Sunday, February 28, 2010

Marx and Practicality

Alienation in the workplace seems inevitable, as I experienced when I worked at FedEx in the summer of 2009. Don’t get me wrong; it was fun job to me, and I enjoyed nearly all of my co-workers’ presences. But true to Marx’s claims, when it came time for performance reviews and evaluations, each person would pull out all the stops to avoid being the bottom performer. Yes, this is not a unique experience, but reviewing it with a Marxist lens tends to make the entire process easier to comprehend. Bosses would constantly warn us against forming unions, because FedEx is surely aware of the dehumanizing work that they require of their employees. They would separate us from not only the “goods” that we produced (a fast delivery service), but they would also try to divide workers with constant threats against unions. However, I was generally pleased with the compensation that I received, and the alternative of just lounging around the house was not enticing, so I was not really appalled with the oppressive nature of FedEx. I guess I failed Marx in just interpreting what I saw at my job, rather than seeking to change it. But the fact is I don’t want it to change. Frankly, by giving in the bourgeois, like my parents probably have before me, it allowed me to opportunity to encounter Marx in some capacity, but usually quickly dismiss him. For one so consumed with condemning the theoretical and emphasizing the practical, or what can be accomplished, Marx historically has fallen short, as his revolution has just never been able to come together or continue successfully. I would have figured if Marx’s political and philosophical assertions were as implementable as he claims, then why haven’t they occurred? Apathy certainly plays a large role, but maybe it is just not the most viable option. Along with apathy towards Marx that works to undermine his claims are the cartoon-y stereotypes of communism that exist mainly due to things such as war propaganda and the “Red Scare” that keep anyone from carefully examining what Marx really suggests. So not only does Marx have human emotions like greed working against him, but he also has to combat apathy and misconstrued viewpoints of his own material. Marx has a mountain to climb just to become neutral again, but even so, it seems doomed to just be an interesting and influential historical concept that has failed in practical existence.

How "free" until you're free?

Our discussion of the alienation of labor was the most taxing for me last class. The idea that in a capitalist society (read: all labor in the one we belong to) all products are pieces of the maker's life that have become more valuable and therefore alien to that maker is difficult for me to digest. Our discussion of artists, in particular, made me jump to that warned-against self-examination: I am certain that there are things I've created that are not alien to me, but significantly entwined with my concepts and inclinations.

Now, I have to admit that I make a lot of crap. In terms of products - things that can be sold - what I have to show for myself is mostly intellectual. But my education, a thing I've invested much time and money in, serves as a nice example of what Marx was pointing out. I've chosen to invest those valuable things to produce something more valuable: my skills. The classes I take, the school I attend, the extracurriculars I participate in will all be traded in for the ability to support myself post-graduation. And according to Marx, all I'm trading this alienated labor in for is the chance to do more in a different environment.

At first, the comparison of intellectual and physical work seems a stretch, especially since Marx says one of the negative things about the process of production is that mental capabilities are neglected. In fact, it seems the educational system works to circumvent this neglect, capitalizing on the personal strengths of students through majors and specializations. I want to argue, though, that working through college certainly produces the effects of alienated labor. Analytical and creative work become tasks that require intensive labor, and the product of that labor is subject to the value judgment of another. The labor done is in some sense not free, dictated by professors and curriculum generators (or however that works). You begin to feel most human when you're eating, drinking, sleeping - the things that give you breaks from the work you're doing in school. Other students become competition for jobs, internships, scholarships, leadership positions. The full process of alienation is there.

Sure, there's at the center the spirit of "free, conscious, creative activity." I'm an English major who writes short stories because I feel fulfilled when doing just that. But I plan to turn that investment into a return when I teach others to do it in the future. In essence, I'm gaining a degree, however founded in a sincere wish to learn, to increase the value of my products in the future.

It does bring up the biggest question I've had with Marx, though, and that's to what extent the process of alienation is overwhelming. Do side effects of fulfillment negate that alienation? How much free conscious creativity must be attributed to what I'm doing before the alienation is subverted?

Ideas, Action, and Alienation

At first glance, it seems to me that capitalism should be the realm of the actors, while communism the realm of idealists. After all, capitalism is that construct in which individuals are pitted against themselves in a competition to accumulate labor in the form of money. It is this very competition, however, which ultimately devalues action. Competition pushes toward greater efficiency, which is realized in the form of specialization or division of labor. The laborer's work becomes increasingly worthless, but perhaps more importantly, dehumanizing. Profits are afforded the wealthy, who finance the brutal capitalist mechanism. However, there is still profit to be garnered to those with ideas. In a capitalist society, ideas, rather than physical strength or dexterity, are of greatest value to the individual.

As an individual who has always valued mind over body in a rather abstract sense, this should be appealing. However, after reading Hegel, I am far more swayed by Marx’s talk of alienation. There is something incomplete about merely conceptualizing the world’s most profitable products or systems. Marx would suggest it is the lack of participation in what makes one human.

Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

When production is separated from conception, ownership becomes complicated or ambiguous. Oddly enough, this is the case in capitalist societies rather than in Marx’s ideal communism. When man is not alienated from his labor, but instead produces on his own, ownership would seem clearer. In the more ambiguous ownership characteristic of capitalist society, I argued earlier that thought appreciates while physical labor is devalued. Ultimately, this seems a product of metaphysics; thought or conception is acknowledged as preceding production, and thinkers become in essence owners of an essential factor of production. The thinker then removes himself from the actual creation of his idea, separating himself from its reality. One question I have not yet answered: is someone who conceptualizes in a capitalist economy (perhaps an inventor, designer, or entrepreneur) alienated from their work? This remains tied to that question that haunted some of us in class: are intellectuals part of the bourgeoisie? Was Marx?

I suppose this post became more exploratory than explanatory, but I would like to discuss the questions I raised with you all.

A single oppression?

The first day of my feminist philosophy class we discussed Marx’s ideas of capitalism as seemingly having a sex gendered system already built into the social structure. Under the basic structure of capitalism, there is the two class system of the have (bourgeoisie) and the have nots (proletariats). The proletariat class is the focal point of his structure, and he identifies ways in which their class is oppressed through four interconnected points, which ultimately results in their self alienation. First, Marx identifies that a basic wage worker will never be able to afford the object that he is producing, therefore he has to distance himself from the very object. The worker cannot identify with their work, because the objects very means of production will not be individually known to them. Secondly, the worker is begins to see his job as simply something he does to get by in the world. He alienates himself from the means of production, because he no longer feels human doing his job and through this he alienates himself from his “species being.” Lastly, the worker is placed in a world of competition, where they are forced to compete against their peers.

In my feminism class, we have discussed many issues that are raised through Marx’s system of capitalism such as oppression, a divided society, forced social structure, and a systemic way of life imposed upon the human, yet it is through the perspective of a woman. An example that we used was a housewife, because her work exceeds the “wage” that she will receive. The woman undergoes strenuous activities, yet we barely recognize their contributions. The woman is oppressed in the world that we live, but does she not represent the universal?

These similarities between the basic capitalist structure and that of woman made me start thinking about the oppressed proletariat being seen as the “universal,” and questioning whether this single class can represent the whole. The woman’s work is less exploitative than mans and therefore cannot be drawn into the same class that represents the whole. I feel that the same can be said for the oppression in racism. Can the universal represent the “whole” when it comes to those oppressed? Marx seems to suggest that there are not different types of oppression, there is the single class that is oppressed. It also made me think about our social structure, and wonder if there can simply be two classes the have and the have nots? What is the defining line between the two?

Values in disarray

In the last Marx reading, when he talks about the economic facts, the third one that we discussed posed some questions for me. It stated that as the value of things goes up, the value of the workers goes proportionally down. I was a little confused about this. When the value of an item goes up, it is plausible that this may have to do with the amount of effort that went into making the item. This would make it seem that the people who made it should be more valued. For instance, a hand-thrown bowl will usually cost more than one created in a factory. I think in this case, the cost of the item does not de-value the worker, but instead gives room for the worker his/herself to be valued to a greater extent, does it not? It seems that here, the worker is being valued more for creating something entirely on their own, and putting more effort into it, by the cost of the item going up, therefore giving them more benefits from it.

Moreover, would an object of labor then have to be free for the worker creating it to be completely valued? If the laborer is valued most when the cost of the item is at its lowest, in order for people to be valued at the greatest extent, would they not have to give all of their goods away for free? Is there then a cap on how much value can be given to the worker for his/her labor?

Lastly, we discussed that under capitalism, the more that the worker puts into the labor, the less of their life belongs to themselves, and instead more of their life belongs to the owner of the means of production. Well what if the creator of the object is also the owner of the means of production? Is he/she then not loosing any of their “life” in the creation of their goods? If everyone worked for themselves, would we then be rid of this problem?

The Dialect According to Marx

Working from Hegel’s notion of the master-slave dialect, Karl Marx took what was known as the relentless struggle between human consciousnesses and gave the dialect a different application. Instead of examining the dialect as a struggle between two consciouses, Marx discovered a new meaning for the dialect; one that embedded more of a political significance than it did philosophical. Marx found this struggle as manifestation between social classes, rather than between that of individual consciousnesses. The struggle took a completely different meaning as Marx applied the notion of lordship and bondage to that of class-struggle. Now, instead of consciousness prevailing through means of consciousness’ own self-reflection, individuals comprising the class-system were burden with the responsibility to recognize their own bondage to one another. Yet Marx saw this bondage as a product of history, as opposed to the natural confrontation of consciousnesses.

Like Hegel, Marx also argued for the master-slave dialect to be understood through an historical perspective. This became the foundation for approaching Marx’s own dialect which emphasized the dialects historical importance as a continuous process which would develop throughout history. However, unlike Hegel, Marx saw a particular end to the dialect. For Marx, the end was a class revolution. Within the tenets of Marxism, the struggle between both the proletariat (working class) and the bourgeois class could only come to an end upon the social awakening of the entire proletariat class. This social or “class awakening” would only complete itself upon a revolutionary movement by the proletariat class. Marx argued that because of the long and tumultuous struggle between the proletariat and bourgeois classes, that one day the proletariat (working class) would eventually rise up and overthrow their “masters”(bourgeois class) thus liberating themselves the from enslavement.

Personally, I find Marx’s spin on Hegel’s dialect a little far-fetched. Although I do see the relevance in Marx’s application of the dialect, I do not, on the other hand, see if Hegel ever intended his dialect to be understood through certain political agenda (in this case Marx’s agenda). Having said this, I question whether or not Marx used Hegel’s dialect devoid of any ill-conceived reasons. Meaning, was Marx forcing his own application of the dialect to illicit political response, or was Marx correct in applying Hegel’s dialect to the politics of class struggle. Lastly, I want to suggest that Marx’s use of the dialect fails to encompass consciousness’ struggle for recognition until the death, to which Hegel argued.

Marxist Feminism?

In a film class the other day we watched a clip from movie called Real Women Have Curves that featured a group of women working in a sweetshop making dresses for some retailer that would sell for many times over what they were being paid. This got me thinking of Marx in terms of feminism, as the class is about Chick Flicks and we often discuss feminism, so I looked into Marxist Feminism. The base ideas of Marxist Feminism is that private property leads to oppression of women and that gender inequity stems from a capitalist system. It argues that women are subordinated, in a manner similar to class oppression, as a way to support the interests of bourgeoisie. I find this combination of philosophies interesting as several female Marxists such as Clara Zetkin argued that Feminism was a bourgeois movement and that women should be liberated by a social revolution. In Zetkin’s “On a Bourgeois Feminist Petition” she states that “the women’s question can only be understood, and demands raised, in connection with the social question as a whole” proposing that proletariat women should ignore feminist petitions that are put out by bourgeois women’s groups. She argues that such a petition would be criticized by the Social-Democratic press if it had been issued by bourgeois democrat, stating “Why should our principled standpoint with respect to the politics of the bourgeois world change because by chance an example of these politics comes from women and demands not a reform on behalf of the so-called social aggregate but rather one on behalf of the female sex?” Zetkin’s argument seems to make claims that Feminism is not in line with Marx’s philosophy and makes me think that those who claim to be Marxist Feminist have, perhaps, misinterpreted Marx’s ideas. I feel a Marxist would argue that after social revolution there would be no classes and that would include gender classes and as such female liberation is inherent in Marx’s philosophy.

How human am I?

The ability to create is an action that is very uniquely essential to one’s humanity. This action becomes a critical aspect of Marx’s dialectic on the estrangement of labor. To begin, Marx loosely discusses the act of creating. In class, we noted that the act of creating becomes very different from the act of producing—and how each one of these actions either distinguishes or fails to distinguish us from mere animals, as Hegel would have said. With the creation of an object (to begin literally), one has invested time and effort into this creation (imaginative thought manifested in effort, another key to the differentiation posed earlier) and can actually see and touch it, as well as potentially seeing the true value of the object (a sort of reflection idea, like that of Hegel’s two consciousnesses recognizing themselves in the other)—it is a progression of consciousness. In this object, one can see the time and effort invested into the object, and can therefore verify themselves as creative consciousness (a stipulation for being human).

Where most of Marx’s work enters is when the distinction between creation and production is introduced. Production is defined in one way as “the producing of articles having exchange value.” This “exchange value” is precisely what demeans the producer in Marx’s story of the worker. In fact, the more valuable the product is, the less the producer is recognized within that object or the more of a commodity he or she becomes. In other words, if the labor of a particular worker can be bought and sold, the worker becomes estranged from the labor/object at hand. If this is the case then, to Marx, the worker also becomes alienated from his or her species being (has lost what it means to be a human/no creation occurs and therefore there is no progression of consciousness).

So, as I’ve alluded to, it seems that the big production that Marx gives us (the story of capitalism) is the difference in creation and production.

Now, I know less about politics than the vinyl record that sits in front of me, but it seems to me that the socialist idea of communal distribution would give me less of an opportunity to create (or, in other words, less of an opportunity to be human). While I don’t necessarily think that the capitalist ways of our country is without its flaws, I do think that it, at the very least, does the best at masking (with the illusions of religion, the American Dream, etc.) the estrangement of labor that occurs every day in every office. But, on the other hand, I am admittedly growing up a product of the upper-middle class.

As Marx famously said about socialism, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” we all would, in theory, have what we need. But to what extent does that allow us to be humans? Again, this all comes down to the worth of the dollar determining the worth of a man or woman—and really, how great is that?

The Preconditions of Revolution

In the Introduction, Marx lays out what he thinks are the preconditions for an emancipating revolt in Germany. Two of these conditions particularly struck me. The first is that “a class must be formed…which does not claim a particular redress because the wrong which is done to it is not a particular wrong but wrong in general” (64), and the second is that this class will find its “intellectual weapons in philosophy” (65). While Marx explicitly limits this social explanation to Germany prior to the 20th century, the fact that this work is still relevant more than a decade and a half after it was written suggests that at least someone thinks it’s more generally applicable. Thus, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to consider potential hindrances that reveal themselves once one considers this wider application.

To my knowledge, Marx never makes explicit whether or not these conditions are simply sufficient for revolution to take place or absolutely necessary. Based on the tone of the essay, I think its safe to assume the latter and, if we make this assumption, two concepts must be considered: solidarity (regarding the first claim) and education (regarding the second).

The first claim implies that there are universal wrongs that most people (perhaps around the world) find objectionable. While I do think these exist in rare cases, a lot of situations of oppression involve more conditional wrongs. In these cases, in order for the wrong to be looked at as a wrong against, not just the particular group, but rather all of humanity, there must be a great deal of solidarity between the oppressed and other outside groups. Obviously there are many barriers that prevent this from happening, and I think one of those is physical appearance. We likely feel more natural sympathy for those who look like us because we can more easily see ourselves in their shoes. Therefore, in many cases, solidarity between fellow countrymen, who are often times the same race, is easier to achieve than solidarity between people from different parts of the world. In short, what I’m trying to say is that this Marxian condition is probably much easier to achieve in a national scenario—such as Germany—than in an international one.

The second claim stresses the importance of education for the oppressed group. Philosophy, nowadays, seems to be the exclusive property of intellectuals. The way many modern societies are set up, these intellectuals are not typically members of the oppressed group. The type of oppression Marx talks about entails poverty, and one of the many horrors of poverty is a lack of education. Without education, how are the oppressed supposed to use an academic subject matter like philosophy as a weapon?

Looking for the 'You Are Here' Star on the Map

"Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive" -Marx

In class, we frequently remind ourselves of Hegel's warning: if you cannot say it, it isn't true. I suppose I agree with this statement. If I cannot figure out how to effectively communicate information, then that information will never exist to anyone else but me and then perhaps is just an edifying memory. But I wonder if we can extend this idea about truth to other modes of communication. Language is not just bound to speech or writing or art. There is also a language of the space in which we inhabit; a kind of ethnographic correspondence to the identity of a place that has a historical development and a language all its own.

Guy Debord, french Marxist theorist stated that "geography, for example, deals with determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic condition, but also the economic structure of society, and thus, on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of a world." We can manipulate our physical space to accomplish some greater aim for society and it is according to our will that the world is shaped. However, space is inhabited and is a living thing as such and not just subject to a kind of outsider, objective will, rather, physical space is ever-changing, whether geologically or anthropologically according to those who occupy that space. The development of consciousness then, is not merely a product of the way we see the world, but also the way we move through it. However, things like maps inherently contain political assumptions (think Copernican revolution) that orient our movement.

The map is created to depict land that is shaped by us and in doing so, we again shape our landscape. With space itself becoming the product of inhabiting, Debord's philosophy is entirely more empirical and individualist than Marx, focusing on The Dérive – the French word for an aimless stroll – which institutes the city as a network of narratives, experiences and events. I like Debord's approach to finding truth with the world we inhabit. An image of ourselves is always accessible and by becoming aware of our preconceived meanings and possibilities in the world, we can find a truth of our physical space. I wonder if this is too materialist or individualistic to be considered Hegelian, but I do feel like looking to the apprehensible, phenomenological world for truth maybe something connects here. Our physical space could be evidence of a historical movement and is perhaps communicating that movement to us, if we are to look rationally upon it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Self-sustaining, self-propagating illusions of capitalism

According to Marx the repression of the workers is aided by illusions which people adopt to cope with their situation but which actually enslave them further. Since the uprising of the proletariats has not occurred yet, and the workers are still subjugated by the bourgeoisie through the capitalist system, there must still exist repressive illusions in our modern society. I want to briefly examine two of these repressive illusions in modern society: Religion and the American dream.

The beauty, or horror, of these enslaving illusions is that they are self-sustaining, self-propagating, and posses allure and subtlety in such a fashion that people they enslave embrace them and are loath to surrender them in exchange for freedom. Another interesting aspect of these illusions is that while some may have been created to perform the function they now serve, most, I would argue, are a form of spontaneous order created by the oppressed and oppressors alike as a result of the power structure of the society, that is to say that the structure of the society itself forms the same illusion for the next generation, each acting as a power relay for the next.

Religion, it is one of the oldest of these illusions and one of the most effective. The Christian bible encourages subservience through teachings such as “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”, and “turn the other cheek”. A core concept of the bible is that there is an afterlife in which the immortal souls of people will be rewarded or punished according to how they acted during their life. Teachings such as these discourage revolution, in part because of morally dubious acts that revolutions involve like killing and “stealing” of property, and partly because the importance of what one has during their life is significantly less if there is much greater rewards in an afterlife.

The American dream is a capitalistic dream that propagates itself by impressing itself on the minds of all classes from a very young age; it is in a dramatic sense it is a prison for the mind. The revolutionary tries to transform the reality they inhabit to the reality of what they dream, but how can a revolution take place if the dream of something better does not exist? How can a prisoner escape their prison if all they dream of is the prison? The power of the American dream is that it is desirable; people work and dream their entire lives to attain this dream, to attain continued repression by system of capitalism.

Understanding a power structure is the first step to changing or demolishing it, but it is not a guarantee. Religion and the American dream are old and deep rooted illusions that people will, and have, sacrifice their life to protect; it is hard to explain to a person that the shelter they so fiercely protect is a prison designed to keep them subdued. Perhaps the workers will eventually awaken and overthrow capitalism, but with the strength of such illusions opposing change I find it hard to believe that there will ever be a revolution of the workers.

"Bow Down Before the One You Serve"

In the “Very Short Introduction to Marx” there’s a good bit of background information on Ludwig Feuerbach and his 1841 book “The Essence of Christianity.” After looking through some of it it’s pretty obvious that Marx used it as a jumping off point for a lot of his own early ideas. Feuerbach takes Hegel’s dialectical method and weaponizes it in his attack on religion. He states that religion is the reason that humans become alienated. Essentially, human beings project their own essence (in a pure form) onto a deity and then distinctly separate it from the tangible world, alienating the best qualities of humanity from itself. The “Very Short Introduction to Marx” points out that while several Young Hegelians pinpointed alienation as a serious problem, Marx shifts its underlying cause from religion to money, specifically capitalism. This gives me an excuse to write a blog and make the title Nine Inch Nails lyrics.
Two of the most pervasive and highly exalted concepts in the Western world are money and religion. I think the similarities are based on the fact that humans basically worship both of these things. In worshiping either God or money I think humans put so much meaning, emphasis, and significance on such an external source that they necessarily debase their own humanity, at least to some extent. The process of alienation that Feuerbach attributes to money seems easily applicable to money with little change. Humans make money the object of their desire, the means to an end of a successful and happy existence (except in this life, not the next) and accordingly attach many important qualities onto this concept that is separate from themselves.
However, Marx asserts that the difference between the two is that religion alienates through apotheosis and worship while money alienates the proletariat more indirectly, through the estrangement of labor. I don’t think the act of labor is as alienating as the concept of money to begin with. In any case, the alienation caused by labor is still stemming from the tree of capitalism in the first place. The worship of money inherent in a capitalist system ultimately leads to a situation that necessitates estranged labor. I think this neatly parallels Marx’s similar musing about religion in the Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “the call to abandon their illusions is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions” (54). My qualm with Marx here is a causation issue. Sure, labor does indeed alienate, but I think it’s a symptom, not the disease.
In the last class, I had trouble understanding what made the proletariat and the bourgeoisie different. I was thinking that any individual would agree with the claims of either side depending on their social standing. Someone who is a member of the proletariat might get lucky with something and make a lot of money and become a part of the bourgeoisie, thus his interests would go from those of the proletariat to those of the bourgeoisie, and this could happen vice-versa as well. The reason I bring this up is because it seems that none of these claims are universal, while Marx says the claims of the proletariat are universal. The only way I was able to justify Marx’s claim was that the proletariat will always have the bigger population, therefore they are the majority, which is similar, but not the same, as the universal.
So I let these ideas mull over in my mind for the past week and I think I’ve sort of figured out what Marx could mean, but I might still be wrong. Maybe what Marx is suggesting is that what the proletariat claims is what all people claim. The proletariat wants to claim for itself what all individuals need to survive. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, only wants to claim for itself extra superfluous things that are in addition to the necessities; commodities that are not needed but are sought after and valued higher than humans and their work.
I guess I could try to put this into everyday terms. The proletariat struggles to obtain the necessities such as food, shelter, water, and so on. While the proletariat struggles to obtain these things, the bourgeoisie already have these things, and in abundance. Since the bourgeoisie does not need to claim these things, they claim extra things, things they don’t need. The bourgeoisie claims material objects that they value over the individuals who make them. These individuals are the proletariat who have been alienated from their work. This is what Marx describes as the increased value of things and the decreased value of workers.
So basically the proletariat’s claims are universal because they try to claim the necessities of human life. The bourgeoisie’s claims are not universal because what they try to claim are material possessions that are hardly necessary. While the proletariat claims the universal, the alienation of labor forces them to work in factories on something which is hardly universal that only the bourgeoisie will enjoy. The bourgeoisie already claims those things the proletariat is trying to claim, so they see these things as granted or unimportant because they are presupposed for their condition. I could be wrong though.

Marx and Human Rights?

Marx's writings on the value of human beings has really caught me off guard. Particularly, I am curious about his critique of the political economy and the assumptions he makes about the general hierarchies attached to it. On page 97 of the Marx-Engels reader, Marx says that "even the existence of men is a pure luxury; and if the worker is 'ethical' he will be sparing in procreation." Marx is obviously speaking tongue-in-cheek, a short criticism of the political economy for supposedly putting different value on different social rankings, making the stigma of reproduction heavily on the highest class and then restricted on the lower classes.

While Marx is sort of jeering at this practice, I find it interesting that in China, one of the most famous communist case studies, this rule of restrictive family rights is one communist holdover that has really rooted itself into the culture. China uses this method of population control to alleviate the stress of supporting such a large population. I think it's interesting that Marx is sort of critical of this practice in his early stages, but in application, this method of population control is actually quite useful in leveling out all of the citizens. This is in fact a move to live more simply and for the family, as a unit, to desire less and make do with less, all with the illusion of adherence to cultural practice.

This practice in China is also a kind of amplification of the worker as a commodity. Just as his specialized product becomes an "alien being," so does his right to bear a family. Taken out of his hands, the process of procreating becomes robotic, routine, out of the control of the participants in the act. This idea of a human commodity is most unsettling, especially to think of the state's influence on you from the time of conception. Classic economics states that the more of a good there is produced, the value of it is likely to decrease. But is this true about human life? Does more simply mean that we value human life less? It seems unfair to assess human rights in the realm of numbers. But I'm just not sure about Marx's explanation of all this objectification.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The power of the capitalist dollar.

I wanted to blog about an idea I found particularly interesting in this week’s reading. It is an idea presented in the 1944 manuscripts section titled, “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society”. In the begging of this section Marx uses examples of Shakespeare to describe the nature of money. Marx then goes onto talk about the nature of money in capitalist society, and its power.

In the next paragraph, Marx expounds upon the role of money in society as basically encompassing all that is seen as positive. Marx has asserted earlier that the individual’s worth is driven down as the worth of money rises. Now we see from this section that not only does this exchange take place, but also that money seems to inherit value. For example Money is seen to contain those positive attributes of man and deposits them onto whoever has money. Marx says that now it is no longer the man that is powerful, honorable, beautiful, but it is his money. Mans power is not the extent of “his” power in fact but the extent of his moneys power. Marx says, “I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.”

Now what I find interesting here is that Marx doesn’t restrain money to simply buying objects. But moneys power bleeds into the realm of human virtue, and can even put a price on honor, beauty, etc. According to Marx, In the capitalist market place literally anything can be bought and sold. Thinking about this, at first I wanted to reject the idea. I was resistant to it initially, but then I started to think about it a little more. After thinking Marx’s idea doesn’t seem all that farfetched. I think of these examples and find that I have witnessed these invaluable things be bought and sold. I have seen men with money that are dishonest buy credibility with the presence of their money.

I hate to think that this is actually the way the world works, and though I can see through it, I don’t know that a lot of people do. I don’t want to live in a world where money is the ultimate power, and the value of a person’s actual virtues is nil. I don’t know if the world is this way, I have seen examples that could support both sides, but at the same time, it is still troubling to me.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Does Marx overlook the Complete Human in his ideology?

According to Hegel, Consciousness goes out in search of resistance to its will within the world. When it finally finds this resistance, it demands recognition, and assuming it gets that recognition, it discovers itself as an 'us'. Then, my understanding is, that through finding the differences between Consciousness A, and the newly found and recognized Consciousness B, both may realize their individuality from one another. THIS is the end of the search. I am unsure as to what Marx would say about this moment, but I feel that he sweeps it under the rug in many ways. Marx would rather Consciousness stop this process at the discovery of itself belonging to an 'us' rather than continuing to reflect upon the implications of that 'us' and the uniqueness it brings with it. This uniqueness, or individuality, I would propose is the source of what Marx would claim as one of the "man made illusions"- Competitiveness.

I would argue that this is not an illusion but rather an primitive thought, and an animalistic based reality. The first claim, of it being reality based in primitive thought, is shown by Hegel in the Phenomenology at the very beginning, when Consciousness strove to individualize everything. I would argue that this desire expressed by Consciousness is derived from a innate sense of its own individuality. Thus, once it realizes that it is indeed its own individual, it in turn realizes within others its own faults and shortcomings, much as we saw within the chapter on morality, when Acting Conscious saw its own hypocrisy within the hypocrisy of the Judging Conscious. After realizing such shortcomings, Consciousness A then attempts to better itself in order to be saved from further critique. When Consciousness B sees what is happening, an interesting problem begins to unfold. Although Consciousness B wants Consciousness A to better itself and hold itself to the same standard that others hold themselves to, there is another force within Consciousness B that rears its ugly head; the Animal.

If we were dealing with beings of Pure Consciousness, I would believe Marx's idea to be a stroke of genius, and lacking little to nothing as a blueprint to Utopia, however that is not the case. As humans we exist as creatures of a dualistic nature; Consciousness and Animal. Mind and Body. As a Consciousness we are able to overcome the animal in many instances, but to demand such of the body full time is something that we cannot expect from the masses. The most basic, and thus most innate, of these instincts is man's aversion to pain/death [self preservation]. Once Consciousness B realizes Consciousness A is outdoing it, then it will, under the same instinct of self preservation, attempt to combat this new threat to its position in the world. Although there are those who are able to overcome such instincts, the idea that we could expect such behavior from people on a universal scale rather than individually is presenting a large problem to Marx's ideology.

With this fundamental difference between Marx's vision for the world and the base of our existence, is it possible then for his ideas to ever truly be realized? If so, how can we as humans combat our very nature and the evils that arise with it [greed, lust, envy, etc.] through the process of recognizing ourselves and others as individuals?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On the Autonomy of Bourgeois Art and the Avant-Garde Reaction Against it

On Tuesday, we spent a good bit of time grappling with the proletariat/bourgeoisie distinction, with Dr. J warning us to avoid trying to defend ourselves in our exploration of the class struggle that Marx describes. This, of course, is understandable; it's much easier to learn something when you're not implicated in what you're learning. Here's the thing: whether we like it or not, we're part of class struggle. As Dr. J put it, pretty much everything about how we operate in our day-to-day lives is at least partially determined by our situatedness in a capitalistic culture. The food you eat in the Rat? Provided by a corporation (one with more than a few issues with labor). Your iPhone? Though Designed by Apple in Cupertino, CA, actually manufactured in China. I don't mean to get up on a pedestal here; I eat at the Rat and have an iPhone, too. Let's face it: we're bourgeois subjects.

The bourgeoisie extends beyond big, faceless corporations, though. Think of any dead artist whose work you like: Warhol, Picasso, Monet, whatever. Guess what? Their work is bourgeois. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, just an inescapable one. Peter Bürger wrote an essay called "On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society" that explains all this. It's not an easy piece to get through, but I’m pretty sure that it’s brilliant (and worth a read if you're interested). Here, Bürger is arguing two things: first, that the autonomy of art is a contradictory idea, and second, that avant-gardistes attempt to negate this view of autonomy by subverting the processes of production and reception. Moreover, he situates both the contradiction and its negation as a result of and reaction against bourgeois society.

The idea of “the autonomy of art,” as far as I understand it, is that art is “free” insofar as it doesn’t have any purpose. Bürger aptly refers to Kant’s aesthetic work in The Critique of Judgement, in which Kant characterizes the aesthetic as “purposive without purpose,” which simply means that the appropriate objects of aesthetic judgement give the appearance of purpose without actually having one. For Kant (if I’m remembering correctly), this mostly refers to nature, though it’s easy to see how it applies to art as well. Bürger then points to Schiller’s extension of these ideas, which suggest that it is exactly this purposelessness that makes art useful in a way—for what Bürger calls “the furtherance of humanity.”

The contradiction of autonomy lies in the belief that such autonomy is the result of historical process; that is, art is autonomous at this point due to a historical progression. Bürger illustrates this progression by dividing art into three general stages: of function, production, and reception. These pertain to sacral art, courtly art, and bourgeois art, respectively. We designate art as “bourgeois” when both its production and reception lose their functionality and give way to individualization. By contrast, sacral art is artwork that is produced and received for a very specific function: group ritual; courtly art is created by the individual, but its function and reception are specialized: to glorify court life, for courtly people. Bourgeois art is created by an individual for an "anonymous audience"—that is, it serves no particular function, nor is intended for any particular person. We all approach bourgeois art as individuals. Avant-gardistes, according to Bürger, negate this individualization; he points to Duchamp’s Readymades as a prime example, in which the individualization of production is called into question by putting a signature on a mass-produced object. By the same token, the individualization of reception is subverted by the sheer controversiality of the object’s placement among other artworks.

The problem with avant-garde art is that, though it may successfully undermine the autonomy of bourgeois art, it eventually becomes accepted as normal. A general rule of thumb is that, when a movement becomes institutionalized, it can no longer claim to attack an institution. The most significant takeaway here, for me, is the problem that avant-garde art faces in bourgeois society: by presenting “something better” in contrast to the prevailing order, art runs the risk of idealizing—and so fictionalizing, or positioning as unattainable—the very thing it seeks to espouse. This propagates a “grass is always greener” sort of mentality, in which the bourgeois make themselves content with fictions, resigned to the stasis of their actual situation. It seems that, if we want to create work that provides some sort of impetus for change and progress, we have to be wary of idealizing that which I think is possible. Art is hard.

Redefining Asceticism

While I was reading Marx’s Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844, my attention was drawn to a particular passage in the section entitled “The Meaning of Human Requirements.” In this section starting on page 95, Marx draws certain similarities in the lifestyle of the worker and that of an ascetic. I become more and more convinced with every reading of this passage that Marx meant it this comparison as a sort of satirical criticism, but yet, I still believe the comparison is worth examining to see what Marx truly meant.

The practice of religious asceticism has been around for a long, long time. Asceticism has adopted many methods to detaching from the world and has managed to transcend the boundaries of religion; ascetics can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and many other religions. The ultimate goal of the religious ascetic is to become unattached to the material world and its desires. They give up all luxury and often many of their needs. They will live on very minimal food, just enough to survive, will spend long amounts of time in meditation, and have very little possessions, if any. They detach themselves from family and friends and many live in isolated places or wander from place to place. Some have even developed self-mutilation tactics in order to detach themselves from the world and their bodies. The Buddha even practiced extreme asceticism before his enlightenment (which he ultimately determined to be the wrong path for reaching nirvana) and legend says at his most ascetic stage he looked like this:

Marx says the worker in the capitalistic economy becomes an ascetic because he is forced to live on very minimal means. In fact, living at the lowest possible level of life, which he denotes simply as existence, has become the standard, he argues. Capitalism “changes the worker into an insensible being lacking all needs,” (95). The goal of the capitalist ascetic, he claims, is to increase capital. So in order to have more, the worker lives on less and saves. Marx says, “The less you eat, drink, and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public-house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save—the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour—you capital,” (95-96).

It became clear to me that this was probably satire at the point that Marx calls political economy “the most moral of all the sciences,” (95). This aside, I believe this comparison is a poignant one to describe the mental state of the worker. While the religious ascetic denies himself to reach god or enlightenment, the worker denies himself to increase capital. I’d suggest here that the worker comes to view his capital with such importance that it becomes like a god to him. Everything in his existence becomes second to this ultimate goal, even his own needs, not just his desires. Capital is god.

Consciousness: Gut Feeling tainted by emotions?

When Hegel speaks of conscience, he is referring to the gut feeling of the universal conscience or the moral consensus of consciousnesses as a whole. Simply, conscience is decided by our gut feeling. All consciousness’ conscience act in the same way and this is a result of the conscience’s confidence within itself. Yet this is not always true, because the conscience thinks it knows the right thing as a moral agent, yet it does not know morality. Therefore, the conscience causes the consciousness to be afraid to act because it is obsessing over good intentions. It feels it will be judged by the other consciousnesses.

In reviewing Hegel’s ideas on morality, I began to think about how emotion can affect gut feelings, and I came to conclude with Marx that Hegel did not apply his philosophy to reality and instead focused on the ideals. Otherwise, he would have seen that even the thought of being judged represents self-doubt, which is an emotion. The fear of judgment can cause the acting consciousness not to act and become the “beautiful soul.” Does Hegel underestimate the power of emotion? In his analysis of conscience, he seems to not bring up the idea of emotion as being associated with “gut-feeling”, but rather leaves gut-feeling as the defining factor of the conscience.

In my own personal accounts where I have listened to my gut feelings, a lot of the time my emotions played a large role in the deciding factor. We speak every day about how love, anger, and sadness can affect our personalities, and in return those emotions can alter how we feel about situations. Although we may not want to admit the strength of emotions, it is a difficult aspect of decision making within reality and one that I feel Hegel underestimated.

Also, by looking at emotions, we begin to see how individualized gut feeling is to people in different situations. Even within my close friend group or within my family, when we are faced with similar situations we chose different ways of acting. Some according to gut feeling and others vary from it. It made me wonder how Hegel could state gut feeling as being universal, without considering the impact of emotion. These are aspects of the morality of the conscience I feel that Hegel missed by not applying his concepts to reality. Yet, questioning these ideas of his philosophy made me wonder if I misunderstood him? Can emotion be separate of gut-feeling? Does emotion play a role in gut-feeling? Can gut-feeling be the same for everyone? And if so, how are these gut-feelings universalized?

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Endless Labor Cycle

In his piece entitled “Estranged Labor”, Karl Marx presents an argument against the idea of labor. More specifically, the labor of the blue-collar crowd, like the factory workers. It is a fairly easy argument to follow. Marx clearly outlines his position and goes through each step of the alienation process. One thing that keeps coming to mind as I read this item is the focus on the factory workers. I understand that the work that they do is labor-intensive, does not pay all that well, and of course the workers answer to the Boss Man which supposedly leads them to feel as though the work they do does nothing for them but really only supports the Boss or the Company. Other than probably minimal financial compensation, this work is not very satisfying. More than likely it does not hold any kind of personal interest for the worker. One does not typically think of a factory worker as being particularly excited or even all that interested in his or her job. But this idea provides an interesting question. What about those rare workers who are really into these jobs? Marx might disagree, but chances are that out there somewhere is someone with a factory job who is not feeling bitter and alienated but actually alright with his or her job. Do we run the risk of generalization when applying Marx’s theory? I think we do. I understand of course that sometimes generalizations must be made, but it is really kind of a depressing outlook if we think that all those people toiling away at factory jobs are feeling estranged and alienated not only from their jobs but from other people and maybe even life itself. What a grim thought. Also, one wonders why all the focus is on the factory-type worker. Maybe I haven’t read enough Marx to know if he writes at all about this but surely people in other jobs could feel similarly estranged? What about teachers? Sure many of them enjoy their jobs and like the feeling that they are making an important impression in the life of another but surely like the factory-workers some exceptions must exist. Some teachers must not really care all that much about the students and simply teach to pay the bills. They also end up with no product of their own. It just seems to me that it is unlikely that their is any job out there which has a 100% success rate when it comes to worker happiness. One more question. Would the factory workers be happier without these factory jobs? Would the freedom from the hostile Capitalist work system but living without pay be better than suffering in a repetitive, non-self-satisfying job? It seems to me that few people would choose to get over their issues and continue to work for the money. Without work there is little room for upward financial mobility. I guess I just think that while his argument is nice and concise, Marx is being a tad overdramatic. Sure I could argue that doing my schoolwork is causing me to become hostile and lose my identity but where does that get me? Nowhere. The factory worker is getting paid. It might not be all that personally-fulfilling, but it is still something to take home. Not everyone gets to be creative and do whatever they want. Nothing would ever get done. One could dream of not being a factory worker and enjoying a life of leisure or whatever they dream of, but one must always remember that without the factory workers nothing would get done and you would not be able to live that luxurious dream lifestyle without some people somewhere in factories, making those products that you use and enjoy.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Model of the Conscious Dialectic

Man’s Last Stand: Thesis

#1 Response: Antithesis


This past week in my Feminist Philosophy class, we watched three Dodge ram ads, which I have posted above. During the class, Dr. Johnson referred to the Hegelian model to the dialectic in order to better clarify the role of the three ads. (So although Dr. Johnson gave me the idea for this blog post, I felt it would be valuable to share with our class because it is a good example of the dialectic of consciousness)

Within the structure of the dialectic, the first ad represents the thesis. It is a commercial highlighting what man “puts up with” in the household. Due to all the emasculating chores, he is going to drive a car that brings out his man hood. The thesis that seems to be put forth is the idea of reverse sexism. The man is claiming to have lost a sense of himself due to all these responsibilities within his life.

In the second ad, women respond with a similar commercial yet their activities or performed duties are different. The ad seems to represent an issue of women’s oppression that is similar to mans. It is a retaliation or response to the Dodge Ad and the knowledge of the situation has not yet been transcended. It is with the third ad one can come to the new synthesis and a heightened perspective can be found. I am having an issue finding the third ad, so I am going to describe it. The third ad is the exact same as the first ad, except with doing the speaking role. The ad is suppose to show that although man feels there is a reverse sexism, the issues that he is complaining about are the exact same as women. It also stands as a model to try the opposite with the Women’s response ad #1. If man is truly oppressed then it would be safe to say their two roles would be enter changeable. Yet, if a man speaks the part of the woman in the response #1, he cannot even come close to identifying with the oppression woman undergoes. At this point a new synthesis has been constructed. The idea that both sexism and reverse sexism are mutual cannot be supposed.

The ads stand as a construct of the dialectic, and I felt many other issues could be placed in this model. Although I feel things get a little more complicated when referring to the master slave dialectic, I think this growth of consciousness represents an good illustration of how our minds actually work.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

With a Grain of Salt

If we phenomenologists are to follow consciousness through its frustrations, as well as comprehend the master and slave dialectic, must we inevitably resign ourselves to Hegel’s racist ideals that he later confirms in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History and his lectures on anthropology from Encylopaedia [sp] of the Philosophical Science? Before we agree to just let conscious run it course (and us simply follow again, as Hegel suggest), one must analyze where his grand project led and see if it was worthwhile. While Hegel would celebrate the entire process of consciousness, some his conclusions that arise from PS (especially in the context of the master-slave dialectic) towards race are simply unacceptable, and might lend to regarding parts of the endeavor worthwhile and not the entire process.

In his anthropology, Hegel states that rationality is implicit in mankind allowing for equal justice, but this does not keep Hegel from making prescribing how to rank the “races” he has created (39). He grants all humans rationality, yet on the next page he prescribes that “Negroes are to be regarded as a race of children who remain immersed in their state of uninterested naïveté. They are sold, and let themselves be sold…(40)” This seems contradictory, as well as just blatantly wrong and bigoted. It is no surprise that Caucasian Europeans represent the highest manifestation of culture and Reason. Of course Hegel is a product of the times, but for someone who identifies with Kantian sentiments, one could project that eventually someone would stir the ship of equality in right direction. Kant was equally as blinded towards the intricacies of concept of race, but given his insistence upon never treating others as mere means to a desired result, or end, it is surprising that Kant would justify slavery. I guess Hegel was doomed to repeat the same concessions in his philosophy given that Kant clearly did the same.

That is not to say that phenomenology is a worthless endeavor, but one must take it with a grain of salt given Hegel’s whole body of work, much like one must read Aristotle and Plato with discretion on their views on females in society. However, is this grossly racist conclusion, which arises especially in the context of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, a reason to disregard the PS in general? I would hope that the Phenomenology can be salvaged, much like the Kant remains in tact with regards to epistemology (unless you are Rorty) despite his egregious writings on race and justifications of slavery. So proceed with caution, fellow phenomenologists.

Works cited- Bernasconi, Robert, and Tommy L. Lott, eds. Idea of Race. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2000. Print.
I found this week’s reading to be particularly interesting given the fact that I was out of town at Mardi Gras in New Orleans all weekend. It is well-known for being a less than traditionally moral environment. I was faced with an abundance of choices of all kinds. Sometimes, however, it became a bit of a dilemma when the option became whether or not to pursue a night of crazy fun on Bourbon Street or to make what was probably the better decision. As I was reading up on Hegel’s “Morality” section, a certain concept really struck a chord with me. The idea that the conscience can determine what is right to do based on gut feelings and thinking through all the possible consequences really intrigued me. Do I dare have that other Hand Grenade if it means having to call my roommate at 5 AM to pick me up? Do I go spend the rest of the night with the adorable boy from New York despite having an adorable Valentine date waiting at home? My conscience certainly was in action this weekend. According to Hegel, the conscience can make anything seem morally right if you really think it through and build up a good argument. For example, I should really have that extra drink because I’m in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and I don’t know when I’ll be back. My conscience has proved to be incredibly helpful. If one doesn’t necessarily have a set moral plan for all situations (case in point) the conscience can really help to make the decision process easier. It must serve as the moral authority in each case where a set way of deciding isn’t ready. In the Guide to Hegel it says “ the individual who acts from conscience will look evil to others who abide by the established moral order”. I think this is so true. I have made some really sketchy decisions in the past and some of my more prudish or responsible friends have questioned my choices. Generally speaking, however, my conscience has served me well. I have very few regrets and the times I regret the most are times that my conscience was not my guide. Without a set rule for all potentially morally questionable situations, there is nothing else to do but listen to your conscience. It will fill the “moral void”. My advice is listen to that conscience, it is usually the best judge other than my best friend of what is the correct thing to do. And for those who were curious, yes I had the extra Hand Grenade and yes I went home alone and drove back up to Memphis just in time for my Valentine date. To quote both Marvin Gaye and Jiminy Cricket, “Let your conscience be your guide.”

Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic and Sexual Oppression

With it being the beginning of V-week I thought I would try to find something relevant to what we have been reading and that also dealt with women’s issues. In my search I found an essay by Luke Roelofs entitled Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic and Sexual Oppression. In the article Roelofs attempts to use the master-slave dialectic as a reason for patriarchal societies. The main argument of the article is that the conflict between two males is different from the conflict between a male and a female because the female when subjugated to the male is seen as a sexual object. The interaction between a male and female thusly emphasizes the physical differences between the two. The article brings up the idea marriage and states that;

“The wife will no doubt work for the master as well, but will be assigned tasks that do not give her sense of her own agency because they do not involve any change, any production, but merely the maintenance of things as they are… …She pours her effort into making the bed: it is slept in, and becomes messy again. So she repeats her work, repeats it every day, and as a result teaches herself… …that her work is simply static, something that exists and does not change or end, i.e. an object.”

The article puts forth that patriarchy stems from a need in individuals to exert their mastery over others and since everyone can’t be a master humans reached a sort of social contract where each master is allocated a certain subset of humanity to lord over. The article references that in most species males fight over access to females to gain the right to reproduce. Whereas humans, which are social animals, the conflict between males leads to a peace between them based on an agreement that allows for an allocation of slaves (women) to masters (men) such that a patriarchy is created. The society that is created excludes women through systematic sexual abuse and objectification. The argument that Roelofs presents is interesting but seems to adhere very loosely to Hegelian master-slave dialectic as it ignores the fact that in Hegel’s system when a consciousness no matter the gender interacts with another consciousness there is a struggle. Therefore I don’t believe it even allows for two males to broker a peace between each other to subjugate females since the whole point of the system is a struggle for acknowledgment of themselves as more than objects. I do feel the argument is interesting and presents an interesting take on the source of patriarchy through a Hegelian lens I’m just not sure how sound the argument actually is. What do you all think of this argument?

Here is the link to the essay

Truth as a Self-Sufficent Activity

For Hegel, truth is the activity of coming to knowledge. However, we ought to be careful thinking that the happening of truth is something like a gradual linear progression. Rather, it seems to me, that truth is like walking down a path you have never been on, wearing shoes that don't fit you and without water. As you keep walking, you are going to get lost (probably more than once) and your feet are going to hurt so much that you chuck your shoes, relieving the tension in your feet only briefly before you have to keep walking again (barefoot). Then finally if you don't find some water soon you are totally going to pass out. But if you make it through this weird journey, there will be water at the end, or rather, you'll realize that you could have been eating the leaves that were everywhere along the way the whole time to stay hydrated. If you only would have known! But hey, thats the truth right?

This description pits nature squarely against the individual, which is what I think the Phenomenology brings to light: the tumultuous relationship between consciousness and the external world. However, it is not just consciousness struggling against the world, but struggling with identifying itself within that world. The master-slave dialectic bring forth the fundamental issue of how one can know oneself in the world as both a subject and an object. But only through resistance can consciousness come to know anything. But if consciousness makes the same mistakes over and over again, learning though trial and error but continually failing, then what is it that motivates consciousness to continue? Is it consciousness itself?

Do countries participate in the master slave dialectic?

Sovereign countries, in many ways, behave like the individuals that compose them. While this is true, the similarities are not endless, and one might consider the activity of countries playing out the master slave dialectic a rather tenuous connection. Tenuous as it may be, who else is better suited to explore such a connection if not the philosopher?

Certain themes run throughout all of history but the manifestation of these themes changes with the times and so it is important to identify them in each time period and not be fooled by the fresh veneer. To attest to the veracity of this claim I will posit slavery as one such theme that runs constant in history while changing its appearance. Slavery was present in most of the ancient cultures and continued to exist in various forms until the present. Though many people are not aware, slavery is still thriving today, it has changed locations and in some places has even taken the guise of lawful work, but it still exists in shockingly high numbers.

In particular I want to examine countries that subjugate others through war. Do the countries that attack and conquer other countries truly recognize their sovereignty if they wage war against them? Is this the same as a consciousness trying to gain recognition? Hegel writes that a consciousness must present itself to the other, and doing so is showing “that it is not attached to any specific existence, not to the individuality common to existence as such, that it is not attached to life.” (p.113) I argue that in claiming to be a country, a country is staking its existence on being recognized as such by other sovereign countries.

When the Romans were expanding their empire they fought and defeated many barbarian tribes. These barbarians they conquered had structure and ordered societies, and yet they were not recognized as equal with the Romans and were defeated. This to me looks to be the life and death struggle that Hegel refers to on page 114 “ They must engage in this struggle, for they must raise their certainty of being for themselves to truth, both in the case of the other and in their own case. And it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won.” This trend can be seen in almost every war throughout history.

Countries are like individuals in that to establish their freedom and gain true recognition they must stake their lives (existence) on it. In the case of one country waging war upon another, the aggressing country does not recognize the other as its equal and the attacked nation must stake its life in fighting back or else become subservient (the slave) to the other.

Writing In The Particular:

Hegel's arrangement of the individual and the universal with the particular as a sort of mediating instance of both reminded me of the advice I've gotten many times in fiction workshops. In fact, the evolution of my work has a sort of consciousness-quest spirit to it: I began (as do many beginning writers, I imagine) with writing from experience. But the first thing new members of workshops learn is that true stories never convince anyone. There's a disconnect between what's being told and its significance for the author and the reader; as you write from memory, you struggle to construct what you know perfectly, not to give it resonance as a piece of literature. There's a relationship between specific events and people that you know and the ones everyone else does, and it's that relationship that gives fiction its power.
So I jumped, by default, to blanket universals. But pointing constantly to characteristics shared with others is overwhelming and uninteresting, and that method encounters the same problems consciousness had with choosing between the one and the many. The characters get lost in generalities and it starts to seem irrelevant to what extent they exist.
A good fiction professor (if mine are any indication) will advise students to start with the particular. It’s a strange phenomenon – less strange to we phenomenologists – that using specific details as a way toward universal experience influences readers more effectively. There’s some solace to be found in an interestingly nuanced creation that gently reminds you of your own world. Reading Hegel has given me an extended appreciation for how this works – it seems a function of the way we construct our understandings of the world and the way he explains our relation of that understanding to other consciousnesses.
It’s an interesting example of a question I’ve struggled with in terms of Hegel’s system. It seems that if the “truth is the whole” – that is, that each part of this individual-particular-universal arrangement is equally necessary and important, that what choices one makes don’t matter. I’m thinking especially in terms of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model we talked about early on; in that case, which side of the argument I’m on is irrelevant as long as my opinion exists. And the fiction writing analogy I’m trying to draw here supports that idea. The particular details don’t actually matter, as long as they’re there to provide a pathway to the universal.


Gut feeling and perspective

While writing the précis for our upcoming class, I found myself really identifying with Hegel’s theory about the conscience. He explains that the conscience relies on gut feelings and an understanding of the consequences of actions to determine what the moral choice is in a situation. When this method is applied, morality becomes subjective. Some might have an issue with this as they believe that morality is not subjective and moral choices are the same for everyone. While in theory we might like to believe that morality is a universal constant, in practice it is shown that what might appear as the moral decision to one person would appear different to another.

While we might idealize morality and believe it should show us the clear righteous path, the truth is things are rarely that simple. Most decisions involve conflicts of interest and don’t appear to have an identifiable or correct solution. The best we can hope for is that we make the best decision based on what we know and our perspective. While Kant wants us to believe there is a greatest good that we should strive for, he also says it is unobtainable. This means, just as Hegel points out to us, that the highest good isn’t founded in reality, but abstract pure thought. In this way, it is should be impossible to apply to reality as it does not exist in that realm.

I have long thought that morality was something that could not be universalized. Situations rarely, if ever, appear identical to all the individuals involved. People like to dismiss the idea that “truth is subjective” by bringing up the logical argument that A can never equal ~A. While it is always true that A cannot equal ~A, I don't think that is what the idea of truth being subjective is referring to. Instead, I think the idea of truth being subjective has to do with individual’s perspectives and how they can see things differently. Obviously I’m not saying that two people can look at the same thing and describe it differently, but what I am saying is two people can be involved in a situation in which they see the reasons and causes of things differently. I’m sure everyone has been in a fight with one of their friends in which both parties believe they are right. Maybe the dispute never gets settled, but you move on anyway. Sure you can say truth is whatever can be universalized or something similar, but the thing is we make up the ideas and complex systems. What is truth? Truth is a concept we invented so we could categorize things and convey beliefs to others. It seems as though we sometimes act as though truth or morality is something that predates our existence and we have to try to measure up to it, but really we make these things up. As such, I think it’s appropriate for Hegel to say that moral choice is based on perspective. Gut feeling is the only thing that can count for anything because that’s all we can really be sure of: how things appear to us. Since the only thing we can be sure of is our perspective of events we must base our moral decisions on that.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Confidence's Role in the Battle

Although Hegel fails to mention it in his section, “Lordship and Bondage,” I think confidence is a term that is essential to the system he lays out. However, in order for me to explain its relevance, I need to first sketch an outline of this system:

In a section we skipped over, Hegel explains the manner in which consciousness shifts its focus inward from objects in the world to itself. As I understand it, consciousness becomes anxious about its individuality. It worries that it isn’t any different than all the objects it sees (that it is just another object rather than a subject.)

This desire to be recognized as a subject, or something apart from the objects around it, becomes consciousness’ motivation. At first, this motivation leads it to negate the world around it, and, strangely, Hegel seems to think negation is akin to destruction. Unfortunately, after this destruction, there is nothing left for consciousness to impose its will on. Thus the process of destroying other objects in order to prove its individuality ultimately fails.

As a result of this failure, consciousness realizes that the only substantial way to be recognized as a subject—as something different from the world of objects—is by being acknowledged by some other consciousness. Thus it begins to seek other consciousnesses. When it finally does meet another, the only way recognition can be achieved is if each consciousness puts its life on the line. Hegel explains that by risking its life, each consciousness proves “that it is not attached to any specific existence…that it is not attached to life” (113). In other words, in being unafraid of having its life taken away, a consciousness is demonstrating that it is something more than the object that is its body; namely, it is a subject. (It is important to note that in a fight to the death, it is this object—the one serving as a body—that would be destroyed.)

In my opinion, this life and death struggle for recognition—which seems to be an essential step in Hegel’s system—presupposes confidence. Each participant in the struggle must be confidant that it actually does have some existence that is separate and independent from its body. If a consciousness lacks this confidence, then it seems it would be unwilling to put the life of its body on the line. If this where to happen, it is unclear how the two consciousnesses would interact. Likely, the unconfident one would simply forfeit to the confidant one and willingly become a slave. However, in this case, it is unlikely that the enslaved consciousness would ever have a chance of being free, because one of the essential ingredients of freedom, for Hegel, seems to be this risking of one’s life. (Recall that in Hegel’s system, the enslaved consciousness ultimately becomes freer than the master.)

The Ethics of the Master-Slave Dialectic

As a refresher, the master-slave dialectic begins from the idea that consciousness can only gain knowledge of itself as an individual by meeting resistance from the objects over which it exerts its will. The problem is that objects can’t really offer resistance, as they either bend to our wills or break. So the only way that consciousness can come to know itself is through encountering the one thing that can offer resistance—another consciousness. To Hegel, this resistance amounts to nothing less than a life-and-death struggle, in which both consciousnesses offer up their lives in the effort to be recognized. When one consciousness decides that the struggle for recognition is not worth dying, it consents to slavery, giving the new “master” the recognition it desires; however, this recognition is ultimately hollow, as the slave is not giving it in earnest, but as a defense. In class, we compared this to one person in a relationship bending to the will of the other and saying “I love you,” even when the sentiment is not true. In the master-slave dialectic, neither consciousness achieves the desired recognition. There are two major ethical implications here that I want to examine. First, that the slave effectively chooses slavery; second, that consciousness’ individual knowledge of itself is dependent on other consciousnesses—that is, we need other people so that we can be “selves.”

These implications work together, so I want to look at the first one in light of the second. The obvious ramification of the second (to me, at least) is that, because the individuated self is contingent upon the resistance and recognition of and by another consciousness, we should care about others. To view the self as a sui generis creation is ultimately a fruitless (and pretentious) stance, willfully ignorant of others’ influence on one’s individual being. So shouldn’t we actively seek to mitigate the enslavement—metaphorical or literal—of other consciousnesses? To accept the first implication, that enslavement is at the whim of the enslaved—is to condone it. Though I can agree that slaves to have the freedom to change their predicaments (through suicide, if nothing else), how can we submit them to such a challenge if they are not phenomenologists? People born and raised in oppressive environments cannot have true conceptions of their individuated consciousnesses and as such may not be aware of their own freedom. The role of the un-oppressed—those outside a particular master-slave relation—then, might be to undermine the master-slave relationship, validating the oppressed and encouraging a return to the life-and-death struggle for recognition. This is revolution.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The dialectic and me

As we have most likely all discovered by now, Hegel uses the dialectic as his method for discovering truth. Throughout the phenomenology consciousness continually encounters a problem and uses one extreme to attempt to solve his problem, or answer a question. Then when that attempt fails he quickly jumps to the other spectrum and uses that extreme to answer the same question. What consciousness eventually finds is that the answer to his problem/question can only be solve by synthesizing the two concepts into one new concept.

During sense certainty the struggle for consciousness is in trying to identify a common object. At first, he attempts to do this by using only the singularity but not allowing himself to relate to any universal concepts. When this method fails to truly capture what consciousness means to convey, he switches to only using universal concepts without making reference to any type of individually of an object. Eventually consciousness learns that only through meshing these two concepts can he truly explain what he means and convey what he intends. This is the dialectic as it is played out in sense certainty.

Now, my qualm with the phenomenology is not with the dialectic itself, but in how it is presented. In my experience through life I have thought and I cant say that I can see the dialectic in many things in my life. I don’t see it in the way I approach the world, or the decisions I make. I have thought about this, and so I thought about how we see consciousness. Even thought I don’t remember or cant recall distinctly the dialectic in my life, I do see it in children, much like the place consciousness begins, and I recognize it there. But children when they for instance are playing with a toy, and then their parent takes it away, they are confused. They start to cry and are scared that their toy is gone forever. But, the child is not in any position to understand the complexity of what is at work, or recognize the changes it itself is undergoing really. This made me question myself, and wonder, “Am I just the same as the child? Moving through the dialectical process, but not recognizing or understanding it?” It seems to me that I might be just like the child. I might be coming up against new challenges, and attempting to solve them just by moving from one extreme to the next, until I synthesize the two and find an answer. This is a very difficult dilemma for me, because I don’t know if I will be able to recognize this change in myself. However, I will continue to attempt to try.

Hegel and Saussure

Today I was reading a bit of Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, and saw an interesting alignment with Hegel, especially his criticism of sense-certainty. I am referring to Hegel's statement that if we are unable to express a concept in determinate language, it is untrue.

The parallel with Saussure is in his ideas about how we perceive language. Essentially, he claims that when we think about something like a tree, we have two components of our object. First we have the signifier that is the sound-image, the sensory aspect of an object. This could be anything from a picture of a tree to the literal word "tree" or arbor or what have you. The second component of tree, the signified, is our concept of it. This one is more difficult to articulate, because this part is usually what happens in our head. The evidence that concepts exist is that we can think them without using our lips or tongues to make any sounds. (the sound of thinking?) So, the sound-image and the concept, signified and signifier respectively, are united to become what we consider a sign. Languages are made up of signs, forming the structure for any kind of communication.

It seems like Saussure is in agreement with Hegel because the inherent bondage of language and concepts is apparent in both works. Objects without concepts cannot be true just as sound-images without concepts cannot exist. When you think about it, language can be broken down to the simplest of symbols representing concepts or sounds of their own. Of course, our mind is the machine that creates the shortcuts so that we never really have to sound out each individual letter when reading a word (aloud or to ourselves) and our mind is also the mediator of our sound-image and our concept. We have to view language as an interdependent system continuously changing, growing, being controlled by those who use it. Just like the mind, our languages must remain flexible because our language can never really be tamed. In my days of learning Chinese, I realized that I could never truly be fluent simply because it isn’t my first language (or the easiest to learn, by any means.) So many things like humor, idioms and syntax are largely culturally perpetuated in our language acquisition, but I digress…

One thing that Saussure and Hegel both surprise me with is their perpetual optimism about the capacities of the human mind. I guess they were both tackling such incredibly intellectual fields, so they had to have faith in their own capacity to reflect on the complex ideas that inevitably pop up. An issue that arose in Saussure’s work was his claim that sign systems (languages) are based on binary oppositions. This is the Achilles heel that the proceeding literary movement post-structuralism chose to strike. Should have seen that one coming.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mutual Recognition and God

As Hegel moves from the dialectic of the object to the dialectic of the subject, he explains that what consciousness is now in search of is self-certainty. Consciousness has now become self-conscious and is looking for a way to be certain of itself as an independent being. Hegel explains the only way for consciousness to do this is to become in and for itself for another. By this he basically means that consciousness becomes certain of its own independent will when it is acknowledged as an independent will by something like itself, another consciousness. The point he will ultimately come to (as it’s been revealed by Dr. J) is that the best way for consciousness to achieve this recognition as an independent will is through mutual recognition with another consciousness.

When I examined my impressions of what “mutual recognition” would mean, I was reminded of an idea of God found in Sufism. From what I understand of Sufism, the Sufi perspective on God says that God created man so that through man’s consciousness of God, God might come to know himself. Man’s essential purpose in life is to remember God and become more God-conscious. They achieve this goal through varied means: prayer, mantras, dance, music, and also whirling in some particular orders. When a man is God-conscious, Sufis believe God is able to know himself better through the mind of that man. (If you’d like more information on this Sufi perspective, I’d try here:

This idea I feel is very relatable to what Hegel was talking about. If we put Sufism in Hegelian terms, God-consciousness created man-consciousness so that he could be recognized by man-consciousness as the God-consciousness and therefore be certain of his own consciousness through man. In other words, God is able to be self-certain of his independent will through mankind’s recognition of him. At this point I will admit that I am not entirely sure this works because of the possibility that God-consciousness and man-consciousness are too different to be able to recognize themselves in each other. I do not know whether it is important for the two consciousnesses to be on the same level in order to recognize their own independences through each other. And I am sure many will object to this idea on the basis that they have no empirical evidence that even provides them with a God to recognize themselves in.

These problems aside, let’s just assume this idea could be realistic, that God’s self-certainty requires mankind’s recognition of him as an independent will. If this is true, then isn’t that almost saying God’s very existence as a self-certain independent being is dependent on mankind believing in God? For centuries man has believed that God’s existence (or non-existence) shapes humanity as independent, intellectual beings. If the recognition idea was true for all consciousnesses, wouldn’t that then suggest that mankind’s existence also shapes God as the being he is?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hegel and Truth

The Preface and Introduction to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit deal extensively with knowledge, a central theme of the text. Hegel shies (or rather, elects to abstain) from proving the efficacy in reason, which to some might appear negligent. However, this omission is fairly excusable even should you disagree with his dismissal of basic epistemological concerns on the simple grounds of expediency. More important to reading the Phenomenology is Hegel’s theory of truth.

Hegel clearly looks to the whole for truth. It becomes clear the whole at which he is looking is historically expansive while anchored in Hegel’s monist unity. Still, grasping Hegel’s concept of truth has proved a significant task I have yet to comfortably resolve. The following quote from the Phenomenology gets at the nuanced conception of truth Hegel held:

“True and false belong among those determinate notions which are held to be inert and wholly separate essences, one here and one there, each standing fixed and isolated from the other, with which it has nothing in common. Against this view it must be maintained that truth is not a minted coin that can be given and pocketed ready-made. Nor is there such a thing as the false, any more than there is something evil.”

Perhaps easier than directly gleaning Hegel’s conception of truth from the text would be examining a common conception of truth in relation to Hegel. A common theory of truth is adherence to an objective world (either directly or through such a mediator as a proposition). When a detective grills a suspect for the truth, they are working toward an understanding of presumably objective events through a singular account of someone who experienced it. While working towards an objective account, the detective must also determine whether their suspect’s statement itself is true. While the truth of the suspect’s statement might also be weighed in its accordance to an objective reality, it can as easily be measured by adherence to what that suspect actually believes. This standard of truth doesn’t require an objective reality experienced by all, though it could easily render the detective useless: their case could quickly become filled with seemingly contradictory “truths.” It would seem Hegel’s truth of a crime would be an understanding of the perceptions of all those involved in the crime and perhaps even their motives, as they are a distinct and strong force upon what happened. However, I am unsure if this painting of a search for truth in a crime scene would merit even a glance from Hegel. Is there an underlying truth to a series of events, or are they merely particulars imposed by man upon a shared experience? Ultimately, I do think Hegel would find such a truth, if only from my knowledge of the importance he placed upon history. Other conceptions of truth also lend themselves to Hegel. More pragmatic notions of truth, such as Charles Sanders Peirce conception of truth as that which is guaranteed not to conflict with experience, echo of Hegel’s dismissal of inquiries into the effectiveness and limits of knowledge. Other conceptions of truth hold it as more a convention or product of language than a natural occurrence.

I found this entry an interesting read on truth theory.