Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Umbrellas

Reading Marx makes me feel incredibly small. To entertain the thought that material conditions create our consciousness invades so much of what I would like to uphold as true about ourselves as human beings. I take comfort in my own individuality which I tuck neatly away from the outside world, and to sustain the contradiction that it in fact may be the outside world that mediates one's thoughts greatly robs one of a certain power to create his own individuality. It is as if even if you love to create--paint, for example-- the world can only paint on you, and whatever paintings you may produce are only reflections of your surroundings, not reflections of some deep beauty held hidden within. To me, Marx digests a great dream into a solid truth: that we are not the unfettered painters of our lives, rather life paints us in as merely part of some colossal canvas.

Which is why I was surprised to feel oddly lifted after reading "Letter from Friedrich Engels to Joseph Bloch." It seems that in this short letter, Engels wants to communicate something very large about the individual. "History," he says, "is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each again has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of paralelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant" (788). At first glance I found this both deeply true and massively disheartening. Is there anything organic about the individual or is everything we are just the product of some other condition? How is it ever possible to feel valuable if we are only a reaction to our world? How would an individual be able to transcend this and make the world react to him?

Engles continues: "For which each individual willed is obstructed by everyone else and what emerges is something that no-one willed" (788). Just when I thought my state of mind could not plummet anymore, I read this line, and felt more inane than ever before. It's as if we are insects, and there is no individual, only what we are as a group, the product of which nobody is directing. Together we could be becoming something unwanted, even dangerous, at this very moment, and we'd have no way of preventing this because we have no way of controlling what together we will be, since nobody wills this process.

"Individual wills do not attain what they want but are merged into a collective mean, a common resultant" (788). It is true that Marxism dismisses the role of the individual in the traditional sense, however; here Engels communicates that the individual does have a role, an important one to boot. What I gathered from the end of the letter is that Engels builds into the conclusion that ultimately we cannot determine that individual wills are worth nothing, because each must be something in order to contribute to a common resultant.

I began to ponder the notion that this really may be quite illuminating. It opens an entirely new possibility: the prospect that individual wills could collect themselves into something beautiful. It may be too idealistic to believe, as I so want to, that individuality is a dominant force. Yet individual wills can still augment history as long as they braid themselves together. Is there a way for individual wills to somehow instinctively direct themselves into an ultimately valuable purpose or something infinitely inspiring? The photo of those umbrellas in Spain certainly affirms the existence of that rare chance... Alone they are but products of the material conditions which created them, but together they achieve some strange transcendence, and if nothing else, attain a permanent grace in their image, captured for eternity.


  1. Well written, Alice. One thing to keep in mind: Marxism needs tension; it needs (class) conflict in order to operate dialectically. Thus, we might be able to argue that the individual will needs to come into conflict with the material world in order for any kind of progression to be made. In other words, Marxism might allow for individualism and material/social constructionism because without the two, there can be no synthesis--and ultimately no revolution, no communist utopia. In even shorter terms, Marxism might not be an all or nothing proposition.

    By the way, where I can I buy an umbrella like that red one in the left hand corner of the picture?

  2. I actually have a large red umbrella that looks exactly like that one. I highly recommend it.

    Anyway, I can understand what you mean about feeling small when reading Marx, especially when it comes to measuring value, as we discussed in class yesterday. I started to think that perhaps value is also measured by our opportunity cost of attaining something. The opportunity cost for my education, for example, includes not only tuition for the THIRD (not first) most expensive school in America, but also time spent in class, in the library studying, in Starbucks caffienating myself, etc. It is this large cost of time which makes the value of a college education so high, not just the price tag.

    With that in mind, we have to consider the value we put on ourselves to get such a hot commodity like education. True, it could be what Marx would see as as a mere social construct to seek an education; something we value only because society tells us to. Yet social norms, perhaps, can be interpreted differently from individual to individual, and I know that for me, if I were to go through my day with Marxist's commentary constantly streaming through my brain, I would probably just stop! It would be too depressing.

    I'm starting to get off on a tangent here, so let me try to re-focus. In anthropology we learn to argue that groups cannot be neatly tied up and defined as solely "Islam" or solely "Catholic." Within each group are individuals, and though they are part of a larger group which promotes common beliefs within their groups, every individual is still capable of forming their own opinion or set of actions, if they so choose.

    So yes, we are small, but not exactly helpless.

  3. Very true, Marielle. However, we could also argue that our conceptions of personal independence, freedom--in short, the belief that we can resist (or move outside of) ideology, Marxist or otherwise, are themselves constructed by the world around us. America is the land of the free, right? It's a slogan that many of us take to heart uncritically, which brings us back to the whole false consciousness question.

    Looking forward, you've actually pointed us to Michel Foucault, who we'll read in a few weeks, in the way that you talk about resistence. When we get to him, it will probably be useful to compare, or contrast, his notion of discursive power formations with Marx's historical materialism.

  4. Consider also to whom Marxism has appealed in the 20th century, for it may be that Marxism, while humiliating some, gives to others sublime self-worth.