Saturday, November 25, 2006

Fries with that?

I just got back from spending Thanksgiving in Houston. In the weeks before my trip, whenever I would tell people where I was going, they would at me look as if I just told them that a distant relative had died, and offer their condolences. Yes, indeed, we east coast education and arts types have a bias against Texas and vice versa. But I have to tell you that it is not that bad, hence the city's new motto: "Houston, It is Not as Bad You Think."

It was great to see my brother (whose art is featured above), mother, and assorted friends of my brother (namely Donna and Amy). I also saw many fine sights, such as the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Diverseworks, the former Enron Building, and everyone's favorite Halliburton.

There are a few mysteries of Houston, however, like the predominance of Pawn Shops and Bail Bonds offices. Now, this might have something to do with Houston's famous lack of zoning laws, which leads to all sorts of strange combinations of businesses, like strip clubs nestled amongst Applebees and Dick's Sporting Goods (giving new meaning to the word "strip mall"--budda-boom.) Of course that would explain the placement of Pawn Shops but not the sheer number of them.(To continue reading about Houston and fries click "Read More")

The biggest mystery, at least of a culinary sort, occurred not in Houston but in Galveston. We were dining at a restaurant called "Fisherman's Wharf" which attempted to bring the tackiness of San Francisco's famous tourist trap to the Gulf Coast. Let me tell you they succeeded, it was just like fisherman's wharf but with oil rigs instead of Alcatraz. Being an vegetarian I ordered a salad (it was the only non-fish item), which came topped with onion rings and little balls of fried feta cheese. Now I am not opposed to fried food, I even ordered fries with my salad (a combo which I have sampled at many a restaurant), but I have never had so much fried food in a salad before.

We also went to see Fast Food Nation while in Houston. I was a little dubious about the film at first, but was curious enough to see it. I have to say that I enjoyed it, and thought that it worked better than the book. While the book has some interesting tidbits of information about the history of McDonalds, working conditions in meat processing plants, and fast food restaurants the films structure makes it possible to go beyond the perspective of scandalous facts.

The film follows three stories: an executive from a fictional fast-food chain investigating complaints about a meat processing plant, a high school age girl (and employee at the same chain) beginning to discover the world of campus politics, and a group of immigrants from Mexico working at the same processing plant. These stories do not really intersect, except tangentially, the girl serves a hamburger to the executive, etc. and I know from reading a few reviews that many people find this to be a weakness of the film. I would argue that it is a strength. First, because the stories do intersect, not directly through the characters meeting, but indirectly, through the corporation which they all work for, consume from, etc. Second, because as the film progresses all of these characters begin to struggle against the same corporation, albeit for different reasons, for some it is a matter of politics or conscience for others it is a matter of survival. It is this point that the disconnection between the stories, the relation of nonrelation, becomes powerful. All of the characters struggle in isolation and for the most part their struggles are futile. Watching the film one gets the sense that things would turn out better if the various characters could meet and organize (the executive would get evidence about the working conditions at the plant, the teen age girl could find a more effective way to rebel, etc.), but of course they cannot, and that seems to me to be the films point. These people (who are really just stand-ins for us) only relate through the commodities which they produce.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Milton Lost

Milton Friedman died the other day. Now I cannot say that I am all torn up by that, but it does provide an opportunity to tell this little story.

I was in a used bookstore, buying among many other things a copy of and Capitalism and Freedom and Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (It was my second copy of the latter, the first was falling a part, held together with packing tape.) As the clerk was ringing up the various books he read the covers, first Capitalism and Freedom then Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. When he got to the second he exclaimed, "Capitalism and Schizophrenia, that is more like it. It is definitely schizophrenia, not freedom."

I always thought that was funny.

This story made me think about the books that I have completely worn out, and even replaced, and the fact that they probably say a lot about me.

Books that I have replaced include: The Ethics, The Savage Anomaly, The Genealogy of Morals, For Marx, and The Phenomenology of Spirit (Although the last one doesn't really count because I started with a crappy used version that had pen markings in the first few pages, as far as the reader got I suppose). Of course the list should also include books that are now held together with rubber bands or tape like: Lenin and Philosophy, Capital, and The Grundrisse.

It occurs to me that this is a game that everyone can play. So what books have you worn out?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Weekly Indoctrination

I end up teaching Marx, a lot. Sometimes I try to avoid it, but it is hard to teach classes on political philosophy, nineteenth century philosophy, etc. without teaching Marx. What I notice most of all is that the whole dynamics of the class changes when Marx comes up, when I teach Aristotle, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Arendt, etc., I feel like I really have to sell it, convinve them why this is worth reading, with Marx they may not know why, but at least the relevance has already been established. As Althusser says "philosophy should be judged in terms of its effects." Well Marx has had effects, not all good, some nightmarish even, but effects nonetheless.

With Marx I am already dealing with a misreading. This can lead to some amusing responses. Case in point, a discussion of "Estranged Labor."

Student: "It sounds like Marx is on the side of the workers."
Me: "You could say that, yes."
Student: "Then why is he a bad guy?"

Now, not all responses are that amusing. Some can be downright interesting, even daunting. Today I was teaching some short pieces including "The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society" and the first question was about money in communism, could it be dispensed with, etc? Now this question is difficult to answer, especially for a class that is only reading the "1844 Manuscripts." I did a passable job, or at least I avoided loosing the whole class by discussing Marx's critique of "time chits", but it occurred to me while answering that this student really wanted to know this, it was not an academic question.

I have also noticed a particular impass in teaching Marx. Most students grasp the critique of capitalist society and agree with at least part of it. However, at the same time they are aware, albeit vaguely, that some attempt to put these ideas into practice went horribly wrong. Caught between the critique and the solution, students are often left in a position of impotence, in which all attempts to change things are doomed to fail. As Homer Simpson says, "Never ever try." Thus despite Marx's best efforts (and mine) students end at the place where they began: cynically aware that everything is bad, and any attempt to change it can only get worse.