April 24, 2013
It's an incredible scene. The rain is pounding and the family camp has been flooded out; in the midst of this, Rose of Sharon has given birth to a stillborn child. Fearing pneumonia, Ma Joad pushes the family to higher ground and they happen upon an open barn. Here, Ma gets Rose of Sharon out of her wet clothes and sees to another child who has taken shelter there with his starving father. With the flood looming, she clears out the family and directs Rose of Sharon to nurse the dying stranger. It's with this bleak image that the novel ends.
My experience of reading Steinbeck's novel was also conditioned by another current reading project: I've been slowly working through the first volume of Marx's Capital with some friends here in Edmonton. The chapter we've discussed most recently is "The Working Day," which features a host of memorable quotes, metaphors, and allusions. Along with his famous comparison of capital to "dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour," I was struck by Marx's explication of so-called equal rights, which articulates much of what's going on in The Grapes of Wrath:
We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.Here's Springsteen performing the Grapes of Wrath-inspired title track from his 1995 album.
April 14, 2013
April 10, 2013
Since its demolition in 1972, the St. Louis housing project known as Pruitt-Igoe has proliferated among critics of art and design as a symbol of modernism's demise. In 1977, the architectural historian Charles Jencks famously suggested that postmodernism emerged precisely at 3:32pm on 15 July 1972 when the first of Pruitt-Igoe's 33 buildings fell. More recently, however, historians like Katherine Bristol have sought to demystify what they call the "Pruitt-Igoe myth," which, they argue, reduces the failure of the housing project to a question of form and style. This article attempts to hold together the housing project's consciously modernist design with St. Louis's rapidly changing urban environment and larger shifts within the global political economy.
Pruitt-Igoe's failure lies not simply in the incommensurability between its modernist design and St. Louis's post-WWII conditions, but in the class bias inherent to both. "At Pruitt-Igoe," writes Craig Johnson, "low cost and low services were the primary design considerations. Therefore any association with 'modernism' was ideological, because modernism, deployed neutrally, really meant 'bourgeois modernism'" (35). And yet, Pruitt-Igoe persists as a symbol routinely used by critics like Jencks to discount the large scale projects of modernism in favour of a more "inclusive" postmodern architecture. In fact, the postmodern shift in architectural design, articulated by Jencks, corresponds to a different kind of pluralism in the socio-economic realm, which became increasingly resistant to public housing projects while relaxing regulation for American corporations at home and abroad.
April 3, 2013
March 30, 2013
I've been meaning to write something about Flannery O'Connor for a while and yesterday gave me occasion to do just that. Part of what prevented me from writing on her sooner was that I felt overwhelmed by the volume and variety of issues that her writing helped to recast. I considered using O'Connor's work as a pointed critique of the misguided moral concern that seems to have befallen the conservative Mennonites of southern Manitoba; I also considered placing her in a larger tradition of theological aesthetics. Perhaps those projects will resurface at some other point in time. For now, here are some Easter-themed reflections on O'Connor's best known short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." I should also mention that this was largely initiated by reading O'Connor's posthumous collection of non-fiction writing, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. This was originally posted at A Catholic Commons.
In order to arrive at the joy and affirmation of Easter Sunday, we encounter the suffering and despair of Good Friday. It's not a pleasant thing to acknowledge, but grace and violence appear bound together at Easter.
Few writers are as astute at recognizing this relationship as Flannery O'Connor. Rather than a world of neutral surfaces, O'Connor's fiction presents us with a world that is irreducibly "grotesque." For her, the history of the South has made for an environment that is "hardly Christ-centered, [but] is most certainly Christ-haunted" (M&M 44). Her characters may not act like Christians, but theirs is a world which is divinely given, a world in which grace regularly emerges and disrupts. For this reason, O'Connor's fiction adopts what she has called, "prophetic vision," a way of seeing that paradoxically understands near things at a distance and far things up close. As she puts it, "The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque." This has everything to do with her view that art is incarnational. It is, in other words, ultimately about embodiment rather than abstraction, and its particular kind of embodiment is a deeply mysterious and troubling one.
March 29, 2013
It doesn't take long before the euphoric effects sunlight begin to wane. It's almost impossible to avoid the grim reality of spring: there is garbage everywhere. Everything that's organic is in decay and everything that's inorganic is smeared with slime or incrusted with dust and gravel. Dumpsters are overflowing, cigarette butts litter the sidewalks. It smells. Winter froze this process in time and hid it from view.
Welcome to the revelation of spring in dirt city.