Study Guide (HUM415)

The final half of the semester took us from the UK’s system of higher education to Argentina on the verge of collapse, to the the neoliberal dystopia of a near-future South Africa. In each case the question of capital and its effects– whether on consciousness, geography, demography, or social control– arose. Given that early on in the semester we committed to an exploration of “the dark side” (a phrase which will perhaps, in years to come, owe more to Dick Cheney than Pink Floyd) it seems likely none of us were surprised at the horrors and banalities revealed. What follows is an abbreviated tour of some of the major concepts, figures and locales we encountered.

Jameson and Fisher

Jameson’s essay, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” is significant because Fisher relies upon it to establish the  contours of the capitalist realist present. We’ve discussed the essays two major key terms, schizophrenia and pastiche, at some length. Fisher uses both of these in the opening chapters of CR, though he argues that Jameson’s assessment of the present is already, in many ways, somewhat dated.

CR provided us with a plethora of critical concepts, and a few ways to contradict the dominant CR ideology that markets and private enterprise always invariably achieve better results than public ventures. At issue here in particular is the public university, which has come under sustained attack from neoliberals of both parties and has been partially– if not completely– privatized. The question of bureaucracy is one issue that Fisher finds particularly compelling, as is the social dimension of seemingly purely personal issues such as mental health.

Argentina

Ana Maria Shua’s dystopian novel Death as a Side Effect takes place in a near-future Argentina, one that is clearly crumbling before the very eyes of its protagonist, Ernesto. As we discussed at great length, Argentina is a good example of the limits and dysfunctionality of neoliberal policies particularly in light of the collapse of its economy in 2001-2002. We spoke of the geography of Shua’s Buenos Aires and the various symptoms of social decline exhibited by this neoliberalized state, including pervasive criminality, anomie, corporate domination and a ruthless, privatized health care system. We noted the potentially allegorical aspects of the novel, particularly how Argentina’s military junta and its neoliberal successors,  might fit with the diegesis. The relationship between two of the central characters– the protagonist and his father– necessarily evoked the odd relationship of power between debtors and creditors. The novel itself could be viewed as the antithesis of a kind of “social daydreaming”– when individuals’ fantasies focus on the possibilities of a utopian world to come.

South Africa

Moxyland provided us with a whole new set of terms, many of them slang or neologisms, in addition to offering a slicker, more action-oriented narrative of neoliberal dystopia. One of my central preoccupations as a student of the culture of capitalism was in reflecting whether Beukes’s novel– as entertaining as it was– successfully represented the logic of neoliberalism adequately. While there are clear parallels between Shua and Beukes such as corporate hegemony and massive social inequality, it would seem that Beukes’ method of narrative closure– the skywards* conspiracy– depended on the very thing that Fisher warns his readers against. Again, as I’ve remarked ad nauseam, there is no wizard behind the curtain with global capitalism (though surely there are institutional “nodes” such as financial districts, the IMF’s headquarters, etc. which could potentially be the setting for political resistance).

One interesting point of partial congruence between DSE and Moxy concerns the status of the human body itself. For the mercenary “homes” of Shua’s novel, the aging population represents a source of profit. In near-future Johannesburg, meanwhile, biotech– specifically Kendra’s tranformation via nanites– is deployed as a means to infiltrate an already super-saturated consumer society. We broached the term “transhumanism” to describe the latter– though honestly I don’t feel we discussed it enough to warrant inclusion on the final exam. We can, however, see how this experiment– turning Kendra herself into a walking billboard, one whose very cellular structure has been colonized by capital– relates to one of the overarching themes of the course, privatization.

Moxyland’s diegesis is world that has betrayed the ANC’s Freedom Charter. It is one where even as cellphones have come to signify “liberation” (in the form of mobility) they  have also morphed into a means of social control. It is a place where choice has extinguished freedom. Where reality has been distorted beyond recognition. Where militarization– and with it oppressive laws such as the Tacit Liability and Commerce Protection acts– has deepened to an astonishing degree. Notably, in this world– in what would appear (like London in Cuaron’s Children of Men) to be at least a nominal democracy– even resistance against the rule of capital seems to be easily contained. The concepts of dark marketing and subvertising are interesting here.

 

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