Sunday, October 24, 2010

GS: you made me throw up a little

Yes, I do realize there's such a thing as taking a metaphor too far, but I love Happy Bunny, so yes, I did go there.  The last grad school post was about eating crow, this one's about re-thinking that.  So what else could I call it?

So, the idea the last time I posted about my theory class was that I was finally giving in to the pressure, the relentlessness of studying theory.  You get inside the mindset, and suddenly it all makes sense, and you think, "Oh, yeah, this is true."  But within a couple of days of posting that, I started to realize that this feels awfully familiar.  This feeling of "consciousness raising," of having my ideas turned upside down again.  Not to cavil too much (I only threw up a little)(*ducks and runs*), because I really have learned a lot of great new stuff in this class.  Like ecocriticism.  I didn't think I'd be interested in that much when I saw it on the syllabus.  I figured it would about reading Thoreau and Annie Dillard, and I've already confessed to my dislike of that type of writing.  But that's not it-- or at least, that's only a very small part of ecocriticism.  It's actually a broader emphasis on recognizing the way setting and place affect literature, and recognizing the way "nature" is treated in a literary work and how that parallels the way it is treated in our larger society.  (and don't even get an ecocritic started on what the word "nature" means. seriously.)  I've become so interested in it that I may write my final paper in another class on an ecocritical reading of one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's books.

I'm digressing again.  But there are still a lot of gripes I have with the whole theory mindset.  For one thing, it's practically nihilist.  Hmm.  I just looked that up and it doesn't mean quite what I thought it meant.  What I meant to say is that it leads--if you take it to its more-or-less logical conclusion-- to despair.  I will try to explain.  Is someone out there more of an expert on this than I am?  because you should really weigh in here and either help me out or argue with me.  Three months of studying theory hardly makes me the person to try to explain this.

But when has that ever stopped me?  So, you have all the critique of capitalism, which is pretty interesting and pretty damning for the world we live in.  We immerse ourselves in media/entertainment which makes us convinced we need certain products, or to dress so that we express ourselves (which still involves buying clothes and makeup and accessories, and so supporting somebody's bottom line), and we need certain gadgets (OMG do I want an iPad, not kidding, which would go straight into Steve Jobs pocket).  We are utter slobbering victims of brilliant marketing every minute of our lives practically.  And all of it is going to line the pockets of the people who own the means of production.  We worker bees live in a world of denial, thinking that the harder we work, the more we will get ahead, when really, we're just reinforcing the capitalist juggernaut.  And the things that keep us happy-- buying a new pair of shoes, reading romance novels, going on vacations-- all those things are just part of what's called the "hegemony," the cloud of denial that's created by all sorts of cultural institutions and practices that deludes us into thinking we're doing all this for our own good, while really we're just the victims of capitalism.

Marx started this, of course, and he thought that as soon as the workers began to see how they were being exploited, they would revolt, overturn the capitalists, and bring in a new kind of economy where ownership of the profit-making stuff would be in the hands of the workers rather than in the hands of owners who were completely disconnected from the actual work.  How this ideal society would be constructed is the subject of much debate, of course, and a number of fairly disastrous fascist and/or totalitarian governments resulted.  So you can argue with his ideas of how things "should" be, and I'm happy to chip in.  But that doesn't change the fact that the marxist critique of capitalism is pretty disturbing.  It's just that Marx and others of his generation underestimated what my professor calls the "resiliency" of capitalism-- the ability of capitalism to absorb any and all attacks by convincing all of us that it's in our best interests to support it, even though it may not be.

So of course the first argument I would make is that the whole problem with both systems, marxist and capitalist, is that they both assume that money, profit and the like are the most important things in life.  I don't believe that.  I believe that there are all kinds of things--familial, social and spiritual-- that are more important than profit, than my own economic well-being.  And of course a Marxist would say, that's the hegemony.  Anything that convinces you that something is more important than your economic well-being.  Which is why Marx thought religion was the opiate of the people.  This stuff is just fascinating to me.  (Marx himself never used the word hegemony-- that's a later twist on Marxist thought, I think from Althusser.  Marx called it "ideology," which is along the same lines.)

But I still say:  well, fine, but money and profit will never be my primary goals in life.  I don't want them to be.  I reject your reality and substitute my own, as they say on Mythbusters.  I just don't buy it (yup, that pathetic pun was intentional).

What bugs me about the whole theory mindset, though, is that if you really carry it out to its logical conclusion, then anything you can do that positively participates in culture-- from raising kids to buying groceries to publishing your novel to retail therapy-- in short, anything that contributes to keeping the world going-- is strengthening the hegemony.  and then you keep going through the history of theory and you start to see how the hegemony supports sexism and homophobia and racism and classism and so on. So if you read all this stuff and become truly horrified by it (which is easy to do, because it's pretty scary stuff), pretty soon you are so horrified that you don't want to do anything that involves you in it, your only alternative is to just check out of life.  You can't do anything (except stand on the sidelines and critique), because anything you do will just contribute to the continuation of all this stuff that horrifies you.  Despair.  Despondency.  Nihilism. 

I'm so impressed that you're still reading, because even I lost track of where I was going.  I think there was something else I wanted to say, but it's late and I've lost it.  so this is (possibly) to be continued.


  1. I am, for all intents and purposes, a farm girl, and it always seemed pretty obvious to me that Marx was a city boy. Subsistence farming should fit Marx's ideal (the farm family owns the land and creates most of what it consumes), but it's hardly idyllic. It's hard to imagine that type of worker claiming any power. Farmers will tell you that that the lands owns you and the livestock owns you.

    The drudgery of Marx's workers is possible whether you're fighting just to get by or you're consumed with accumulating wealth at any cost (to your health, to your family, etc.). That means the class of owners can share the drudgery, too.

    All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I agree with you. If love, and happiness, and family, and friends are you goals, then I don't think it matters if the system is capitalistic or Marxist. I don't think you've succumbed to opiates. You can want an iPad (and I do, too! OOOH, and Google TV. ), but the important issue is determining what you're willing to give up in order to have it. You've only been swindled by some capitalistic machine if you're willing to give up what you love in order to gain the iPad. Otherwise, you're simply admiring something shiny. ;)

  2. that is an excellent point (the bit about what you're willing to give up to have it). Great way of looking at the problem. Thanks for the insight.... also agree about the owners not being all that much better off than the rest of us. Richer, yes. But happier? I wonder. Another thing that occurs to me is that given the advent of eTrade, Charles Schwab, and company profit sharing plans, an awful lot of us are now both worker bees AND owners.