Note in progress Last updated January 02, 2022
- Among people whose work or thought I admire, there is a common and striking quality: a reverence for process and technique. Each has assembled their own kit of arcane implements, mental models, and peculiar habits that cause the rest of us to scratch our heads. This is a quality I deeply respect. It reflects a sort of teleological drive, a vocation to a calling. This reverence is a precondition of disciplinary expertise, and more importantly of "thought beyond expertise." ^^It's not too dissimilar from the Protestant Ethic described by [[Max Weber]] in [[The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism]].^^
Critique of The Protestant Ethic
- The Protestant Ethic is a religious conviction that one's duty is to labor under a calling. Max Weber introduces the concept alongside a famous (and if you're a hardline Marxist, probably trite) critique, implicating Protestant theology as a protagonist in the development of capitalist rationalism. He writes, some 400 odd years after the 16th century European Reformation: "The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling; we, on the other hand, must be."
- Weber's critique hinges on what he calls the "worldly asceticism" of Protestantism. In moral philosophy and metaphysics, "asceticism" tends to refer to specific forms of self-denial and self–discipline, often through abstinence, sobriety, and isolation. The Reformation popularized an ascetic ideal that promises salvation through individual duty. Addressing the effects of the Reformation, Weber writes: "at least one thing was unquestionably new: the … fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form [of] moral activity."
- From the 16th through the 18th centuries, Protestantism drove a series of theological upheavals across Europe (before doing the same in America). This storied social transformation features:
- As its rising action, the 16th century — Protestant theology gained prominent footholds across Europe, with Lutheran and Calvinist sects dominating Northern and Southern Europe, respectively, by the early 17th century.
- As its climax, the years 1618 through 1640 — The great Thirty Years' War crawled across the European continent, corroding social order and devastating a public only recently "released" from the bonds of serfdom in the West;
- As its falling action, the years 1640 through 1648 — an exhausted Europe agreed to peace treaties at Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years' War. This laid groundwork for rational state-building, the development of the modern subject, and the consequent moral duty of bureaucratic maintenance and expansion.
- Weber asserts that the Protestant Ethic remains embodied in the logic of capitalism. Indeed, several fanatic revivals of Protestant theology in Europe and the United States occurred well into the 19th century. During the period from the 16th through 18th centuries, the Protestant Ethic entwined itself with the expansion of commerce and industry, enabled by Westphalian statecraft, and warped into what Weber dubs the "monstrous cosmos" of pervasive Western capitalism.
- The monastic ideals of Christianity (transcendental asceticism) gave way to Protestant bureaucratic mandates (worldly asceticism). Later, the conservative stricture of Baptist and Quaker traditions preached individual obedience to the "inner light" of God in each of us — effectively reiterating the Protestant Ethic of individual duty as the highest good. According to Weber, this conservative turn in Western religion marked "the radical elimination of magic from the world," which "allowed no other psychological course than the practice of worldly asceticism.” We need little more proof of this than the emergence of the great European pastime of witch-hunting and political inquisition.
- Ultimately, for Max Weber, this Protestant Ethic was the precondition for capitalist order, resulting eventually in “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart," bodies without souls who collectively imagine that they have "attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” Weber's critique makes it difficult for us to find a path forward as capitalist subjects — a strict reading of the Protestant Ethic demands that we abdicate both our faith in work, and our valuation of the specialized division of labor. Interestingly, the result of this ethic as applied to post-Reformation capitalism is a bit topsy-turvy. Despite its stated pursuit of rational production and worldly piety, the Protestant Ethic comprises, in part, forms of magical thinking. This magic, disguised and enacted through technics and reason, show that the thesis of the Ethic would go unfulfilled without the antithesis of enchantment. And what better way to enchant the rational mind than through entertainment, through media?
- During the 17th century, magical thought (a vestige of Christian influence, no doubt) was encoded into the rationalism of nascent modernity, as evident in the popularization of supernatural illusion and horror as forms of entertainment (or leisure), known as "phantasmagoria." Phantasmagoria induced a sort of reverie in the horror of spectres and ghastly scenes, brought about by: innovations in optical technology, the historical trauma of the Protestant Ethic on a public that had been "liberated into jobs", and — opiates, both literal and figurative.
- The development of optical technology and of photography were critical parts of the modern phantasmagoria. To the Protestant Ethic, the mastery of sight is a noble duty under the calling of reason. As Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay The Age of the World Picture: "The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture." Optical advances in media such as the magic lantern, the camera obscura, the panorama, the photographic process, and eventually the cinema, were all deeply influenced by the magic of the phantasmagoria; counterintuitively, they also served the interests of the Protestant Ethic. Thus media and its technical undercurrents became integral parts of the Spirit of Capitalism.
- Phantasmagoria came into vogue just as the Protestant Ethic made its way deeper into the psyche of the modern subject. The duty of earthly labor imposed a tremendous and meaningless burden on daily life, and the spectacle of horror and illusion allowed the public to once again engage in forms of magical thought — forming the theatrical apparatus of rational, magical, capitalism. Phantasmagoria and the Protestant Ethic, then, were driven by similar ascetic ideals, the former being a pharmakon for the effects of the latter. This was a subversive duo of historical trends. It's worth noting, as well, that within the work of Marx, a similar comparison can be drawn between his description of religion as an opiate of the masses, and of ideology as a camera obscura. ^^Perhaps, if Marx had been more concerned with culture, the spectre he saw haunting Europe may well have been Pepper's Ghost. As [[Friedrich Kittler]] wrote in his groundbreaking book [[Gramophone, Film, Typewriter]]: "media determine our situation."^^
- So the spectacle of the spectre became a centerpiece of modern life. So much so, in fact, that phantasmic metaphor became a central tool of political power and subjectivity in the West. The historian Thomas Carlyle's influential history of the French Revolution presents the carnage at the Bastille through a Jacobin's perspective: "Such vision (spectral yet real) thou, O Thuriot, as from thy Mount of Vision, beholdest in this moment: prophetic of what other Phantasmagories, and loud-gibbering Spectral Realities, which thou beholdest not, but shalt!” (1837, 165).
- The Jacobin Cult of Reason not only provoked a hysterical and violent phantasmagoria, but also reveled in it. François Furet, a historian of the French Revolution, wrote: "Jacobinism is both an ideology and a power: a system of representations and a system of action." The Jacobin ideology took the Protestant Ethic to its limit, and its system of action brought the allure of phantasmagoria into alignment with the rational social order of modernity. As Ferenc Fehér wrote: "Inexorably, tragically, and to the dismay and even disbelief of its votaries, the Jacobin phantasmagoria had become an oppressive and murderous nightmare. In Vergniaud's words, the Revolution, like Saturn, devoured its own firstborn."
- In the context of capitalism, the institutionalization of phantasmic metaphor as "rational magic," even as revolution, reveals the sway held over secular political economy by the Protestant Ethic; capitalism was always-already a representation of a theological subscription to the divinity of unquestioned labor. Here, we find Weber's Spirit of Capitalism: the duty of each individual to labor under the calling of reason. The theology of Protestantism found its way into the maelstrom of capital, and out came a social ethic, and social order, which laid bare the disenchantment of modern life. It demands of us a devotion to procedure, reason, coherence, and consistency.
- In the end, Weber's critique leads us to conclude that our Western way of life is inextricably — to paraphrase Furet again — a representation of the Protestant Ethic. The operative word there is "representation": the Protestant code of behavior, taken to its logical end, was bound to be only a shadow of its almost-noble theological imperatives. This representation is now our reality.
- Unfortunately for us, Weber doesn't offer much help in the matter. "The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling; we, on the other hand, must be." We are haunted, he says, by "the ghost of once-held religious beliefs."
Vindication of the Ethic of Work
First, I should acknowledge that I'm inheriting a very privileged position to be able to make the following arguments.
If I may be so bold as to propose a way out: through the thesis of the Protestant Ethic, and the antithesis of magical thinking, we may arrive at a condition of utilitarian speculation — falling just short of a hopeless utopian ideal. The binary of worldly and transcendental asceticism needn't be binary at all, nor ascetic. If, as Weber argues, we must be people of the calling, we may simply reply, in the words of [[Herman Melville]]: "I would prefer not to."
There has been a conceptual slippage in the the referents of the Spirit of Capitalism — Protestant Ethic's representational system. Outside the binary of inner- and outer-worldly duty, there exists is an ethic of work as a calling in itself.
Saying "I would prefer not to" implies a refusal to accept the conditions of a choice as legitimate; through this, it creates space for "slippage"
“Every concept is necessarily and essentially inscribed in a chain or a system, within which it refers to another and to other concepts, by the systematic play of differences. Such a play, then—difference—is no longer simply a concept, but the possibility of conceptuality, of the conceptual system and process in general. […] Within a language, within the system of language, there are only differences. A taxonomic operation can accordingly undertake its systematic, statistical, and classificatory inventory.” —Jacques Derrida, “Differance”
The major move of deconstruction is to interrogate binary oppositions in Western thought (good/evil, man/woman, black/white, right/wrong, and so on) to determine how certain ideas have gained credence over others (by social construction). Derrida deals with signification and the inability of the sign to signify the referent because of the constant chain of deferred meaning—that is to say, the constant slippage between articulations or representations of the thing and the thing as it exists in the phenomenal world. Put another way, the slippage is between the production of difference without origin and the actual quality of the referent that precedes thought and articulation. Derrida gives this slippage the name “differance,” a hybrid and invented term that implicates what he elsewhere calls “metaphysics of presence.”
Labour came to be considered in itself the end of life, ordained as such by God. St. Paul’s “He who will not work shall not eat” holds unconditionally for everyone. Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.
The expert is in a sense ascetic, but their dedication is not a denial of impulse. Rather, it is a revival of magical thought. As Weber wrote, “The radical elimination of magic from the world allowed no other psychological course than the practice of worldly asceticism.” According to Weber, this Protestant Ethic birthed an economic order of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart," bodies without souls who collectively imagine that they have "attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”
But at least one thing was unquestionably new: the valuation of the fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume
Weber's typology of religion set off the distinction between asceticism and mysticism against that between inner-worldly and other-worldly orientations, to produce a four-fold set of religious types.[](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner-worldly_asceticism#cite_note-3)[[]](/notes/4)(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner-worldly_asceticism#cite_note-ReferenceA-4) According to Talcott Parsons, otherworldly stances provided no leverage upon socio-economic problems, and inner-worldly mystics attached no significance to the material world surrounding them,[](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner-worldly_asceticism#cite_note-5) the inner-worldly ascetic acted within the institutions of the world, while being opposed to them, and as an instrument of God. However Stefan Zaleski showed that inner-worldly mysticism that is magic was interested in active transformation of reality.[](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner-worldly_asceticism#cite_note-ReferenceA-4)
- In religions which can be characterized by inner-world-asceticim, the world appears to the religious virtuoso as his responsibility
- For Weber, the worldly ascetic is a rationalist. He rationalizes his own conduct but also rejects conduct which is specifically irrational, esthetic, or dependent upon his own emotional reactions to the world
labour came to be considered in itself the end of life, ordained as such by God. St. Paul’s “He who will not work shall not eat” holds unconditionally for everyone. Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.
There are a number of historical precedents in the arts and humanities that can help explain the dynamics of this quality, from the doctrine of Aristotelian ethics, to William Morris and the principled British Arts and Crafts movement.