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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (9)—Chinese Thought (and Civilization)

[a] Cyclical RF
This series is dedicated to understanding one of the most fascinating intellects of the twentieth century, Marcel Granet (1884-1940). In an earlier era, he might have been considered (at least by bibliophiles studying tomes ranging from De l'esprit des lois to 呂氏春秋 between the world wars) the most interesting man in the world. For me, he is every bit of that (as we say back home). Granet's range of interests in social theory and Chinese literature were profound, catholic, and engrossing. I hope that (whether you are interested in French, social theory, or Chinese) you will give Monsieur Granet a little bit of your attention. The material is not simple, by any means, but it is an ideal way to grasp how knowledge really works.

[b] Life RF
Chinese Thought (and Civilization) 
In La pensée chinoise, Marcel Granet begins with the world of writing in China, maintaining that it is an extension of both individual and collective thought. Chinese characters were heaven-issued (a matter that connects richly with Durkheim’s formulations on language in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life), yet were brought to life as mots vivantes (living words). It is as though, in their formulation in speech and writing—even at the level of the sentence—the living words circulate to connect social interaction with the heavenly order. Speech is, then, a way of putting social life and shared sentiments into motion. Writing goes even beyond that to give an equally cyclical quality that connects readers across space and through time. Indeed, it gives reality to mere ideas. Words are brought to life in the very act of setting them in motion in an utterance or text.

          The Chinese term which signifies life and destiny (ming; 命) is scarcely 
          distinguished from that which serves to designate vocal (or graphic) 
          symbols (ming; 名). It is unimportant that the names of two beings or 
          concepts resemble each other to the point where there is a possibility of 
          confusing them: each of these names integrally expresses an individual 
          essence. Rather than saying it expresses it, it calls it up, brings it into reality.
          Know the name, say the word: this is to possess the being or to create the 
          thing…The malediction that I exhale is a concrete force: it attacks my adversary,  
          and he submits to its effects, recognizing its reality…It is in the art of the word 
          that the magic of breaths and the virtue of etiquette is exalted and culminates.
          Allotted to a sound, it takes on a rank, a kind—an emblem. When one speaks, 
          names, designates, one is not forced to describe or classify ideally. The 
          sound qualifies and contaminates, it provokes destiny, it stirs up reality.
          Emblematic reality that they are, words command phenomena.[1] 
[c] Imbued RF
Granet goes on in La pensée chinoise to articulate the divisions of time and space through yin and yang, as well as the five phases. The argument becomes more detailed, and ever more sinological, with each passing page of Luo River Charts and divination boards, as Granet builds a picture of the universe through Chinese classificatory schemes. It is, indeed, difficult to imagine how sociologists untrained in Chinese texts could adequately follow the arguments, but the text is no less sociological for that. Chapter after chapter, each page is imbued with the theoretical or, better put, conceptual focus that Granet found in the issues of L’année sociologique that he carried with him to China. 

La pensée chinoise moves from words to classifications, and eventually to numbers, etiquette, and institutions. It is grounded, however, in the division of labor in Chinese society, in the very division of work among men and women in and beyond the fields. That work is “set into motion” in festival chants that celebrated this most basic opposition in social and natural life. Rival groups of young men and women would chant at spring festivals and bring the very universe into motion after a winter slumber. Their alternating songs would connect space and time, extension and duration, under the categories of yang and yin. The categories themselves were never static. Like human society itself, they are always in motion.

          The fields where these gatherings were assembled represented all of space, 
          all duration held in the joust where the poetic centos recalled the successive 
          signs of the universe. This total spectacle was an animated spectacle. As 
          long as the combat of dance and poetry lasted, the two rival parties came to 
          alternate their chants. Whereas, furnished by the antagonistic choirs, the field 
          of the duel appeared to be composed of aligned extensions and contrary 
          genres, the time of the joust was occupied by an alternance of antithetical 
          chants and dances, seemingly constituted by the interaction of two 
          concurrent groupings and of opposed sex.

          Thus is explained, with the diversity of extensions and those of durations, 
          the rhythmic connection of space and time under the domination of the 
          categories of yin and yang. Each being distributed in durations or extensions 
          that are opposed and alternating, neither Space nor Time was one, anymore 
          than they could be conceived separately—but they formed in the two of them 
          an indissoluble whole. This same whole embraces both the natural world and 
          the human world: it is, to put it more exactly, identical to the total society which 
          groups, in two opposing camps, all conceivable reality.[2] 

[d] Division RF
Marcel Granet continues his argument by discussing the complex, but almost dance-like, rythme hiérarchique of numerical reference in China. Reminding us that numbers, too, have a division of labor in society and thought (yin numbers are even and yang numbers are odd), Granet asserts that numbers have “a total authority,” because the very numerical combinations that make up combinations such as 72 (8 x 9, or, better yet, 23 x 32) “express the dignity of the universe precisely because they signal the importance of feudal social practice."[3] He continues, “Their use also signals a coefficient of strength or a portion of prestige—that is to say, a social value.” Even numbers are grounded in social life, and the individuals who would form social groups are themselves “made of numbers.”

          Far from seeking to make numbers into abstract signs of quantity, the Chinese 
          used them to represent the form or to estimate the value of certain groupings 
          that were presented as groupings of things, but which always tended to be 
          confused with human groupings. The numbers told the form or the value of 
          things, because they signaled the composition and the power of the human 
          group to which these things belonged. They expressed first of all the amount 
          of power that belonged to the leader responsible for a human and natural 
          grouping. The sages were therefore able to represent with the aid of numbers 
          the orders of protocol which ruled the life of the universe. It was the social 
          rules that permitted them to conceive of this order. The order of society was 
          feudal. A logical extension of the hierarchy would therefore inspire all the 
          systems of numerical classifications and even the idea that one was made 
          of numbers.[4] 

From the connections between “ideal” and “real” that we saw early in Granet’s work all the way through his final book, there is a concentrated focus on the way that people think and act in a complex intellectual and social universe. Granet presents a final anecdote to complete his chapter on numerical reference, and brings his social argument full circle, from individual voices to clusters of opinion and finally to totality.

          The Zuozhuan records the debate of a council of war: should the enemy be 
          attacked? The leader is tempted by the idea of combat, but it is necessary for 
          him first to consult his subordinates and take count of their advice. There are 
          twelve generals at the council. The advice is divided. Three leaders refuse to 
          engage in combat; eight want to go to battle. The latter are the majority and 
          proclaim as much. The advice that unites eight voices however does not 
           override the advice that unites three of them. Three is almost unanimity
          which is a very different thing than the majority. The general-in-chief will not 
          fight. He changes his opinion. The advice to which he adheres by giving his  
          single voice is then imposed as a unanimous opinion.[5] 

[e] Luck RF
When readers begin to understand how three voices can defeat eight, and how such an anecdote opens new vistas in social and intellectual inquiry, they will begin to understand the full power of Granet’s work in sociology and sinology, and his bridging of concepts such as “ideal” and “real.” 

The purpose in my ongoing work on Marcel Granet is to analyze those very questions. The overriding of mere majority with unanimity in Granet’s anecdote from the Zuozhuan is a perfect illustration of the manner in which Granet worked with all of his texts, from the sociological studies of the Année sociologique tradition to the abstruse works of early Chinese philosophers.  Combining two complex traditions—and never losing sight of either the complexities of social life or the rhetoric of his Chinese texts—Granet became the quintessential poet of social rhythm and cosmic cyclicality.

[1] Marcel Granet, La pensée chinoise (Paris: Albin Michel, 1934), 40-41. 
[2] La pensée chinoise, 122-123. 
[3] La pensée chinoise, 246-247.  By “feudal,” Granet refers to the social and political system in place during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481), and an ideal of a period five-hundred years before that.  
[4] La pensée chinoise, 127.
[5] La pensée chinoise, 248.
Granet, Marcel. La pensée chinoise. Paris: Albin Michel, 1934. 

We'll take a break, but return this summer with a closer look at his biography and early research.

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