A great book, easy to read, though parts (for instance the first section contrasting the German concept of Kultur with the French concept of civilizatA great book, easy to read, though parts (for instance the first section contrasting the German concept of Kultur with the French concept of civilization) were dealing with unfamiliar questions which are perhaps dated. Keep in mind, this was written in the 1930s and so has a different tone, and different areas of emphasis (and blank spots) than one might expect of more recent work. However, at least in terms of keeping it easy to read for someone with no academic background in sociology, the tone at least was a plus for me.
Elias weaves a tight narrative, of modern west-european manners (personal etiquette – ranging from what cutlery to eat what food with, to how to sleep in a bed with a stranger, to how to speak to people, to where to take a dump) having a genealogy that can be traced back to court society in France in the late Middle Ages. (Elias traces things back further than that, to the early medieval period, however most of his focus is on the key five hundred years beginning in the 15th century).
During this period, in a variety of areas of everyday life, Elias shows how there was a clear pattern of personal behaviour becoming more repressed, of people becoming more physically uptight, and more alienated from their bodily functions and spontaneous urges. Along with this, a new affective regime came into play, giving far more importance to feelings of being "sensitive", "embarrassed" and "ashamed".
In terms of the positive, i want to say that i really enjoyed this book, and am in fact surprised that it has not been checked out more by those rads into things like anti-civ and primitivism, as Elias's framework integrates personal habits with political structures and with the rise of the very concept of "civilization", in a convincing (if incomplete) manner. At its best, i could see The History of Manners being read productively alongside Wilhelm Reich or even Alice Miller, and certainly alongside folks writing about the body with a feminist queer anticolonial approach. Certainly, in terms of understanding the past thousand years of cultural change in the colonizing world, i think Elias could serve as a backgrounder to Foucault, or to Aries, or to more radical writers like Federici.
In terms of the negative, Elias's argument is jarringly flat and undynamic, in large part i think because of his top-down optic. Consider this passage, in which he very much sums up his overall argument:
“This délicatesse, this sensibility and a highly-developed feeling for the ‘embarrassing’, is at first all a distinguishing feature of small courtly circles, then of court society as a whole. This applies to language in exactly the same way as to eating habits. [...] In conjunction with a very specific social situation, the feelings and affects are first transformed in the upper class, and the structure of society as a whole permits this changed affect standard to spread slowly throughout society.” (115
What is put forth is an internal process which spreads, including more and more people within its field of influence, but not in any important way being impacted or changing through this process of expansion. Indeed, it is almost a passive and seamless extension. Not ever being resisted, or subverted, even as it becomes the cultural heritage and identity of millions of people, classes and societies hitherto beyond its horizon. Until eventually by the 20th century it is just part of how almost everyone in these societies thinks everyone should act -- i.e. don't piss in the curtains, don't wipe your nose on the tablecloth, don’t put food back in the common serving dish after it has been in your mouth, etc.
This may or may not be an accurate portrayal of this process in its inception and in the first one or two hundred years of its development. However, at the moment of the bourgeoisie’s ascent and establishment as the hegemonic class – let us say, the 17th century – things seem to have developed according to a very different dynamic.
It is here that i find another account, that of Silvia Federici in her book Caliban and the Witch (esp. the chapter “The Great Caliban”) to be particularly valuable as a corrective to Elias. As Federici puts it, “It was in the attempt to form a new type of individual that the bourgeoisie engaged in that battle against the body that has become its historic mark.” (CATW, 135) Federici argues that this was not a passive process without subjects or antagonism, but a violent act of class war against the former peasantry (uprooted by the enclosures) and new proletariat, imposing the habits and ways-of-life necessary for the bourgeoisie’s new capitalist order –
“Like Caliban, the proletariat personified the ‘ill humors’ that hid in the social body, beginning with the disgusting monsters of idleness and drunkenness. In the eyes of his masters, its life was pure inertia, but at the same time was uncontrolled passion and unbridled fantasy, ever ready to explode in riotous commotions. Above all, it was indiscipline, lack of productivity, incontinence, lust for immediate physical satisfaction...” (CABW, 154)
This was about more than getting the new workers to show up at work on time (though it was that too). It was about instilling quiet, subconscious consent even, what Freud would call the superego or what Elias calls drive control or what the young rebels in May 68 recognized as “the cop in your head”. So that when quiet won’t cut it and consent breaks down, violent energies are unleashed sideways or downwards, anywhere but up. Or as Lee Maracle put it in her poem Hate, “Blinded by the niceties and polite liberality; We can’t see our enemy; so, we’ll just have to kill each other.” Niceties, politeness ... exactly what we are talking about here ...
Indeed, Federici herself cites Elias, nodding at his research, when she states that “the definition of a new relation with the body did not remain at a purely ideological level. Many practices began to appear in daily life to signal the deep transformations occurring in this domain: the use of cutlery, the development of shame with respect to nakedness, the advent of ‘manners’ that attempted to regulate how one laughed, walked, sneezed, how one should behave at the table, and to what extent one could sing, joke, play.” (CABW, 153)
Not unrelated to the problems with his top-down optic, Elias also largely ignores gender differences, and the specific role and realities of mothering (and being a "good mother" as a social construct and ideal), despite noting that with the bourgeois revolutions the role of "installing drive control" in children, of inculcating them with the ever-more-repressive manners, fell suddenly to the family, and also despite his observation about how the new manners-regime led to a lengthening of the period of life we term childhood (something examined in more detail, if not 100% convincingly, by Philippe Aries). Unfortunately, Federici can’t help us here either, as the historical construction of and changes to childhood are somewhat beyond the ken of her argument, and are indeed rarely theorized thesedays from a radical perspective.
Furthermore, in terms of this inattention to gender and women, consider how many of the attributes of the developing “good manners” in the period in question match up with our ideas of what “femininity” or “being a lady” was during that same time period. Indeed, manliness and masculinity, at least as we see it looking back, seems to exist with less ease alongside injunctions on how to eat, how to speak, how to dress, etc., all of which seem somehow unvirile. Whereas emotional discomfort with physical laxity is something more common amongst women, eventually manifesting as generalized body shame. As this Sociological Images article (http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/...) pointed out, “Generally, women are expected to have better control of their body, to be more polite, and to avoid offending others. All of these things are consistent with being more discreet with farts and poops.”
Returning to and crossreferencing this with Elias, this may be why court society and that kind of upper class seems not only effete (a term which today means affected and pretentious, overly-mannered, but which comes from the Latin effetus which meant “worn out by bearing young” – an etymology bringing all this together nicely methinks) but also effeminate to our eyes. One can imagine a complex but very illuminating series of historical-social relations that produced this disjunction, but unfortunately this is wholly absent from Elias. Or at least from this book of his. (Here i should mention that i have not read Elias’s accompanying volume, Power and Civility – some of these lacunae may be addressed there.)
Yet another area where Elias’s top-down optic seems to limit considerations of the process at play is in providing alternate explanations for aspects of the manners-drift. Everything according to Elias was contained by a process within the upper class, internal to what would be known as Western Europe, and it all was driven by spiralling repression of the urges (drive control) without any rational basis – in cases where scientists would later show a health benefit (in terms of hygiene for instance) Elias insists that this was irrelevant because the change in manners came centuries before such “rational explanations” about disease or health were known. However, “rational explanations” is a pretty vague and loaded concept, and kind of tautologically excludes anyone not part of the “civilizing” or “civilized” classes and society itself.
Against this, i would suspect that injunctions about what we would today call hygiene were not solely developed out of an alienation from the body (although they may have been encouraged by this social development), but also from learning beneficial practices from non-ruling-class cultures and peoples. To give but one example, many Jews in Europe observed a wide variety of rules having to do with food preparation and consumption, and also with other forms of what we would call hygiene, in the period in question. Elias ignores the existence of these parallel traditions and cultures, intermixed but distinct as they seem to have been. Never mind interaction with peoples outside of Western Europe, with two brief exceptions (the Byzantine princess with her fork, and the Chinese chopstick, each of which are mentioned in contradistinction to Western Europe’s less civilized cutlery at the time, but not in a way that upsets the model of the development of cutlery in Western Europe being an entirely internal process originating within the highest levels of the ruling class). I don’t think it is irrelevant to note that in most societies which lacked such “rational explanation” for disease, women – again that undercontemplated group in Elias’s account – played the major role in developing, passing down, and implementing these protocols on a daily level.
i wanted to note these shortcomings, just because they were there and occurred to me as i read The History of Manners. But i would still strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in European history, especially in the changes between the medieval and modern periods, and in the ways in which political structures and changes interact with personal habits and inclinations. In other words, for those wanting to unpack the socio-cultural and psycho-historical underpinnings of that famous feminist observation, you know, that "the personal is political"....more
This is a really nice book. It is not Valis or the Mars Trilogy or the Iron Council, it is a quick fun and light read, with a believable, coherent, anThis is a really nice book. It is not Valis or the Mars Trilogy or the Iron Council, it is a quick fun and light read, with a believable, coherent, and interesting story. A nice relaxing yarn, which at times i could not put down. A touch of humour but not too much, some romance though thankfully that did not ruin it, a lot of political (in the sense of jockeying factions, not in the sense of Marx/Lenin/Mao) plot, and a cool ending set to segue into other stories.
A sentient lobster civilization, isolationist polymorphously perverse peacekeepers, jacques cousteau and more ... ...more
This may be a great book, if the reader already knows a lot about Bismarck and 19th century Germany. However, as i picked it up hoping to learn aboutThis may be a great book, if the reader already knows a lot about Bismarck and 19th century Germany. However, as i picked it up hoping to learn about both -- and also hoping for an enjoyable read -- i was really disappointed. The author glides over events and details, mentioning things in a very quick and cursory manner, and then moves on. It is not so much a "political history" in the sense of a history of Bismarck's life in its political context, and looking at his political impact, as it is an overview of the issues and events that Bismarck was involved in politically, giving just enough background information to let the reader know what s/he is reading about, but if you don't have any background knowledge about the significance of these events ... well, you'll be hard pressed to get it here
i mean, reading the book, i did get a clear sense of what kind of person Bismarck was in his professional life -- a master-manipulator, a brilliant orator, a vindictive and spiteful opponent -- but really i also knew that just from the introduction, where the author seems to have tried to balance the exclusive focus on Bismarck's career in later chapters with a bunch of psychological theories about the man. But even that is bizarre -- like the claim that he was driven in life by hatred of his mother, made in the introduction ... and then in the entire book i don't think his mother appears even once! This is typical.
i would recommend this book for people who already have read a good biography of the Iron Chancellor, and are already familiar with the story of 19th century Europe and Germany's formation and place in it. With all of that background, i imagine this book would serve as a useful summary and reference guide as to the former's place within the latter. But for everyone else, i would suggest looking elsewhere first......more
It started not very good. i put it down for a year, then went back to it. After i got through the first chapter it was good. i thought this was gonnaIt started not very good. i put it down for a year, then went back to it. After i got through the first chapter it was good. i thought this was gonna be a winner,on different levels -- space war, mythopoetic background, character development, thinking about how strange the universe could be -- and then it crashed, and in the last quarter of the book plummeted straight downhill, full of corny cliches and saw-that-coming-a-mile-away "twists". Really.
The romance angle was bad. But what was worse was how didactic the whole thing was. This is what turned a possible four-star book into a two-star, gotta read it all just to say i can, kinda read....more
So this book gets four stars, but with a big caveat. It won't be of interest to everyone, and is not in any way an extensive study of anything, exceptSo this book gets four stars, but with a big caveat. It won't be of interest to everyone, and is not in any way an extensive study of anything, except several months in the life of the author, back when she was forty years younger and the meanings of things like "feminism", "lesbian", "left" and "revolution" were not completely different, but definitely not the same.
That said, the book gets the four stars because it was very quick and easy to read (a big plus for me), not boring, seemed honest, and managed to give an unusually vivid glimpse at how gay men, lesbians, and the left related at one very precise point in time, where things were in flux and changing. It is a snapshot, and a memoir, not an MA thesis.
i often feel a bit of a disconnect with how the dynamic history of these movements is flattened in academic and activist accounts, and i think Cordova's telling of a few months of her life (a very particular few months) as a lesbian leader in LA could serve as a good antidote to this.
That said, i also felt the book read in an almost embarrassingly naive, let-me-be-a-tourist-guide-to-the-strange-and-wacky-scene-we-had-when-we-were-kids, tone to it, especially in the first chapters, which took some getting used to. Still not sure if this is a shortcoming of the author, or of the reader (!), or maybe just an inevitable consequence of telling this kind of story now.
Long and short of it, i will be recommending this book as a quick read to friends who are interested in how feminism and political lesbianism intersected with revolutionary politics for a moment during the New Left. This book captures that nicely. At the same time, i will be warning them that there is a lot of silly relationship soap opera drama in it, and that it can read in a bit of an embarrassing "we were so radical then" kinda way. (Which i guess i shouldda been prepared for, given the title)...more
What a great quick meditation on the 20th century. Not a surprise that the author was briefly a Spart, which are probably the 2nd-most-tankie-trots (tWhat a great quick meditation on the 20th century. Not a surprise that the author was briefly a Spart, which are probably the 2nd-most-tankie-trots (the Marcyites of course win by a mile) i have encountered. The interview was not one of Bisson's best, but the story itself was stellar. And as with the other PM Outspoken Authors alt-history title (K.S. Robinson's Lucky Strike) the author's reflections on the story were at least as interesting. Well worth checking out if you, like me, spend large amounts of time pondering the significance of 20th century maoism, trotskyism, and "real existing socialism"....more