Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You could theorize it, or you could prefer not to

So today in class we began discussing our readings from Marx and Engels, especially the subjugation of the worker and what the meaning of the product created. All of this reminded me of a little story written in 1853 by Herman Melville called "Bartleby, the Scrivener." For those of you who haven't read it, or who have forgotten it, this is how it goes:

The title character, our Bartleby, works in office essentially as a human copy machine. He rewrites important documents so that all his bosses can have copies for meetings, and finds his work less than fulfilling. As the title suggests, Bartleby's occupation identifies him as a person, until he becomes wholly and irrevocably one with his job. He is nothing else except a scrivener. One day he decides he's had enough, but instead of going into work and destroying the office supplies in an empty field (à la Office Space), he simply and civilly refuses to do any work, responding to any order with the words, "I'd prefer not to." Eventually Bartleby loses his job, winds up in prison, and is surrounded by people who think he's insane. At the end of the story, we discover that Bartleby once worked a dead letter office--the place where all lost mail ends up. As readers, we're left wondering if it was Bartleby's redundant, meaningless work that deprived him of his sanity.

Considering this in a Marxist context, we can see the idea of labor product equaling laborer in relation to Bartleby's downfall. Considering that his job would eventually be replaced by technological photocopiers in the distant future, in a modern context, we can see his work as inhumane--it is literally the work that can be done by man-made inventions... Bartleby is dehumanized.

Keep in mind the Marxist passages about how "the worker's activity is not his spontaneous activity...it belongs to another; it is the loss of his self. As a result, therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions" (767). In the story, it is as if Bartleby was able to look outside of himself and the meaningless work he was doing, and tries to put an end to the mechanical habits of his job, taking control of his own actions. But when he does this, he winds up crazy and dead.

So one could make a case that Bartleby exemplifies what happens when this assumed law according to Marx is contradicted: an overall downfall.

But also following a main point from today's discussion, does this really matter? Does this theory really apply to literature? And even if it does, how can it function beyond these intangible words from a dead communist?

With that in mind, you could try to apply these theories to real life, or you could just prefer not to.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Is the West trying to keep poor countries poor? - What would Marx and Engels say?

Below is an attempt to apply a marxist critique of international economic relations with specific reference to statements made by the G20 leaders....

The following is an excerpt from the Leaders' Statement from the G20 Summit in London in April 2009.

Ensuring a fair and sustainable recovery for all

25. We are determined not only to restore growth but to lay the foundation for a fair and sustainable world economy. We recognise that the current crisis has a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable in the poorest countries and recognise our collective responsibility to mitigate the social impact of the crisis to minimise long-lasting damage to global potential.

· the actions and decisions we have taken today will provide $50 billion to support social protection, boost trade and safeguard development in low income countries, as part of the significant increase in crisis support for these and other developing countries and emerging markets;

· we are making available resources for social protection for the poorest countries, including through investing in long-term food security and through voluntary bilateral contributions to the World Bank's Vulnerability Framework, including the Infrastructure Crisis Facility, and the Rapid Social Response Fund;

· we have agreed to review the flexibility of the Debt Sustainability Framework and call on the IMF and World Bank to report to the IMFC [International Monetary and Financial Committee] and Development Committee at the Annual Meetings; and

Link to the full article on bbcnews.co.uk


One of Marx's defining critiques of society is found in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy where he states

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social and consciousness.

-- pg 775

This is a key element in Marxism… this concept of a base/superstructure, yet it is not limited to the individual Nation State. Rather it can be applied to our global society. Here we can see the tie in with the statements from the G20 leaders. The leaders highlight the uneven distribution of wealth within the global arena and the higher degree of suffering experienced by those countries on the periphery. Industrial countries are the “capitalists” while the poorer, developing countries are the “labours”. A Marxist critique of the current politics of economic relations would highlight the lack of development exhibited in many countries despite numerous years, money and development institutions involvement. Specifically, they might argue that lesser-developed countries develop to the extent that it benefits the developed, industrial nations. For example, it is in the interest of the G20 countries to “recognise [their] collective responsibility to mitigate the social impact of the crisis to minimise long-lasting damage to global potential” because they are most likely worried about the security of the financial system as a whole. Furthermore, while they are offering solutions to debt management through the IMF and WB, these are inherently Western institutions serving Western goals (and western banks needs/desires) and under Western leadership -- ( insert “capitalist” for “western”). Is this "fair" or "sustainable"? Additionally, let us not forgot how successful these institutions have proved in the past when countries have turned to them for help.


So....Is it reasonable to apply an Marxist analysis to international economic relations? Are the relations between industrial and developing countries similar to those between worker/owner? Are there other elements within the world economy system that support a Marxist critique?

Basically, am I making a valid point or just rambling on about nothing? In my opinion, a Marxist interpretation international political economic relations is not only possible, it can be relevant sometimes!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rise Above

This is a song by the band Black Flag, from their 1981 album Damaged. Below is an adaptation by the current band Dirty Projectors, from their album Rise Above, which is a re-working of Damaged.

"Jealous cowards try to control
they distort what we say
try to stop what we do
when they can't do it themselves

We are tired of your abuse
try to stop us, but it's no use
Society's arms think they're smart
I find satisfaction in what they're lacking, 'cause

We are born with a chance
and I'm gonna have my chance

Rise above"

Now is it just me, or is this anthem of the hardcore movement taken straight out of The German Ideology? Marx and Engels say, "Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc... In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven" (p. 768 in the Norton). The powers that be compounded with popular belief disempower us, but we are able to accomplish alone or in groups what the system can't. In other words, we can rise above.

You can see and hear the original rendering of the song here. You can hear the beautiful Dirty Projectors cover of it here, on their MySpace page.

On the first day of class, Professor Fisher asked us to question why Marx and Engel's ideas are so fashionable among academics today. My proposal: Marx and Engels are popular right now because they're straight-up inspiring, as is the art which draws from their ideas.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of (the) Dead

And so "abstruse theory" has played a hand in killing English departments. Oh merry students of my theory class, have ye any thoughts on the matter? Are ye dead yet?

Friday, September 18, 2009

From Work to Beer to Text

Today, I am satisfying the desire of You Made Me Theorize's legions of readers: I am allowing you to be flies on the wall of a class discussion. So here's the big reveal: Yesterday, we talked about The Beer Summit. Oh sure, we also talked quite a bit about representation and social constructionism and discursive power formations. But throughout all of that, The Beer Summit remained a very rich example that brought to light many of those aforementioned concepts.

And so, I come to you today to cite my own sources, as I was inspired to use The Beer Summit as a class example by this esteemed blog, which took its own inspiration from this insightful article. With that, I'll reiterate one of the driving questions that our class has been asking for the past few weeks: Who are the authors, and who are the readers here?

And now more questions: Where are the lines between those groups drawn? Do we think that someone (or some group, more likely) authored this whole Red, Light, and Blue thing, or are the readers--the social critics--just fighting to take control of the significance of this meeting, killing off the authors, so to speak? Discuss below.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Ghost of Octobers Past

Dan Shaughnessy at The Boston Globe is optimistic about the Red Sox. Their hugely successful stint in Fenway this past week suggests, as Shaughnessy claims, that their late season woes are finally turning around--just in time for the post-season. We'll see.

What's intriguing to me, if you'll permit me a really concrete distillation of structuralism, is the way that Shaughnessy deploys the trope of a puzzle to contextualize his article. Sure, it's a colloquial metaphor. However, it's interesting to read the team's season against the broader backdrop of a World Series Win--and against the broader backdrop of the recent Red Sox history--and against the even broader backdrop of Red Sox failures in the 20th century. In short, meaning for Shaughnessy absolutely depends on the structure coming together--on the pieces falling into all of the right places. Should the Sox fall short, should their season collapse, should they not win the World Series, than their efforts, if we follow all of this to (at least one) logical conclusion, will be rendered meaningless, as the pieces of their season collapse in fragments around them.

Again, this is sports, and so it's a cliche at best to claim that it only matters if you win. That said, the way that 2008's Rays were romanticized even despite their loss to the Phillies suggests that second place can mean quite a bit--perhaps even more so if you're a Sox fan.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What would Saussure say . . .

about Lisa Simpson's conversations with the inhabitants of Springfield's Russian District?

Saussure would say that Lisa can't interpret what the "signs" of the outward emotions of the Russian inhabitants and the unfamiliar objects, such as the squid for sale, "signify". This is because she is outside of the Russian culture and therefore isn't versed in its "codes". Get home safely Lisa, but it's all right, that Russian guy screaming at you isn't as scary as he seems!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Popmart Redux

Rob Mitchum over at Pitchfork has written an interesting review of U2's recent concert at Chicago's Soldier Field. In many ways, pointing out U2's shameless acts of self-commodifcation are about as commonplace as, well, hearing "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" on the radio. However, what's most striking about the article is the way that it reveals U2's (read: Bono's) politicking as its own kind of commodity. Here, all of Bono's touchstone political statements--comments on AIDS in Africa, comments on Iran, and comments on Obama--all come off as trademarked, the type of stuff that seem to reflect Bono's highly stylized political posturing as opposed to any kind of communal, genuinely active kind of activism. Also, these comments are, at this point, so predictable that they seem more choreographed than, well, the concert itself.

Sure, at the end of the day, the world would probably be a better place if we had more Bonos around and fewer--at least as of right now--Kanye Wests, but, seriously, encouraging the crowd to recreate the Milky Way via cell phone couldn't seem less green--and more shameless:

Friday, September 11, 2009

I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more pharmakon

The following clip is simultaneously moving and deeply, deeply troubling. What you’ll see is a montage of clips, the first third of which depict stock images of Americana—football and such. Then, at roughly the 1:35 mark, you’ll see 9/11 footage of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the World Trade Center. All of this is set to the track “A Song for Our Fathers” by the post-rock group Explosions in the Sky.

What’s moving about the clip is that it does a fair job of making a fairly sophisticated political statement about American foreign policy. It also, according to the gloss on youtube, was apparently a class project (grade unknown—to me, at least). In that context, I’d happily give the students credit.

What’s troubling about the clip is that it frames its politics in terms of 9/11—that event is literally and grotesquely the catalyst here—and in doing so soundtracks those politics with EITS’s music. Explosions have been notoriously linked to 9/11 in ways that are flat out wrong. Absolutely wrong. Click here for the poison. And here for the antidote. Sure, the band’s name absolutely demands this type of historicizing, but it’s still unsettling to see how even in an era where nearly open access to media—and the ability to manipulate it—doesn’t always seem to result in increased awareness of what information is actually being manipulated—in short what is true and what isn’t. Certainly there are larger theoretical questions circulating here about the nature of truth and representation, and I’d be happy to see people put pressure on those questions in the comments section. But in this case, the tendency to mythologize EITS as a 9/11 band does them and 9/11 a disservice, I would argue.

What brought all of this up was an attempt to look for a clip of Explosions performing “Catastrophe and the Cure,” a song that presents a dialectical clash between opposite musical dynamics. The title obviously does the same. I intended to place that clip up here as a way of inciting discussion about social and class conflict, and the ways that these issues are at the heart of virtually any discussion of 9/11/01, whether its anniversary remains a day of mourning or a day of service. My general academic interests lie in the ways in which cultural concerns like class conflict weave their way into the sonic fabric of popular music. However, once I typed Explosions’ name into youtube’s search bar, I got a hit for this video, the image of the burning Trade Center ominously gleaming outward from my computer screen.

Despite my initial frustration, I persevered, and I ultimately found the clip for which I was searching. I’ll be curious to hear what people think about it in light of this broader context. Does the song—musically and performatively—provide a corrective to the tensions of the class project clip? Does the band seem particularly political? Does the song seem political? What conflicts—cultural or otherwise—are presented here (if any are)?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Looking forward to it!

I am very excited to see how this "experiment" pans out. I've loved getting back into the intellectual atmosphere at GWU lately. Specifically in Engl. 120, I haven't taken an English class per-se (apart from Play Analysis and the Writing Center theory class), and it's been interesting to get my mind back into the literary mode of thinking. Contrary to popular belief, as a dance major I have to think critically in those classes (such as in moving through pathways in the body, transitioning and spacing in composing choreography, and more), but with writing and literature it's just a different way of thinking. I look forward to reading and interacting (through comments) with all your ideas!


Kathryn Boland
The George Washington University BA Dance 2011
The GWU Writing Center Peer Tutor
The GWU Balance Ballet Company

Young Lungs

If you'll permit me to invoke Roland Barthes for a minute, I'll call your attention to a series of under-interrogated myths about aging: Namely that when you get older, you get less limber, less strong, less youthful, less attractive, and less cool. Susan Bordo has written brilliantly on how advertising culture, in its focus on youth, beauty, and thinness, consistently marginalizes those of us whose bodies do not mirror the images of beauty circulated by mainstream media. For good reason, Bordo focuses her attention on the impact that mainstream advertising has on women. My intention today, however, is to call your attention to the following video for Dinosaur Jr's "Over It" (from their new album Farm), which focuses its attention on men, and the way that it contradicts the mythology that equates aging with fragility:

The men performed all of their own stunts in this video, and it's quite a hoot to watch. Who says a grey-haired man in his mid-forties can't properly execute a killer kickflip?

Anarchy in the Blogosphere

Regular readers of You Made Me Theorize have probably noticed that our list of contributors is growing. By the end of the week, once GW's add/drop period has ended, all of the regular contributors to this esteemed blog will be locked in place--and our class blogging experiment will begin shortly thereafter.

Full disclosure: I have relinquished control of this blog space. Each member of (this section of) ENG 120 will have administrative status, leaving everyone equally free to modify everything up here in whatever radical ways each one of us likes. I just hope that the students don't relieve me--the professor--of my administrative access!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Arbitrary Limitations

Here's the first of my endless supply of ridiculous irreverent posts:

So if we can agree that the signifier and signified are bound by arbitrary human convention, I submit the following to all of you as a test to gauge whether or not we want to buy into the argument that changes in human conventions can ultimately change the way signifiers signify. Take a deep breath, and click here.

We could--and will, probably--go on and on about what exactly the word king signifies. Derrida's Dissemination will endlessly deconstruct terms like logos, father, sovereign, and king, so I'm sure we'll be coming back to this topic at some point later on. For now, though, I'm making the following (arbitrary) call: Spencer Pratt is not a king. No way, no how. I can think of a whole bunch of other four letter signifiers that more accurately represent the essence of who he is. King, however, is not one of them. To date, our agreed upon convention has been to assign the signifier tool to Spencer. I humbly submit to you that said convention should remain unchanged.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Speaking of Saussure, now seems as relevant a time as any to examine how the Obama Administration is attempting to change the meaning--the significance/signification--of 9/11/01. Click here for the official Presidential word.

As Saussure reminds us, the relationships between signifiers and their signifieds are arbitrary and are subject to human convention. To date, the convention has been to commemorate 9/11 by mourning--publicly and privately--frequently in front of the broadcast of 9/11 footage. Thus, Obama's attempt to upset this convention represents an opportunity to gauge exactly how easily certain conventions and significations can be changed. 9/11 is obviously a charged date in America's very recent past; as such, there could be a great deal of resistance to this particular change. Either way, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

(BTW, I have yet to find any significant, rationally sound arguments against Obama's plan. Most of the criticism is coming from far right outlets that, to a degree, seem fanatical in their own right. Below is just one example:

For my own part, I'm conflicted about all of this because I'm actually working on a project on 9/11 at this very moment. In doing so, I've had to revisit a ton of media concerning that day, including The 9/11 Commission Report, United 93, a variety of news articles and recorded broadcasts of the attacks, and an assortment of audio clips of the 911 calls made during the attacks. As a result, I'm finding 9/11 more tragic and sad these days than I think I have since the actual day itself. All of which is the reason why I'm not passing judgement on Obama at this moment: I'm a little too emotionally bound up in the event to type things out just yet. I'd be interested in hearing responses to all of this, though.)