Moretti Franco Grey Area Ibsen and Spirit Capitalism

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franco moretti THE GREY AREA Ibsen and the Spirit of Capitalism onsider the social universe of Ibsen’s twelve-play cycle: shipbuilders, industrialists, financiers, merchants, bankers, developers, administrators, judges, managers, lawyers, doctors, headmasters, professors, engineers, pastors, journalists, photographers, designers, accountants, clerks, printers. No other writer has focused so single-mindedly on the bourgeois world. Mann; but in Mann there is a constant dialectic of bourgeois and
  new left review 61   jan feb 2010   117 franco moretti THE GREY AREA Ibsen and the Spirit of Capitalism  C onsider the social universe of Ibsen’s twelve-play cycle:shipbuilders, industrialists, financiers, merchants, bankers,developers, administrators, judges, managers, lawyers, doctors,headmasters, professors, engineers, pastors, journalists, pho-tographers, designers, accountants, clerks, printers. No other writer hasfocused so single-mindedly on the bourgeois world. Mann; but in Mannthere is a constant dialectic of bourgeois and artist (Thomas and Hanno,Lübeck and Kröger, Zeitblom and Leverkühn), and in Ibsen not quite,his one great artist—the sculptor Rubek, in When We Dead Awaken , whowill ‘work until the day he dies’, and loves to be ‘lord and master over hismaterial’—is just like all the others. 1 Now, many historians have doubts about the concept of the bourgeoisie:whether a banker and a photographer, or a shipbuilder and a pastor, arereally part of the same class. In Ibsen, they are; or at least, they sharethe same spaces and speak the same language. None of the Englishsemantic camouflage of the ‘middle’ class, here; this is not a class in themiddle, threatened from above and below, and innocent of the courseof the world: this is the ruling  class, and the world is what it is, becausethey have made it that way. This is why Ibsen’s ‘settling of accounts’ withthe 19th century—one of his favourite metaphors—is so breathtaking:finally, what has the bourgeoisie brought to the world?I will return to this, of course. For now, let me say how strange it is tohave such a broad bourgeois fresco—and almost no workers in it (exceptfor house servants). Pillars of Society , which is the first play of the cycle,opens with a confrontation between a union leader and a manager about  118   nlr 61 safety and profits; and although the theme is never the centre of theplot, it is visible throughout, and is decisive for its ending. But then, theconflict between capital and labour disappears from Ibsen’s world, eventhough, in general, nothing disappears here: Ghosts is the perfect Ibsentitle because so many of his characters are ghosts: the minor figure of one play returns as the protagonist in another, or the other way around; awife leaves home in one play, and stays to the bitter end in the followingone. It’s like a twenty-year-long experiment he is running: changing avariable here and there, to see what happens to the system. But, no work-ers in the experiment—even though the years of the cycle, 1877–99, arethose when trade unions, socialist parties and anarchism are changingthe face of European politics.No workers, because the conflict Ibsen wants to focus on is not thatbetween the bourgeoisie and another class, but that internal to the bour-geoisie itself. Four works make this particularly clear: Pillars of Society ; The Wild Duck ; The Master Builder  ;  John Gabriel Borkman . All four havethe same prehistory, in which two business partners, and/or friends,have engaged in a struggle in the course of which one of them has beenfinancially ruined, and psychically maimed. Intra-bourgeois competitionas a mortal combat: and since life is at stake, the conflict easily becomesruthless, or dishonest; but, and this is important, ruthless, unfair, equivo-cal, murky—but seldom actually illegal. In a few cases it is also that—theforgeries of  A Doll’s House , the water pollution in An Enemy of the People ,Borkman’s financial manoeuvres—but in general, what’s characteristicof Ibsen’s wrongdoings is that they inhabit an elusive grey area whosenature is never completely clear.This grey area is Ibsen’s great intuition about bourgeois life, so let megive you a few examples. In Pillars of Society there are rumours that atheft has occurred in Bernick’s firm; he knows the rumours are false, buthe also knows they will save him from bankruptcy, and so, though theyruin a friend’s reputation, he lets them circulate; later, he uses politicalinfluence in a barely legal way, to protect investments that are them-selves barely legal. In Ghosts , Pastor Manders persuades Mrs Alving notto insure her orphanage, so that public opinion won’t think that ‘neitheryou nor I have adequate faith in Divine Providence’; divine providence 1 All quotations from Ibsen come from The Complete Major Prose Plays , translatedand introduced by Rolf Fjelde, New York 1978. Many many thanks to Sarah Allisonfor her help with the Norwegian srcinal.  moretti:   Ibsen   119being what it is, the orphanage of course burns down—accident, moreprobably arson—and all is lost. There is the ‘trap’ that Werle might (ornot) have laid for his partner in the prehistory of  The Wild Duck , and theunclear business between Solness and his partner in the prehistory of  The Master Builder  ; where there is also a chimney that should be repaired,isn’t, and the house burns down—but, the insurance experts say, for awholly different reason . . .This is what the grey area is like: reticence, disloyalty, slander, neg-ligence, half truths. As far as I can tell, there is no general term forthese actions, which at first was frustrating; for I have often found theanalysis of keywords illuminating for understanding the dynamic of bourgeois values: useful, serious, industry, comfort, earnest. Take ‘effi-ciency’: a word that had existed for centuries, and had always meant, asthe oed puts it, ‘the fact of being an efficient cause’: causality. But then,in the mid-nineteenth century, all of a sudden the meaning changes,and efficiency starts indicating ‘the fitness or power to accomplish . . .the purpose intended; adequate power’. Adequate; fit to the purpose:not the capacity to cause something in general any more, but to doso according to a plan , and without waste : the new meaning is a mini-ature of capitalist rationalization. ‘Language is the instrument by whichthe world and society are adjusted’, writes Benveniste, and he’s right;semantic change, triggered by historical change; words catching upwith things. 2 That’s the beauty of keywords: they’re a bridge betweenmaterial and intellectual history.But with the grey area, we have the thing, and not the word. And wereally do have the thing: one of the ways in which capital accumulatesis by invading ever new spheres of life—or even creating  them, as in theparallel world of finance—and in these new spaces laws are more uncer-tain, and behaviour can quickly become profoundly equivocal. Equivocal:not illegal, but not quite right either. Think of a year ago (or today, forthat matter): was it legal for banks to have a preposterous risk-to-assetratio? Yes. Was it ‘right’, in any conceivable sense of the word? Clearlynot. Or think of Enron: in the months that led to its bankruptcy, KennethLay sold stock at prices that grossly overstated its value, as he knew per-fectly well: in the criminal case, the government did not charge him; in 2 Emile Benveniste, ‘Remarks on the Function of Language in Freudian Theory’, in Problems in General Linguistics , Miami 1971, p. 71.  120   nlr 61 the civil case it did, because the standard of proof was lower. 3 The sameact that is and is not  prosecuted: this is almost baroque, in its play of lightand shadow, but typical: the law itself acknowledging the existence of thegrey area. One does something because there is no explicit norm againstit; but it doesn’t feel right, and the lurking fear of being held accountableremains, and instigates endless cover-up. Grey on grey: a dubious act,wrapped in equivocations. ‘The substantive conduct may be somewhatambiguous’, a prosecutor put it a few years ago—ambiguous, because of the ‘fog of financialization’, ‘opaque data’, ‘dark pools’, ‘shadow banking’:fog, opaque, dark, shadows: all images of inextricable black and white.The initial act may be ambiguous, ‘but the obstructive conduct may beclear.’ 4 The first move may remain forever undecidable: what followedit—the ‘lie’, as Ibsen calls it—that, is unmistakable.The initial act may be ambiguous: that’s how things begin, in the greyarea. An unplanned opportunity arises all by itself: a fire; a partner oustedfrom the picture; rumours; finding a rival’s lost papers. Accidents. Butaccidents that repeat themselves so often that they become the structural,hidden foundation of modern life. The initial event had been punctual,unrepeatable; the lie endures for years, or decades; it becomes ‘life’.That’s probably why there is no keyword, here: just as some banks aretoo big to fail, the grey area is too pervasive to be acknowledged; it caststoo bleak a shadow on the value which is the bourgeoisie’s justification inthe face of the world: honesty. Honesty is to the bourgeoisie what honourwas to the aristocracy; etymologically, it even derives from honour (andthere is a trait d’union between them in the female ‘chastity’—honourand honesty at once—so central in early bourgeois drama). Honesty tellsthe bourgeoisie apart from all other classes: the word of the merchant,as good as gold; transparency (‘I can show my books to anyone’); moral-ity (Mann’s bankruptcy as ‘shame, dishonour worse than death’). EvenMcCloskey’s 600-page extravaganza on Bourgeois Virtues —which ascribesto the bourgeoisie courage, temperance, prudence, justice, faith, hope,love—even there, the apex are the pages on honesty. Honesty, the theorygoes, is the bourgeois virtue because it is so perfectly adapted to a marketeconomy: market transactions require trust, honesty provides it, and the 3 See Kurt Eichenwald, ‘Ex-Chief of Enron Pleads Not Guilty to 11 Felony Counts’, New York Times , 9 July 2004. 4 Jonathan Glater, ‘On Wall Street Today, a Break from the Past’, New York Times , 4May 2004.
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