[lit-ideas] An interesting thought about freedom

  • From: "John McCreery" <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, Anthro-L <ANTHRO-L@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 20 Jan 2007 12:49:52 +0900

From Grant McCracken's blog

Touchy selfhood: what Princes, punks and peddlers have in common

It is an open question and a topical one: whether all cultures are
equally endowed with the ability and inclination to embrace economic,
political and cultural liberty.

If you are an exceptionalist, you say, "no, this is a peculiarity of
the West.  It does not occur indigenously and robustly in other
cultures, and it's not for exportation there.  If they don't have it,
they won't ever get it. Don't even think about forcing it.  Liberty
will not take."

If you are a generalist, you say, "nonsense, every member of the
species yearns for freedom.  Give them an inch and, eventually,
they'll take a mile.  Liberty is inevitable.  Plant the seed in any
soil.  A mighty oak will grow."

I'm torn.  Sometimes I'm an exceptionalist, sometimes a generalist.
But I found myself wondering the other day whether we shouldn't treat
"touchy selfhood" as a necessary (or at least generative) condition of

Consider the moment in which someone with standing (the superordinate
party) asks anyone with less standing (the subordinate party) to do
something.  Sometimes the subordinate party will bristle a little.  He
might go further than this, and resist, performing the task but doing
so "ungraciously."  He might actually refuse the task altogether.  In
all cases, he is likely to make a show of his irritation with a
standard nonverbal vocabulary. He will glare, grimace and/or glower.
Even when compliance is forthcoming, the superordinate party is sent a
message.  The subordinate resented being asked and may in fact doubt
the authority and even the standing of the superordinate party.

Harrumph! When the subordinate bristles, resists or refuses, the
superordinate takes umbrage, too.   Other subordinates would perform
this task willingly and with good grace.  What's the matter with this
guy?  Someone asks, "Don't you find him a little prickly, difficult,
contrary?"  The answer is resounding, "Oh, totally.  He's touchy!"

This little status drama can be played out in any number of venues.
The classic locus for contemporary culture is the relationship between
a parent and a teenager.  There is always a couple of "contested"
years in which parents insist on an authority that teens are reluctant
to accept.  When parents persist, teens respond with spectacular
displays of touchiness, complete with phrases like, "you're not the
boss of me."

When the West was more hierarchical, touchiness was the order of the
day.  I'm reading a biography of Samuel Pepys, the 17th century
diarist, and there is lots of contretempt between Pepys the master and
Jane, the servant.  It surprises us to learn that Jane was Pepys'
sister.  But the problem was much bigger than servants.  Everyone in
the hierarchical West was, with the exception of the monarch,
subordinate to someone. Aristocratic touchiness was especially common
when differences of rank were not clear, or when one party demanded
too much deference or gave too little.  It is easy to find many
instances of touchiness in the historical record and it looks as if
the West has been vibrating with same for many hundreds of years.
Princes, punks and peddlers all have this in common.

Touchiness was (and remains) symptomatic of a certain status
tenderness.  It tells us that there was some question about what is
owed to whom.  Touchy selfhood is never quite certain what the
boundaries of role and obligation are.  And this lack of clarity means
that everyone is inclined to wear away at the wharf to which they are
tethered.  Any liberty that is not nailed is snapped up.  Any liberty
that is disputable is disputed.  Even when obligations are clear, they
are still protested with a theater of gesture and attitude.
Westerners chaff.  What looked like bad manners or bloodymindedness is
actually a collective declaration that the present "liberty
allowance" is  not enough, and that acts of compliance are offered
under protest.

Now the question is this: is touchiness universal?  You're asking me?
My guess is that it isn't it.  I would be surprised if touchiness were
exclusively Western.  But I would also be surprised if touchiness were
exhibited equally  by every culture.   I think there are some cultures
that refuse touchiness.  And where touchiness is prevented, I think
it's probably true that liberties of every kind are harder to achieve.
It could be that economic, political, and cultural liberty sometimes
starts as touchiness.

In the long term, every culture must fight a war between two phrases:
"don't you know who I am?" and "who do you think you are?"  It may be
that the latter wins, and liberty flourishes, more surely when selves
are a little touchy.


Tomalin.  Claire.  2003.  Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self.  London: Penguin.


Mark Yellin

John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
Tel. +81-45-314-9324
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