Synopsis of Class: March 23, 25, and 30 1999

Over these last three classes, we addressed such issues as the human condition, the fundamental guarantees of freedom, and the notion of power in relation both to the state and the individual. We began on March 23rd by going around the class to see what people had to say about Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. This initial discussion led us into the following major issues:

In the following class, I tried to make sense of the threads of the discussion by illustrating that we are dealing with two very different ideas of power here:

1) the MACHINE of POWER: bureaucracy, government, law, which tend to abstract themselves from the desires and needs of specific individuals. It is because of the increasing power of such "machines" that we have the postmodern phenomenon of the paranoia narrative or the conspiracy theory. The pervasive feeling is that the powers that be (THEM) have reached such a level of surveillance that any opposition is useless ("Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated"). Slacker culture and the X Generation could be seen as by-products of this very tendency. Of course, the danger is that this very stance allows such machines to run amock, since no one is then willing to speak up when they go wrong.

2) the POWER of the INDIVIDUAL: herein, on the other hand, lies the real nexus of power, something that is easily forgotten in the face of society's new machines of control. I suggested that, in fact, power qua power is not inherently evil. One could even argue that the power we exert on each other on a day-to-day basis is precisely the guarantee of our freedom. Each "hello" and "how are you?" is, in fact, a reaffirmation of this important deference to the rights of the other. Also, "machines of power" like bureaucracies or stock markets can have quite positive effects since they can help to get things done. Nonetheless, a danger always adheres to such "machines" given their tendency to abstract themselves from individual needs.

On March 25th, we discussed Samuel R. Delaney's "Tale of Old Venn" alongside The Dispossessed in order to get a better handle on some of these issues. What we came to realize is that "machine of power" may, in fact, be an effect of language: the arbitrary nature of language allows us to construct systems of differences and hierarchies that make sense within the system but that (like, say, the word "tree") has no necessary relation to the actual thing to which the individual words of a language refer. The two major examples we discussed concerning this function of language were gender and money. A recent article in the New York Times, about how language constructs our perception of color, provided further scientific support for this hypothesis.

The final class on the Dispossessed brought us back to the text via the theoretical ideas of Louis Althusser in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." (The image above, by the way, is there to evoke Althusser's notion of interpellation.) After an inital criticism from Kelli Allen about Althusser's notion of "science"--specifically, whether one can actually ever fully escape ideology and achieve the objectivity of scientific analysis--we came up with five major points:

1) Ideology has material effects. Ideology, which is reliant on language's ability to organize perception into systems of difference and hierarchy, actually has an effect on what we perceive in reality. (The old example of "what is a tree?" or the New York Times article on the perception of color gave us two significant examples.) The perfect quotation in the Dispossessed was offered up by Eric Johnston: "No matter how intelligent a man is, he can't see what he doesn't know how to see" (135).

2) There is no outside ideology that one can communicate (the latter part of this point suggested by Bess Mattern).

3) Ideology, Power, and Language are not inherently bad (and can have numerous positive effects). This point was offered in opposition to Althusser's tendency to a "hermeneutics of suspicion" that tends to see only the negative side of "ideological state apparatuses" and thus tends to reify power and ideology without always acknowledging the "power" of the individual people making those apparatuses run.

4) Following on Bess Mattern's addition to point # 2, we concluded that the only thing outside ideology is a "pure materiality" outside of language. That may include instinct, extreme pleasure, and trauma or pain, precisely those things that are hardest to communicate to others. Romanticism's turn to the sublime may be an example of a literature seeking to make sense of this "outside" of ideology.

5) This "outside ideology" of pain and suffering is precisely what the Dispossessed offers up as the basis for a sense of community. If there is one thing that we all have in common, it is that we will all suffer and eventually die. Perhaps this "common ground" can provide a basis for a commitment to each other. Tim Phelan offered up the perfect quote:

We can't prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we'll have known pain for fifty years. And in the end we'll die. (p. 60)

Shevek finishes on p. 62 by stating what he thinks "brotherhood really is. It begins--it begins in shared pain." Scott Seaman then pointed out that Margaret Atwood's story, "Homelanding," offers up a similar hypothesis.

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