Friday, 30 August 2013

Part LIV – Rituals, War and Women

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Fourteen is titled "The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture".

Veblen says that much of higher education falls under the category of ‘conspicuous leisure known as manners and breeding’ because ‘the learned class in all primitive communities are great sticklers for form, precedent, gradations of rank, ritual, ceremonial vestments, and learned paraphernalia generally.’  Such things as ‘the cap and gown, matriculation, initiation, and graduation ceremonies, and the conferring of scholastic degrees, dignities, and prerogatives in a way which suggests some sort of a scholarly apostolic succession.’  ‘Matriculation’ is a term I never encountered until I came to Britain.  Obviously I didn’t attend a posh university back in the States.

Veblen notes that when schools are founded for teaching useful knowledge to the lower classes, the growth of ‘ritualistic ceremonial and paraphernalia and of elaborate scholastic “functions”’ goes along side of the transition from practical studies into the higher, classical sphere of ‘the humanities’.   The initial aim of fitting the young of the industrial classes for work is changed to preparing them for the priestly and leisure classes or of an incipient leisure class, ‘for the consumption of goods, material and immaterial, according to a conventionally accepted, reputable scope and method.’  

He sees this pattern particularly in the newer communities formed in the 19th century, where the pupils tend to have been raised with the habits of industry and thrift and the ‘reminiscences of the medicine-man have found but a scant and precarious acceptance in the scheme of college life.’  However, with the accumulation of wealth in the community, the college is influenced towards more ritual and conformity to ancient, barbaric standards.  Apparently the adoption of the cap and gown ‘as learned insignia’ was a recent change in his day, one that previously would not have been accepted without the changed attitudes towards the leisure class scheme of life.  

He attributes this change to the ‘psychologically disintegrating effects of the Civil War’ and of course war and predatory habits of thought are characteristic of the leisure class.
“…the generation which follows a season of war is apt to witness a rehabilitation of the element of status, both in its social life and in its scheme of devout observances and other symbolic or ceremonial forms. Throughout the eighties, and less plainly traceable through the seventies also, there was perceptible a gradually advancing wave of sentiment favoring quasi-predatory business habits, insistence on status, anthropomorphism, and conservatism generally. The more direct and unmediated of these expressions of the barbarian temperament, such as the recrudescence of outlawry and the spectacular quasi-predatory careers of fraud run by certain “captains of industry”, came to a head earlier…”
“The adoption of the cap and gown is one of the striking atavistic features of modern college life, and at the same time it marks the fact that these colleges have definitely become leisure-class establishments, either in actual achievement or in aspiration.”

It is understood that women did not ordinarily attend higher education.  These establishments were devoted to the education of the priestly and the leisure classes whereas women were the original subservient class and have remained so to the present.  In Veblen’s day only a small percentage of colleges accepted women, and then grudgingly.  The pursuit of knowledge was considered unfeminine. 
“It is felt that the woman should, in all propriety, acquire only such knowledge as may be classed under one or the other of two heads: (1) such knowledge as conduces immediately to a better performance of domestic service; (2) such accomplishments and dexterity, quasi-scholarly and quasi-artistic, as plainly come in under the head of a performance of vicarious leisure.”
“There has prevailed a strong sense that the admission of women to the privileges of the higher learning…would be derogatory to the dignity of the learned craft.”

I can recall in just the past few years reading the observation that as more and more General Practitioners / Vicars are women, the status of those positions is dropping.  So perhaps some things still haven’t changed that much...

Friday, 23 August 2013

Part LIII - Higher Education and the Occult

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Fourteen is titled "The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture."

I think this is a weird chapter for Veblen to have end his book; it seems to me that it should have been somewhere in the middle so he could end with the change in modern society as described in his last chapter.  The other thing about this chapter is that it is something of a rant.  Reading even the first paragraph about Veblen’s academic career gives a bit of insight on why these ideas were a bit of a sore point with him.  He may have wanted this chapter to be the last in hopes that it would stick in the minds of his readers.  Never mind, here we are.

As an academic economist, of course Veblen appreciates education.  He sees it as having economic value because it enhances the serviceability of an individual.  In this chapter he looks at this institution from the view of the leisure class, which he believes has influenced the development and conduct of higher education.

He says that in its early development, higher education was closely related to the devotional function of the community and we already know that religious leadership was the purview of the leisure class.  As usual, Veblen begins his discussion with much earlier times and in a broad manner encompassing universal ideas of worship, referring to shamanistic practices.
“In great part, the early learning consisted in an acquisition of knowledge and facility in the service of a supernatural agent. It was therefore closely analogous in character to the training required for the domestic service of a temporal master. To a great extent, the knowledge acquired under the priestly teachers of the primitive community was knowledge of ritual and ceremonial; that is to say, a knowledge of the most proper, most effective, or most acceptable manner of approaching and of serving the preternatural agents.”

Medicine men, shamans, wizards, whatever, had ‘knowledge of the unknowable', and this characteristic depth and secrecy of knowledge, he says, is barely differentiated from the attitudes to be found in higher education of his time.  
“The recondite element in learning is still, as it has been in all ages, a very attractive and effective element for the purpose of impressing, or even imposing upon, the unlearned; and the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces.”

He claims that even within that century (the 19th) peasants associated higher learning with the black arts.  I wonder if this is why the long black gowns are still worn?  Actually, he comes to this later.

According to Veblen, a disproportionate number of the leisure classes believe in ‘occult sciences of all kinds and shades’ and in the barbaric mind not shaped by modern thought, ‘knowledge of the unknowable is still felt to the ultimate if not the only true knowledge.’

As the body of systematized knowledge increased there arose a distinction between esoteric and exoteric information.  The former, defined as 'intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialised knoweldge or interest', Veblen says was primarily of no economic or industrial effect.  The latter, defined as 'intended for or likely to be understood by the general public, relating to the outside world; external', he said comprised 'chiefly knowledge of industrial processes and of natural phenomena which were habitually turned to account for the material purposes of life.’  This line of demarcation has developed the reputation of being the normal line between the higher learning and the lower.  

I can’t claim a very great understanding of the development of universities but I have noticed that there is possibly less prestige in a degree from a former agricultural or polytechnic college / university than from other universities where one finds the schools of medicine and law.  I would certainly agree that those latter topics are closer to the occult than most other subjects, wouldn’t you?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Part LII – Decline of the Leisure Class

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Thirteen is titled "Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interests".

Last week we saw how economic developments shaped a more modern society which no longer held barbaric principles of status and leisure in quite so high esteem.  In particular, upper class women were no longer satisfied to live lives of vicarious leisure and futility.

Veblen sees this movement of thought as being a reversion to the thinking of a savage society, when communities were more cooperative than competitive, where there were less differentiated roles for men and women.  In that society, everyone is expected to contribute to the good of the community and there is no respect for futile leisure.  Activities that serve only individual gain, marauding, infliction of pain and all manner of invidious pursuits are also deprecated. 
“It may even be said that…in the modern industrial communities the average, dispassionate sense of men says that the ideal character is a character which makes for peace, good-will, and economic efficiency, rather than for a life of self-seeking, force, fraud, and mastery.”

Veblen felt that the ideals of modern society were a threat to the survival of the leisure class, or at least to the individuals of that class.  The luxury of being withdrawn from ‘the pecuniary struggle’ along with the ‘leisure-class canons of conspicuous waste of goods and effort, the institution of a leisure class’ he thought lessened the chance of survival of such individuals within the population.  If ones energy was taken up with the invidious stuggle there was none left for non-invidious expressions of life and one was left with a ‘self-regarding attitude.’  This, Veblen believed, did not augur well for any person living in a modern society.

I think his arguments for this concern are valid, but perhaps weak.  I think populist ideas were aided by the industrial revolution, re-imposition of income tax, creation of estate tax, suffrage given to the wider population instead of a privileged few, World War I, the stock market crash and many other things that occurred after Veblen’s book were more to the point.  But given that these things had not yet happened, I guess I have to give him break.  We are now finished with Chapter 13; only one more to go!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Mom's Birthday

I sometimes (OK, often) wish I'd had more time to talk with Mom, time with a list of questions and a pen and paper or with a video camera.  But then I remind myself that there never would have come a point when I'd have said, "OK, I've had enough time..."  I'd always want more.

What I do have is her photograph albums.  Some consist entirely of family photos and I know who almost all of those people are.  The few that are mysteries are likely to remain so.  Take these this photo (and an enhancement) of a rural setting, two people and an old car loaded down with watermelons.  I ask every new genealogical contact if they recognise these people, but not one person has as yet.   I tend to think they might be family members, but of course that is an assumption on my part.  

How old is this car?

Any idea who these people are?

I have loads of photos of Mom with friends - male and female - in the years before she met my dad.  I think I've figured out which one was her first husband and I know a couple of the ladies' names, but most are unlabeled.  I used to hear a lot about Verna Mae Tickell (her nickname was Tickle).  It was only later when I found her name in the high school year book in Shreveport that I could place how Mom knew her.

Verna Mae Tickell, taken Aug 1942, Shreveport

Of particular interest, I found a postcard from a young man who was a POW.  First Lt. Nicholas H. Cox, USAAF, wrote to mom in June 1943 on a German postcard labelled 'Kriegsgefangenenlager', which means Prisoner of War Camp, apparently.

Dear Kay:  I just received a letter from my sister Rennie, with your address.  I'd have written sooner but I forgot your new address.  Will you find out if you can what the Red Cross was inquiring about in their telegram about Mother's address.  Assure my family that I'm O.K. Say remember Vic Mature & Gene Tierney in that picture we seen, well I got a couple pictures of them out of a movie magazine.  Well, honey chile, hope I'll be home soon so I raise Cain in Okla. City.  Lots of love & a few Xs - Nick

I Googled his name and found that his plane - 'Bathtub Bessie / Big Eagle' was shot down on the 9th of October 1942, apparently by German fighter Ace 'Pips Priller'.  Mom kept a newspaper clipping about the POWs.  I've no idea which one is Nick.

I believe he went on to become a Colonel in the USAF and was stationed at Eglin AFB in Florida, where he joined the Yacht Club and his wife's name is in the society pages. What a life!  I've no idea if he is still alive.  I wonder if he would remember Mom?  Or that film they saw...The Shanghai Gesture...

Friday, 9 August 2013

Part LI - Emancipation from Privilege and Futility

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Thirteen is titled "Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interests".

Veblen talks a lot about women in this chapter. The requirement of withdrawal from all useful employment applies most rigorously to upper-class women. Women in general are supposed to lead a life of vicarious leisure in the service of their master, but this is doubly the case for members of the leisure class.  Veblen has previously stated that women have more instinct than do men for workmanship, which he defines as abhorrence of waste or futility, the urge to be useful.  Of course many people today would see a life of vicarious leisure such as he describes as an entirely wasted and futile way to live. 

That very idea of futility is beginning to take root in the wider consciousness of society at the time of Veblen’s writing.  Indeed, in 1899 women have been pushing for the vote for nearly 50 years.  It is still thought a fairly outrageous concept. However, with the economic development of society women can see how they could make a more meaningful contribution than they are presently allowed, by either 'decent' custom or by law.  The issue of women’s suffrage was not just about the right to vote but would potentially impact on how women might be allowed to conduct themselves in leading their own lives. Veblen refers to this as “the woman question”. 

He points out that because a woman’s life is still vicarious, her actions reflect upon ‘the man whose woman she is’.  On the other hand, ‘relatively little discredit attaches to a woman through the evil deeds of the man with whom her life is associated.’  Does this still hold true?  I kind of think it does.  Anyhow, because of this way of thinking, Veblen explains that with respect to civil rights or suffrage, the woman should ‘in the body politic and before the law’ be represented not by herself but through the head of the household to which she belongs.  It is unfeminine to aspire to a self-directing, self-centred life.  'The social relations of the sexes are fixed by nature. Our entire civilization — that is whatever is good in it — is based on the home.' The 'home' is the household with a male head.   He says women of sense share this view, being highly sensitive to what is right and proper.  Sadly, some smug, conservative men today still maintain this concept to hold true…

However, Veblen says there is the growing sentiment that
“that this whole arrangement of tutelage and vicarious life and imputation of merit and demerit is somehow a mistake.  Or, at least, that even if it may be a natural growth and a good arrangement in its time and place, and in spite of its patent aesthetic value, still it does not adequately serve the more everyday ends of life in a modern industrial community.”

Modern women, who ‘by force of youth, education or temperament’ are less manageable and out of touch with the traditions of status of the barbarian culture, they have ‘a sense of grievance too vivid to leave them at rest.’  Even the well-bred upper and middle class, traditional, matronly (apparently that used to be a complimentary term?) woman, even the conservative woman finds ‘some slight discrepancy in detail between things as they are and things as they should be in this respect.’
Looking at ‘the woman question’ from an economic standpoint he identifies the concepts of “Emancipation” and “Work.”  Surprisingly he notes that the demand for ‘emancipation from all relation of status, tutelage, of vicarious life’ comes especially from the upper class women, those living a vicarious life, those ‘excluded by the canons of good repute from all effectual work’, those women ‘closely reserved for a life of leisure and conspicuous consumption’. 

The privileged life of these women wanting emancipation is a sore point by some observers who scoff:
“She is petted by her husband, the most devoted and hard-working of husbands in the world. ... She is the superior of her husband in education, and in almost every respect. She is surrounded by the most numerous and delicate attentions. Yet she is not satisfied …. The Anglo-Saxon ‘new woman’ is the most ridiculous production of modern times, and destined to be the most ghastly failure of the century.”

Veblen  points out that although this woman is petted and permitted – even required – to consume largely and conspicuously, vicariously for her husband or guardian,
“These offices are the conventional marks of the un-free, at the same time that they are incompatible with the human impulse to purposeful activity.”

He explains why this is an upper- and middle-class phenomenon.  He says that

“So long as the woman’s place is consistently that of a drudge, she is, in the average of cases, fairly contented with her lot. She not only has something tangible and purposeful to do, but she has also no time or thought to spare for a rebellious assertion of such human propensity to self-direction as she has inherited.”

In times past the sense of status and of maintaining the hierarchy seemingly entertained women sufficiently that they were content with a vicarious life.   The economic changes in society that accompany the industrial revolution has caused the scheme of status, hierarchy and personal subservience to no longer seem the natural order of human relations among men – or women.

I did always wonder why it was the wealthier women who led the suffrage movement.  Yet again, Veblen offers a plausible explanation.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Charlotte's Christening

If baby pictures, vintage tea cups and chocolate dipped strawberries turn your stomach, look away now.  Yesterday, Bill's granddaughter, Charlotte (aged 11 months) was christened at St. Michael's and All Angels Anglican church, in Atherton, a suburb of Manchester.  I'd never attended a christening before, so it was quite interesting.

Charlotte and Helen

Martin (holding Charlotte) and Helen with Charlotte's godparents

A proud (previously very camera-shy) father.

Afterwards, we gathered at Atherton Cricket Club for a vintage tea, catered by The Vintage Tea Trolley.  (Click on this link for even more photos, including one of me stuffing my face).  

The menu included several small sandwiches, several cakes, scones and chocolate-dipped strawberries.  There was some horse-trading conducted so that everyone could get more of their favourites.

Martin's mother, Grandma Ann, made this beautiful cake.

Bill took most of these photos - he loved the beehive cake cover.

That's not icing on the cupcakes, it is clotted cream.  
All the same, I gave them a miss.

The guest of honour arrives...

Uncle Simon, Grandma Katie, me (in blue - I'm blonde now), Aunt Sarah and Simon's girlfriend, Simone.

I wore my wedding dress (its third use) but with a different jacket and shoes, both of which were much more comfortable. On the other hand, I'd rather attend a christening than get married any day; it's far easier on the nerves.  I made a navy blue clutch purse from some brocade scraps and a cardboard mailer envelope.  It worked perfectly.  Yes, my wrist is covered with bruises.  My old-lady skin doesn't like wearing watches any more apparently.

Charlotte in the play 'pool' and my feet in new shoes.

Wrapped in Grandma Ann's purple shawl.  

Two in front unknown; Grandma Katie, Uncle Simon and 
Aunt Sarah with white hair.

Me in pearls (I'm thinking I resemble Camilla...); Simone, Sarah and Simon.

Charlotte, Grandma Katie and Aunt Sarah

Aunt Sarah (Martin in background)

Charlotte had a cold and wasn't feeling brilliant on the day of her christening.  Helen didn't feel the photos of her dress would do her justice, so she got dressed up again and seemed to feel a bit better.

Aren't little satin baby shoes just the most fun!?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Part L - 'Assisting' the Lower Classes

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Thirteen is titled "Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interests".

Last week we learned that the leisure classes have had to shift their attention slightly from the making of war, running of government, etc., to the promotion of charitable causes.  This is particularly the activity of upper class women.  Veblen is sceptical about these supposedly charitable intentions.  To start with, he thinks the attention should focus entirely on the secular issues and leave religion alone; this would save money and trouble all around.  He also thinks that charities are trying to ‘convert’ the lower classes in a different direction:
“…many of the efforts now in reputable vogue for the amelioration of the indigent population of large cities are of the nature, in great part, of a mission of culture. It is by this means sought to accelerate the rate of speed at which given elements of the upper-class culture find acceptance in the everyday scheme of life of the lower classes.”

I think it could be said today that both government and private enterprise has an interest in dragging the poorest segment of the population up from poverty, if only to collect income tax from them instead of paying out benefits.  Also, the sooner someone has an income, the sooner you can convince them to buy your product, right?
“The propaganda of culture is in great part an inculcation of new tastes, or rather of a new schedule of proprieties, which have been adapted to the upper- class scheme of life under the guidance of the leisure class formulation of the principles of status and pecuniary decency.”

Veblen reminds us that the leisure class still holds a ‘disesteem’ of useful occupations, but ‘guiding the action of any organized body of people that lays claim to social good’ is acceptable.  There are limitations however. 
“There is a tradition which requires that one should not be vulgarly familiar with any of the processes or details that have to do with the material necessities of life. One may meritoriously show a quantitative interest in the well-being of the vulgar, through subscriptions or through work on managing committees and the like. One may, perhaps even more meritoriously, show solicitude in general and in detail for the cultural welfare of the vulgar, in the way of contrivances for elevating their tastes and affording them opportunities for spiritual amelioration. But one should not betray an intimate knowledge of the material circumstances of vulgar life, or of the habits of thought of the vulgar classes, such as would effectually direct the efforts of these organizations to a materially useful end. This reluctance to avow an unduly intimate knowledge of the lower-class conditions of life in detail of course prevails in very different degrees in different individuals; but there is commonly enough of it present collectively in any organization of the kind in question profoundly to influence its course of action.”

He goes on to explain that a lot of money is wasted in building grand buildings ostensibly for charitable purposes.  Also, there are rules for the recipients of beneficence, including that they should know their place and tow the line.

I wonder if I like Veblen because he shares my cynicism?