Monday, May 10, 2010

Consciousness Transmuted by the Nature of Reality

Capitalism has given an understanding to the word ‘struggle’ never conceived before the twentieth century. With modernist literature came a means to highlight the dismal realities of society without sacrificing the author’s artistic sensibilities. And these dark realities proposed by the modernist are not merely for the purpose of entertainment, or even political sentiments, they are present in the twentieth century text because they are unavoidable in the common and everyday. In the modern West, there is no room for the sentiments or emotional individuality of the weak, there is only room for their respective labor potentials. It is the majority that is oppressed and the select few that does the oppressing; which by definition would mean that that “[t]here cannot be, nor is there nor will there ever be ‘equality’ between the oppressed and the oppressors, between the exploited and the exploiters” (Soviet Power 121). Ultimately a forced change can erase differences that create a world of exploiting and exploited people, but it takes more than just the desire for change: it requires all the persecuted, subjugated, and tyrannized men, women, and children of the world to understand what is happening to them and use it to obtain the energy required to willingly sacrifice more than what has already been stolen. It is the enlightened and eternal desires that develop through oppression, that have the power to create a new a formidable resistance to what is.
Joe Bonham is a timeless character; he exists as long as there is war. He is unable to die because there will always be men like him; pushed back into the womb, forced into a lifeless existence. Joe represents the reality of war. The lives wasted, the emotional fallout, the lies propagated; Joe Bonham is the physical embodiment of all these things. Joe progresses to a point of self-actualization putting himself in the world of the “little guy,” in direct opposition to the big guys—the rulers that made a decision on behalf of all the little guys, and sent thousands to war without out a choice and without a clue. While Trumbo freely utilizes stream-of-consciousness and montage, but his novel is not purely a modernist piece of literature, it is fundamentally proletariat literature. Johnny got His Gun is of within the vein of other modernist proletariat literature, but it’s ultimately focused on the messages being conveyed, not on the aesthetic concerns of form and style. Through Joe Bonham, Trumbo is able to send his message to the reader. Joe is the little guy—he is a proletariat set against the world of capitalist warlords—unable to understand his position in the world until his livelihood is taken away and he becomes a man who can think but exists only as a “slab of meat”.
Joe Bonham is introduced as a normal young man; working class, living in Los Angeles. He accepts that “[w]hen you’re drafted you got to go” (Trumbo 30), but with his interior monologues the reader learns what Joe really thought of his place: “This was no war for you. This thing wasn’t any of your business. What do you care about making the world safe for democracy? All you wanted to do Joe was to live. […] Yet here you are and it was none of your affair. […] You never really knew what the fight was all about” (Trumbo 25). Joe is transformed by his wounds, all the modernist concerns are suddenly his. He is frustrated with the reasons behind his ‘death,’ he is alienated by his disfigurement, he is disillusioned by the men who called for action and waged war, and he is enlightened to the fallacies of the archaic social systems that continue to persist. It is through the use of stream of consciousness that Trumbo is able to reshape the internal dialogues of Joe to convey a message that is presented as something very intrinsic. Without a stream of consciousness, the passages would become lecture-like, presenting mundane literature with conspicuous propaganda.
It is in chapter ten that all of the modernist concerns are raised; the forth wall is broken and Trumbo is speaking directly to the readers asking questions and making statements that are not just modernist or proletariat, but relevant to the individual, all individuals. You have “the right to say what’s there in it for me?” But one learns that really “[y]ou haven’t even the right to say yes or no or I’ll think it over” when somebody says “let’s go out and fight for liberty.” You may not know “what kind of liberty were they fighting for anyway” (Trumbo 113-114), but ultimately it doesn’t matter because the soldier, like the worker, is a commodity to be used for the capitalistic endeavors of the politicians and warlords: “The capitalists of all countries who are coining the red gold of war-profits out of the blood shed by the people, assert that the war is for defense of the fatherland, for democracy, and the liberation of oppressed nations! They lie. In actual reality, they are burying the freedom of their own people together with the independence of the other nations in the places of devastation” (The Imperialist 474). The idea of profits through war is a common proletariat position, Trumbo uses Joe get his thoughts on this across: “Maybe times are bad and your salaries are low. Don’t worry boys because there is always a way to cure things like that. Have a war and then the price go up and wages go up and everybody makes a hell of a lot of money. There’ll be one along pretty soon boys so don’t get impatient” (Trumbo 235). What the stream of consciousness provides is a connection to the memories, emotions, and desires of a single man. For most of his life Joe Bonham is unable to see his modern world for the wasteland that it is, he needs to go through a metamorphosis in body and mind to comprehend the realities of his existence. When a reader picks up the book and has some belief in the ideas on the page, then the connection is made and the stream of consciousness draws the audience to a point of coherent understanding. When an author gets his audience to that level, an image may remain unresolved but the meanings and ideas are transparent.
What Trumbo has been able to do is not because he is the epitome of a workingman; rather it is as a result of research and his ability to understand his position in terms of the world, past and present. Lukács makes the claim that “[a] gifted writer, however extreme his theoretical modernism, will in practice have to compromise with the demands of historicity and of social environment” (47). Trumbo created Joe out of the gruesome realities of a war initiated by the gruesome realities of the modern world. Joe Bonham is relatable to the proletariat class of the modern west, he works manual labor, he supports himself and his family, he’s a young man that does what he’s told. He’s only awakened when he looses the life he knows. He is left alone for years with nothing but his own thoughts. While Joe quickly understands his place as an individual after he finishes taking the inventory of missing body parts (“He was completely helpless. […] He would be in this womb forever and ever and ever. He must remember that. He must never expect or hope for anything different” (Trumbo 83).), it takes him longer to see where the everyman belongs in the world. It is through Joe’s experiences that actualization of the proletariat condition occurs. Trumbo breaks down the fourth wall asking if the liberty that the capitalist tells men to fight for is really better than risking the liberty they already have at home. That if you are fighting and getting killed you should know exactly what you are being killed for (Trumbo 115-116). He tells the reader than in wars like the first world war, “[i]t’s words you’re fighting for and you’re not making an honest deal your life for something better. […] You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life. They’re plenty loud and they talk all the time” (Trumbo 118-119). Trumbo makes clear that Joe, and every other soldier and every proletariat out there was only a commodity to be objectified by the generals and politicians for profit. That those in charge could make speeches and hand out medals, but he raises the question: “How many generals got killed in the war? […] How many of them had got all shot up so they had to live wrapped in a sheet for the rest of their lives?” (Trumbo 166). Trumbo raised an issue that persists in all wars—the superficial reasons behind war are often convoluted because the real reasons would fail to pass any test of logic and reason. Those responsible for bringing countries into war are unwilling to kill themselves, but feel free to sacrifice the proletariat. In the same spirit on the topic of a very similar war Gore Vidal said: “If the Vice President and Secretary of Defense chose not to fight for their country in Vietnam, why should anyone fight for their country?” (Vidal 1046).
Trumbo uses the war and it’s many elements as a metaphor for the capitalist and the system that breeds them. Before the war, Joe is already a man weakened by the system; he accepts going to war as a responsibility, not necessarily one that he wants but something he has to do because he is told that it must be done. When Joe’s external transformation takes place, he gains a new consciousness, an understanding that he was blinded to. He understands that death in war gives no satisfaction because “[t]here’s nothing noble about dying. Not even if you die for honor. Not even if you die the greatest hero the world ever saw. […] You’re worth nothing dead except for speeches. […] Pay no attention when they tap you on the shoulder and say come along we’ve got to fight for liberty or whatever their word is there’s always a word […] it’s your job to live not to die. […] Nothing is bigger than life” (Trumbo 123). The reader of this text is enlightened, like Joe, to the realities of the twentieth century West: the capitalist spawns the wars, the capitalist sacrifices the proletariat for its cause, the capitalist is the real enemy, its like a “rat and when you saw it there fat and well fed chewing on something that might be you why you went nuts. […] Running through a lifetime if nights and shrieking and trying to push the rat off and feeling the rat sink its teeth deeper and deeper” (Trumbo 95-96). Just as modernity in society has created a rift between the individual and the potential of individual, Trumbo sees a war like this as a part of the modern era; a destructive force a great as any before realized. The First World War provided the proletariat movement with more cause and conviction than ever: “The burdens of war will consume the best energies of the peoples for decades, endanger the achievements of social reform, and hinder every step forward. Cultural devastation, economic decline, political reaction these are the blessings of this horrible conflict of nations. Thus the war reveals the naked figure of modern capitalism which has become irreconcilable […]” (The Imperialist 474).
Trumbo uses the horrific images to define war. He tells the reader that resistance to unjust war and destruction is human nature, but it is the bourgeois ideologies that become intrinsic pieces of culture as “the emphatic and systematic proclamation of what is” (Adorno 118). The bourgeois ideal generates then ignores the anguish resultant of forced alienation. Physical deformities caused by the weapons of destruction generate the alienation of Joe—a man driven to the lowest psychological depths by the worst possible physical injuries. His lifeless existence results from the manipulation of the many by the few. Joe is one of the many exploited for all he was worth, but what he became is the embodiment of war. “People wouldn’t learn much about anatomy from him but they would learn all there was to learn about war. […] He would make an exhibit of himself to show all the little guys what would happen to them […] he would have a sign over himself and the sign would say here is war and he would concentrate the whole war into such a small piece of meat and bone and hair that they would never forget it as long as they lived” (Trumbo 232-233). The use of these images is for a purpose, they are meant to alarm so as to better stay with the reader. “The obsession with morbidity [has] ceased to have a merely decorative function, bringing color into the greyness of reality, and become a moral protest against capitalism” (Lukács 54).
In his defining moment as a self-conscious individual, Joe is overwhelmed by the system that had only become apparent to him through the destruction of his life. When he is finally able to reach out of his mind and speak to someone other than himself, Joe sees them as “drawing the curtain around him stuffing him back into the womb back into the grave saying to him goodbye don’t bother us don’t come back to life the dead should stay dead and we are done with you” (Trumbo 243). With his only hope rejected Joe sees the future and “he was a perfect picture of the future”, becoming a Christ-like figure, “the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be” (Trumbo 248). Trumbo’s ends with a threat to the “people who plan for war” and a calling to the proletariat for action to protect their livelihood: “We will use the guns you force upon use will use them to defend our very lives and the menace to our lives does not lie on the other side of a nomansland […] it lies within our own boundaries here and now we have seen it and we know it” (Trumbo 250-251). The logic behind this action of dissent is that “[c]hange can come only from below: the interests of those with power are best served by maintaining the status quo. The motor for social change can come only from a sense of social difference that is based on a conflict of interest, not a liberal pluralism in which differences are finally subordinated to a consensus whose function is to maintain those differences essentially as they are” (Fiske 19). It is the responsibility of the ‘little guy,’ who is subjected by differences, to force the change that will never occur without him. The fear is that the proletariat may never understand that the only difference between them and the bourgeois is a superficial construction of the capitalist system, and not an innately human thing.
Dalton Trumbo used his character to create a message that would be very difficult to ignore. Joe is a brother, a son, a friend, a soldier, and one of the proletariat; he is what most people in the world are and he shows the vulnerability of the masses, but also the potential power. It is not what thinks about war and the cultivators of war, it is what he has become as a result of war—it is his being rather than thinking that provides Joe with his power. Trumbo’s novel is in line with the ideals of the proletariat and modernist movements that had been growing for twenty years before publication. What the Marxists presented to the world, the modernists where able to use for their arts, and the proletariat for their survival and somewhat unhindered proliferation. At the onset of the First World War, the position of the proletariat was set: “Workers! Exploited, disfranchised, scorned, they called you brothers and comrades at the outbreak of the war when you were to be led to the slaughter, to death. And now that militarism has crippled you, mutilated you, degraded and annihilated you, the rulers demand that you surrender your interests, your aims, your ideals – in a word, servile subordination to civil peace” (The Imperialist 474).

“You fasten the triggers

For the others to fire

Then you set back and watch

When the death count gets higher

You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood

Flows out of their bodies

And is buried in the mud”

(Dylan, "Masters Of War" 1963)

Works Cited
Adorno, T. W. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Lenin, V. I. The Imperialist War The Struggle Against Social Chauvinism And Social
Pacifism. Grand Rapids: Kessinger, LLC, 2005. Print.
---. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works. “Soviet Power and the Status of Women.” 4th ed.
Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress, 1965. 120-23. Print.

Lukács, György. Meaning of Contemporary Realism. London: Merlin, 1963. Print.

Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun. New York: Citadel, 2007. Print.

Vidal, Gore. United States: Essays, 1952-1992. New York: Broadway, 2001. Print.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

El Aurens the Orientalist

T.E. Lawrence is the “British agent-Orientalist’ as Said explains it; he assumed “the role of expert-adventurer-eccentric […] and the role of colonial authority, whose position is in a central place next to the indigenous ruler” (Said 246). Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the Hollywood adaptation of it (Lawrence of Arabia), presents a man (the Orientalist) on a quest to excite and galvanize the Orient into modernity—something innately Western in form and purpose—which will give that imperialist adventurer the chance to create and understand a personal vision of the new terrains. Said speaks of this desire of the Orientalist to ‘contain a personal vision:’
Since the White Man, like the Orientalist, lived very close to the line of tension keeping the coloreds at bay, he felt it incumbent on him readily to define and redefine the domain he surveyed. Passages of narrative description regularly alternate with passages of rearticulaed definition and judgment that disrupt the narrative; this is a characteristic style of the writing produced by Oriental experts who operated using Kipling’s White Man as a mask (Said 228).
Lawrence was the ideal modern Orientalist; felling it was his responsibility to use his abilities of definition and redefinition as a means of ‘rescuing’ the Orient from its modernist deficiencies. Lawrence of Arabia is a guide, through the tenets of popular culture and Orientalism, to assist in the consumer’s definition of the Orient. Orientalim is the “distillation of essential ideas about the Orient”; it is the informative tool that gives the West the ideas it needs to understand something that is foreign and the realities ultimately unknown. Lawrence is the savior of the Arab people, providing them with his vast Western knowledge and ideals. Through this process he is able to understand the Orient from a western perspective, effectively breaking down the walls of ignorance and opening the East to the West (but not vice versa). Today, because of the European adventurer/Orientalist like Lawrence, the consumer of Orientalism is also the perpetuator of the ‘Orient as deficient ideal.’ It is also a result of these pioneering Orientalists, that the Orient is a satellite to the West in many issues, to which any resistance is labeled terrorism or threats of freedom.

Here’s a scene from the 1962 David Lean film in which Lawrence the imperialist gains the information to become Lawrence the Orientalist…

“[…] or is it that you think we are something you can play with, because we are a little people?”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My Initial Thoughts on the State of Women

There is nothing inherently masculine or feminine in an individual, but from a very young age females and males act very differently; we are what our society tells us to be. In America many women come to believe that marriage and children are very important parts of being a woman, which makes perfect sense when one looks at marriage in terms of capitalism. The capitalist has far more control over the worker with a wife and child at home, than a single man who can make demands a nd risk being fired. Marriage and propagation has traditionally been a very important component of organized religions, but socially speaking religion does not have the power it used to. Now companies through advertisement, television, and all other outlets of everyday culture show a propensity for the married over the single man or woman. In popular culture there is always something wrong with a woman who is unable to “keep” or “find” a man, she is never willingly single and often desperate.
The mass dissemination of a world created by the capitalist is something to fear. The capitalistic ideal quickly becomes our desires in the everyday, and all are at risk of being consumed. “Man’s vision of woman is not objective, but an uneasy combination of what he wishes her to be and what he fears her to be, and it is to this mirror image that woman has had to comply… [A] woman is taught to desire not what her mother desired for herself, but what her father and all men find desirable in a woman. Not what she is, but should be” (Figes 17). Only in the last few hundred years with emergence of Puritanism and a modern industrialized west has the woman become particularly marginalized:

"The men who defended what they considered to be their inalienable rights with such vigor and conviction during the last century where not aware that some of these privileges were in fact of comparatively recent date, and that the sharp division of roles […] was a comparatively recent development. It is often argued that female discontent with her womanly lot ill becomes her, and that when a woman accepts her subjection gracefully both he and man are much happier for it" (Figes 67).

Works Cited

Figes, Eva. Patriarchal Attitudes Women in Society. New York: Persea, 1987. Print.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Marx and Henry James

I just re-read the Henry James novella Daisy Miller a short time ago, and saw that it was clearly layered with many ideals of the industrializing Western capitalist; therefore making it a perfect text to expose through a Marxist perspective. There is so much to write on this short and dense text, but not nearly enough time, so here is my brief and general introduction to what could be so much more…

Against the Social Bourgeoisie

With a modernizing West, class has become something that is no longer exclusively connected to monetary wealth. Even within the same general group of people, there are factors always present that act as measures of differentiation. There are members of every respective group that exist at the top of a social order with the rest falling somewhere below for one reason or another. Modernity and industry has become the defining force of change, with this change came ideals and moral sensibilities directed at all for the purpose of homogenizing (and therefore controlling).

In Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century this shift was more present than anywhere. The power of European culture over the individual was essential to the propagation of the modern Western world. In the Henry James novella Daisy Miller there is a distinction between different types of class; every character belongs to one side of class or another. While the primary characters are all financially wealthy, they belong, as individuals, to different groups within the upper class. Daisy Miller can be understood as a study in contrast and a story of conflict; Daisy Miller is a character that is unrefined and crude, while at the same time innocent. The personal traits, as well as the internal and external confrontations are all revealed by setting Daisy against a modern European background concerned with distinctly established morals and social decorum. The ‘personal’ trait develops from class, and these traits result in confrontations between individuals and groups. It has aptly been stated that “[t]he motor for social change can come only from a sense of social difference that is based on a conflict of interest, not a liberal pluralism in which differences are finally subordinated to a consensus whose function is to maintain those differences essentially as they are” (Fiske 19).

This text exposes a reality of high society opposing low society, and though it’s not the same as a material base of distinction like rich against poor, it is very similar. These ‘moral’ criticisms levied at the members of low society (or ‘new money’ as in this text) are ultimately baseless no matter the reason, because the grounds of judgment never look at the individual. This rejection of the individual for the sake of the homogenized high society highlights the fact that “[t]here cannot be, nor is there nor will there ever be ‘equality’ between the oppressed and the oppressors, between the exploited and the exploiters” (Lenin 121). Daisy Miller presents a clear departure from any enlightened and modern way of thinking when it comes to the ideals of social decorum. If it is a matter of climbing the social chain no one can escape, and none are uninhibited by it’s power; and if it comes to staying in whatever position you exist, then none below you can expect an unbridled existence. The capitalistic desires consume all in this text, but none more than the woman—one ultimately comes to the conclusion that not just every woman in this text, but every woman in the world is bound by some form of male-centered capitalistic desires. Never is a “[m]an’s vision of woman […] objective, but [rather] an uneasy combination of what he wishes her to be and what he fears her to be, and it is to this mirror image that woman has had to comply… [A] woman is taught to desire not what her mother desired for herself, but what her father and all men find desirable in a woman. Not what she is, but should be” (Figes 17).

The proletariat share much in common with the socially destitute, no matter their pecuniary circumstances. The fate of Daisy Miller is a response from the social bourgeoisie to the threat of her presence. She is judged by the bourgeois ideologies that become intrinsic pieces of culture as “the emphatic and systematic proclamation of what is” (Adorno 118). It is difficult to understand the specific position of Daisy from a modern perspective, but looking at her as an individual set against an anti-individual mass culture makes her story one that persists as much today as before. Daisy Miller presents the a modern human condition with typical nineteenth century ending for a woman that contests her given position in the world. An individual that threatens a system is in the minority, which proves to be a very dangerous position whether that individual is right or wrong.

Works Cited

Adorno, T. W. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

Figes, Eva. Patriarchal Attitudes Women in Society. New York: Persea, 1987. Print.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

James, Henry. Daisy Miller. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Lenin, Vladimir I. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works. “Soviet Power and the Status of Women.” 4th

ed. Vol. 30. Moscow: Progress, 1965. 120-23. Print.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lang's Metropolis

The Marxist social critique has spawned various mediums of popular culture, none more so than that of film. One of the examples I always think of is the darkly modern and realistic Metropolis; depicting a Marx-like class struggle. A city of duel classes; of the bourgeoisie capitalists who live in the sky and control the lives of the homogenized proletariat who exist underground. For the masses of workers the mode of production is their life; “the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” (Marx The German Ideology). This film is not just about the commodification of man, but it shows the results of years of this type of commodification; that the human can never be efficient enough to satiate the hunger of capitalism, so there must be drastic measures to replace man with that which can meet the demands. The workers are therefore sacrificed to the machinery that replaces them, which takes the form of the M-Machine. Marx pointed out the realities of the capitalistic system in an attempt to educate and enlighten those inherently at odds with such a system—the proletariat.

A clip showing the strict deviation between the uninhibited and lavish life of bourgeoisie and the dark realities of the homogenized proletariat.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Freudian 'Hamlet'

Most of what Freud said was bull shit, but his ideas persist to this day and laid much of the foundations of modern psychoanalysis. Though Freud’s theories that are laid in foundations of science and subjectivity are few, his other theories make for good conversation and literary analysis. We where to use a Freudian analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and mine is along these lines:

Hamlet’s guilt lies in his desire to kill his uncle, and the possession of his mother—always a desire—has been won by Claudius. He hesitates killing Claudius because Claudius is a familial representation (something close in blood and spirit) of Hamlet’s repressed childhood fantasies (to possess his mother sexually, as is every boys fantasy according to Freud). To kill Claudius is to kill a part of himself, or at least the actualization of his desires. Claudius has shown Hamlet the repressed wishes of his own childhood, and Hamlet is therefore unable to kill his uncle until his mother dies and the union (and therefore Hamlet’s repressed guilt) is broken.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Group Presentation Reflection

We decided, from the beginning, to do our presentation on Structuralism instead of Formalism—as we where to choose between the two. This decision came about through some convincing by Francesca and myself. The two of us had some past experiences with Structuralism while none of us had any formal instruction on Formalism. The convincing did not take long, and there was no dissent. One of the main reasons we chose Structuralism was because I had an idea for a game to help the class better understand the somewhat confusing terms ‘signified,’ ‘signifier,’ ‘sign.’ While I came up with the basic structure and technicalities of the game/exercise, the finished product is surely a group effort. Each member of the group (myself included) sent images and words that correlated; creating the pieces necessary for the game once they were printed out. For the presentation I did my best to disambiguate the terms, and I provided some quotes from readings I’d done in the past that where not available in the Rivkin text. The group seemed to work well together; we used the time last Wednesday the 17th (when there was no class) to meet face to face and divvy-up the work load, all else was sent through email. This is being written before the class took place, so I don’t know how everything will wind up going, but I assume it will go well.