable, free of vices, so that even in their paganism they did not eat human flesh or practice the abominable sin [sodomy], friends of the doctrine and of its ministers even though they have killed their fathers, brothers and kinsmen, and taken their goods and put sanbenitos on them and enslaved them etc., they love them and come to them and built their monasteries and give them food and hear their masses, without reference to things past … even though when I arrived here they fled from the friars, and even though when they knew a [single] friar was going to the village everyone absented themselves from it and ran off to the bush to hide, and others hanged themselves from fear of the friars, saying they did not want to fall into their hands because they were without pity, and recommending themselves to God the poor miserable ones hanged themselves, pitiable as that is to say and to hear.

So Toral constructed the intelligibility of ‘history’ out of the confusion of experience, making unambiguous shapes out of the threatening ambiguities of Franciscians who did not act as Franciscans; of Indians who were tormented victims and yet who also worshipped idols.

Clendinnen is drawing an epistemological equivalence, not a moral one. (I initially felt her to be overly harsh on Toral.) Both Landa and Toral created reductive pictures of the natives that obscured the truth rather than aid in revealing it.

Historians, particularly those of a somewhat rightist bent, have tended to treat the confessions obtained by Landa as legitimate. While not ruling out the possibility of some ongoing sacrifices, Clendinnen concludes that the confessions were generally inflated when they weren’t concocted. She gives several ingenious piece of forensic analysis for her view, of which this is the most impressive:

if each piece of information in each confession is tabulated – a tedious process, although made easier by the formulaic sequence of questions put by the interrogator – an intriguing pattern is revealed. (Here the analysis depends on sequence, and assumes the testimonies to have been taken in the order in which we have them, but internal evidence supports that assumption.) To take the confessions of Indians from Sotuta village recorded on the first day of the enquiry: what we find is a high degree of concordance between the first and third confessions, and between the second and the fourth – although the fourth also incorporates some fragments from the first and the third confessions. This pattern is completely compatible with the Indians’ claim that each witness when returned to the gaol strove to recollect what he had said, which material was discussed by the others, but which could not benefit the next Indian taken immediately for the recording of his confession. Again, in the Usil testimonies we find the same pool of names of victims being drawn on by different witnesses, although ascribed to different sacrifices, while the last witness from Tibolon drew on the names provided by the witness questioned before him, but distributed them differently.

In other words, desperate to extract themselves from the ongoing torture regiment, the imprisoned Maya schemed to give the interrogators what they wanted.

Clendinnen does not mince words about what Maya sacrifices entailed. She recounts the one extant description of such a ritual with an accompanying warrior chant:

A noble war captive, naked and painted blue, the colour of the sacred, was brought with procession and dance to an open space, and tied to a column. An ah-kin then wounded him in the genital area, so that the genital blood began to flow – as it did in the many penis-laceration rituals of the Maya – while circling, dancing warriors shot arrows at him in controlled sequence. Landa claims they aimed for the heart, implying a test of markmanship, ‘to make his chest one point like a hedgehog of arrows’, but the chant suggests rather different actions and intention:

make three fast turns
around the column of painted stone
there where the virile youth, unstained, undefiled, a man, is bound.
Make the first, and on the second turn
take up your bow, fit the arrow to the string.
Aim at his breast. It is not necessary
to use all your force
when you let fly, so that his flesh
will not be too deeply wounded.
Let him suffer little by little

The victim will not only suffer. He will bleed. The intention was not to kill, but to wound delicately, to pierce the skin and flesh so that the blood springs forth. It is likely the Maya understood the whole action not so much as the offering of a human ‘life’, but as the presentation of a noble spectacle; of a substance of great fertilising power, as blood, especially genital blood, was understood to be.

For Landa, such practices demanded salvation for their practitioners by any means necessary, and had no meaning beyond the huge marker of “sin.” For Toral, they were irrelevancies next to the injustices perpetrated on the entire people of this culture.

Mayan human sacrifice

Mayan human sacrifice


The Maya had historically tortured their own captives as well, though for ritualistic reasons rather than as a tool for extracting confessions. In the Mayan world, defeated warriors were dehumanized, enslaved, or sometimes sacrificed. I don’t intend to go down the rabbit hole of passing moral judgment on Mayan culture. Any society foreign to our own is likely to have beliefs and rituals which we will find repugnant or even outright evil. Certainly both that of the Franciscans and the Maya possessed them. The ongoing question of where one draws the line of judgment is likely never to be resolved, but Clendinnen deserves great praise for exercising a great deal of perspective and restraint in her chronicle, presenting reasons rather than judgments. Her shaping no doubt evinces a desire to make clear the extent of the barbarous practices of the Franciscans and of Landa in particular, but every side is given space to give their case, even if some are baldly unconvincing. It seems many historians trust readers less to make such judgments these days, prescribing instead the proper views and reactions to the events they chronicle. But loud moralizing will not only look badly dated as views of what is proper evolve further, it also treats the readers as children, and we should not be surprised if people treated as children only know how to act like children. For me, I think that judgments about which society was “better” are meaningless, but also that it is Landa’s heritage, the heritage of the Spanish and the conquered, that won out and which helped birth society as we know it today. It is the one which merits closest examination for what dangers it may still pose, just as the Mayan heritage (what little we have of it) merits examination for the contrasts and commonalities it offers to us.

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction

  1. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction
  2. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money
  3. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance
  4. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes
  5. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 4. Individual Freedom
  6. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 5. The Money Equivalent of Personal Values
  7. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 6. The Style of Life

Sociologist Georg Simmel published his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900 in Germany. Drawing on Kant, Marx, and Weber among many, many others, the book has Simmel’s singular style that separates him from pretty much every other sociologist that has ever lived. The closest analogue I know might be C. Wright Mills in his more poetic moods, but where Mills is fiery and desperate, Simmel is far more reflective. In looking at money as a ground and metaphor for modern human social existence, Simmel often seems awestruck and overwhelmed by the sheer power and meaning of money in our society. Just as often he expresses reserved horror at the injustice and inhumanity that is lubricated by monetary commensurability.

The Philosophy of Money is a hybrid work of philosophy and sociology, perhaps a “philosophical anthropology” similar to that which Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg would later engage in. It is only loosely an economic work, because Simmel never gets to the point where he can generalize over the behavior of economic populations. Rather, he focuses on the psychological and sociological effects of money as a cultural determinant. And it’s very much the idea of money rather than capital or work. He is fascinated by the implications of the introduction of a universally commensurable measure of value that has no intrinsic value of its own. Rather than focusing on how people argue over the allocations of values, he looks at how the prior requirement, the nature of valuation itself, influences those discussions.

The main themes, as I read them, are the following:

  1. Money as a structural metaphor for human existence (almost every aspect of it)
  2. The dual nature of the word “value,” moral and monetary
  3. The physicalization, universalization, and commodification of value (through money or otherwise)
  4. The effects of valuation and commensurability on human relations

The final theme ultimately becomes most important, but Simmel spends time laying the groundwork for it by examining the nature of value and how it is assigned and fixed, before he then moves on to how value is standardized and made portable and universal by money. Simmel’s treatment of “value” is heavily influenced by Kant’s first and third critique, which isn’t too surprising given that Simmel came out of the 19th century neo-Kantian movement which wanted to reclaim Kant’s worth after Hegelianism had petered out. Value, being something not assigned by nature but by creatures, becomes a crucial cognitive category in life, despite being something that each of us has comparatively little control over. (Language is also a category of this sort, though at least in 1900 “value”‘s constructed nature was a bit more clear than that of language.)

Simmel makes clear just how philosophical it is by declaring in the introduction that money has attracted his attention because it is the purest and most ubiquitous manifestation of the perennial problem that has vexed philosophers, the relation between the universal and the particular:

Money is simply a means, a material or an example for the presentation of relations that exist between the most superficial, ‘realistic’ and fortuitous phenomena and the most idealized powers of existence, the most profound currents of individual life and history. The significance and purpose of the whole undertaking is simply to derive from the surface level of economic affairs a guideline that leads to the ultimate values and things of importance in all that is human.

In the tradition of early modern philosophers, Simmel writes with no notes, footnotes, or references, and mentions of other authors are sparing. In a dense, 500-page work, this is quite foreboding, and Simmel seems to have been one of the last to get away with it to this extent. In compensation, though, he adopts what I can only call a sonata-like stye. Unlike James Joyce in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, Simmel isn’t consciously trying to fit a musical form onto his writing. It’s just that because he is writing in a semi-casual yet resolutely abstract manner, he develops a very particular technique for keeping readers (and himself) located in the flow of the work. He repeats his major themes quite often, rephrasing them but leaving the underlying points unmistakable. (In fact, by rephrasing the points over and over, he makes it easier to grasp what is essential among those points.) So where Joyce’s chapter is one of the less successful conceits of Ulysses, because the form and content do not reach enough of a unity (similar to “Oxen of the Sun”) to give the feel of an organic whole, The Philosophy of Money feels very organic, through-composed, and linear. This, as well as Simmel’s comparatively plain German style, are helpful features, because Simmel is doing deep conceptual work rather than case studies or data analysis.

Alternatively, you can think of The Philosophy of Money as following a tree structure, points and subpoints emerging from a common root and diverging, except where most philosophers simply present their overarching root theses and then cover the tree branch by branch assuming the root theses have been fully assimilated, Simmel repeats some of the root and main branch material every time he finishes one subbranch or leaf and goes to another. This makes the book redundant at times, but also makes it far easier to absorb.

Simmel was aware that he was going against the current of both anthropological and philosophical investigations. His book is closer to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities than it is to Durkheim or even Weber, except Musil manifested his archetypes as “characters” and developed his themes through the stretched conceits of fiction. (Musil attended Simmel’s classes around this time.) Simmel just thinks and thinks and thinks, touching on specifics only as the urge strikes him. He is aware of the dangers of this approach, yet he finds his anchor in the concrete existence of money, the substance which we see and feel and count, something that is right before us and lacks the abstruse invisibility of “cognition” or “being.”

The unity of these investigations does not lie, therefore, in an assertion about a particular content of knowledge and its gradually accumulating proofs but rather in the possibility which must be demonstrated—of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning. The great advantage of art over philosophy is that it sets itself a single, narrowly defined problem every time: a person, a landscape, a mood. Every extension of one of these to the general, every addition of bold touches of feeling for the world is made to appear as an enrichment, a gift, an undeserved benefit. On the other hand, philosophy, whose problem is nothing less than the totality of being, tends to reduce the magnitude of the latter when compared with itself and offers less than it seems obliged to offer. Here, conversely, the attempt is made to regard the problem as restricted and small in order to do justice to it by extending it to the totality and the highest level of generality.

Philosophy has become too windy, he says, and no longer touches down on anything that most people can recognize. Money is something that we all know.

Leftism and the Banausic Thinker: From Plato to Verso

This is an essay about defining one’s self as better than the world, as purer than the world. The urge to take your marbles and go home is a very old one, yet its role in art and politics is paradoxical, since taking your marbles and going home would seem to suggest that you will be ineffectual and unremembered. In fact, I think that is what happens most of the time. But the purist’s ability to survive latently in society owes to a peculiar form of elitism. Sometimes the elitism is obvious; other times it hides under a mask of ideology.

Plato and Banausia

In her excellent study Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (1995), Andrea Wilson Nightingale delves into the various strategies Plato uses to distinguish his fresh new domain, philosophy, from whatever it is that everyone else is doing, which is most certainly not philosophy. Plato is not just talking about poets and sophists here, though they’re definitely on the list of pretenders to the throne, but also others who might claim to be doing philosophy, like Isocrates. Isocrates, either had a very fortunate or unfortunate name, was one of the best-paid philosophers of his time, and the dialogues seem to direct a fair number of barbs his way. Plato makes him the target of a seeming bit of nasty dramatic irony at the end of the Phaedrus, when Socrates predicts great, great things for the young Isocrates.

In particular, Plato uses a particular word when Socrates attacks these non-philosophers. They are banausic.

Plato exploits and redirects the rhetoric of banausia–rhetoric which was traditionally used by aristocrats to express their contempt for manual and/or servile labor. Take, for example, the claim found at Symposium 203a, where Socrates says:

“God does not mix with man, but it is through this [daemon] that all intercourse and conversation takes place between the gods and men, whether they are awake or sleeping. And the person who is wise in this regard is a daemonic man, but the person who is wise in any other regard, whether in the realm of arts and sciences or manual labor, is banausic.

The dichotomy drawn here between the “daemonic man” (who is, of course, the philosopher) and the “banausic” individual recurs at Theaetetus 176b-d, where Socrates says:

“God is in no way unjust, but is as just as it is possible to be, and there is nothing more similar to god than the man who becomes as just as possible. It is concerning this activity that a man is revealed as truly clever or else worthless and cowardly. For the knowledge of this is wisdom and virtue in the true sense, and the ignorance of it is manifest folly and viciousness. All other things that appear to be cleverness and wisdom–whether their sphere is politics or the other arts–are vulgar or banausic.

It’s generally held that Greek culture disparaged merchants and laborers in favor of the aristocratic warrior class (see M. I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, for example). The humiliation, feebleness, and ugliness of cuckolded craftsgod Hephaestus is another indication, in contrast to Athena, who may patronize the crafts but is just as much the patron of warriors. Nightingale claims Plato to have taken that distinction even further: now even true knowledge is no longer the province of the banausic, but only accessible to a very specific elite.

Nightingale summarizes the history of the usage of the term banausic, finding it to be “highly derogatory” in usage by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. But what exactly is it to be banausic? The most common translation is “mechanical” (Levett’s Theaetetus, Allen’s and Nehamas/Woodruff’s Symposium, McDowell’s Theaeteus), though there is also “materialistic” (Howatson’s Symposium). That captures the English sense of the word “banausic” (it is an English word, meaning mundane, rote, or mechanical), but the usages of it in Greek philosophy are specific enough to mean far more than just that. (And arguably, “mechanical” is anachronistic relative to what it suggests to us.)

The associations suggest a few possibilities, in ascending order of extremity:

  1. Banausic thought has to do with automated, rote “know-how” type thought processes, distinct from the refined thought of a philosopher.
  2. Banausic thought is that which is commodified, exchanged, bought and sold, and no better than any other good for sale.
  3. Banausic thought is any thought directed toward a particular practical outcome, any thought that isn’t wholly disinterested and detached from the mortal world, period.

Nightingale quotes Aristotle to the effect that even the crafts aren’t inherently banausic, only if they are done for the sake of trade, and suggests that Plato agreed. Thus her position is that Plato means something more extreme than (1): somewhere between (2) and (3):

Plato, in sum, suggests that the philosopher occupies a disinterested position, since his wisdom is by definition incommensurable with all other “goods”… The philosopher, as it seems, is a mercenary who is no mercenary: an outsider who serves the city free of charge.

Some (like F.M. Cornford and Gilbert Ryle) imply that Plato’s position is almost completely that of (3): that in the face of practical political failure (first in Athens, then in Syracuse), an embittered Plato concluded that any civic engagement by a philosopher, no matter how disinterested, is partly corrupt and banausic. Plato doesn’t explicitly require the philosopher to be a recluse, but the demand not to engage in commerce certainly seems to extend to not working, laboring, or otherwise participating in an economy:

Plato denies that there is any human virtue in work and that certain aspects of it even appear to him to be the antithesis of what is essential in man.

Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought in the Ancient Greeks

Nice work if you can get it, then.

The restriction on the commodification of philosophy would seem to restrict philosophy to those who can do without money, either by being rich aristocrats like Plato and Aristotle, or living in poverty like Diogenes and the Cynics. The ten years of mathematics Plato wants for the rulers of his ideal city are perfect training in this light, since mathematics was of little occupational value in classical Greece, having never been linked to practical applications. For Plato, mathematics has an appealing character, being full of (seemingly) indisputable truths with (apparently) no practical or commercial value, rendering it immune to the charge of being banausic. Presumably, after you’ve spent ten years doing something of no commercial value, you are sufficiently insulated from commerce to enter into the more marketable realm of philosophy.

Yes, philosophy was more profitable than mathematics in ancient Greece. The sophists were charging huge amounts for their services in how to persuade people, and Isocrates made quite a mint as well. But to clear the bar against banausia, wisdom doesn’t just have to be non-commercial, but also incommensurable, incapable of being perverted or corrupted through political or civic ambitions. (Presumably acceptable goals would be deployment of such wisdom to serve the Good and the True, though exactly what would qualify is hard to specify. By the Laws, at least, Plato was willing to get quite mundane in his prescriptions.) According to Nightingale, Plato’s philosopher must embrace an “outsider” position; he must break free of any contingent social fabric, similar to how Nietzsche sees his ideal man emancipating himself from his surrounding stupidity. It’s not that the philosopher rejects creating all practical results, but that most participation of the world is so toxic as to make philosophical thought impossible.

In Plato’s domain, being an outsider was not a position sought by much of anyone. The polis was so tightly-knit and bereft of privacy that most modern people would find it suffocating. But sometime late in the 18th century,  it became quite popular indeed to declare oneself an outsider, and especially in the United States, this became a tradition and a marker of authenticity. So this produced a new problem, which is how to tell the daemonic outsiders from the banausic outsiders.

Daemonic Art

Plato’s classification prefigures that of the Romantic position of the artist in touch with fundamental Ideas of Beauty and Truth. Thus, Plato wants the artists out because they and their “complicated mimesis” are too much in competition for the title of “Non-Banausic Thinkers,” as one common interpretation goes.

What separates the atemporal pleiad of creators of texts from the general run of writers acclaimed by critics and applauded by the public at large, is the fact they perceive what the latter reckon buzzes with life to be either worked out or dead. The innovative author, insensitive to the applause and reproaches of his contemporaries, knows he is surrounded by colleagues who are dead–whatever fuss these people make accumulating honours and prizes and aspiring, in the manner of some second-rate academics, to the glory of immortality…The history of literature, of each literature, is the history of these unmistakable voices which through the centuries speak to each other and captivate us with the magic of their singularity.

Juan Goytisolo, “To Read or to Re-Read”

Well, it’s one thing to think these things about yourself, and quite another to be right about them. And the problem of self-classification has never really gone away. I can tell you who I’d put in that skein of real creators, but there is quite literally no way for me to convince you I’m right (except through rhetorical force and force of personality, but I’m talking about actual proof here). This problem of being unable to establish a final authority for what art is truly daemonic and which is merely banausic, apart from mere estimations based on the durability of various works, is a practical marker for separating art from politics and science. Science and politics depend on at least the possibility of final agreement, the sense that there’s some negotiation that will win at least grudging acceptance from almost everybody.

In other words, science and politics are banausic because they depend on the commensuration of different schemata, and the results revise past, supposed solutions into ones that are generally accepted (often grudgingly) to be a bit better. Such negotiation over aesthetic value opens the trap door that causes art to drop into the realm of the banausic. If I permit your criticism to change my opinion of some novel, I’m doing so on my own terms, not for the sake of some practical nicety or some new superior synthesis. If I hold on to the value of one book which the aesthetic synthesis rejects as worthless, that is an acceptable and sensible position in art, rather than a dead-end or a reactionary position as a similar position would be in politics or science (not that it couldn’t be right, potentially–just that the terms of the debate are different). When the zeitgeist dredges up Stefan Zweig and declares that we should all be reading his books, and Michael Hofmann goes on the attack against him and says no, he’s still worthless, it’s a very firm either/or distinction: either Zweig is daemonic or he is banausic, and there’s nothing in between.

Now, it’s exactly such commensuration that makes relative assessment possible. Plato doesn’t think that argument between philosophers and non-philosophers is of much value. The only people who are fit to argue are those who have already secluded themselves from society. So Plato does seem to be making a generalized ad hominem: unless you have taken yourself out of society, you are a banausic thinker, regardless of what you say.

Banausic Politics, False Consciousness

Plato effectively makes a sweeping accusation of false consciousness across all of society. Far more comprehensive than anything Marx put across, Plato says that merely engaging in craft, trade, rhetoric, or politics is sufficient to cut one off from access to truth and justice. He does not say that he is the only person qualified to make such an accusation, but the standards he sets are quite high: you must have no stake in society, you must not trade in society, you must not negotiate with society’s members.

More recent accusations of false consciousness lower the bar a fair bit, but less than it seems. The bogeyman of anti-liberal leftist thought is that which is defined as “neoliberalism”; the term has been so sweepingly used across different political and economic systems that I think it’s pointless to try to define it. Like “(late) capitalism” itself, “neoliberalism” has become, in Hans Blumenberg’s memorable words, “a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world.” As “socialism” has served for the right, “neoliberalism” is now simply the term applied to all that is bad in the world, whether it is laissez-faire libertarianism, corporate welfare, gentrification, or drone warfare. “Neoliberalism” becomes a single, overarching system uniting and enveloping any and all power structures. This goes alongside calls to exempt one’s self from the system altogether, with declarations that democracy offers a false choice, the illusion of freedom, the right to be a slave, and so on and so forth. (Zizek is probably the most famous promulgator of these homilies, but they are quite common.)

With this comes the statement that work in a neoliberal society is demeaning, draining, and corrupting. Indeed it often is, but the Leftist critique is totalizing: the terms of work are such that one cannot escape such degradation even in a relatively comfortable job–that is, unless one ascends to the somewhat amorphous realm of the upper classes, at which point you become a tacit oppressor. Either way, your existence is inauthentic. Neoliberal existence is inauthentic, something from which you must be emancipated. Alternately, if you work a day job and suffer from what used to be called liberal guilt, it is something which mandates self-flagellation.

Those who are making the critique are thus placing themselves in a position similar to Plato’s. Their thought is not up for grabs (except by Verso and Zero, I guess), and they declare themselves immune to charges of collaboration with the ubiquitous neoliberal regime. Ergo, academic positions are very important, for they are some of the very few sanctioned jobs that don’t open one’s self up to charges of banausic thinking, labor organizing being another, more time-consuming one. (Plato would never accept this, of course, as the pursuit of an academic career and salary would already be sufficiently corrupting to make philosophical thought impossible.) The purgative power of “critiques” becomes a self-protecting scheme to ensure that the power of the truth is not diluted. Those who disagree with the critiques are seen to have a vested interest in the system–that is, they are banausic.

Leftism becomes, in this case, one of Mancur Olson’s “latent groups,” which exist only in opposition to a dominant group and do not seek to grow, lest they lose their sense of definition. In How Institutions Think, Mary Douglas elaborated on Olson’s latent groups by functionally describing how such a latent, idealist group survives based on three defining factors, which should all sound very familiar to those who’ve traveled in leftist circles:

  1. Weak leadership, owing to the tendency of members to leave or schism over even a minimal ideological or practical disagreement
  2. A strong boundary between members and non-members, maintained through group policing of purity, commitment, and in-group equality
  3. A tacit, shared belief in an evil conspiracy (e.g., neoliberalism) outside the group

The strong boundary is another way of declaring the incommensurability of the group’s values with the values of those outside the group. The group is pure; everyone else is a willing or unwilling victim of the conspiracy. Such a purist community endures (tenuously) via the persistent, though unconscious, reification of the wider conspiracy:

1. C, the belief in conspiracy, is an effect of weak leadership, and strong boundary.
2. C is beneficial in keeping the community, Z, in being.
3. C is unintended by Z so no insulting charge of duplicity stands against the believers.
4. Because of weak leadership, no consensus can be mustered for formulating or applying laws or for punishing deviants. The threat to secede can be indirectly controlled by the strong boundary, which automatically insures that exit will be costly. So only oblique political action is possible; hence, there is the tendency to check exploitative behavior by accusing incipient faction leaders of principled immorality. The activity of accusing, X, reinforces the belief, C, in outside conspiracy, but C maintains X. These causal links are not perceived.
5. C maintains weak leadership and strong boundary by actually splitting the community or expelling when treachery is suspected, producing a history to make every would-be leader nervous.

Banausia, then, is the conspiracy of society. The more maximally general it is, the better. “Neoliberalism” is one form of such a conspiracy; there is no shortage of others.

But for a self-proclaimed leftist, this latent group attitude is self-defeating: it is the elitism that dare not speak its name. If you are Plato and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, it is at least consistent to reserve the fruits of wisdom for a very select few while secluding yourself from society. If you are Lenin and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, you think you know better than everyone and have no trouble enforcing that belief by violence and dictatorship. If, however, your stated goal is enlightened liberation and growing awareness, the division of thought into one tiny wedge of Truth (accessible to you and your mates) and one gigantic wedge of Banausia (left for everyone else) makes you incapable of interfacing with the world on any terms outside your own narrow, pure argot. And indeed, many Leftist groups are wary of any growth that would threaten their strong boundaries.

The radical activist Saul Alinsky, who certainly got results, was notable for his sheer lack of purity, his indifference to ideological principles beyond some very rough anti-authoritarian and egalitarian ethics. That is politics. If, on the other hand, your believe your thought to be incommensurable, and believe the thought of all others to be banausic, then you will view engagement with the toxic heap of neoliberalism as an unalloyed evil–even as you engage with it–and you will sink into the dustbin of history on a mountain of critiques, tweets, tumblrs, and Verso Books.

When one reads philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Alain Badiou on their Marxist and/or communist commitments, one sometimes has the impression that questions of capital and class inequality are of only moderate interest to them and serve mainly as a pretext for jousts of a different nature entirely.

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

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