Weber’s Breakdown

| May 15, 2012

das wunderkind breaks it down

…like, has one; why? seems to me mental illnesses of this type arise not due to uncertainty so much as to overcertainty; powerful theoretical lenses gather and focus streams of data like optical lenses focus rays of light. Too much, and you’ll have a fire on your hands. The cognitive faculties perform their delicate precise tasks, and can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of their tasks when the data starts to pour in. Psychic crises arise as cognitive ‘stallings’ in the face of overwhelming data. Give the mind too many options, it won’t be able to choose any. Uncertainty, on the other hand, can be looked at as a measure of mental health. Uncertainty allows the mind to defer the formation of contingent data-sets, thus protecting itself against the pressures they exert, and giving you the nice fuzzy cover of “I don’t know”… But get too fuzzy, and you’ll quickly become irrelevant; the mind lulls itself to sleep. There would then, seem to be an optimal balance to be achieved here; like riding a bike, you can work it by continually alternating the direction of your fall.

This gives us a way to understand Weber’s Begriffsbildung. As Robbie said in his lecture (my paraphrase), “When Weber goes after a causal explanation, he’s not looking for tangible stuff in the world, he’s looking for rationales inside the actors heads”. Rationales are the ways that we grasp our circumstances; we use concepts, begriffs, to “seize the world by the lapels” (R. again). But the grasp, the grip, is one of kinds of simple functions that turn out to be very difficult to teach to robots. ‘Coming to grips’ with something, in both its metaphorical and literal senses, is a delicate operation; if you squeeze too hard, you can easily lose sight of the object; grip too lightly, and it slips through your fingers. Hold a pencil between your fingers and thumb, and turn it around lightly; notice how delicately we are poised! Hold an idea in your mind, turn it around there and examine it from different angles… Begriffsbildung is the cultivation of this delicate power of contemplation, in which concentration is brought to bear not indiscriminately, but with great subtlety and focus; we learn to respect our own limitations, those of our flesh and bones as well as those of our techniques and languages. Relax too much and you’ll go soft, try too hard and you’ll go crazy. Try both, and then slowly learn to dance in the space between them; to play with the forms that arise there. In this perhaps, we could take Weber’s style as exemplary…

And isn’t this kind of aesthetic ethic clearly at odds with the Protestant Ethic that Weber put his finger on at once so tentatively and deliberately in his famous treatise? For the Protestant, ever since Luther broke the spell of Catholic opulence like that little kid who laughed at the Emperor’s New Clothes, the relative emptiness of the ritual apparata and vestments of ecumenical power vis a vis the animating power of the Holy Spirit in the form of the people -the distributed (social) body of Christ- could no longer be deferred. The spell of ritual efficacy was shattered, and the responsibility for responding to God’s Word fell to the people themselves[1].

This sets in motion the peculiar mechanism that Weber identifies. Speaking in Kantian terms, we could say that the thing has its transcendental (public) and practical (private) aspects. The transcendence of God sets a Pascalian wager in motion; because the call of duty can never quite be heard, it’s safest to obey. This sets in motion the ‘negative’, practical mechanisms that Weber would presumably identify as ‘social’; we can see thanks to Luther that excess is a sign of corruption, of dis-grace, so we’d best stay simple, low-key, and thrifty; work hard and save. But lacking any other indicators, we will also surreptitiously look to wealth as a sign of grace. This sets in motion the peculiarly civilized arms-race mentality in which the surreptitious scramble of ruthless competition is masked by an outward show of faithful acquiescence to the divine will. Zizek (following Freud) identifies here a ‘logic of disavowal’, whereby we all know, more or less, that nobody actually hears the inner call, and yet we all still agree to ‘believe’ in the divinity of the individual will. We can see quite easily here how this can give rise not only to the work ethic of the Protestant proletarians, but to the sharp division between classes that Marx identifies as characteristic of Capitalism… The ‘inner’ mechanism, the ethic is the same for both classes; Veblen coins for it the term invidious distinctions; the Frankfurt School thinkers will focus on the false consciousness that it creates. We make a show of our piety; we attempt to display our inconspicuousness… God is no longer anywhere in direct evidence, but it is for precisely this reason that, like the prison guard in Bentham’s Panopticon, we can be reasonably certain that sHe is watching…

Talk:A-HH4199 12W – Studyplace.