Stylistic sabotage and Thorstein Veblen's scientific irony.

Author:Cassano, Graham
Position:Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen was, perhaps, the first theorist of the "post-modern era." By saying that, I do not mean to impose our belated historical categories upon his work; the hazards of such an abstract historicism are well known. But Vebten himself used the phrase "post-modern era" as early as 1918 to describe the Occident at the dawn of the twentieth century. (1) Clearly, Veblen did not mean what Jean-Francois Lyotard or Fredric Jameson meant by that same phrase. Nonetheless, the historical accident of this particular "perspective by incongruity" proves revealing. As the intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins has noted, while Veblen cannot accurately be described as a poststructuralist (after all, during Veblen's lifetime, structuralism itself was only coming into being in the works of Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, and Ferdinand de Saussure [19591), his work seems premised upon an uncanny prefiguration of many poststructuralist themes. "As if he were a proto-poststructuralist, he sought to deconstruct the conventional hierarchical oppositions that privilege the former term over the latter: male-female, civilization-barbarism, leisure-labor, reason-instinct, practicality-curiosity, normal-abnormal" (Diggins 1999, xxxiii). While not reducing Veblen to suit the categories of contemporary thought, this essay attempts to take seriously Veblen's prefiguration of the poststructuralist attitude through a critical consideration of the constitutive power of his literary style.

The guiding concept of these investigations is that "style" need not be considered a mere addendum to content-that the style and content of a work are coextensive and mutually determinate (Goodman 1978, 23-40). From this broad perspective, style is not considered simply as a technique but as a constituent element in the "intention" of the work. That is to say, style impacts upon meaning. Georg Lukacs put it this way: (2)

It is the view of the world, the ideology or weltanschauung underlying a writer's work, that counts. And it is the writer's attempt to reproduce this view of the world which constitutes his "intention" (3) and is the formative principle underlying the style of a given piece of writing. Looked at in this way, style ceases to be a formalistic category. Rather, it is rooted in content; it is the specific form of a specific content. (1963, 19) Because style is "rooted in content," style and content can never be completely disentangled; it is senseless to speak of a text's content analytically drained of style. And, since Veblen's dominant stylistic trope is irony, this essay examines the effect of an ironic style upon scientific discourse, as well as upon Veblen's very (ironic) conception of science itself. (4) If Veblen "wrote by indirection, in a style designed to disguise his own thoughts" (Diggins 1999, xvii), as I think he did, then a revised understanding of Veblen's work may be accessible through a careful examination of his style. Perhaps we might unmask the thoughts that he hoped to disguise. Of course, this method makes sense only if it proves fruitful. And, I think, it does. (5)

At this point I need to clarify a methodological issue. I intentionally read Veblen against the grain of conventional interpretations. By doing so, I do not mean to discount or supplant previous understandings of his work; rather, I believe this sort of critical rereading opens his text to new possibilities. Without a doubt, the "center of gravity" for Veblen's work lies in his critique of capitalism and his insistence upon the "matter of fact" point of view promulgated by modern science, technology, and industry. Consequently, I take for granted the so-called "Veblenian dichotomy": (6) the distinction that Veblen made between instinct of workmanship and the more predatory drives that lead to private ownership. Capitalism, the "price-system," the rule of the market, and supply and demand are ultimately incompatible with the smooth and efficient operation of industry and science as autonomous social and technological forms (7) and thus ultimately incompatible with the common good conceived in utilitarian terms. At the same time, I am attempting to peel back layers of ossified meaning that conceal what I take to be another, equally important, critique within his work: the critique of the machine age itself, apart from the deformations of technology and science produced by the capitalist mode of production and exchange.

In short, while Veblen accepted the necessity of modern science and found a kind of dialectical hope in the possibility of the disentanglement of technology and industry from capital, he did not stop at that point but continued into an only partially concealed critique of the machine age. Although I think this reading stands up to the evidence provided by the text, it remains an interpretation and, as such, only one of many possible versions of Veblen's argument. Yet, this interpretation has a purpose. By uncovering an often obscured element of Veblen's discourse, I hope to indicate a line of thought that we as cultural critics and social scientists may pursue: a question concerning technology that has important implications for our understanding of social change and its direction.

The interpretive mode that animates the present essay opens the way to a new understanding of Veblen's theory of the machine age and his reliance upon so-called "objective" scientific methods. The argument I make in the following pages is that we cannot take for granted Veblen's ostensible zeal for modernity's scientific machines, that beneath Veblen's resignation in the face of modern industrialization lay a deep distrust of modernity itself, and that this distrust of modernity has important implications for his theoretical arguments. In particular, a careful examination of Veblen's style, and its ironic foundations, leads to a revaluation of his seemingly clear-cut notion of science. Veblen's stylistic irony conceals a deep discourse that calls into question (but does not necessarily reject) the very project of modernity, industry, and even enlightenment itself. (8)

Irony and Sabotage

I am hardly the first reader to recognize the ironic structures in Veblen's writings. From the beginning, commentators have underscored this aspect of his style. Let me offer one passage as a representative of this understanding.

In The Engineers and the Price System Veblen sets forth the industrial and economic situation out of which an association and group consciousness of technicians, presumably recruited from the middle class, might arise.... The modern technological system is indispensable to modern populations, and only the engineers can run it.... They are essential for any successful line of revolutionary action. But Veblen does not detail the means by which an association of engineers might come about. He does not examine the political and class purview. On this crucial point he is ambiguous by irony, and behind this guise he states that, although they are indispensable to any overthrow, the technicians will not engage in such a line of action. (Mills and Gerth 1942, 56) C. Wright Mills and Hans Gerth discovered in Veblen what so many other commentators have found so difficult: his resolute and uncompromising stylistic irony, introduced at essential moments within his argument. It is this problem, the problem of irony--which is, at the same time, and essentially, a problem concerning style--that forms the basis of the questions the following pages hope to answer. And the answers to those questions seem to suggest that the ideas Veblen developed in the course of his scientific research demand an ironic presentation, that irony is not incidental to his writings but essential, and that style itself, as disruptive irony, becomes, and must become, a formative principle in his representation of the real. For Veblen, irony represented legitimate stylistic sabotage. (9)

Veblen began his linguistic analysis of "sabotage" by distinguishing the crass use of the term to describe "forcible obstruction, destructive tactics, industrial frightfulness, incendiarism and high explosives" from its more appropriate use as the "conscientious withdrawal of efficiency" ([1921] 1990b, 38). It is this latter use that Veblen developed in the course of his discussion. Rather than applying the term exclusively to the tactics of anarchists, socialists, and trade unionists, Veblen claimed that sabotage is and always has been an intrinsic part of business strategy.

The word first came into use among the organized French workmen, the members of certain syndicate, to describe their tactics of passive resistance.... But the tactics of these syndicalists, and their use of sabotage, do not differ ... from the similar tactics of friction, obstruction, and delay habitually employed ... by both employees and employers to enforce an argument about wages and prices. Such maneuvers of restriction, delay, and hindrance have a large share in the ordinary conduct of business. (39) Notice, Veblen not only applied the term "sabotage" to strategies of the business interests as well as to the strategies of organized workers; more intriguingly, he identified sabotage as a method used to "enforce an argument about wages and prices." Sabotage, the conscientious withdrawal of efficiency, becomes a method of argument, a rhetorical device. Now I would like to suggest that at the same time Veblen made an important point about the role of sabotage in political economy, he was offering an ironic allegory of his own method, style, and purpose. Veblen used language as a hammer tossed into the gears of capitalism's machinery. His rhetoric disrupted the smooth and placid surface of the business enterprise by delving into the depths of the mechanism and examining the manner in which it destroys the very community that it purports to serve. (10)

Technology and the Sociology of Knowledge

Veblen built his...

To continue reading