Value (HUM225)

Ideally, even lecture classes contain an element of dialog. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian theorist of pedagogy, took great pains to explain that an effective education cannot be governed by what he called “the banking concept of education“– a principle which holds that students are merely passive, empty vessels which the teacher-expert attempts to fill.

Asking questions starts that dialog and improves teaching. Yesterday someone inquired about the assignments for this coming week. In responding to her I tipped my hand about the purpose of these readings and how they relate to the course as a whole. Here’s what I wrote:

It’s always good to take notes on what you read, I think. It’s up to you to decide how extensive those notes might be. See if you can identify the authors’ basic arguments. You could underline passages which are particularly difficult. Look up words you don’t already know. The Barthes reading in particular (“The Reality Effect”) is challenging. Try to locate the core claims he is making.

At present, we’re looking at two things:
1) Capitalism as the economic system which structures American social life. Rather than simply taking it for granted, as a “fact of nature,” we’re trying to understand that capitalism is a system with a history. What cultural and personal values are generated by the way we work and live and subsist– by our material and economic lives?
2) “Cultural technologies” such as the novel as a means of exploring (or celebrating or refuting, etc.) cultural values. To begin that inquiry we need to figure out what a novel actually is.

From there we’ll begin to read the primary sources, beginning with Thousand Pieces of Gold.

Of the two readings assigned for Tuesday’s class, “What is a Novel?” and “The Reality Effect,” the latter is probably the most difficult. It represents a certain kind of intellectual project, semiotics, whose purpose is to analyze the structural aspects of signification, or making meaning. In that essay Barthes examines an aspect of narrative which is seldom given much attention: the seemingly insignificant detail. As we’ll see, such details in fact have a powerful function because they form part of a highly ideological claim on the part of Realism that what is represented in realist texts is “the real” itself. If that seems inscrutable, by the end of class on Tuesday you should have a better sense of it.

Remember that so far we’ve touched upon three major forms of value– the cultural (aesthetic), moral, and economic. Values can be difficult to assess given that some of them are intrinsic.  Intrinsic value does not depend on any external justification for its worth. Such values are significant because, in effect, they just are. Such a statement is known as a tautology. When Moses met with Yahweh in Midian he asked God what he was. Yahweh’s response was tautological: “I am that I am.” This assertion was echoed millennia later by Popeye:

Any idea that seems to possess validity simply because it is common sense or because “it just is” has to be interrogated. To fail to do so would be to surrender our obligation, as creatures of reason, to understand both ourselves and the world around us. As Catherine Belsey has written:

“In practice, common sense betrays its own inadequacy by its incoherences, its contradictions and its silences. Presenting itself as non-theoretical, as ‘obvious’, common sense is not called on to demonstrate that it is internally consistent. But an account of the world which finally proves to be incoherent or non-explanatory constitutes an unsatisfactory foundation for the practice of either reading or criticism” (Critical Practice 3).

Or consider Terry Eagleton’s remarks:

“Common sense holds that things generally only have one meaning and that this meaning is usually obvious, inscribed on the faces of the objects we encounter. The world is pretty much as we perceive it, and our way of perceiving it is the natural, self-evident one. We know the sun goes round the earth because we can see that it does. At different times common sense has dictated burning witches, hanging sheep-stealers and avoiding Jews for fear of fatal infection, but this statement is not itself commonsensical since common sense believes itself to be historically invariable” (Literary Theory: An Introduction 94).

In the weeks to come we are going to 1) think about the nature of value generally, both as a verb and and a noun 2) examine those values which might be in some sense peculiarly American (a risky proposition, fraught with the pitfalls of American Exceptionalism). In order to do that we will study a series of novels written by Americans about America.