Mary Daly and the Bandit

There is a scene in the otherwise pointless Smokey and the Bandit II wherein the Bandit is cornered by Sheriff Buford T. Justice and his son, Junior. The Bandit successfully goads the sheriff into showing off his marksmanship skills and then, when the lawman has finally emptied his gun, starts to drive away. Sheriff Justice, expecting this, tells Junior to hand him his gun, and when he points his son’s gun at the departing Bandit and company and pulls the trigger, nothing happens. He turns to his son and says, “Junior, why aren’t there any bullets in your gun?” To which Junior replies, “When I put bullets in it, daddy, it gets heavy.”

It’s a rather dull moment in a film better punctuated with Jackie Gleason’s exclamations like: “Now we got him boxed in tighter than a turtle’s pecker!”

At around the same time I was recently re-watching it (refreshing my memory for purposes of keeping current with a podcast, Redneck Matinee, to which I listen), I was reading Gerda Lerner’s collection of essays, Why History Matters. Lerner probably taught the first course on women’s history in the United States and produced a variety of important and influential works, perhaps most notably The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. A committed materialist (and one-time communist), Lerner eschewed some of the more mythical or mystical assumptions about the emergence of patriarchy in order to demonstrate the specific pre-historical circumstances that likely gave rise to this rule by men. In this respect, she differs from feminist scholars such as Mary Daly, a feminist theologian who started out in the culture of the Catholic Church, arguing for a feminist version of Catholicism in her break-out work The Church and the Second Sex, but eventually discarded patriarchal religion with her next work, Beyond God the Father. Daly famously refused to admit male students to some of her courses at Boston College and, as she developed her personal philosophy, even entertained notions about the potential necessity of gendercide, saying in one interview: “If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males.” She also really liked wordplay, with book titles like Gyn/Ecology and Amazon Grace.

Anyhow, sometimes, the wires cross in my head. Early in the morning, when a slow emergence from dreams leaves reality feeling a little more plastic, or maybe while walking the dog and just letting ideas collide in my head, things sometimes mix in strange ways in my mind. But reading Gerda Lerner reminded me of the different approach of Mary Daly, and Mary Daly seemed something like a counterpoint to Sheriff Buford T. Justice, both obsessed by their one enemy, and so I ended up with a scene in my head like:

Mary Daly: Gerda, why aren’t there any bullets in your gun?

Gerda Lerner: Well, Mary, when I put the bullets in it gets heavy–that is, heavy with the weight of patriarchal potentiality. Being a theologian, you are not interested in historical causality but, instead, regard patriarchy as an ontological reality. In response, you see some form of eliminationist violence as, if not the only solution, at least permissible in order to secure your larger goal of liberation. However, a historian who examines the situation critically, as I have, sees patriarchy as not eternal, not embodied in the figures of men and thus forever present wherever there still exists a Y-chromosome. Instead, I view patriarchy as contingent, contextual, arising from a series of discrete circumstances. It is not writ in the fabric of the universe but, instead, something historically created. And what has been created can be uncreated. Of course, that will take work, but if offers more hope for actual liberation than a Manichaean–or should we say Womanichaean–worldview that makes patriarchal evil one of the very laws that govern reality.

It’s a silly little imaginary vignette. But it’s still much better than anything in Smokey and the Bandit III.

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The Dislocated Jaw of America

So back in October, I was rough-housing with the family dog when he decided to spring up from beneath me, knocking his thick skull against my jaw. It stunned me for a little bit, but there seemed no obvious injury. Then I realized the next day or so that my teeth didn’t quite line up like they should have. They were just slightly off, so that I couldn’t quite bring them together in a satisfying bite, but it didn’t impede my eating or hurt, and I figured that it was probably related to swelling and would self-correct. Then, one day, my jaw popped back into place. Probably because I was at a bar already imbibing something with analgesic properties, I didn’t fully appreciate the experience. But the next morning, while trying to eat a bagel, the jaw kept slipping in and out of joint rather painfully, leading the wife to drive me to the doctor for an emergency visit.

The doctor was able to diagnose just a dislocated jaw–no breaks–and prescribed me six weeks of morning and night naproxen sodium to cut down on inflammation, as well as a nighttime muscle relaxer, given that I have a bit of teeth-grinding going on while asleep. And I was told to take it easy, to eat softer foods for the next six weeks. Fortunately, traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas meals aren’t real jaw stretchers. I did what I was told, slowly working my way up from soups to curries to salads and thin sandwiches as my jaw became more and more stable. But at the end of the year, I was stable but didn’t have much of a range of motion for my mouth, not being able to open it more widely than two fingers. So now it was on to physical therapy.

You think of physical therapy being for people who are recovering from traumatic events like surgeries and car accidents, not for people who were playing with the dog a bit energetically. You don’t think of physical therapy being mouth-related. But it’s what I needed. Not only did my therapist first explore my facial muscles to see which ones were the tightest, but she has also worked muscles in my upper back and neck, given that tension in these can have a cascade effect upon those muscles around the jaw. I have had regular homework to do, which is why, sitting at my desk at work, I occasionally have my mouth open, stretching my jaw this way and that like an anaconda getting ready for a really big dinner. And now I’m up to three fingers wide and ready to start eating apples again.

It’s interesting for me to be undergoing this processes of recovering from a physical trauma when the object of my particular studies is social trauma. But are there parallels? Well, I do know some people who have suffered injuries but never bothered with physical therapy because they went once or twice, didn’t do their exercises at home, and claimed no real benefit from it, just as I know some people who insist that the best way to recover from a social trauma (say, our legacies of lynching and genocide) is just to forget about it all and move one. As with physical trauma, recovering from social trauma first entails identifying the source of the injury, but one cannot simply stop at the immediate context, because just as with my jaw and its interconnectedness to other muscle groups, so much social, economic, and cultural factors beyond the event itself be adjusted in order to facilitate healing.

But more than anything else, recovering from trauma depends upon doing your goddamned homework. You don’t just visit with an expert for two thirty-minute sessions a week and call it done. You have to do these exercises at home and take a large role in your own healing, for healing is not a passive thing that your body does automatically. And neither is being healed is a static state–it’s an ongoing process. Because I have had this injury, I will be more prone to such injuries in the future, despite the success of my recovery. I will have to make a concerted effort not to re-injure my jaw again. Likewise do social traumas, even after successful recovery, leave behind a perpetual tender spot, because those identities that were activated for the perpetration of atrocity, having once been engaged, now possess the potential to be revived, and so a society that wants to prevent atrocity in the future will have to labor consciously in that direction.

We are never healed. But if we work hard, we can always be healing.

Addendum to the Previous Post

That was always the dream, wasn’t it? “I wish I knew then what I know now”? But when you got older, you found out that you now wasn’t you then. You then was a twerp. You then was what you had to be to start out on the rocky path of becoming you now, and one of the rocky patches on that road was being a twerp.

–Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Maybe it’s the Stalin in me, but I’m constantly on the hunt for my past so that I might destroy it. I’m in good company. Nathaniel Hawthorne tried to destroy all copies of his first novel, Fanshawe, which he paid to publish but soon thought too amateurish. Whenever I come across old notebooks of mine in the process of cleaning the closet, I build a fire. I used to save religiously every scrap I had ever published, including every issue of a weekly newspaper in which I had any writing at all, but two years back, when I rediscovered all those old newspapers, I put them on the fire. I desperately wish I could say with Gösta Berling, “Many sins have I on my conscience, but never have I written a line of poetry.” I can’t, however, but I can make sure that none of it survives into the future. Ideally, none of my writing older than five years would remain extant. Hell, I’ve gone back and deleted some posts from this blog that I later thought were a little too self-indulgent or poorly argued.

Because me then was a goddamned twerp, and I reserve the right to limit what he gets to say to us now. Or, at the very least, I get to eliminate from this world reminders, from my immediate environment, of just what a fucking twerp I was then. And writing is only the most persistent evidence of me then. Outside of writing, I have many memories of the twerp me then was. And worse, so do other people. Because I had a lot of room in which to be a fucking twerp. In fact, the whole social structure of our society was predicated upon someone like me being able to engage in twerpiness to a significant extent, given that it was a sign of youth in transition. We like to celebrate the fact that young George Washington told no lie about the cherry tree he cut down, but being who he was, well, cutting down cherry trees was just a thing young white fellas did now and then, no harm done, officer. You can live up being young, white, and twenty-one with the expectation that you’ll grow up enough to live it down.

As my previous post expounded upon, being not straight, not white, not male, well, you develop a knowledge of reality far more robust than your mirror image counterparts. But that knowledge means that, unlike Sam Vimes in the quotation above, you don’t have much a twerp period of your life. You have to mature quickly because to act the twerp is to put you at the risk of re-education, execution, assault, or more. Richard Wright recounts in Black Boy a moment when he was horsing around when some white kids and got thrown from a car because, in the moment of joy and contentment, he forgot to use the word “sir.” Being “other” is marked by a severely truncated period in which twerpiness is possible.

Jefferson opened his Declaration of Independence celebrating the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But true social equality depends upon the right to make basic mistakes, the right to learn and not be condemned for all eternity.

The Envy-Based Backlash, or We’ll Never Live Long Enough to Undo Everything We’ve Done to You

Many are the theories surrounding the straight, white, male backlash that manifested itself in the outcome of the 2016 American presidential election. But, for me, I think this backlash has its origins in two things: epistemology and envy.

Let’s take those identity markers in reverse, starting with–

MALE.

From Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure:

“Elizabeth Debold, a researcher exploring this terrain, considers the implication of boys’ and girls’ taking on the attributes of manhood and womanhood at very different points in their development. At age five, children are learning about the world as it is; it is the era of the naturalist. At adolescence, they are learning to know the world as it is said to be; it is the era of the hypothetical, the ability to envision possibility. Debold notes that boys at five take on the attributes of masculinity as a matter of fact, whereas girls at adolescence are more likely to notice a gap between the way things are and the way things are said to be. The good-guy/bad-guy play of four- and five-year-old boys sets the stage for the division of girls at adolescence into the good and bad girls; but by stepping into the river at a later point in time, and also because in some ways it is not their river, girls who stop and ask themselves what they are seeing will often record their sense of shock.” (p. 91)

That is, boys are socialized to be men from the get-go. A five-year-old child will be told that “boys don’t cry,” that certain behaviors are expected of boys–namely, that they don’t “act like girls.” Girls, by contrast, are allowed greater freedom in the realm of emotional expression, and even a certain tomboyishness can be permitted up until the age of adolescence. The later emotional socialization of girls–the fact that was “girls don’t do” is not spelled out until later–means that they have memories of the before and after and so are more likely to possess a greater sense of the artificiality of these constructs. But do you remember anything really, truly, before the age of five? Probably not, and so a boy never really remembers a prelapsarian time before masculinity was the primary expectation for his behavior and bearing. (In my own opinion, this is why women make more socially insightful writers than their male counterparts. I’ll take a Mary Anne Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot, or Rebecca West over Ernest Hemingway or Phillip Roth any day of the week. Sometimes, all men can write about is how the loss of masculine power essentially constitutes a dissolution of identity itself, while women have a much greater appreciation of broader social tapestries.)

In other respects do women develop a realization of the divide between expectation and a deeper reality. In a recent episode of Netflix Explained on the female orgasm, a number of women commented upon the fact that female sexual pleasure does not function in reality the way it does in popular media, the orgasm dependent upon sufficiently thorough thrusts by the man. Many women who thought their partners or themselves the problem later discovered that their whole penis-in-vagina approach to coitus had been the issue, that orgasm depended upon them taking their own pleasure in hand, taking their own pleasure seriously and recognizing themselves as responsible for it. Discovering one’s sexual potential as a woman is somewhat comparable to exploring one’s sexuality (more on that later), a journey of discovery with some bit of meaning at the end.

So female epistemology (very loosely) can be predicated upon memories of a past that lies outside those strict gender binaries and a future in which the most basic functions of biology constitute a journey of discovery. In their place, men have a rigid gender training,  begun since the moment of their birth and thus viewed as “natural,” so that other possibilities are precluded, and a physiological sexual function that pretty well accords with those gendered expectations–a few thrusts and you come.

Does this offer a potential for envy? Well, there are more ways to be a woman than to be a man. Emphasizing your manly virtues on the campaign trail means praising soldiers and being photographed going duck hunting. A woman on the campaign trail can play the manhood game (a la Margaret Thatcher) or emphasize her role as a mother, an educator, an activist, a business woman. Easier for a woman to get elected to higher office wearing pants than for a man to get elected wearing a dress. Men are raised to think of masculinity as “natural” and not socially encoded and so police each other’s behavior all the more, feel constrained by the very people we seek out as companions. And then when it comes to sex, well, in this modern age, women (at least in our “liberated” narratives) seem to have before them this adventure of sexual discovery that both brings them closer to other women while testing their inner resolve. For straight men, the narrative is that of the instruction manual–insert tab A into slot B.

So yeah, I think there is the potential of envy here. It may seem strange or counter-intuitive for envy to be delivered in the direction of a subjected population, but this would not be the first time. Maya Angelou, in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, tells the anecdote of a rich, white family whose elders listened closely to the nighttime goings-on of their black servants, living upon their joy and vivaciousness vicariously.

WHITE. 

From Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract:

“Finally, the Racial Contract requires its own peculiar moral and empirical epistemology, its norms and procedures for determining what counts as moral and factual knowledge of the world… [T]hrough our natural faculties, we come to know reality in both its factual and valuational aspects, the way things objectively are and what is objectively good or bad about them. I suggest that we can think of this as an idealized consensus about cognitive norms and, in this respect, an agreement or ‘contract’ of sorts. There is an understanding about what counts as a correct, objective interpretation of the world, and for agreeing to this view, one is (‘contractually’) granted full cognitive standing in the polity, the official epistemic community.

“But for the Racial Contract things are necessarily more complicated. The requirement of ‘objective’ cognition, factual and moral, in a racial polity are in a sense more demanding in that officially sanctioned reality is divergent from actual reality. So here, it could be said, one has an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular.

Thus, in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.” (pp. 17-18)

You can see this failure to understand the world in the reaction of slave-owning whites during and immediately after the Civil War. Before Emancipation, slave owners assured themselves of the loyalty of their chattel (even with the threat of violence always at hand). There was a whole science of slavery, too, with doctors ascribing to runaway slaves the medical condition of draeptomania, because even as the institution, as noted, depended upon the ubiquitous and immediately available tools of violence, slave-owners still could not conceive that their human property might desire their liberty. No, they had a medical condition that made them want to run away.

What W. E. B. DuBois called “double consciousness,” or the fact that a black person has to view himself according to how white society understands him and how he knows himself, is a matter of epistemology. White consciousness is not afflicted with such discourse because whites are socialized to be adherents to the Lie.

I’d say that the rule generally is that only the oppressed understand the real nature of oppression. But sometimes, oppressors can be bracingly honest when not faced with the need of doing PR. The Nazis, after all, never claimed that their actions were, in fact, helping the Jews of Europe, while slave-owners in antebellum American said just that–that slavery was a necessary transitional stage to prepare the Seed of Ham for entrance into civilization, and if one happens to make a buck off this act of monumental charity, so much the better. Whiteness as a system of oppression is starkly dishonest, and so this means that only its victims, only those marked as lying beyond the pale of paleness, know the full and unspeakable truth about its machinations.

Can black epistemology be a source of white envy? After all, the source of white power is an epistemology based upon ignorance, as philosopher Mills has noted. But again, that ignorance is collectively policed, just as it is with men and how masculinity is defined and expressed. Whites collectively had to proclaim that they were kind and superior and civilized even as whites individually could see evidence to the contrary. Individual slave owners could see the pain they were inflicting, and even after the era of slavery, individual whites had evidence that the system was misaligned with reality. One of the interviews in Studs Terkel’s book Race is of a white man who was, decades ago, trained by the black man above whom he was promoted–above whom many whites had been promoted. In such social interactions, individual whites had access to the truth.

But blacks collectively knew the contours of reality. And such knowledge can easily generate envy. Or maybe you always thought kindly about your older compadres who held secret certain truths about Santa Claus or sex, but I doubt it.

STRAIGHT.

One of the assignments I give students in my fall course, “Power, Privilege, and Oppression,” is to take what they know of one framework for oppression–and we focus much of the class upon race–and apply it to another, be it gender or class or sexuality. Difference-creation is the fundamental mechanism of oppression, and its tools show up all over the place. For example, the “Other” is typically ascribed a greater relation to the body–women are “hormonal,” blacks are hyper-sexual, and homosexuals are subject to base desires–and thus a greater distance from the mental faculties necessary for civilization. So rather than offering a long quotation here, let’s see what similarities can be drawn to our above discourses on gender and race.

  • A shift of roles at adolescence. Like girls, people who are not straight find themselves around adolescence being socialized one way while knowing themselves something else.
  • Double consciousness. Most queer people, in those times and places were visible expressions of such are/were dangerous, developed a double consciousness of their inner truths versus how they acted and behaved with those around them. I know someone raised in a fundamentalist household who once said, “I do believe that God made me gay and that I’m going to hell for it.” (Heavy Presbyterian background there.)
  • Self-discovery. Being gay, in our society, has historically been a matter of self-discovery, as children are overwhelmingly socialized with the assumption of heterosexuality. Physical intimacy is tied to a community of those who have all experienced the same thing.

So, envy much? Sure, because if there is anything true about the above, it is that  maleness, whiteness, and straight-ness all offer implicit communities, but because those conditions are taken as the background radiation of our universe, taken as “natural” and given, the “communities” they foster are inherently weak, the stuff of political mobilization, maybe, but not of friendship and companionship. But divergent communities tend to be much more vibrant and intimate. And if you don’t believe that, you don’t remember what happened when someone tried to organize a Heterosexual Pride Parade. And has anyone ever made a movie about a young protagonist coming of age and coming out as a straight person in America?

SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

According to the thesis I have advanced, a recognition of variant epistemologies produces envy in those who identify as straight, white, and male. But does this envy produce acts of evil? According to Melanie Klein, in Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963:

“There are very pertinent psychological reasons why envy ranks among the second ‘deadly sins’. I would even suggest that it is unconsciously felt to be the greatest sin of all, because it spoils and harms the good object which is the source of life. This view is consistent with the view described by Chaucer in The Parson’s Tale: ‘It is certain that envy is the worst sin there is; for all other sins are sins only against one virtue, whereas envy is against all virtue and all goodness.” (p. 189)

Klein describes envy as the desire to destroy what is perceived as good due to the intolerability of that goodness existing outside the self. As Arne Johan Vetlesen writes in Evil and Human Agency: Understanding Collective Evildoing:

“…The type of evil that most typically springs from envy entails devaluing, denigrating, and ridiculing the features in the other which arose envy in the first place. This may happen in four ways, progressively serious in moral terms: either the features in question are silenced in the sense that they are ignored; or one acts as if they are non-existent; or they are ridiculed, humiliated, or condemned (think of children bullying someone); or they are subject to a more or less overt attempt to remove them, making them disappear altogether, even denying that they ever existed. As a result, the targeted person [or group]… emerges as someone who has nothing positive, admirable, and worthwhile to show for himself or herself, in short, nothing that would merit the affirmation of others and so justify the existence of the otherness in question.” (pp. 124-125)

Such envy can lead to the sort of behavior that creates, in the other, the imagined character necessary to counter the envy–bringing the other into a degraded condition designed to expose his “real” character. Evildoing as self-fulfilling prophecy, Vetlesen calls it: “The aim is to deny everything about the victim that would serve to falsify the ideological assertions about him or her. Every trait, down to the very last remnant, in the victims that would be a reminder, a proof, of what is worthy of recognition in them, such as to highlight their partaking in a common humanity, must be removed.” (p. 125) Slave plantations and concentration camps aimed for just this thing. Dehumanization is a process.

According to Vetlesen, it’s not accident that Naziism arose in the wake of the Weimar Republic, the postwar period in which Europeans, now distrustful of nationalisms, experimented with identities like never before. When identity becomes optional, those whose identities had previously marked the accepted norm, the standard against which everything was judged, found the meanings of the norms they represented watered down. You are no longer a representative of timeless and holy truths–you are merely the background against which others’ stories take place. White Pride parades, Heterosexual Pride parades–these don’t make sense because these identities were never constituted as part of a broader tapestry but as the universal laws that gird reality. And so when other identities make themselves heard, the constitute a threat even if they are not directly threatening you. No gay people are out to convert straights, but their open and unchallenged existence renders straightness the option it was never meant to be, and so fundamentalist straights insist that conversion is the plan.

Straightness, whiteness, maleness–these don’t have narratives because they were never meant to, while deviations from these are, in fact, narratives of individual discovery and community belonging. And so the political backlash is a function of narrative envy. On the conservative side of things, this backlash manifests itself in the desire to reinstitute those old fundamental laws and so make deviation from the norm universally objectionable again. But there is a backlash, too, within progressive circles, typically lead by straight, white, men–the sort of men who insist that they are fine with women in roles of leadership but who just happen to find each individual woman advanced for such leadership… unlikable. They don’t assert that only whites should be in charge, but they do feel more comfortable when that just happens to be the case. And like Ralph Nader in 1996, they don’t really want to talk about “gonadal politics” even if they fully acknowledge that the gay community should be accorded basic human rights.

Whiteness, maleness, straightness–these lack narratives. And so those individuals representing those imagined communities lack a positive story to underwrite their involvement in the politics of liberation. Well, there is a narrative of reparation, but that’s not exactly a fiery motivation; moreover, the idea of working towards reparations can lead to some fiercely pessimistic nihilism. If I might misquote an Ani DiFranco song: “Might as well just go ahead and turn off the sun, because we’ll never live long enough to undo everything we’ve done to you….”

As to where we go from here…. That’s something for another post.

 

Women Are Not the Goddamned Prize

So yesterday, I finally got around to watching Sorry to Bother You, a film that came highly recommended as a critique of capitalism and the American racial frame. And it was technically decent enough, if not as so obscenely strange as many reviewers had pegged it (“a lot like a Terry Gillam movie,” the wife said). But it’s got some real problems obscured by the near universal praise heaped upon it.

The basic plot goes as follows. Down on his luck, Cassius Green, a black man in Oakland, takes a telemarketing job with RegalView and soon finds himself skating to the top by use of his “white voice” to make sales. This puts him into conflict with his girlfriend, Detroit, a performance artist who eschews material gain and is regularly introduced standing on a street corner spinning signs that ridicule the concept of advertising. In his quest to reach the top, Cassius also goes against his friends Salvador and Squeeze, the latter of whom had been organizing a telemarketer’s union at RegalView. Detroit ends up dumping Cassius and fooling around with Squeeze, who is more her ideological companion, while Cassius discovers that one of RegalView’s clients, WorryFree, aside from promoting a modern form of slavery, has been working to develop a new race of “equisapiens,” horse people designed to do hard labor more easily and willingly. When he reveals this scheme to the public, and leads the physical resistance to RegalView’s hired security force, Detroit comes back to him, and we seem set up for a happy ending, except that Cassius transforms into a horse-person right at the close of the movie.

It’s quite frankly amazing to me that so much talent could have gone into creating a narrative challenging capitalism that, nonetheless, engages in the trope that the affection of a woman is the leading character’s reward for his righteous or brave actions. At least this wasn’t as bad as The Lego Movie, wherein Batman essentially transferred ownership rights of Wyldchyld to Emmett: “He’s the hero you deserve.” But this movie is about capitalism, not gender politics! some will no doubt insist. But modern gender politics has its roots in capitalist development. As Silvia Federici illustrates in her monograph Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, the idea that the man was owed the woman’s affection and devotion can be traced back to the emergence of capitalism. Medieval gender paradigms were a bit more fluid, given that men and women of the peasant class contributed fairly equally to the physical maintenance of their lives, working in close proximity to each other on their farmstead. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but “women’s work” entailed things like the production of cloth, honey, beer, and other products they might barter or sell, and they could act more independently than we might otherwise imagine when we hear the term “medieval period.” Capitalism, according to Federici, was actually a conservative backlash to peasantry’s successful push for greater rights in the wake of events like the Black Death, which increased the bargaining power of peasants vis-a-vis the landed estates. With the enclosure of the commons across Europe, peasants were forced to migrate to cities to work–work that was often paid in cash. Employers wanted their workers laboring long hours but did not want to pay the salary necessary for their upkeep; after all, man cannot live by cash alone. If the woman was relegated to the domestic sphere, then she could prepare his meals, having them ready when he got home, which meant that the man could work longer and longer hours. And of course, work is stressful, so he’ll need plenty of emotional labor to keep him fit for the job, a subservient wife who sees her role as the outlet of all his needs. Sex is great for helping one to feel content, and if he can demand that whenever he wants, all the better.

So women became, with the advent of capitalism, the “helpmeet” of man, his servant in all things. In other words, the enterprising capitalists captured her labor, too, for their own ends. Woman became the reward for all the hard work man had to do. In fact, Federici views the witch-burnings of Renaissance Europe (acts that were practically unknown during the Middle Ages) as part of a terrorist campaign to force women into these new subservient roles, as it was the women who resisted, the women who represented older ways of thinking and behaving, who were targeted first. Simply put, you cannot critique capitalism without attacking the idea of woman as man’s reward. And your movie cannot cast itself as a trenchant criticism of current economic paradigms if you make its lead female role another manic pixie dream girl (even if she’s black) whose anti-materialist ideologies motivate her to bestow sexual gratification upon whatever man meets her definition of worthiness.

In the end, Sorry to Bother You is, essentially, a Che Guevara t-shirt–a hip signifier of hip anti-capitalist posing that, like its telemarketer hero, sells old forms of exploitation as this year’s stylish accessories.

When the Alternative Is Canon, Tragedy Is Not

I was reading an article this morning about the new feature-length Black Mirror episode, titled Bandersnatch, which is an exercise in interactive storytelling, giving the viewer multiple points during the story during which she can make decisions for the main character, decisions that affect the outcome of the plot. It’s the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” story for the digital age. And who knows–it may well succeed in pioneering a wave of interactive storytelling, but if so, will the death of tragedy (as a genre, as a concept) soon follow?

For the ancient Greeks, tragedy was defined by determinism. The fates have something in store for our characters, and their best efforts to avoid the appointed end never succeed, for fate is unavoidable. Thus does Oedipus run away to avoid killing his father and knocking up his mother–and end up doing exactly that. But the explicitly theological idea of predestination is not needed to appreciate the determinism that underlies tragedy as a dramatic form. A professor of mine, Norman Lavers, wrote a short story, “The Translator,” in which a woman attempting to translate Shakespeare’s Hamlet into her native language (though not explicitly specified, she apparently lived somewhere in Asia) stumbles with the passage, “We defy augury,” for in her culture, such explicit defiance of the gods is unimaginable. She briefly contemplates what the stories would have been like had Shakespeare switched the title characters from Hamlet and Othello and realizes that, with this done, you have no more story. Othello would not show the least hesitation to kill Claudius, while Hamlet would have been too cunning to fall for Iago’s trap. With the characters switched, you have no more real story, no dramatic arc. Fate, it seems, is wrapped up in who we are (what Aristotle called the “tragic flaw”), and we can no more escape ourselves than we can escape the gods.

Fate may have been a theological concept renewable in our era of scientific determinism, but it is also a literary concept, something that we can only now appreciate with the rise of interactive media. That is, when you open your paperback copy of Oedipus Rex, yes, in the story, Oedipus cannot escape the fates, but those fates are wrapped up in the medium of print. Open your copy as many times as you like, and the same words will be there, no matter the immediate context of the situation. Open it as war rages outside, open it while sunning yourself on a beach, and the words will be the same. We acknowledge, to some extent, that people raised in different circumstances will become somewhat different–sure, genes play their role, but we do not genetically inherit language or posture or culture. However, no matter what the immediate context, the words in that book will never change.

Until now. Which has significant implications I’m not sure we’ve explored. One branch of literary theory, Reader Response Theory as pioneered by Stanley Fish, focuses upon the responses of the individual reader, whether the writer necessarily intended them or no. Yes, Reader Response papers can tedious to listen to, as graduate students reflect endlessly upon their own experiences before touching upon the text and how they interpret it, but that said, this theory does illustrate that a stable, unchanging text can provoke a range of responses depending upon individual and collective experience. However, in a world of interactive media, the individual reader does not interpret the text but shapes it herself. No longer do you watch young Marianne Dashwood grieve for the loss of John Willoughby but slowly come around to loving Colonel Brandon, especially after learning that Willoughby had years ago impregnated and then abandoned Eliza Williams and was only marrying Miss Grey for her money. Nope. Maybe Willoughby never struck you as particularly handsome and clever anyway, and so you never fell for him. Or maybe his betrayal leads you to do something much more dramatic than swooning and falling ill for a spell. The point is that your preferences, your personality, go into shaping Marianne’s choices. Marianne is suddenly an adjunct for your own desires and expectations, your own understanding for what is right and proper, or at least what would be more entertaining.

Which brings me to another point. Make literature, make movies, make art interactive, and how do we have conversations about it anymore? I mean, people will no doubt be extolling the power of interactivity and the role of technology in our creation of narratives. Those are not the conversations I’m worried about. After all, we can continue to appreciate the artistry of a book or movie regardless of narrative structure. But the conversations that will diminish will be those predicated upon imagination. Many teachers engage their students in the text by asking questions like: “If you were Hamlet, how would you have reacted to a vision of the ghost of your dead father demanding vengeance? Not knowing what you know by having read the play, how would you have reacted to this apparent ghost telling you its story without proof?” Me, I’m not a believer in ghosts and so likely would have doubted my senses, perhaps quoting Ebenezer Scrooge and telling the bearded specter that “There is more of gravy than of grave about you.” Others I have known would have rushed headlong into regicide that minute because voices from beyond must be obeyed.

It’s an act of imagination, but not one ultimately centered upon the reader. Because the point of asking what you would have done is to understand why Hamlet does not do that. He does not turn scientific in the face of his father because he lives in a time and place where ghosts are much believed in, and neither does he go forward immediately with sword in hand because such apparitions may be of either God or the Devil, and besides, many times through the text does he show himself to be suspicious of others, even outside the context of purgatorial emanations. Despite his paeans of deep friendship to others, he ends up letting Rosencrantz and Gildenstern go to death in his place, and when he does finally become a man of action, like so many other amateurs riled up and not thinking things through, he kills the wrong man. In fact, Hamlet gets more people killed than does his uncle Claudius, the man he allegedly intended to murder at the ghost’s behest, whose deed set all this in motion.

And with this, we can have whole debates about the morality of revenge, stability of institutions versus justice levied against those who head such institutions, epistemology (how far do you trust your own senses), thought versus action, determinism versus free will, and so much more. But we can only have those events with a stable canonical text. Let Hamlet act according to the dictates of every reader, and our text changes, and with that the meanings we can derive from it. All the alternatives you can imagine now become a part of the canon, and so you need not exercise your imagination that way any further.

Moreover, we learn empathy for those in other situations, and empathy actually is predicated upon a bit of determinism. Conservatives like to preach about the “undeserving poor,” saying that those living on the street, for example, could have made better decisions in their lives–and still could today–to avoid such a fate. As a genre, tragedy serves to illustrate the individuals often live at the mercy of much larger systems, be they the whims of the gods, the protocols of state, our narrow cultural confines, or personal histories that leave us blind to alternative ways of thinking and doing. What Aristotle called catharsis is that Pauline sentiment of “There but for the grace of God go I,” the understanding that similar circumstances could have determined such horrors for us, and therefore we must not look upon our fellow humans as strangers but as brothers and sisters, capable of the same glories as ourselves, even as we are fundamentally capable of their atrocities, given the right foundational circumstances. However, interactive media that brings to life the multiverse hypothesis and allows the viewer to negotiate the fate of our characters, perhaps bringing to fruition the one ending out of one thousand that lets this homeless man leave behind his life of poverty, will only instantiate those conservative preachments regarding individual choice. And those of us who believe too greatly in the power of free will and individual choice will be all the more disposed to leave our poorer relations to their fates.

When the alternatives are canon, imagination and empathy, I’m afraid, go out the window. And that will be the real tragedy.

Playing Roles

My friend Jarod was a math teacher at the town of Weiner, Arkansas, for some years. Once, a student of his said to him, “You know, I consider us to be friends.” Now, Jarod is one of those old-school, good-ol-boys whose conservativism is less a matter of ideology than it is a set of practices, and he reacted rather strongly to this: “You think of me as a friend? Does that mean you’re going to invite me over to your house to play video games? You want to discuss girls in your class and who’s the hottest?”

No, this student did not want to do any of that: “That would be really awkward and strange.”

It’s an important lesson in the necessity of playing roles—something that our capitalist system has worked to eliminate. Much has been written about how capitalism, to negate the struggle for genuine human liberation, offers something that, on the surface, appears similar but which only reifies our market-based world. As Chris Gilligan has pointed out, capitalism will sell you racism, because ideological justifications for rigidly stratified social systems help to justify the economic inequality that capitalism produces. But also for sale is a capitalist anti-racism in the form of celebrating multiculturalism, which ends up reifiying instead of dismantling the idea that humankind exists in discrete racial or ethnic packages.

Likewise, in the face of social movements that have sought the elimination of monetary hierarchies, and a more equal distribution of the wealth of the world, capitalism sells us on the idea of some form of social equality. First names are in vogue. “Call me Jeff,” says the head of your company, and you feel a little flush of privilege that, for the moment, erases from memory the fact that “Jeff” makes more than 100 times your salary.

In the place of eroding inequality, we have a culture that tries to erode the markers of that inequality. And this is fundamentally terrible. Go back to my friend Jarod. The role of teacher is one that, by necessity, precludes friendship or other intimate relationships with the subjects of one’s education. So say Jarod went to the home of this student to play video games and talk about girls, and say Jarod mentioned how hot little Shirley in fifth-period algebra is. You know that Shirley is getting all A’s in class, and now you’re wondering why.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse often speak of a loss of faith, because if this truly was a man of God, how could he do this to me? But that’s not the only loss of faith that can occur when roles are breached. Imagine being Shirley in fifth-period algebra. You’ve been studying so hard and been so proud of getting all A’s, and then midway through the semester your professor admits an infatuation with you. Suddenly, you have to ask yourself—am I only getting good grades because the teacher is attracted to me? This breaching of the teacher-student roles can quickly lead to a loss of faith in one’s abilities and more.

As far as I know, there is not a lot of theory about the nature of roles on the Left, aside from the necessity of undermining hierarchies that put the man on top in a heterosexual relationship and the rich on top in the world economy. And certainly, roles are negotiable among moral equals, but this does not diminish the necessity of roles in our social world.

I would argue that even our most intimate relationships consist, to some extent, of roles for which we have signed up. A marriage ceremony is the public proclamation of two people that they will play specific roles in the lives of each other. Love and honor… in sickness and in health… till death do us part…. I wonder, sometimes, just how much our modern emphasis upon the idea of marriage as a complete, perfect, ecstatic union, the apotheosis of self and husband/bride, has its roots in the market economy—sell them on the idea that they will be fundamentally fulfilled with marriage and all its material accoutrements, and when they fail to find themselves personally fulfilled in everything, they will try, try again. They will not question the system that leaves them alienated, because capitalism gives us choices! An infinite number of fizzy drinks to hit that spot, an infinite number of potential partners who might leave you feeling a little less lonely. Market-based romance is the perfect system for someone like Bingo Little, of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, for there is always someone new for him to fall in love with.

I’m not saying that marriage should have no basis in love, but that love, plus the acknowledged role in which that love is made manifest, is the stronger bond. Likewise, the teachers you most remember, the leaders you most respect, were probably those who played their respective roles the best, because that role—and the limits of acceptable behavior inherent in it—provided an environment of safety that facilitated your learning.

We’ve been sold this idea that everything we do should be some expression of our “authentic self.” Our job, our relationships. But how much of this idea of our “authentic self” constitutes yet another product being sold to us, a construction that makes insecure in ourselves and thus more open to consumption as a means of discovery? We’re apt to mistake the most fleeting fancy as some expression of that authentic self welling up from down below, and so teachers “fall in love” with their students on the basis of a momentary attraction, and cubicle rats fall in love with the company because the boss says, “Call me Jeff.”

Far from being a betrayal of one’s “authentic self,” playing a role in the lives of others can provide the structure necessary for human emancipation. Even in our idealized Utopia, we will still need educators—people who play those specific roles. And so we need to think more about the nature of roles in our own social interactions and how we can use those for the project of human liberation.