A 19th-Century factory: the centre of modern bourgeois economic and social power
Before concluding our look at Marx, it is important to relate his work back to the larger theme of the course- the social, political, and cultural experiences of Modernity, particularly the mediated forms of these experiences. Marx’s theories of value, labour, capital, and exchange are far more in depth than our last post can approximate, but the point is not to languish in the intricacies of the writings themselves, but to situate them within the modern psyche and the discourses that accompany it.
Marshall Berman, in his extraordinary All That’s Solid Melts Into Air provides a vivid account of how we may think of Marx as a consummately Modern thinker and, in some ways, aesthetician. The title of Berman’s book is drawn from The Communist Manifesto, and is part of a larger clause that he contends embodies the rhetoric and spirit of the modern age:
All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.
Here, Marx is beautifully capturing the emphatic mutability of modern life- a life in which the forces that once anchored us and structured our consciousness (the church, feudal power, cooperation on collective lands, etc.) have evaporated and given way to a melted, fluid state of being. The mysticism that once saturated every day interactions has been forced out of existence, and the veil of superstition has been lifted by the relentless incisions of rationality and empiricism- anything that once seemed “holy,” or mystical, or sacred, or spiritually engaging has been profaned, intruded upon, studied, and absorbed wholesale into the sprawling taxonomies of modernity.
Berman draws our attention to the metaphor of “melting,” in particular, as one that heavily informs Marx’s literary style. He does not suggest that modernity is some unequivocal end point, and goes to pains to show that it is not static or set. Rather, drawing on the notion of fluidity, throughout the Manifesto, he is fixated upon the seemingly relentless dynamism of modern bourgeois society. The bourgeoisie of modern Europe were flexible and adaptable as no other class in history had ever been, and as such, had been able to, in Marx’s eyes, accomplish feats so grand that they surpassed the achievements of even the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Berman excerpts this section of the Manifesto to highlight Marx’s fixation upon the generative dynamism of bourgeois society:
The bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive power than have all previous generations put together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground- what earlier century had even an intimation that such productive power slept in the womb of social labour?
But as Berman notes, Marx’s celebratory tone cannot be divorced from his deeply critical analysis of bourgeois society and the capitalist political economy. Berman asserts that tied to the enormous achievements of the bourgeois is a dark self-made undercurrent that threatens to unhinge their own social and economic dominance. It is not, as we might expect from reading portions of Capital such as “The Working Day,” the brutal exploitation of human and natural resources for personal gain. To paraphrase Berman, why should the Bourgeois fear exploitation? They do it to one another all the time, and openly acknowledge that it is the very foundation of a marketized capitalist economy.
Rather, there is a particularly modern anxiety within Bourgeois society that cannot be undone. If Bourgeois culture is invariably tied to the dynamic, fluid flexibility that Marx claims it is, then all of their miraculous achievements are doomed to crumble under the weight of the pursuit for more. The Bourgeoisie achieved their dominance in the modern period through an insistence that everything that came before the modern is oppressively outmoded, and must be dramatically reworked in the age of the machine and industrial capitalism.
But if this is the case, then what is to become of their own acheivements? Berman points out that the Bourgeois are prone to monumentalism, and the construction of material testaments to their own success. This is as true today as it was in Marx’s time. Icons such as the Eiffel Tower and contemporary skyscrapers are little more than testaments the accepted power of those who build them.
The Eiffel Tower under construction. A monument to steel, industry, and the aspirations of the bourgeois.
The recently completed Burj Khalifa (United Arab Emirates) stands at 828 meters, or 2,717 feet. Just over half a mile tall.
The Eiffel Tower, pictured above during its construction, was once the ultimate testament to human ambition, ranking as the tallest man-made structure in the world. Yet today, it is dwarfed by the Burj Khalifa, also pictured above, which staggers upward out of the Saudi Arabian desert for over half a mile. While the Eiffel Tower has remained a globally-recognized architectural landmark, it hardly retains its status as a feat of engineering next to contemporary superstructures like the Burj. The Burj, however, when considered alongside the stagnant Middle Eastern economy in which it exists, and the dirty geopolitics of war, oil, and global capitalism it stands at the centre of, hides its own secret behind hundreds of meters of mirrored glass. As economic structures crumble around it, and the dogma of global capitalism begins to fray at the edges, the Burj becomes a kind of sad, teetering testament to the impossibility of solidity in a culture that demands a creativity predicated on destruction. At the same time as it acts as a shrine to the excesses and achievements of bourgeois society, it also functions as constant reminder of the dark secret of the bourgeois in modernity:
The immense amounts of money and energy put into building, and the self-consciously monumental character of much of this building-indeed, throughout Marx’s century, every table and chair in a bourgeois interior resembled a monument-testify to the sincerity and seriousness of this claim. And yet the truth of the matter, as Marx sees it, is that everything that bourgeois society builds is built to be torn down. “All that is solid” [is] made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms.
The pathos of all bourgeois monuments is that their material strength and solidity actually count for nothing and carry no weight at all, that they are blown away like frail reeds by the very forces of capitalist development they celebrate.
Tied up in this reading of Marx as a definitively modern thinker is a suggestion of a concept that will inform the remainder of the course. The notion that under modernity, achievement and accumulation often beget their opposites- decay and emptiness- serves as a conceptual springboard for later Marxist thinkers who would mount their own critiques of the capitalist mode of production. Most notable among these thinkers are those of the Frankfurt School, who combined Marx’s critique of the capitalist political economy with a critique of emergent mass culture to suggest that, by the early-to-mid 1900s, the Enlightenment project had folded in on itself to yield ideologically repressive cultural and artistic regimes, and a pervasive social irrationality, attested to by the rise of fascist and totalitarian regimes. These two topics: the mass society thesis and the Frankfurt School critique of capitalism will round out this blog.
“If Marx had not been more than a purveyor of phraseology, he would be dead by now.”
~Joseph A. Schumpeter
Any attempt to “sum up” Marxism is almost destined to fail, and often grossly miscasts the nature of his work. While there are indeed central themes to which he returns time and again, perhaps the most important notion to bear in mind when interrogating Marx’s enormous body of published theory, is that there is nearly nothing “essential,” about it. It defies broad categorization because of its staggering internal turbulence. It is at once elegant and tumultuous, mapping and expanding the taken-for-granted realities of a capitalist existence, illuminating its character in a revolutionary light, but always acknowledging that there is more to know, and always appreciative of capitalism’s dynamic flexibility in the face of conflict and contradiction. His seminal work Capital, for example, spans three volumes, the first of which runs for approximately 1000 pages, excluding appendices. While across every page and volume, the themes of the commodity, value, labour, and the relations between them are carefully supported, each chapter is relentlessly sub-titled, filled with annotations, and draws upon an immensely diverse set of metaphors, examples, formulae, and the like to articulate its argument. Such a structure reveals at once a brilliant elucidation of the often mysterious inner mechanics of the capitalist mode of production, but at the same time, highlights the enormity of his task, and the constant tension between the particular and the totality to which it belongs.
That caveat addressed, it is possible, if only for the purposes of categorization and simplicity, to draw out of Marx’s philosophy a few key concepts worth highlighting, as they lay the groundwork for later strains of influential cultural criticism.
As mentioned earlier, Marx’s writings were heavily influenced by three antecedent schools of thought: German metaphysical philosophy, Hegelian dialectics, and French utopian socialism. German metaphysics envisions history as the product of human thought, and assumes that it is the mind that generates ideas which can then be codified as material relations and institutions. Collisions between these institutions generate a long progression of great upheavals and conflicts, which we refer to as “history.” From the metaphysicals, then, we inherit a view of history that indeed acknowledges the material substance of our existence, but only as a tangent to the true generative force of human societies- the human mind. Metaphysical philosophy demands introspective interrogation as a means of understanding the external world.
For Marx, this was a potentially productive philosophical corpus, but languished too heavily in the internal world of the mind to generate a cogent analysis of the external world of capitalist exploitation. In his analysis, it is indeed necessary to examine the cultural, social, and more “human” aspects of life, but not at the expense of interrogating the world as it was at the time. For this more materialist inspiration, Marx turned to utopian socialism, which reacted to the theories of Thomas Mathlus and David Ricardo. Malthus and Ricardo explicitly tied the existence of any kind of stable society to the production of food and other physical necessities. They asserted that, without the intervention of an industrial infrastructure, population growth would always outstrip food production, and thus that the growth of our civil society is always limited by the material conditions of our existence. The utopian socialists internalized this rigidly materialist logic and endeavored to create highly rationalized, planned communities in which population and production could be balanced through logical means. What this view lacked for Marx, however, was precisely what metaphysics tended to lose itself in: a consideration of cultural factors. Utopian socialism contains little recognition of the class struggle within society, and suggests that a proletarian revolution is not essential to the establishment of socialist communities. Utopian Socialism lacked what would become a central pillar of Marx’s work- a thorough examination and critique of the capitalist political economy.
Marx, then, needed to chart a moderate course through these two epistemological traditions. He needed to find a way to historicize materialism, that is, situate a thorough analysis of the material, economic, and industrial conditions of Modernity within an analytical frame that was inherently tied to more metaphysical concepts such as governance, power, the nature of the state, and culture. To unite these two seemingly disparate epistemologies into a dynamic dialogue, Marx turned to Hegelian dialectics. Through dialectical thinking, culture and economics (ie. the social and the material) could be placed in an inextricable relationship with one another, where each simultaneously informed and contradicted the other. Although it should be noted that Hegel himself was seen by Marx as too focused upon the mind and thought as the prime mover of history, it was Hegel’s “insistence that history is not only conflict-laden, but inherently conflict laden, and that its conflictual elements yield their meanings only when we understand them as ‘contradictions’ within a dialectical framework” that captured the character of the capitalist mode of production.
Many are quick to write Marx off as a crude materialist or economist, in that he allegedly constructs the social, cultural, and historical elements of our lives as the direct product of economic imperatives. Yet such a reading of Marx all but does away with the notion of dialectical contradiction so fundamental to his work. From the oustet, Marx makes it abuldantly clear that the social dimensions of life cannot be discarded in favor of a rigidly materialist analysis, asserting that man’s engagement with other living beings is an absolute. All humans will enter into social relationships. The question then becomes, how are these social relations altered by and embodied within a particular mode of production? That is, how does the material substance of our culture interact with and contribute to the formation of a unique form of social relation that serves the capitalist ethos of accumulation and maximization?
The Commodity and the Money Form:
As a means of unpacking this question, Marx begins with an interrogation of the commodity form as an embodiment of the mystification written into capitalist ideology. He contends that the commodity as we understand it today- an object for which we trade the abstraction “money”- is in fact, what Heilbroner calls “the carrier and the encapsulation of the social history of capitalism.”
The commodity is seen in two ways in Marx’s Capital, as a use-value and as an exchange-value. The use-value of a commodity refers to its usefulness or utility in our every day lives. A table, for example, can be valued for its utility as a table. The exchange-value of a commodity, however, is an abstraction. Exchange-value refers to the value of a commodity on the market when exchanged for a common currency. To jump ahead in Marx’s analysis, the exchange value may be thought of as a “dollar value.”
Exchange value is not inherent to the commodity itself; the usefulness of a table is inherent to the form and function of the commodity table- it may be used as a table, and so is desirable for the functional role it can play in our lives. But the exchange-value of that same table, as expressed in a dollar or currency amount, is socially constructed; it is an abstraction negotiated under the particular conditions of a capitalist mode of production, and is largely unrelated to its use value. Gold, for example, commands an extremely high dollar or exchange value, despite the fact that it has extremely limited utility to most people. By contrast, something such as water, a necessity for survival, is almost worthless in terms of dollar value.
As such, under capitalism, Marx posits, “value” is not a function of utility, but rather a function of the amount of human labour power required to produce a particular commodity, what he calls socially necessary labour power. Gold requires more human labour to extract, refine, and render useable than does water, thus investing the commodity gold with more “value” than the commodity water. For labour to function as the “substance” of value, though, it must must be homogenized and standardized. The form of labour required to extract gold versus the form of labour required to accumulate water, under capitalism, is immaterial. For commodities- or congealed expressions of human labour power- to be exchangeable through a standardized currency form, the labour that constitutes those commodities must itself be standardized. Thus all human labour under capitalism is reduced to what Marx calls simple human labour, and is itself a commodity, varying quantities of which can be purchased by those who require it for the production of other commodities. The price of simple human labour is referred to as a wage, a form of payment that breaks decisively with pre-Modern forms of remuneration, which depended upon the utility and functional equivalency of certain quantities of particular objects.
Thus, by examining the most mundane of all objects- the commodity- Marx engages in a revelatory discussion of the internal workings and mystifications of the capitalist system, writ large. Implicated within this single topic is a much broader discussion of labour, value, the establishment of common currencies, and other seemingly ‘natural’ facets of a capitalist mode of production. For a far more in depth discussion of Marx’s approach to the commodity, watch this lecture, drawn from David Harvey’s remarkable course, “Reading Capital.”
The question of how the commodity is transfigured by the exchange process into the abstracted “money form,” is a complicated one, and occupies a dense chapter of Capital. However, to grasp further Marxist concepts such as alienation, and later landmark critiques of capitalist society (Barthes Mythologies and Jameson’s Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, for example), it’s a concept that must be wrestled with. Again, David Harvey provides an exploration of the money form.
The Base and the Superstructure
Based solely upon Harvey’s skeletal mapping of Marx’s argument in Capital, we can gather that we are grappling with ideas far more complex than a simple materialist formulation allows for. Rather, Marx’s socioanalytical examination is dynamic, flexible, and deeply responsive to the perceived fluidity of capitalism itself. However, this nuanced examination has proven to be, even for those well versed in social and political theory, daunting and at times overwhelming. Recognizing the density of their own work, then, Marx and Engels, in some of their earlier writings developed a metaphorical rendering of their concept of historical materialism- the base and superstructure metaphor of social reproduction. History has not treated this decision kindly, as this metaphor is likely the most frequently misappropriated, simplistically interpreted, and radically decontextualized of all points within Marxism.
Essentially, in an attempt to model or schematize the formation and reproduction of a capitalist society, Marx and Engels asked readers to imagine the world as split into two distinct, but tangled spheres: the “determining base” and its corollary, the “determined superstructure.” The determining base is comprised of the forces of production, which Helbroner defines as “society’s means of material reproduction- its population, skills, arts, techniques, and artifacts” (p. 65). That is, the base is made up of the material substance of economic and productive life such as labour power, machines, raw materials, manufacturing infrastructure, capital, and the like. The form of this base, metaphorically, determines the form of the cultural and social superstructure which is built upon it. In Heilbroner’s words, the superstructure is made up of the “relations of production,” or “the social arrangements that direct the forces of production and that allocate its output. Here are the institutions of power and hierarchy, embodied in the social classes that we find in all modes of production” (p. 65). In short, the superstructure, which is “determined” by the composition and form of the base is that sphere constituted by government, authority, culture, expression, social relationships, hegemony, and the like- the abstractions and institutions through which we play out our lived experiences.
The language of “determining” and “determined,” however, do much to obfuscate the true embeddedness of economic within social, and social within economic considerations. Even within this metaphor,
“neither the forces nor the relations of production are narrowly economic concepts. The forces of production embody the skills and arts of the population and are thereby inextricably mixed with its cultural and technical heritage. The relations of production necessarily embrace the legal and political and social bonds that legitimate and enfocre the roles of the different classes. Thus political and social, even religious elements, pervade the economic elements (p. 65).
Yet despite Marx’s careful considerations, the base/superstructure metaphor has been appropriated wholesale, and has become the keystone in hard-line materialist Marxist ideologies. Throughout his work, Marx continually comments upon the bourgeois tendency to confuse the part for the whole, to mistake their own particular ideological position for the nature and condition of the society writ large; that is, to fetishize the bourgeois and capitalist ideology by shrouding its historical construction in an ahistorical and natural language. To mistake the metaphorical rendering of the base and superstructure for the whole of historical materialism, then, is to subject Marxism to the most egregious of bourgeois errors.
These “basics’ of Marxism perform a gross reduction on the true complexity of his remarkable writings, but for the purposes of review and categorization, they are worth noting. To return this discussion of Marxist ideology to the themes of the course, the next entry will examine why it is that Marxism is a particularly modern socioanalytical framework.
Reckoning with Industrialization: In Modernity, the infrastructure of the factory system became the new urban landscape, particularly in England, where the mechanization and rationalization of industry found firm footing ahead of most continental European nations.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake, “Jerusalem”
In our previous post, we briefly introduced a third reaction to the tensions of Modernity- Socialism, which we will now examine in more detail. Recall that Edmund Burke and the English conservatives lamented the French Revolution and its blind faith in reason, the Patricians lamented the breakdown of traditional hierarchies of social and intellectual power, and the Romantics rejected the dismissal of the sensual and the aesthetic that Enlightenment empiricism demanded. The new Socialists, for their part, drew on all three schools to articulate a critical view of the violence of Modernity. Unique to this view, however, was a particularly virulent critique of market capitalism and industrialization as destructive, alienating systems that served only to reproduce and codify the social, cultural, and economic inequities of modern Western society
Capitalism, broadly speaking, is the mobilization of the philosophical principle of rationality in the economic realm. Recall that rational empiricism is built upon a logic of dissociation: breaking down complete systems, objects, and beings into their constituent parts whose physical interactions occur according to a particular set of laws. The internal operations of the human and natural worlds, then, can be mathematically modeled based on empirical observations of the physical manifestations of these interactions. Capitalism applies a similar logic to the process of production and distribution. From the extraction of raw materials, to the processing of those materials into completed goods, and finally to the shipping of these products to retail outlets, every phase of the capitalist process is relentlessly rationalized. The manufacturing phase, for example, within the modern factory system, is broken down into atomized parts, with each labourer in charge of a minute portion of the overall product. He exchanges this contribution for a wage- a mathematically determined monetary value assigned to his labour based upon the fluctuations of supply, demand, employment, and the abstract value of money. Under such a system, artisanal modes of production, in which a single craftworker creates a product in its entirety, often exchanging it for in-kind or equivalent services and goods, is dramatically displaced. Rather, within a capitalist mode of production, each worker is given a minute, repetitive task as part of the overall manufacturing process, and trades this labour for a wage (which is often too low to enable him to purchase back the product of his labour in the form of the completed commodity).
Any student of Cultural Studies will no doubt be familiar with the patron saint of Socialist ideology, Karl Marx, whose seminal texts Capital and The Communist Manifesto articulated a sprawling examination and critique of this dissociative logic. As a consequence of Marx’s immense influence on the trajectory of Western ideological conflict, his expansive and nuanced body of work has been whittled down to a select few aphorisms, suitable for the left to valorize, and the right to lambaste. This frequent reduction of the key socialist writings is unfortunate and misleading, as Marx’s vision of history, people’s relations to one another within a particular mode of production, the nature of work, the movement of capital, the migration of value, and the fetishization of the commodity form all emerge from particular historical conditions, and represent a calculated response to those conditions. It is necessary, then, to examine some resources that frame Marx’s work through a historical lens, acknowledge his numerous theoretical and conceptual nuances, and implicate within his writings the influence of a changing social reality.
For a light-hearted introduction to Marx as a human being and philosopher, and for a brief overview of some of the historical roots of his key theoretical tenets, take a look at this highly entertaining talk by Mark Steel, long-time columnist for the Guardian, and an extremely knowledgeable scholar of Marx’s work.
Of particular importance in this talk is Steel’s brief discussion of Hegel’s notion of dialectics. In his own words, to try and briefly summarize Hegelian philosophy is a misguided project from the outset, but nonetheless, a dialectical world view rejects the “great men and battles” theory of historical progression. With the Enlightenment came the idea than man was the master of his own fate, and so secular history, rather than being driven by divine intervention, was driven by the actions of great men- rulers, warriors, kings, philosophers. The human agent became the prime mover of history.
Hegel rejected this theory, instead asserting that change arose not from people, but from broad tensions within society more generally. He held that there were axes of difference within a given society along which prevalent cultural tensions aligned- the division between master and slave in premodern Europe being one of the most famous. The opposing sides of this axis grind against one another, potentially for centuries, until the given relationship is overturned by a galvanizing event, such as the French Revolution. The Revolution, seen in this light, was not the work of Robespierre, Locke, or other individual revolutionaries, but the rupture of a long-standing and broad-based social tension in dynamic flux over the course of centuries. Hegelian dialectics were immensely influential upon Marx, and would deeply inform his notion of class struggle, as well as his oft-misappropriated base/superstructure metaphor used to describe the more materialist dimensions of his philosophy.
David Gordon, speaking at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1988, provides a deeply detailed look at Hegel’s notion of how seemingly disparate elements of our world are intrinsically linked into often oppositional relationships. The language here is dense, but the content is worth wading through.
The Hegelian dialectic, however, is only one epistemological tradition upon which Marx draws in his body of work. Rather, as Gordon mentions in his talk at the von Mises Institute, he also refers to the works of the German metaphysical tradition, which are closely associated with the German fascination with the sensual and the Romantic (discussed in the previous post). The third main school of thought Marx drew upon to articulate his critique of Capitalism was the largely French tradition of utopian socialism, championed by thinkers such as Fourier and St. Simone. For perhaps one of the best online resources on the topic of Marxist philosophy, economics, and language, and one that sketches out these influential schools of thought, and their place within Marx’s conception of a socialist society, watch this introductory lecture to Marx’s Capital by David Harvey, who has been teaching all three volumes of this expansive work for over forty years. The true dynamism and scope of Marx’s thought is conveyed with expert precision by Harvey, who has posted all lectures in this series for free online.
In our next post, we will detail the concept of historical materialism, which serves as one of the cornerstones of Marx’s theories, and provides an ideal opportunity to discuss some of the critiques that have been been leveled against them, including claims of technological and economic determinism, rigid causality, and blind materialism.
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich. In the wake of the liberal, rational revolution, spurred on by the Enlightenment, many looked with regret upon a world stripped of its mysticism, a mysticism Freidrich looks to recapture in this seminal piece, completed in 1818.
As the new liberal ideology expanded across the continent, celebrating the empirical, the rational, and the scientific as forces that would liberate humanity from the inequities and superstitions of the past, a growing number of thinkers, poets, philosophers, and conservative moralists began to question its spiritual implications. English conservative elements looked across the Channel to the bloodshed and chaos of the French Revolution, and saw not a dashing of feudal oppression, but reason turned on its head: violence, revolution, hysteria. Others looked with disdain upon the growing world of urban industrial production, factory labor, and environmental destruction, which had been justified by a rhetoric of dominance over the natural world enabled through reason. In a world where all things are empirically knowable, where everything is simply sensation impressed upon a blank, malleable mind, as Locke’s watershed Essay on Human Understanding boldly claimed, there is little impetus to view the human as a subject, or beauty as something transcendent. The human is nothing but an instrument in a larger natural machine that can be modelled, charted, and graphed through universal formulae. Beauty is nothing but a normative evaluation of a particular coalescence of matter and form. The mysticism of the premodern was effectively killed by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and many found this transition abhorrent. These critics would diverge into a number of critical streams, but in totality would form what we now refer to as the Conservative reaction to the Enlightenment.
Edmund Burke and English Conservatism
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the French Revolution was English writer Edmund Burke, who in his tract, Reflections on the Revolution in France lambastes the liberal Enlightenment project. He posits, anticipating the work of the Frankfurt School in the 20th Century, that a blind faith in reason as a universal, normative standard to which we all must aspire, in fact gives rise to unreason; that the wholesale rejection of traditional structures of hierarchy and power leads not to universal liberation and a new utopian reality, but to the violent and bloody destruction of civil society.
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Related to Burke’s critique of the Revolution is another strain of conservative thought. Patrician conservatism refers to a rather a-political form of conservatism, based more upon a lamentation for the collapse of social hierarchy and aristocratic privilege than upon political discourses. Weinberg (1995), citing Theodore Lowi, defines patrician conservatism as one based upon the premodern privilege of certain intellectual and power elites. Pre-modern, feudal society was deeply and irrevocably stratified, with serfs committed to their lords, lords to the whims of their kings, and all to the authority of the medieval Catholic Church. This rigid hierarchy was seen as divinely instituted, and offered immense power to those in its upper echelons. However, with the discourse of liberalism, which valorized the natural rights of the individual, the equality of all humans, and the ability to self-fashion through the application of reason in the physical world, the premodern hierarchy was radically unsettled. In a lecture posted below, Courtenay Raina of UCLA references the “Ancien Regime,” a French term given to old guard European, patrician society; the intellectual and power elites whose unquestioned authority over the plebeian masses was swept away by the tide of liberalism. Writers from this strain were quick to criticize not the political consequences of the Enlightenment, but the moral and personal consequences; the collapse of the allegedly transcendent, divine natural order of man that granted the nobility, aristocracy, monarchy, and clergy authority over the general population.
The Romantics and the Counter-Enlightenment
Burke’s critique of reason and rationality as instruments of a new liberal ideology was couched in predominantly political language. While he did hint at some spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, such as his faith in a “human heart-” centered government, and a belief in the divine right of kings, rarely did he attempt to explore the realm of the sensual or the spiritual in any significant way. This is curious, as one of the components of daily life that empiricism effectively forces out of the social consciousness is any kind of mysticism, spirituality, or appreciation of the aesthetic. This gap in the conservative critique, however, was taken up and explored in great detail by the Romantics.
The Romantics looked upon the rationalized vision of the world forged by the Enlightenment with a deep disdain. The universe, modelled by the Deists, had become mechanical, metaphorically rendered as a clock; nothing but an elaborate system of gears and wheels driven by contact physics. The brutal reductionism of such a world view was not lost on people like Goethe, whose romantic Sorrows of a Young Werther chronicled a deep, spiritual, sensual life beyond the reach of reason. Werther tells the story of a young lover, fated to be separate from his beloved due to circumstance. His internal tumult conquers his will to live, and he takes his own life for love. As Courtenay Raina notes in the lecture below, based on the conclusions of the Enlightenment philosophes, such a tale is absurd. In a rational, mechanical universe, the only compulsion a human has is to stay alive as long as possible, to meet his or her material needs. In a purely rational world view, there is little room for passion, sensuality, and the irrationality of emotion. Goethe, however, boldly asserts in Sorrows, that rationality is not absolute, that not everything about man and nature is reducible to “atoms crashing together in a void.”
Authors such as Goethe and Shelley, poets such as Wordsworth and Blake, and composers such as Rossini and von Weber became the heroes of the Romantic movement; the philosophes of the sensual realm. For the Romantics, art and the moment of inspired creation is the closest man can come to the perfection of nature, as nature is constantly in a state of creation, destruction, and reinvention according to a perfect, essential life force, beyond the reductive and dissociative logic of reason.
Black (2002) provides an excellent summary of the romantic valorization of the aesthetic and the sensual:
In the romantic universe, the aesthetic function of communication is the highest human faculty. By this “aesthetic” model of communication, the romantics meant the ability to create words and pictures that represent the mind’s own experience of reality, rather than seek the mere mimetic duplicate of that reality which empiricism prefers. In an empirically unknowable world, words and images assume the condition of art. It was the aesthetic that offered the only hope of reconciling a subject with an objective world town apart by modernity. Art was essential to Bildung, or cultural formation, by which the romantics meant the development of a person’s creative and spiritual powers. A community devoted to such actualization through art was restored to the autonomy and human potential it had lost as rationality pervaded life.
For a sample of Romantic-era music, listen to Franz Schubert’s Quartetsatz, performed by the US Army String Orchestra. Note the swells, shifting time signatures, and tumultuous aesthetic structure. This is a music that aligns itself with the vision of the world as beautiful, singular, but also potentially threatening, turgid, and empirically unknowable.
Romanticism took its impetus largely from the rise of rational society, tied up with which was an incipient capitalism, which by the 19th century, bolstered by the rapid expansion of industrialism and mechanization, had drawn many parts of every day life into its dominion. The brutality of factory work, the rigidity of waged labour and time discipline, and the commodification of human creativity proved troubling for a number of thinkers. What they saw was a system carrying out an ideological, symbolic, and literal program of violence, dismemberment, and atomization. Drawing influence from the Romantics and their critique of a new industrial system, but deeply politicizing this argument by combining it with a scathing criticism of the implicit violence of capitalism and the inequality it breeds within a culture, a new group of theorists emerged from the backlash against the Enlightenment- the socialists.
For a discussion of life under the new industrial reality, and its bridge to the new Socialist thinkers, namely Marx and Engels (who will be discussed in detail in the next two posts), watch this lecture on life in 19th-Century Europe by Lynn Hunt of UCLA history.
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While active in overlapping and colliding waves across Europe, France served as the Enlightenment’s epicentre. Paris, the most heavily urbanized, populous, and wealthiest city of the period became a haven for the philosophes and a growing educated class. Writers such as Voltaire, Comte, Condillac, Diderot, and d’Alembert formed a loose-knit and often internally contradictory “family of philosophes,” who despite theoretical differences, approached the task of analyzing and understanding the epoch in similar ways. The philosophes of the Enlightement sought to do for the social sciences, the humanities, and cultural analysis what Newton had done for physics: unite disparate, complex and seemingly idiosyncratic historical events under universal models and formulae. As a result, France became a kind of test case for the tensions of Modernity, a living experiment in which the metaphysics and theology of the premodern were forced into a direct confrontation with sometimes aggressively secular theories and critiques. Even today, any tourist can observe history in progress in the city’s architectural and aesthetic diversity.
In many ways, John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding was the central text of the Enlightenment, and so was immensely influential upon the French philosophes and the spirit of the nation at the time. Locke, in the Essay, asserted that all knowledge is gained through our engagement with our sensual world. We gather understanding, categories, and analytical distance only through experiencing the world first-hand. This radical idea broke with a long-standing assumption of inherent or innate knowledge, derived from the notion of the human mind as divinely inspired. Further, it placed the individual social agent at the centre of his or her own destiny. If humans are born with no innate predispositions, then we are forced to become masters of our own fate. Unbounded from divine predestination or some essential, universal, absolute morality, we engage with and come to understand the world through choice and the senses, radically breaking with a Platonic rejection of the physical that characterized Premodern metaphysics. Locke’s Essay, then, lays the foundation for a growing sense of individualism, or the belief that through experience, reason, and analysis, man can self-fashion, and as such, should be able to express and articulate himself as he sees fit. For an in-depth look at Locke’s epistemology, and its relation to the rationality and universalism of Newton, take a look at this lecture by Countenay Raina, speaking on Religion, Regicide, and Revolution:
Due to the rise of this individualistic spirit, tensions in France began to shake the autocratic rule of the monarchy, who still clung to authority through the now scathingly critiqued “divine right of kings,” which posited that God himself had vested power within the king to rule the nation. Eventually, these conflicts erupted into scattered urban and rural skirmishes, led largely by citizens demanding a voice in their own governance, and representation within the commanding heights of the national bureaucracy. This fighting slowly escalated, aggravated by the overwhelming power of the clergy and the monarchy, finally breaking into a full-scale civil war, The French Revolution, in 1789, a battle fought in the name of individual rights to expression, determination, and opportunity; it was a battle fought under the banner of Enlightenment ideals.
The impact of the French Revolution upon Modernization is easy to overstate, but certainly cannot be diminished. The conflicting ideologies of Liberalism, Socialism, and Conservatism emerge in force following the collapse of autocratic governance in France, and the negotiations between these ideologies deeply inform the keynote texts of the modern world, addressing everything from morality to economics. For a more in-depth history of the Revolution, and an excellent introduction to how new trajectories of language and ideology emerged from it, watch the lecture below, delivered by Lynn Hunt of UCLA History.
Important to note in Hunt’s talk is her mention of the notion of “public opinion” and accountability as symptomatic of a new social consciousness. No longer could a single authority figure claim, without challenge, sole decision making power. The French monarchy was forced, due to the influence of Enlightenment philosophy and its popularization through print, the news trade, and the incipient public sphere that developed alongside them both, into a confrontation with the people it administered. Governance by consent, in the interest of the people, becomes enshrined within Western political and social thought at this juncture.
The social reaction to the French Revolution, however, revealed deep divisions within European society. Those who championed its gains and adhered emphatically to the principles of free assembly and expression came to form the core of a new Liberal ideology. Others would look upon the revolution with disdain and decry it for its bloody destruction, forming a Conservative (and also a Romantic) critique of reason and Enlightenment theory, and others would attempt to radically rethink this binary by establishing an alternative union of structure and egalitarianism, combining the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophy, a belief in the equality of all men, a sympathy for the working classes, and a critique of the violence of market fundamentalism and industrial life to create a new Socialist ideology, articulated most clearly by Marx, whose ideas will be addressed in a later post.
The Liberal Reaction, Press Freedom, and Democratic Discourse:
The French Revolution and its ideals of republicanism, government accountability, and citizen empowerment (and in many ways the invention of the ‘citizen’ proper) agitated similar tensions elsewhere, including Britain. One thinker who championed the ideals of the Revolution in the United Kingdom (and later the United States), and also ideally demonstrates the important links between new discourses of Modern liberalism and the influence of the media, was Thomas Paine. In 1791, Paine famously published Rights of Man, in which he eloquently defended the French Revolution by asserting that all men, regardless of class-based, racial, or theological distinctions, were empowered by the same inalienable, universal rights, and when any government attempts to deny its citizens these inalienable rights, revolution against that government is justified. This text was enormously controversial and drew the ire of a number of Conservative critics (who we will explore in the next post), and continues to cause conflict between contemporary political ideologies, as Paine’s words are still variably appropriated by reactionaries, libertarians, progressives, and socialists alike. For publishing the follow-up to this text, Rights of Man, Part the Second, Paine was tried and found guilty of seditious libel by a deeply partial jury. At this trial, Paine was defended by Thomas Erskine, who, as Keane writes, delivered a now mythical four hour address justifying Paine’s work by asserting that the cornerstone of a just, accountable, and empowering society was a free press, and the ability to articulate and circulate one’s own ideas without repression. Erskine’s claim codified within the discourse of Liberalism and Western political thought the now seemingly natural link between democracy and an open media system.
The French Revolution had largely been fueled by the distribution of polemical pamphlets and propaganda, and the populism of the revolution itself would have been unthinkable without the advent of a thriving European news trade. The freedom from tyranny, noble and clerical privilege, and working-class burden promised by the French Revolution, then (what we might call the foundations of a Liberal ideology that celebrated the inalienable rights of the individual and his equality with all others, tantamount to his ability to self-fashion and determine his own destiny and participate in civil society), was inseparable from the battle for a free press. This Liberal reaction was one of the three main ideological branches that would inform the conflicts of Modernity. Watch this lecture by J. Ward Regan, professor of History and Philosophy at New York University on the legacy of Thomas Paine as an ideal example of what it meant to be a “liberal” in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.
In our previous post, we discussed how media technologies, beginning with the printing press in the Early Modern period in Europe, have been instrumental in forging what we now call the Modern world. Yet as Maruca pointed out in her talk on “cyborg languages,” these technologies must be seen as part of a larger set of shifts in the social fabric, including philosophical, religious, and artistic reformations (which both result from and help to give rise to an expanded print culture). Perhaps most important among these antecedent conditions is the foundation laid for Modernity by the philosophies and theories of the Enlightenment, such as the invention of a secular vision of history, the rise of capitalism, and the increasing dominance of rational empiricism as a means of grasping, predicting, and controlling the natural and social worlds.
What is the Enlightenment?
Defining the “Enlightenment” presents as much of a practical and theoretical challenge as does defining Modernity. In the broadest sense, however, the Enlightenment commonly refers to a period of fundamental (if incremental) social, economic, political, and philosophical change in Western Europe, reaching its zenith in the 18th Century. Buoyed by such influences as the expansion of print, which contributed to vast religious upheavals in Germany and England, and a growing spirit of skepticism, the 18th Century witnessed the rise of an increasingly secular society, deeply suspect of previously accepted hierarchies of dominance. Combined with advances in scientific theory and practice, mathematics, and mechanization, this spirit of skepticism also gave rise to a growing faith in rationalized scientific inquiry predicated on empiricism, which posited that all phenomena and matter in the natural world is somehow observable. Under the assumptions of empiricism, all things can be broken down into their constituent parts, and studied analytically as a means of understanding, predicting, and controlling their overall functions. For an excellent survey and review of what the Enlightenment “meant” to European society, as well as a thoughtful discussion of its influence upon communication and the development of an incipient public sphere, take a look at this lecture from John Merriman, professor of history at Yale:
Religious Rupture, Secularism, and the Role of Media
One of the most important “consequences” of Enlightenment philosophy was the invention of a secular form of history, one that aspired to be free of superstition and the dogmatic assumptions of what Coutney Raina of UCLA (see below) calls a “Catholic Cosmology,” which brought together under the sole dominion of the church natural philosophy, Aristotelean logic, and supernatural/mystical beliefs around life, the afterlife, and salvation.
Mediated culture played a large role in this increasing secularization of society, beginning with a new focus on original Greek and Hebrew copies of religious scripture being analyzed and translated by the multi-lingual, literate, and educated scholars of the Renaissance and Early Enlightenment. When the glaring inconsistencies between these original texts and the Medieval Latin translations upon which the church had established its authority and infrastructure were revealed, the Catholic Cosmology began to unravel. The enormous spiritual and administrative bureaucracy of the Catholic church was shown to be entirely manufactured, and had little or no basis in the original scriptures. With the introduction of print and later, English translations of the Bible (first completed by English reformer William Tyndale) the reproduction of these more authentic scriptures became much easier, and their often-illegal circulation gradually increased, as did a growing reformation movement, demanding the purging of excess, corruption, and the authority of the clergy from the Church. What followed was a period of radical reformation in religious life wrought by a rupture between the traditional Catholic totality and the splintered, sectarian debates of the Early Modern period. This rupture was filled by a new constellation of printed material, from biblical translations, to bibles printed in the accessible quarto format, to polemical pamphlets. In the second half of the lecture below, Courtenay Raina of UCLA provides an account of this gradual rupture of religious authority in Early Modern Europe.
In this clip, pay particular attention at approximately 54:00, where Raina astutely observes how the sale of indulgences in the pre-Reformation church is far more than just corruption. It is also symptomatic of a nascent merchant class, and an incipient capitalist sensibility that was taking taking shape at the time. The roots of this early capitalist society will be explained more below.
Science, Empiricism, and Rationalism from the Renaissance to the 17th Century: Opening Modernity
With the rise of a more rationalized, scientific society in the wake of the Enlightenment, which demands empirical proof of all claims, the Catholic Cosmology begins to fall apart. Where authority figures in the premodern period, ahead of the advent of empiricism, could simply defer to the word of God as absolute, in an era where someone can say “show me,” or “prove it,” that authority is subsumbed by the authority of rational proof. For an in-depth exploration of the pressure placed upon this cosmology by early scientific thought and Enlightenment philosophers such as Newton and Descartes, review these two lectures, also by Courtenay Raina of UCLA.
Fundamental Astronomy and Skepticism
Enlightenment Science, Rationalism, Empiricism
Extending Rationalism to Economics: Incipient Capitalism
As mentioned earlier, the development of the public sphere addressed by Merriman and the sale of indulgences noted by Raina are also deeply linked to the codification of marketized systems of exchange, which applied the same rational logic of Enlightenment scientific practices to the acts of trade and purchasing that were growing with the proliferation of printed materials. The logic of what is now known as capitalism is one based on dissociation, and upon the relentless atomization of tasks, labour, parts, and production as a means of managing and streamlining even the most minute portions of the manufacturing and distribution process. The rise of capitalism and its eventual naturalization in the Modern period has been looked upon by some as a triumph, and others as a tragic loss. It gave rise to the trade in wealth and material goods that we take as natural today, but also wrought a symbolic and figurative violence upon the family unit, turned millions into what Ewen has called “wage slaves,” and as Marx argued, inflicted irreparable damage upon the modern soul itself, and systematically disenfranchised the majority Proletarians for the benefit of the ruling elite. Later thinkers, heavily influenced by Marx, such as the Frankfurt School critics, would posit that the logic of capitalism, by the late 1930s had effectively dismembered the revolutionary working class, and liquidated the spiritually transformative parts of our culture and our minds of all critical capacity. Again, John Merriman of Yale History provides some insight into the growth of an industrialized society in the early phases of Modernity, and hints at some of the qualities of a life under capitalism: segregated and waged labour, urbanization, and the like.
Paul Heyer, in Communications and History provides an excellent summary of the Enlightenment period and the transformations implicated therein, worth quoting at length:
No matter now it is demarcated there is no shortage of portraits of the era; most depict it as a major break with what went before. For the first time in an extensive way, the elements of human nature, society, and history became subject to examination informed by science and guided by reason. This vision constantly endeavored to separate itself from the theological and abstract metaphysical systems of previous centuries, often daring to question traditional systems of authority in the process.
The social response to the rise of a deeply empiricist culture was varied and debated hotly between a number of ideologies. In the next post, some of the celebratory and critical perspectives on the Enlightenment, capitalism, empiricism, and marketization will be explored, including Socialist reactions from the left, Patrician Conservative reactions from the Right, and classical Liberal/Individualist reactions from more moderate perspectives. Further, we will address the role that communication technologies played in nurturing modern discourses of democracy, freedom, manipulation, and propaganda.
The media, from the beginnings of written language, have been constitutive forces in the modernization of European, and contributed in a profound way to the development of the Modern society outlined above. Many of the fundamental social shifts tied up in the move from Premodern to Modern living are powerfully linked to mediation, processes of signification, and the acts of textual production and dissemination. Many claim that one of the instigating factors in the Modernization of the west was the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press to Europe in the late 1400s. While the technological origins of the press itself are widely considered to be adopted (and adapted) from earlier presses developed in East Asia, the particular configuration of Gutenberg’s machine, when combined with the Western Phonetic alphabet, gradually gave rise to a culture in which communication was shifted from the oral to the written and visual registers, fundamentally transforming notions of space, community, knowledge, proof, and authority.
Siva Vaidhyanthan, lecturer at the University of Virgina, briefly explores how print as a medium transformed a number of the communicative practices of Premodern life:
Some topics addressed by Professor Vaidhyanthan worth highlighting include:
The ability of the printed book to create a non-culturally situated form of communication. As Elizabeth Eisenstein has noted, the printed book allowed a single person to consume the knowledge of the whole known world, and the whole known world to consume and collectively debate the ideas of a single person (ie. Martin Luther, John Calvin, other religious and political reformers)
The democratization of communication allowed for by the printing press (while a long struggle that was not unchallenged) created an expanding critical consciousness in European society by multiplying the diversity of voices within the culture.
Efforts to control communication, both by the state and church, following the introduction of the press, indicate that 1) open communication systems are deeply politicized and represent (and undermine) systems of power, control, and ideological negotiation within a culture, and 2) that “free press” and “free speech” would become fundamental points of contention throughout the Modern period, and are often seen as the crux around which modern democratic societies are thought to pivot.
In what will seem a very different kind of discussion, Lisa Maruca, professor of English at Wayne State University delivers a talk on what she terms “cyborg language,” relating the introduction of the printed word to radical shifts in notions of learning, ideas of the student, and exploring how print “disembodies” the act of education by moving it from the oral to the visual register.
Maruca’s talk, while oriented specifically toward a sociotechnological analysis of Early Modern English print culture nonetheless draws our attention to the cultural influence of media production on Modern life.
The Mediated culture of the Early Modern and Modern periods was also part and parcel of a new consumer and market culture that rose in complement to print. As knowledge spread across borders, so did the commodification of ideas and the trade in information. Books did not simply liberate knowledge, but through the actual process of production and exchange, privatized and codified ownership of this knowledge.
The book changes physical relations between people, spaces, and texts by disembodying communication. Where almost all knowledge in the pre-modern period was communicated orally, requiring face-to-face engagement with an authority figure, the appearance of the book is simultaneous with the gradual (but theoretical) disappearance of embodied education.
While it is easy to slip into deterministic surveys of the “effects” of print on the formation of Modern society, it is essential to see it as highly influential, but still “constitutive,” and as Maruca points out, tangled up with a number of concomitant social, religious, and economic shifts that were both influenced by, and influencers of the print revolution. Following print, mediated images and messages continued to expand and evolve through the period. Cinema, radio, and later television would refigure how we thought about the world, our bodies, and the way we relate to the world. Marshall McLuhan, canonical Canadian media scholar, in his often-challenged theories of mediated culture provides an emphatic, but still useful assessment of these transformations. Broken into five parts, McLuhan speaks on how the media change our bodies, cultures, and minds at John Hopkins University:
London in Modernity: Taken using the now extinct colour format, KodaChrome, this photo provides a rare and stunning glimpse upon modern urban life in London in the 1940s. With Modernity came a new mediated, commercialized culture of consumption, seen clearly in this amazing cityscape.
Media and Modernity examines the place of human communication in western social science from the 18th Century to the early Twentieth Century. The course begins with a general discussion of the concept of modernity and the role played by communications media in the making of modern western societies. We will then examine the importance of communications with respect to a number of important concepts and debates in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Examples include: liberalism, ideology, alienation, mass society theory, the public sphere, propaganda, and formalism.
-CMNS 310 Course Outline
As a student of Communication, coming to grips with the tensions and complexities of Modernity, Modernism, and Modernization is an essential part of your education. It is in the Modern moment when the roots of consumer society, advertising, ideology, and cultural exchange begin to flourish in a way never previously seen. Marx’s sprawling Capital is published, human experience begins to be mechanized through industrialization, commercial visual media expands and draws us into its fold, fascism and totalitarianism and the wars fought against it shatter nations and generations, and the world we know today is forged by the furnace of the urban factory system. We have compiled a set of complementary media resources to clarify some of the fundamental concepts introduced in the course, as well as provide deeper analysis of some authors than the confines of 13 weeks will allow.
What is Modernity? How is it different from Modernism and Modernization?
Broadly speaking, Modernity can be defined as the cultural moment and accompanying social experiences rooted in the intellectual and scientific flourishing of the Enlightenment, continuing through the 18th, 19th, and early 20th Centuries, arguably reaching its conclusion in the late 1960s. Modernism may be defined as the cultural, aesthetic, and artistic response to the experience of Modernity. Modernization may be defined as the processes by which the former two came into being, wrapped up in which are the realities of industrialization, rationalization, and mechanization that characterized the period. For a brief explanation of Modernity in a conceptual sense, take a look at this video, which introduces how, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, a “new way of thinking about the world” took root that was fundamentally different from all that had come before.
Modernity, though immensely complex in itself, is often talked about in terms of its relation to Enlightenment philosophies of scientific rationalism and empiricism, which, when combined with advances in mechanization and industrial technology made in the 19th Century, began to create a society in which immense faith was placed in the emancipatory potential of new machines and modes of production. The influence of a faith in the mechanical is seen throughout the culture at the time. Domestic and industrial design, fashion, cinema, as well as architecture adapted to the logic of the machine in the 19th and 20th Centuries, as cities were electrified, and homes became, in the words of famous Modernist architect Le Corbusier, “machines for living.”An interview with Le Corbusier regarding one of his installations at the Capitol Building in New Delhi, India:
Note Le Corbusier’s heroic tone: his repetition of the height of the hand, his belief in the ability for a monument to capture, without equivocation, what is “real,” and the ability for a rationalized construction to profoundly shape discourses of governance in our society. This is the Modern spirit exemplified. Through a faith in construction, rationalization, and streamlining, humans can come to know, comprehend, predict, and, in turn, control the world.
Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with the Movie Cameracelebrates and deeply internalizes the rhythms of urban, modern life as forces capable of forging new ideological realities, and rebuilding cultural languages from the ground up in the interest of creating Socialist revolution. Watch the entire film below.
The fashion of the early 20th Century demonstrated a new attempt to streamline the body and human forms, an attempt to do away with the curves and excess of the premodern, and reconstruct the human as part of a mechanized, linear cultural reality.
1920s Fashion: Reshaping the body in Modernity
For a summary of some of the distinctions between Premodern and Modern societies, take a look at the comparative chart below.
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