Sunday, November 7, 2010

a meal with Marcuse

Weight log: 214lb

The waiter approached our table he’s had two trays of steaming hot food in his hands. They looked delicious. He set them down in front of me and my dinner guest. As we both picked up our forks, the older man swung the conversation around to one of his favourite ideas. Alienation.

I’ve talked about the idea of alienation before and I bring it up again because I think it is important to uncover the way social frames, informed by capitalist sensibilities, operate to negate meaningful resistance or protest to repression in all its forms.

Alienation, the old codger started, is what happens to the individual who only possesses the effort of her/his labour. The labourer no longer owns or possesses the work of his/her hands and so must stand a distance to whatever product he/she makes out of her/his labour. The grey beard Karl reminded me of how important this was for him  as he watched the early Industrial Revolution emerging. Since labour was largely invisible it was a prime site for repression. So Marx predicted that capitalism would fail as the working class would revolt and demand a different way of exchanging their labour.

You sure sucked as prophet. – I told him not blinking. What you did not count on but perhaps should have predicted was that capitalism might actually be able to preserve itself by transforming the worker into a consumer. So that now a worker could ignore the alienation of his/her labour because it helped her/him be a better consumer. The wages of labour now paid for consumer goods which with growing demand caused the need for more consumer goods which meant more labour was needed to make more consumer goods.

Buddy Karl put down his fork in disgust and walked away from the table. And while he was over in the boy’s room freshening up our pal Herbert Marcuse wandered up and sat down in Karl’s place. He picked up Karl’s fork and proceeded to chow down. After a few bites he looked up and said…

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality. Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction, the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man's mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.

I have just suggested that the concept of alienation seems to become questionable when the individuals identify themselves with the existence which is imposed upon them and have in it their own development and satisfaction. This identification is not illusion but reality. However, the reality constitutes a more progressive stage of alienation. The latter has become entirely objective; the subject which is alienated is swallowed up by its alienated existence. There is only one dimension, and it is everywhere and in all forms. The achievements of progress defy ideological indictment as well as justification; before their tribunal, the "false consciousness of their rationality becomes the true consciousness”.

a link to this essay can be found here

Now we see the trouble brewing in the pot all along. The object; the cell phone, the SUV (or more pejoratively the minivan), the coffee pot, the brand of soda pop, the hamburger, the ginger beef – become and an extension of ourselves. Of course its hard to choke all that down but then we have to remember to pick out the bones. Marcuse was not telling us that we have become the object – only that our identity is unavailable and inseparable from the objects/commodities which we use.

The waiter is standing at our table again waiting to be paid. So as I reach into my pocket for some loonies I am moved to ask the kind fellow – What do you call that meal we ordered here today. I’d like to order it again.

Well sir -the boy replies confidently- it is our special today Hungry Man. The succulent meat like substance that you enjoyed was processed by roughly 92 foreign illegal workers at meat packing plant in the U.S. mid-west just before they were rounded up and shipped back to their home country. The animals they used were inhumanely held in cramped cells standing in their own feces everyday. The vegetables you ate were reconstituted by a crew of youth on a summer job program. I’m sure you can appreciate just how close actual vegetables those items tasted and even at that young age these youth really know how make it all look so realistic. – the waiter stopped to take a breath.

Seriously? –I cut in impatiently pulling out my plastic- are trying to pull a fast one on me young man? I mean there is no way that this meal came from all those places. Did you not tell me this was a Hungry Man Meal?

Why yes sir I did. –he was backing down sheepishly-

Well then stop with this nonsense and process my credit card. –i was cranky- next time don’t try to dazzle me with all your fictions just admit it, you got this out of the freezer at the grocery store?

yes sir

I left the boy a sizable tip…he’s gonna need a good education…

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