March 30, 2013

Reading Flannery O'Connor on Good Friday

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

A putrid smell

If you've walked around Edmonton over the last few days, you've noticed that the atmosphere is slightly more hospitable than it's been for some time. The sun is shining warmly; mounds of snow and ice are shrinking and slowly disappearing. All those obstructions, those inconvenient additions to the cityscape are coming to an end. These last few days have been beautiful; that is, at least, until you open your airways and alert yourself to our street corners and bus stops.

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.

March 26, 2013

Religious, but not spiritual

I'm not alone in feeling a bit jaded by recent attempts to engage the topic of religion over at the SpecTrib. First, there's the tired "Theist vs Atheist" debate, which is as unproductive and boring as it's ever been; then there are several worthwhile editorials on conservative Mennonites in Manitoba; and, finally, there's this piece, which nicely illustrates nearly everything that I find unconvincing and moronic about the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) identity-marker. Perhaps it's becoming increasingly popular to adopt this kind of apolitical view, but it's nothing new or profound, or even interesting (that is, unless you were totally into Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love!). You know the routine: religion is exclusive and repressive but spirituality is for everybody.
When we look at most religions, we see they are often defined by their institutions and the specific beliefs taught there within. In order to be a part of a religion, one is encouraged to accept those beliefs as the one and only truth. This is where religion tends to breed separation – “this religion vs. that religion” or “my God is the only real God”. Spirituality on the other hand, is allowing oneself to define their own truth and understanding that everyone else’s truth may be different. By contrast, spirituality breeds unification as there is an understanding that we are all in this together and we all have the ability to discover our authentic selves.
Whoa. Consider my mind blown.

What we have here is something that's not so far off from right-wing evangelicalism, where religious experience is socially isolated and defined by an intensely personal relationship with God (not to mention the fact that these SBNR things usually come in a testimonial, my-life-is-so-important, format). As much as I love having "an intimate relationship with [my] own unique reality," auto-affection gets boring pretty fast.

Meanwhile, religion, with all its institutional strictures and rituals, seems more attractive than ever.

March 13, 2013

Commemorating the late 90s

For those of us who were late to grunge party that was early 90s, albums like Modest Mouse's The Lonesome Crowded West (1997), The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin (1999), and Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister (1996), were a big deal. For me, they helped to lay the groundwork for the musical exploration of my late teens, and gave me a (loose) standard against which I could evaluate other albums.

The albums mentioned above are the first three entries of the Pitchfork Classic series. Each video is comprised of a series of interviews (what amounts to an oral history) with band members, producers, engineers, record label execs, and so on.

Pitchfork is known mostly for its overblown album reviews and so it's really refreshing to see them take a hands-off approach and let those involved speak for themselves.

March 9, 2013

Notes on Capital, Vol. 1 (III): Labour and Reproduction

Yesterday was International Women's Day and, among the many articles circulating around Facebook, I came across a recent interview with the radical feminist Silvia Federici published by Mute. Federici was an active part of the International Wages For Housework Campaign of the 1970s. The purpose of the movement, she recalls, was "to unmask not only the amount of work that unwaged houseworkers do for capital but, with that, the social power that this work potentially confers on them, as domestic work reproduces the worker and consequently it is the pillar of every other form of work."

Federici has done the crucial work of thinking through feminism, identity, and capitalism as related phenomena. For Federici, as for other Marxist feminists, patriarchy is both a system of social relations and the process by which they are reproduced and maintained. Reproduction, in other words, refers not only to a biological imperative but to the perpetuation of social relations. 

In the sixth chapter of Capital, "The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power," Marx briefly addresses this hidden reality as a condition of labour-power, but allows it to remain hidden. The only agents that are given any mention in this section are unquestionably male, but, although the woman's labour goes unnamed as such, Marx here lays the groundwork for feminists such as Federici. First, Marx makes it clear that if the worker's existence depends on his ability to labour, he must be allowed a basic level of subsistence that includes "natural needs, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing." The production of value, in other words, depends on material conditions beyond the factory floor.
The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this specific article. . . . Given the existence of the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his production of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a certain quantity of his means of subsistence. (274)
The worker, in other words, must be allowed some recuperation: "Since more is expended, more must be received." His means of subsistence must be at a level that allows him to maintain his normal state as a working man. From there Marx follows the logic further, indirectly describing the other role of the feminine sphere in the maintenance of the labour-force.

The owner of the labour-power is mortal. If then his appearance in the market is to be continuous, and the continuous transformation of money into capital assumes this, the seller of labour-power must perpetuate himself 'in the way that every living thing perpetuates himself, by procreation'. The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear, and by death, must be continually be replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the worker's replacements, i.e. his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity owners may perpetuate its presence on the market. (275) 
Marx doesn't name the woman as the specific agent of reproductive labour. Instead, he describes what's typically forgotten in the production process inherent to capitalism: the unrepresented, unaccounted for labour of reproduction. In this way, the ground of labour in Marx's theory of value depends upon another series of conditions hidden in plain view: conditions that allow for social reproduction to occur simultaneously on multiple levels. 

March 4, 2013

Notes on Marx's Capital, Vol. 1 (II)

Part II, "The Transformation of Money into Capital," is where things begin to get really interesting for me. As we saw in the previous post, money appears first in the circulation of commodities through the process C-M-C. Here, use-value (or consumption) is the final goal that removes a particular commodity from circulation. Money as capital, however, emerges as the inverse form of circulation: M-C-M, or, the transformation of money into commodities and their "re-conversion" back into money. Because money does not terminate in consumption its circulation functions, more or less, like a closed circuit. Its movement is driven not by use-value, but by exchange. While the exchange relations of commodities rely on qualitative differences wherein labour adds value (e.g. between corn and clothes), the cycle M-C-M looks like a simple tautology: the extremes (at either end) have the same economic form. This means that this circuit somehow encompasses a quantitative transformation. Marx denotes "the complete form of this process" as M-C-M', where M' equals "the original sum plus an increment" (surplus-value). While there is an external "end" for the simple circulation of commodities, the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself and its movement is therefore limitless. Here we re-enter the mysterious terrain of value.
The independent form, i.e. the monetary form, which the value of commodities assumes in simple circulation, does nothing but mediate the exchange of commodities, and it vanishes in the final result of movement. On the other hand, in the circulation M-C-M both the money and the commodity function only as different modes of existence of value itself, the money as its general mode of existence, the money as its particular or, so to speak, disguised mode. It is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject. If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus-value is its own movement, its vaporization is therefore self-valorization. By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs. (255)
Marx's playful analogy is of course deeply ironic, for as he explains in his next chapter, "Capital cannot . . . arise from circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to arise apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and not in circulation" (268). The circuit of M-C-M' is familiar territory for usurers (the accumulation of interest skips the commodity altogether and occurs between the extremes M-M') and merchants capital (buying in order to sell dearer). But both are derivative forms that appear before the modern form of capital (Marx frequently quotes Aristotle's condemnation of usury and up-selling as running contrary to Nature). We're left without any further explanation as to why these modes of surplus persist, and what "derivative forms" actually mean. However, it becomes immediately obvious what's at stake in the contradiction of M-C-M' when we arrive at Chapter 6. 

How do we explain this change in value in the money form? It has to happen in the commodity, between the two extremes of buying and selling. But as Marx notes, this change in value cannot happen at the beginning of this exchange (M-C) because we're talking about an exchange of equivalents; in other words, surplus-value must occur in the commodity's consumption.
In order to extract value out of the consumption of a commodity, our friend the money-owner must be lucky enough to find within the sphere of circulation, on market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption is hence a creation of value. The possessor of money does find such a special commodity on the market: the capacity for labour, in other words labour-power. (270)

Beginning Capital, Vol.1

If you've ever tried read Marx's Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, you know that it's a struggle to isolate any particular moment in the course of what is a carefully organized and highly systematic text. Nevertheless, I'll posting occasional notes, excerpts, and reflections as I work my way through it over the coming months. (At this point, I should probably mention that I'm doing this as part of a collective effort among friends, many of whom know the material much better than I do.)

Marx famously begins his critique with an analysis of the commodity form, before turning to the circulation of commodities, and eventually addressing the money form, which arises to govern their relations of exchange and use. One might have expected Marx to begin with the sphere of production and its relation to value (i.e., socially necessarily labour time), but instead we begin with the commodity. This starting point is not insignificant; rather it is a consequence of immanent critique within the conditions of capitalism, where the circulation of commodities forms the basis of ideological and material survival. In the midst of this, Marx crucially delivers his theory of value (distinguished, of course, from the fluctuations of price) and ends Part I with a brief discussion of the world market. 

By the end of this section we've learned that, besides the relative ease of its transferability, there is nothing necessary or natural about the money form; even its size and weight are essentially meaningless. Money first appears as an exchangeable commodity and is eventually raised above exchange relations to its status as the sole measure of value. Here, Marx deploys several memorable characters--the hoarder and the miser--as figures who fundamentally misunderstand the value of money (that is, as an end in itself, a source of value beyond the relations of exchange).

Money is best expressed through the formula C-M-C, which refers to the circulation of commodities (defined, at this point, by their different use values). Here the passage between commodities is mediated by the form of money, which stands in as a form of appearance for exchange value. Despite this straightforward logic of circulation, contradictions inevitably emerge, even before the enigmatic appearance of capital (coming in Part II):
There is a contradiction immanent to the function of money as a means of payment. When the payments balance each other, money functions only nominally, as money of account, as a measure of value. But when actual payments have to be made, money does not come onto the scene as a circulating medium, in its merely transient form of an intermediary in the social metabolism, but as the individual incarnation of social labour, the independent presence of exchange value, the universal commodity. This contradiction bursts forth in that aspect of an industrial and commercial crisis which is known as monetary crisis. Such crisis occurs only where the ongoing chain of payments has been fully developed, along with an artificial system for settling them. Whenever there is a general disturbance of the mechanism, no matter what its cause, money suddenly and immediately changes over from its merely nominal shape, money of account, into hard cash. Profane commodities can no longer replace it. The use-value of commodities become valueless, and their value vanishes in the face of their own form of value. The bourgeois, drunk with prosperity and arrogantly certain of himself, has just declared that money is a purely imaginary creation. 'Commodities alone are money,' he said. But the opposite cry resounds over the markets of the world: only money is a commodity. As the hart pants for fresh water, so pants his soul after money, the only wealth. In a crisis, the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money, is raised to the level of an absolute contradiction. Hence money's form of appearance is here also a matter of indifference. The monetary famine remains whether payments have to be made in gold or in credit-money, such as bank-notes. (237)