Power versus love: the production and overcoming of hierarchic repression.

Author:Bending, Tim
 
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Love is not a frivolous word. It is a word with which we struggle to express some of the most important experiences of our lives. A struggle that we do not win but cannot give up. This article is not so much about love--what it is; it is about that struggle to communicate as the basis of our knowledge of other people, of other cultures, of "others" that we cannot reduce to other versions of ourselves. It is about the production of knowledge and the relations of individuals in a would-be fairer world.

Recently, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has ventured to write about love as a necessary part of political struggle and the learning that that entails.

This learning can only be attempted through the supplementation of a collective effort by love. What deserves the name of love is an effort...mind-changing on both sides, at the possibility of an unascertainable ethical singularity that is not ever a sustainable condition. The necessary collective efforts are to change laws, relations of production, systems of education and health care. But without the mind-changing one-on-one responsible contact, nothing will stick. (1)

The idea of a mind-changing relationship that is also an ethical relationship is an important one. The notion, however, needs a lot of explaining, a lot of unpacking and exploration. We need to see its connections with a broader theoretical field, and how perhaps it can be integrated with more wide-ranging considerations of identity and economy. To this end, this article will propose how this concept of mind-changing love can be understood in the context of a number of poststructuralist schools of thought and postcolonial examples, with what I consider a broadly Marxian perspective. If this seems at times a loose, eclectic use of these authors, it is because I am attempting to read them into each other, highlighting their parallels and points of connection rather than their disagreements.

Exchange and Value

There is a lot of mileage to be had in seeing social relations as relations of exchange, relations in which one thing gets traded for another. This, I hope it can be seen, is not economistic in the sense of making economics the determinant in "the last instance," but rather takes economics as the "most abstract instance" of social relations. (2) In this view, the concept of exchange needs to be stretched rather a lot from the image of handing commodities back and forth. Relations between people are exchanges also in the manner of a conversation, questioning and responding, an exchange of views, or a trading of insults. An insult may repay a polite remark; pictures of starving children generate lots of money; dark skin may be met with police harassment, job refusals, or maybe with respect, or with disrespect; someone may build a set of steps and then a wheelchair user may need to get up those steps. All these, analytically, have the structure of an exchange. They express worth; the one term measures the worth, the value, of the other. Is it worth building a wheelchair ramp? Would you change your mind about the steps if the wheelchair user was rich and famous, or your boss?

People do things; in other words, they produce. Also what we all do is to be ourselves in that we are white, black, able-bodied, male, and so forth, but of course we exist in these ways logically before they are labeled as such. It is only afterwards that our being is given norms to live up to and a socially encoded ascription of value. We produce, in a sense, an identity, but this identity is more than the obvious labels of gender, race, and so on. We are identified by everything we say and do: Are we knowledgeable, authoritative, lazy, weird, or fashionable? These are not natural states, but social codifications. One of the most important areas of being-production and coding, often neglected by current concerns with identity--is the production of all the "symbols" that make up the great hierarchy of poverty to wealth. A closely related hierarchy is that ranging from backward, traditional, and local to modern, progressive, and Western. Thus, whether it is intended or not, we go around being and producing, a nd this being-production gets encoded. As we interact, we enter the structure of an exchange of this coded being-production. Something coded as "black" gets exchanged for something coded as "police harassment," something coded "qualifications" for something coded "employment."

We can look at an example of this type of observation. In the context of India, Kalpana Bardhan has studied the relationship between the coded forms of work that women do and the status hierarchies of class and caste:

Women's work status is one of the primary differentiating signs for families seeking to upgrade social status with economic betterment or to resist status decline with economic deterioration. The pervasive concern is to maintain distance from the lifestyle and occupations of those considered to be lower social status, and to conspicuously emulate those followed by supposedly higher status groups. The processes of differentiation and emulation, processes which structure female work participation operate in the forms of Sanskritization (following upper caste norms) ... and Westernization (following the ways of the powerful outsiders, now the urban educated). (3)

Aside from the overall picture she presents, one can pick out numerous instances of exchanges of the form I have outlined above. For example, women's home-working can easily be devalued by the capitalist sector that profits from it because it "appears respectable like housework," and so, presumably, women will do it for less money than they would get for other, less respectable, work. (4) Bardhan mentions daughters being educated "for status enhancing marriages and occasionally for salaried jobs." (5) Another example: poor women, workers tend

to receive little or no priority in the targeting of technological innovations, extension services, and public facilities. Compared to the male poor, the female poor generally carry more disguised employment (i.e., economic work that passes as domestic work and gets classified as "outside the labour force"). (6)

Here the products of government workers (coded as "public facilities," etc.) are denied to women coded as "outside the labour force." This also is an exchange.

Pierre Bourdieu constructs a system of the reproduction of social stratification whereby people in their social relations are playing a "game," trying to maximize various forms of capital (economic capital, education) and, ultimately, to maximize "symbolic capital" (a particular concept of status). (7) These forms of capital may be traded, thus money begets education, which begets status, which (say, via political power) may beget money, and so forth. Of course, this paints a bleak picture of humanity, always fighting in a zero-sum game to maximize status:

I don't know why I tend to think in those terms--I feel obliged to by reality. My sense is that the kind of exchange we are now engaged in is unusual. Where this happens, it is the exception based on what Aristotle called [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ["philia"]--or friendship, to use a more general expression. ... I tend to think that the structure of most fields, most social games, is such that competition--a struggle for domination--is quasi-inevitable. It is evident in the economic field; but even in the religious field you will find the description is right. In most fields, we may observe what we characterise as competition for accumulation of different forms of capital. (8)

I will later question why there is this competitive struggle for domination, and whether it can be transcended. Bourdieu suggests, in the quote above, that it is overcome by something like friendship. We shall see that this may be in some way analogous to the concept of love with which I began.

This type of analysis of systems based on the exchange of codes has its roots in Marx. In Capital, (9) in an analytical attempt to understand the nature of exchange, Marx outlines four forms of value, from its expression in the equivalence of two commodities to the fully developed money form. (10) For the sake of the emancipatory political project he was engaged in, Marx focused on the analysis of economic capital and hence on the money form of value. This analysis of the economic in the narrow sense is ongoing, but, and again I am taking my cue from Spivak, it is Marx's second form of value that is most relevant to this article:

In the analysis of contemporary capitalism in the broadest sense, taking patriarchy (traffic in affective value-coding) and neocolonialism (traffic in epistemic-cognitive-political-institutional value-coding) into account, it is "the Total or Expanded Form of Value," where "the series of [the] representations [of value] never come to an end," which "is a motley mosaic of disparate and unconnected expressions," ... that Foucault or Deleuze. ... choose as their analytical field. (11)

From this standpoint, all the exchanges so far mentioned can be seen to express the values of the codes exchanged. In turn, these codes can be seen to form hierarchies of value: the coding of Westernization, or of wealth, or the racist coding of race, for example. Hierarchies can be seen in the assemblages of exchanged codes, but any single exchange expresses, qualitatively, only that something is equivalent.

Here it will be necessary to explore for a moment Marx's concept of value. What I have called "being" and "production," which includes the labor used to produce commodities, stands for what Marx counterintuitively calls "value":

By Marx's own estimation the most convenient thing he stumbled upon was that the human being produced not objects but a "contentless and simple" thing that got coded as soon as produced. This contentless thing, misleadingly and conveniently called the "value-form," is not pure form but just a general...

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