Monday, January 29, 2007

Rosenstock-Huessy and Tribes

Peter Leithart over at has been making frequent reference to Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German social philosopher who moved to America in 1932, teaching first at Harvard, then many years at Dartmouth. I had never heard of this man in any context that I remember, but he does seem to have been quite brilliant, and quite fascinating.

What little I have read of him to date – all excerpts quoted by others – impresses me as original thinkers often do. I read one comment with approbation and widened eyes; the next furrows my brow and I think “that doesn’t sound quite right;” the third seems tangential to the first two, but plausible; the fourth seems stunning and deep. I am clearly over my head, though I may catch up in time.

Leithart writes at length on Rosenstock-Huessy’s thoughts on tribalism, not in the half-mocking sense I have been using the concept of tribes here, but in the more traditional meaning of a method of social organization. R-H regards tribes as a developmental stage of organization, followed in complexity by the temple, then poetry. The family is the central unit of socialization and preservation to Rosenstock-Huessy, and he comments on the effect of tribal organization on the family.

This occurs only as a man and woman stay with one another through and after a birth: "In nature, animals mate and their young forget who their parents were." Human reproduction occurs when the parents remain past the birth. Marriage thus, Rosenstock-Huessy says, creates a "body of time." This requires that the couple be married in the name of ancestors and that their marriage be public. This is a great act of power on the part of the couple. Two people marrying for love, he says, are unimpressive; it's impressive, though, that "they have forced the community to say that these people are married."

He points out that this has weakened significantly today, where private weddings before JPs are common; they cannot "force upon the community the esteem, the dignity, and the distinction which two people need to have a house of their own, to bring up their children as their own, to bestow upon their children their own name, and to have the authority, for example, to make the religion of their children their own decision." With marriage comes the right of the parents to influence their children, including their children's deepest beliefs. And the erosion of marriage means the erosion of this authority: What gives the parents the right to impose their religion on poor, unsuspecting kids? Parents have lost the power to "consecrate" their children, to give them a direction.

Consecration is a tribal right, and usually a rite. Tribal parents consecrate their children. Christianity does the same, but to the tribal consecration adds a universal note. A baptized child is not merely a member of the tribe, following the path set by the parents, but shares a faith and a path with many outside his own tribe. Strikingly, Rosenstock-Huessy says that European use of biblical names was a brake on tribal nationalism, and that soon after this customary naming ceased Europe fell into massive World Wars.

This leads us to interesting speculations about our modern tribes. What “tatoos” and uniforms are worn by the various tribes to identify themselves to each other? The A&H males used to favor suitcoats with leather elbow patches, accessorized by a pipe and a big dog, but that era is waning. S&T males carried briefcases at an early age, had a slide rule and many pens in a pocket protector, but that has also faded. The military has very specific uniforms, but even off-duty they have identifiers. I once observed two men introduced who each immediately deduced (accurately) that the other was retired career military by his shoes. D.E. Cloutier observed in an earlier post that businessmen use clothing as a marker not just of status, but of membership.

I imagine I will recognise what the tribal markers are for females - at least from my own generation and the one before - once someone points them out to me, but I’m drawing a blank at the moment.

We have used the analogy of firefly blinks at our house for many years now…

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