Archive for February, 2012

Capitalist Beavers and the Salieri Effect

February 28, 2012

If you’re ever in the mood for an entertaining, offensive and quietly insightful movie, watch any animated picture from the Classic Disney era. Weber’s conception of the capitalist spirit (the modern ethic that values above all the rational generation of profit for its own sake) reminded me of one in particular – Lady and the Tramp (1958). In the film, the protagonist – Lady – is framed by two grammatically challenged Siamese cats for the vandalism of her masters’ house. The owner of the cats responds by muzzling poor Lady, causing her to run away. She is rescued by the eponymous Tramp, whose street-smart instincts lead them to the zoo where he thinks they’ll find someone to remove the muzzle.

There, they find just the trick: a beaver busily chipping away at a sycamore. The scene is short, so I recommend you watch it yourself (2’27” in video below). This beaver is a respectable fellow. He is dedicated to and takes pride in his work, the maintenance and expansion of his dam. He works efficiently and is distracted by nothing, much less the petty concerns of two canines (“Do you realize every second, 70 centimeters of water is wasted over that spillway?”). One gets the impression that this beaver’s life revolves around his dam. However, the reason behind this beaver’s obsession is not revealed. The function of a beaver dam is to provide access to food and protection from predators. This beaver lives in a zoo, where he has no predators and where his basic nutritional needs are satisfied by humans. The conclusion we are left to draw is that he builds the dam for its own sake. As Weber might put it, “the [beaver] exists for the sake of the [dam] and not the reverse”, and he possesses (or is possessed by) the capitalist spirit or whatever the beaver equivalent might be. The absurdity of this beaver’s life and life purpose mirrors that of the modern capitalist’s.

(This said, even wild beavers apparently do not build dams for the sake of self-preservation. It is the sound of a running river which compels beavers to build dams, regardless of whether they actually need the food or protection that these provide. It would seem that the ethical impulse Weber claims drives modern capitalism is substituted, in the case of beavers, for an evolutionary one. Both systems of motivation, however, can lead to absurd results.)

It’s interesting that, in this film (and I think in many other products of popular culture), the character that embodies the capitalist spirit is not a major player and is not even necessarily portrayed in a positive light. Here, it is the Tramp that the audience is supposed to love and what he represents is something close to the antithesis of the beaver. His title says it all: he’s homeless, he doesn’t work, he begs for food, he spends his nights chasing tail and his days chasing chickens. Weber might say that he lacks a calling and that he does nothing but pursue spontaneous, unprofitable forms of pleasure. However, the film emphasizes the undeniable charm associated with the Tramp’s nonchalance, his improvisatory lifestyle, and his freedom. He’s a real Lady-killer. He does not appeal to the capitalist ethos, yet he is an entirely sympathetic and respectable character both in the eyes of characters in the film and the audience. As Peggy pithily puts it in the classic pound sequence later in the film, “He’s a tramp, but they love him.”

I don’t think that this is an uncommon phenomenon. In Forman’s film adaption of Amadeus (1984), for example, it is Salieri who is hard-working and who pledges celibacy and “every hour of [his] life” to God in order to become a great composer. Mozart, while he too takes his music seriously, is very rarely seen at work and is too lazy and impatient to accept students. Instead we see him spend most of his time at parties and around women. The effortlessness of his creative process (whose authenticity is not really the question here) is a point of emphasis throughout the film. Yet Mozart is, no doubt, the hero of the story, the one the audience is supposed to respect and admire. Salieri, on the other hand, is the embodiment of petty envy, mediocrity and impotence.

If, as Weber says, the capitalist spirit is such a powerful, organizing force in modern society, why isn’t it glorified in our culture? The religious fervor that nurtured this ethos died long ago. Has the ethos itself finally followed suit?


Paper Topics #1, Spring 2012

February 19, 2012

Select ONE of the following paper topics.  Papers are to be 5-7 pages long, double-spaced, with 1 inch margins, and in 12 point, Times New Roman or Garamond font.  Papers are due THURSDAY, MARCH 1, at the beginning of class.  Whenever appropriate, make sure you support your arguments and claims with textual evidence. Don’t over-quote, however; it is often enough to refer to the relevant passage with a parenthetical reference (Weber, p. 10) or a footnote. If you have an edition of any book different from the ones listed on the syllabus, make sure you indicate this in a bibliography or a footnote.  Please cite the specific Marx essay you are referring to, and cite Marx as the author.  Note that, for the purposes of this assignment, the professor’s lectures are considered to be in public domain: you don’t need to cite them. However, when the professor says, “Weber thinks blah blah blah,” then you need to cite the appropriate places in Weber.

1.  Chapter 5 of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath describes a process in which farming family is evicted from their land.  In your essay, analyze this story from the perspective of two of the theorists we have discussed so far (Hobbes, the writers of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” Marx, and Weber).  That is, pick two theorists and discuss how they might interpret the chapter.  Consider the following questions in developing your analysis: how would the theorist in question account for the events of this chapter?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of this interpretation?  Or another variation on this idea:  What part of the story does each theorist help us understand?  What does each theorist’s approach ignore?  And which theorist gives us greater insight into the events Steinbeck describes?

2.  You are currently being asked to write an essay for the class, “The Concept of Power.”  Does writing this essay simply contribute to the alienation, meaninglessness, and domination we find in modern forms of life, or can it contribute to some sort of liberation?  Explain your answer, and draw upon the work of Marx and Weber to help you.

3.  Consider the following statement: Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” presents a devastating critique of the liberal conception of government as expounded in “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”  In this essay, defend, challenge, or qualify this statement.  In other words, does Marx offer an important or devastating critique of the claims made in this document?  Why or why not?

4.  It has often been suggested that Marx and Weber present rather different explanations for the origins of capitalism.  Marx is usually said to focus only on a materialist analysis, such that capitalism arises largely due to anonymous forces generated in the mode of production.  Weber is usually said to focus primarily on ideas and their role in shaping social institutions and people’s behaviors.  But how different are Marx and Weber’s explanations of the origins of capitalism?  Does Weber offer a different explanation, or is he merely supplementing Marx’s analysis?

5.  Both Marx and Weber seem to have rather gloomy attitudes toward modern capitalism, with Marx focusing on the ways in which modern industrial society is alienating, exploitative, and dominating, and Weber focusing on the meaninglessness of the “iron cage.”  In this essay, explain and evaluate these two theorists’ diagnosis of the problems with contemporary capitalism, along with their competing prognoses about what, if anything, might happen to the capitalist form of economic organization.  How do Marx and Weber differ in their diagnosis about what is potentially wrong about capitalism?  And how do they differ in their analysis of whether capitalism might end, or what might replace it?

They’ll have to pry my contrabass trombone from my cold, dead hands

February 12, 2012

It has nothing to do with class, but I thought this story might be of some interest to the students at Eastman. An excerpt:

BELL, Calif. — When thieves broke into the high school music room here this week, they cut through the bolts on all the storage lockers and ripped two doors off their frames. But they didn’t touch the computer or the projector or even the trumpets.

“It was strictly a tuba raid,” said Rolph Janssen, an assistant principal.

Bell High School is only the most recent victim in a string of tuba thefts from music departments. In the last few months, dozens of brass sousaphones — tubas often used in marching bands — were taken from schools in Southern California.

Though the police have not made any arrests, music teachers say the thefts are motivated by the growing popularity of banda, a traditional Mexican music form in which tubas play a dominant role.

Cross posted at the “Marx, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Freud” blog.

Movie Analogies for Structural Power

February 1, 2012

I was poking through the philosophy section of WordPress and ran into this. It draws a comparison between modern society and the matrix in The Matrix, namely in the use of structural power. The discussion isn’t quite what we talked about in class, it focuses less on abstract concepts and more on the current world situation, but I found the analogy to the Matrix quite accurate.

Link for the “Communist Manifesto”

February 1, 2012

Sorry for the lateness of this post. You can find a good version of Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” here. We will be discussing only parts I and II for tomorrow.