Faulkner and social system change

The novels and short stories of William Faulkner often deal with family tensions or stress. So from a social systems perspective, we can look at the concepts of segmentation and functional differentiation. The family is a case of segmentary differentiation. Tribes, countries are also a kind segmentary differentiation. These kinds of social systems always have borders or boundaries and inclusion/exclusion programs. A person can be in or out of a family, tribe, or clan. Functional differentiation, of course, is the differentiation of systems like politics, law, economy, education, science, etc.

In the case of Faulkner, we often see a conflict between the family and the law, as a character is torn between family loyalty and adherence to the community’s law or justice. In the short story “Barn Burning” (1939), the son Sarty ultimately chooses the law over his father’s authority. His father warns him to stick with his family, and his father is basically can anarchist who burns barns to get back at the propertied class. His father say to Sarty,

You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.

When Sarty chooses the law, he emerges as an individual. His father takes the rest of the family and leaves Sarty all alone. Under the law, people are individuals–and these individuals are supposed to be treated equally before the law. Family origin means nothing.

Richard Rodriguez framed this issue in terms a distinction between the private individual and the public individual. The pubic individual, for Rodriguez, is a face in the crowd, while the private individual has intimate bonds with other people. So we can say that Sarty Snopes becomes an public individual when he betrays his father. But if you look at a character like Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy, he chooses his family, or private individuality over a law-abiding public individuality.

But the point of the Faulkner example is that this is not simply a case of moral progress or the advance of democracy or anything like that. The issue is that function systems such as law undermine the traditional family or tribal structure as it had existed for thousands of years. Functional differentiation overrules segmentary differentiation when these two forms of differentiation come into conflict. This is why for example, children have recourse to laws against child abuse and neglect. Parents can lose custody of their children, as well as be imprisoned, if the legal system says so. Laws against domestic partner abuse, divorce laws, etc., are other examples of this social change.

In Faulkner, the tension between segmentation and functional differentiation is related to technologies such as the railroad and automobile. One was no longer fixed in the place of one’s birth. It’s interesting that Faulkner’s great-grandfather–the prototype for John Sartoris–was a railroad entrepreneur. The railroad made time more relevant than space, as they ran on tight schedules and effectively erased long distances. Quentin Compson travels to and from Harvard by train, and he kills himself at Harvard.


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