Careerism: Clear and Present Temptations

hamster Wheel

In less than a month, my career as an undergraduate student will be over, meaning that my four years of loan-financed respite from the unyielding pressure of the job market will end. At this point, there are a few options open to me:

1. Graduate school

Because I have the skills of an academic, namely a facility with words and an intellectual digestive system that can process torrents of information in a short amount of time, this is my preferred option. Though I’ve gotten rejection letters from most of the institutions to which I’ve applied, there is still the outside chance of being admitted to one or another reputable university. Grad training would provide the basis for a career in academia, at least in theory. Given that universities are run with the flexibility of a cartel and the competitive drive of a gang of bull sharks, I have little confidence in a secure middle class life achieved through this path.

2. Private Sector

Though most North American universities these days are being disciplined to act more like private sector operations, they still remain distinct in outlook and purpose from most of the for-profit institutions (some of them universities) that are meant to welcome university graduates with golden ladders and the grind for advancement. If my prospects here are even dimmer than they are in the graduate school and academia path, that is because hiring into entry-level positions with any security is a relic of the Fordist compromise, which now lies gasping and broken. I remain comparatively advantaged racially and in having an undergraduate degree, but there is no guarantee that these are not just minimum requirements for terminal service jobs for which one can hardly muster any enthusiasm. Indeed, if the market will have trouble digesting me it will be because I have little enthusiasm for the sort of social, demeaning work that is expected of most everyone these days. Not that those who hold such jobs should be castigated for taking on such occupations, but I would only point out that no one aspires to them––outside of Spongebob Squarepants––for a reason. My own upbringing and prior experience with such jobs makes me reluctant to even think about the prospect of landing in that kind of employment for any length of time, even though that eventuality looms ever more likely.

My partner currently works at a grocery store, and everyone in our lives, the two of us included, conceive of service jobs like this as temporary expedients, work that you do to get by while real life waits over some silver-capped hill in the distance. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking ignores the fact that work as a whole has been reconfigured in these terms, so that the misery of wage work has lost even its constancy. Remuneration for such jobs is, of course, far better than the pay expected of manufacturing workers in the Global South or migrant workers in our own country––not to mention all the unpaid work contributed by women in addition to their participation in the waged workforce––but a precarious existence is a potent capitalist weapon to discipline the working class. That fast food workers and others have been able to mount any concentrated resistance, even just for a rise in wages, is remarkable considering the fluidity and dispersion that service work can entail.

If I did gain a foothold in academia or archive work, which are the two fields in which I have the most interest, precariousness would not disappear. But it would open up the potential for a new problem that is also a very old problem for Marxists and wanna-be revolutionaries entering academia. Concerned with studying social problems and formulating solutions, and seeing academic prestige as a means to those ends (not entirely mistaken; consider what, albeit in totally different conditions, a philosophy professor like Abimael Guzman accomplished in Peru), we rush headlong into the books and find ourselves enveloped in the competitive “red ocean” of academia. Opportunism is rewarded, as is masking revolutionary language in a respectable guise. Tenure, the ultimate prize, is both elusive and conducive to grasping compromises. Further and further insulated from the people to whom we originally swore allegiance, we find ourselves unable to break out of the cycle of publishing (if we are so lucky), conferences, and governance meetings. Whatever we commit to paper has to have one eye cocked to academic reputation, with only half of our heart, if that, oriented towards real revolutionary progress. I suspect this is one reason why Marxist academics, who can treat so many issues with facility and even grace, never speak a word about revolutionary strategy, the real movement that abolishes reality and begins to construct a new one.

Ultimately, only a commitment to dialectical materialism, the science of history inaugurated by Marx, can allow academics of whatever layer to grasp this real movement and keep hold of it. Remembering that our place in the university is both that of a soldier on behalf of the proletariat and of a schoolteacher tasked with reproducing petty-bourgeois ideology in a new generation gives us a powerful ability to work at the heart of capitalism’s reproduction processes. Remaining individualistic, unattached to revolutionary parties and movements, and spending all our time producing for other academics are natural results of the life of an academic in the First World, accustomed to solitary study, rivalry, and a capitalistic drive to produce cerebral novelties rather than explaining the world according to its true mechanisms. Not even mentioning the idea of putting our bodies on the line for the sake of revolution, an act unthinkable in the Cartesian world of capitalism, where the university is the ineffable mind, imagined as having only a mythical connection to the outside world. Above all, careerism is an enemy that can be defeated, but its defeat can only come from involvement in Marxist politics and in collective struggle, particularly including the practice of criticism and self-criticism. Dialectical materialism is not only a mechanism for deciphering macro trends in a capitalist system, as useful as it is for that. It can, I believe, also avail itself as a tool for understanding our own subjectivity and its real origins, produced in a petty-bourgeois hothouse and controlled by the capitalist class. Transformation is a constant process, but it is the only way that intellectuals can make themselves useful to a revolutionary movement.

We are not the centre of the revolution, only its patient advocates.

Our careers can be used for the revolution only if we offer them to the service of the people and the party.

Alternate History in Royal Space Force: Wings of Honnêamise


Filmed depictions of history, as we’ve seen in this series, run the gamut from quasi-psychoanalytical fantasy (My Winnipeg) to the procedural attention to detail found in a film like Che. Royal Space Force is yet another departure for the series because it essentially fictionalizes all of human history in order to portray it back to us in a transfigured form. Rather than playing on the familiarity of a real city and transforming it through a relentlessly subjective psychosexual lens, as Maddin does, this film creates another world with a similar history to our own and documents its first voyage into space. Its central plot follows the progress of bored pilot Lhadatt, who volunteers to join his country’s space program––that country being the titular Honnêamise. Lhadatt’s story essentially splits into two halves: his interaction with the space program and the military politics surrounding it and his relationship with a religious woman named Riquinni, who lives in an isolated house away from industrial society.

My problem with this mystified view of the Earth is connected to the film’s treatment of Riquinni. This character, being a homey rustic living out in the countryside and keeping the old faith alive, becomes associated with the Earth itself, with the unspoiled original condition of the world. In one scene, Lhadatt, exhibiting the “natural” human rapaciousness, attempts to rape her in what I interpret as a doubling of the film’s overall picture of history: human/mankind seeing that which is beautiful and attempting to master and control it for themselves. Riquinni, however, knocks Lhadatt out with a blunt instrument. Later, however, she forgives him without any conditions whatsoever. Lhadatt’s request for forgiveness in orbit is both personal and universal, therefore, but the treatment of this attempted rape seen is fairly perfunctory and downright outrageous. In no way do we see Riquinni struggle over this decision, nor, I believe, does the film properly address the kind fo moral blemish that Lhadatt has just incurred on himself, and he is treated as our protagonist in more or less the same way as before. Her forgiving Lhadatt indicates to us that there is a chance that the Earth, too, can be redeemed, but this forgiveness is cheaply bought and crassly portrayed. It’s symptomatic of the generally wrong-headed view of history the film preaches, mistaken just as any idea of a mythical “fall” is as an original point in human history.

At the same time, the film is at times gorgeous, and that one aspect of the plot mars what is otherwise an entertaining and well-composed story. It’s one of the first projects from the Japanese studio Gainax, which would attack the question of technology, morality, and sexuality more forcefully still in their Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, about which at this point the less said the better. Despite the metastasizing of NGE into a fan service monster, I actually prefer its own attempts at profundity to Royal Space Force’s, whose internal problems prevent it from reaching into anything profound.

Mao Zedong on Forgiveness


Having grown into Marxism through political theology as seen from a Left Christian perspective, I carry two sets of terms for talking about institutional and political matters. Marxism has its “dialecticals,” its “parties,” its “vanguards” and so many other terms whose content is at the core of my political position. Christianity rarely talks about vanguards or parties or, except certain theologians in the academy, dialectics. Because Christian ideology has a highly developed ethical language––Marxism does as well, but it’s articulated quite differently and placed in service of the politics of communism––there are numerous words in its vocabulary for different ways of treating other people. One foundational word in Christian-ese is “forgiveness,” which has a powerful function in Christian circles, for good and ill.

Indeed, the central ritual of liturgical Christianity––which excludes forms of Anabaptism, Quakerism, and the like––that is, Eucharist, invokes this word more than once. In the Last Supper, for instance:

“Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Matthew 26: 27-29 (NRSV)

Forgiveness in this context is bound to the concept of grace, the freely-granted atonement for original sin offered to those who believe in Jesus. That’s boilerplate, of course, and there is an elephantine volume of literature dedicated to explicating grace and forgiveness. Its sheer density in Christian talk means that whenever a Church finds that one of its officers or believers has committed some terrible act, some will object to punishing or excluding that person by invoking grace and forgiveness. I would argue that this often leads to churches harboring and protecting abusers, allowing individuals, many of whom were well-respected and participate in patriarchal communities where women’s welfare is often less valued than men’s reputations, to escape legal consequences for their actions. The sickening practice of the Catholic hierarchy, protecting legions of abusive priests, is a key example.

Marxism has a rather different relationship with forgiveness, because there is more emphasis on the need to liberate the exploited and oppressed, to redress the wrongs before there is any thought of forgiveness. We do not forgive the bourgeoisie, whose very life function is to suck labor and time from the proletariat. In dealing with reactionaries, we should indeed be swift and brutal in opposing their actions, at least to the point where it offers political advantage. It is necessary for winning over the masses to always and everywhere oppose their enemies. On the other hand, the treatment of people within the party calls for another response. Mao repeatedly distanced himself from Stalin’s more famously lethal tactics for dealing with dissent from the party line in passages like this, which show that forgiveness does have its own, restricted, place within Marxist “ethics.”

We should adopt a well-intentioned helpful attitude towards those who have made mistakes, and towards those who do not allow people to speak out. We must not create the kind of atmosphere in which people feel that they cannot afford to make mistakes and that there would be terrible consequences if they made any mistakes, and if once they made mistakes they would never raise their heads again. When a person has made mistakes, as long he sincerely wants to make amends, as long as he has really made a self-criticism, then we must show that we accept him. When people make their self-criticism the first or second time, we must not ask too much of them. It does not matter if their self-examinations are not yet thorough, we should allow them to think again and give them well-intentioned help. People need help from others; we should help those comrades who have made mistakes to understand their mistakes. If people sincerely carry out self-criticism and are willing to correct mistakes, then we should forgive them and adopt a lenient policy towards them. As long as their achievements are still of primary importance, as long as they are competent, they can be allowed to continue in their posts.

Mao Zedong: Talk At An Enlarged Working Conference Convened By The Central Committee Of The Communist Party Of China (1962).

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell


I beg the reader’s forgiveness for beginning this review by talking not about Sufjan Stevens but about Søren Kierkegaard. French philosopher Henri Lefebvre writes of Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish poet of anguish, “He hates sin, and yet all his literary skills gravitate around eroticism, and an impotent lusting after sin and ‘the secret of sinning.’” And one step further, “dissatisfied, suffocated, the individual feels as though he is dying before he has lived.” These lines might as well have named Sufjan Stevens, and they help to clarify why I absolutely reject his latest album.

“Carrie and Lowell” is Sufjan Stevens’ seventh LP, an autobiographical work steeped in classical references and tenderly garnished with electro-acoustic arrangements. Finger-picked guitar and banjo strings predominate, coming in cascades of minor chords. Occasionally Stevens brings an organ to whisper beside him, or a synthesizer. Nearly all the vocals exist in a narrow range between multi-tracked, breathy singing and airy falsettos. Every song is bound to an almost desolate aesthetic unity, with the usual explosion of instruments narrowed to bedroom-bound indie folk. It reminds one of nothing so much as “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Judging by its euphoric reception by the press so far, “Carrie and Lowell” is bound to be another musical touchstone for the disaffected set.

Stevens, in a recent interview with Pitchfork, has supplied online exegetes with all the biographical detail they need. In the same interview, he said, “This is not my art project; this is my life.” Though that is obviously untrue, there is a grain of truth. Stevens has always been writing autobiography, but he has dropped the pretext of writing about states or UFOs. HIs lyrics name names, particularly those in the title, which makes the writing more “authentic.” In writing directly about his experience with his late mother and her husband and his suffering in the wake of her death and long absence, he imbues his songs with a palpable emotional force.

Take “John My Beloved,” which constructs a stately frame of Biblical and mythological references that lead him to the line: “There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead.” Meanwhile a programmed click counts time, the throb of decay that Sufjan earlier brings up on “Fourth of July.”

Given the album’s subject matter, shaped by mourning and touching on everything from drug abuse to suicidal impulses, the funereal tone is expected. But what function does all this psalmody serve? It avoids the temptation of canned comforts, but the album is more corrosive than constructive. Christianity has always had a tortured relationship to death and suffering, often sliding too far into baptizing self-destruction as noble and suffering for its own sake as redemptive.

Stevens, like Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard before him, magnifies the moment of doubt and the suffering of the downtrodden into an icon. One of the consistent themes in the album is the writer’s recourse to faith as a last support. “Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me,” he sings, and though the line carries what was no doubt a genuine ache, I cannot follow this line to its conclusion. Ultimately, the album spirals into knots of self-pity that grow less intense the more the album wears on. Rawness gives way to numbness, and “Carrie and Lowell” ends up reproducing the worst of indie music’s privileged self-obsession despite all of its beautiful phrases. Stevens’ doubts are familiar to me, but I see no value in this music.

I must acknowledge this review is as much self-criticism and criticism of the music. I spent many nights listening to “Age of Adz” while musing on my own transcendent suffering. But if music fails to give life, to meaningfully illuminate my relationship to life as I live it, there is no reason to listen to it. I recommend listeners approach this record with an open mind, ignore the chorus of angels singing this album’s praises, and take from it whatever truth you can. For me, it only solidifies my break with Stevens’ music, marking what I hope is not a point of no return.

Sweet Talking: A Review of Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power


I should admit from the beginning that I was always predisposed to appreciating Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. This 1985 monograph, which I read in a strangely tactile Penguin edition, is at the intersection of several of my interests. Those being, not exhaustively: the intersection of geography and history, temporal and spatial; discussions of commodities and the causes of their popularization in the market; histories of production and consumption; and sweet things. Indeed, I have a terrible propensity for aimlessly picking up sweets whenever I see them lying around. I hoped that, beyond enlightening me in the larger discussion of capitalism’s development, Mintz’s book might put some of my own tastes and habits into perspective. I would say the book succeeded on both counts.

At the core of the book, literally and thematically, lie three chapters about the production, consumption, and power dynamics of sucrose in human history. The author brackets these with shorter discussions about the biological facts of sugar and an ending chapter devoted to a discussion on the relationship between who we are and what we eat. Meanwhile, as a historian, the three middle chapters, being the most historical, caught the majority of my interest.

“Production” traces the ancient roots of sugar production back to India and follows the geographical spread of sugar production and demand across the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin, and Europe. Sugar, therefore, emerged as an exotic luxury and a fixture of European court life. At the same time, however, growing demand for the sweet substance––first accounted as a spice or condiment and only later as a sweetener––spurred extensification of production. As European empires grew, sugar became a major investment sector, and plantations devoted to cane  emerged as some of the ancestors of the modern factory. This short explanation highlights the intertwined layers of analysis going on in Sweetness and Power. Namely, space and time. Plantations could only thrive in certain places, and they had specific spatial needs in terms of how vast the fields needed to be, the close proximity of processing plants to the fields, etc. In addition, these were time sensitive, factory-like apparatuses where coerced slaves worked much in the same way as modern proletarians except that they did not even possess their own labour power to sell. These vast agricultural combines exhibit, in other words, some of the time and space dynamics associated with the factories of the industrial revolution.

None of these developments emerged without struggle, experimentation, and failure. Most of the sugar planters failed to become barons with enough money to sway parliament. Not only this, but the net gain of, for example, the British state from its sugar-producing possessions in Jamaica and Barbados was arguably negligible. As Mintz shows, however, sugar enriched private individuals and also satisfied a quickly expanding home demand as well as the appetites of an export market. Let’s not neglect the importance of rum, either, since that commodity played its own special role in the growing dissatisfaction of the American independence revolt of 1776-1783.

“Consumption” continues to investigate these time-space themes, this time looking into the reasons why sucrose became such a sought-after commodity, especially in northern European countries like Britain. Because the book is technically a work of cultural anthropology, it spends a great deal of time on the specific cultural uses of sugar and their evolution. One of the more extraordinary uses, which is marginal today, was the fabrication of immense “subtleties” from sugar and derivatives like marzipan. As shown in the book, they seem magnificent and profitable to venal dentists. Mintz documents the process by which sugar descended from “on high” as an unattainable luxury to a basic commodity that made up a substantial portion of the working class diet in the industrial era. What he sees is not simple imitation. Rather, he takes sugar and inserts it into an analysis of class struggle, not to mention the various gendered and racial connotations sugar has taken on. This Marxist gesture, contextualizing and attempting to peer past the mystification of sugar that we see in historical accounts, is one of the reasons why the book is worth reading. Although a slim volume, it manages to document the connections between a dizzying number of social facts, uniting them to a common theoretical framework. As Mintz writes:

One’s choice of what one wants or needs to eat makes sense only in terms of one’s preferences and and aspirations––in terms, that is, of the social context of consumption (162).

Marx’s critical explorations of the capitalist mode of production are vast but are notably short on analyses of consumption, deemed a “singularity” that is too susceptible to individual whims to explain with scientific laws. What Mintz is doing is “the work of history” that Marx mentions in Capital, establishing the whys and the wheres and whens of a particular use-value, sugar, and then taking a look at the other side, the effects of exchange value structures and the power that they imbue to capitalist classes. That is, in large part, the discussion going on in “Power.” He writes that, although the proletarians did adopt sugar along with other stimulants like tea into their diet, they did so not as a mere aggregate of individuals following their evolutionary tastes but as a mass, constrained in their access to cheap food and heartening meals by the ever-pressing demands of capitalism on their time. Mintz makes the connection between what he calls the “inside” meanings of cultural use with the “outside” meanings of political economy and politics in this apt passage;

“The uses to which [sugar] was put and its place in the diet changed and proliferated; it grew women important in people’s consciousness, in family budgets, and in the economic, social, and political life of the nation. These changes have to do with “outside” meaning––the place of sucrose in the history of colonies, commerce…but they also have to do with “inside” meaning as well, because the meanings people gave to sugar arose under conditions prescribed or determined not so much by the consumers as by those who made the product available (167).

In my view, this is an excellent way of investigating political economy and culture simultaneously, illuminating the position of classes, genders, races, etc. within each framework while also interweaving geographical and temporal arguments that bear on them. It’s within commodities like sugar that consumption, production, and power touch each other and in them that we can discover much, as Mintz has proven, about the workings of capitalist social formations.