Monday, December 12, 2011

Foucault -- By the sweat of thy brow

On page 55 of Madness and Civilization Foucault writes, “In [the] first phase of the industrial world, labor did not seem linked to the problems it was to provoke; it was regarded, on the contrary as a general solution, an infallible panacea, a remedy to all forms of poverty. Labor and poverty were located in a simple opposition, in inverse proportion to each other. As for the power, its special characteristic, of abolishing poverty, labor – according to the classical interpretation – possessed it not so much by its productive capacity as by a certain force of moral enchantment. Labor’s effectiveness was acknowledged because it was based on an ethical transcendence. Since the Fall, man had accepted labor as a penance and for its power to work redemption. It was not a law of nature which forced man to work, but the effect of a curse. The earth was innocent of that sterility in which it would slumber if man remained idle: ‘The land had not sinned, and if it is accursed, it is by the labor of the fallen man who cultivates it; from it no fruit is won, particularly the most necessary fruit, save by force and continual labor.’

“. . . Pride was the sin of man before the Fall; but the sin of idleness is the supreme pride of man once he has fallen, the absurd pride of poverty. In our world, where the land is no longer fertile except in thistles and weeds, idleness is the fault par excellence. In the Middle Ages, the great sin, radix malorum omnium, was pride, Superbia. According to Johan Huizinga, there was a time, at the dawn of the Renaissance, when the supreme sin assumed the aspect of Avarice, Dante’s cicca cupidigia. All the seventeenth-century texts, on the contrary, announced the infernal triumph of Sloth: it was sloth which led the round of the vices and swept them on. Let us not forget that according to the edict of its creation, the Hopital General must prevent ‘mendicancy and idleness as sources of all disorder.’ Louis Bourdaloue echoes these condemnations of sloth, the wretched pride of fallen man: ‘What, then, is the disorder of an idle life? It is, replies Saint Ambrose, in its true meaning a second rebellion of the creature against God.’ Labor in the houses of confinement thus assumed its ethical meaning: since sloth had become the absolute form of rebellion, the idle would be forced to work, in the endless leisure of a labor without utility or profit.”

Foucault’s provides us with an interesting perspective not only of the development of our treatment of the mad and indigent. It bears a faint but unmistakable hint of Marxism, which may have prevented him from putting this whole matter in an anthropological perspective. The Biblical account of the Eden, the Fall and its aftermath, epitomizes the transition from Hunter-Gatherer societies into farming communities. Prior to this transition, hunter-gatherer women walked about picking fruit, nuts, vegetables, etc while the men were out with hunting. Hunter-Gatherers did not earn their living by the sweat of their brow – not in the sense that a farmer did, planting, weeding, and harvesting his grain or the herder moving his flocks about from place to place to feed and guard them. Prior to this transition man relied upon God’s bounty for food and clothing, but afterward he had work for it.

Anthropological evidence suggests that man’s evolution occurred by fits and starts moving him from the jungle (a place of plenty) out onto the plains to move about from place to place hunting and gathering. But when the weather turned bad, few who couldn’t plant grain and tend flocks survived. This movement from hunter-gathering to farming villages and from thence into towns occurs in the last tiny sliver of our existence. Our hunter-gatherer existence began 1.5 million years ago with Homo Erectus. It is no wonder that we haven’t figured out the best ways of doing things in the short period of time since civilization began. We are making do with the wrong bodies and the wrong needs (based upon what would be right for our hunter-gatherer ancestors).

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