Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)

December 19, 2016 by

Louis Prima – Enjoy Yourself

Few things have depressed me more this semester than reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Once I understood what Weber was saying about the ‘Iron Cage’ and how people are forced into doing what they must do in order to survive, it became apparent to that there are many meaningless structures of power that control my life that have little to do with my actual likes, dislikes, preferences, dreams, and fantasies, etc. The main structure around which everything else revolves is that I must find some way to create capital so that I can be a productive member of society and contribute to the good of the whole while sustaining myself. It doesn’t really matter how or what I choose to do in order to do so, but I must do it. This means that I, like many others, will need to get a job. The system does not care whether or not I like it; if I want to survive and live comfortably, it is a necessity. I find myself privileged enough that I have been given the chance to go into music, but at the end of a lifetime, I will still have worked very hard against my will for most of my life in order to sustain a baseline level of living.

To support and supply this structure, other structures of power prop up this one. School, government, taxation, social media, consumerism, health care, organized religion, and many, many more aspects of daily life have evolved in order to ensure that I enter and maintain a state of productivity to benefit the good of the whole. Together, these structures, which for the most part are arbitrary and apathetic to my existence, form Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’ mentioned earlier. At the end of the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber leaves the critique for the reader to ponder – He offers no key we may use to escape the cage.

Upon reflection, it becomes clear to me that we have two choices. We can either do nothing, or actively resist. It does not matter whether or not you accept your fate; your fate has already been decided for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t resist in futility and create meaning in vain. To me, the best way to resist meaninglessness is to find meaning in pleasure and pain. The Protestant Ethic (if it were some sort of written code of conduct) would say that one should avoid earthly pleasures as to not use your time for anything other than productivity. Nay, I say! Equating your productivity with your worth is dehumanizing and objectifying, and ultimately morally degrading. Philosophical Hedonism, in which the goal is to maximize pleasure over pain, is the key. Maybe it doesn’t free us of the cage, as we all still have to work, but it makes life inside a lot more tolerable. I’m not just talking about sex and chocolate here; there are all kinds of pleasures – watching sunsets, going on hikes, smelling flowers, holding hands with someone. If people could stop feeling so guilty for enjoying the things in their lives that made them happy, the world could be a much better place. In the words of Keely Smith, “You only think of dollar bills tied neatly in a stack – But when you kiss a dollar bill it doesn’t kiss you back!”


Foucauldian Discussion of Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomanic’

December 12, 2016 by

Before reading, please watch the following clip and read the accompanying film review:

Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II Trailer

Lars Von Trier’s Joyless Sexual Tantrum

Nymphomaniac, stylized as NYMPH()MANIAC, is the third and final film of Lars Von Trier’s ‘Depression Trilogy,’ which also consists of art house gems Antichrist and Melancholia. These films were created during, and inspired by, a period of depression in the director’s life. Each film stars the bleak, understated acting of Charlotte Gainsbourg as an emotionally tormented upper-middle class woman. Although the attached trailer may make the movie seem like a whimsical and sexy adventure story with a dramatic flair, do not be fooled. Watching this five and a half hour long movie, which is presented in two volumes, is just about the least sexy thing that someone could do, aside from creating the film in the first place; it is grueling, shamelessly depraved, and devastating, and I believe that that is just the point.

If Michel Foucault were alive today, I wonder what he would say about this film. It is well known that Foucault was interested in BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism), and themes such as these play a pivotal role throughout. A vital question that needs to be answered when watching the film is “Who has the power?” My first impression is that Joe has the power because she takes control of her own sexuality and wields it, in an Arendtian sense, like a weapon which she uses to callously destroy the relationships of the strangers around her. Upon deeper contemplation however, it seems more to me like Joe’s insatiable need for sex stems not from an innate internal desire, but as result of exposure to sexualized hierarchical structures of power and her desire to be in control of her own life, sexual or otherwise. Sex in the film is never ‘special,’ the way that it is most often depicted in media, nor does it feel especially pornographic (although technically it is). Instead, it is intentionally violent, tedious, and apathetic. This is because to Joe, the thrill comes not from the act of having sex, but rather from the personal power she feels that she gains as a result of it. Consequently, sex became her vice on which she relied for stability and order in what she considered to be a chaotic and meaningless world.

Other instances of Foucauldian tropes playing out on screen include Joe’s confession of nymphomania at a group therapy meeting (the therapist’s response? “We saysex addict.”), her father being a doctor and subsequently gruesomely dying of disease, Joe’s confession to a naive, asexual intellectual and subsequent attempted rape, and perhaps strongest of all, the bondage scene in which Joe goes to a sadist in order to experience pleasure once normal sex could no longer satisfy her (spoiler alert: it works).

If anyone else has seen this movie, I’d be interested in learning your take on it. It’s a very slow paced and depressing movie at times, and certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s an unquestionably intriguing exploration of the intersection between sex and power that is worth studying.



He sees when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake

December 5, 2016 by

Since it is the season, I’m re-posting a piece on the Elf on a Shelf:

I guess in retrospect, this almost seems too obvious of a connection. You should read the whole article (Elf on a Shelf as training children to live with panopticism), but here’s one excerpt:

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

Re: Some Thoughts on Facebook and Society

October 31, 2016 by

The growth of social media, especially in the last decade, has detrimentally affected the way that humans with internet access interact with one another. As mentioned here, the negative effects of the normalization of social media are far reaching, and include the trivialization of human relationships, the collection and publication of private information, the increase in reliance on social media for entertainment and distraction, an increase in vapid and vain self-interest, and an overall loss of meaning and purpose in everyday life. This is the result of the destruction of the meaning of social media over time, much in the same way that Weber described the protestant work ethic lost its god and replaced it with money over the course of several generations. Whereas social media was originally created to bring people together and keep them connected, over time it has resulted in the inhibition of real life interaction, leaving a meaningless structure that many people feel incapable of escaping. How many times have you walked down the street and seen people of all ages staring silently at their screens, not looking where they’re going, and not being present in the world around them?

Although I myself am sometimes guilty of the act that I just described, I aim to combat these negative effects in my life without abandoning the social media on which I rely. To do so, I have decided to follow a set of rules that I’ve come up with to dictate how I act on and in what capacity I will use the social media platforms of Instagram and Facebook.

To start with, Instagram: I have only one account which is set to private mode. This means that everyone who wishes to see my content must request my permission in order to see and comment on what I post. I allow anyone that I know in real life to follow me if they so choose, but no one else; there are countless spam accounts littering Instagram that will try to follow me in order to collect my information. I am very picky with whom I follow on Instagram; I only follow close friends or acquaintances with which I feel that I share a particular artistic aesthetic. To that end, I also am very particular with what I post. It must fit in with my personal brand image (my labor is a commodity after all) and it must be somewhat professional as a matter of personal taste and safety.

As far as Facebook goes, I am very strict. I have ‘unfollowed’ the vast majority of the 800-some ‘friends’ that I have on Facebook, (a lengthy process that ended up being worth it) as well as all of the pages that I’ve ‘liked.’ I choose only to follow the few people who are closest to me, as they are the only people that I genuinely care about hearing what they have to say on a regular basis. If I feel the urge to check up on a distant acquaintance that I met in Wisconsin in 2009, I can do so by simply searching their name and seeing their profile, but I don’t need to know their boring intimate details in real time on a daily basis. As for the content that I post, I try to keep it as professional and relevant as possible. I use Facebook nowadays primarily as a professional networking tool and also as a way for my family to keep tabs on me when I am away from home. This means that if I wouldn’t say it to my grandmother or to a professor, (or to a potential employer) I definitely wouldn’t say it on Facebook.

I find that these methods have allowed me to regain some semblance of control over how much I rely on social media by allowing me to separate my private life from my public online persona. In other words, I don’t feel that I must use my phone in order to connect with others. Although I am still very much reliant on social media, it is now for maintaining professional contacts and interactions (in conjunction with good old fashioned email) and keeping in touch with geographically distant family members, rather than providing for the bulk of all of my social interactions. Call me a traditionalist, but I believe that real human interactions are more valuable than artificial cyber ones.

MLK and Malcolm X Readings

October 11, 2016 by

You can find a transcript of Malcolm X’s speech here. However, I also recommend that you listen to an audio version of it, which I’ve posted below:

Please note that the audio recording here diverges from the transcript I linked to above (this is because he gave the speech to different audiences and varied the presentation somewhat; the content is basically the same). I do recommend listening to the audio. Listening to the audio, I think, gives a bit of the flavor of Malcolm X’s rhetoric and the audience’s response to it. This, in turn, provides a bit more insight into why Malcolm X was such a frightening figure to white folks at the time.

Anyway, you can find Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” here. This version of the text has some annotations and explanations at the bottom of the letter. You can read them if you’d like but they are not explicitly required (which is to say, there won’t be quiz questions on the annotations unless I talk about them directly in class).

Link for the “Communist Manifesto”

September 17, 2016 by

Hi all. For next week, we’re reading the “Communist Manifesto.” You can find the text here.

On the Jewish Question (a link and some notes)

September 10, 2016 by

You can find a link to a version of Marx’s essay here.

This is a tricky essay. One of its difficulties is that Marx is writing about controversies that you may not know much about, which means he’s referencing people (Bruno Bauer) and ideas (“political emancipation”) that may seem opaque. So the purpose of this post is to introduce some of the background to Marx’s essay and some of its terminology.

Marx is writing the essay in the early 1840s. This is a few decades after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Germany, and just a few years before the revolutions of 1848. Europe, especially Germany (though it’s not a unified state yet) and France is rapidly modernizing. Specifically, we are seeing rapid changes in social organization related to the growth of industrial capitalism, urbanization. Along with these changes, there is the emergence of an increasingly radicalized industrial laboring class (what Marx will call the proletariat), which in turn, is connected to the emergence of modern political ideologies: broadly speaking, it is in this era that we can first identify the emergence of a political left, along with the emergence of liberalism and conservatism.

It is this last set of changes that is most immediately relevant in this essay. If you go back and read the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” what you see is the articulation of a set of universal human rights. This becomes a key idea for the emerging political left. The idea is that humans will become free (emancipated) insofar as their universal and equal rights are fully recognized by the political state. What this means, then, is that things like religious or ethnic differences should no longer matter politically: The fact that someone is Jew, for instance, should not be a reason to deny him equal rights (the gendered pronoun “him” in the previous sentence is quite deliberate; with some exceptions, the notion of equal rights for women was not yet a major issue).

At any rate, this is a major and ongoing political conflict during this era. Most European governments, especially Prussia (which is Marx’s immediate concern), did not recognize or acknowledge universal human rights. The Prussian state was officially Christian, and so it recognized different rights and privileges for different religions; those on the political left argued and agitated against this. So that’s where Marx’s essay comes in; he’s active in leftist politics, and he’s responding to Bruno Bauer.

Who was Bruno Bauer and what was his position? Bauer was a fellow leftist (in the language of contemporary American political theory, we would call him a political liberal), and he is essentially advocating for a position that is quite familiar to Americans: The Prussian state needs to give up its “particularistic” character as a Christian state (i.e., it needs to become neutral vis-a-vis religion), and the members of the state, in turn, need to give up their particularistic religions and instead become secular (“universal”) citizens. Instead of thinking of themselves as Lutherans, Catholics, or Jews, the members of the Prussian state should think of themselves as citizens. This, in any case, is effectively what the U.S. has done. We have no state religion and all citizens are treated equally (they are, at least in theory, given the same rights and status). And though there are ongoing conflicts about the role of religion in public life, there is widespread comfort with the idea that different religions should not be singled out for special rights or privileges.

What is Marx’s response to this? Well, you’ll need to read the essay. But I can articulate the general idea: Marx wants to reveal the limits of Bauer’s vision of emancipation (what Marx calls “political emancipation”). Marx is very much in favor of providing universal human rights, but he also argues that such a provision is not sufficient. According to Marx, the position Bauer adopts would be progress, but it also enables a new mode of domination to proceed, and in particular, it enables the kind of domination we see at work in Steinbeck’s story from the Grapes of Wrath.

So the crucial thing to keep in mind is that Marx is not interested in the “Jewish question” as it is usually defined; in the debates of his day (and in the current day, to some extent), the question was whether the Jews should be treated as equal citizens. Marx is shifting the question: He’s not asking whether the Jews (or women, or non-whites, or any other group excluded from equal treatment) should be treated equally; he’s asking instead whether equal treatment under the law is in fact the same thing as genuine human freedom. And his answer, in short, is “no.” Marx is therefore posing a radical challenge to standard liberal positions; liberals tend to argue that more or less all forms of domination or injustice can be remedied by providing equal rights to all, by including those previously excluded into the circle of legal rights. Marx, by contrast, is arguing that there needs to be a much more radical transformation.

To conclude, then, let me provide a brief glossary of some of Marx’s key terms in this essay.

Political emancipation: political emancipation refers, in essence, to Bauer’s position. Differences between people (say, their religion, economic status, or “noble blood”) are no longer legally recognized or enforced by the state. All citizens are granted equal rights (both things like property rights and the equal right to participate in politics).

The universal state (sometimes referred to as the state as such): The political state is a form of political community in which the citizens have achieved political emancipation.

Civil society: this is the realm of social relations that occur independently of the state, and typically, the family as well. In this essay, Marx treats these relations as primarily economic; it is the realm of “free labor” (i.e., the ability for the laborer to sell his/her labor power to whomever can purchase it) or the free exchange of commodities in general.

Welcome, and the links for Friday’s readings

August 31, 2016 by

Welcome to the Eastman students taking the Concept of Power in the autumn of 2016. This blog will serve several functions. It will disseminate information to students in the course regarding class assignments; it will serve as a platform students can use to write about course-related materials (often as they connect to the goings-on in contemporary politics); and it will serve as an occasional platform that I’ll use to spout off comment on topics of interest to me.

For Friday, we begin our discussions with excerpts of Hobbes’ famous text, Leviathan. You can find the text online here. Specifically, we’ll be reading chapter 17-18 and 21. These chapters all focus on the nature and powers of the sovereign. We will also discuss the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” which can be found here.

In both cases, our interest is in the conceptions of power at work in these documents. We’re less interested in, say, the question of whether we think Hobbes’s sovereign is too powerful, or whether the “Declaration” has articulated the proper set of rights. Rather, what we want to think about is how the authors of these documents characterize the nature and functioning of power in society, what sorts of issues these characterizations highlight, and what sorts of issues such characterizations might obscure.

The panopticon in the work of Marquez

December 20, 2014 by

We have a late addition to the blog! See here.

A Reflection on Food Industry

December 19, 2014 by

I recently came across an article regarding the transition society has taken from the traditional farmer to industrial farming. It is a phenomena that I think most of us are at least somewhat aware of, but I thought this article in particular really highlighted the blatant presence of exploitation from those individuals in power.

Here is the link to the Article

It is obvious the writer’s negative tone towards industrial farming, but the most notable recurring theme the author brings up is the group responsible behind industrial farming.  He calls these exploiters “American Oligarchs.” We can also view them simply as the Bourgeoisie.  The writer effectively highlights the extremely negative aspects of industrial farming, but still takes time to routinely bash these American Oligarchs responsible.

At the expense of organic quality, industrialization has praised profitability over all other factors in the farming business.  As the article illustrates, methods are being used which are in no ways natural and seem to be harming both farmers and consumers.  The food industry has taken efficiency to a new level.  They in turn have no regard for the well being of the working class.  However, we often see people unable to escape processed foods, as it is often the only option left.  As traditional farming has come so close to extinction, it becomes increasingly impossible to escape this ever growing market run by oppressive bourgeoisie.

The writer of this article states- “some loveless, power-addicted oligarchs sitting atop their mountain, looking contemptuously down on us normal folk, have decided that’s just what they desire.”It is easy to sympathize with the writer in his frustration with these oligarchs.  It is a part of how Marx describes the relationship between the proletariat and the Bourgeoisie.  We feel trapped as we are spoon fed toxic foods and watch traditional organic farming die out, all the while feeling powerless to do much of anything against it.  We also see an interesting statement arguing for the traditional farming technique- “the traditional family farmer is uniquely suited to mediate with nature and us to produce food that is healthy for humans and animals to eat. No machine can replace the personal dedication or passion that I have seen again and again in every farmer I have met who truly cares about his livestock or crops.”

A crucial factor in the food industry is the secrecy of its shrouded methods.  Many people are completely unaware of what goes into the food they eat. As our society as a whole becomes more aware of what we eat, we will eventually be able to act against these powerful oligarchs.  We know from Foucault that our government is obsessed with obtaining a healthy diet of its population… so how much will that play into food regulation in the future? Perhaps it will take place in an act of Arendtian protest against food industry. Maybe even a Marxist style revolution will take place against the bourgeoisie.  Regardless I don’t see industrial food being the healthiest route for society, both in terms of diet and lifestyle.