Tag Archives: capitalism

On Culture and Power

This essay originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly feature in my newsletter. It has been edited slightly for this format.

Like many of you, I’ve been preoccupied by the issue of power in the United States. I’ve been thinking about how cultural change and policy interact; how power is conferred and reinforced, and how exactly to understand where our national cultural is at this moment in time. The last preoccupation is likely impossible until historians get a crack at things a few decades from now. Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult for social scientists to get a true handle on what’s going on.

Knowing full well that distrust of institutions is partly what contributed to our present, incomprehensible reality, I find myself wary of those with institutional power who have failed, over and over, to push back against the unilateral directives coming from our Executive branch. Deep down, I had more faith in both parties, and perhaps especially in the party with which I most frequently disagree. Surely Republicans held the sanctity of our national narrative in higher regard than this. Surely they would be the ones to say, “Enough” and take action to protect, if not the people being harmed, then the Constitution. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on them until I found myself shocked, again and again, by their lack of action. Here I was, assuming they were the party who truly cared about America. And now I’m not sure they even have the power to do anything, much less the will.

Power is tricky. At once simple and complicated, it can be easy to locate but difficult to trace. The origins of power are distinct, yet related to, the execution of power. But where is power located?

  • In individuals whose actions have consequences for others. An individual’s authority is granted by the populace over whom they have power – either explicitly (via democratic elections) implicitly (via cultural tradition) or by violence (see “military might,” below). Leaders have a social contract with the public over which they have power – without the public’s support, an individual cannot impose their will without additional sources of power (see below). Authority is earned and can erode if the social contract between the public and the individual leader is broken.
  • In institutions that provide the scaffolding of civil society. A few days ago, I read in the LA Times that the Getty released a statement condemning the recent executive order that resulted in a travel ban. The fact that an arts institution wrote a statement commenting on a federal action, released it, and was taken seriously by a media organization speaks to the power that institutions have within our society. But institutions, like individuals, also owe their cultural cache to the unspoken acknowledgment of the public, who confer upon them the status of institution within the broader social landscape. Institutions are authorities when it comes to certain types of knowledge, leaders by virtue of their reputations as depositories of society’s “best.”
  • The media is a special type of institution that has enormous power of information and the dissemination of knowledge. They often steer the direction of public discourse by choosing how to represent reality, and as such act as intermediaries between the state and its citizens. But the media, too, is dependent upon the public for their authority. The power to produce information as knowledge is granted by the people who interact with this institution and its knowledge. Once people distrust a source of information, that source’s power is diminished.
  • In military might – physical power. This is related to the power of individuals and the state/institutions, in that most state power is underwritten by the possibility of military force. That is, the threat of violence. I don’t agree with everything in this sobering Politico article, but this line illustrates the primacy of violence to any system of power: “We must (re)accept the notion that hard power is the guarantor of any international system: security is a precondition for anything (everything) else.”
  • In capitalist societies, power also lies in money. This is why you are often addressed as a consumer, and called upon to exercise your power by buying or refusing to buy certain items produced by certain companies. This is why the Citizens United decision was so important. Why people are up in arms with billionaires gaining direct access to government through cabinet appointments. The power that accumulated capital has over our institutions cannot be overstated, and it’s the reason – and it pains me to say this – a corporate response to the federal government may be our best hope to stop the deterioration of our national institutions and social structure.
  • But there’s an important location I’ve failed to devote separate attention: the public. The public is a consistent source of power, as many of the entities where power is located draw their authority from the complicity of the people. So ultimately, power is located in society.
  • In culture. People who shape policy respond to public sentiment, to cultural shifts. To shift the execution and consequences of power, culture must shift. Understandings of what power is, who or what can wield it, and in what ways, can change and thus alter the social fabric.

Our social fabric is partially held together by the nation-state and the ideologies it reinforces. The nation and the state are distinct, yet interrelated, entities. The nation is a cultural entity – comprised of its citizens. The state is the institutionalization of that national culture, backed by military might. Our national culture has always dehumanized people arriving from different places. Our state has always afforded different strata rights and privileges to groups of people arbitrarily delineated and made distinct from the un-marked “white” category of person who is automatically afforded full rights and humanity. How do we change culture and enact policy that aligns with our values and serves everyone; treats everyone as fully human?

Our nation has always been broken. Our country exists because of colonialism: we are colonizers, reaping the benefits from land stolen from people white colonizers considered sub-human. Anthropology is itself a product of colonialism, and we have a moral responsibility to do no further harm with this form of knowledge production. That means listening to the people we aim to understand, ensuring they speak for themselves, bringing their truths to light. Deconstructing the many meanings of cultural practices.

We are constantly creating and reinforcing aspects of our society and culture as we go about the practice of living. This means we all have some power to shape reality, to effect change. I’ve been thinking about what I can do, besides calling my representatives, to help heal our nation. How cultural change can influence policy. It’s my duty to expend effort in service of the greater good, especially if my efforts can benefit those who have been repeatedly disadvantaged by our government, institutions, and other social systems.

After spending the past year half-heartedly trying to be a freelance writer, and falling back into grant writing and nonprofit communications, it’s clear that what I need to do is draw on my training in the social sciences and get to work. I’ll be looking for ways to contribute to organizations that are working for social justice, and that means acknowledging that while my experience of obtaining my MA was traumatic, it in no way negates the social science training that I have at my disposal. It’s my obligation, and my desire, to apply my training to the betterment of society.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

Maximal Meta-Discourse, Engage: Ready (again) Player One

A few years ago, I wrote a response to a response to Ernest Cline’s sci-fi novel Ready Player One. Without having read it. But my response was mostly about the intersection of capitalism and nostalgia, not the book itself. I stand by that post, but I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally read the book.

Let’s pretend this is timely. After all, E3 just happened, bringing with it renewed hype surrounding the Oculus Rift.

But really, I just want to make good and examine Cline’s debut novel on its own merits, not in terms of what Douglas Wolk found compelling, unsettling, or disappointing. Now I have my own grievances to air.

So if you’re so inCline’d, check out my review of the actual book over at my other site, “Books, not People.”

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Filed under Book Reviews, Meta, Nostalgia, Technology

Walgreens Commercial Normalizes the Objectification of Women Using a Young Boy and Christmas

Briefly:

There’s a commercial running for Walgreens Pharmacy, claiming it’s a great place to find gifts for the holidays. Leaving this insane claim and any deep analysis of commodification aside, I’d like to talk about what the commercial does visually to make the objectification of women seem cute and normal. The commercial centers around a young elementary school boy who is giving gifts to various female classmates, all awe-struck by his shopping prowess. The young ladies man then turns his gift-giving attention to his teacher–at the same time that the camera turns its attention to her rear end as she writes something on the board. The boy gives her the gift, and she walks away. Cut to a shot of him smiling in the direction that she walked away, causing us, the viewer, to surmise that he is watching her walk away. Like a sleaze. We are meant to think he’s getting a good look at her ass.

And the commercial frames this as funny-cute. As normal. It implies that this boy has the right to do this because he bought her a gift. It ignores, or makes light of, the inappropriate of this in several ways:

1. On an age level, by attributing sexual motives to a prepubescent boy

2. On a gender equality level, by reducing a woman to her sexualized body part that is ogled

3. On a power and ownership level, where the buyer/gift-giver is accorded rights to transgress social decorum

Ugh. Just, ugh. All of this is what is wrong with our culture. That all of this gross sexism and scary commercialism is wrapped in a pretty, innocent bow of holiday generosity.

My ass.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Commodification, Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Uncategorized

My Politeness is Not for Sale, and You Couldn’t Afford it, Anyway!: A Customer Service Rant

Customer service is one of the worst social interactions many of us engage in because it’s almost always a sham. And we know it. Knowing how fake the interaction is makes it that much more difficult (for me) to participate in sincerely.* 

In a customer service social interaction, politeness is for sale. Along with the (implied) purchase of a consumer good or a service is a built-in benefit of pleasantness on the part of the service professional. It’s a simple commodity-exchange relationship, but (in the U.S. especially) we expect to sugar-coat that with a false sense of cheer. In a normal social interaction, one not so directly contingent on the exchange of money, politeness is something that is almost earned: if one person in the interaction is polite, the other is more likely to be polite as well. But they are not obligated to be–no one is obligated to be. In contrast, during a customer service interaction, the promised payment of money obligates only the service professional to be polite. That person’s demeanor is being manipulated by money.

MY POLITENESS IS NOT FOR SALE! It SHOULD NOT be for sale! That drains politeness of much of its value, and maybe this is why society is becoming more rude in general. If we’ve commodified everything (see Strasser 2003), turning much of our dealings with strangers into fake social interactions that only obligate one party to be polite, and both parties know this politeness is fake because it’s being bought, then why should anyone value politeness in and of itself? Niceness becomes a perpetual sham, and no one will know how to feel it or genuinely be polite, anymore. A stretch, okay, but I see kids running around acting entitled to everything without even having to act polite or gracious, nevermind actually feel those things. And their parents let them! Is our consumer culture, which hinges on various commodity-exchange relationships like customer service interactions, ultimately to blame for this general slide into rudeness? Look me in the eye when we’re talking and put that goddamn phone away!

My main point is that customer service social interactions make me angry because they are so fake, and because they put a price–albeit unquantified–on the manner in which the service professional engages with a fellow member of society. Except, of course, the service professional is not the consumer’s equal, because the consumer has been taught to feel entitled to the service professional’s robotic smile and fake politeness. The service professional is a slave to capitalism’s social consequences. Their behavior is devoid of free will and instead dictated by the possibility of acquiring capital from the customer.

I say it’s time we called shenanigans, and started treating people well no matter what. Alternately, if you’re a service professional and a customer is rude to you, you should be able–even expected–to be rude in kind if the spirit moves you, because why should you have to take it just because the customer is the one with the money? It’s likely not going into your pocket, anyway, but that of the company you work for. And I feel it’s more important that we teach each other the value of engaging nicely with everyone regardless of their social position within a customer service interaction. Regardless of who holds the money, and where it might be spent.

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*This is why my smart, rude customers will complain about my sarcastic attitude. They don’t appreciate that I’m multitasking by trying to teach them a lesson in how to behave and being metapragmatic by commenting on the fakeness of our social interaction even as we are engaging in it. So I guess they’re really not that smart–or they’d rather focus on how rude I’m being because they think they’re entitled to my smile in spite of their disrespectful attitudes because they’re ostensibly paying to be there. Which is bullshit. My attitude is contingent on yours, not how much money you make in a year, who you are, or how much you’re dropping on this visit to our store. Asshole.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary