Thursday, May 7, 2015

Response to Brandt

                Chapter 6 of Deborah Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives is certainly the epitome of the book, the conclusion that the readers felt was coming all along.  The first few pages seem to point to the statement without ever quite saying it - Literacy is about power - and because of that is highly susceptible to the grimmer tendencies of modern democracy.  As Brandt says, “The advantage of literate skill is helping to aggravate social inequity.  Just, as it seems, the rich get richer, the literate get more literate” (169).  Unfortunately, this spectacle is a familiar mechanic of capitalism, where people who climbed the ladder are quick to pull that ladder up behind them.  There is no shortage of debate as to whether or not this system of ascendance (and repression) is best for society at large, or to be more specific, a democratic society.   Though what it does imply is that there is some control at work, some grand powermongering taking place somewhere in the high towers of the castles of democratic society.  That said, it would be farfetched to aver that this is a concerted effort by some unified √©lite.  Rather, the combined small efforts of families, corporations, clubs, ideologies (all of these things could be considered Brandt’s sponsors) all serve to repress the tools of literacy, giving to the “already-haves” and neglecting the “have-nots.”  Recall that Brandt considers literacy on par with labor.  “Literacy is the energy supply of the Information Age” (171).  Because labor is something that any healthy human being can provide, regardless of culture, training, education, etc., control could only be achieved through conventional means.  Those means mainly included violence, but also hunger and the fear of social exclusion.  Eventually though, labor came into self-awareness and conglomerated into unions.  These entities sponsored the labor providers and were able to extract better conditions from employers.  Where is such a mechanic for literacy?  Are the people who lack literacy able to band together in such a way?  There doesn’t seem to be much in common in these two such movements, which is why the repression of literacy is more dangerous than industrial labor.  For one the power is universal, for the other the power is already skewed heavily to the repressors.  For those who might try to fight gravity, so to speak, it is a monumental effort.  True change would seem to require social change on par with the labor movement of the early 20th century.

                If we can agree that this all is a big problem, then the next question must be, how can it be fixed?  Brandt wishes to do so though already established institutions, mainly the school system.  She calls for a re-evaluation of the presupposed equal opportunities that are granted by the United States government.  “Equal opportunity extends beyond the mere potential for admission or employment and involves all of the systems of value that circulate in institutions” (186).  More specifically, “Schools are no longer the major disseminators of literacy.  Literacy instructions needs to develop from a sense of a new role for schools, as a place where the ideological complexities… of literacy sponsorship are sorted through and negotiated” (198).  This negotiation seems to be some kind of meta-literacy, which involves the student placing themselves in the best position to succeed in life, not just in the classroom.  For classrooms are unequal and often subject to the viles of literacy repression.  This is a noble goal and certainly seems to be a better system than the one we are currently experiencing.  But will that meta-literacy, even if enacted to perfection, be enough?  Yes, those students who succeed in Brandt’s new literacy program will be better positioned in the short term.  But then, would the literacy standards not rise, as they have risen for the past 100 years?  Once everyone is well placed into a modern literacy, then that literacy is no longer modern and the powers-that-be will again dictate what is good enough.  I think that along with this change in the schools, there needs to be a social movement to better judge and distribute literacy based on effort and talent (as opposed to formal training, family name, politics, etc.).  How best to do this is very much another matter.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Death as Temporal Anchor in Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is constantly beset with death.  Death is perhaps the one reliable thing encountered in every chapter of the book.  This phenomenon of death in the narrative is analyzed by Ursula K. Heise in Chronoscisms.  She says, “Benjamin, Kermode, and Brooks all see human time as crucially shaped by mortality” (361).  So this has become a problem of time (which was learned last week, is a very important problem in modern literary theory).  Heise continues, “Narrative time, in their view, is a way of confronting death through the movement toward the ending, understood as a moment of closure that retrospectively bestows meaning on the plot.”  Here is a small sampling of McCarthy from the end of Chapter 4: “The scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds…lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.”[1]  Confronting death and the violence immediately prior to death is something that the reader must constantly do as they read Blood Meridian.  Intuition seems to spark here, and the reader might think that the author had greater intention than a fantastic show of gore in mind.  Though Heise would later go on to overlook and ultimately regard the quotes above as old hat, it is worth considering these statements in light of the omnipresent death in the present novel.  Death is perhaps a way of communicating.  Perhaps it is a way to center the reader in the wanderings of an undetermined narrator.  Certainly there is a greater power afoot here.
Consider how despite the many difficulties that are encountered within this book, especially thirst, only death seems to be so glorified.  Heise completes her explanation of this theory in saying: “Readers live through the one moment in time that they cannot experience in their own lives: the moment just beyond death, which reveals life’s final pattern” (361).  Though there is death all over the place, the reader is still waiting for a particular death – that of the narrator.  This death does not come.  Therefore, despite the constant confrontation with the dead, the reader is not given the satisfaction of the narrator’s demise.  The reader is only teased with it, time and again, as the kid wanders through the desert once more, seemingly about to succumb to the elements.  There are several fights and battles where the kid escapes, always surviving.  Even the confrontation with the judge at the conclusion would seem to mark him for death, or else the death of the judge (being the other reliable character still alive in the story).  Cruel and vulgar as it is, the reader is looking for death.  In particular, the reader is looking for the closure of death and the wisdom that would be expected from the event.  The reader is never given this, only teased with it.  To think of how many times that the kid should have died but managed to survive – it’s absurd!  It must have been a dozen or more different occasions.  And then the ending lines of the Novel read: “He is dancing, dancing.  He says he will never die.”[2]  Goodness.  There is so much more to this, but for brevity’s sake, this harangue must end.

[1] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West, (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 54
[2] Ibid., 335.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Brief Response to Marx

              At first glance and upon suspicion, Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” seems like a typical 19th century science-justified Darwinistic racism, codified, justified, and celebrated.  But it isn’t that!  On closer observation, we can see that Marx isn’t just criticizing “the Jew,” but is also highlighting the fundamental problems of a Christian-based society.  And he is somewhat criticizing Christians, as well.  If my history serves, I believe that Marx was not particularly fond of either.
                Both Christianity and Judaism stand in the way of the Universal truth, and the universal happiness.  This because they are something other than the full state and society, both are something other.   As he says, “It is the question of the relation of religion to the state, of the contradiction between religious constraint and political emancipation.”[1]  All religion contradicts itself.  “How is religious opposition made impossible?  By abolishing religion.”[2]  All religion stands in the way of political emancipation – only by abolishing religion in total can anyone be truly emancipated.  Otherwise, they can only be emancipated in their own spheres, the otherness of Judaism or Christianity. [3]
                To what extent was Marx able to conceive of a world free from religion?  Here it seems like he had strong beliefs, but reality and history certainly points to it being a dream.  At every point in history, there is a certain mythology or religion that follows every state, especially the great ones.  Perhaps he should have considered the relationship of the religious mind to the state, and the possible symbiosis, as did Plato with his Philosopher Kings.  I am not well read in Marx, but I do not recall a proof where the he showed how religion detracts from humanity’s well being.

[1] Marx, Karl.  On the Jewish Question. From the 1844 version, edited 2009. (accessed on October 9, 2014).
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid