Archive for the ‘nonsense’ Category

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

December 5, 2016

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.

Marx among the artists

September 25, 2014

No class on Marx would be complete without a discussion of these videos.

The first two develop what we might call “aesthetic critiques” of capitalism. That is, they create a kind of artistic depiction of and protest against capitalist production.

The first is from Charlie Chaplin’s classic film, “Modern Times.” This is among the most famous sequences in film history, and it’s still pretty hilarious (just watch Chaplin’s physical movements!). I couldn’t find one video that contained all the best parts, so watch these two back to back:

And a few minutes later, as the factory owner insists that the line go faster:

The next video also presents a more “verbal” critique of capitalism, this time in the form of sock puppets:

This video, of course, is oddly sophisticated (for sock puppets, anyway), so I thought I’d offer a bit of commentary. Kiki and Bubu are describing what they think is a transformation in the nature of capitalism (what they call “neoliberalism” at the beginning of the video). Traditional capitalist production, the argument goes, was organized as it is depicted in the Chaplin videos above. The workers’ activities are determined by the plant, and profit comes from taking the products produced in these factories and selling them. The “new economy” and neo-liberalism has transformed this situation. Very little work occurs in the manner depicted in the Chaplin videos. Instead, it’s now common to try to give workers at least the appearance of more autonomy. Bosses no longer control workers through overt monitoring and discipline (bosses in the “new economy” are less likely to monitor bathroom breaks, for instance, requiring that workers “clock out” in order to go to the restroom). Why not? Well, this traditional form of discipline and control is not always effective: Workers may comply but only “overtly” (and may continue resisting “internally”); moreover, workers can also figure out ways of subverting that control (foot dragging, playing dumb, etc.).

So what has replaced these older forms? Well, the idea now is to get workers to internalize the basic values of capitalism. You are to see yourself not as a worker under the capitalists’ thumb, but instead, as an “independent entrepreneur.” The goal is to convince you that you are your own boss, that you can control your own work, and so on. And if you fail–if you are unemployed–then this just means that you should make your own employment: Create a new start-up, for instance. In other words, according to predominant ideology in the present, it is up to the worker to remain “flexible,” to constantly be getting new training and new education to prepare for the “jobs of tomorrow,” and absent that, to create one’s own jobs or one’s own new inventions. The effect of this ideology, anyway, is that workers now internalize oversight: The boss doesn’t need to watch you, because you now watch yourself (you don’t take time off, do drugs, or drag your feet, because you believe you are working for yourself and must sacrifice just about everything to stay successful). Another consequence: the dissolution of worker solidarity. If we’re all our own boss, we all do our best simply to out-work and out-compete others, instead of unionizing and the like. Your failures then become wholly your own.

(By the way, these dynamics are now pretty clearly stated directly to you: Traditional orchestra jobs are increasingly rare, so now to have a music career, you have to become your own entrepreneur, thus undermining any sense of solidarity among musicians against those who control society).

So what is to be done? Well, for that, I leave you with another video. This one is by a group of Eastman students. They made it as part of a group project from last spring, and it offers a stylized (and stylish!) version of what a non-violent Marxist revolution entails.

Harry Potter Becomes a Communist

September 25, 2014

This summer, I stumbled across a piece of fan fiction which is a hilarious exploration of how the wizarding world might respond to a communist in their midst. Written in the literary voice of a truly awful fan fiction author, Harry Potter Becomes a Communist nevertheless quite nicely captures the general principles of and relations between most contemporary political positions, especially libertarianism, liberalism, and communism.

Without further ado: (Fair warning: pervasive language and one somewhat explicit but ironic bit of sex. Also, it’s a slightly lengthy story – but most of this post will make sense even if you don’t read the whole thing. If at all possible, I would suggest getting to at least Chapter 23 (The May Day Special!!) before reading on. Or if that’s too much, Chapter 11)

I would now like to engage in some analysis of this wonderfully silly story. I’ll begin with an outline of a few of the major characters.

Hermione: Hermione represents the most common contemporary manifestation of Leftist politics. She is willing to acknowledge that there are problems associated with capitalism, but believes they are manageable through internal reform and various social programs. In Marx’s view, this will always be insufficient and moderate liberals only serve to perpetuate the fundamental problems associated with capitalism.

Professor McGonagall: McGonagall represents fundamentally the same political position as Hermione, but is also strongly characterized as a racist for reasons which may not be immediately clear. We have not discussed in class how Marxism relates to race, but much of his discussion of religion in On the Jewish Question can be extended to race. In most of the developed world, all races have achieved full political emancipation, but this does not mean that certain racial groups do not experience systemic discrimination. Professor McGonagall refuses to notice these still-existing racist structures (indeed, she entirely dismisses race as a meaningful part of personal identity or a relevant social construction), and thus her persistent assertions that all races have achieved complete emancipation prevent the recognition and destruction of more hidden racial prejudices.

Professor Pepsi: Professor Halliburton Pepsi, named for two of the largest multinational corporations in the world, is the epitome of the capitalist bourgeoisie. Though Dumbledore is the political leader of Hogwarts, Professor Pepsi’s ownership of the means of production means he is the true possessor of political power. This is demonstrated throughout the story, as Dumbledore usually defers to his will. When his philosophy is challenged, Professor Pepsi falls back to two of the most common arguments heard from capitalists, the Without Incentives, Everyone Will Be Lazy argument and the You’re Young and Don’t Yet Understand the World non-argument. (Basically he sounds like my dad)

Dumbledore: Dumbledore’s libertarianism is mostly tangential to the story, but it illustrates the fundamental misunderstanding behind libertarian philosophy (at least from a Marxist perspective). Libertarians and communists begin from the same starting point – a love of and desire for the maximum amount of freedom. Libertarians fail to see, however, that unrestricted ownership of private property ultimately destroys freedom for the vast majority of society.

Harry: Harry is a very amusing but not terribly interesting character. His ridiculously strong and exaggerated convictions and over-the-top, obnoxious behavior lead me to perceive him as a caricature of a hot-headed and reactionary youth who is more interested in rebelling against authority than in truly understanding the philosophy he preaches (though he does seem to have a good grasp of Marx’s ideas).


The author adopts many tongue-in-cheek writing style oddities, some of which I believe are intended as more than just comic relief. For example, swearing is primarily the language of the proletariat, and Harry’s frequent use of expletives can be interpreted as a show of solidarity and a revolt against the oppressive language-policing of the bourgeoisie.

One of the most distinctive hallmarks of the author’s writing style is the creative invention of adverbs, such as proletarianly and capitalisticly. I initially thought this was merely for comedic purposes, but it occurred to me that the author could have intended a deeper significance. Most of the characters are composite figures – that is, they are not humanized and instead represent an abstract political identity which is an amalgam of many individuals. This can be seen as a portrayal of Marx’s idea that our class is ultimately the most significant part of our identity, and drives all of our words and actions. The application of class-denoting adverbs to character’s speech adds no meaningful emotional or narrative information (how, exactly, does one speak “socialistically”?), but serves to reinforce the idea that each character’s speech is primarily generated by their social class.

The author often highly sexualizes female characters in a way that is vaguely disconcerting. Accompanying this tendency is a fairy tale-like proclivity for a female character’s appearance to reflect her character (at least in Harry’s opinion). Given the author’s references to rape culture and other common components of liberal thought, it seems likely that he or she is aware of how problematic these tendencies are. One way to interpret this discrepancy is as a satirical exaggeration of a common fan fiction trope – my limited experience with fan fiction suggests that it tends to be highly sexually-oriented and teeming with an absurd overabundance of attractive people. I believe, however, that two Marxist interpretations may also be possible.

The author may simply be exaggerating the commodification of sex which capitalism inevitably creates. Indeed, Harry seems to explicitly condemn what he sees as capitalist-influenced conceptions of sexuality. There is, however, another more tenuous parallel which can be drawn, relating to Marx’s distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation. In this metaphor, we characterize Harry as “politically emancipated” from his sexuality – that is, he explicitly disavows its importance in his decision-making process and worldview. But his descriptions and language reveal that there are much deeper and more important structures at work (let’s call them collectively the -ahem- Mode of Reproduction), which ultimately drive his actions. Harry’s “political emancipation” from sexuality is at best irrelevant, and at worst, enables him to act in the sexist and superficial manner that he claims (politically) to condemn, just as societal political emancipation ultimately enables inequality and oppression. Obviously, Marx intended only to describe the structure of society rather than individuals, and I’m not trying to suggest that there is any real relation between the two phenomena. It is, however, an interesting analogy.

Despite the protagonist’s beliefs, I do not really see this work as advocating for a communist ideology; Harry’s character is just too exaggerated to be taken seriously. Additionally, there are a few harsh jabs at communist ideas (“False consciousness is when people think communism is bad. Since communism is good, it means they’re obviously insane.”) I suspect the author’s intention is merely to satirize all political positions while simultaneously poking fun at the fan fiction genre (Not being a regular consumer of fan fiction, I suspect I overlooked many of the fan fiction tropes parodied). If the author has a thesis in mind, it seems that it would be related to the lack of real communication between various political factions. The characters often articulate their positions in ways that both highlight their position’s weaknesses and refuse to truly engage with opposing positions, the latter of which seems to be a defining feature of contemporary politics.

Am I finding too much meaning in what was merely intended to be a light-hearted piece of fan fiction? Probably. My initial impression of the work as a brilliant piece of satire has decayed; I no longer discern any real profundity within. Nevertheless, it is clear that the author has a thorough and nuanced understanding of modern political relations, and it’s fun to speculate about possible layers of meaning. In any case, the author has created a thoughtful work of comedy which, even after multiple readings, still causes me to laugh out loud.

Albert Pujols would not have liked Hobbes

August 27, 2014

This is an old ESPN commercial. For those of you who don’t follow baseball, Albert Pujols is one of the games great all-time hitters. You can count on him batting .300 with 35 homeruns and 100 RBIs every year for the rest of eternity. ESPN’s reasoning behind it? Albert Pujols is a machine. Kind of like Hobbes’ description of humans. This is just a silly thing that just struck me as being kind-of sort-of relevant to some of what Hobbes is saying.

The Importance of Consequences

May 12, 2012

I recently started listening to a podcast called writing excuses. It’s aimed at aspiring genre (sifi/fantasy/horror ect.) writers, but it’s a lot of fun to listen to even if you have no intention of ever writing anything that is not required for class. One of my favorite episodes is the one on violence. The podcasters (who are all published authors) talk about how they portray violence in their books. It’s only 15 min long, you should go listen to it before continuing.

The podcasters end up talking about the consequences of violence in their books more than the violence itself. They argue that it is the exploration of how violence affects characters and situations that is compelling to the reader. This can be thought of in terms of Arendt’s definition of violence. She claims that violence is instrumental. It must have a purpose and cannot be an end in itself. Whether violence will work towards or against its intended purpose is never clear because it is part of human action which, according to Arendt, is always unpredictable. When the podcasters explore the possible consequences of violence, they are examining whether or not it achieved its intended goal and what some of the possible unintended effects could be.

Early in the podcast, the authors talk about an incredibly violent scene form the Matrix. They said it was beautifully choreographed and fun to watch, but it bothered them because it had no consequences. From an Arendtian point of view, this is an example of violence that is not being used instrumentally. Because the violence has no goal (Okay, so you can argue that the goal is to save Morpheus, but surly they could have found a more desecrate way into the building.) it has become an end in itself. The movie fails to acknowledge any consequences of using violence this way. The violence stops feeling real to the viewer and becomes no more compelling than a well choreographed dance.

This is actually a general trend of how violence is used in movies, video games, and cartoons. None of the characters react realistically in the story, so neither does the viewer/gamer/reader. In these situations, violence is no longer being acknowledged as an action in the Arendtian sense of the word. It is being used only for visual appeal (like a light show) and  has no real effect other than to change the color of the walls or carpet.

When violence is acknowledged as an action, it can change things. It has consequences that can then be explored. The fun thing about reading (and probably writing) books (or movies/games/TV shows) is that you can explore many different possible reactions to violence. The more a reader can identify with, or at least understand, a characters response, the more compelling that character and the situation they are in will be.

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.

Coming out of the closet

April 13, 2010

Apropos of Foucault, the Daily Show comes through with this story:

Open Carrier Discrimination

Part of the issue, from a Foucaultian perspective anyway, is that the rhetoric of these “open carriers” apes the older discourses about overcoming discrimination by expressing one’s lifestyle.  It is as if one cannot act politically or endeavor to enact social change without first locating this as part of one’s identity.  In this case, of course, the identity in question is not one’s sexuality, but one’s particular set of preferences regarding fire arms.  Yet there is, so to speak, the same tactic of power at work here: in this rhetoric, society “silences” gun owners, and they must challenge this silencing by becoming visible, by expressing who they really are.  There are, of course, a lot of really odd things going on here, but one obvious issue is the effort to position gun ownership as something integral to one’s identity, and further, to assume that the expression of that essential identity (or becoming it touch with what one truly is) is simultaneously an expression of freedom

In any case, Foucault might suggest that this logic has now become an integral part of our political vernacular.  We increasingly understand the articulation of an identity as–of expressing the essentially hidden secrets of who one is and rendering this identity visible–as the political act.

Neo-Marxist Sock Puppets

January 26, 2010

In the interest of trying to clarify some of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, I submit a technical analysis:

Now, there are some interesting differences between the content of Kiki/Bubu’s analysis and Marx’s.  For example, Kiki and Bubu suggest that the “neo-liberal” or “new economy” exploits in a way that is somewhat different from the classical mode of capitalism Marx analyzes.  In particular, according to our sock puppet friends, the new economy dominates by convincing us that we are our own bosses, or that we have the same interests as the capitalists (consider, for a moment, why, for instance, news broadcasts always report on the daily stock market numbers).  Moreover, in contrast to Marx’s prediction of proletarian solidarity, Kiki and Bubu suggest that the new economy liquidates all horizontal relations between the workers, constructing a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Nevertheless, the basic method of our sock puppets remains fundamentally Marxist, with some Foucault sprinkled in for fun (come back and watch this video again after we’ve read Foucault).  They explain why daddy works so hard primarily in terms of changes in the mode of economic organization (and more specifically, in terms of the new forms of symbolic or ideological apparatuses that have emerged to hide or rationalize the functioning of this economy).