Thursday, May 08, 2003

Taylor Brady emailed me with some great comments on my post on Nick Flynn:

"Enjoyed the reading of this book on your blog, especially your attention to the allegorical possibilities of its "relentless aboutness." What hit me, especially, were these two sentences:

"I'm particularly struck by the way the division of labor in the hive maps onto the division of human functions we see in Huber..."

"The hive metaphor's extended outward to religion and to war, but most viscerally to work and love, which seem to be the bees' two poles of existence."

These had me wondering whether you're familiar with the historical dimension of this particular strain of allegory. Admittedly, the beehive-as-society trope probably extends back past the Greeks, but there's a particularly emphatic modern strain that begins with Bernard Mandeville's "Fable of the Bees" (various editions betwen 1714 and 1732). Mandeville uses the hive to argue a kind of "invisible hand" model, in which it's precisely the fortuitous coordination of the amoral self-interest of the hive-dwellers that creates the virtuous harmony of the hive.

No surprise, then, that Mandeville pops up in Adam Smith -- the "invisible hand of the market" is basically the fable of the bees writ large. Even less surprise, then, that when Marx is laying the foundations for his critique of Smithian political economy in volume one of Capital, the bees make another allegorical appearance in the famous "What distinguishes even the worst of architects from the best of bees" passage. Your discussion of the "prosthetic" relation between Huber and Burnens is interesting here, as this seems to align with something at the core of Marx's detourned reading of Mandeville -- the distinction between the architects and the bees, of course, is that even the worst architect has the capacity to plan his or her projects in advance, and thus, while never building under "conditions of his or her own choosing," is always at least potentially capable of changing those conditions by means of what he or she builds. The gist of Marx's argument is that classical political economy, by proposing the hive as model of social relations, in effect makes of work and the worker an object of history -- whether "dative" (the appendage through which society acts), or "objective" (the _thing_ on which it acts), and forces an abdication of historical subjectivity. Thus, while the Smithian/Mandevillean model is usually couched in terms like "rational self-interest," it's precisely the efficacy of human reason that it short-circuits.

Of course, since Marx the bees keep coming up. Both Keynes and Thatcher, for example, have attempted to recuperate them to bourgeois political economy -- Keynes by putting a somewhat friendlier face on the hive, Thatcher by the numbskull dogged reassertion of Smith's reading (minus Smith's considerable erudition). And more recently, Marxist geographer David Harvey has been in the habit of returning to Mandeville's bees at least once per book, by my count.

I guess my point in all this (to the extent that I have one, which is debatable -- more the case that I'm at work, bored and lonely) is the question: At what point does this allegory have to admit another allegorical dimension, that of its own history as allegory? Is there such a thing as an historically reflexive allegory? (Not having read the Flynn book, I'd be hard-pressed to answer this in close reading fashion, but I'd be interested to hear your take on it).

This is, of course, leaving out vast swathes of bee-allegory -- Otto Plath, H.D., Bernadette Mayer's "augury by beesting" of the pregnancy in _The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters_, etc, etc."

My response:

"Thanks very much for your email--had a big "duh" moment when you mentioned Mandeville, which of course should have occurred to me as a referent (not that I've read it, but it's here in the house somewhere). Of course, now that you've provided such a brilliant precis I don't need to read it...

Good question about the idea of historically reflexive allegory. I can't say that in reading Flynn's book I detected that level of self-consciousness. Obviously the connection is there, simply because of the aligning of the historical moment (Mandeville and Huber both being men of the 18th c.), but Flynn seems pretty intent on driving the allegory inward, focusing on its psychological and erotic charge, its interiority, rather than its sociopolitical aspect. I suppose it depends on how we read Huber himself--does he function as a grounding protagonist who individualizes the story, or does he operate as a kind of historical position or function, that of the architect that you mention? I'm inclined to think the former, though the latter is an attractive reading--it's hard for me not to think of the prosthetic Burnens now, after your comments, as a kind of Smithian invisible hand--though one that's very consciously, almost too consciously, being manipulated."

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