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João de Pina Cabral
Antónia Pedroso de Lima

Part I. Dynastic Sentiments

1. The Deep Legacies of Dynastic Subjectivity: The Resonances of a Famous Family Identity in Private and Public Spheres

George E. Marcus

Texte intégral

1When I have spoken of my research on American dynastic fortunes and families with European colleagues, I often receive encouraging responses until they learn that I am dealing with subjects of only a hundred years in depth, families of 'old' wealth who have risen and declined since the Civil War of the 1860s, whose experience with organized dynastic relations is over within two to four generations. Such a short cycle hardly seems dynastic in the context of European histories of aristocracy, or even of haute bourgeoisie. Yet there is immense respect for a family's revealed dynastic impulse and achievement in the imagination of Americans; but this regard is rooted not in any sense of aristocratic honour, tradition, or endurance, but rather in an ambivalent envy of and Social Darwinist liking for a relatively scarce 'good' that only certain of the upwardly mobile and successful can achieve - a prolonged enjoyment of success within and in the name of the family. 'Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations' - the well-known saying that ensures democracy through a retarded, but certain, turnover of private wealth - indeed captures the fluidity of the American class system. Yet, this three- to four-generation interval of accumulation and achievement is a rare commodity that inspires a popular adulation for those of good family that is nearly as strong and perhaps more heartfelt than that exhibited in a ritual, formal way for those of ancient lineage in European societies.

  • 1 The situation of Americans of 'good family' could be profitably contrasted with the 'good families' (...)

2Far from its having a vague or relatively unmarked class system, what is remarkable about the United States is how quickly and superficially class distinctions are established. Unlike what occurs in European societies, it takes only one generational transition of distinction to establish a widespread veneration, and even reverence, for the claims of being of good family.1 As early as the second generation, and still more markedly in the third, the distinction of dynastic continuity takes on weight. Of course this hallowed temporal marking of a family's status could not be established if such an identity were only of value to the family itself. Indeed, the dynastic impulse played out as family drama must also appeal to more widespread longings among Americans as well as being an ornament and an asset for operators within the major economic and political institutions that have defined the constraints in law and regulation by which dynastic families can even persist in modern capitalist societies. And without a prominent history of aristocratic distinction or the encumbrance of control by long-entrenched upper classes, America's short-term dynastic cycles produce identities that can be readily appropriated and unexpectedly revived even as the fortunes, businesses, and fame on which a family's standing initially rested recede. The dynastic formation is thus a pause or hesitation in the long-term circulation of elites in the United States. It creates moral family value that is set loose in the regular dissolution of accumulations of wealth, political power, and professional fame for various kinds of appropriation that make the play of politics and economics appear less raw.

3In the European context, then, Americans have experienced mini-dynastic dramas, hardly worth the title 'dynastic'; but that experience merits this designation nonetheless if it is understood as embedded in the culturally specific American making of middle-class desire and subjectivity, especially over the past century. Given how quickly the dynastic effect is established in the United States and the fluidity with which the resulting identity travels and is claimed in a society where self-making and the nurturance of the individual as the bearer of rights and human potential is paramount, the key issue in sustaining dynastic continuity is not so much the tangible strategies of keeping collective wealth, power, and organization together - these are bound to fail in predictable and programmed ways. Rather, it concerns the intimate psychocultural processes that shape subjecitvities among descendants, and how these subjectivities remain vivid in relations among descendants as the hold of dynastic organizations lessens.

  • 2 The psychocultural processes analysed here are apparent even in tribal societies, as in Meyer Forte (...)

4Of course, the legacy of dynastic subjectivity among descendants and those who have worked for such families is of general importance wherever dynasties have established themselves, even in societies with histories of aristocratic honour and temporally deep lineage organization, and where forebears have been ancestors in the distant past.2 But I am arguing here that, in the American context, the strength of continuity depends more centrally and intensely upon the psychocultural processes of person-making, both because the other levers of institutional and material control for insuring open-ended dynastic continuity are so attenuated and because the shallowness of lineage in American dynastic cycles makes the psychological pressures more direct and routine between descendant and forebear, the latter being not so much the venerated ancestor of many generations back as the figure of the parent, or the relatively recent grand-parent and great-grandparent.

  • 3 Examples of the appropriation of a dynastic identity by corporations without dynastic motivations o (...)

5While much of my analysis below is couched in general terms, the reader should keep in mind, then, for comparative purposes the specifically American inflection and reference of my arguments. Yet I would also not want this analysis to be taken as applicable merely to the case of the United States. With globalization, there is an increasing movement toward larger and larger economic actors, and these have continued to encroach upon sectors of enterprise that until just a decade or two ago had typically been the preserves of dynastic family businesses - for example in agriculture, energy, publishing, finance, retailing and real estate - holdovers from the nineteenth-century era of family capitalism in the United States and Europe. Here conglomerates absorb family businesses, and appropriate and even commodify their hallowed names and identities.3 Occasionally, families remain at the head of these conglomerates; but even in such cases the tempo of succession struggles and dissolution has markedly increased. What remains, if anything, of the dynastic impulse and potential for the longer term is the ironic power of the family name and identity, circulating both in private and public circles, to be renewed under various opportunistic circumstances. This has long been true in the United States, and is apparently increasingly the case for places where temporally deep lineage organizations of elites once reigned over politics, business, and culture.

Human Capital and the Shaping of Dynastic Subjectivity

6For over two centuries in the West, and during the latter years of the twentieth century on an increasingly global scale, the significance of dynastic organizations in the performance of elite social functions in governance and commerce has been on the decline, in favour of more formal bureaucratic organizations. This does not mean that dynastic organizations have not been very important from time to time and from place to place; but the variety of ways that they have been important has not been very well registered because of the dominance of a certain narrative that unfolds the dynasty as a family drama - the passing of power, wealth, and status amid contestations among kin over legacies that pass lineally across generations.

7The point of much of my previous writing on dynastic formations of families and fortunes (mostly in the United States over the past century) has been to qualify, nuance, and even remake this mythic narrative. I have been interested to see how dynastic families interact with institutions that are historically related to them and that they have spun off or competed with. I have been interested in the very important consequences for the operations of power, wealth, and status in society of the decline and dissolution of dynasties and dynastic motivations in elite families, rather than their reproduction, since the latter has clearly not been (he historic trend in the West, nor is it now globally. In short, dynasties - elite lineages of power, wealth, and status in relation to defined institutional spheres - remain a social fact, but not in the mythic sense, evoking kings, patriarchs, etc.

8Besides looking at how dynastic motivation is eventually displaced onto organizations and institutions that serve dynastic families, I have been especially interested in probing how, in terms of models of personhood and character, deep legacies of subjectivity are passed on in families that are otherwise in the process of decline in relation to performing certain elite functions outside the family.

9In an important 1988 article, the legal historian John Longbein identified what he regarded as fundamental shifts in the contemporary ethos and practice of wealth transmission in America. Longbein wrote:

Whereas of old, wealth transmission from parents to children tended to center upon major items of patrimony such as the family farm or the family firm, today for the broad middle-classes, wealth transmission centers on a radically different kind of asset: the investment in skills. In consequence, intergenerational wealth transmission no longer occurs primarily upon the death of the parents, but rather, when the children are growing up, hence during the parents' life-times (quoted in Hall and Marcus 1997: 22).

10This shift from testamentary to inter vivos transfers has been due not only to changes in the nature of wealth itself, from land assets or shares in family firms to financial assets (stocks, bonds, bank deposits, mutual fund shares, insurance contracts, and the like), but also, and more significantly, to human capital - the skills and knowledge that are the foundation of advanced technological societies.

11Now the concept of human capital is a very economistic way of characterizing what are in fact subtly cultural and psychological processes within elite families. For investments in human capital to work at all in relation to family purposes of reproducing leaders for both themselves and others who would carry the name and reputation of the family into the future, they would have to occur in milieux where familial authority over descendants remains strong despite the lessening of traditional, obvious means to discipline, force, intimidate and cajole descendants into certain career and behavioural paths. The imponderable, seemingly psychocultural pressures and factors, always present, but difficult to grasp, become much more independently important in arriving at an understanding of succession and inheritance in contemporary elite families.

12For me, at the heart of understanding transactions in so-called human capital in dynasties in literal decline and dissolution are the psychocultural processes that I term the 'dynastic uncanny'. The capacity of an elite family to create leaders, not only in its own family succession, but also, as the result of the investment in human capital (concerns with descendants educations, attitudes, tastes, personal habits), in other institutional spheres as well, depends much on these processes that deal with the intergenerational legacy of personhood, submissive to family distinction.

On the Dynastic Uncanny4

  • 4 Large portions of this section appeared as a previously unpublished chapter of Marcus and Hall 1992

I have come to see family history as similar to architecture in certain ways. Like architecture, it is quiet. It encompasses, but does not necessarily demand attention. You might not even notice that it's there. Like architecture, too, family history can suddenly loom into consciousness. For example, you can sit in the New York Public Library at Forty-Second Street - designed by Carrière and Hastings, and perhaps the greatest building in New York - with your nose in a book, or busy with the catalogue and transactions with clerks, all the while oblivious of the splendid interior around you. You can forget it utterly, or perhaps not have noticed it at all that day, and then, casually looking up, be astonished, even momentarily disoriented, by what you see. So it is with family history. One can go about one's life with no thought of the past, and then, as if waking from a dream, be astonished to see that one is living within its enclosure.
I was in my thirties when I began to perceive that my own life was encompassed in this way. At first this seemed to be a form of bondage, but it turned out to be a gift, and all family history, it seems to me, must be a gift in a similar way (Lessard 1996: 4).

Suzannah Lessard

13Suzannah Lessard is a great-granddaughter of the prominent architect of late nineteenth-century New York, Stanford White, who was shot to death in 1906 by the heir to an industrial fortune, Harry K. Thaw, jealous over the former's sexual affair with Evelyn Nesbit. There had been infusions of inherited wealth by marriage into her family, but it was the distinction of Stanford White and a certain aestheticism in architecture and other arts that defined a continuity in this family, along with secrets of danger and violence that were constantly evoked across the generations in the story of White and the uncanny reappearance of certain elements of it in the character and personalities of later descendants.

  • 5 For example, see my chapter (Marcus 1992) on the memoir of Sallie Bingham accounting for the break- (...)

14While much of my own research has dealt with families defined by and facing legacies of wealth cocooning them from the wider world, rather than by performative legacies of distinction in the arts, the military, the professions, or politics, the dynamics by which dynastic identity continues to survive from generation to generation in terms of the ironic reproduction of subjectivities is quite similar between families tied to fortunes and those tied more markedly to the distinctive actions and careers of forebears. Indeed, given the trend toward dynastic legacies of subjectivity decoupled from originating businesses and enterprises gobbled up by mega-corporations, the understanding of the subterranean but deeply affecting processes by which dynastic potential passes through and challenges subjectivities is even more important. Amid the voluminous genre of dynastic and upper-class memoirs, especially by women,5 Lessard's is particularly worthy of note because in her elegant and rich narrative of family history it defines the hold of a past on the making of persons in famous families with such detail and an intensity that few other works achieve.

15For my purposes, Lessard is especially important for identifying the sensual, aesthetic medium in which dynastic continuity takes hold in a particular family and impresses itself upon the individual as compelling. Her trope for this is architectural, which is quite appropriate given the role of her famous forebear in creating some of the most lavishly built environments of New York City. For Lessard, the key to dynastic memory and power over descendants is in the literal bodily effect that living and moving within White's architectural legacies generates. A look, a texture, a smell summons up past family experiences in the self. Her narrative telling of family history depends upon this recurrence of uncanny sensation.

16In my own contacts with dynastic descendants, the same sensual and ambivalent reproduction of a compelling dynastic presence within themselves but outside their control had a more direct somatic parallel. Moments occur during middle age in which the sense of autonomous identity and subjectivity - just when it should be at its peak - among descendants of famous families is shaken by their catching themselves repeating characteristic behaviours and bodily features of either or both their parents, deceased or living, or through either of them, of a more distant important forebear. This uncanny doubling of the self - a kind of haunting of the self - through the sensation of being invested with the habits of a dynastic figure from whom descendants had thought they had distanced themselves, at least psychologically, is as close as we get in this culture to the sacred power of ancestor worship.

17The stimulus for this sensation is often the contemplation of one's body - a profound alignment with (not just likeness to) a forebear in which one jokingly recognizes that one is repeating features of face or form, gestures, or the physical condition of a parent. This recognition might come from something as common as the act of looking in a mirror or in the casual comment of a friend or spouse about an aspect of one's appearance that one had not before noticed. Somatic alignments often lead to sustained reflections on other similarities, those having to do with character, mental habits, orientation to relationships, money, or sexuality; and finally, they threaten to challenge what had been one's unreflected-upon sense of autonomous selfhood. In many families, a person who is jolted by the uncanny can build upon recall of a diffuse discourse about the distinctive look, character, qualities, flaws, or eccentricties within the X or Y family. Suddenly, the adult father or mother he or she knew as a child becomes part of that person as an adult in a way that years of separation, growing up, and the pursuit of autonomous life never would have prepared the individual to experience.

18There is of course nothing exclusive about this phenomenon. It is reported widely by many middle-class Americans whom I know - it is a common complaint of middle-age. But disturbing as such moments may be, for most people they do not come to much, or they inspire vaguely underplayed, persistent, ambivalent feelings as people go about their lives. For others, these uncanny sensations of a merging of the bodily and essential self with those of parents do become the cause or central thematic experience of therapy. But for the special context of interest in this chapter - the contemporary conditions of descendant families situated within complex dynastic organizations of administered wealth, cultural patronage, and political influence - the hyper-development of this common middle-class experience of the uncanny is a key to understanding the continuing hold of collective family authority over adult descendants who are at least three generations from the founder, who are openly suspicious of or even hostile to all attempts to exert parental authority in the name of the family, and who are powerlessly held to clanship by the entanglements of sharing complexly administered patrimony by the bearing of a public 'magic' surname.

19Early in my research I understood how important was the construction of dynastic motivation and discipline within particular families through external agents such as lawyers, servants, and writers (including scholars and journalists) of wealthy family, sagas, each external agent acting for his or her own professional and personal interest. In such an external context, the dynastic family, as object, let us say, for constructed financial operation, bestseller, personal fantasy, or the like, nonetheless had powerful shaping and constraining effects on the ability of actual living family members to construct their own subjectivities - to know themselves - among themselves. In fact, I had come to see, in many cases, the family itself by the third generation as (or becoming) similar to a subsidiary of dynastic operations administering a range of legacies in the realms of business, philanthropy, and politics.

20Still, when I considered interpersonal relations within the most mythically dynastic or apparently clannish families, there seemed to be more salient dynastic authority and collective identity than could be simply accounted for either by the institutional structures of tied-up patrimony and the external agents interested in it for their own reasons or by psychological dynamics alone. Furthermore, by the end of the 1960s, upper-class institutional supports (for example, prep, schools, Ivy League universities, private clubs) for reinforcing parental/ancestral authority within old-wealth families had weakened sufficiently to disappoint family leaders who would be patriarchs and matriarchs to their children. The immense personal power of the older generation of such families continued to be exercised in their public worlds, where the mystique of dynasty is actually quite strong. But it could no longer in any symmetrical way be exercised in their private worlds, that is, as affecting the younger generation. Thus, while the dynastic authority that is residual may not be mobilizable by leaders through straightforward rite, ritual, or rhetorical persuasion (as in tribal societies and modern corporations), it still is powerful for descendants within the very processes by which they both seek and assert their own autonomous subjectivities (or fail to do so). It is in the struggle of aging descendants in families of fame, property, and power to come to terms with their upper-class collective and middle-class autonomous selves where the experience of the uncanny reinvestment of the parent at the core of one's sense of selfhood takes on special significance. That experience becomes the resource by which the otherwise weakened manifestation of ancestral authority in families of dynastic wealth gathers renewed power.

21Post-1960s American mainstream culture propels descendants more intensely than ever before to establish for themselves unique biographical narratives. At the same time, as trust beneficiaries, descendants are constantly being pulled into the administration of patrimony, and that pull is reinforced by their noted uncanny recognition of the bodily and behavioural repetition in their daily activities and practices of imposing figures from the past. These, indeed, have been themes recurrent in the autobiographical fragments that I elicited in conversations with members of dynastic families in Texas and, on occasion, elsewhere. Of course, these concerns weigh differently on family leaders, on males, and on females, but they are nonetheless a common preoccupation running through the commentaries of adult children, as siblings and cousins, anticipating the final stages of generational transition.

22These sentiments remind me of the 'anxiety of influence' among poets that Harold Bloom (1973) described in his meditation on 'the melancholy of the creative mind's desperate insistence on priority', or, to use an epigraph he let stand for his argument: 'It Was a Great Marvel That They Were In the Father Without Knowing Him.' Bloom went on to describe several strategies by which poets have resolved this anxiety of influence by distancing themselves from their forebears. Yet in their mature work, at the end of a long process of achieving originality, they have found themselves uncannily repeating past masters, just as dynastic descendants perceive themselves to fail ultimately to establish unique selves even though they 'see through' any overt or obvious attempts by parents, or their servants, to exert the authority of a collective dynastic tradition. In Bloom's work is embedded a more general conception of the dynamics of tradition that I find very suggestive. However, what he takes as an essentially psychological (in his case, orthodox Freudian) dynamic, I want to understand as an equally cultural one: what makes a collective tradition without compelling social forms efficacious for descendants is precisely the conflation of tradition with the most powerful cultural construct in middle-class American culture - infinitely pliable, but self-determining, subjectivity. The power of tradition in this sense has the quality of the sacred evoked in Durkheim's sociology, or of charisma in that of Weber, in that ironic, suspicious descendants who oppose family attempts to exert authority nonetheless experience the embodied mystery of themselves becoming intimately more a part of an identity about which they 'know better'.

23Here, it is worth contrasting briefly the American dynastic descendant with the members of small-scale, tribal societies of classic anthropological interest. For example, in his account of a Melanesian people situated on islands off the north-east coast of Papua New Guinea, Michael Young (1983) was concerned with how 'big men' - leaders of achieved standing in a society that to Western eyes would superficially appear highly individualistic - self-consciously enact in their lived (and often plotted) biographies the past lives of ancestors or legendary figures. This is very much an intended rather than an unwitting repetition of one's forebears' identities in one's own biography, and there is a considerable cultural aesthetic of performance embedded in the big men's own self-references as well as in the evaluations of their followers. The merging of notable past lives with one's own present celebrated life occurs with a certain seamlessness because the biographies - marked by historical events - are couched in mythical time. But it is important to be clear that individuals in Kalauna, or in any apparently exotic society that anthropologists have described, are not selfless or lacking in self-consciousness. However, public expressive ritual is powerful in its ability to affect experience; mythical narratives are shared; a coherent cosmology is at least understood; and there is nothing ironic or parodie about the self repeating in the present the timeless lives of ancestors or forebears.

24The contrast between this construction of the self and that of dynastic descendants in Euro-American societies is striking. The trend in recent anthropology has been to downplay such 'us and them' contrasts as have a tendency to exoticize its primary subject-matter. Nevertheless, the differences between the cultural ideologies of autonomous selfhood manifested in discourses about experience and the body of two very specificcases are significant. Both were clearly marked social elites: the Texas lineages researched by me (or other such American families researched by others) and the Melanesians of Kalauna in the ethnography of Young. Among the Kempners or the Rockefellers or the Binghams, the descendant self should be and is willed to be a unique, autonomous self, with the constant possibility of change, modification, and improvement. Recognition of the repetition of parental/ancestral identities is received with a fearful irony that is absent from the character of similar recognitions in Kalauna or other such societies, where it is presumed that present experiences can reproduce past experiences of personhood, not just coincidentally or mysteriously, but in an embodied, willed, and cosmologically rationalized way. As noted, this uncanny awareness of irony, of the unique selfs not being so unique after all, is a common perception among middle-class people, the mystery of which is a key impetus for the theories and practices of various psychotherapies. In families of inherited wealth, this perception is hyperdeveloped in order to lend sacred efficacy to the authority of an organization for the administration of wealth and the persons to which that wealth attaches.

25Depending upon how a descendant is situated in a dynastic structure, this irony can play out in diverse ways - it can be emotionally disturbing, it can be humorous, it can be embarrassing to a desired social presentation of self (compare for example, Peggy Guggenheim becoming more like her uncles after years of rebellion; the contemporary leader of a Texas family plainly aware of his parodic role in terms of his father and grandfather). In societies where the self develops this ironic character in relation to forebears (intimately associated, I believe, with the historic making of middle classes from the nineteenth century to the present), collective identities (family, ethnic, regional) become transmitted and formed by the processes that synonymously shape personal identities and, particularly, become transmitted and formed in terms of the cultural discourses available for constituting the latter. The power of this personal process, unlike that of any public or overt forms by which cultural values might be expressed and transmitted, is in its felt mystery, its uncanniness.

26I want to distance the condensation of collective representations into personal ones from primarily psychological accounts of the process. This is not to deny the value of psychological analyses or concepts for explaining the uncanny repetition of parental identity - these are not only the scholarly and scientific way for doing so in American culture but are also the folk, commonsensical way, especially for the middle classes. However, it is precisely the cross-cultural perspective sketched above that suggests that psychological terms are neither the only nor sufficient ones with which to describe the ironic self, perhaps natural to us but indeed strange to a Melanesian still marginally situated in relation to global cultural and economic conditionings.

27In any case, much in psychological explanations for the uncanny repetition must be taken on belief. In the many accounts of notable families that are written by descendants around such narratives of the profound visitations of past generations upon the present one, the process is noted, but details are left obscure or assigned to a general Freudianism. Psychological explanations assume close, powerful interactions between parent and child in which identities are shaped: much of the learning that occurs is unconscious - this is what makes it compelling and mysterious to descendant consciousness. I would argue rather that the power of the psychological effect upon the person is in the discourse of descendants themselves that forms around the story of a struggle by a willed autonomous self to escape given, official family models of character, inculcated by a diffuse, redundant discourse that evaluates the worth of children through their likenesses to and differences from exemplary forebears. The fact of disturbed awareness of repetition is clear; the psychological process by which it is shaped is not. Dynastic folk beliefs rely on innateness, on eugenic explanations for the repetition of identities, although this mode is ideologically unmentionable in mass liberal culture. Indeed, it is this family eugenic discourse that descendants seeking their own unique selves rebel against; but years of hearing oneself evaluated in terms of forebears by authoritative voices in the family have already prepared the ground for a powerful effect once the uncanny arises. It draws the descendant willy-nilly into the fold of ancestral/dynastic authority.

28Within dynastic families, descendants' understanding of the repetition of identities is most often in psychological terms, and in the most disturbing cases, descendants seek psychotherapy. But accounts of psychological dynamics aside, descendants receive a cultural conditioning in their family's discourse about its own special types of persons, distinctive through breeding - what I call its discourse about character - that is historically constructed exclusively for family members and is itself folk-psychological in rhetoric. This discourse, how it arises, and how it impinges upon biographies of descendants constitute a kind of tradition-based therapy. The mystery of tradition, condensed in a dynasty's discourse about character, is far more powerful and encompassing than the enlightening power of psychological explanations developed in conventional therapeutic settings. The descendant, the ward of a fortune, continues to find his or her own developing autonomy tied back again and again to the family's discourse about character. That happens because the descendant uncannily feels the truth of resemblances that were redundantly attributed to him or her during a youth spent among servants and in proximity to parents.

29So, aside from whatever psychological (that is, unconscious) processes about cross-generational transmissions of personality can be identified, there is also a quite self-conscious and reflexive discourse that occurs among dynasts. This is a shared, disciplining discourse about a family's collective standard of personhood, expressed in broadly psychological, behavioural, and somatic terms. It is through this discourse, diffusely evident in the turns of phrase, stories, and repeated conversations of the family, that the sort of tradition that might otherwise be transmitted by collective representations, rites, and patriarchal commands is compellingly received by late twentieth century culturally middle-class persons caught in the family organizations of upper-class culture of an earlier period.

30Before I say more about the controlling discourse concerning character and its fate in recent American history, I must first note how it is constituted as data, that is, by what medium it occurs and is located in the ethnographic research process. This is the exchange of autobiographical fragments, which is the predominant form fieldwork dialogues take, not only among dynasts, but also among most Americans for whom the self and personal recall are the narrative frame for relating matters in which ethnographers might be interested.

31Autobiography is not just a literary genre that appeared in the West toward the end of the eighteenth century; it is also a willed act of the self. In a fragmented, protracted form, it punctuates the conversations and dialogues of everyday life at all levels of a society like the United States, with its pervasive self-conscious ideology of autonomous individualism and its accompanying habit of self-reference in framing casual language use. Life histories elicited from members of tribal societies, which have become a subgenre of ethnographic writing (like Nisa by Marjorie Shostak [1981], or Tuhami by Vincent Crapanzano [1980]), are usually more structured and prompted by the ethnographer than motivated by his or her subject. On the contrary, life history, personal experience rooted in one's past, is the veritable frame for in-depth ethnographic interviews on all sorts of research topics concerning American middle (and upper) classes.

32Little prompting or cajoling is necessary. In my discussions with family members held together by dynastic organizations of patrimony, it was indeed in the context of marked autobiographical fragments about family relationships that the experience of the uncanny recognition of profound likeness to parents and other forebears was repeatedly expressed. It is at this point of recognition, especially in a context where much more than just family pride rests on the continued identification by descendants with lineal dynastic authority, that there is a potential for a powerful critique of the limits of American autonomous individualism. Not being detached professional cultural critics or journalistic muckrakers, descendants struggling to contend with dynastic 'familiars' within themselves are not inclined to develop from their own experience generalized sociological insight about class in America. The potential for broader cultural critique, thus, dissipates in personal battles for self-autonomy among middle-aged descendants within dynastic families.

33The dynastic family is one of the very few settings in American society, perhaps the only one, where the cultural production of the person and that of the group are equally and powerfully matched, entwined, and simultaneously in competition. It is certainly the only setting in which there is a complex effort to give a priority to the reality of collectivity over the unique, autonomous selves of its members. More than any other American setting, the dynastic family setting makes the culturally normalized construction of autonomous selves, corresponding to the autobiographical acts one elicits in fieldwork conversations, intractably problematic - in this case, for dynastic descendants - and establishes the potential for the sophisticated critique of American individualism embedded in dynasts' often frustrating attempts to relate their own autobiographies. Autobiography in the dynastic context is thus a contestation of dominant American cultural emphases on the definition of the unique self above all else and simultaneously of dynastic family tradition, communicated as moral narratives and judgements about particular views of the self, expressed as notions of distinctive character that the family breeds. This cultural critique embedded in descendant autobiographical narratives never resolves itself in detached argument but endlessly explores the conflict that it expresses, the conflict between the model of character that powerfully invades descendant self-identity and the equally powerful cultural injunction to be a unique self.

34In taking another look at my firsthand data, with the critical dimension of autobiographical narrative in mind, I found an interesting disparity between responses to my questions specifically about collective family history and those to my questions about personal history or biography. Here, I refer to narrative responses by either dominant males or other males who might conceivably wield or resist authority in dynasties. Women, in-laws, 'black sheep', and youthful rebels are often the second-class citizens in dynasties to whom the authoritative narratives about character apply in complex ways. They generate the most marked and explicit critical discourse within dynasties; but here I am more interested in the critiques that arise subversively and subtly among those who are empowered and who are the central objects of dynastic culture - the men who are the primary and managing heirs to the resources of a dynasty.

35When I asked about family history, I received a narrative response that told the family's experience in mostly familiar terms-like any American family. Origins in a founder, and then the history of autonomous selves who happen to be kin or else a response that developed the family's distinctive difference by an emblematic association of the family with some other cultural model (for example, 'we are like a tribe or a clan', as in one dynasty saga novel I came across that was based on a real-life family that caricatured themselves in this way). There was always a winking, humorous tone to the latter kind of response - there may have been a kernel of seriousness in these responses, but just as overt ritual as tradition is received transparently by dynasts, and even by their promoters, so are embellished stories or frameworks of distinction. At this explicit level of family narrative, at least as it is expressed to an outsider, there is no distinctive invested narrative that earnestly asserts identity. This undoubtedly has something to do with the illegitimacy of such explicit self-glorification among upper classes in mass liberal societies, except as self-parody.

36Responses to questions about personal history that generated sustained autobiographical narrative were much more interesting and intense. In those accounts, the ironic recognition of the ancestor within one's self arose repeatedly. It is the controlling discourse about character that frames and gives specific substance to such elicited autobiography. This discourse is dynastic exclusivity gone 'underground' as a historical adaptation to the problems of status expression for upper classes living in mass liberal societies. This discourse of exclusivity no longer exists in the pure form of patriarchal command, but rather in the always contested, insidious, and collective part of a descendant's self, experienced as the uncanny, embodied return of the parent or forebear. This resisted, but received, experience of family character once again invading the autonomous self is what most powerfully communicates and accommodates traditional authority over descendants amid the triumph of middle-class, therapeutic models of the self. It is much more effective in creating dynastic identity among descendants than the anaemic and parodic but more overt and collective family discourse that empowered males tell with a wink. At its own level, this embedded narrative about character and its repetition in the unique lives of descendants is a kind of upper-class critical discourse against dominant liberal ideology concerning the malleability and autonomy of individuals.

37In reading published autobiographies/family memoirs by members of dynastic families, I am impressed with how problematic the self becomes as it ambiguously competes with the family itself as the central object of such works. The mystery in autobiographical narratives, especially for those self-consciously trying to differentiate themselves from the collectivity, is the ironic and growing awareness that, in creating an autonomous self-identity, one inevitably makes use of the dominant official family discourse about its distinctive character, and thus ends by reproducing in whole or part what the act of autobiography itself mightily struggles to contest. The novelty and potential for broader cultural critique in these narratives lie in the dramatic forms created to constitute the ideal autonomous self, and in the failure to do so definitively.

38The most salient sociological observation about the predicament of upper classes in the modern era of mass liberal societies is that they lack legitimate opportunities to assert and glorify in public their superior distinctiveness. This predicament is usually understood cynically by liberal sociologists. That is, upper classes have become sophisticated in public relations when they are visible - but mainly they try to remain invisible - and in private, they are not frustrated or stifled at all; rather, in their little worlds they indulge in bias, prejudice, and self-glorification. There is a certain truth to this, as there is for the private lives of all middle-class people. However, I prefer to see such public-status-display frustration as a real predicament in the internal conditions of families that cultivate ideologies about their own distinctiveness.

39Appropriate to a culture of extreme diversity in which the possibility for self-improvement became the central theme, clannish, family-oriented American upper classes, particularly of the North-east, reorganized themselves during the early nineteenth century around private, non-profit educational and charitable institutions, which they founded, and around an ideology focused, not on overtly collective identity, but on the shaping of virtuous and morally appropriate character (see Hall 1982). The upper classes thus adapted the broader cultural emphasis on the individual to their own image, and through the cultural institutions that they founded character - building along certain lines was emphasized. Upper-class notions of character were something for middle classes to aspire to. Within the confines of very private families of wealth and power, oriented to their unique distinctiveness, normative discourses about character - in effect, a dynastic mode for developing and regulating biographies-became an effective way to transmit collective tradition to their members, while otherwise participating in a public culture in which the value of autonomous personhood was so pervasive.

40Through the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the once conspicuously cultivated public collective mystique of notable families - with few exceptions - came to be recultivated in powerful private familial narratives about character, especially for dominant males in such families. For any dynastic family, these narratives still constitute a residual discourse that both resists and accommodates the modern liberal discourse that makes self-aggrandized elitism a matter of very bad taste. The family construct gave way to individualism, and, as we have seen, reappeared in the heavily moral intonations concerning character that permeate dynastic family narratives about the person - what it is to be (look like) a Rockefeller, a Kempner, or a Guggenheim, and so on. Such upper-class discourses about character, which once had considerable power in shaping descendant commitment, have withered in more recent times, and the most effective embodiments of collective tradition in the person became the stories about eccentricity or psychological dysfunction that are common knowledge within contemporary dynastic families.

41Thus, while the focus on character served well as a morally concerned and prescriptive discourse about individualism well into the twentieth century, one hears such discourse rarely today, and when one does, it has a musty, anachronistic quality. Through the writing of cultural critics like Philip Rieff (1969), T. J. Jackson Lears (1982), and Christopher Lasch (1979), it has been persuasively argued that the triumph of the therapeutic vision of the self is the leading trend that American individualism has taken in the second half of the twentieth century.

  • 6 For an elaborated argument about the role of eccentricity in American notable families, see Marcus (...)

42What in particular has happened to authoritative traditional discourse in dynastic families that had found an effective vehicle in controlling narratives about the character of their members as individuals - frankly, I'm not certain. Such families no longer have so coherent a means to transmit authority now that descendants hear the discourse about character with the kind of suspicion with which dynastic ritual and patriarchal style have long been received. However, despite the decline of positive character discourse, I have been impressed by the continuing power and subtlety of an associated discourse about eccentricity or psychological dysfunction, which, in effect, had always been present as a mystique or at least as an ambivalent variant on character discourse. Eccentricities, especially, defined both family strengths and weaknesses - but from the point of view of the central tendency of positive character. Now that such a central tendency has grown transparent, eccentricity comes to the fore as a very effective form through which a dynastic family accommodates to a more dominant cultural discourse, that of the therapeutic self, but also continues to express a distinctive and superior status for itself.6

43Finally, it is worth pointing out some of the specifically sociological dynamics that make dynastic discourses about character and their recent transformations so compelling. While diffused in the interpersonal relations among members of a dynastic family, character discourse is also subject to manipulation by the bureaucratic side of dynastic production, including advisers, experts of various sorts, and the family leader who bridges the parallel bureaucratic and familial spheres of dynastic organization. This management control centre attempts to crystallize character discourse into an ideology in the classic political sense. Dynastic commands are thus often made by appeal to sentiments about values of personhood that have deep resonances in the terms and categories by which descendants are capable of referencing themselves. But the power of the diffuse character discourse from which an ideology is drawn in order to support a leader's authority usually exceeds this effort to harness it. The leadership cannot finally control it, since its real power is in the talk and self-perceptions of adult descendants who find themselves ironically linked to lineage in the late twentieth century. It is not the force of patriarchal authority, however much it tries to idealize the family collective sense of distinctive character, but the felt irony itself in the creation of personal identities among descendants by which submission to dynastic identification primarily succeeds. As noted, the resistance to authorized family sentiments about character is enacted by women, rebels, and middle-aged adults outside the dynastic directorate, in the diffuse talk of their own experiences, including the always problematic attempt to establish their autobiographies free of family memoir.

44With respect to the sociological aspects that directly affect the tradition - carrying potential of the discourse about character as it is manifested in descendant social relations, inside and outside the family, I wish to make two observations. First, when descendants have participated in psychotherapeutic sessions to establish their independence from the hold of family/parental authority, such therapy in its full social context has more often than not thrown the descendants back to the power of the family's own enduring mythic 'therapy', which consists of the infusion of character discourse in acts and moments of self-evaluation among descendants. Descendants may come to understand the uncanny repetition of forebears in themselves in therapeutic terms; but rarely does this understanding produce a fundamental break with family psychic dependency. In the long term, it is most often another stage in the management of collective wealth's continuing hold over a family's relationships.

45Within the official, diffuse discourse about distinctive character, innateness, or likeness transmitted biologically - that is, a deterministic eugenics - is a powerful explanation of the uncanny repetition of parental personhood, and one that sustains and rationalizes the sense of mystery about this phenomenon. In the larger liberal society, eugenic arguments as they relate to behaviour, skills, attitudes, or other dimensions of the self are highly controversial; but in the character-forming discourse of many middle-class families, on which their self-esteem depends, such determinism is implicit. And in the discourse of dynastic families, who are redundantly reminded of their own importance, it is even more powerfully evoked and developed. There is often a smooth shift from the observation of somatic likenesses transmitted by inheritance to the similar inheritance of character, the 'right stuff, and so forth. As middle-aged descendants uncannily recognize the physical features of a forebear in themselves, they fear and often confirm that this is only the most apparent edge of ancestral investment of themselves. The dynastic uncanny also brings with it behavioural and mental determinations that such descendants might have thought they had modified or escaped by separation and self-development in an independent environment.

46Second, I would argue that the uncanny on which much of the residual authority of and attachment to dynasty among descendants now hinges does not derive only from the alternative to the biological determinism in which descendants often believe - that of therapeutic doctrines of unconscious process rooted in early experiences with parents and others. Rather, the sociolinguistic process of authoritative character discourse working its way into the biography of a descendant, affecting his or her sell-perception, and eventually being articulated in reflexive attempts at autobiography deserves equal attention. Here, the theoretical work of ethno-methodologists is helpful: their conceptions of the embedded linguistic practices by which subjects produce common sense and the appearance of 'natural' knowledge or truth about themselves and their bounded (and constructed) social worlds. The 'documentary method of interpretation' (Garfinkel 1967) provides a model for thinking about the way family character discourse is seamlessly diffused into the specific self-defining discourse of particular descendants. The method offers a conceptualization, registered in close attention to language use, of how the words of others about others are made into one's own words about oneself-that is, how the ancestor on occasion uncannily merges with one's autonomous self-perception, the recognition of which fact simultaneously attaches one to and detaches one from dynastic authority. This is one way of accounting for the compulsion and inescapability of the anxiety over of influence among dynastic descendants, whereby, to extend Bloom's epigraph,' It Was a Great Marvel That They Were In the Father Without Knowing Him', and a greater marvel that they cleave the more closely to him when they did become aware of it.


47The generic upper- and upper-middle class investment in human capital by elite American families of established and aspirant standing is assured by the funnelling of descendants into certain preparatory schools, universities, professions, social circles and locations of residence and leisure activity - along with the continuing ability of families to afford them. For a long time now, class institutions, or at least class-accented institutions, have taken over from families the primary responsibility of socializing their members from adolescence on. The fate, character, and composition of an upper and upper-middle class in the United States very much depends on changes in these institutions as to their accommodation of new participants and ideas. So much for the sociology of elites.

48What remains are certain subterranean processes and patterns that remain very much within families and their traditions. These seem out of touch with and marginal to the great apparent shifts occurring in contemporary (postmodern?) society of the information revolution and various globalisms only if the story of these families is told in the same old ways. The preceding discussion of the dynastic uncanny is my effort to tell that which remains strong, pervasive, flexible, and dynastic in the cultural production of US elites, despite the great changes in US leadership institutions and ideologies over the past decades, which have diminished either overt class claims to a motivation of dynastic succession or the actual ability to bring such succession about even when family leaders have the bad taste openly to promote such a motivation. As I will argue in a moment, the present example of the family of George Bush is much more typical of how dynastic identity operates than that of the Kennedys, the urmythic case of the conventional narrative of the dynastic saga.

49The medium in which the effective dynastic uncanny in many families plays itself out is often far from the usual paths of power - marriage choice, investment, profession - but lies instead in the terrain of the intimate, the soft - of what was thought in the last century to be the 'feminine'. This is the terrain of culture, identity, sensibility, the contours of which vary considerably from notable family to notable family. This is the terrain of inter vivos transactions in symbolic capital - the kind of capital that is not tied up in complex rules and schemes of cross-generational inheritance, that does not depend on the exercise of the' dead hand'. The development of selves, subjectivities, character, eccentricities is something that the living in the dominant generation can watch among descendants, reflect upon, and, if not control, actively influence. This is where the irony of the return of the father or the mother is played out through the giving of personal possessions and tastes. It is the gift of culture itself, whose mystifications often provide the key contexts that lend power and authority to the dynastic uncanny - make it stick and endure - deep within the inevitable attempts of individuals in elite families at self-knowledge.

50While this private, intimate side of the dynastic uncanny has been emphasized in this chapter, it is also worth emphasizing in conclusion the importance of the exposure of the dynastic uncanny in public arenas, as newsworthy stories of the doings of persons with famous names and identities. Here a name or identity re-emerges outside its original context of family self-regard, albeit with some of its original associations developed and elaborated in the popular imagination. Often this re-emergence depends on strong resemblances - physical and attributed - of a person to a predecessor of the same name. In the American political arena, an instance would be the case of the current rising political capital of George Bush's son in Texas, where the dynastic association is circumstantial, inevitable, and uncanny, in contrast to the mythic story of the Kennedys, where the political ambitions of the family were the font of its internal desire. My interest is in the former case, which I consider far more typical; the Kennedy case sustains the popular narrative, making the uncanniness of the return of the Bush family more normal, in conformity with a mythic saga that it does not quite fit.

51One of my founding claims has been that the resonance of family name and identity is perhaps the most durable and valuable resource, even decoupled from tangible elements of organized family wealth and power as these dissolve over two or three generations. When the dynastic impulse and aura find their value not in aristocratic tradition, hut in the relatively rapid circulation of elites in a democratic society, then the conditions for the survival of dynastic identity are very much determined by the ecology of institutions and power arenas in which a notable family has gone through its relatively short dynastic cycle in America. What is surprising is the power of the name and identity themselves - how they can revive family aspirations in ways and locations unexpected. They are a sort of wild card, where the appropriation of the name by a corporation or cultural institution to enhance a product or its own identity, or where an instance of an heir of a declining fortune's making good in a new arena of enterprise, and by so doing regenerating the dynastic legend of a family that has faded, shows just how much that identity is a part of American middleclass desire: one of its options, and one with considerable mystique.

52Writing in a 1992 epilogue to Lives in Trust (1992), Peter Hall and I marvelled at the power of the mantle of dynastic wealth to cloak in prestige and respectability the new plutocratic concentrations of wealth in the Reagan years. We wanted to emphasize precisely the key value of the dynastic identity in giving moral stature to money. The portability of the symbolic capital of dynastic identity was marked in the politics of that era by the ascendancy of the Bush presidency. As we remarked (1992, p. 353):

Except in a few cases, dynastic continuity has been a very short-run process even within the historic cohort (families whose dynastic origins occurred roughly a century ago) with which we have been concerned. Yet it has been a powerful ideal, fantasy, and value for professional, managerial, and middle-class people who have failed to live up to their promise. On the home front at least, nothing has diminished the tendency to value dynasty as a kind of moral domestication of wealth. Indeed, if anything, the emergence of the new plutocracy and its analogue, the meritocratic oligarchy - both amazed by their success and yearning for authenticity - has strengthened the myth. So Bush follows Reagan.

53But of course, then Bush was soon gone, replaced by Clinton. Maybe we had over interpreted in this example the powerful appeal of the dynastic patrician legacy embedded in self-made striving American middle classes, even when it had been entwined within the biography of Bush the New Englander proving himself in the Texas oil industry. Yet, writing now in 1998, we are witnessing the ascendant political career of George W. Bush, the former president's namesake and governor of Texas. The younger Bush is aspirant to the Republican nomination for president in the next election. Whatever the outcome, it is interesting to observe his rise, in its complete identification with his father's.

54The return of Bush to power through the son was perhaps partly planned by the family; but it seems more opportunistic and a construction by the media and the public. The presidential aspiration depends on the legacy of dynastic subjectivity that serves this ambition - for the moment a complete resemblance between father and son that is frequently commented upon in newspapers and at political events. What must be appreciated here is the integral role of popular democratic narrative in the invention of a story of dynastic continuity. The dynastic impulse here is not so much with the family as with the people. If Bush succeeds, the identification with his father will have been key. And unlike the case of the Kennedys, the public construction of this continuity has a surprised inflection, as if the reappearance of Bush in his son at the highest level of politics was uncanny rather than natural. Still, the association is politically powerful, perhaps enough so eventually to make tangible dynastic continuity a solid and literal fact of the American presidency in the story of the Bush family - something that the fervently dynastic Kennedys never achieved. This is the kind of surprise that the floating dynastic signifier in American elite life holds for those who study it. So Bush follows Clinton?


1 The situation of Americans of 'good family' could be profitably contrasted with the 'good families' of Barcelona (McDonogh 1982), for example, one of the most detailed studies of a European dynastic elite byan anthropologist. There is a strong situated class determinant to this designation in Europe that depends even for bourgeois families on an aristocratic example. In the United States, this development only occurred historically in a few cities (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the South in general before the Civil War) and barely survives today. Being of 'good family' depends much more on the ironic mystique of the survival of dynastic identities both in terms of and against the tendencies of an American democratic ethos.

2 The psychocultural processes analysed here are apparent even in tribal societies, as in Meyer Fortes's classic on the Tallensi, Oedipus and Job (1938), although it is tinged with a deeply European bias and colouring by the very figures he employs.

3 Examples of the appropriation of a dynastic identity by corporations without dynastic motivations or structures themselves are the rise of the Getty Trust as a major philanthropic organization in the arts, following the death of J. Paul Getty, and the acquisition of the name of Praeger Books by a conglomerate, so that the founder of this company, Frederick Praeger, had no further right to use his own name in a later venture. The Getty Trust, in which I was a resident scholar during the late 1980s (see Marcus 1990), gained much in establishing itself from the aura of the mythic wealth associated with J. Paul Getty, more than the actual family ever did. The identification as J. Paul's primary heir was very important to the Trust in its early phases-interestingly, as an asset in the United States, but a hindrance in Europe, where the name did not have as much respect and held a different set of associations, demonstrating the difference concerning the social origins of the idea of dynasty between the United States and Europe. The Praeger case is just a routine example of how businesses with dynastic structures exist at the behest of a particular ecology of institutions. When conditions of business or these institutions change, so too do the chances for the persistence of dynastic organization and leadership in particular sectors. One finds dynastic identity moving uncannily toward its patron institutions, which swallow family businesses while keeping their identities, at least for a while.

4 Large portions of this section appeared as a previously unpublished chapter of Marcus and Hall 1992.

5 For example, see my chapter (Marcus 1992) on the memoir of Sallie Bingham accounting for the break-up of the Binghams, the newspaper family of Louisville. Joan Branfman's study of the experience of inherited wealth (1987), written as a doctoral dissertation and thus archly formal in its use of social science rhetoric, is nonetheless an excellent source and analysis of this material, both from original interviews and the memoir genre.

6 For an elaborated argument about the role of eccentricity in American notable families, see Marcus 1995.


Professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Rice University. He is co-editor with James Clifford of Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, co-author with Michael Fischer of Anthropology as Cultural Critique, and most recently author of Ethnography Through Thick and Thin. His long-term work on dynastic elites in the United States is reported in the volume, Lives in Trust: the Fortunes of Dynastic Families in Late Twentieth Century America (Boulder, Colorado, 1992). During this fin-de-siècle he has edited a series of annuals, entitled Late Editions and published by the University of Chicago Press. This series probes contemporary change and transformation on a wide range of topics through the presentation of ethnographic interviews. The most recent volumes are Corporate Futures: The Diffusion of the Culturally Sensitive; Corporate Form at Century's End and Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation.

© Etnográfica Press, 2000

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