Monthly Archives: January 2013

Today I taught Marx.

I did this to my students’ ideas that the free market is a good thing:

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And tried to show them that this is what happens to the worker in the service of the capitalist:

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And then this happened when one of my students asked, “Ok, I get that alienated labor is a bad thing. But what is non-alienated labor, and how is it different from private property?”

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But then by the end, my students seemed to come around to Marx and were looking like this:

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At which point, I was like:

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I’m just hoping they don’t write this in their papers. Uh, yeah, commodity fetishism. Totally comparable to a foot fetish.

One of my favorite passages from our reading (which was the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, section on Alienated Labor), is this:

Under the conditions of capitalism, “the worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feeling miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. The worker, therefore feels at eas only outside work, and during work he is outside himself. He is at home when he is not working and when he is working he is not at home. His work, therefore, is not voluntary, but coerced, forced labor. It is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means to satisfy other needs. Its alien character is obvious from the fact that as soon as no physical or other pressure exists, labor is avoided like the plague.” That’s why so many workers go home and veg out by watching TV, right? And feel most free during the work day when we get to take a bathroom break?

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Platonic Gossip

My friend Lily has this idea that Plato was the Perez Hilton of ancient Athens. Sure, we all go on talking about Plato’s ideas (literally– sometimes his theory of the Ideas)– the concepts of justice, love, philosophy, ethics, found in the dialogues that he wrote. But, according to Lily, what was probably the juiciest for Plato’s fellow ancients was the straight-up gossip that he shared in his work. After all, his works are dialogues that take place between a bunch of different people, most of whom were the intellectual lights of their day. Back when the agora was their version of Facebook, a place to see and be seen and talk with friends and see what others are up to. In his dialogues, Plato reveals deets about these ancient Greeks’ sex lives (uh, yeah, there’s a lot of pederasty in the Symposium), their drunkenness, their hang-ups.

 

Like take this one passage that Lily pointed out to me, from the opening passages of Plato’s Republic. Socrates’ friend Cephalus is talking about what a relief it is to have gotten old enough not to have to have sex– he says, “Old age is altogether a time of great peace and freedom from that sort of thing.” Cephalus divulges some juicy gossip about the late playwright Sophocles, telling Socrates: “I was there once when someone asked him, ‘How is your sex life, Sophocles? Are you still capable of making love to a woman?’ ‘Don’t talk about it, good sir, was Sophocles’ reply. ‘It is with the greatest relief that I have escaped it. Like escaping from a fierce and frenzied master.'” Plato is recording the hearsay of a hearsay (recording what Sophocles said to someone, which Cephalus overheard, and which he is telling Socrates)…which a lot of us just call gossip. Maybe Plato needed to hook his readers before going on a ten-book excursus of the components of the ideal city! Those Greeks…

 

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Sites of Reflection: Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Sites of Reflection: Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

This dreamy young Frenchman playing guitar solo in the Luxembourg gardens caught my eye. It was autumn, and the colored leaves on the shiny onyx surface of this pond were just gorgeous.

Women on the Market: A Response to “The Luxury Rental Girlfriend”

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This week’s issue of the New York Observer features a cover story entitled “The Luxury Rental Girlfriend,” which you can read here. The article is about escort culture among wealthy elites, particularly in New York. Responses to this article have been all over the map, mostly focusing around the question: Does escort culture support or undermine feminism?

I think that the answer to this is somewhat complex, but ultimately, a “No.”

Before I explain why, I should point out that the article is entirely heteronormative, dealing only with wealthy males purchasing dates with female escorts. Not even a mention of gay escort culture (or, for that matter, any mention of hetero- escort culture, but with the female purchasing a male for a date).

Straight female escorts might see their work as a liberating kind of sex work, parlaying their talents (which are not only sexual, but also intellectual and emotional, as the article points out) in the service of monetary gain. In many ways, these escorts are reminiscent of the long tradition of courtesans. They have beauty, brains, and style; they are up to date on culture and politics; they maintain a sense of independence and autonomy due to the nature of their relations with men– exchanges of their time for money. One escort is quoted in the article as saying to another escort, “Well. A few hours in the Hamptons, and cookies. Did we really just make $3,500 to do that?” Why judge these women for making money having sex with and spending time with wealthy men in refined settings, often with fine food and drinks?

I don’t think it is right to judge the women for their choice of career. For them, it might seem like an ideal situation. What concerns me is not their individual choice, but the broader social structures and outdated gender norms that permit such a career to persist. I am reminded of feminist theorist Luce Irigaray’s essay “Women On the Market.” Here, Irigaray offers a critique of a culture that values the “accumulation of women” and that perpetuates, albeit in subtler forms, the economy of exchange of women that characterizes practices such as literally treating women as commodities. Here we see that the phenomenon of child brides in Afghanistan and the phenomenon of female escorts in the U.S. stem from the same root: namely, an insidious tendency to commodify women, regardless of stark differences in the overt situations of women in Afghanistan and the U.S.

Take the description in the Observer article of the websites that many men use in order to find escorts. Here is what the article says about The Erotic Review, a Yelp-like website used to review escorts:

“Created a decade ago by a john who was tired of being misled, TER sees about 350,000 visitors a day, men between the ages of 35 and 55 with a median income of $80,000. They wax nostalgic about Mistress Natalie and Emma of New York, and if you pay for a membership, you too can read about how WkndWhacker found VIP Daisy’s breasts even fuller in the flesh than they looked on her website, and how the way she kissed was like “honey warming in his mouth.”

This kind of website and the kinds of reviews that are posted on it perfectly illustrate Irigaray’s claim that “The economy of exchange–of desire–is man’s business.” On these websites, the values of the female escorts are discussed exclusively among men, the way that Yelp reviewers would discuss the values of a restaurant. Where one talks about the rosewater martini, the gooey mac and cheese, and the pleasant ambience, the other talks about the breasts, the kisses, and the conversation. This occurs in a context in which the male clients are the only voices, and women are up for sale the way “wife sales” were conducted in the colonial U.S.

Thus, I think that what is to blame here are not the particular women who are escorts. These women may live with a genuine sense of fulfillment and contentment with their work, and may feel that their work is personally liberating. But these feelings are nonetheless imbricated, as perhaps all of our feelings are, in a capitalist ideology that complicit with patriarchal misogyny. Though the female escorts may not feel like commodities, they are. Although they may feel independent based on the fact that they are paid for their services and that their clients are subject to their terms and conditions, the relation is not one in which they are masters over their clients. And in fact, it is not the other way around, either: the men who hire escorts are not masters over these escorts, even if just for the night. Rather, the condition of possibility for the career of these escorts is an economy in which the males are the arbiters of value: as Irigaray says, “It remains the case that the establishment of relationships cannot be accomplished by the commodities themselves, but depends upon the operation of two exchangers.” The exchangers in this case are the community of males who purchase escorts and discuss them in online review boards. The particular female escorts may feel liberated, but this does not discount the fact that their careers are made possible only by virtue of a society that allows this feeling of liberation to persist while in actuality it is not merely making these women dependent on their male clients, but is rather denying them status as subjects at all. Escort culture reveals the entrenched relationship between sex and capital characteristic of our bourgeois society, particularly in its heteronormative and hom(m)o-sexual* perpetuation of the exclusion of women  from the systems of exchange in which they are the very things being exchanged. Continue reading

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“The products of the culture industry are such that they can be alertly consumed even in a state of distraction.”
– Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

I see this at work in “The Bachelor,” where each ‘high point’ of an episode is given in the preview of the episode, in the previews before commercial breaks within the episode, and then recounted by numerous contestants in the one-on-one confessionals after they occur.

I probably saw the same 3 seconds of this rollercoaster footage at least 4 times while viewing the most recent episode of "The Bachelor."

I probably saw the same 3 seconds of this rollercoaster footage at least 4 times while viewing the most recent episode of “The Bachelor.”

This show, and so many other reality TV shows like it, are designed to be consumed in a state of distraction. While browsing Facebook, shopping online, texting.

“The products o…

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Sites of Reflection: Manhattan, New York

Sites of Reflection: Manhattan, New York

I stumbled upon this little nook on 5th Avenue and love the juxtaposition of construction scaffolding on one side and classic limestone façade on the other. A perfect place to contemplate the variegated kinds of beauty of the city.

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Instagram: From Self-Construction to Alienated Labor?

In December 2012, the popular app Instagram infamously made changes to its privacy policy that made it seem that the app would now be able to advertise using photos users had taken with or uploaded onto the app. These changes caused an uproar that sent many users fleeing from Instagram to other visual social media apps, and even more users threatening to flee once the privacy policy took effect. Although Instagram insisted that the new privacy policy was being misconstrued, and that it would never take ownership of users’ photos to its own monetary benefit, the scare nonetheless had a profound effect on users’ understanding of their ownership of their photos in general. Other popular social media outlets, such as Facebook and OKCupid, also take ownership of any photos uploaded onto the sites, although they do not advertise using these photos (and thus users maintain a sense of “mineness” with regard to the photos they upload, legitimate or illegitimate though this may be).

Although the Instagram scare ended up blowing over, with the app rewording its privacy policy to prevent users from construing it as a threat to their privacy, this event points to bigger issues regarding ownership in the digital sphere. I think the Instagram scare is the beginning of what will prove to be a trend: namely, that users will begin to recognize their lack of ownership over the data, especially the images, that they upload onto social media apparatuses, and that this recognition will be accompanied by even less ownership over this data. That is to say, there may come a day when photos uploaded to Instagram will no longer be the private property of individuals, but rather images capable of appropriation by other individuals and institutions in an immediate and visible way.

I think that what proves especially threatening to Instagram users in contemplating the possibility of their photos no longer being their own private property is the way in which they put themselves into their photos. Instagram, like any social media apparatus, entails the construction of a certain kind of subject, or digital self. Whether we post photos to Instagram, tweets to Twitter, photos, status updates, and map locations to Facebook, personal details to OKCupid, or résumé information to LinkedIn, we are creating ourselves by putting forth a certain ‘self.’ We want to give off a certain impression to other social media users. (A recent New York Times article explored the related phenomenon of the ‘humble brag.’) I’d upload an Instagram picture of a seared duck with bone marrow and crème fraîche pearls I got from a hot new restaurant, but not of the tuna sandwich I had for lunch. I’m far more likely to post a picture of me luxuriating on a yacht in a cute outfit than I am to post one of me taking out the trash, even though I do the latter more often than the former. In psychoanalytic terms, I infuse my ego-ideal into my Instagram account, rather than myself as I am on a daily basis. I think what this indicates is not a dishonesty in social media accounts, although that can definitely be true (I’ll never forget the story of the friend who found himself on a date with a 5’6”, pudgy 40-year-old when the man’s online dating profile had pictured a strapping 25-year-old), but rather that any self-conception is a construction, and the self-conceptions forged in social media spheres are constructed more consciously, and selectively, than a number of other self-conceptions. And the self-conceptions we forge for social media can be great sources of satisfaction for us. Through uploading photos to Instagram, I am not only projecting an idea of myself that I want others to perceive, but I am projecting an idea of myself to myself. I am fascinated by the phenomenon of people viewing their own social media profiles, trying to get an outsider’s perspective on who they are (I certainly find myself doing this. Sometimes, when a new person friends me on Facebook, I’ll look at my own profile wondering how that person will perceive me through my presence on Facebook!) And this gazing at one’s own profile ‘through the eyes of another’ becomes a form of gazing at the self as an object for oneself.

I think this gaze is at work in the case of Instagram in a particular way for two reasons: 1) the photo-based nature of the site provides a particularly visual form of self-representation, and 2) the nature of photo-taking as an art form makes the photos of Instagram feel like the product of one’s labor or work, rather than the simple expression of ideas found in other media such as Facebook statuses or tweets (though this is not to say that statuses or tweets cannot be artistic!). I think the first reason is self-evident, but the second may require some explanation. And this is where I think Marx and Hegel are helpful.

In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes how an individual becomes conscious of itself as “being-for-self” through the act of work. An individual works on a thing in the world, and by putting herself into this work, becomes conscious of herself as independent self-consciousness capable of transforming raw materials into a finished product. The work produced is at once independent of the individual, and dependent on her insofar as she created the work. I think an Instagram photo is such a work. I take a photo with my camera, selecting the image to capture, framing it in the way I think fit, snapping the shot, and adding a filter (I’m partial to Mayfair lately, though always a fan of X-Pro II and sometimes Walden). I post it, and there is a product that I have created. Technology has helped me create it, but I have put some of myself into this work. It is my work of art, humble as it may be. Furthermore, there is an added dimension of “mineness” because this picture is supposed to represent something that I want to be associated with me in the eyes of others, and thus in the eyes of myself. A picture I’ve taken of a beautiful library? I want people to know that I hang out in that beautiful library, and that I appreciate it. A shot of an unusual-looking lemon? I want people to know that I found that (in the farmer’s market, no less, as I’ve “added a location” to my photo), and thought it was cool. That I’m a person who sits in picturesque libraries and goes to farmers’ markets and takes sweet shots of weird fruits. 

I think what is so disturbing to people about the idea of Instagram advertising these images is that my work, the product of my creation, of my labor, becomes someone else’s. But this is in fact what happens all the time in capitalism. Instagram in its current state is persisting in giving its users an outlet for creating ‘works’ through taking photos, but soon enough, these photos may become the products of alienated labor. Social media outlets such as Instagram are already imbricated in capitalist modes of production– after all, what is more consumerist than a “news feed” offering free-market consumption of images?–but still maintain the sense of private property, because what others are consuming in viewing my photos is my own self-conception, always marked by my labor. What would–and perhaps, will–occur in the case of Instagram’s being able to freely circulate its user’s images, would be that the product of labor would be alienated from the producer. The same way that the laborer who works on an assembly line is alienated from her labor, from her work. The fear of Instagram users in the face of December’s privacy policy was the fear that they would become alienated laborers producing photos for the sake of capitalist overlords without any ownership of their photos. Then, Instagram photos would, rather than constructing a self-conception, entail its destruction. Under these conditions, Instagram would follow other modes of production. As Marx states, “the activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another. It is the loss of his own self.” Or perhaps this is even already the case with Instagram, but in a less obvious way?

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Uhh yeah, wasn’t kidding about that Instagram library shot.

Philosopher Mad Libs: La Rochefoucauld

1. Noun (plural)                           7. Adjective

2. Adjective                                   8. Noun (plural)

3. Adjective                                  9. Adjective

4. Verb                                          10. Body part

5. Verb                                          11. Noun

6. Adverb                                     12. Noun (abstract)

 

Excerpt from La Rochefoucauld, Maxim V:139, in Collected Maxims and Other Reflections

One of the reasons why so few                        (noun, plural) seem                            (adjective) and                      (adjective) in conversation is that almost everyone                         (verb) more about what he himself wants to               (verb) than about answering                         (adverb) what is said to him. The cleverest and most                           (adjective)                        (noun, plural) are content merely to look                       (adjective)–while all the time we see in their                           (body part) and minds a(n)                     (noun) from what is being said to them, and a(n)                        to get back to what they themselves want to say.

 

Original:

“One of the reasons why so few people seem reasonable and attractive in conversation is that almost everyone thinks more about what he himself wants to say than about answering exactly what is said to him. The cleverest and most polite people are content merely to look attentive–while all the time we see in their eyes and minds a distraction from what is being said to them, and an impatience to get back to what they themselves want to say.”

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Sites of Reflection: Black Forest, Germany

Sites of Reflection: Black Forest, Germany

This summer, a friend and I went on a beautiful walk to Heidegger’s Hütte, the small hut in the Black Forest near Freiburg, Germany, where Heidegger wrote Being and Time. We found this plaque along the way for other Heidegger pilgrims.

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