A sum of disunities

15 04 2010

The dynamic of eighteenth century French society, what Cobban meant by the “sum” of disunities, is somewhat more difficult to explain. But it is important to understand, for it is what constituted the French social ethos and set it off from that of England. Disunites, remnants of medievalism, plagued early modern European states generally. Individuals moved with a high degree of freedom and security within their corporate group, protected by its rights, but the groups themselves were often at odds with one another… Eli Heckscher put it succinctly when he said that for mercantilists the collective entity was not “a nation unified by common race, speech, and customs” but “the state,” which is to say, the crown and the territory and the populations it governed. In most cases, early modern states included many varied social and ethnic groupings, with which the crown authorities, particularly in France, were willing to “deal tolerantly so long as they did not conflict with the interests of the state.”

Jerah Johnson, found in the collection of essays, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization

This is a very rich passage in terms of dissecting the transition of societies in modernity. The pre-modern model was very much focused on the local for necessary reasons. The idea of the nation-state being a dominant force in determining your identity was not possible because the means of mass communication simply were not there to create such cohesion. A Frenchman in the 18th century probably had no idea that he was French, especially if he spoke Occitan or a dialect of German. The nobility probably had a sense of being “French” only insofar as they wanted to imitate the habits and customs practiced at the court of Versailles. It is arguable, however, that the homogenization of all peoples within a political boundary into “one nation” did not take place until the nineteenth century.

Modernity in its highest phase thus equals the death of the local. Local accents die, local foods die, local tales are cast into the oblivion of anthropological scholarship. They either die, or they are assimilated into the “national whole”, just as foods and language are changed to “fit into” the ethos of the dominant culture. (American “Italian” or “Chinese” food for example.) This is not so much a “tragic” thing, as an inevitable thing. I am not one to be reactionary for reaction’s sake, nor “localist” just for the sake of romanticist provincialism. After all, every time honored tradition is at bottom an adaptation of something else that has its origin in a not so pristine past.

But neither should we overlook the dangers of this drive to unify everything. Especially in our deepest philosophical and theological beliefs, we cannot disregard the fact that we function under a daily regime where difference is to be stamped out in the name of societal harmony. Even in the most “postmodern”, politically correct acceptances of “diversity”, there is a subtext of totalizing liberalism: it’s okay to be diverse, as long as you are diverse “like us”.

For me, when I look at such institutions like the Catholic Church, for example, I cannot help but see the dangers of homogenization being at the heart of all things that I fear. We must sing the same songs, use the same ceremonies, have the exact same points of view. It is not that I am arguing for the “liberal” pluralism that I despise. I more argue for a Catholicism where “difference” is tolerated, if only under the table, in an unspoken agreement that maybe some Catholics are “better” than others, but we are all in the same boat. Perhaps it is a pipe dream on my part, but I dream of being Catholic in the context in which perfection does not equal conformity. That is not at all clear, but I hope at least some of you know what I am talking about.