Innovative thinkers who propose or develop new interpretive paradigms face a difficult challenge: how to define the field in which that interpretive model will function broadly enough so that it has an impact, but narrowly enough so that the force of the model or paradigm does not become too diluted. Vincent Pecora, in Households of the Soul, has developed a new interpretive paradigm, and he meets this challenge with mixed success. Pecora’s study draws into its fold the rise and professionalization of anthropology as a scholarly field, the transfer of certain prominent anthropological concepts into literary modernism from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, and the heritage of those same concepts in the work of contemporary literary theorists like Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and Baudrillard. Households of the Soul is an ambitious work, and his interpretive model tries to lay claim on quite a bit of intellectual and historical territory. Pecora’s book does contain some startling insights into the complex relationship between his three areas of interest, and clearly lays the groundwork for future research in the areas that fall under his scrutiny. Scholars of modernism or twentieth-century social and literary theory may find Pecora’s book a worthwhile read on the basis of these insights; but I fear many readers may be turned off by the book’s ambition, and by his reliance on the highly specialized language of each of his three areas of interest.
The title of Pecora’s book derives from Beyond Good and Evil, in [End Page 493] which Nietzsche argued that philosophy’s search for new concepts always returns it “to a remote, primordial, and inclusive household of the soul, out which those concepts grew originally: philosophizing is to this extent a kind of atavism of the highest order.” Pecora begins with this conceptual metaphor of Nietzsche—the soul as a dweller in an atavistic household—and analyzes the role which the idea of an atavistic, once-noble household plays in our thinking about some issues central to modern intellectual and political life: the professionalization of the study of humanity (anthropology, ethnography), the theory and practice of empire, the estrangement techniques of literary modernism, and the focus on the alien and the other in contemporary literary theory.
Although the book does not deal with these concepts in a strictly chronological fashion, a chronological evolution does seem to underlie Pecora’s argument. Pecora suggests that early anthropological discourse, emerging from a nineteenth-century revolt against instrumentality and bourgeois rationality, became fascinated with the possibility of resacralizing elements of the modern industrial world with the various visions of the noble household it discovered in its research on “primitive” and “savage” societies. In those researches, anthropologists and social theorists tended to focus on a common practice in the primitive household economy, one in which certain forms of expenditure were imbued with what Pecora calls a “liturgical and sumptuary significance”: liturgical in that these expenditures were often ritualized and ceremonial; sumptuary because these extravagant expenditures usually brought the household no practical or necessary commodities. From this vision of the noble household evolves—at least in the anthropological accounts, if not in the social systems themselves—the theory that will receive its fullest expression in Mauss’s description of the gift system. Pecora argues that Mauss saw the gift as the driving force in a noble, atavistic economy that escaped the confines of the purely rational and instrumental, and that Mauss saw such a gift system as potentially beneficial to modern humanity: “In the end,” Pecora suggests, “Mauss’s theory implies the need for a wholesale refetishizing of the world.” That process of refetishizing economic goods would produce a sense of return to the noble household of the soul.
To imply that one wishes to “return” to that household, though, conjures up visions of former or ancient nobility—or, as Pecora rightly [End Page 494] argues, of the visions of nobility which ethnographers and anthropologists assumed they were discovering in the “primitives” of the far reaches of the colonial empires. Along these lines, Pecora analyzes several...