Sunday, July 14, 2013

Arboreal Contemplation

I read an interesting critical summary by Craig Willy of Emmanuel Todd's historical anthropology book L'invention de l'Europe.


Here are some excerpts:

A huge part of the book, perhaps the majority, is dedicated to Europeans’ varying choices
of religion and ideology. These concerns can seem very alien to us nihilist-apathetic postmoderns. Todd beautifully describes the need for ideology and religion (which is to say, the dream of a better life, in this one or the next) in his chapter on their mutual disappearance from the 1960s on:

Together all the dreams are extinguished: cities of God, socialist cities [as in "the polis"], nationalist cities, all these fine mental constructs are almost simultaneously devastated by the evolution of European societies. The dissolution of the religious and social metaphysical systems, which represent attempts by the mind to escape the real world, reveal at bottom a reconciliation between men and the world. The acceptance of society, of life as it is, logically kills religious, socialist or nationalist hereafters. […]


But one is left with an important question: What is the content of the ideologies which
resonate with the masses once they cease to be illiterate peasants? Why does this differ by country and region? Todd has an elegant and powerful answer: political ideologies in the modern age are projections of a people’s unconscious premodern family values.

Here there is a hole in my knowledge and that of the typical layman. I knew nothing of family systems before reading Todd. But family systems exist and are incredibly diverse across human societies. Let us take two extremely divergent examples.

So, whereas the liberal-individualism of the Anglo-nations is well-known, it has also been known since the work of Peter Laslett that England has not had extended families, but rather “nuclear” families, since the Middle Ages. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the individualistic English family is not a modern invention, the Industrial Revolution brutally breaking the “organic” extended family, but a reflection of a deep individualist tendency in English society with centuries-old roots.

Compare this with the traditional Japanese family. There is neither individualism nor equality. A single son inherits the bulk of property and in particular “family headship,” having authority over collateral family branches (i.e. his brothers’ households). Multiple generations of couples can live in the same household as an extended family under the authority of the eldest patriarch.

These family structures contain deep-seated, conscious and unconscious, implicit and explicit, values and norms about an individual’s rights, responsibilities and place in the social universe. These family values and assumptions have “massive,” in the sense of existence-defining, implications. The Englishman is a “free” individual who upon adulthood leaves his parents and his responsible for himself. The Japanese is an “integrated” individual who upon adulthood remains closely bound with his family in a hierarchical system of solidarity and obedience.

For Todd, and this seems eminently plausible and intuitive, these families values are then projected, more or less crudely rationalized, as the country’s political ideologies once it enters the modern age. People’s fantasies of their “ideal politics” are just a projection of what they unconsciously consider “normal” according to their family values. In this case these would be Anglo-liberalism vs. Japanese nationalism. Philosophers can think up the most elegant and intricate justifications for their political systems, but ultimately, their ideologies only freely succeed when they resonate with the values, conscious or not, of a people.

In the Toddian system, the various masses of humanity develop in parallel and interdependence, in their diversity developing different worldviews which, in the modern age, have proven so irreconcilable as to only find resolution in war – that is death and coercion of the “wrongthinking” party. From this comes Todd’s strong respect for national sovereignty and diversity: Either we conquer or are conquered, one civilization extinguishing another, or we may be reasonable and respect each one’s sovereignty and difference.

Todd identifies four premodern European family types according to two major criteria: Is an individual free upon adulthood or does he continue to live with, and under the authority of, his parents? Are brothers equal, notably in terms of inheritance, or are they unequal? These categories are:

  • The “absolute nuclear” family is liberal and non-egalitarian (that is, indifferent to equality). Children are completely free upon adulthood, founding independent families. Inheritance is freely distributed by will.
  • The “egalitarian nuclear” family is liberal and egalitarian.  Children are completely free upon adulthood, founding independent families. Inheritance is equally distributed, implying at least a vestigial necessary link between parents and children throughout their lives.
  • The “stem” family is authoritarian and inegalitarian. Several generations may live under one roof, notably the first-born, who will inherit the entirety of property and family headship (and thus perpetuate the family line). Other children typically leave the home to get married or become priests/soldiers.
  • The “communitarian” family is authoritarian and equal. Several generations live under the same roof until the eldest die and the inheritance is divided equally. 

Todd goes so far as to argue that the strength of the correlations between ideologies and family structures indicates: “a pure and simple determination of the content of the ideology by family values.” (p. 22)
Here are the family types and their characteristics (as generalizations these need to be taken with a grain of salt; the “naturally-emerging regime” column is partly my interpretation, the rest is fully Todd’s):


In general, the stem family – because of strong parental guidance and transmission of cultural and economic capital over generations – correlates with high and precocious educational achievement (Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Jews, Japan, Korea…). He also notes that in some places, namely Catholic and partially-stem Belgium and Ireland, literacy seems slower. He speculates that this is because stem families reproduce themselves culturally better, so if the culture is Catholic and non-literate, it will maintain itself better than non-stem Catholic countries. (One can identify here indeed a certain selectivity in Todd’s use of a factor to explain this or that exception: “correlate then speculate.”)

In contrast, the absolute nuclear family is more unstable and there is even a tendency for actual regression in such countries. While early on literacy spread in England, between 1750 and 1840 English literacy stagnated or even declined. In another book, L’illusion économique, Todd dryly notes the decline of educational achievement in the United States since the 1960s, also a traditionally “absolute nuclear” country.

To ponder all of these weighty ideas, I betook myself to my thinking tree.  As if by design, a low-slung branch offers me (specifically, my sitting apparatus) the perfect place to comfortably sit while I contemplate life's questions.

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