Analysis 7: At World's End, but not the end of Orientalism

The sad truth about a great deal of Western culture and the art it produces is its often inherent thematic contradictions, usually when it comes to race, and especially when it comes to Orientalism. One such unfortunate example is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, a film whose central theme of freedom from oppression is undermined by the blatant way in which it subjugates the East. This is the third movie of the series, the first in which characters are introduced from Singapore, and from the moment they are introduced they are juxtaposed against the majority of characters of English decent, creating a clear attitude of Orientalism.

“The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (Said 1866), and this is clearly the world of Singapore at the beginning of the film. The British characters journey there to meet Sao Feng, a pirate who they hope will help them find the missing Jack Sparrow. Sao Feng proves to be not just an “exotic” type of character, but a devious liar, violent, and concerned only with his own self-interest. Although this can also be said of many of the other British pirates in the film, Sao Feng is still at a great disadvantage to them as characters – pirates like Jack Sparrow and Barbossa, who exhibit similar negative characteristics, yet still get the opportunity to be developed beyond that, often showing some admirable qualities throughout the course of the multiple movies in which they appear. Furthermore, by getting to know them, we are able to connect and sympathize with them, regardless of their flaws. By contrast, Sao Feng shows practically no admirable qualities and is never given adequate time to allow us to connect with him as a character – he is only in the movie until about half-way through when he is killed in a karmic fashion after capturing the main heroine Elizabeth, and sexually assaulting her, amongst other things.

Everything about this scene with Sao Feng and Elizabeth screams Orientalism. Sao Feng, like the Eastern “Other” he represents, “signifie[s] danger and threat” (Said 1886), attacking Elizabeth. But even on a more docile level, this entire scene promotes an exotic image of the Oriental – the sensuous music, markedly different from the rest of the film’s score, the way in which Elizabeth is dressed up – over dressed, Sao Feng entering speaking in his native tongue and his continued mysterious manner throughout the scene, even when speaking in English – dipping a leaf in water and eating it, discussing the myth of Calypso (whom he thinks Elizabeth is) – all things give off a mystical vibe of a world of otherness, contrasted against the rest of the film’s typically European attributes. In some ways, Sao Feng is even portrayed as animalistic – an inferior to the contrasted Western world of the film, “reiterating European superiority over Oriental backwardness” (Said 1871).

Yet what makes this Orientalism most depressing is the irony of it when one considers the larger themes of the film as a whole. In this film, the major conflict is the pirates and other various outcasts fighting against British imperialism. Lord Beckett heads the East India Trading Co., and seeks to gain full control of the seas by eliminating all pirates. “The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies…The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture” (Said 1866). This colonization of the Orient by British powers is a perfect parallel to the pirates plight of being forced to succumb to British trade’s monopoly of the sea, and yet instead of using the presence of pirates from Singapore to further the strength of this theme, the film rather sticks with a sadly contrary view of the East as something that still needs to be dominated. The pirates of various European descent are seen fighting for freedom, and eventually obtaining it by the end of the film by destroying Beckett’s fleet. And yet, Sao Feng dies long before this – moreover, upon his death, he appoints Elizabeth the new captain of his ship, and for the rest of the film she takes his place as head of the Singapore pirates. Thus, it is not simply that the Orient does not deserve freedom, but to gain it, it must in fact become European-ized, the English Elizabeth now its representative. In the end, although Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End may support a theme of freedom in general, it nevertheless continues a long and sad tradition of supporting “Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said 1868).

Works Cited

Said, Edward W.. “Orientalism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1866-88. Print.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Writ. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Walt Disney Pictures, 2007.

Analysis 6: Femininity, Identity, and Mental Illness in Girl, Interrupted

The sickly woman has been a common feature of the patriarchal society putting women in their place for centuries, whether by describing them in vague terms as emotional, unstable, hysterical, or else ascribing to them particular diseases. As psychology expands, its terminology grows, and the discourse used to define us becomes more specific – bipolar, schizophrenic, anorexic. For Susanna Kaysen of the film Girl, Interrupted, these labels become a struggle of identity, as she must come to terms with being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and confined to a year-long stay in a mental hospital. “I don’t want to end up like my mother,” she tells her college counselor at the beginning of the film after declaring that she will not go to college and wants rather to become a writer. “Women today have more choices than that,” the counselor tells her, to which Susanna replies, entirely unbelieving, “No, they don’t.” Thus, in the 1960s society in which she lives, Susanna finds herself defined by her disorder, a kind of job title that lets her at the very least be able to distance herself from the traditional role of homemaker that she fears being forced into, like her mother before her.

“Such traditional, metaphorically matrilineal anxiety ensures that even the maker of a text, when she is a woman, may feel imprisoned within texts…which perpetually tell her how she seems” (Gilbert and Gubar 1931-32), and herein lies Susanna’s ultimate dilemma. Her text is her mental illness, and throughout the film she is confronted with the conundrum of deciding whether or not she writes this text herself, chooses not to get better – in a sense, her disorder is a liberating kind of identity that she clings to. And yet, it is also something that has been given to her by an outside source, a diagnosis placed upon her, something that imprisons her and tells her who she is.

The women of the mental hospital where Susanna is staying sneak away one night to have a look at their records, and Susanna gets to read her diagnosis for the first time. “Oh, that’s me,” is her first reaction upon reading the description of her disorder, to which her friend Lisa replies, “That’s everybody.” Although Susanna seems to find her diagnosis quite fitting, part of her also takes Lisa’s comment to heart, putting into question again what it means to be truly mentally ill. Susanna has been thrust into this category of the sick, the abnormal, and it’s something she is acutely aware is being used to define her in different ways than it would define a man. Upon learning that part of the symptoms of her condition include being “sexually promiscuous,” she asks her therapist, “How many guys would I have to sleep with to be considered promiscuous, textbook promiscuous? …10, 8, 5? And how many girls would a guy my age have to sleep with to be considered promiscuous? 10, 20, 109?” Susanna sees that, although her disorder may have a lot of truth to it, it is still something being used to put her in her place as a woman, using symptoms that would not necessarily earn a man the same title of being mentally ill, things that for a man could often be considered normal and natural.

“It is debilitating to be any woman in a society where women are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters” (Gilbert and Gubar 1932), and it is this dichotomy that Susanna sees all around her. Her choices are limited by the patriarchal society in which she finds herself, and she is all the more exasperated to see the women around her – the heads of the hospital, her school, her mother – behaving as though this is the way of the world, and there is nothing particularly wrong with it. Although Susanna finally comes, by the end of the film, to recognize that she is holding herself back and can overcome her mental illness, furthermore gaining independence and strength by doing so, she never stops seeing that a diagnosis is something imposed by society as a means of control, whether for women or anyone else. “Crazy isn’t being broken, or swallowing a dark secret, it’s you or me, amplified,” she tells us as the film closes, reaffirming this belief that being mentally ill is not so different from being normal, and thereby continuing her fight against a society in which binaries unfairly define the world – sane and crazy, normal and abnormal, man and woman.

Works Cited

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1926-38. Print.

Girl, Interrupted. Writ. Susanna Kaysen, Lisa Loomer, James Mangold, and Anna Hamilton Phelan. Dir. James Mangold. Columbia Pictures, 1999.

Analysis 5: Scott Pilgrim vs. The Simulacrum

If a person is a text, as postmodernism and poststructuralism attest, today’s generation would have to be the texts of computers, television, video games – all manner of electronic mediums. We communicate through electronics – we are increasingly developing our own discourse out of them, complete with emoticons, chatspeak, and acronyms that have even found their way into real life (or should I say “RL”), past the screen: LOL, WTF, the list goes on. We say three little letters, and these are meant to signify a whole slew of various emotions that relate to “laughing out loud.” We are the generation of the text message, the quick response – we thereby exemplify the poststructuralist standpoint that we are nothing more than a brief number of letters, nothing more than computer screens and cell phones. Behind these screens, do our “true” personalities and selves still exist? Or are we nothing more than these electronics with which we communicate? We are no longer interacting with each other, rather, we are interacting with a device that has taken our place.

In this same vein, video games provide an interesting look at how we interact with electronics on a fictional level. In playing video games, we aren’t just interacting with a text like a novel or film, something that we still recognize as existing somewhat independently of ourselves and our actions. In video games, we have a hand in creating the story on some level – we become the characters, we control their actions. And in this way, we are equally controlled by them. We begin to see ourselves in the game, the game as our reality. In this way, the film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World provides us with a reality in every way a simulacrum of video games. Scott Pilgrim is your average 20-something, struggling with relationships, but his life is nothing more than the text of a video game. For Scott and his world there is “no more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept” (Baudrillard 1557), for all of reality is a game and there is no distinction between the two.

Scott and his new girlfriend, Ramona, are getting along quite well in their relationship, but Ramona still has some emotional “baggage” holding her back – seven exes that keep coming back to haunt her and Scott and keep them from growing closer. And in their reality-as-video game, this is quite literal: Ramona’s exes have formed an “evil league” to stop her and Scott from being together. In order to move forward in their relationship, Scott finds himself having to fight them in various video game-style combat. Fistfights and weapon fights in the tradition of various combat games, musical fights reminiscent of Rock Band or Guitar Hero, even fights controlling magical creatures like something akin to Pokemon. And not only that, but when Scott’s defeated an ex, he gets to pick up some coins and bonus points for his trouble. In this way, Scott and Ramona’s relationship is “nothing more than an immense script and a perpetual motion picture” (Baudrillard 1566), as they work through their emotional baggage not by connecting romantically or personally, but through the action of a video game, through fights and collecting abstract points to add to a score that may or may not in any way relate to their “winning” of this game of love on any real level. For their reality is “a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Baudrillard 1557).

The final fight scene is a prime example of all of Scott’s reality working like a video game. Here, Scott fights the “final boss battle” against Gideon, Ramona’s most recent ex who she has now gotten back together with. As Scott declares his love for Ramona, he is told by an anonymous narrator voice that he has “earned the power of love,” which gives him a powerful weapon to use in his fight and a level up. Again, we see Scott’s love for Ramona translated into something else, a tool to be used in a fight, a further skill level to be achieved, and this fight again stands between him and the person he seeks to connect with on the other side. Eventually, Scott is killed, but because he picked up an “extra life” in a previous scene he is able to come back. He learns from his little near-death experience a valuable lesson of “self respect,” and he realizes he needs to take responsibility for his own past mistakes, upon which he gets to retry the level that is his confrontation with Gideon. We then see him apologizing to various people, like his friends and former band mates, as well as his ex-girlfriend Knives, and Ramona herself. This is once more all approached from the standpoint of a video game – each time Scott apologizes he gets more points added to his score, and is finally able to defeat Gideon with the help of Knives, having regained her friendship. In the end, Scott and Ramona walk off together to try their relationship once more, and do have a momentary scene where they connect as two people, not as two players in a game. And yet, the thing that brings them ultimately together is Scott’s defeat of Gideon, something purely narratological, symbolic – a simulacrum that takes the place of their relationship, their true human connection.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World may just be a movie, but it poses some serious questions about what our reality truly is. Are we ever more than our various modes of discourse, our texts, whether fictional or otherwise? Are we people or heroes in our own video games, playing by rules we don’t so often make ourselves as are programmed into us from before we even begin – by the world in which we are born into and the ideologies we are presented with. For the video game hero is never free – he is always controlled by the person playing on the other side of the screen. The question is, are we so sure our reality isn’t the game itself? If so, we are controlled by the game, the text – not the other way around.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1556-66. Print.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Writ. Michael Bacall, Bryan Lee O'Malley, and Edgar Wright. Dir. Edgar Wright. Universal Studios, 2010.

Analysis 4: Everything is Rent: Rent, Marxism, and the Plight of Artists

“Everything is rent,” is a quite accurate way to sum up most of the points of Marxism in three simple words. Thus, the musical Rent provides us with a highly compelling example of a world in which capitalism has “left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’” (Marx 659). As the song that begins the musical, appropriately titled “Rent,” asks, “How can you connect in an age where strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray?” In an age and country where capitalism dominates, the characters of Rent find themselves struggling to live with their chosen lifestyle, that of the bohemian artist. Throughout the musical they are constantly in a battle between two opposing forces – their need to find connection and free expression as artists, and their need to make ends meet. To explore these themes, the songs of “Rent” and “What You Own” provide two powerful examples, both in terms of their lyrics and, in the motion picture adaptation of the stage musical, the visuals that accompany them.

The song “Rent” begins with Mark filming part of a documentary on the streets of New York. Right before it starts we are already introduced to the issue of making a living – a homeless man attempts to make some money by offering his surfaces cleaning the windshield of a car at a stoplight, to which the driver yells at him to get off. As Mark witnesses this and the song begins, he remarks that “real life is getting more like fiction each day,” unbelieving of the effects that capitalism “in its blind unrestrainable passion” (Marx 671) has upon the world he sees around him. He continues on this theme by telling us that “headlines, breadlines blow [his] mind.” This point becomes all the more violently displayed later in the song, when Mark’s friend Tom is attacked by muggers, again displaying the lengths to which those in poverty must go in order to survive, often leading to brutality. The song, and musical as a whole, continues to drive this point home: a capitalist mentality leads, in all areas of society, to humans treating each other with a cruelty necessary to make profit, make ends meet, obtain basic needs like shelter and food.

We are then introduced to Mark’s, and his roommate Roger’s, personal plight – “and now this deadline / eviction or pay / rent.” We see Roger attempting to write a song in his and Mark’s apartment, when the lights are turned out, one would assume as a consequence of the rent not being paid. “We’re hungry and frozen / some life that we’ve chosen,” the two tell us, as they wonder whether the costs of living the way they are are truly worth it for the reward – their freedom to be independent artists. “As part of its ceaseless search for ways to induct workers in their own exploitation, capital, it might be said, has found the makings of a self-justifying, low-wage workforce” (Ross 2592), and this is the place in which Mark and Roger find themselves, choosing a life in which their inability to make the wages sufficient to pay rent is beginning to cost them the very basic things they need to create their art in the first place – a warm and lighted place to work and basic nourishment. In a symbolic act, Mark and Roger warm themselves by making a fire, and, with nothing else to burn, they are forced to “light up a mean blaze / with posters and screenplays,” sacrificing the art they own and have made in order to fulfill their need for warmth. At the end of their rope, Mark and Roger are forced to succumb to the fact that their art won’t, in the capitalist society in which they live, provide them with the basic things they need to survive – it has no exchange-value, and thus eventually it must be used in the only way it can, by its use-value of providing warmth.

“As the industrial division of labor everywhere sought to convert artisans into machine operatives, artists recoiled from being treated like any other trade producer…the artist was called on to represent, if not wholly embody, those imaginative qualities, skills, and virtues that industrial civilization was systematically destroying” (Ross 2586). Here, we see the struggle of the character’s of Rent on the larger scale – attempting to find a way to do that which gives their lives meaning and worth, while forced by the nature of their society to give it up in order to make enough money to live. The song “What You Own” makes this dilemma clear:

Mark begins by instructing: “Don't breathe too deep / don't think all day / dive into work / drive the other way,” the things that he has learned to do at his new job as cameraman for a news corporation. He continues, bitterly and nearly sarcastically assuring us that, “That drip of hurt / that pint of shame / goes away / just play the game.” As we see Mark preparing for work, we see that he finds himself stuck now “regard[ing] part-time commercial work as a vile meal ticket that expedites [his] true calling” (Ross 2596). However, although his reasons for taking the job in the first place were to pay his rent and ensure he could continue to work on his own documentary in the comfort of his home, he now finds the new work distracting from his own film. Mark realizes he must learn to “play the game” of the worker in a capitalist society and hope that it gets easier. In the chorus, he identifies the central issue that causes him “drips of hurt” and “pints of shame”: “when you’re living in America / at the end of the millennium / you’re what you own.” All he really owns of worth in terms of exchange-value is himself as a worker and his labor-power to be sold, that he is “nothing else, his whole life through, than labour-power…to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital” (Marx 671). Mark’s life as a worker first and artist second has caused him not only to lose time in which he could be working on his own film, it has deprived him of his very emotions and passion: “I escape and ape content / I don't own emotion – I rent.” By the end of the song, he finally concludes that he will quit his job so that he can finish his documentary, ultimately preferring his life as an artist to the stifling nature of the capitalistic world that he finds to be destroying his creativity, regardless of the security of shelter and resources it provides him.

As Jonathan Larson, lyricist, composer, and writer of Rent, has pointed out, the word “rent” doesn’t just signify the monetary issues related to capitalism – it “also means torn apart” (Wikipedia), and herein lies Rent’s strongest criticism of capitalist society and what it creates. As the song “Rent” ends, and the chorus of tenants sing in unison a declaration against the notices of eviction, “we’re not gonna pay rent / cause everything is rent,” the double entendre of their meaning adds to the power of their statement. In a capitalist society, everything truly is rent – human connection, on some level, is always related to monetary profit, and personal worth is based solely on exchange-value (Marx 659). Thus, “rent” is everywhere in that money runs every corner of society, and, as a result and perhaps most importantly, humans are torn apart from each other. True connection between people as people, beyond any worth related to their ability to provide labor-power and create profit, becomes something lost in the business of the day, the struggle to get by. Here is where the true plight of the characters of Rent takes place, as they strive to connect on a deeper and more meaningful level through their art. Thus, as the musical ends and Mark’s finished documentary is finally shown, we see the harsh streets of New York not just filled with the despair of the homeless, but also with him and his friends, dancing and laughing, putting aside their financial troubles and connecting on another level.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. “The Communist Manifesto.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 657-60. Print.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. “Capital, Volume 1.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 663-74. Print.

Ross, Andrew. “The Mental Labor Problem.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 2578-97. Print.

Rent. Writ. Jonathan Larson and Stephen Chbosky. Dir. Chris Columbus. Columbia Pictures, 2005.

Rent (musical). Wikipedia. 22 April 2011

Week 9: And just when I thought things couldn’t get any more disturbing…

…Ross comes along, and proves me wrong.

Well, really, Althusser too was disturbing, but somehow didn’t have as big an impact on me as Ross. I want to say this was because I feel Althusser’s ideas on ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses are ones I’m already very accustomed to, although, then again, I am also well aware of the truth of what Ross had to say. I suppose it’s just more of something I’m in denial about than Althusser. Probably because it’s something I relate to on a more personal level.

Reading Ross, I was reminded of reading Eagleton and being disturbed, in the same way I found myself disturbed a little in learning about Existentialism, actually, in a class last semester. It’s because I recognize myself so much in it. For Existentialism, it was realizing that our beliefs, ideologies, whatever gives our life meaning and helps us make sense of our world, is something that really has no inherent meaning. We make it up. Okay, this seems obvious by now, and once again brings to mind reader-response and poststructuralism to me, but the disturbing truth of it is still there. For me, the meaning I give to life comes more or less solely from literature and art. Hence, Eagleton resonating with me in a disturbing way. Literature is my opiate. And, I’m likely to be one of those women he describes as becoming an English professor, master of a “convenient sort of non-subject to palm off on the ladies” (Eagleton 2144).

Which brings me to Ross. I’m pretty sure there isn’t one thing he said that could have hit home in a more uncomfortable manner. Because I am the artist who wants to become a professor. The idealist who is more or less quite ignorant of economic realities, beyond the knowledge that capitalism has issues and is kind of scary.

The whole idea that as artists and intellectuals we willing choose to accept low wages for love of our subject has my name written all over it. The types of logic that Ross describes as feeding into the mentality of the bohemian artist and reasons that are used as justification for paying artists less than they deserve, the want to create a “hungry theater” because “only a hungry man feels compelled to say ‘what’s in him’ (Ross 2585)…all these things I have thought about myself as an artist and often thought would be reasonable rational for being paid less. Which is really messed up. Especially, when to create great art, more passionate art, I often notice it helps to have something that is bothering you, making you uncomfortable, at the least – at the most, something really difficult, something you need to work through and overcome, something that makes you “hungry.” And there is I think, in all artists, intellectuals, idealists, this “noble ethos of the unattached artist” (Ross 2586), who feels that to create real art you need to ignore the rest of the world, your monetary needs, etc. I do it all the time, even when I know I’m only hurting myself – for example, these blog posts: I know I should just get through them for the sake of making the grade, but I can’t resist writing so much because I find it too interesting. (Seriously – it’s a perfect example of this problem.)

Even more specifically, when he comes to discussing graduate students and the fact that “the attainment of a degree is not the beginning, but the end of their teaching career” (Ross 2590), I started to get even more depressed. Just recently I’ve come to the decision that I want to become a professor, because it seems like a great way to be an artist on the side while making some kind of living. But after reading Ross? Well, I guess there’s just no winning as an idealist. (I do believe this all stems, at least for me, from being an Idealist in the Myers-Briggs personality types sense, but that’s a whole nother story…)

Week 8: The fetishism of the report card commodity


Marx, like Freud, is someone I feel I’ve always heard a lot about but had yet to really study. Most of my knowledge of him comes from half-remembered high school history classes, so I felt I could use some brushing up. And I must say I much prefer studying him from a more philosophical than historical viewpoint. It’s less depressing, and more interesting.

Then again, it’s hard not to be depressed by this stuff on any level. Most of all Marx’s discussion in “The Working-Day.” The thing that always scares me the most in regards to the nature of capital he outlines isn’t even just the ways it impacts our health. It’s the whole idea of it cheapening the care we put into things. This is always something I find to be a personal struggle for me, just on very basic levels. I feel that the hardest and one of the most important lessons I’ve had to learn in school (and am still learning) is to meet deadlines, even at the cost of quality work. It’s something that drives me crazy and depresses me to no end. On the one hand, I am a bit of a perfectionist and really do need due dates to teach me to let things go. On the other hand, I recognize that at some level, especially in regards to systems like grading, students and workers are taught to cut corners and at some point stop caring about their work in order to reach levels of greater production.

Actually, let’s talk about grades specifically for a moment. (I admit I have more experience as a student than a worker, so it’s often easier for me to think of Marxism on the level of school life.) Grades are a lot like the exchange-value of commodities. Like commodities, in grades “the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour” (Marx 664). In contemplating the idea of grades, I’m often left with a disturbing kind of awe – how can one little letter sum up an entire semester, or year, of class work? That little letter can’t possibly even begin to convey all the labor that went into making it what it is, and yet it is meant to signify all that and more: it is meant to “prove” that the student has learned something. Grades, like commodities, are often sadly removed from the true labor that went into making them, even the true amount of knowledge gained in the class for which they are awarded to the student. They are often given on the basis of exchange-value – they are awarded for completed work. But who’s to say the student actually learned from this work? Conversely, a student who fails to turn in assignments receives a poor grade because they have not produced work, yet perhaps they learned much more from what they did do than a student who completed all assignments without being fully engaged in them.

I’ve had experiences on both sides over my years as a student. There were classes, usually the one hundred student ones in college where everything is determined on the basis of multiple choice quizzes, in which I received great grades but felt I learned no more than the necessary factoids I memorized to pass the tests, facts soon forgotten there after. On the flip side, there were classes in which my inability to keep up with the workload resulted in bad grades, but I left feeling as though I had learned a great deal from all the effort I put into the class.

I’d like to say these classes are in the minority however – for the most part, grades tend to at least come close to matching up with the true labor put in and the knowledge gained in a class. Most of the time, this probably happens. And yet, one can’t deny that the way grades work is on the level of exchange-value – students earn their grades by producing work and test scores. Knowledge in this way plays the role of the use-value of commodities, the actual way we interact with our course material. But grades aren’t directly related to this.

In the end, the most disturbing thing about this in regards to both grades and commodities is the ideology it promotes. The system cares only for achieving a final product – commodity, grade, capital. The focus is taken off of the desire to achieve personal fulfillment and knowledge and is only focused on the achievement of an object.

For my own part, I like to get good grades. But I like to learn more. I try to do both. (Luckily, I must say English classes tend to be quite good when it comes to the two naturally matching up.)

And, on a slightly different topic, don’t even get me started on how over-worked the average high school student is. With a school day from eight to three, and a night’s homework often four to five hours (or, at least, this is the time it can take if you want your grades to be high), that can be a twelve-hour day. What does this leave time for? Just enough for meals and hopefully the large amount of sleep necessary for teenagers (which I believe can be around ten hours). I admit this workload may vary with school, but it seems to be about what was generally true for me in high school, and my brother now, and a lot of other people I know, all attending different schools. Not to mention, similar things happen in some elementary and middle schools.

I guess we’re being groomed to enter the world of Capital…

Presentation: My attempt at Lacan

A Reflection

When my group decided to split up our presentation between all the varied topics of psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and reader-response, and each present a particular theory, I was pretty sure I knew which I wanted to do most (although I do admit later, as I was putting the presentation together, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had got myself into). As I’ve mentioned previously, one of the biggest things that drew me to theory in the past was a creative writing class I took last semester with Prof. Haake. Prof. Haake loves to discuss a wide range of theory in her classes and how they relate to writing, and one of her favorites happens to be Lacan. When she first introduced Lacan’s concept of the Mirror Stage last semester I remember being immediately in awe of how we learn to identify ourselves through image and language at such a young age, and how this impacts our sense of self for all our lives ever after.

Through our readings and discussions for this class, as well as Prof. Haake’s lectures last semester and in another class I’m taking with her now, I attempted to patch together my own understanding of Lacan’s complex theories. Fittingly, I found the more I attempted to figure out how to explain these theories, the less sense I felt they made. In my head, I have this very clear idea and feeling for what they mean, and yet to explain it in language seems to destroy that deep understanding. Yet, as Lacan tells us, this doesn’t mean we should stop trying to use language to explain things – it’s a natural part of human psychology.

So I attempted to persevere through the presentation, and I was impressed with how it went. (I do admit I was a little embarrassed by how much time my portion took to present – what was intended to be five minutes wound up being over ten, possibly the longest of our group. My Communications professor would not be proud of me.) Although part of me was at all times terrified at the notion of getting it all “wrong,” I was actually really happy to get feedback from Prof. Wexler, who seemed supportive of my attempts to come up with my own explanation of the theory, even while questioning me a bit at times. I realized some confusion in my explanation might have been cleared up if I had used more of Saussure’s terms or at least discussed his theory more specifically in relation to Lacan, especially considering that I think he’s a lot more illuminating in explaining Lacan than trying to compare Lacan to Freud.

Overall, in the moment of presenting, and looking back, I’m impressed with myself in how logical (I think) I managed to be. It was very important to me to not just parrot back information from the reading, but to give my own take on it and hopefully help the class understand it a bit more. I think (and hope) I succeeded in this for the most part.

I do admit though that I’m pretty sure my reading of Lacan is entirely postmodern/poststructuralist, and this is mostly Prof. Haake’s fault. (Of course I use the word “fault” quite jokingly here, because I do prefer this reading of Lacan, really.) Considering that at the time of the presentation we hadn’t yet covered poststructualism, this made me feel a little awkward and I wonder how much sense I made because of it. I know this was pointed out by Prof. Wexler at one point when he asked, “are we clear on what the idea of language being ‘distancing’ means?” (or at least I think the word I had been using in the presentation was ‘distancing’), and then he proceeded to mention Derrida, to which I agreed that he probably helps with the understanding of the theory, and mentioned we discussed him in relation to it in another one of my classes, which was Prof. Haake’s. But more importantly, this made me realize that at the time Lacan was writing, I wonder whether his theories were taken quite in this same poststructuralist way, considering that that movement hadn’t yet happened…correct? Or at least, Derrida was writing and lecturing in the ‘60s, ten years after Lacan’s “Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I” was published. Although I suppose the two happened close enough in time that they probably impacted each other a lot.

In any case, I suppose I’m stuck viewing Lacan with a poststructuralist lens. Probably not solely the fault of Prof. Haake, but, to quote our syllabus, “our ostensible postmodern condition.” From what I can tell, especially in my higher education studies, we are a bit biased to a more postmodern/poststructuralist view of things. Or maybe just in upper division classes. Whether that’s a positive or negative, it’s worth keeping in mind.

Archive of my Presentation

Copy and pasted from the PowerPoint I used… I tried to write these in such a way that I could expand upon in class and open a discussion with. Okay, maybe the discussion part was a little optimistic, but I at least hoped we’d be able to have one with the final Harry Potter clip…unfortunately, there was an error with the internet during the presentation and it wouldn’t play. I tried to summarize it but I doubt the effect was the same, and we were short on time anyway, so a discussion never really happened. If I could have changed one thing about my presentation, it would have been that more of a discussion could have resulted, as I agree wholeheartedly with Prof. Wexler in that what good or fun are these types of classes without discussion? Theories and stories mean nothing without the reader’s thoughts on them…again, a very reader-response and postmodern standpoint. And I stick to it.

Jacques Lacan


Highly influenced by Freud and Saussure
Critiqued and expanded upon Freud’s theories
Used Saussure’s model of the linguistic sign as both signifier and signified to expand on Freud’s work

Three Dimensions of the Psyche

The Real
Can’t be known or discussed
Can only be studied in relation to the Imaginary and Symbolic

The Imaginary
Our image of ourselves as a distinct individual
Is imaginary because it is a form - a fictional idea of wholeness we can’t actually obtain

The Symbolic
Our attempt to communicate/experience the imaginary through language, symbols, or signs

The Mirror Stage

Occurs from the age of six - eighteen months
The baby sees itself in the mirror and takes joy in its image
In this way the baby for the first time views itself abstractly, as an image of a distinct self (the Imaginary)
The baby learns to say “I” in order to express this sense of self-identity (the Symbolic)
This is how we learn to define ourselves as individuals - through image and language - as the idea of a distinct, whole self that never truly exists

Signification of the Phallus as Desire

Lacan views Freud’s theory of castration fear as a bigger metaphor for the psychology of desire
Castration for Lacan is a symbolic loss brought about by our use of language
Through language (the Symbolic) there is a splitting off - it brings us closer to the abstract (the Imaginary) while simultaneously distancing us from our body (the phallus) and its needs (the Real?)
This creates desire - a desire for something we can never attain, because it never existed to begin with - thus desire is insatiable
Castration is also a separation from the mother - the child recognizes that the mother lacks something (a metaphorical phallus), realizing that the mother can’t be all they need

The Mirror of Erised - Lacanian?

A link to the clip
(embedding was disabled)

I’m still not sure how well this clip fits with Lacan’s theories, but it seemed like a fun idea. The Mirror of Erised – desire spelled backwards. My take: Lacan says that the Mirror Stage, our entering into the Imaginary and Symbolic realms of the psyche in which we view the world lead to desire – our desire for the Real. In the clip, Harry desires to be with his parents in reality, but is only able to do so symbolically through the mirror. Dumbledore advises Harry not to get caught up in the imaginary and forget reality. And yet, according to Lacan, this is not possible. Our reality is always filtered through symbols and signs – they create our reality. So, in conclusion, perhaps Dumbledore must learn more about poststructuralism.