Author Archives: politics

Occupy Education: An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Sunday, January 8, 2012, at Elliot Bay Bookstore, Seattle, WA

Interviewed by Rahul K. Gairola, Seattle University and University of Washington

 

In January 2012, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak visited Seattle for a number of reasons: to deliver the keynote address of the annual conference of the South Asian Literary Association (SALA), participate on a distinguished panel on the future of postcolonial studies at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America (MLA), and, among many other things, meet with local scholars, teacher, and students for an informal coffee date at Elliot Bay Bookstore.  Spivak’s many engagements prefaced the recent publication of An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Harvard UP, 2012), a collection of meditations that together explore the many instances of what she has called “the double bind,” which can be read as the elliptical shuttling between two subject positions where at least one, but more often both, are sites of the other. A double bind, in other words, involves a binary in which two subject positions can simultaneously oppose yet construct one another.  Spivak also describes the double bind as “learning to live with contradictory instructions.”[1]  We can think of this important concept as a function of many other concepts that Spivak has influenced throughout her substantive career: for example, she has famously argued that one can no longer claim subalternity one comes into representation.  This presents a double bind in the sense that we need representation to “know” what it means to be “subaltern,” but that representation itself is precisely that – a re-presentation whose meaning is overdetermined and distorted once it is mediated through a semiotic system of meaning production.  Another example is Spivak’s famous notion of “strategic essentialism,” which presents a double bind since it, on the one hand, recognizes that essentialism of identity is at play, but on the other hand acquiesces that the flattening of identificatory differences is necessary to secure political agency and bind subjects together for resistance tactics.[2]

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Conspicuous Consumption of the Leisure Class: Veblen’s Critique and Adorno’s Rejoinder in the Twenty First Century

 

Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class stands as a testament to both insightful social commentary and an unquestioning dogmatism of its contents in everyday academic discourse which verges on the commonsensical. Written at a time when the excesses of so-called late capitalism or postmodernity could scarcely be imagined by even the most gifted of social critics, Veblen’s belligerent and bombastic volume shatters the idyllic ambiance of the era with a scathing critique reaching back through the historical development of leisure and barbaric culture, as well as, unintentionally perhaps, into the future of consumer society. So powerful were his statements that one can even find mainstream media outlets parroting the famous concept of conspicuous consumption as they simultaneously peddle advertising slots to companies moving products through the ideological reflections of what consumption of these products might blissfully entail (a beautiful woman suddenly being interested in a geeky young chap just for using a body spray, for example). The empirical relevance of the concept in contemporary society is puzzlingly remarkable considering the original volume, as Veblen wrote it, is bereft of any empirical or theoretical citations, justified by the author by invoking the commonsensicality of the historical and empirical data, but also the onto-epistemological foundations on which Veblen’s thought rests.

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The Hipster Labor of Conspicuous Leisure

Thorstein Veblen’s greatest conceptual achievement was conspicuous consumption, a term that has passed into general common sense. But on my reading, his discussion of conspicuous leisure resonated more with the contemporary moment. These terms are, of course, interrelated: for Veblen, conspicuous consumption serves to indicate one’s conspicuous leisure time, and therefore the absence of any need to produce. Both amount to displays of waste:

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Leisure, the Sacred Gesture, and Human Dignity: Thorstein Veblen and Josef Pieper’s Understandings of Leisure

 

Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class sets out very specific definitions of words that we think we understand, use on a regular basis, and for which believe we know the definitions. However, Veblen challenges these assumptions, providing us with a new set of terms such, as “conspicuous consumption” and “vicarious leisure” as well as new definitions for familiar words and phrases that we thought we understood.  One of these terms, and the definition that he gives for it, in many ways determines the entire text: “leisure.” The Oxford English Dictionary provides us with a definition of this word that would have been in place when Veblen was writing at the turn of the last century. The dictionary defines the word this way: “The state of having time at one’s own disposal; time which one can spend as one pleases; free or unoccupied time.” However, Veblen demonstrates how our society, in particular our capitalist, pecuniary society, has altered our understanding of this word as it has warped our understanding of what is often considered its opposite: work.

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Poor Plenum: Veblen and The Economics of Philosophy

 

Thorstein Veblen’s genealogy of leisure, echoing a method perfected by both Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, works to continually pull back into the domain of “vulgar” conditions and impulses–a general economy of bodies, forces and classes–all things high-flown, decent, and untouchable (vi, 1994). The ambit of Veblen’s theory is such that it allows him to economically determine or “vulgarize” a whole series of seemingly disparate hegemonic practices now suddenly clustered and nameable along the axis separating leisure from labour. War, marriage, priestly service, governance, manners, sport are all absorbed into the debasing mill of emulation, the putative nobility or highness of each revealed as one long extended variation on power, avarice, and “exploit”(12). The state, the rich, the church, to say nothing of inherited bourgeois mores and conventions, all discover their beginnings in a shared history of repressed status and envy. Like all creatively designed systems, this is a project as ingenious as it is limiting and clumsy. That which stands to be lost in terms of sociological nuance returns in the form of a certain satiric elegance and universality, a critical breadth and incisiveness that we have not seen since the likes of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie, but which once characterized fully the rich power and sloppiness of the entire surrealist moment. It has not since been as easy as we might think to defrock pope, banker, bureaucrat and general all at once.

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Thorstein Veblen and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism

 

Thorstein Veblen’s analysis of America’s capitalist society in The Theory of the Leisure Class contains one chapter toward the end of his argument on religion, or, as he articulates it, “devout observances” (191).  The substance of Veblen’s critique of religion fits well within his larger treatment of the leisure class—indeed, the forces at work in religion seem to mirror much of what he finds wrong with capitalist societies.  But, Veblen also brackets his critique of religion to distinguish it from a more general, spiritual dimension, referenced elsewhere throughout his work.  In what follows, I discuss Veblen’s critique of religion and consider ways in which Veblen’s analysis and vision for capitalism contains a spiritual dimension.

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Have French Jews Veered to the Right?

Translated by Robert St. Clair[1]

I. An Inter-Jewish Schism

Have Jews gone right-wing? Even as the question may seem simplistic or politically incorrect, it presupposes agreement concerning the meaning of “left” and “right” in our post-cold war world of ideological disorientation. The French political commentator Daniel Lindenberg, in his Le Rappel à l’ordre: Enquête sur les nouveaux réactionnaires (Call to Order: An Inquiry into the New Reactionaries) includes a chapter entitled in English “When Jews Turn Right.”[2] His analysis of the situation is categorical. Preferring to err on the side of caution, I have turned his assertion into a question.

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Notes on Contributors

Tore Rye Andersen (reviewing Stephen Burn’s Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism) is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Department of Contemporary Literature at Aarhus University (Denmark), and chief editor of the Danish literary journal Passage. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the work of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, and he has just finished a book on the contemporary American novel. His current research deals with the materiality and mediality of literature.

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Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism

Burn, Stephen. Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism. London: Continuum, 2008.

Jonathan Franzen’s position in the contemporary American literary landscape is a curious one. His two latest novels – The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) – have been more or less universally lauded by literary critics. Freedom was thus proclaimed a “masterpiece of American fiction” on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, and in the Guardian it was hailed as nothing less than “the novel of the century.” And last fall The Corrections was chosen as the best novel of the past decade in a widely publicized poll involving several prominent authors and literary critics. Despite this lavish praise, Franzen’s novels have been largely neglected by literary scholars, at least compared to contemporaries like David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers, who have both had entire books and special issues of journals devoted to their work.

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Out of the Blue: September 11 & the Novel

Versluys, Kristiaan. Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Don DeLillo wrote in an essay titled, “In the Ruins of the Future”: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon? We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted…The writer begins in the towers, trying to imagine the moment, desperately.”[1] DeLillo asks, as many have and continue to do in the time since that awful day, whether it is possible for literature to reconstruct what happened, to provide a medium for making meaning, and thus move beyond the traumatic. Kristiaan Versluys, in his critical examination of “9/11 fiction,” argues that while the great September 11 novel has not been written and maybe never will, there have been genuine attempts made to “affirm and counteract the impact of trauma” (13).

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