Totems of Our Lives

BOOK THE FIRST: Chapter the twelfth.  Of the CIVIL STATE.

This chapter’s subject is “[t]hat part of the nation which .  . includes all orders of men, from the highest nobleman to the meanest peasant.”  (p. 384)  Blackstone’s method consists of listing the hierarchy of titles and ranks available in 18th Century Britain, along with brief descriptions of their origins, privileges and customary duties.  Partly because my reading coincided with the death of the great philosophical anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the chapter put me in mind of the elaborate clan and kinship diagrams reproduced in some ethnographic accounts of traditional societies.   My first thought was that earls and marquesses are the turtle and kingfisher totems of the British monarchy.  Then it occurred to me that on Levi-Strauss’s theory, the really telling thing was my own view that Blackstone’s world was exotic.

Levi-Strauss’s great insight was that totemism was a modern fiction — a way to define modernity, in fact, as different from (and better than) aboriginal cultures.  According to Levi Strauss, “primitive” people’s  supposed belief in a direct, natural relationship between clans and their animal totems was “the projection outside our own universe, as though by a kind of exorcism, of mental attitudes” judged incompatible with modern thought.  Totemism (tr. Rodney Needham, Beacon 1963) at 3.  From this perspective, the theory of totemism revealed less about the culture being interpreted than the interpreting scholars, who sought “consciously or unconsciously, and under the guise of scientific objectivity,” to make the people studied “more different than they really are.” Id. at 1.  Basically, Levi-Strauss taught us to put the flash quotes around the word “primitive.”  Rather than distinguishing primitive mentalities, he saw totemic patterns and rituals as expressions of an underlying common structure of all human thought — traditional and modern, alike.

Now, I look at Blackstone’s typology of British civil society, and its emphasis on ritual and formal hierarchy seem stilted, “old fashioned,” and at odds with fluid contemporary American society. Moreover, I am quick to ascribe to the practitioners of this “traditional” social hierarchy an inability to look beyond or through its internal boundaries.  When I read Blackstone’s descriptions of the various degrees of nobility that articulate the 18th century British state, I imagine that the citizens who  either are or are not the dukes, earls, knights and peasants do not perceive the contingency of those categories.  I imagine that the society they describe is at once more artificial than ours and more natural from the perspective of the people who live in it.  But thinking of Levi-Strauss, I can see the totemism at work in my first impressions.  

How different really is Blackstone’s place-for-everyone-and-everyone-in-his-place approach?  Consider, for example, the way  academic credentials have come to denominate the different ranks of professional life today.  We may think academic letters stand for more substantial, experiential differences than the degrees of nobility Blackstone describes.  After all, academic degrees are not inherited.  But a glance at the demographics of who receives the JDs, LLMs, BAs, BSs, MBAs, PhDs, and MDs in our world reveals that family history plays a large part in who receives these rankings.  About 8 in 10 Americans whose parents hold college degrees enroll in college after high school, compared with only about half the kids whose parents didn’t finish college, and less than 4 in 10 kids of  parents who didn’t finish high school.  National Center for Education Statistics.  Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that our system is the same as the British social hierarchy Blackstone described — or that it is comparably hierarchical.  But after Levi Strauss, it’s possible to see in this chapter of the Commentaries a system that is not diametrically different from our own avowedly egalitarian society, and to see that our own world is limned with elaborate categorical structures that divide and define subgroups and our individual identities within them.  How about the dizzying array of credit statuses assigned through the various combinations of gold, platinum, and black, “centurion” and “preferred rewards” cards and memberships and their connections with the numeric credit scores that sort us according to our power to buy stuff — from groceries to houses.  Isn’t this network  every bit as intricate as the framework of “original . . . several degrees of nobility” (p. 388) and “names of dignity”  (p. 393) that structured British citizens’ relationships with land, castles and manors? 

What’s more,  the Commentaries suggest that 18th century British subjects, and certainly  Blackstone himself, regarded their categorical assignments as something other than transparent indicia of intrinsic nobility.  Blackstone makes the designations of nobility sound decidedly positivistic, not to say completely arbitrary.   He explains, for instance, that new peers are created by the king’s conferral of documents and that existing nobles “must suppose either a writ or a patent made to their ancestors; though by length of time it is lost.”  (p. 388)  There is also quite a detailed discussion of the relative merits of acquiring a peerage through a writ (includes heirs “without any words to that purport”) versus a patent (subject is enobled even if he never takes his seat in the House of Lords).  (pp. 388-89) You get the feeling Blackstone views British titles as reflecting innate characterological superiority to about the same extent that we perceive academic credentials today as reflecting a pure intellectual meritocracy and those daily mail offers of exploding APRs as indicating some kind of objective credit worthiness. 

Incidentally, in case you doubt that things like credit cards meaningfully structure social mobility beyond an individual’s access to borrowed cash, consider that most hotels will not accept guests who do not have credit cards.  Ostensibly a way to protect against guests who raid the minibar and then abscond without paying for those exorbitantly overpriced smoked almonds, the credit card prerequisite serves as a defacto social filter.  This was brought forcefully home to me when a national organization I worked for organized a conference to which we invited local advocates, some of whom had no credit cards.  It was quite an undertaking to get the hotel to accept these effectively untitled folks, even with an organization willing to guarantee any excess room charges with its own AmEx gold card.  They might leave home, but they certainly weren’t going to be staying anywhere overnight without it.  

Reading Blackstone in the month Levi-Strauss left the planet, then, I am more than ever inclined to see the myriad available  licenses, ratings, degrees and credentials as constituting rather than reflecting our social, economic and legal relationships and individual identities. Remember those AmEx commercials that began with some celebrity asking “Do you know me”? and ended with the star’s name printed on plastic?  Finally, re-reading one of the appreciations printed around Levi-Strauss’s death, I was struck with its applicability to Blackstone and the Commentaries’ approach to the common law:  As the novelist J.M.G. Le Clezio said of Levi Strauss, “He expressed in his books the beauty and intelligibility of myths.”

3 thoughts on “Totems of Our Lives

  1. Wonderful post and a fitting tribute to our dear departed structuralist. Your bottom line is surely sound: “the myriad available licenses, ratings, degrees and credentials as constitut[e] rather than reflecting our social, economic and legal relationships and individual identities.” Still, I wonder whether we can accept this claim (and your accurate critique of the persistent and deep inequality in 21st century America) and yet also sensibly conclude that Things Have Improved since Blackstone’s time.

    My interest here is not in defending the status quo but rather to see wherein lies the positive momentum for social change in order to keep that inertia going. Is there something liberating about the link between education and licenses that makes modern structures “better”? I cannot help but think of the Obama Odyssey here (just read his Nobel Speech) which gave him a few helpful abbreviations to put after his name. Or has change come despite these structures?

    It’s something of an article of faith on the left that real change comes from the grassroots up. My deepest instincts are that this right. But these days, I find myself wondering whether we give too little credit to Abstract Institutions laying claim to Abstract Principles. Of course, these principles are subject to interpretation — but maybe that is what makes them so good. While we might decry the hypocrisy of the white men who declared the equality of men to be self-evident while owning and oppressing slaves, perhaps there is something to the structure they gave to our discourse that made change possible.

    It’s almost like we can say: “Thanks for the categories guys; we’ll invest them with new values and promote our own ends, but the conversation will seem continuous with what power expects…” Just a thought.

  2. Yes, maybe. E.P Thompson (sp?) makes something like this argument in his book about the Black Acts when he suggests that even laws passed to strengthen substantive inequality can wind up commiting the powerful to a regime of formal equality that winds up limiting their power somewhat. For that matter, isn’t this pretty much Blackstone’s view about the common law? And as a civil rights lawyer, I certainly believe, or at least “believe in” the possibility that abstract legal structures can be used to promote justice, even if the original authors had a different idea about what justice means.

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