Read it here.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
I love Christmas. I really do. My love for it has nothing to do with a belief in virgin birth or any other supernatural happenings. I think it stems mostly from the nostalgia of truly happen times when I was younger during the Christmas season. I also love the promotion of things like love, and unselfishness, and giving, and peace (though why it is we have to have a holiday to promote these things rather than holding them as values year round is deeply troubling). I think it's a genuine love and one I'm mostly not embarrassed to say I have, despite my agnosticism and my issues with consumerism (see T's post below).
But I must admit, I think some of those butterflies I get in my stomach during the holidays are the creation of the profit-industry. I do like going into stores and feeling the hustle and bustle of shopping. I love getting things and I love seeing people get happy when I give them things. I can't separate my feelings about Christmas from the multitude of sentimental movies and songs out there in the world.
There are, obviously, things I hate about Christmas consumer culture: I hate that most people around the world are getting nothing while a few of us are getting loads of stuff we don't need. I hate when my loved ones spend more than they can afford to make me happy. But knowing these things doesn't stop me from also finding pleasure in the whole thing. A lot of pleasure.
I happen to love loving Christmas. But what do we do when the things we love are so deeply tainted by capital and inequality? I'm not just talking about the little things, like giving to charity or making homemade gifts (both strategies I really love), because those don't erase the major inequalities still at play. They also don't help us resist the devaluing of those basic Christmas values for the other 11 months of the year. They do nothing to challenge the structural basis of inequality and the need for charity in the first place. They continue to place ideas like equality and responsibility and sharing at the level of willing individuals, rather than at the social.
I don't want to be a Scrooge. I love Christmas. But, sometimes, when I step back and look at the whole fiasco from a little broader perspective, and wonder why it is I love certain things so much about it, I can't help but to sigh, "hum bug."
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
To elucidate the problem I would like to use a trivial personal experience. Time and again in interviews and questionnaires one is asked what one has for a hobby. Whenever the illustrated newspapers report one of those matadors of the culture industry -whereby talking about such people in turn constitutes one of the chief activities of the culture industry- then only seldom do the papers miss the opportunity to tell something more or less homely about the hobbies of the people in question. I am startled by the question whenever I meet with it. I have no hobby. Not that I'm a workaholic who wouldn't know how to do anything else but get down to business and do what has to be done. But rather I take the activities with which I occupy myself beyond the bounds of my official profession, without exception, so seriously that I would be shocked by the idea that they had anything to do with hobbies -that is, activities I'm mindlessly infatuated with only in order to kill time- if my experiences had not toughened me against manifestations of barbarism that have become self-evident and acceptable. Making music, listening to music, reading with concentration constitute an integral element of my existence; the word hobby would make a mockery of them. -T.W. Adorno, from his essay "Free Time" (1969)
What is "free time" for us? Adorno points out that in order for the phrase to even be intelligible, it must be "shackled to its contrary": free time is the opposite of "unfree time", or time "occupied by labor... [which is] determined heteronomously". In other words, the expression "free time" is meant only to mark off those time intervals in which we aren't working or laboring according to the dictates of some job or task whose imperatives issue from without.
As Marx argued, labor becomes a commodity in capitalist societies, that is, it becomes reified (i.e. it becomes thought of as an exchangeable object, rather than a contingent ensemble of social relations).
But the paradox is that free time, "which understands itself to be the opposite of reification, a sanctuary of immediate life within a completely mediated system, is itself reified like the rigid demarcation between labor and free time. This border perpetuates the forms of social life organized according to the system of profit".
Now, it's important to note here that it hasn't always been this way. Societies have been configured differently in different historical epochs, and the idea of "free time" or "leisure" would not have made sense within these social formations in the ways that it does in our society.
As sociologist James Fulcher points out:
But there was also another way in which capitalism was implicated in the creation of "free time":Industrial capitalism not only created work, it also created "leisure" in the modern sense of the term. This might seem surprising, for the early cotton masters wanted to keep their machinery running as long as possible and forced their employees to work very long hours. However, by requiring continuous work during work hours and ruling out non-work activity, employers had separated out leisure from work. Some did this quite explicitly by creating distinct holiday periods, when factories were shut down, because it was better to do this than have work disrupted by the casual taking of days off. "Leisure" is a distinct non-work time, whether in the form of the holiday, weekend, or evening, was a result of the disciplined and bounded work time created by capitalist production.
Now, although we've re-situated the idea of "free time" back into its social and historical context, we've still yet to say anything substantive about it.Leisure was also the creation of capitalism through the commercialization of leisure. This no longer meant participation in traditional sports and pastimes. Workers began to pay for leisure activities organized by capitalist enterprises...The importance of this could hardly be exaggerated, for whole new industries were emerging to exploit and develop the leisure market, which was to become a huge source of consumer demand, employment and profit. [see Fulcher's excellent (2004) Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP)]
The first question to ask is: what role does it play within contemporary societies?
For Adorno, the effect of contemporary capitalist societies is to "hold people under a spell", under "an existence imposed upon people by society" that is "not identical with what they are in themselves or what they could be". Now Adorno doesn't want to claim that we can or should make any simple division between "what human beings are in themselves and their so-called social roles". But the important point here is that the way that human beings behave/act under certain conditions is by no means inevitable, since those conditions could be changed. The crucial thing to note here is that social institutions could be otherwise, they could be organized according to different principles, and as a result we can imagine people in contemporary societies being very different as well. The upshot is that the generalized picture of the consumerist, egoistic subject is deabsolutized: it is not inevitable that people will behave in this way, that their desires be configured in this way, and so on.
Because capitalist processes have begun to colonized the spheres of leisure and culture, Adorno worries that "even where the spell loosens its hold and people are at least subjectively convinced that they are acting out of their own will, this will itself is fashioned by precisely what they want to shake off during their time outside of work."
In short, "unfreedom is expanding within free time, and most of the unfree people are as unconscious of the process as they are of their own unfreedom". "The irony in the expression "leisure industry" is as thoroughly forgotten as the expression show business is taken seriously."
A peculiar development of the colonization of leisure time by the dictates of profit is that consumption itself has become a pastime. Think of the phrase "consumer goods". What are these? They are goods produced for consumption, that is, goods produced for the sake of the activity of consumption. Consumption itself is the purpose of this activity.
The "Teen Talk Barbie" strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the barbarism of this process. First consider that the doll's bodily proportions are perfect distillations of a set of oppressive norms prescribing what a woman's body "should" look like (incidentally, the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, concluded that "Barbie's figure would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate"). The "beauty" norms according to which Barbie is fashioned are ubiquitous, and contribute to the reproduction of the idea that women should think of themselves according to certain prescribed criteria.
Moreover, the "teen talk barbie", itself something people are expected to purchase, is programmed to say things like "I love shopping!", "Math is hard!", "Will we ever have enough clothes?".
It's as though, on a scale larger than Barbie dolls, we're called on by inert plastic objects on a shelf to think about ourselves and consumption in ways that are sick.
Happy Holidays! I've got to go get some shopping done before time runs out.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Monday, December 7, 2009
"...at least one philosophy course, and, more adequately two, should be required of every undergraduate. Of course an education of this kind would require a major shift in our resources and priorities, and, if successful, it would produce in our students habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world. But to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought in any case to be one of our educational aims." - Alasdair MacIntyre
Consider for a moment how often we encounter "post-racist" and "post-feminist" ideologies. On the one hand, they acknowledge some version of the claim that history is marked by racism and sexism. On the other, both claim that contemporary societies are no longer encumbered by sexism or racism: we now live in a more or less post-racist, post-sexist social order.
Now to the extent that liberal political thought tends to hang its hat on a private/public distinction, it seems to me that it is bound up with the maintenance of the ideology sketched above. Moreover, the liberal tradition (broadly construed so as not to connote the idiosyncratic American sense of the term) has tended to focus intensely on legal and political institutions in lieu of critically engaging ostensibly "private" institutions such as the family, the workplace, the church, schools, clubs and organizations, culture, media and so on. And insofar as this is true, the relationship between "post" ideologies and liberalism should be even clearer.
We should therefore find it suspicious that the women's liberation movement and what is now called the "Civil Rights Movement" are remembered today as more or less legally-oriented and conventionally political movements. The slogan "the personal is political" couldn't be further from the way that feminism is construed today in many mainstream appropriations of the women's movement: today feminism is described as though it ought to be a politics that prizes "choice" above all else. Thus, "private choices" are once again apolitical: it is the job of post-feminism to shield ostensibly private matters from the political scrutiny they received from second and third-wave feminists.
Today, my sense is that the women's liberation movement is remembered as a movement aiming merely to achieve certain legal changes. The same is true of the way that the Civil Rights Movement (as indicated by its label) is remembered: it was just a movement aiming to eliminate certain racist laws and to enforce voting rights.
But as Angela Davis points out, it wasn't clear during the 1950s and 60s that what was under way was a "Civil Rights Movement". Davis claims that in those days, among her comrades in SNCC it was known simply as the "Freedom Movement". While certain legal reforms were obviously part of the movement's goals, it is far from obvious that this exhausted its aims. In fact, the history of the movement itself suggests that the legalistic re-reading of history is dubious.
Consider first of all that the main locus of disagreement between the ostensibly more "moderate" MLK and the more radical Malcolm X (religious differences notwithstanding) was essentially one of tactics, i.e. not in the first instance one of divergent emancipatory aims. Furthermore, even MLK's politics do not fit within the narrow legalistic reading of the movement: MLK was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, American Imperialism abroad and Cold War foreign policy, and he argued forcefully in the last years of his life that the fight against racism was also at the same time a fight against certain socio-economic conditions. We'd need to fundamentally re-think the basic social and economic institutions in capitalist societies, MLK held, in order to have any hope of successfully smashing racism.
But given that this is the case, what does this suggest about the viability of post-racist and post-sexist ideologies? As I see it, there are 3 important conclusions to draw here.
(1) One conclusion that seems clear to me is that these "post" ideologies depend first of all on a re-interpretation of the historical meaning of social struggles. In other words, a condition of thinking that these "post" narratives have any plausibility is that we first of all believe that the goals of the Women's Movement and the CRM were purely legal.
(2) Another conclusion is that the distinction between "de facto" and "de jure" oppression or domination has been obscured by the prevalence of liberal ways of thinking about politics. The point of the distinction is to distinguish between de jure forms of domination that are literally written into the word of law (e.g. aspects of Jim Crow) on the one hand, and de facto forms of domination that derive from non-legal features of social institutions and norms. Thomas McCarthy, in drawing a parallel between what he calls "neoracism" and "neoimperialism" draws the distinction as follows.
"Whereas neoimperialism is a way of maintaining key aspects of colonial domination and exploitation after the disappearance of colonies in the legal-political sense, neoracism is a way of doing the same for racial domination and exploitation after the disappearance of "race" in the scientific-biological sense... just as postcolonial neoimperialism could outlive the demise of former colonies, post-biological neoracism could survive the demise of scientific racism... and just as the shift to neoimperialism required modes of domination and exploitation that were compatible with the nominal independence and equality of all nations, the shift to neoracism required modes that were compatible with the formal freedom and equality of all individuals."(Race, Empire and the Idea of Human Development. (2009: Cambridge UP)
(3) And a final conclusion to draw from this phenomenon is as follows. In order to find the 'post' ideologies compelling we must also have an individualist way of thinking about society and politics. After all, the familiar post-racist claim goes something like this: in the past there used to be explicit, de jure forms of discrimination that were restrictive. But now that these de jure forms of oppression have been lifted, there is no fetter on the ability of individuals (of any gender or race) to "succeed" in making a lot of money if they simply work hard enough.
There are many ways to refute this claim, but here's a rather general way of dispatching it. Now I would not contest the claim that in principle, it is possible that any one individual working-class person of any background to become the next Bill Gates. But conceding this trivial claim about what might be possible does not obscure the fact that it must also be true (for the 'individual' claim to work) that the working class is collectively unfree to leave the working-class. In other words, while it is true in some trivial sense that any one person "could" hit it big, it must also be true in capitalism that everyone in the working-class couldn't hit it big at the same time. Capitalism requires that a large mass of working-class people whose cheap labor make the wealth of a small class of people possible. Massive improbability notwithstanding, it is also conceptually impossible within capitalism for everyone to become Bill Gates all at once, since there would be nobody doing the socially-necessary labor that sustains capitalism.
The result is that focusing on the possibilities that a generic "individual" has for social mobility says nothing of the way that the entire society, writ large, is structured. For if the "individual claim" is only true in a situation in which lots of other people are restricted from leaving an oppressed status, then it amounts to very little in the way of dispelling claims that racism, sexism and class oppression are important features of the present.