Marcel Mauss: A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self

•July 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Marcel Mauss was a first-generation French sociologist, initially studying under his uncle Emile Durkheim, the founder of the discipline. His work however fits better under the banner of anthropology, as he studied the historical emergence of societal forces, most famously “the gift”, through ethnological research. This transcription of a one-hour lecture comes from a edited volume entitled “The category of the person: Anthropology, philosophy, history” responding to this lecture.

In this essay (1938) Mauss gives a summarization the emergence of the “person” or “self” as a historically variegated and developed concept. He starts with North American (Pueblo in south-west US, Kwakwaka’wakw on Vancouver Island) and Australian conceptions, rooted in personnage, or role in society determining identity. As well, personnage is relative, always in relation to the one being spoken to, i.e. elder brother. While he mentions concepts of the self that move towards the “I” in India and China, it did not become as prominent as it would in Latin society. The persona or mask representing identity becomes prominent in Roman society, and the shift towards the notion of the person is completed by the legalization of identity, among all freemen of Roman. Slaves were the exception. Forenames, surnames, and nicknames were given the definitions and legalities than we still hold to today in most societies. From the Greeks, particularly the Stoics, the person is given a sense of morality inherit to oneself. Christianity added a metaphysical weight to the person, through the early debates over the nature of the Trinity, ultimately proclaiming the person as rational, individual, and indivisible. Modernity then psychologizes the person, giving them an internal consciousness through the Cartesian cogito. Kant’s Copernican revolution is the last piece, particularly Fichte’s take, making every act of consciousness an act of the “self”, of the “person”. This traces then the development of the modern “individual”, the conception of being a “person” that holds rights and is able to know the world rationally. All the wonderful stuff modernity and Enlightenment tells us is a priori.

This account is historical, anthropological, and genealogical (in the Nietzschian sense), performing the goal of making the past and our preconceptions strange. The two most important conceptions of identity in philosophy and political theory, the rational, scientific Cartesian/Kantian identity, and the political, Hobbesian legal person are laid out as historical constructions. Nonetheless, nowhere does Mauss necessarily say that by revealing their contingent and constructed nature are they rendered powerless. They are social facts, exterior and constraining, in the Durkheimian fashion.

As I am increasingly being drawn to realist (philosophical, not IR realism) ontologies, this kind of anthropological work is quite appealing. It displays the genealogical development of social/political/philosophical concepts, structures, and relations, rooted in an intransitive, material, necessary set of circumstances: the organization of human societies, in their physical environment. There’s a resistance to reductionism in this approach which I find refreshing.


On touring and the download era

•June 2, 2009 • 2 Comments

Richard Florida suggests that we’re moving away from the album towards an era of singles and touring thanks to new internet technologies, that are moving music back to the single, and lowering sales thanks to piracy. I think the download era has lowered sales to the point that the music industry cannot live off of mega-albums as it once did, yet nor has it meant there are more acts out garnering profitable sales numbers to make up the balance. As I suggested in my last post, there are broader audiences out there for more niche genres and tastes, listened to by a demographic that shuffles playlists with no regard for the original track numbering. Touring as a primary source of sales for the industry makes sense in this environment for two reasons.

First, with the broader audiences, small to mid-level bands can travel across continents, to every viable city, and have a full show at the right venue. Piracy, from my experience, is done more often out of economic constraints where one would rather spend their disposable income on things that they cannot get for free, as well as desire to ensure any money spent is spent on music they know is worthwhile (high costs of records is a big issue, especially when one has a lot of records they wish to own). Seeing a band live is something that cannot be pirated, and tickets are only bought for bands that one knows are worthwhile.

Second, the live experience replaces something that downloads took away from the record era: the communal aspect of music. With randomly ordered songs bouncing around iPod playlists, its difficult to have communally shared experiences with peers for longer than 4 minutes at a time. The live show forces our hyper-active attention spans to focus on a single thing for hours. At a concert, you turn off your individual ipods, stand with your friends , intentionality fixed on the stage and the music you are all listening to.  New friends can be made in the reverent communitas. Perhaps this has always been the case with live shows, but the download and ipod era has made previous communal experiences, like full albums, a lot more fractured, to an individual or small group level. Live shows are one of the few phenomenons that my generation can be physically present for, in contrast to a multplicity of media inputs providing a fractured cultural backdrop.

Live shows and music festivals are becoming a desirable product for younger generations’ disposable incomes and lifestyles. For the music industry, it means a source of revenue to replace the lost sales. Of course, I don’t have any stats, but I suspect most bands do better from touring than album/single sales, given they directly receive revenue from venues and merchandise sales.

Here are two videos I took at the last concert I went to, TV on the Radio, at the Malkin Bowl in Vancouver. Couple thousand people at the show, which is a fairly large showing for a band that’s had pretty much no radio/mtv/etc exposure.

Ten Years Later: Moby – “Play”

•June 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

My first post will actually be about an anniversary I noticed today. June 1st is the ten-year anniversary of Moby’s Play. The album is mostly known for having every song licensed for commercials as a promotional/commercial tactic, and for being the most successful “electronica” album of its time, entering mainstream popular music.

The first thing to note is that Moby did not come out of nowhere as is usually thought. He garnered a fair bit of critical praise and visibility in the alternative press for his 1995 album “Everything Is Wrong”, even headlining the second stage of Lollapalooza (back when it was the banner carrier for the 90s alternative scene). The mid-to-late 90s were a time when “electronica” music acts such as The Prodigy, The Chemical Brother, and Aphex Twin were seen as the next big thing, pitching their various  genres under one big tent of electronic (dance) music).  Moby himself came from the New York club scene in the late 80s and early 90s, and the influence shows up on Play.

Play is combination of the ambient and house genres that Moby usually inhabited with old (or old sounding) gospel and blues vocal samples, more often leaning towards the ambient side, with piano and string added in. It’s a much calmer record than his previous two, the often joyous “Everything is Wrong” and the punk rock sojourn “Animal Rights”. Moby does have a knack for throwing together a good hook if he wants, evident on tracks like “Honey”, “South Side”, “Natural Blues” and “Why does my heart feel so bad” off the first half. Most of the tracks in the later half are mellow ambient, and by the end they become wearyingly dull unless one is in the need of background music. That every track would find a way into a commercial or other medium in some form is no wonder however, as every track is distinguished from the rest enough to bring something of its own, even only for viewing a Mercedes glide past as if on a cloud. The music itself is not my forte usually, but its well-made enough to be recognized as something that stood out from the fray of late 90s pop music. However, I personally don’t believe it has aged well, its songs sound far less compelling now, perhaps due to “Play”‘s particular sound becoming common place in media. “Everything is Wrong” stands as a better album, its more “dated” sound giving it greater character than the increasingly indistinguishable  “Play”.

What’s more interesting than the music is the album’s status as a specific artifact of its time. The turn of the millennium was not a great time for popular music, as bland pop from the likes of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Celine Dion stood next to mook rock such as Limp Bizkit and Korn, and gangster rap like Eminem, Dre, etc. Sure there were exceptions and good music in there, and elsewhere, but the overall picture was bleak now that the alternative pseudo-scene had burned itself out into the charred remains of Creed and pop music continued to go for the lowest-common denominator. Moby stands out as a symptom of how these conditions left cracks for seemingly strange and unusual acts to gain mainstream acknowledgement. This of course was only in the very dawn of the download era. Underground/indie/non-mainstream music was far harder to access, and an album like “Play” entering the mainstream would have been an awakening to many weaning on the souring popular music teat. Moby’s promotional tactics seemed then to be corporate whoring, but now are commonplace publicity tools for lesser-known acts to reach wider audiences through commercials and television show licencing. The idea of having your own music (that’s not necessarily what’s all over the charts) provide the backdrop for shared moments (ie watching an OC episode) is only something the iPod generation could have, earbuds plugged at every step. The download era has not necessarily meant success and sales for indie and non-mainstream acts, that would be the wrong hypothesis. It has  allowed for easier exposure, broader audiences, and a little more sales, with more niche music tastes, not dependent of record store inventories, among the younger generations becoming viable. Moby stands as an oddity of its time, that helps fill in the gaps in history that led to the current decline of record labels and music sales. Pumping out absolute, polarizing shite will bring on consequences, like vegan DJs having platinum records, and a music industry model that can’t figure out what it’s doing wrong.

Statement of Intent

•June 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This blog has been a long time coming, in fact I opened this account back in February,  but since my friends, roomates, and even father have got the jump on me, its time to get going.

The purpose of this blog is to be a place to collect my thoughts on current reading projects, mostly theory/philosophy oriented at the moment, as well as political commentary, and poor attempts at music criticism. With fourth year bearing down on me, as well graduate school applications, I need more than ever to convert my thoughts into words, a process that hit a wall in the past year for myself. Thus, there’s no attempt to make these posts for others consumption, unless one is interested. I will be trying to summarize and comment on various texts, in order to develop a more coherant grasp of a work and develop my critical lens.  I’ve found over the past year that I’ve despised the writing process,  so this will be an effort to overcome that.

Here’s a sample of what I currently have lined-up


Write-ups on the two books by Bhaskar will be coming soon