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 Day 19

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Dispatch From Apathy

Hatred + Idealization = Self-Negation

by ANDREW SMOLSKI

I want to be clear from the jump; this is not a scientific piece of writing. Instead, this is about critique, or something of that sort. All these dispatches are supposed to reveal a dream for finding new ground when thinking about our predicament and producing a positive way forward. The examples I use are not ideal types for analytic use, but instead caricatures in a sense created by me in contact with society or society in contact with me. [1] My hope is that from my scorn for these caricatures, a way will open up with which we can move the frontier limits of what the working class is as a cultural symbol.

It is about combating a certain version of reasoning that makes the working class a means of explanation and representation rather than an end in-itself for liberation; that is, the working class becomes their own reason for failure or their own negation, rather than their own positive and affirmed formation. Or possibly, I myself have already failed, for what is this short essay, but using the working class to explain and represent. The judge is not me, but some dialogic process between readers, the written word, and whoever I may be.

At least I desire it to be so, that this essay becomes a text of resistance, an act of humanity, following Malabou’s construction of the Humanities’ task as man’s self-construction. [2] It is then a call for an autonomous reconstruction of the working class as a varied, differentiated cultural symbol, one we build together and that does not enter stasis.

***

Let me meander through the miasma of framing the working class in the American culture industry. [3] The working class has multiple stereotypes that are utilized to limit what the working class is as a symbol used in discursive practice. [4] From these multiple stereotypes I want to reduce them to what I conceive of as their two base forms framing the working class for popular consumption. The reductionism means the multiplicity of subjective experience involving what it is to be working class is then represented as two universal categories, rather than singularities for given historical contexts. [5,6] It also means the two base forms act as central points around which discursive practice operates.

The first base form involves many recognizable stereotypes, from the bigot redneck to the welfare queen. These descriptions of working class people make them out to be slime. Part of this is due to the subjective experience of life most people in the working class have. Who hasn’t had a deadbeat cousin or uncle? You know the one; the notorious drunk who has lost the empathy of others after so many transgressions against the “family”. The mass media plays off this in shows such as COPS, which demonstrate to us the stupidity and ignorance of the working class. A drunk in shoddy clothing or maybe without a shirt, meant to play with our intuitive disgust that this or that individual is a part of our society.

Where we often have some understanding of the causes for an uncle’s or cousin’s transgressions and give reasons for them, most of those represented on television are considered to be poor-decision makers. That is, they are at fault and it is completely of their own design. We the people who are sitting on the couch are invited to actively cast judgment on those people, to hate them. It does not matter that this means we ignore the cliché line every American is always stating about not judging books by their covers.

These are un-people, an “Other” who are considered undeserving critical engagement with their lives and history. Actually, we create their lives; not their actual lives, but a virtual reality of what we believe their lives to be. [7] We are sure they are drug addicts, dead beats, thieves, and so on. So many obese and diabetic fools trapped in by industrial agriculture and falling into disarray put forward as the freak show for our eyes. These working poor are stripped of innocence and found guilty. Guilty because they appeared on Maury or COPS, or any other show aimed at showing the derelict working poor; guilty, because they have been deemed so by history itself, as proclaimed by the capitalists. Even worse, when they do not fit their fixed representation, they are repressed to the point that they do. [8]

This first representation of the working class is meant to make sure we love the second base form, or at least see in it our redemption. The second form of the worker is one where work itself is put on the pedestal, and not workers. That is, the worker is a stand-in for the idea of work itself. And what does it mean to put work on a pedestal, to normalize “hard-working” with sweat on the brow and dirt on the jeans, to speak of the “dignity of work”? It means that the worker no longer can be visualized as having interests outside of work. Work becomes the focus, and anything that impedes work a sin, a horror. [9]

Putting work up above us and reifying it, this act is pure cruelty. It is an act meant to negate the deformed version of the working class, the version who tells the brutal history of our social system with its every ignorant statement. This dignity of work argument is best laid in shows like “Dirty Jobs” or every time a wealthy person on Fox News tries to talk about cleaning dishes to make a buck. The argument for work in-itself does not allow for a discussion of how the order of things becomes, that is how we arrive at who is and must be a worker. [10]

Neither of these forms of representation is gracious. Both cultural representations avoid the socio-economic reality, eschewing it as either an excuse for not working hard enough in order to further the maligning of workers or as contrary to the ideals of the working class who are supposed to idealize work. These two cultural symbols of the working class play off each other, framing the working class debate as an internal conflict between those who work and those who do not work. This debate does not necessarily reflect reality; rather, it is a potent piece of propaganda that embeds the working class who embody the debate. Even worse, following the much quoted line by Steinbeck about Americans seeing themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, class is in many cases either warped into lower/middle/upper or non-existent. We are constantly escaping being working class. We have learned to hate ourselves, while idolizing the very thing that makes our lives difficult, brutal, and on the average shorter than those in the upper classes. [11]

Is there representation of the working class that is varied that purports to not have anything to do with class? And if it has nothing to do with class, and merely is suppose to reflect the ‘average’ American life, then can we say it is representative of class? This, consequently, would rule out COPS, Maury, and other shows, as representations of the working class, because they do not purport to do so. If not representations out there, in the world, are they only mine? How much truth can be given to them?

***

I would like to invite readers to send in stories from their own lives, as well as fiction, non-fiction, movies, television shows, etc. that they believe represent a varied picture of the working class. In a certain sense, I think the best representation of the working class I have found is in two place; one not directly about the working class and another about a working class that did not see it as such. The former is the book Working by Studs Terkel and the latter is Jacques Ranciere’s Proletarian Nights.

Also, the notes below are less notes that reveal something about what was written, and more about the thought process going into why I wrote it how I did.

Andrew Smolski is an anarchist sociologist based in Texas. He can be reached at andrew.smolski@gmail.com

Notes

[1] In Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s introduction to A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, they joke or are absolutely serious about wanting to arrive at a place where ‘I’ is no longer important. They do not want this to mean that individuals don’t exist, but rather that each individual is already made up of cultural material borrow or co-opted from society. That is, to speak of pure individuality is a misnomer and impossibility

[2] See Catherine Malabou, “The future of Humanities”, http://www.transeuropeennes.eu/en/articles/281/The_future_of_Humanities

[3] See Theodor Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, for a discussion of this concept as the mass production of cultural commodities whereby aesthetics becomes controlled from the top and reproduces what it claims the public wants as opposed to what the public would make for itself if allowed to by the organization of political economy, http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/Culture_industry_reconsidered.shtml

[4] Discursive practices involve the use of language, images, symbols, etc. in order to (re)present ideas, concepts, etc. These practices are limited by frames/framing and continuously reproduce themselves in action without active intervention to change them, that is they become institutionalized

[5] Universal in this case means a-historical representations, and therefore, decontextualized from the social milieu. This is in opposition to singularities. Singularities in this case are social phenomena represented as historical contingencies dependent on decisions of the agents being represented

[6] See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, for a discussion of universal and singularity as concepts in terms of representation as an opposition between molar aggregates as reified generalities imposed on a population in order to make-the-same and molecular differentiation as a population’s ability to continuously differentiate and represent itself in a constant state of becoming , what they alternatively called a “microphysics of desire”

[7] One of the most in-depth discussions about the creation of the “Other” is Edward Said’s book, Orientalism. I suggest to everyone to go and get a copy, as it will clue you in on how representation is a matter of the organization of power in society and how that organization impacts the creation and utilization of knowledge

[8] A good argument for how this works is found in the “War on Terror”, where people who were not terrorists became terrorists after their villages were bombed and children murdered. For a discussion of how the “War on Terror” increased terrorism see http://www.chomsky.info/books/hegemony03.htm

[9] There is a lovely little book by Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy, where a similar argument against work is made and demonstrating how putting work on a pedestal is at least in part a way to contain the proletarians. I highly recommend it; especially, the AK Press and Charles H. Kerr & Co. with other biographical notes, two dialogues, and some other goodies

[10] To demonstrate the history of work idolized and the order of things (or maybe work falsely idolized, a lied used to control) I have found the most fabulous discussion in Jacques Ranciere’s book, The Philosopher and His Poor

[11] Probably outdated, but the first time I encountered numbers on the class disparity in life expectancy was in Political Ecology edited by Alexander Cockburn and James Ridgeway