Monthly Archives: August 2008

Lecture notes for VIAL 8/29

Value comes from the Middle English, meaning worth or high quality, by way of the AngloFrench, and thence from the Latin, valere, to be of worth, be strong. It is related to “wield”, to handle effectively, to exert one’s authority.

Etymology:Middle English, worth, high quality, from Anglo-French, from Vulgar Latin *valuta, from feminine of *valutus, past participle of Latin valēre to be of worth, be strong — related to wield,Middle English welden to control, from Old English wieldan; akin to Old High German waltan to rule, Latin valēre to be strong, be worth

The etymology of value thus gives us an insight into its nature: the importance of values lies in part in the fact that they are related to specific practices—that is, they are lived. Values in the sense that we will be using them in this course, then, are by definition wedded to action. We enact our values, we perform or do them.

It’s also instructive to note that in dictionary definitions of the term value, the primary meaning generally given is an economic one. From Merriam-Webster: 1) a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged. 2) the monetary worth of something; Market price

Our use of the term value for the purposes of this course is reflected only in the final definition: something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable.

The term “intrinsically” essentially means that something is what it is on its own account. That is, intrinsic values are valuable in and of themselves. Their worth is not relative to other values; they are good in their own right.

What is intrinsic value?

If someone asks you whether it is good to help others in a time of need you would probably answer “yes”. If she then asked you why acting this way was good, you might reply b/c it is good that our needs are satisfied. If the questioner went on to inquire as to what the good of satisfying needs was, you could respond that the satisfaction of needs brings pleasure. If you were asked what the good of pleasure was, then, having lost all patience, you would likely to say “it just is”.

This is intrinsic value: that which “just is.” It is the moment at which a value no longer relies on anything outside of itself. It is self-evident, and thus no longer the subject of any debate. This is the terrain we will be navigating in this course. It is a stark landscape of certainties that resist being charted. We, however, will refuse to be stymied. We are going to examine some of the core beliefs of American Life and attempt to understand how they shape our sense of ourselves and how they are acted upon. In the process, some of these values may lose their inscrutability.

Notes from today’s lecture (contcult)


Defining the contemporary period is an inexact project at best, and what counts as contemporary shifts between disciplines. Historians and philosophers tend to conceive of the period in larger terms: most world histories date the contemporary period as beginning with WWII. Philosophers are even further removed from our present moment and many date contemporary philosophy as beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. These periodizations are further complicated by dictionary definitions of “contemporary”: the OED defines “contemporary” as “Belonging to the same time, age, or period; living, existing, or occurring together in time.” In this sense of the word, contemporary has more to do with the condition of being contemporaneous. All of us are contemporaries, as are the texts we’ll examine in this course. 

My argument for periodizing the contemporary from the 1970s to the present is based on changes that have occurred in economic, social and cultural life. Some of these transformations are difficult to explain as they entail major shifts in production and consumption. The Fordist model of production, for instance, which was predicated on the existence of major industrial centers and full employment has given way to new methods generally grouped under the rubric of “postFordism” (Harvey). 


Key dates of the pre-history of the contemporary period:


Ghana decolonizes.


Credit card revolution.


World-wide insurgencies, protests and rebellions.

First ATM.


SFSC student strike.

The internet.

Key dates of the contemporary period


Shift from Fordism to “flexible accumulation”.


Energy crisis in Western nations creates “stagflation”

9-11-73 Military coup in Chile overthrows first democratically elected Marxist administration. Chile becomes the first neo-liberal nation-state.


Fall/liberation of Saigon

Microsoft founded


Islamic Revolution in Iran


Deng Xiaoping initiates liberalization of Chinese economy.


Total eradication of small pox worldwide.


Identification of the AIDS virus.


Berlin Wall comes down

Tianenmen Square


Rwandan genocide.


Telecommunications Act


Human Genome Project announces its mapping of the human genome.

Feb. 15-16, 2003

Up to 30 million people around the world protest the imminent invasion of Iraq.

March 19, 2003

US invades Iraq.

Dec. 5, 2006

World Institute for Development Economics completes its study on global economic disparities and states in its press release that 

“The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth…. The most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken also reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.” 

Features of the Contemporary Period:

growth of megacities (megacities are usually identified as urban centers of 10 million or more inhabitants as distinct from megalopoli, which are extended corridors as in Houston to Lake Charles or Southern California)

Tokyo (33,600,000)

Seoul, South Korea (23,100,000)

* Mexico City, Mexico (22,000,000)

* New York City, USA (21,800,000)

* Mumbai (Bombay), India (21,100,000)

* Delhi, India (20,800,000)

* São Paulo, Brazil (20,300,000)

* Shanghai, China (18,600,000)

* Los Angeles, USA (17,900,000)

globalization (of financial markets, culture, labor, etc.)

rise of new communication technologies that have transformed the place of culture in social life and impacted concepts of identity

rise of fundamentalisms

fragmentation of social life

massive migratory flows

shift from fordism to postfordism

the rise of the security industry

The Contemporary: Neoliberalism


Neoliberalism: Quotes and Fragments

NL: “a theory of political economic practice that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within the institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey).

“The unequal distribution of property is not a distortion of the formal equality of the market, but is its presupposition and its inevitable consequence” (“The Neoliberal Theory of Society”, Simon Clarke).

“In 1945 or 1950, if you had seriously proposed any of the ideas and policies in today’s standard neo-liberal toolkit, you would have been laughed off the stage at or sent off to the insane asylum. At least in the Western countries, at that time, everyone was a Keynesian, a social democrat or a social-Christian democrat or some shade of Marxist. The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given much less rather than more social protection — such ideas were utterly foreign to the spirit of the time. Even if someone actually agreed with these ideas, he or she would have hesitated to take such a position in public and would have had a hard time finding an audience” (A Short History of Neoliberalism, Susan George []).

“In this way, a Darwinian world emerges – it is the struggle of all against all at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds support through everyone clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress. Without a doubt, the practical establishment of this world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all of the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and of the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make their situations precarious, as well as by the permanent threat of unemployment. This reserve army exists at all levels of the hierarchy, even at the higher levels, especially among managers. The ultimate foundation of this entire economic order placed under the sign of freedom is in effect the structural violence of unemployment, of the insecurity of job tenure and the menace of layoff that it implies. The condition of the ‘harmonious’ functioning of the individualist micro-economic model is a mass phenomenon, the existence of a reserve army of the unemployed” (“The Essence of Neoliberalism”, Pierre Bourdieu []).

“The current world situation is thus characterized by a remarkable interdependence, though this is a highly asymmetric interdependence in which the influence of the US and other countries of the North is preponderant. It is an interdependence which makes itself felt through repeated shock waves and counter-shock waves, where reduction as well as amplification of effects are possible. This is an interdependence whose effects spread out further and further into the world, leaving no person and no place untouched. Workers in the mines and straggling villages at the end of the world, fishermen on distant islands, peasants in the most remote villages: all have become dependent on world events.

“This is an interdependence which the most powerful actors work into their strategies, in order to come out on top. Those on the bottom, without resources, most often must simply submit to such interdependence and suffer whatever effects it brings” (A History of Capitalism– 1500-2000, Michel Beaud).

“The extension of economic rationality to formerly non-economic domains and institutions extends to individual conduct, or more precisely, prescribes citizen-subject conduct in a neo-liberal order. Whereas classical liberalism articulated a distinction, and at times even a tension, among the criteria for individual moral, associational, and economic actions… neo-liberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life. It figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for “self-care” — the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions. In making the individual fully responsible for her/himself, neo-liberalism equates moral responsibility with rational action; it relieves the discrepancy between economic and moral behavior by configuring morality entirely as a matter of rational deliberation about costs, benefits, and consequences. In so doing, it also carries responsibility for the self to new heights: the rationally calculating individual bears full responsibility for the consequences of his or her action no matter how severe the constraints on this action, e.g., lack of skills, education, and childcare in a period of high unemployment and limited welfare benefits. Correspondingly, a “mismanaged life” becomes a new mode of depoliticizing social and economic powers and at the same time reduces political citizenship to an unprecedented degree of passivity and political complacency. The model neo-liberal citizen is one who strategizes for her/ himself among various social, political and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options. A fully realized neo-liberal citizenry would be the opposite of public-minded, indeed it would barely exist as a public. The body politic ceases to be a body but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers . . . which is, of course, exactly the way voters are addressed in most American campaign discourse.8 Other evidence for progress in the development of such a citizenry is not far from hand: consider the market rationality permeating universities today, from admissions and recruiting to the relentless consumer mentality of students in relationship to university brand names, courses, and services, from faculty raiding and pay scales to promotion criteria.9 Or consider the way in which consequential moral lapses (of a sexual or criminal nature) by politicians, business executives, or church and university administrators are so often apologized for as “mistakes in judgement,” implying that it was the calculation that was wrong, not the act, actor, or rationale” (“Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Wendy Brown])

An interview with Wendy Brown for Chicago Public Radio.

“Modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of inflitrating the instruments of democracy– the ‘independent’ judiciary, the ‘free’ press, the parliament– and molding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commoditiies on sale to the highest bidder” (An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Arundhati Roy).

photo: Dispute between Serra Pelada gold mine worker and military police, Brazil 1986. © Sebastião Salgado.

Housekeeping (VIAL)

It was good to see everyone in class today. Remember that the first two assignments have already been given: 1) go to and personalize that page with the key phrases a) american values and b) american life AND 2) read through page 62 of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s important that you get the edition at the bookstore because we’ll be using some of the material at the end of the book. 

Friday I’ll lecture on what we mean when we use the term “values” and relate that concept to the idea of national identity and everyday life. Recall that the word value is etymologically related to “wield”– that’s an important collateral meaning as it indicates that values aren’t merely abstractions hovering somewhere in the aether, but that they are, above all, emplaced, embodied and practiced.  If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask them in the comment section of this entry.

Housekeeping (contcult)

Welcome to Contemporary Culture. Just to recap the assignments thus far: 1) go to and personalize that page using key phrases and terms from the syllabus. For example: contemporary culture, empire, post-colonial, postmodern, etc.  2) the reading assignment for NEXT WEDNESDAY is the first two chapters of Terry Eagleton’s After Theory which is now available in the book store. 

Friday I’ll lecture on culture in the contemporary period. Next week we’ll begin our discussions of Eagleton’s book. If you’ve had no experience with “high theory” (specifically the work of writers such as Kristeva, Foucault, Spivak, and many others) then this text will give you an insight into the stakes of that loose agglomeration of critical views and methods.

I’m really looking forward to the semester. If you have any questions you can ask on this blog entry. See everyone on Friday.