The Genealogy of Values:|
The Aesthetic Economy of Nietzsche & Proust
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by Gerald Owen
Once upon a time, "values" were not in people's mouths as they are now. So little known were they, that when first imported to North America around the turn of the century, Harvard professors spoke of them as "walues", imitating the English pronunciation of their German colleague Hugo Münsterberg.
Now, values discourse has now crossed the Pacific; people in the Far East want to make sense of it. Like Ann of Green Gables, The Genealogy of Values is much admired by the Japanese, who have awarded a prize to its Canadian author, with (says rumour) a tidy sum attached.
Edward Andrew has done us a real service, by advancing a convincing account of the origins of this subjectivist language in which we are entangled. He is by no means its first critic. But, as he says, "the leading opponents of values discourse, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Leo Strauss" recognized but did not really made sense of the fact that this obviously economic word "value" is now used so much in a non-economic, almost anti-economic, sense; those thinkers were not interested in economics themselves.
The pedigree that Andrew proposes might not meet the standards of the College of Heralds. The task is hard, because this lineage is traced not to a marriage, but to a divorce. The odd thing-the thing that above all he points out-is that values discourse arose just after political and moral philosophers lost their interest in economics. Plato and Aristotle, Smith, Marx, and Mill, they all spoke of property, labour, and commerce. Aristotle and Marx are especially clear in distinguishing between use value and exchange value. And the labour theory of value in Locke, Smith, Ricardo, and Marx can hardly be understood unless we look at it together with their ethical and political teachings.
In the late nineteenth century, economics began to be much more mathematical; it ceased to be known as-or to be-political economy. Exchange value was held to be the only value-or at any rate came to be treated as such, because no other kind of value submits to mathematical analysis. "Marginal utility" and prices, by contrast, do find their place in graphs.
Meanwhile, the labour theory of value went out; consumer sovereignty, based on subjective preferences, became the reigning doctrine.
In effect, the economists had evacuated some of their old territory. Andrew's argument is that certain subjectivist aesthetes then invaded, most notably Nietzsche and Proust. Values discourse is not about the world of exchange, it's about the things "money can't buy", even in the very act of denying that anything is intrinsically valuable. Conveniently, that discourse uses words that still carry the connotations of convertibility, exchangeability-words that suggest that goodnesses are all equivalent. "If we translate the language of principles into the language of values," says Andrew, "we are implicitly encouraging a politics of value tradeoffs, not principled stands."
A moral language that suggests consumer demand amounts, in his view, to a "privatization" of the common good. More specifically, values talk cannot defend "universal" programs-publicly funded daycare, public broadcasting, etc.
This language is a move away from principle, and from more than that, too:
"Values discourse is clumsy or heavy-handed in its attempt to colonize the realms of necessity or of grace, of need and love. The inadequacy of values to express necessity or neediness might be grasped by the following example. If one were to say, `I value food, you value health, she values housing,' one would expect that I am not in extreme want of food but that I like good food and am able to pay for it from a fairly expansive budget, that you are not desperately longing to recover from a severe illness but that you spend a lot of time jogging or doing aerobics and a lot of money on vitamins and health clubs, and that she is not homeless but houseproud, willing and able to devote a large share of an elastic demand curve on feathering her nest.
"As well as need, love may be a limit to the appropriate use of values discourse. If we were to overhear the sentence, `I value you very highly,' we would be inclined to think, `Oh, oh! She is telling him to get lost. She neither needs him nor loves him. She might esteem various qualities of his body, mind, or character quite highly and may not even be irritated by those estimable qualities, but they are not indispensable to her being. She is looking elsewhere.' "
I've quote this passage at length, partly because it conveys much of Andrew's argument, partly because I find it funny. In the midst of mostly expository prose, he is apt to be suddenly witty and earthy. Again: "Indeed, a response of roast lamb, sex, and thinking to a survey of one's values would merit the judgement, `he has no values' or `he has not understood the question.'" Or: "The taste discourse of Nietzsche and Proust both affirms and denies the dog's philosophy-`if you can't eat it, sniff it or have sex with it, then piss on it.'" Occasionally, he unexpectedly works, or plays, with sounds: ".the shivers and shudder, the prickling and pulsing, the flooding and melting, the longing and the lunging, the pains and the pangs."; this comes when he praises Plato's portrayal of eros over Proust's.
Well, why Proust, in this book of political theory? Partly because of Proust's very long-breathed argument that no-one and nothing is intrinsically lovable, that it's all projected. Partly because Proust rigorously presents love as a matter of supply and demand: one loves what's hard to get, not what comes easily or what one already has. This is a transplanted economics, which leaves out actual commerce and production.
Perhaps the most complex part of the book is on will: Nietzsche and Proust are contrasted but also shown to be similar. Nietzsche preaches the willing of values. Proust preaches salvation through involuntary memory. I won't try to render this here, except to say that Andrew compares Nietzsche's and Proust's teachings on time-and also to say that Proust bases much on the strong will of a spoiled child who uses his weakness to coerce his mother, a child who is both over-dependent and domineering.
Values talk is a habit that's hard to shake-as Mark Lloyd pointed out in the February 1997 Books in Canada: in The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, Gertrude Himmelfarb adopts this discourse even while criticizing it. Why? Well, it's all very right and proper, when criticizing certain opinions, to mobilize against them other opinions. But we're apt to get trapped in this theatre of conflict, setting "values" against "values", not moving away from them to metaphysics, to political economy, or to the practice of private life-to the things that self-help manuals at least try to cope with.
I said "opinions" just now, but as Andrew rightly says, "Values are not openly provisional in the way that opinions are, but exhibit a subjective certainty, a point of view that likes where it is. `These are my values' is not an invitation to discussion, whereas `These are my opinions about retributive justice' is." Values are opinions not presented as such.
What is so helpful about The Genealogy of Values is that it makes clear that we will not shake this subjectivist way of thinking just by cutting out certain words from our usage. We have to try to re-connect certain branches of study, and certain ways of life. I can't say that Andrew advances much of a positive program here. He seems to be a Left Platonist, a rare specimen these days; this unusual combination of traits is shown here to be fruitful, at least in criticism. But perhaps "political economy" will not have a renaissance until it is no longer a phrase used only on the Left-or, rather, only among those who exclude moderation and prudence from their job descriptions. That is, some other odd combinations are in order.
In any case, we should look forward to Andrew's next book. A still, small voice says it's about conscience.