These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

Across the River Styx: A Lacanian Literary Analysis of Poe’s “The Raven”

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.” (6)

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore. (12)

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.” (18)

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more. (24)

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more. (30)

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!” (36)

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more. (42)

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (48)

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.” (54)

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.” (60)

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.” (66)

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.” (72)

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore! (78)

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (84)

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (90)

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (96)

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (102)

The heart of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” is the river Styx. The river Styx is the border between life and death. We can say that Poe evokes the river Styx—and not some other border between life and death—because of Poe’s various references to Greek mythology. The river Styx gets its name from the goddess of hatred (Styx) who was married to Pallas, the Titan of warcraft. Pallas’s bust appears in “The Raven” as the resting place for the poem’s namesake (41, 103). On a more positive note is Poe’s reference to the Greek for light (10-2).

The effectiveness of “The Raven” is partly due to its tensions and apparent contradictions. The narrator goes from being anxious to being amused (47, 67) to being upset (85). Throughout the poem, light emerges from darkness (10-2, 76-7), death is embodied in life (37-48, 89, 93-5), and so on. The narrator at once seeks hope and seeks death (89, 93-5). The narrator demands answers (88-9, 92-5) and immediately rejects those same answers (97-101). Light (10-2, 76-7) and dark (24, 43, 99, 106-7) are prominent concepts in “The Raven,” just as good (11, 80) and evil (85, 91, 105) are, but (at least briefly) there is hope in death (89, 93-5), while prophecy is associated with evil (58-60, 79-96), so normal associations appear subverted.

Confusions that arise from these dichotomous themes in “The Raven” can be explained through the thought of Jacques Lacan. In some ways, Lacan’s thought deals directly with these kinds of tensions and apparent contradictions. For instance, Lacan views the desire to live and a drive toward death as being mutually constitutive of each other. Lacan says that any drive toward any objective is balanced by the drive toward a return to the previous state—toward the death of that instance of that drive.

In “The Raven,” new life enters into the narrator’s home: the Raven (37-42). The narrator asks the “wandering” (46) Raven what its “name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore” (47), to which the Raven replies, “Nevermore.” The Raven “[flutters]” (37), “[steps]” (38), “[perches]” (40), “[wanders]” (46), and talks (48). Surely, this Raven seems to be alive. At the same time, it is not a coincidence that the Raven claims to be named “Nevermore.” In fact, strangely, the narrator predicts the Raven’s association with death when they suggest that the Raven is from “the Night’s Plutonian shore.” Night is associated with darkness, just as death is, and Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld (Hades is the Greek equivalent—this is the only time when Poe makes reference to Roman mythology instead of Greek). Throughout the poem, the Raven speaks, saying “only (55) That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour” (56): “Nevermore.” The Raven’s soul is embodied in the concept of “Nevermore.” For something to be “nevermore,” it must have been and then to have no longer been; it must die, which is the same as returning to the previous state: the non-living.

Lacan’s idea of the death drive is complicated. For Lacan, the death drive first appears in what he calls “the mirror stage.” When, as infants, we become aware of ourselves, we begin to think of ourselves as whole selves or at least as potentially whole selves. This phenomenon can be represented by the infant looking into a mirror and gazing at the infant looking back at them. The infant recognizes the other as somehow themselves and the infant appreciates the completeness of the other. The infant desires to be complete like this other that is the image of the infant, themselves. This desire is based on a kind of illusion. The othered self that appears in the mirror is an image that includes something alienated from the infant. The image appears at the same time complete and different from the infant. The difference between the infant and the infant’s mirror image results in the infant being inclined to pursue the illusory something that completes their other that they see in the mirror. This elusive completive substance is what Lacan calls “objet petit a.”

Before the mirror stage, the child does not feel desire because the child does not feel a sense of lack. They may have needs and they may cry out, but their needs can be provided for and they can be satisfied. However, after the mirror stage, the infant is inclined to try to complete themselves by finding things outside of themselves that can make up for what they lack. Objet petit a appears as that which is lacking that can make someone whole. When we feel desire, there is some invisible thing in the object that leads us to think that the thing will completely satisfy us. Instead, objet petit a is merely an illusion and complete satisfaction never comes. Desires always appear as manifestations of what we learn as the desires of others—desire is not determined by some authentic version of ourselves. Objects that we crave are represented by symbols that we internalize. This is what Lacan calls “the symbolic order.” The symbolic order is everything that can be expressed. All expressions happen through symbolizations. All symbols and all modes of symbolization are inherited through observing others. Symbolization necessarily is not a product of ourselves.

In the same way that the image in the mirror is not exactly ourselves, no desire that we express relates exactly to our contentment. What I mean by this is that the self that we see is not our complete, accurate self. For any of us, the image is the closest possible approximation to our self, but it does not accurately represent us. Similarly, any symbol—that we use to represent anything—necessarily fails to fully capture what it means to represent. If any object external to ourselves could ever completely satisfy us, it could never be expressed through language or through any symbolization. We can never achieve long-term satisfaction through acquiring anything or achieving anything because the idea that there is something that we lack and that we have to find that thing is an idea that is produced by the false image of our complete and independent selves. As we acquire things, those things never have the something that could make up for what we lack because the lack is fabricated through the false understanding of the image in the mirror.

In “The Raven,” the narrator desperately wishes to be reunited with their love, Lenore (“Lenore” comes from Greek for light). The death of Lenore leads the narrator to sense that Lenore is what they lack (10-2, 93-5). As we are on Earth, our reunion with someone dead is an excellent example of objet petit a. Once someone is dead, we cannot be reunited with them (at least not as we remember them). We are destined to be disappointed and to remain unsatisfied so long as we desire such a reunion. In “The Raven,” the narrator thinks about Lenore before the Raven appears, and when the Raven arrives, the narrator demands that the narrator “forget this lost Lenore” (83). Predictably, the Raven responds, “Nevermore” (84). There is no possibility for the narrator to be satisfied by their desire for Lenore, but the narrator persists. The narrator obsesses.

It seems that the narrator cannot help but think about Lenore and to imagine reuniting with Lenore, but before this obsession becomes fully obvious, the narrator demonstrates a different obsession. At first, the narrator is amused by the Raven (43), but the narrator becomes more and more fixated on the fact that the Raven repeats the word “Nevermore” (49-75). When the Raven’s “Nevermore” (84) follows the narrator suggests that they “forget this lost Lenore” (83), the narrator repeatedly asks whether, by dying, the narrator will be reunited with Lenore (85-96).

Lacan relates such extreme destructive behaviors to suicidal narcissism. When we see ourselves in the mirror, we can become intensely attracted to the complete image of our self, like in the Greek myth of Narcissus. When our attraction to the completed image of our self is strong enough, we can become reckless in the pursuit of objet petit a—that which we believe will make us complete. This recklessness can result in self-sabotage in various forms.

In “The Raven,” this suicidal narcissism’s extreme form appears at the end of the poem (97-108). The narrator is so desirous of reunion with Lenore that the narrator demands that the Raven leave and commit its own suicide (97-101). The Raven responds with the only word it speaks (102). In the last stanza, the verb tense changes from the past to the present. What then becomes clear is that everything that has been narrated is a depiction of something past. Now, after however long the Raven has been there, the narrator remains sitting across from the Raven, unable to move (103-8). If, as the narrator suggests, their “soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor (107) Shall be lifted—nevermore!” (108), then the narrator is sure to die under the weight of their obsession.

Again, it is in the very hope for the narrator’s completeness that they are eventually driven to absolute self-destruction. Narcissism, according to Lacan, is about an unhealthy fetishization of the apparent completeness in the self’s image. What I mean is that the narcissist is so convinced of the completeness—and, therefore, so attracted to its beauty—that the narcissist tragically hopes too strongly to embody this image.

As we can see, Lacan’s thought, as in “The Raven,” is characterize by ambivalences. Life carries death with it in the form of the death drive. Every phenomenon that is not stamped out by external forces is sure to eventually end its own existence. The Raven at once embodies transcendent answers and the source of the narrator’s denial. By “transcendent answers,” I mean that the Raven has a direct relationship to entities and information that are not of this world. Lenore is both a light (and a source for hope) in the narrator’s otherwise dark world and the source of the narrator’s frustration and eventual death. For Lacan, this is the nature of desire as embodied in the ever-elusive objet petit a. Objet petit a is the source of one’s ultimate hope for fulfillment as well as a source of our misery.

One might argue that the tension is false, and a shallow look at the evidence might suggest that. Death simply pervades the poem, so the poem is about death in a more simplistic way, the argument might go. Of course, the narrator laments Lenore from very early on (10-2). Symbols for death pervade the text, preceding any thought of the Raven or of the narrator’s explicit mention of suicide. In the second line of the poem, the narrator refers to “forgotten lore.” The death drive is meant to represent both the death of any thing-as-such and the returns of things to previous stages. When the lore is forgotten, conditions return to those of the time before the lore. The mirror stage could be thought of as a clear example of the death drive’s tendency to bring us back to that which precedes. When someone becomes aware of themselves but also fails to conceive of themselves completely, they kill off parts of themselves. This misrecognition is, itself, a kind of death that leads to all the misguided energy that leads to one’s eventual destruction.

Toward the beginning of the poem, the narrator says, “each separate dying ember wrought its ghost” (8), “Eagerly I wished the morrow” (9), and “to still the beating of my heart” (15). Each of these has its relationship to death and the death drive. “To still the beating of [the narrator’s] heart” is to creep toward death: the point at which one’s heart stops beating. Wishing for the morning represents the death of the day and a return to something that precedes. In some sense, it is the symbolization of day and night, and light and dark, that help to reproduce the death drive within this poem. If the narrator did not symbolize day and night as associated with light and dark, or life and death, then the anxiety over what each of them lacks might not be so profound. Finally, the “dying ember” that brings about its ghost appears as a dead thing with a life drive (or “Eros”). For the narrator, death constitutes life just as life constitutes death. In the binaries to which I refer, the one lacks the other in the same way that the narrator lacks what is promised by objet petit a. Death is always with live and vice versa. Lenore is the light in the narrator’s darkness. The Raven emerges from the dark of night (37-42), uncannily appearing in the light, casting its dark shadow that traps the narrator into their death (103-8).

To return to my earlier point, all of this might suggest that this poem simply represents the idea that someone in exceptional circumstances might simply seek an excuse to die. My contention is that the way that the poem presents the motivation to die is not very different from how Lacan describes the death drive. The death drive is the balance to life that appears as a complication. This complication can only be made completely clear at the end of one’s life. There is always a tension between one’s complete, authentic self as life and the inauthenticating acts that are intended to fulfill desires—acts that eventually lead to death. It is this constant bidirectionality that is central to Lacan’s thought and central to “The Raven.”

Indeed, as counterintuitive as it may initially seem, the river Styx is the perfect symbol for “The Raven.” The river Styx is where good crosses with evil and life crosses with death. One can conclude that there is no pure category on the river Styx—only potential. There is always the hypothetical possibility of turning oneself around, of altering one’s fate. Instead, though, as Lacan makes clear, the problem of this existence appears in an illusion on the river Styx of human consciousness. Our consciousness is determined by our social existence, Lacan might tell us, and the boat can appear to be going in opposite directions at once, but we always only end up on the side that someone(s) else has helped to determine for us. We hope for an impossible something that torturously appears to be within our reach but always nudges out, just beyond our grasp.


On the Domination of Nature — Reflections on Baudrillard’s “The Mirror of Production”

Baudrillard is concerned that Marx defines people too simply according to their labor power. For Baudrillard, people should be liberated from the notion that their value comes from their power over nature. This kind of valuation was not always the case, as Baudrillard points out. Before the 18th century, humanity and nature gave each other meaning. But, Baudrillard says, “All this is shattered in the 18th century with the rise and ‘discovery’ of Nature as a potentiality of powers (no longer a totality of laws); as a primordial source of life and reality lost and recovered, repressed and liberated; and as a deed projected into an atemporal past and an ideal future.” Instead of the laws by which nature and humanity “could exchange their meanings,” nature becomes redefined in a relation of power. Now, nature appears as something to be mastered by humanity, as a source of tools, as Heidegger might put it. This is a radical transformation, in Baudrillard’s view. Baudrillard describes the transformation: “This rise is only the obverse of an event: Nature’s entry into the era of its technical domination. This is the definitive split between subject and Nature-object and their simultaneous submission to an operational finality.” Previously, nature and humanity had been coequals. Neither was previous to the other, neither more important. They mutually gave importance to each other. Now, the direction of humanity would be set as humanity became aware of its potential to master nature. Baudrillard continues to define the shift: “Nature appeared truly as an essence in all its glory but under the sign of the principle of production. Under the objective stamp of Science, Technology, and Production, Nature becomes the great Signified, the great Referent.” Now, instead of nature preserving a quality worth respecting and acknowledging in its difference from humanity, it lies open to its domination by humanity. Instead of giving significance to humanity, nature becomes a kind of secondary concern—merely instrumental to the desires of humanity. It has gone from being a signifier to solely a signified. It is acted upon and it is given significance through the acts of humanity. Baudrillard says, “It is ideally charged with ‘reality’; it becomes the Reality, expressible by a process that is always somehow a process of labor, at once transformation and transcription.” The process by which nature comes to be redefined is through the process of labor. Through labor, nature becomes the instrumental object that the subject encounters and uses for the subject’s purpose. Nature is exploited—transformed from one form to another, as it suits the subject—and nature’s redefinition is made legible through this act. In this way, nature is transformed as it is transcribed. Finally, Baudrillard adds, “Its ‘reality’ principle is this operational principle of an industrial structuration and a significative pattern.” Baudrillard’s final argument here is interesting. It reminds me of Deleuze’s multiplicity. As I understand the multiplicity, it is a system that follows a particular logic and is multiscalar. To tie it back to Baudrillard, what I mean is that Baudrillard is alluding to the way by which humanity’s dominance of nature comes to form a logic that is then followed when humans come to dominate other humans, as an example. Once nature has become the instrumental object for the human subject, then other humans, other humans’ labors, the products of other humans’ labors, and so on, become possible objects for dominations. After all, those are all constituent aspects of nature.


Memories and Moonlight

Someone once said, All thought is a bad translation.
The smell of smoke reaches into memories, reminds
of times that never really were.
We react like the animals that we are.

We fly over oceans,
waiting for a candlewick to turn
—sinewy wisps of powder, fading in a cool night breeze—
the end of a life
once too full to find its way above earth.

We purge ourselves of sin,
hoping to find our purity in the eyes of God,
paying indulgences, running dirt-covered fingers over black beads
—eyes closed, chests crossed—
praying for a place beyond gold bars and nacre.

We count turns of the long hand on the round, smiling clock face.
It clicks a million times,
oscillating over the same space.
Please let anything happen.

But, there is no end.
Fields of gold and aquamarine call us to run and swim—
to jump through, and over, land and limbs that slide and give beneath us.
The lights cycle around you and around me, and we can still
spin cotton while the moon is bright.

Today, I Believe in God, Part Two: Shores that Circle the Ocean

Pt. 1

He referred to me as “chaff on fertile ground” or maybe it was “grain on barren ground.” I can’t even remember, anymore. He once said that I was a rebel without a clue. I guess he was right because I didn’t even know what he meant by that, but I liked it, anyway. I still don’t really know what he meant. I still like it, anyway.

I went and saw a band play last night. It was this chillwave band and they had this funny name about a Middle Eastern burlesque troupe or something. I thought it was funny, anyway. My friend told me it’s postmodern. He kept laughing and referring to absurd things as “late capitalism,” and he sounded so pretentious. He calls himself a communist, though.

His name’s Hendrik. I mean, I call him a friend. I don’t know what counts. He’s very warm, sometimes, but he’s scared, too. I see it. He has big brown eyes that are yellowish around the edges and sometimes they’re greenish. They look like olives and it’s very interesting because he’s German. Well, I guess he’s German. Maybe one of his parents is from further South. I didn’t ask. He goes back and forth between being like that—all concerned about how he looks and his phone and stuff like that—and just being really touchy and genuinely kind. Sometimes, it’s so nice, and sometimes, you remember the other way and it grosses you out a little. You know that feeling you get like your intestines are trying to crawl into your neck? Why do we all have to be so fake? There’s always this little distance. I never really trust anyone. I feel like my mom could eat my baby if it came down to it. Not that I have a baby. I’ve barely had sex. I mean, I’ve had sex—don’t get me wrong—but what I really mean is that it feels like everything’s a competition and everyone’s trying to survive but survival means having a nice apartment and a BMW. People who drive BMWs are almost always assholes. I heard that somewhere. I wonder if it’s true.

There was my friend in New York, though. I mean, I had sex with her. We were more than friends. Were, I say. That was a weird thing and I don’t know how I feel about it. Actually, I do know, but I feel a little guilty for it. The thing is that we had a falling out. Well, I just blocked her on social media is the thing. She sent me an email, but I didn’t read it. The email keeps staring at me and I stare back, but then, there are other emails, so I just open those emails and I click on other tabs. But to be honest, I blocked Lily, so why is she emailing me? Maybe that’s why I’m mad at her in the first place. Not that I’m mad at her. The thing is that I realized how fake she is. I mean, everyone’s fake. Like I said, maybe I shouldn’t be mad at her. And really, I’m not. I’m just upset. And, that means that it’s me that I’m upset with. I know that. I’ve had a lot going on this semester. Anyway, she does this thing that I just find really upsetting.

Sometimes, we’ll get into an argument, and you know, I try and incorporate this Zapatista thing that we learned in class: “Caminamos al paso del más lento,” which means, “We walk at the pace of the slowest.” Basically, if you see that someone needs help, you help them. And, you always be on the lookout. Well, we were talking about this thing and she always just gets mad at me and rolls her eyes. Maybe not mad. It’s worse, actually. She gets annoyed. She assumes that I’m wrong and she just doesn’t respect what I have to say. She doesn’t respect me, which is weird to me. So, she just ends up attacking me and then shutting down the conversation. It seems to me a bit like if someone punched you in the face and then ran away and asked you for a truce, saying that they get overwhelmed and can’t deal with it. What does that even mean? Like, why did you even yell at me in the first place if you were just going to be unfair about it? If you couldn’t handle it, why say anything? Well, not yell, but that’s what it feels like. I dunno. I don’t blame her. It’s just annoying.

Anyway, I was thinking about it and what I noticed is that these things that she cares about are so fake. Like, she only dates other activists, and she wants to live with activists and she wants to run a school, but up in New York. She grew up always around this intentional community and she loves it and it’s basically all her friends, so all her friends that she makes are in these activist spaces, but she doesn’t actually care about anything except for feminism and the environment. It’s just so hypocritical. Like, she’s this rich white girl who grew up with good parents and has good siblings and they’re all nice to one another and they own a business and the dad’s a professor and some of them meditate together, sometimes. Really. Like, somehow, people are supposed to look at her and come to the conclusion that she has some moral authority when all she wants to do is hang out with her white friends in Greenwich Village and deliver soup in recycled containers from the mountaintops of New York and we’re supposed to applause or something. I don’t need friends like that. Her stockings have holes in them. So postmodern. Okay, I’m being mean. Sorry.

Okay, but here’s what happened. The thing was that she was all for Bernie, right? Like, we were all for Bernie. She was really critical of Hillary and we’d had some discussions about it, but then Bernie lost. We were all sad about it, but I hadn’t seen her or talked to her in a few weeks, and suddenly, she was saying how great Hillary was and how Hillary was going to win and how she was #imwithher. I was pretty surprised. I pointed out how there were real problems with Hillary that we should pay attention to. For some reason, she just kinda blew up at me. She talked about how she’s tired of white men telling her how she should think, but that wasn’t what I meant at all. All our mutual friends came to her defense (they’re girls), which is fine, but for some reason, I was surprised that they had to take her side instead of just trying to mediate or something. I mean, I wasn’t mean to her, but she was mean to me, and they took her side. I feel like I was right. I’m not saying that she was wrong, but why am I the bad guy? Anyway, I was a bit heartbroken that Lily was saying these things about Hillary, but I wasn’t trying to tell her how to think. I understand what she meant, but I don’t know why she acted like that. I felt a bit betrayed, even though I realize that wasn’t her intention. At one point, some stranger (to me, I mean; maybe not to Lilly; I dunno) joined in the conversation, and I pointed out how Clinton had been the most corrupt politician in American history, and this other person said that’s absolutely not true. I just said that I’d read that from this Intersectional Feminist blog I read, anyway. Maybe the author was wrong. I dunno. Something about money laundering and dictators and FGM and child soldiers. I’m sorry. That’s super-intense, but it’s just what I read. Don’t blame me. It ended with this other acquaintance of ours saying how people criticizing Hillary were just misogynists and people who want dramatic change just shouldn’t be taken seriously. I wanted to tell her about the Zapatistas, but I didn’t.

The other day, on Lily’s Facebook profile photo, I saw this photo of her looking into the camera with this big, genuinely happy grin on her face, and there was this quotation superimposed: “Vulnerable people get silenced too often. We have to fight to let them be heard.” In all fairness, maybe people wouldn’t view me as vulnerable. I get that, but that’s pretty hypocritical, right? She randomly attacks me and all her friends gang up on me, and she just lets that happen. The other thing is that I was going to be the Secretary in our Feminist group, but Lily’s the President, so she got her friends to agree to kick me out of the position. Well, that’s what it seems like happened. I can’t be sure why they started asking me to give the position to this other girl. It’s weird. Anyway, it’s a good photo of her. Sometimes, when people look directly into the camera it looks so weird and creepy. It almost looks good, but this little thing makes it so uncomfortable. It makes me feel a little sick. But, Lily looks very earnest and kind in that photo. Sometimes, I think of her that way. She can be very generous and sweet, but not in a sorority kind of way or a Georgia kind of way (I mean the state, not the country).

Someone once said to me that the wisest thing someone can do is to observe without making any assessment. For a long time, I figured I should remember that, and then I decided that I didn’t know why I should remember it. I realized that I’m not always good at letting things be how they are, and whenever I realized that, it gained some importance to me. I just think about it, sometimes. That’s how it is with Lily. I don’t know if you know it, but there’s this sad Nick Drake song and I really don’t know it all that well, but this one line always stuck with me—something like Some day our ocean will find its shore. Lily makes me think of that, but in weird ways. Her hair is like an ocean. Her eyes are, too, but in a different way. Even her nose, which is weird, I guess. She feels vast to me. I like her vastness. Anyway, maybe our ocean found its shore, but mine’s off the coast of Lisboa or Normandy or something, but hers is in stupidass New York.

She wants to live in New York for her whole life and always be around people who are just like her and who she’s always lived around. She describes herself as an activist, but she’s never really left the comfort of everything she’s ever known. She’s as active as a dog that never leaves its front porch. That’s how much she cares, even if she knows all the liberal jargon and whatever. She’s willing to save the world, so long as the world comes to her front door, so long as the world looks like and behaves like all her closest friends, and so long as the world doesn’t demand that she sacrifice or do anything difficult. I love her, but isn’t that a bit immature? She’s three months older than I am, but I still think that’s pretty immature. Maybe I’m being the immature one. It’s not like I’m saying all this to her. I’m just upset, so I’m saying it to you. Which is me. I can say it to myself. I forgive myself. I guess I don’t if I have to say it. Oh, well.

She once told me, “Never say more than you have to. But, absolutely always say what you absolutely have to.” I think that makes a lot of sense. I don’t think I’m very good at either, though.

Enough about that, though. I did this super weird thing. I’m still in Europe, you know. Yeah, it’s that time of that year (if you’re looking back at all this or whatever). I decided to just travel around a bit. I’d missed my flight back home, but honestly, I think I did that on purpose. So, what I decided to do was to just travel around by train. I’d never ridden a train. The next train was going from Paris all the way to Vienna, so I went there, but when I got there, it was such a rainy day that I just decided to leave Vienna and the next train from there went to Belgrade. This is super weird. I just decided to go to Belgrade. I was in Belgrade for a few days and it was interesting. Everyone was really grumpy and they seemed to hate me as soon as I spoke English to them, but I don’t really speak any other language. I took some Italian in high school because it was required and I figured everyone takes Spanish. But, I don’t really know Italian well, so it’s not like I could communicate with Serbians by speaking Italian.

Well, there’s this other city in Serbia called Novi Sad, so I just decided to go there and I got in another train. This train is easily the oldest train I’ve ever been on, I’m sure (but like I said, I’d never really been on a train, so maybe more important is that it seemed to be the oldest train I’d ever seen [except maybe the ones they put in museums or spaghetti restaurants]). I’d guess that it was fifty years old. It was very rickety and creaky. The whole time, I felt like it was going to fall apart. There was this girl sitting in this train car that I walked onto. I’ve never really hit on a girl, but she reminded me so much of the only girl I ever really dated—my first love and only love—the one who broke my heart as a starry-eyed, naïve, stupid teenager (I guess maybe I’m still that, but I’m just trying to impress upon you what this is all like). Lily isn’t my first love, by the way. Maybe I love Lily, but it’s not the same. Anyway, this traingirl seemed very gentle and quirky and she was very pretty to me, but not in your conventional way. She had very short hair and I don’t think she was wearing makeup, but I’m no expert, so maybe she was just going for the subtle look or whatever. She was wearing this little sundress, and it was like it matched all the flowers and corn and mountains outside. That’s dumb, I guess, but it really felt that way. She and I kept looking at each other “accidentally.” I had picked a seat right across from her, and after a while, I decided that what I’d do is write this note to her. It was something like “This is very reductive and stupid and unfair, but you give me a very spiritual vibe and I think that I’d like to get to know you, if you wanted. Also, I think you’re pretty, but in a natural way. I don’t think that’s an important thing. It’s not nearly as important as whether or not we’re just humans who could connect with each other, but it’s also true, so I thought I should say it.” And then, I put my name and email address. So, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her if she spoke English. I could tell right away that she was a little shocked. I told her that this was very strange and I was sorry if I’d startled her, but that I’d written her a note and if she didn’t mind, I’d like to give it to her. She looked at me in this understated—but kind of terrified—look and took the note and said, “Okay,” and she put the note in her pocket. I guess there might’ve been a better way to have done that, or maybe it’s too objectifying or reductive no matter what. I don’t really know. I guess it’s either a good experience or a good story. Someone told me that once. It sounds like something that someone from rural Missouri might say with a toothy grin, but that might mean that it’s basically true or at least wise or something.

Film and Revolution (Spoiler: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised)

(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “them,” “their,” and/or “theirs” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)


In Benjamin’s, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” he largely focuses on how the bourgeoisie use film to perpetuate bourgeois ideology and fascist ideology. On p. 120, Benjamin says, “For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be performed solely by optical means—that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually—taking their cue from tactile reception—through habit [emphasis his].” Here, Benjamin points out that we learn by doing. It is not enough to simply see something being done—our bodies must partake in the activity in order for our bodies to learn it. Tasks take time to master and they require what Benjamin calls “tactile reception,” which is code for the distracted intake of experience. When we absorb new information without paying attention to the absorption, we form habits of perception and of practice. The distraction in this absorptive process implies less opportunity to resist the absorption. If we are unaware of the absorption, then we cannot resist it or criticize it; we have no recourse.

Benjamin goes on, “Even the distracted person can form habits. What is more, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction first proves that the performance has become habitual. The sort of distraction that is provided by art represents a covert measure of the extent to which it has become possible to perform new tasks of apperception.” (120) When we are able to perform tasks without paying attention to what we are doing, our bodies are so well-trained that our conscious minds are no longer required. For Benjamin, this kind of mastery equates to habit. When Benjamin talks here about distraction that is provided by art, he is referring to art that is consumed as a means of entertainment. This requires the unengaged viewer, rather than the intent art critic or sophisticated consumer of art. When we do not pay attention to the art we consume, the art secretly rearranges how we perceive things and how our minds engage with the world. Film, in Benjamin’s mind, is a perfect medium for performing this kind of rearrangement, and who better to do so than the privileged bourgeoisie?

Benjamin claims just that: “[T]he same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority.” (115) Film takes advantage of opportunities to refigure the perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and embodied knowledges and practices of the proletariat. But, why?

Benjamin says,

Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish. It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged. (120-1)

Through film, the bourgeoisie legitimates their power and redirects repressed feelings of discontentment. They refigure the proletarian’s inner workings in ways that tap into, and give “expression” to, the frustrations of the proletariat. But, instead of allowing the proletariat to confront the (bourgeois) forces responsible for the proletariat’s plight, film merely escalates destructive emotions and directs them elsewhere.

Benjamin explains the repressive function of film by saying,

[O]ne also has to recognize that […] technologization has created the possibility of psychic immunization against such mass psychoses. It does so by means of certain films in which the forced development of sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusions can prevent their natural and dangerous maturation in the masses. […] The countless grotesque events consumed in films are a graphic indication of the dangers threatening mankind from the repressions implicit in civilization. (118)

Film helps to contain the rage of the proletariat by giving expression to that rage. The proletariat can watch films and vicariously feel satisfied by the carnage on the screen. These expressions of rage are amplified in film in ways that could not otherwise be felt—perhaps save for actual physical destruction. As people are made to feel satisfied through film viewings, any liberatory violences against the bourgeoisie are momentarily forestalled… at least until the sequel.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version.” Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966. 101-33.

The Poetic Vehicle of Authoritarian Ideology

(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “them,” “their,” and/or “theirs” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)


Benjamin’s view seems to be that technology and geopolitics have formed a situation by which people’s discontent, paired with their lack of connection to reality, has opened a space available to exploitation by authoritarians. Today, we might see this as a Žižekian point: effective authoritarians often rely on poetry to motivate the masses to comply with unspeakable terrors[1]. This poetry relies on the emptying of ideological space. Benjamin’s historical dialectics proposes that modern consumption of art entails the effacement of artworks’ material and ritual aspects that initially are artworks’ raison d’etre. In modernity, the roles of art and culture are hollowed out in a way that recalls Marx’s line from The Eighteenth Brumaire: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”[2] For Benjamin, this appears in the difference between myth and allegory: myths are stories born of people’s common material experiences and conditions, whereas allegories are tales meant to instill bourgeois ideals and practices agreeable to the ruling class.

Part of the problem is that technology and capitalism have cheapened people’s experiences. In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin says, “Since the end of the nineteenth century, philosophy has made a series of attempts to grasp ‘true’ experience, as opposed to the kind that manifests itself in the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses.” (314) People’s experiences no longer appear to be authentic and fulfilling. Further down the page, Benjamin refers to Bergson’s relationship to the problem as expressed in Bergson’s Matière et Memoire (Matter and Memory): “As the title suggests, it regards the structure of memory as decisive for the philosophical structure of experience. […] [Experience] is the product less of facts firmly anchored in memory than of accumulated and frequently unconscious data that flow together in memory.” Memory, then, is partly determined by unconscious information that informs everything that we do, including thought. In V. N. Vološinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language[3], he fleshes out a similar idea. On p. 10, he says, “The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. They equate with one another. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present, too.” For Vološinov, all use of language necessitates what Benjamin calls “unconscious data.” Later in the book, Vološinov determines that individuals’ uses of signs rely on social construction. Members of groups of people mutually agree upon the meanings of signs. All signs reflect understandings of the world determined by the group of people who construct that particular system of signs. Signs facilitate these system formations. The process of forming these systems always already includes ideology, even before any sign is constructed.

The same signs often appear in different, contemporaneous systems. The constructions of these differing systems of signs depend on the situations in which people find themselves. Any group of people might understand a sign differently from any other group of people. In any geographical place, the proletariat at any point in time can, and often does, construct a different meaning for any particular sign than that which the bourgeoisie might construct. These signs help to determine how we view ourselves, so all aspects of the individual are partly determined by the community.

When Benjamin says, “Experience is indeed a matter of tradition, in collective existence as well as private life,” (314) he highlights how socially constructed signs inform the construction of the individual but also how these signs construct our understandings of past events. Throughout Benjamin’s writing, he points out that understandings of history are determined by interpretations of past events. Illegible and inconvenient parts of histories are removed, while recollectors of histories imbue positive content-values: what Vološinov calls “ideology” and what Benjamin calls “unconscious data.”

To return to the beginning of this essay, what is imbued in these histories can be a bit of Žižek’s authoritarian poetry—a concern that Žižek and Benjamin seem to share. As the authoritarian’s poetry determines the interpretation of history, it also determines how individuals define themselves in and against their communities.

[1] For example, see Slavoj Žižek’s “The Poetic Torture-House of Language,” Poetry. Chicago: Poetry Foundation. 2017.

[2] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Moscow: Progress Publishers. 1934. 10.

[3] Vološinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Seminar Press. 1973.

Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966. 313-55.

Benjamin, Brecht, Hume, and Marx: The Communistic Self

“‘Communism is not radical. It is capitalism that is radical.’” — Bertolt Brecht, quoted in “A Family Drama in the Epic Theater,” (Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2, p. 559)


(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “them,” “their,” and/or “theirs” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)


Benjamin saw the individual as contingent, composed of a kind of palimpsest of constituent parts, all changing and shifting about one another. In “Notes from Svendborg,” he says, “For you have to divide up the traveler, as well as the journey. And since in doing this you abolish the unity of life, you likewise do away with its brevity. However short it may be. This doesn’t matter, because the man who started out on his journey is different from the man who arrives.” (Vol. 2, p. 788) Benjamin supposes that we have to divide up the individual in order to try to understand them, but as we divide up the individual, we must also divide up the individual’s activities. Benjamin is concerned both with time and place, and he sees them as linked in the individual’s experience. Who a person is depends both on time and space, and the individual that appears in those moment-places is always producing a new iteration of the individual. The apparent brevity of life is subverted by the fact that the individual changes from moment-to-moment. What might otherwise seem like a brief encounter is—for any particular iteration of the individual—that individual’s entire existence. This conception bears relationships to David Hume’s critique of the notion of the self[1], as well as Marx’s conception of the tension between self-interest and altruism, as described in his discussion of the alienation of the species-being[2].

The comparison to Hume’s self is clear: both Hume and Benjamin see the self as lacking a permanently static, essential component.

The comparison to Marx’s alienation of the species-being is less clear. Marx states that capitalism forces people to choose between caring for themselves and caring for the collective. In Benjamin’s “From the Brecht Commentary,” he says, “The victor must not allow the defeated the experience of defeat. He must snatch this, too; he must share defeat with the defeated.” (Vol. 2, p. 375) If we consider Benjamin’s quotation above, along with this one, the relationship between Benjamin’s writing and Marx’s alienation of the species-being becomes clearer. In the earlier quotation, Benjamin sees the individual as contingent. The individual is partly contingent on social relations, as well as on other factors. Proletarian victories, as Benjamin talks about in “From the Brecht Commentary,” require that victors also appropriate defeat. The necessity of this appropriation is what leads to the overcoming of Marx’s problem: in order for society to come into a situation by which one’s self-interest is aligned with the interest of the collective, no one can win or lose more than anyone else. By appropriating defeat, equity of classes appears where there was inequity.

[1] Hume says, “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity.” Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.1888. 252.

[2] Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.” Early Writings. New York: Penguin Books. 1992. 327-9.

Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966.

Science, Art, and Exploitation: Brecht on Cultural Subversion

            Brecht begins “A Short Organum for the Theatre” by inspecting how art relates to social relations. “This theatre justified its inclination to social commitment by pointing to the social commitment in universally accepted works of art, which only fail to strike the eye because it was the accepted commitment.” (179) What is clear here is that all works of art rely on social commitments. The most invisible of these commitments are the most banal—the least challenging to our assumptions of how things should go (which is often, simply, the way things tend to go). So, when Brecht’s theater challenges social norms, criticisms of Brecht’s works—on the grounds of their tendency to express social commitments—ring hollow. Legitimate criticism must acknowledge that all works of art have social content value, so if one is to criticize a work of art on the basis of its social commitments, those criticisms are only legitimate when they confront the content-values of those commitments. As such, works of art that do not foreground critical positions tend to perpetuate the status quo.

Brecht concerns himself with relationships between science and art, especially in their figuring of culture and social relations. First, on p. 184, he says that the bourgeoisie have stopped science from illuminating the relations between people “during the exploiting and dominating process.” Regardless of the intention, the meaning of the quoted section is multiple: the “exploiting and dominating process” can apply to primitive accumulation; settler colonization; cultural hegemony; worker relations; identity relations, like those of “race,” gender, sexual preference, etc.; neocolonialism; big data, and probably other social phenomena. In fact, humans’ exploitation of nature shares a relationship to humans’ exploitation of other humans. On p. 185, Brecht points out that attitudes that were once reserved for natural disasters now apply to “undertakings by the rulers.” Brecht then says, “But science and art meet on this ground, that both are there to make men’s [sic] life easier, the one setting out to maintain, the other to entertain us.” When Brecht says that science makes people’s life easier by maintaining the status quo, it seems to me that he is, in some sense, being sarcastic. If we consider that he sees his theater project as potentially subverting the status quo, along with the fact that he sees science as exploiting nature and exploiting humanity—all for the sake of domination by the bourgeoisie—he cannot mean that science is purely beneficial to society. So when Brecht says, “In the age to come art will create entertainment from that new productivity which can so greatly improve our maintenance, and in itself, if only it is left unshackled, may prove to be the greatest pleasure of them all,” he may be unintentionally predicting how modern society’s science and art do more to enrich the wealthy few than to liberate the underprivileged masses.

Truer Language: Anti-Rationalism in Benjamin’s “On the Image of Proust”

Part of Benjamin’s interest in Proust lies in Benjamin’s concerns over rationality and rationalism. In Proust, Benjamin sees an artist who was able to achieve a rare authenticity. The authenticity in Proust’s work is what makes him notable, but for Benjamin, the way by which Proust is able to achieve this authenticity is important for understanding humanity’s role in the world and certain truths about humanity, itself.

On p. 237 of Benjamin’s essay, titled, “On the Image of Proust, he says, “We know that in his work Proust did not describe a life as it actually was, but a life as it was remembered by the one who had lived it.” (237) What is clear in Proust’s writing is that its objective veracity is limited. That is not to say that Proust is lying but that completeness and accuracy cannot be guaranteed by Proust’s memory. In fact, can any of us make any claim to truth?

In the prologue to The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin begins by referring to the problem of representation. For Benjamin, language, as people use it, cannot achieve representation in its fullest and most accurate form. Truth in language lies elsewhere.

Later in the same paragraph of the Proust essay, Benjamin says of Proust’s writing: “For here the day unravels what the night has woven. When we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually weakly and loosely, but a few fringes of the carpet of lived existence, as woven into us by forgetting. However, with our purposeful activity and, even more, our purposive remembering each day unravels the web, the ornaments of forgetting.” (238) What does Benjamin when he describes the “[weaving] into us” of forgetting? Here, it is forgetting that is the more powerful than the remembering. Forgetting is what imbues in us the small particles of “lived existence.” Perhaps, what Benjamin means is that it is not our conscious thought that determines so much of how we view the world and interact with it; if Benjamin has anti-rationalism in mind as a primary concern, then the unconscious, invisible embodiment of knowledge might be privileged here. What we carry around with us from our day-to-day lives is not so much the conscious decisions that we make, but the small, unnoticed changes in our perceptions and our understandings of the world around us. In the end, it is the conscious, rational thought that leads us astray, which explains why Proust took to working at night, if we are to believe Benjamin. Proust was able to avoid so much treacherous rationalization by avoiding the rational world and the expectations of clear, visible, rational thought.

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Image of Proust.” Selected Writings, Volume 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966. 237-47.

Sacrifice and Liberty in E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful

“Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.”
— Walter Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities[1]

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

— Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison, Volume 12


(note: I may use gender-neutral “them,” “they,” “their,” and “theirs” to refer to imagined persons)


E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful is something like a critique-of-political-economy-as-revolutionary-life-handbook.3 Were it not for the empirical work that Schumacher did to show the viability of subaltern socio-economic modes, one might assume that he should have been pessimistic. His analyses of culture, the socio-psychological welfare of people, education, technology, global ecology, nuclear potential, and geopolitics (among other things) were nothing if not negative. But, when Schumacher looked at the world, he seems to have seen opportunities and solutions in the faces of actual and potential disasters.

In 1966, E. F. Schumacher’s essay, titled “Buddhist Economics,” set the groundwork for a number of social movements that persist today.[2][3] A book containing this essay was published several years later under the title Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. It is a sprawling collection of critical essays on modern political economy and on viable socio-economic alternatives. He draws on arguments from Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and others, sometimes in solidarity and sometimes in opposition, but his primary mode is to present the world’s problems as a set of complex, opaque contradictions. The premises on which we operate, Schumacher asserts, are not conducive to the goals that we have nor the goals that we should have.

The arguments in Small is Beautiful depend on a few major ideas: 1) human activity is causing ecological devastation; 2) people in modern societies live economically unequal lives; and 3) people in modern societies are unfulfilled. These ideas are closely related. Increased ecological devastation increases economic inequality and contributes to people’s dissatisfactions. Socio-economic factors that cause economic inequality—as well as economic inequality, itself—also contribute to people feeling unfulfilled. Finally, income inequality contributes to greater ecological devastation. If we accept Schumacher’s arguments, then these features form a network by which each furthers the other, speeding us along a terrible path.

Another recurrent theme in Schumacher’s book is that of spirituality, but he treats the spiritual elements in his book as axioms. Spirituality in Small is Beautiful will not be thoroughly analyzed here, but it will be briefly discussed toward the end of this essay.

Somewhat hidden in Schumacher’s text is a tension that I will try to draw out—that between what have been called “positive” and “negative” conceptions of liberty.[4] Positive liberty can be thought of as liberty-as-capacity—one’s positive liberty increases as they are able to do more than they could before. Negative liberty is liberty-as-disimpediment—one’s negative liberty increases when obstacles to their health and happiness are removed. In other words, one’s position is improved—in terms of negative liberty—if they have greater access to that which they need.

The book is composed of four parts: “The Modern World,” “Resources,” “The Third World,” and “Organisation and Ownership.” “The Modern World” describes the nature and causes of the world’s greatest economic problems. In “Resources,” Schumacher responds to these grave problems in such a way as to address the most essential and effectual aspects of the world’s problems, rather than merely providing temporary reliefs of symptoms. The problems in Schumacher’s “The Third World” are those related to what he calls “neocolonialism”—that is, how developed countries exploit and complicate conditions in countries with less geopolitical and economic power.[5] “Organisation and Ownership” addresses problems in theories of scale and develops its own theoretical positions on scale.

Schumacher begins by calling attention to nature’s limitations. In “The Problem of Production,” Schumacher demonstrates that we are too quickly using too many natural resources. We treat them as unlimited income instead of as capital that degrades over time, but fossil fuels are limited.[6] He repeats this point throughout the book. On p. 29, he tells us that understandings of economics do not limit consumption, but Earth’s finite resources do limit consumption. On p. 33, he says that endless growth is unsustainable, so we must curtail our desires. If things do not change, we will continue to increase the use of fossil fuels until they are gone.[7] The point is about more than resources, though, as it says something about our humanity, too.

At this point in the book, Schumacher refers to Gandhi’s thought: love is what allows us to overcome “greed, envy, lust, and hate.”[8] Instead of allowing selfish desires to rule over us, it is concern for one another that can lead us to better outcomes. Schumacher describes Buddhist Economics as “nonviolent” and representative of detachment from “materialism.”[9] Buddhist Economics is nonviolent because it helps to ensure poor people’s survival, it reduces stress that would otherwise contribute to violence, it decreases competitiveness, and it lessens environmental devastation and natural disasters.[10] Inversely, modern economics opposes the necessary conditions for peace, so modern economics is Buddhist Economics’s violent counterpart. This argument is justified in a few ways.

Schumacher claims that profit maximization is the purpose of modern economic activity.[11] On p. 25, he explains that if we are always supposed to want more, then we can never have enough and we can never be content; instead, we will always be dissatisfied. The endless pursuit of profit leads to a situation by which, for the sake of increased efficiency, we thoughtlessly fetishize scale.[12] Because profit is so important, all growth appears to be good, and equally so.[13] This has spiritual and humanistic implications: since everything is equivalent to everything else, nothing is sacred.[14] But, Schumacher does not agree with this conclusion. After all, infinite growth is impossible, so it is reasonable that we should consume less. But, there are obstacles to reducing consumption.[15] For example, technology initially appears to be innocuous if not clearly helpful, but, in part, this is due to a lack of the kind of education that Schumacher deems necessary.

The epigraphs at the head of this essay invoke two thinkers who came from very different situations and very different traditions, but arrived at a similar conclusion. Part of what they share is distrust for a taken-for-granted socio-cultural order and the mechanisms by which that socio-cultural order is produced.[16][17] Schumacher appears to be a fairly kindred spirit. He sees education as having great potential to do good or to do bad. He says, “More education can only help us if it produces more wisdom.”[18] This “wisdom” might appear in our ability to distinguish what is reality; education without this wisdom can lead to increased destruction.[19] Schumacher determines that, in addition to the destruction that has already occurred, the prevailing education paradigm also causes tragedy in people’s daily lives. The privileging of science over metaphysics and ethics has led to increased sadness in humanity.[20] Science cannot teach us how to live.[21] Therefore, “Our task—and the task of all education—is to understand the present world, the world in which we live and make our choices.”[22] This is important because if we do not have in mind what is best for us, then conditions are likely to worsen, but if we are intentional, then we can create sustainable health and happiness.[23]

Because we have not fully considered what would be best for us, Schumacher tells us, “we can say that the modern world has been shaped by technology.”[24] The results have sometimes been counter-intuitive; they have often been adverse. The earth and everything on it naturally limits itself, but technology has no self-limiting function.[25] For example, we ruin soil by treating agriculture like any other industry.[26] Further, Schumacher asserts that, because we cannot repair the earth, we have no right to ruin it.[27] So long as we fail to consider these complications, nature appears to be at odds with our use of technology.[28] Technology also appears to be an enemy of humanity. Schumacher tells us that modern technology cannot solve poverty.[29] While technology sometimes appears to benefit us, the truth is not so clear. Technology appears to save us time, but empirical evidence shows that increased technology causes us to do more work.[30] In the end, technology creates greater ecological destruction and makes us more miserable, but it also makes us more economically unequal.

Technology speeds up our lives and causes us to work more. Industrial firms grow in cities, and when people move to cities, they need jobs, so employers have leverage in negotiating employment.[31] Schumacher’s chapter, titled “Ownership,” explains that large companies can afford to hire people to do relatively non-productive work.[32] Non-productive work is more prestigious than is productive work, so people are paid large sums thanks to the underpaid labors of others.[33] In big companies, there is often an increase in non-productive and unsatisfying work.[34] This economic reality brings us closer and closer to zero productive time, especially as automation makes work less necessary and less profitable.[35] The work of sociologists and psychologists informs us that big organizations make us feel alienated and dissatisfied.[36] For example, big businesses tend to exploit labor in ways that small businesses cannot. Small business is advantageous to society because it leads to more people being productive, it creates more equality, it makes people feel better, and it slows ecological damage relative to the damage caused by bigger businesses.[37] In general, human processes on smaller scales make things run more slowly and less destructively.[38]

The small-scale, the specific, and the intentional are important to Schumacher’s conception of what is necessary to make the world right. His empirical research shows that fixing global poverty requires that rural poor provide for themselves.[39] If development is to bring people out of poverty and make people better off, then technology choices and aid efforts need input from local people.[40] Technologies must reflect the needs and the humanity of the people whom they are meant to help.[41] If these conditions are met, then poor people can be taught how to help themselves make economic progress, instead of making aid recipients perpetually dependent on other nations.[42] This conception of what Schumacher calls “technology with a human face” has been shown to be successful, so it is only a matter of putting these principles into practice.[43]

Schumacher makes a compelling case. It is, in my view, a somewhat odd book in that it is both highly technical and highly spiritually conscious. Schumacher is clearly perceptive and well-read. On one hand, Small is Beautiful reads as a clear critique of political economy; on the other hand, it speaks to an almost ethereal human quality not unlike what Marx spoke to in his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” (especially when he talks about ideas like alienation, communism, and sensuous activity).[44] Further, a contemporary reading of the thoughts espoused by Schumacher’s book can seemingly only resonate as radical in its positions; in the mid-20th century, one might assume that the book could only have caused an uproar, been buried in ridicule, or some of both.

Perhaps the spiritual elements are necessarily axiomatic, but there is little attempt to defend them at all. Even calling his theory “Buddhist Economics” is fairly arbitrary—a point that he admits on p. 52, when he says that Buddhism is not actually distinct from other major religions in regard to the ideas presented here. The choice of Buddhism, as Schumacher puts it, was “purely incidental,” giving some of the spiritual element in the book a mysterious quality. Why include the spirituality, if it is not to be attached to any substantive content? It seems that Schumacher could have either thought more carefully through the spiritual aspects of his book or he could have simply replaced them with something more like a shared malaise being felt by much of (if not all of) humanity—perhaps even referring more to Marx’s work.

That said, I did find Schumacher’s arguments convincing. In particular, Schumacher ties social construction, individual behaviors, social and economic relations, interpersonal violence, and ecological devastation together in a way that makes them seem inextricably linked. When describing the promised land of capitalist paradise, Schumacher writes, “The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.”[45] In other words, perhaps what we are taught to strive for is constantly undermined by what is required to get there. Maybe heaven and hell exist as feelings and sacrifices in the spaces between the banal occurrences in our normal daily lives.

The paradigm shift that Schumacher proposes is one of rethinking and of foregoing privileges and mindless going-along. He argues for a rupture by which smallness, slowness, and interconnectivity replace anonymity, constant acceleration, and disconnection. I am reminded of what Foucault said, to end his famous “What is Enlightenment?” essay, “[T]he critical task still entails faith in Enlightenment; I continue to think that this task requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.”[46] Schumacher says something similar: “Success cannot be obtained by some form of magic produced by scientists, technicians, or economic planners. It can come only through a process of growth involving the education, organization, and discipline of the whole population. Anything less than this must end in failure.”[47]

My interest in Schumacher’s work has to do with trying to fill the contours of the shape required by our ravenous desire for greater capacities. I suspect that Schumacher may be right to think that this necessitates education and a willingness to sacrifice of oneself for the sake of others, for the sake of the whole, and for the sake of one’s long-term well-being. Luckily, as Schumacher informs us, the kind of global society that was impossible a couple centuries ago is possible now, if we are willing to try.[48]


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” Selected Writings, Volume 1 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), 297-360.

2 Antonio Grasci, Letters from Prison, Volume 1, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 18.

3 E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[2] E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[3] Schumacher’s work has been important in ecology movements, degrowth movements, Buddhist Economics, and other movements that continue today.

[4] Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, (London: Lowe and Brydone, 1942), 26.

[5] Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 194.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Ibid., 25-8.

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Ibid., 58.

[11] Ibid., 42.

[12] Ibid., 66.

[13] Ibid., 48.

[14] Ibid., 45.

[15] Ibid., 122, 132.

[16] Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities.”

[17] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (New York: International Publishers, 1971).

[18] Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 82.

[19] Ibid., 84, 101.

[20] Ibid., 91-2, 94-5.

[21] Ibid., 87.

[22] Ibid., 101.

[23] Ibid., 116-7.

[24] Ibid., 146.

[25] Ibid., 146-7.

[26] Ibid., 109.

[27] Ibid., 106-7.

[28] Ibid., 146-7.

[29] Ibid., 147.

[30] Ibid., 148.

[31] Ibid., 74.

[32] Ibid., 262-71.

[33] Ibid., 150, 262-71.

[34] Ibid., 151.

[35] Ibid., 151.

[36] Ibid., 241.

[37] Ibid., 262-71.

[38] Ibid., 36.

[39] Ibid., 173, 193.

[40] Ibid., 176, 178-80.

[41] Ibid., 159, 176-80.

[42] Ibid., 197.

[43] Ibid., 159.

[44] Karl Marx,“Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” Early Writings, (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 279-400.

[45] Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 24.

[46] Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader, (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 50.

[47] Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 204-5.

[48] Ibid., 74-5.




Benjamin, Walter. “Goethe’s Elective Affinities.” Selected Writings, Volume 1. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966. 297-360.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 1984. 32-50.

Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. London: Lowe and Brydone. 1942. 26.

Gramsci, Antonio. Letters from Prison, Volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press. 1994. 18.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers. 1971.

Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” Early Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. 279-400.

Schumacher, E. F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: Harper & Row. 1973.

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