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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Remonstrance (6)—Filial Nourishment

Click here for the introduction to Round and Square's series on remonstrance.
We continue our study of remonstrance with a series of posts that grew out of my participation in the Tenth East-West Philosophers Conference in Honolulu in May 2011. The theme was “Business Practice in a Global World,” and it was an exhilarating ten days of discussion and contention with philosophers, administrators, and entrepreneurs. My own work there centered on remonstrance, and my specific task was to convey the richness of the concept to philosophers, on the one had, and practicing business people, on the other. The next dozen or so posts under this “remonstrance” header will deal with that material.
[a] Filial RF
Although it may seem to be an esoteric topic, it is very far from it. In East Asia and the West, it lies at the heart of administrative practice and a great deal of public life. It is a social dynamic with powerful implications for the political order, and it has figured, just in the past few years in events ranging from the world financial crisis to critiques of domestic policy across the globe. The spirit of remonstrance is social and public, and that is precisely why those who wish to admonish think twice or thrice…and those in power fear it.

              Remonstrance 1                Remonstrance 2                 Remonstrance 3
              Remonstrance 4                Remonstrance 5                 Remonstrance 6
              Remonstrance 7                Remonstrance 8                 Remonstrance 9
Remonstrance (6)—Filial Nourishment
Marcel Granet completes his picture of devoted filial piety with further discussion of nourishment, in the broadest sense, for the communal body. It is in this passage that the full importance of hierarchy and the social power of gathering comes to the fore, as feeding the father (the ancestor to be) forms the very foundation of the social order.
       Good cookery is not enough: one must also serve the meal and have an eye
       to its disposition. There is no family meal, but in every house there are court
       repasts, the pretext for hierarchized communions. The eldest son and his wife
       (the eldest daughter-in-law) are present, morning and evening, at the parents’ 

       meals, but solely to encourage them to eat heartily. To balance this, they get
       what is left (as the leavings of the overlord are the perquisite of the vassals) with
       the exception, however, of the sweet, tender, and succulent dishes, which they
       must reserve for their own children. The latter themselves require nourishment:
       besides, as we have seen, there is a particular nearness in the relationship
       between grandparents and grandchildren. As more distant vassals, the secondary
       sons and daughters-in-law make an end by eating what is left by their elders. 
       Thus, in everyday life, the solid hierarchy is established which lies at the root
       of domestic order.

In just a few pages, Marcel Granet has echoed the feudal order, as he calls it, with his description of the domestic order of an elite household. At the heart of it is the hierarchical dynamic, and it is set in motion in many ways by the vassal—by the son, the junior member of the hierarchical dyad. Meals, much like festivals, are communal gatherings. Sustenance is important (as are the specifics of its numerically charged components), but the circulation of food and community is at the heart of the social order. The coming together of parents and (eldest) children for repasts gives fuel to the entire social structure through the powerful mechanism of hierarchical patterning. Food constitutes a kind of collective energy for the body social, and politic.

***  ***
[b] Nourishment RF
What can be made of these strange lines? And what might they have to do with political critique? A great deal, in my opinion, since Granet has engaged the implications of rituals intersection with corporeality (禮 體之間). Political scientists—and not a few political philosophers—get this wrong, I argue, because they do not have the patience to ponder the aesthetics of critique, and rush toward what they think of as the “real” issues. We should all know better by now. Rushing headlong for the “real” and dismissing idealizations is farce…at best. Ideal and material (or the so-called “real”) are intertwined like a big unwound ball of yarn that has been rewrapped. Ideas matter.

Marcel Granet understood this, and (for that reason, I would argue) is one of the most consistently interesting and focused Western writers on China. He has often been misunderstood as an overly literal observer of the classical tradition, and more than a few scholars have been contemptuously dismissive of his writings. It is not difficult to see why this may be so (I could show you a dozen examples of ponderous passages in Granet’s oeuvre that would make a “just-the-facts” interpreter snort with dismissive contempt).

They are badly mistaken, as his student Rolf Stein notes.

       There are two explanations for the underestimation of [Marcel Granet’s] work. 
       First, he had a complete knowledge of Chinese literature up to and including 
       the Han. This knowledge, bolstered by deep study of the terminology used by 
       various authors and in various regions of ancient China, led him to translate 
       each phrase or word by taking into account the many associations of ideas that 
       the word could and should evoke in the mind of a writer of the period. It was thus 
       only after having, under his direction, traced a single word through all its manifest-
       ations in other texts that one could fully appreciate his reasons for adopting a 
       certain translation for that word.
       The second reason that his work has been undervalued is that Granet, having 
       been endowed with great literary talent and a thorough cultural education, let 
       himself criticize, sometimes forcefully, those easy, quick translations that, in order 
       to accommodate dictionary definitions, end up distorting the original meaning of 
       the text because they set up odd associations for Western readers. Thus Granet, 
       a world-renowned scholar, was purely French in his form of expression.[2]

Granet’s rich and varied account of the relationship between senior and junior in the ritual setting of the family gets us started in precisely the way that will allow us to build toward more sophisticated understandings of remonstrance. It might seem to be a long way from these passages to corporate dynamics, but more “practical” approaches are sure to miss the point. They always have, and that is one of the reasons why remonstrance remains so little studied, in political and moral philosophy.

[1] Granet, Chinese Civilization, 330. Italics mine.
[2] Rolf Stein, The World in Miniature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 3.

Granet, Marcel. Chinese Civilization. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950.
Stein, Rolf. The World in Miniature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

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