Profound Thought of the Night

Courtesy of Norbert Elias, in The Civilizing Process, in his section “On the Eating of Meat”:

Although human phenomena–whether attitudes, wishes or structures–may be looked at on their own, independently of their connections with the social life of people, they are by nature nothing but substantializations of human relations and of human behaviour, embodiments of social and mental life. This is true of speech, which is nothing other than human relations turned into sound; it is true of art, science, economics and politics; it is true both of phenomena which rank high on our scale of values and other which seem trivial or worthless. But it is often precisely these latter, apparently trivial phenomena that give us clear and simple insight iunto the structure and development of the psyche and its relations which are at first denied us by the former.

Two of my favorite theses served together like a confection of peanut butter and chocolate: 1) that speech expresses not interiority but exteriority–and thereby is properly the object of social analysis rather than metaphysical speculation (yes, I know he only says it as an aside); and 2) that the smallest, most banal and boring objects carry the possibility within them for the deepest social reflection. And thus Elias goes on to give a capsule account of modernity in his history of the preparation, presentation and consumption of meat. Sure, it’s audacious, but that’s the appeal of Elias.

This week is fashion and ritual week for my seminar, and it’s always a pleasure to read formative texts again in preparation for teaching. This is probably the third or fourth time in my life I’ve taken a complete set of notes on James Carey’s “Cultural Approach to Communication” (perhaps my own perverse enactment of his ritual model) but it’s interesting how in classic essays one sees things anew each time. This time I was struck but his discussion of programmes for action — communication — that immediately followed his discussion of maps. How very Bruno Latour of him.

Elias is formative in a much more proximate sense — he came into my life as I was revising my work on doctors and patients and dealing with questions of revulsion and disgust. But I am drawn in by the Weber-meets-Freud symmertry of his work even as I know if it weren’t for his charasmatic mode of presentation, I’d be having none of it. Oh well, I never did want to practice a science anyway.