Tag Archives: capitalism

Currently Contributing to my Brain’s (En)lightening Storm

Thinking about the larger structures that inform our everyday experiences has sent me into epiphanic raptures since at least my early college days. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several works that take a systems view of the pressing issues of our time. Taken together, they seem to coalesce around imagining what comes next for society and planet. At the very least they have all set my brain alight. I hope some of them do the same for you.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

A sample quote ~

We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us–but it might open our imaginations.

I first encountered Tsing’s work in my Intro Anthropology course, where we read In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. This helped us understand post-structuralist ethnography. Two years later in our “Commodities and Human Agency” course, I read parts of what was then her most recent book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. From Tsing, I learned about the critical value of studying the margins: of society, of economies, of history. Mushroom goes even further into this poststructuralist marginalia, incorporating multispecies perspectives into her meandering, riveting storytelling. She leans into the interconnection and impossibility of synthesizing competing narratives, recognizing the whole as mutable and somewhat unknowable. But always worth investigating. Her work, like much of the other work I’ll discuss in this post, allows me to envision a future worth creating and living.

The Next System Podcast on Capital Bias

Specifically, an episode about capital bias and transitioning to an economy driven by worker-owned enterprises. Marjorie Kelly reminded me why I got involved in starting a food co-op five years ago, and why Marx & Engels’ work on capital and labor is still relevant today. She challenges us to rethink the relationship society has with capital, and imagine how it might be different.

“You don’t eliminate capital any more than with feminism you eliminate men–you just change the power relationship.”

Kelly’s work on generative design and capital bias, not to mention The Next System’s larger project, accounts for causality and interconnectivity in our current state of economic inequality and ecological upheaval, among other seemingly intractable systematic problems. That people are committed to working through them gives me hope, and inspires me to join them in whatever ways I can.

Recent Reporting on Artificial Intelligence and Automation

Speaking of work and our ever-transforming economy, I was struck by two articles that dive into the implications of technological innovation: Mother Jones’ “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot” by Kevin Drum, and The New Yorker’s Dark Factory by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Optimistic these stories were not. But they do important work in further sounding the alarm about where AI and automation are leading our economy and society as a whole, and the fact that perhaps we should be putting policies in place to protect people and their livelihoods. Worker co-ops could be part of the solution, as could universal basic income.

Upstream Radio on Universal Basic Income

Upstream focuses on the social determinants of health, which means their work covers all sorts of fascinating topics, from climate change to the prison system to foodways to education. Its recent podcasts (or “documentaries,” to use their term) have tackled the various models of universal basic income and their potential effects on society. Like The Next System, they imagine the paradigm shifts necessary to enact more livable futures. Also like The Next System, their optimism inspires some skepticism: how on earth would our globalized economy shift away from capitalism? But they have intriguing ideas, and I’m willing to listen and learn whether some of them might be applicable.

Secret Feminist Agenda on Whatever it Damn Well Pleases

Hannah McGregor, co-host of the essential Harry Potter podcast “Witch, Please,” has a new show wherein she addresses current events, pop culture, academic topics, and much more via a feminist lens and in collaboration with intelligent guests. Secret Feminist Agenda has helped me rethink laziness and productivity, parenting, academia, accepting when work is “good enough,” how women are socialized to be cogs in a machine that extracts our labor for very little compensation, and most crucially, how to resist this by living differently in the world. It’s truly a balm in a world that is chaotic and overwhelming.

Hurry Slowly on Rethinking Work as a Sustainable Practice

Speaking of pushing back against the exhausting status quo, the podcast Hurry Slowly is interrogating the ways in which we can slow down and get more meaning out of our professional and personal lives. Guests share different workplace models that value a separation between life and job, reasons to limit smartphone use, and how to engage with nature as a restorative force. The overarching idea is to make a person’s productivity sustainable, and the strategies presented in these episodes are ones I plan to hang on to as I contemplate my future career moves.

Science Vs on Renewable Energy

Finally, I’d like to plug a recent episode of the podcast Science Vs, which asked whether it was possible to achieve 100% renewable energy. Far beyond renewing my desire to get more involved in combating the myriad ill effects of climate change, one of the show’s guests provided validation of my (admittedly rare) propensity to harbor hope for the future. When asked whether he would have children today, energy economist Jim Sweeney had this to say:

Absolutely…I’m not going to give up on the future because there are challenges. There are always challenges. I was born in World War II; my parents had children. So I don’t see that there is any reason for believing that we’re going to go to hell in a hand basket. We will have challenges there is no doubt about it.

All of the readings and podcasts listed above have reinvigorated my desire to go deep, learn more, and look for solutions to some of the major systemic problems society faces. I want more of the work I do to be geared toward building a future that values people and planet. There are many things to work on: climate change, economic inequality, educational access, gender equality, racism and xenophobia, environmental preservation–you name it, it needs some work.

Now to pick something and get started…

 

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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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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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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