Monthly Archives: December 2008

A Worker Reads History

A Worker Reads History

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years’ War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

–Bertolt Brecht

Values in American Life

Let’s look at the first word in the title of this course again.

In its broadest sense, to value something is to ascribe worth to it and thus place it into some kind of hierarchy. I value good conversation and hot showers, the smell of wet asphalt and the capacity of human beings to reason critically about the world they inhabit. Now clearly there must be some kind of order to these values. As much as it would pain me I’d give up hot water in an instant if I thought it would help people gain a moral-intellectual edge. Value, then, as a verb means making choices– but whether those choices are the product of reflection or passive acceptance remains an open question.

In terms of the study of culture there are three primary categories of value: the aesthetic, the moral and the economic. Aesthetic value is fairly tricky, and seems to be culturally specific; it is related to that socially constructed phenomenon “taste.”  You don’t like zydeco? Mo chagrin. But why? 

In the 19th century– and even now– aesthetic value was highly stratified. The music and literature of the working classes was held to be inadequate, even defective. An ideology invested in the universal appeal of the “great works” of Western civilization held that opera, for instance, forever overshadowed Tin Pan Alley. That stark divide between greatness and tawdriness has largely been eroded in the last 80 years, a product of the cultural logic of capitalism and the revolutionary experimentation of modernist artists such as Duchamp and Joyce.

Economic value is in some sense even more mysterious. How does value accrue? According to Marx, in commodity production it is the labor of workers shaping raw matter into usable goods that produces “surplus value”. From David McClellan’s biography:

“Marx made a distinction between constant capital, which was ‘that part of capital which is represented by the means of production, by the raw material, auxilliary material, and instruments of labor, and does not, in the process of production, undergo any quantitative alteration of value,’ and variable capital. Of this Marx said: “That part of capital, represented by labor power, does, in the process of production, undergo an alteration of value. It both reproduces the equivalent of its own value, and also produces an excess, a surplus-value, which may itself vary, may be more or less according to the circumstances.’  The essential point was that the capitalist got the worker to work longer than was merely sufficient to embody in his product the value of his labor power.” [i.e., barristas get 6 bucks an hour to brew and serve hundreds of dollars of coffee. Another, cruder way of characterizing this surplus is in the bromide “profit is unpaid labor”.] 

Moral values are generally given until such time as a person is capable (and, just as crucially, willing) of examining and perhaps revising them. Though we like to think of ourselves as unique, little islands of consciousness, moral values, because they are social, bely this conceit. Values, as was the case long ago with land, are held in common. On the other hand this sociality, this collectivity, doesn’t mean that values are frozen, forever suspended in the amber of some fictive consensus. Think about the so-called Torture Debate in this country over the course of the past few years. Or the vehement antagonism between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces during the antebellum years. We’ve seen how values are mobilized in moral and political causes. Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization teaches us that values are often subverted, codified and revised.