Monday, July 12, 2004

Of course, after all

The tell-tale "after all" -- much like its cousin "of course" -- in the following sentence, from T. H Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution, alerts you to the sentence's dubiousness, its presumption, its tenuousness, its speciousness: "After all, what ultimately separated the modern period from traditional history was the ability of ordinary men and women to establish a meaningful and distinct sense of self through the exercise of individual choice, a process of ever more egalitarian self-fashioning that was itself the foundation of a late eighteenth-century liberal society." It's breathtaking how much is conflated here, and how many contested terms (liberal society, self-fashioning, ordinary men, traditional history) are presented as resolved and unproblematic. An entire historical episteme is blithely reduced to a single concept, identity constuction through consumer choice. I agree that this consumer-identity was a new thing, and it was actively dispersed to "ordinary" people, but it's not necessarily egalitarian, and it's an open question whether this should be celebrated. It seems more like a simultaneously more precise and more covert mode of social control, where one takes upon oneself the duty of self-discipline and adherence to the social order almost unknowingly by voluntarily subjecting oneself to the whims of fashion and the debilitating obsessional desires for essentially meaningless things. It's a false freedom, a mockery of the truly egalitarian, which would be an equal stake in activity, not passive consumption -- making the society one lives in and wielding a respectable power, not the demoralized purchasing power earned after mind-numbingly pointless work.

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