“Does it look like it did on the menu? Minus, of course, the little dark clouds?”
A capitalist society systematically organizes each individual into a hierarchical gradient. Our modern conception of money is how our place in this gradient is quantified. There are times that I think economics is the most bizarrely intricate attempt to explain phenomena that we cannot understand. In the capitalist operative model of scarcity, money is valuable because money is mobility, money is expected social deference, money is the capacity to act at whim; yes, money is even the capacity to speak with effect and without sanction.
As individuals, we can each judge all of this to be ludicrous, or real, or valuable, or socially constructed. However, do we consider the implications laden in the act of analyzing the “constructions” of a disembodied “society”? The word “analyze” connotes perception. We analyze things that we perceive to be real and believe that “reality” is something concrete—something that simply “is.” My question is, by deciding to analyze “what is” do we actually impede our ability to create “what is”?
“Cause every time I try to hold my tongue, it slips like a fish from a line. They say if you want to play, you should learn how to play dumb.”
When we are criticizing “society” and its “constructions,” what are we doing? What is society but a group of individual people? What is a social construction but a concept collectively created by a composite sum of individual actions? We position ourselves as somehow apart from “society” which we personify as a disembodied force. What does this mean?I find it disturbing that all of you who I would include in my group of “like-minded individuals” are people that have made it their purpose to perceive and describe instead of to create.
I am posting passage from an article originally published in the New York Times Magazine that was cited in a journal I was reading as part of a research project. I found it incredibly unsettling to read. (Magazine article – “Without a Doubt” by Ron Suskind; journal article – “The Sexual Politics of Abu Ghraib: Hegemony, Spectacle, and the Global War on Terror” by Mary Ann Tétreault).
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like…I had a meeting with a senior advisor to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend—but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
“And I wonder how he can see where he’s going with those dollar signs in front of his eyes?”
All notions of ethics aside, I am beginning to believe that this is true—that some people act and others conduct various analyses of their actions. The non-actors tend to occupy themselves telling anyone who will listen how they think the actors should behave. We who study social science at Wellesley choose to spend countless hours exchanging they ways we interpret the actions of others in order to “better” our ability to explain what we see other people doing. This is an activity whose value we judge to be more than $200,000. It strikes me as vastly overvalued, considering that $200,000 could afford anyone a lifetime of doing things (with all the necessary amenities—food, water, shelter) if only she were to go elsewhere.
“Oh, to grow up hypnotized and then try to shake yourself awake / ’Cuz you can sense what has been lost, ‘cuz you can sense what is at stake.”
I firmly believe that we are what we do. So, why is it that we sacrifice realizing our fantasies and instead choose to sit reading, discussing, and theorizing about the actions of others? We choose classroom education over hiking the Andes, living in Laos, joining a guerilla group in Somalia, or embarking on a destination-less journey with a close friend or twenty. We make this choice every day for seven to twelve years longer than is legally required within the United States. We make this choice in hopes of bettering our chances of getting a “good” job. Many of us intend to spend the 20-40 years after graduation laboring for someone else doing god-knows-what simply to make our life of constant labor more “comfortable.” Many of us intend to someday give life to other being(s). We intend to make them “comfortable” while simultaneously encouraging them to spend their lives in the classroom hitting the books hard in order to labor, and so forth. In other words, we perpetuate this cycle by laboring through life and burdening the next generation with the insistence that do the same. Why? Why any of it? Why all of it?
“I’m tossing and turning between sleepless dreams. I’m poised on the edge of what it all means.”
It is terrifying to conceptualize myself as someone trapped into a caste of people whose primary social function is to comment on what others do. It terrifies me to consider the overwhelmingly expansive system of “morality” and accompanying narrative of “progress” that others before me have created, which I daily reinforce. I reinforce it every time I walk into a classroom to consciously digest creatively manufactured explanations for phenomena that no one understands. I reinforce it every time I silently assure myself of the righteousness of acting as I do even while I harbor intense desires to do something different. I reinforce it when I defend the merit of my continued act of academic study to others.
Foucault argues that tests and classification systems involve, “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth.” Tests function to assess progress towards normalization rendering each individual a set of data to measure against the norms. This creates the standards of perceived “truths” which will bring to bear on what is considered normative and shape individuals’ future actions. Foucault argues that this kind of power works to “mend” the minds of individuals who violate social norms, transforming them into “optimally” socially functional beings, “subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.”
We are all inescapably mortal which places physical restraints on our ability to act as we wish. We are limited in the sense that we all have an expiration date determined largely by chance. Beyond our physical limitations, all other constraints are those that we create for ourselves. Rejecting the belief that we gradually come to understand reality and subscribing to the belief that we each create our own realities is radical. In doing so, we render ourselves agents and determinants of our course. We free ourselves from the confines of the restrictions that we have placed upon ourselves.
“So let’s pull up some barstools, and get ourselves a ringside seat for the one unnerving moment they’re gonna show the truth on TV.”
More often than not, we, who have become so habitualized to disciplinary power’s normalizing force, do not even question seemingly objective phrases like “academic achievement.” Habitualization blinds us to the arbitrary and mutable nature of the definitions of these words whose definitions are of serious consequence. Thus, Foucault argues that truth is not something that exists waiting to be discovered but something that is produced by these and similar techniques. He says that there is no singular true answer to any question, or any single explanation for any human behavior. Yet, “regimes of truth” establish themselves, and these “truths” produce discourses that function as true in a given place and time. We internalize these manufactured pillars or ideals as veritable and ensure their persistence through generations by blindly reproducing them. These discourses shape and control interactions between individuals by manufacturing historically-specific “facts” that then stand to be disproven and which evidence often does not sway.
Foucault also finds the utilization of rhetoric of progress insidious, because it is through this rhetoric that exercises of power are justified and maintained. For example, people are very quick to attribute the increasing prioritization of education to the process human progress. However, while education may well improve people’s lives and promote new discoveries and technology, the inequalities institutionalized in our education system, help perpetuate poverty, violence, etc. In other words, while continual progress towards technological advancement and development is part of the story, it is certainly not the whole story. This incomplete narrative of progress is used to justify the current modus operandi, which in turn serves as justification for the perpetuation of systems of privilege.
“We woke up with the notion that enough is not enough without more, and then we pushed with one motion like the ocean heaves a wave at the shore.”
To relate this idea back to money, money does not have value except that which each of us bestows it. It is only a combination of linen and cotton. Its value is therefore representative, not intrinsic. Money becomes mobility, entitlement to material things and service, influence, and immunity from social and legal sanctioning as we act as if it actually is all of those things. We are criticizing the impacts of a capitalist system that we are creating, and we are spending our days doing it. What are we doing? Are we just not creative enough to imagine alternatives? Capitalism has not always existed—meaning, its continued existence is neither natural nor inevitable. It is something that had to be created. Because it has not always existed, there is no reason for us to presume its continued existence, especially not when many are predicting an economic collapse in this country.
Foucault says that socialization is inescapable for both individuals and their thoughts. However, without explicitly doing so, he gives us a way out by denaturalizing the “truths” and conventions that we have internalized as natural. Each varied genealogy of what exists in the present gives us an opportunity for the intellectual freedom to reconsider the merits of what society has taught us is normal and valuable. Thus, thinking and doing things differently is an alternative to legitimating the lessons of our socialization by blindly reproducing it.
We do not have to spend our lives in the classroom. Social standard operating procedure, systems of classification, and methods of governance have changed and will continue to change. However, change is not always “progress,” (though it may masquerade as such) unless individuals decide to act as if it is. We do not have to leave it up to our government to change laws. Our government is ruled by “regimes of truth,” not the “will of the people” and “the people” are indoctrinated and disciplined to reproduce these truths. The notion that the government is responsive to the will of the people and the notion that its sovereign people are responsive to its laws, work together to reinforce stagnation. While the laws may have changed radically, they often have little effect on the culture unless people change their behavior. (Prohibition, anyone?) Anti-hate crime legislation does not stop people from committing hate crimes. Anti-abortion legislation does not stop people from having or from performing abortions. Anti-discrimination laws do not stop people from discriminating.
Are we simply not bold enough to break free of this mold? I am stumped. I cannot account for the paralysis of the masses. As for me, I am paradoxically terrified of and thrilled by unpredictability. I am on a conveyor belt clinging to the comforting allusion of predictability it gives me…or that I create…or whatever. Lately though, I am on a fast track to “fuck it, all of it.”
– “Watching the little birds fly kamikaze missions into the walls, think I’m gonna stay in today, sit on my couch, and watch them fall.”
 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 184.
 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 138.
Note: all italicized quotations are song lyrics written by Ani DiFranco