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by Rob Horning

31 Aug 2005

I have nothing especially insightful to add about the tragedy in the Gulf coast region, but it seemed ridiculous to say nothing about it, to go on as if nothing happened. Its effects will be felt for a long time, and they will be national: gas prices will probably reach record highs, for one. And the obliteration of everyday life for millions of people will continue to yield fresh unfathomables. It’s impossible to imagine what the people who used to live in New Orleans must be going through. Their city is gone, as is all of their property and every aspect of everyday life that anchors a person, giving them a field of taken-for-granted things, which is necessary to even begin to live, to pursue any sort of goal beyond survival. Those fortunate enough to have been able to evacuate to other cities must be wondering if they should just try to find work where they are now, because there may not be anything to return to. The refugees, already impoverished, now with nothing—what will become of them? What sort of social safety net will catch them in a country currently run by people who insist that those who suffer are in general personally repsonsible for it? Americans will likely rise above that mentality to cope with this tragedy and hopefully remain at that level of sympathy in the months to come.

by Rob Horning

30 Aug 2005

At TPMCafe a few weeks ago, a writer posed this question: Why hasn’t it proved economically feasible (and thus inevitable) that grocery store chains move into poor neighborhoods and exploit their desperation for better quality produce and lower-priced food. The real estate is cheap and the customer base is more or less assured. Some respondants opined that insurance and security costs would make it unprofitable, others pointed to “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” business model of most retailers. The most interesting reply pointed to the rebranding of the same goods, groceries, to appeal to different class demographics, the way Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic does. As much as the Republican hacks whose campaigns they fund hate “class warfare,” big corporations love to differentiate by class and exploit class differences for the different sources of profit they yield. Corporations percieve profits in the habitus-driven lengths to which many consumers will go to maintain their sense of themselves and the class inn which they feel comfortable. It’s interesting, though perhaps obvious to anyone who’s shed their “America is a classless society and shopping is where we are all equal” blinkers, how different classes have different vulnerabilities and can be flattered in different ways. If you have ever strayed into one of the “hard discounters” that The Wall Street Journal profiled on today’s front page—Save-A-Lot, Grocery Outlet, Aldi—the differences in the way middle-class and poor consumers are treated will become stark and obvious. If you are middle class, you will feel as though you have entered some kind of grocery store of the damned where there are few shelves and most everything is stacked in cardboard boxes. There are no real brands, only dubious house brands, and all the specialty items you expect are nowhere to be found. It’s like a surreal nightmare when you walk down the cereal aisle and see none of the familiar brands you expect. And it’s depressingn to realize how much our comfort and security in our everyday life depends on the familiarity of the brands all around us. (This is why tourists in New York City seem to like to stay in midtown, where everything is adequately branded with national names.)  You’ll marvel at the interminable lines and you’lll gasp when you are not asked if you want paper or plastic, but rather whether you’re willing to pay 10 cents per bag in order to pack your own groceries. And if you decide not to buy anything, good luck getting out. When I went into Aldi once in South Philadelphia,  just to see what it was after hitting the Front and Oregon Goodwill store, I was horrified to discover that I was trapped inside. A huge gate barred my exit through the way I came in, and the only way out was through the checkout aisles, which were, naturally backed up til doomsday because of the chronic understaffing and the laconic work ethic of the minimum-wage-making employees. This fire-trap is obviously by design in order to prevent theft—one of the fundamental operating hazards for businesses choosing to cater to (i.e. exploit) the poor. In order to escape I had to literally climb over a barricade of cardboard boxes that had been piled up in an vacated check-out aisle.

What was even more striking than my Great escape was that the people in line hardly even noticed me, even as I was scaling the wall. As far as they were concerned, this was perfectly normal, a routine consequence of deciding not to buy anything. As far as they were concerned, being made to feel like a criminal by entering a store was totally natural. Waiting in line twenty minutes to check out was nothing to complain about either. It was the habitus at work: what was real, common sense, natural to the other shoppers waiting in line, was ghastly and unreal to me, an surprise detour from reality into an alternate universe of misery and implied humiliation. What’s really frightening is that the theory of habitus implies that the typical Aldi customer wouldn’t enjoy it being any other way; it would be alien and disconcerting to be treated the way middle-class people are accustomed to be treated in stores. (It’s more likely that a middle-class environment would make poor people expect the harsh treatment they ordinary receive in such places.) The regular Aldi customers were used to be treated as though it was a favor to them that the grocery store even existed. A few posts ago, I argued that anti-customer service would be a good wake up call for pampered consumers, could shake them out of the mindset that shopping is the primary life experience to be had. But Aldi perhaps goes too far. It’s doing the dirty business of reinforcing class difference as commonsense business practice.

by Rob Horning

29 Aug 2005

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus—the ways in which class shapes our notion of common sense and shapes the way we percieve and act, forming the very grounds on which we can have interactions with others—is extremly useful but difficult to explain. Just have a crack at his Outline of a Theory of Practice if you don’t believe me. Bourdieu’s prose is exceedingly dense, prsuming a familiarity with doctrinal clashes in the world of anthropology, and this work in particular is cluttered by a translator’s persnickety attention to grammatical niceties, which makes sentences full of tons of subordinate clauses that much harder to read—when the preposition is a few dozen words away from the phrasal verb to which it could be attached, things can get rather confusing. But it’s worth decoding for a sense of how the habitus can be used to ask better questions about human behavior, and to get a sense of how it is that individuals can act collectively—usually to protect class prerogatives and perpetuate inequality—without having any intention of doing so or even any knowledge that they are in the midst of behaving prejudicially. In America, the habitus rears its head most powerfully in race relations, since much of the pretense of the “classless society” is underwritten by the de facto visible class structure posited by skin color. Many Americans think they are perfectly color blind when it comes to race, while their habitus perpetuates racism in the little things they do—where they shop and eat, how they treat clerks, how they change their inflections when they speak to people, how their body language adjusts, and so on. I probably do all of these things every time I board the N train, reflecting and reinforcing the privilege my suburban upbringing leads me to take for granted, so for granted in fact that it requires all sorts of effort, including a painstaking reading of Bourdieu’s difficult work, just to even have a fleeing sense of it. My hope is that by understanding the concept, I can somehow seize more control over these unconscious processes and alter my practice, but it may bot be as simple as that; the better I understand it, the more it seems to lay beyond any one individual’s control. It’s the kind of thing that turns people against that boogeyman dubbed Theory, the fact that tis complicated analyses only lead to our autonomy being even more curtailed and our individual action being rendered more ineffectual, even less likely to accomplish the end we intend. The more one studies society, the more one comes to accept how complex every accomplished fact can be, full of portents and the result of innumerable factors (of which the individual will is often the least significant) and how the most inconsequential seeming actions can seem at once overdetermined and utterly unpredictable. Lots of people therefore wisely decide that its better to believe in the myth of the all-powerful individual will and ignore all the other factors altogether, and then they amuse themselves by denouncing critical thinking from a number of righteous ideological perspectives. Whereas the anti-theorists enjoy ridiculing the difficult and comfortless truths philosophers posit, critical thinkers do the exact opposite: For instance, because I have decided to pursue such analyses, I take an undue and perverse and altogether unhelpful delight in puncturing the illusions others take the most solace in.

Thus I was struck by this passage in Outline, which undermines some of the ideology surrounding companionate marriage : “The illusion of mutual election or predestination arises from ignorance of the social conditions for the harmony of aesthetic tastes or ethical leanings, which is thereby percieved as evidence of the ineffable affinities which spring from it.” In other words, one recognizes one’s “soulmate” in a moment of forgetting and ignorance, out of blindness to the factors that have contributed to one’s own identity. We choose to see in the other the things we have come to be blind about in ourselves. We fall in love with our own mysteries that come to packaged for us in the body of the other.

by Rob Horning

28 Aug 2005

On the back page of the Week In Review section of todays New York Times ran this piece about commentators misinterpreting the real import of technological advances. I’m not sure what the point is: should we stop trying to interpret our world since our interpretations might be at some point, like Bush’s Iraq justifications, no longer be operative? Should we just sit with slack jaws and mouths agape at the magical gifts science has bequeathed and accept that all change is automatically positive, a betterment of our world and an extension of our possibilities? The author seems to suggest its wrong that critics and futuriststried to assert control over technology by commenting on it. Better for them to have left that to the State? to Corporate masters? to the People? When confronted with a magic technology it seems vital to demystify it, not to cower in silent awe before it. Integrating it into a fantastic vision of the future is an attempt to demystify it just as much as a dismissal.

I’m often denouncing new technologies in this blog largely because that kind of positivist bias seems to me to typify the passivity cosumer capitalism requires of its subjects while enabling what seems to me the erosion of the human spirit in the name of celebrating it. Technology is not inherent evil, of course. It’s just that the direction it takes in our society—to encourage a more rapacious use of the Earth’s resources, to lead to quicker more expediant consumption and destruction and waste of things in the name of “enjoyment’ pr “entertainment’ or “satisfaction”—and the uses to which it is typically put—to further isolate people and interpose more commerce and exploitation into the spaces between intimates—are troubling.

Technology promises change, but more often than not the change is superficial; in reality technology, funded as it is by the powers that be, is designed to reinforce existing relations of production, existing social relations in all their inequity. The superficial changes—talking pictures or voices plucked from the ether or downloadable music—are sufficiently amazing to beguile us and prevent us from wondering what ends this white magic serves.

by Rob Horning

26 Aug 2005

This may be an apocryphal story, but one of my friends knows a guy from college who won the lottery in Pennsylvania several years ago and will receive a thousand dollars a month for life, or something like that, on top of some huge lump sum he received when he won. By my friend’s account, winning the lottery ruined his life. Rather than finish school, he dropped out, and he remains in the tiny apartment in central Pennsylvania that he lived in when he won, doing little more than smoking really high-grade weed and playing the latest-generation video games.

This story confirms what social researchers claim about self-determination. People enjoy exerting their will and affecting the world much more than the actual specific consequences of that effort. In his magisterial The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Robert Lane cites this finding of Martin Seligman’s: “When rats and pigeons are given a choice between getting free food and getting the same food for making responses, they choose to work. Infants smile at a mobile whose movements are contingent on their responses but not at a non-contingent mobile.” Instrumental operations, then, would seem to be pleasing for their own sake, not necessarily for the rewards, which turns the fundamental principle of classical economics—work is a disutility compensated by utility in wages—upside down. In fact we want so strongly to justify our rewards, to feel that we have determined them through our own efforts, that we believe the classical paradigm even though it doesn’t exactly hold. And it utterly decimates the phony tenet that income leads to greater life satisfaction, that money is an all-purpose good. As Lane explains, “The belief that one is effective is more closely associated with happiness than anything else, especially level of income, to which so much attention is paid in the American market society.” We want to do meaningful things much more than we want to have valuable things.

It’s despicable enough when our state governments promote lotteries—lotteries are like a tax on stupid people, and thir lot is already bad enough. We shouldn’t exploit them to pay for things whose burden should be shared—things we all want and need, such as better schools and health care. I’m sure some Gary Beckerites out there might argue that a lottery ticket is not a bad investment but a rational purchase of a product called hopefulness, which has an extremely temporary efficacy of which its users are fully aware. It’s a license to dream, they might say, an expenditure that provides much satisfaction in fantasizing what you would do if you’d win. Turns out that the fantasies are better than reality. Winning the lottery, earning a massive reward for doing absolutely nothing, destroys one’s ability to believe that there is a correlation between one’s material state and one’s own effort. You can no longer live the noble lie of autonomy. As a consequence, all effort is invalidated, and all will short-circuited. Without the illusion of control, there’s no point leaving the house. May as well play video games, where the illusion of control is restored.

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