Vulgar

An ice cream truck is going up the street.

Little girl in wagon: Daddy, that truck song is annoying.
Hipster dad: Yes, the commodification of your desires is annoying, isn’t it?

–Bedford & N 10th

When I was in Boston the other week, my brother made fun of me for referring to the annoying way that certain students in a certain grad program at UCSD only use “vulgar Marxism” to make their simplistic, politically correct points. “Did you just say ‘vulgar’?” he yelped. And then we went back to making bukake jokes.

I think I’m going to become one of those people who throw in horrid academicese in the middle of otherwise polite conversation. Oh, well. At least I’m not becoming to sort of person who makes bukake jokes.

Oh, darn.

Anyway, back to the vulgar Marxism. Just briefly, this sort of Marxism is what you’re bound to get from one of those wacky kids in Che shirts standing on street corners in Cambridge (or Berkeley) trying to sell you copies of the Workers Vanguard. Now, I’m enormously sympathetic to the goals of modern-day communists. But I get crazy pissed at the less educated, more rabid commie kids, who tend to blindly repeat the popular culture’s version of Marx in which everything–ideology, especially–is controlled by the capitalist state through various institutions. So, they tend to be opposed to, say, the DMV because it is enacting social control through the capitalist car culture–all without understanding that the reason folks have cars is that they need to get places faster than horses can get you. (This is not to say that the car culture is one of the bigger problems with the modern world, but for ecological, not cultural reasons.)

Anyway, a non-vulgar Marxism, as filtered by Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams, is subtle, with emphases on hegemonic processes, the consent and the resistance of the masses, and the understanding that people are not automatons blindly following the orders of a nameless, faceless capitalism.

Shall we go to the pull quote? Okay!

In this active process the hegemonic has to be seen as more than the simple transmission of an (unchanging) dominance. On the contrary, any hegemonic process must be especiallyu alert and responsive to the alternatives and opposition which question or threaten its dominance. The reality of cultural process must then always include the efforts and constribution of those who are in oneway or another outside or at the edge of the terms of the specific hegemony (Williams 1997:113).

So, these certain students in a certain grad program at UCSD use terms like “hegemonic” to refer to things as oppressive, when often it’s not oppression at all, but rather just accepted. Now, don’t get your boxers in a bunch. Some things are oppressive–like high heels, McDonald’s, and the military-industrial complex–but some things are agreed upon because they make sense for whatever reason. For instance, we cook chicken because if we don’t, we could get salmonella and die. Refusing to cook chicken is not rebellious. It’s stupid. We write with pens and not quills, not because capitalists have pushed them our throats, but because pens work better than quills. They’re less messy, last longer, and don’t involve plucking birds. (Yes, I know plastic is bad and evil, blah, blah, blah.) Schools are the most powerful instituion for social control, and they do insidious things like make kids pledge allegiance to the flag, but they also provide people with all the tools they need to resist. They are hegemonic, and occasionally oppressive, but obviously (to me at least) the singular objective of teachers is not the creation of little Eichmanns.

Those vulgar Marxists like to say things like, “Oh, you’re just saying that because you’re a white man and have no way to understand the plight of the migrant Mexican worker in the canyons of Carlsbad.” Now, there is some truth to that–it’s harder for the white male child of a lawyer and a doctor, who grew up in Gross Point and attended Middlebury College, to “get” migrant workers than it is for the daughter of Mexican-American factory workers who grew up in San Bernadino. But it’s not impossible, and it should never, ever be discouraged. Dismissing someone for their more privileged background is silly, and useless.

I’m finally getting to the part where I explain why I was bitching about vulgar Marxists in my brother’s kitchen. In one of my classes last quarter, we were reading an ethnography that was written in a non-narrative, deliberately “different” style. It was mostly in vignettes, and it was mostly a failure. The people in the class, all of whom had no experience with post-modern literature, were so very excited that someone could write ethnography in such an “artful” way. (I felt like saying that if you want to read good post-modernism, don’t start with artless academic writing, but I shut up.) On the other side of the classroom, a couple of the students in a certain grad program at UCSD started excitedly talking about some book they had read, in which the author, a Korean woman, had refused to have more than half of her book translated into English. She wanted the other half to stay in Korean so that her American/English readers would know what it feels like to be an immigrant and not be understood. (Oh, and I have spent hours on Google looking for said book, and I don’t think it exists. Or it’s not in Korean.) And so:

Me: What a waste of energy. It’s not like the readers are going to try to understand the Korean parts. They’ll just skip ahead. Why not just give out plane tickets to countries where they don’t speak the language?
Other student: Because that is tourism, which is just colonialism.
Me (stunned): … !

But wait. It gets worse. I began to complain about the book we had read and how the use of short vignettes didn’t actually succeed in communicating anything but fragmentation. It was style over substance, form over function, throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Me: There’s a reason we use transition sentences. We need transition sentences.
Other student (coldy): That’s the definition of the hegemonic.
Me (stunned, then sarcastic): Oh, it sure is.

Actually, it is hegemonic, but it’s not oppressive. Sure, we all use transition sentences. But we have to, in order to be understood, to make coherent narratives. And you know what? That is
just fine. No one is being oppressed by transition sentences–unless you think linear thought is oppressive. I guess there are a bunch of people who think that. And I feel sorry for them. Because they must feel oppressed by time, space, and, I dunno, grass. And I’m angry at them. Because if you’re fighting the oppression of linear thought, you’re not fighting the oppression of immigration law, pharmaceutical prices, religious fanatacism, and government corruption.

Sigh.

And I hate the commodification of my desires. I spent $165.00 at Crate & Barrell today.

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