Cardi B and the Blues
This post was written in response to a prompt from a Black Literary Traditions course; felt it was worth posting here, too.
On March 20th, 2021, Black conservative author Candace Owens penned an opinion article on The Daily Wire, the headline of which reads: “Cardi B is a Symptom of a Sickness in Our Society.” The article was preceded by an eighteen-hour Twitter debate between the two women, sparked by Owens’ on-screen criticism of award-winning hip-hop artist Cardi B for a recent, sexually charged Grammy performance, and perpetuated by each woman’s oppositional views on paradigms of feminine presentation, respectability, and sexuality. “We are celebrating perversity in America,” Owens is quoted as saying, telling Cardi B she must “do better” (Nolan).
The dichotomy of views presented here are not dissimilar from those expressed between the Black “intellectuals” of the North and the Black “blues women” of the South in Hazel V. Carby’s “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” The essential core of the argument remains the same, where one party argues that objective displays of Black feminine sexuality perpetuates the long-established racial fetishization and exoticism of Black women by the white majority, and threatens to debase the community as a whole through “improper” representation. In speaking of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Carby explains that the cultural backlash to racial objectification of Black women within certain communities, namely those in closest proximity to the hegemony, manifested as an avoidance of sexuality altogether: “The response of Larsen’s heroine to such objectification is also the response of many black women writers: the denial of desire and the repression of sexuality” (12). The other party accepts sexuality as an integral and important part of the lived experience of Black women, and likewise seeks to distance feminine sexuality from patriarchal dominance and reclaim the idea as an aspect of feminine liberation. Carby writes: “Their [blues women’s] physical presence was a crucial aspect of their power; the visual display of spangled dresses, of furs, of gold teeth, of diamonds, of all the sumptuous and desirable aspects of their body reclaimed female sexuality from being an objectification of male desire to a representation of female desire” (20). It is not difficult to see the strong resonance between the lyrical attitudes and visual presentation of historic feminine blues singers and the feminine leaders of contemporary hip-hop.
“Respectability politics” is a term used to describe a long-standing strategy adopted by African American women “to reject white stereotypes by promoting morality while de-emphasizing sexuality” (Pitcan, et al.). This entails behaviors such as code-switching, self-censure, curating a neutral image, and avoiding behavior or relationships which could be perceived by the ruling class as “lowly.” While the conservative side of the historic argument may appear on its surface to hold some validity—and often, at times, does offer avenues of upward mobility to subordinated groups—there is a dangerous precedent set in playing the respectability politics game, the most obvious problem being that appealing to Western culture as the governing authority perpetuates Western culture as the governing authority. Likewise, merely politely ignoring, rather than directly challenging, the stereotypes of Black women which are rife within white, Western culture allows these stereotypes to continue to be validated by white supremacy, as the cultural narrative is then primarily controlled by the oppressing class. This is an important stance that the blues-singing women of the Harlem Renaissance recognized: “The women blues singers occupied a privileged space; they had broken out of the boundaries of the home and taken their sexuality and sexuality out of the private and into the public sphere” (20). By leveraging their platform and refusing to adhere to the societal expectations of the governing authority, blues women allowed the narratives of large communities of Black women, specifically those further removed from the privileges of Western society, to be heard: “Many women heard the ‘we’ when Ida Cox said ‘I’,” explains Cardy (21). Hip-hop artists such as Cardi B, a single mother and former exotic dancer from a working-class background, likewise carry narratives and attitudes of feminine empowerment that do not pay heed to the arbitrary and racist constrictions of Western “propriety.”
Lastly, and most importantly, it’s easy to see that playing respectability game within an authority which economically and socially thrives on racism simply does not work. Former First Lady Michelle Obama is perceivably one of the most powerful Black women in American history; she is incredibly well-educated, articulate, economically viable, and has held one of the most highly respected positions in the United States government. This did not stop her from being openly criticized across mainstream media outlets for exposing her arms; for being too fit at times, and for also being too heavy at others; for being family-oriented; for not being “classy” enough; for wearing shorts; and even for placing her left elbow on a table (Kendall). These references don’t include the numerous hateful, stereotypical, and racially charged remarks regarding the former First Lady’s appearance and physical body by authoritative figures and prominent outlets (Kendall). If bourgeoisie oppressors cannot be bothered to buy into respectability politics even as Black individuals ascend to the very heights of the Western hierarchy, then what else could possibly compel them to? Nearly a hundred years ago, Bessie Smith recognized the futility of striving for approval, and her admonition in “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” still holds truth:
There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say
That folks don’t criticize me
But I’m goin’ to do just as I want to anyway
And don’t care if they all despise me.
As always, thank you for reading.
Carby, Hazel V. “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” Radical Amerika, 1987, retrieved from https://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1142530423771460.pdf
Kendall, Mikki. “22 Times Michelle Obama Endured Rude, Racist, Sexist, or Plain Ridiculous Attacks.” Washington Post, November 2016, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/16/22-times-michelle-obama-endured-rude-racist-sexist-or-plain-dumb-attacks/
Nolan, Emma. “What Cardi B Said About Candace Owens as Spat Escalates to Legal Threats.” Newsweek, March 2021, retrieved from https://newsweek.com/what-cardi-b-said-about-candace-owens-spat-legal-threats-1576771
Pitcan, Mikaela, Alice E. Marwick and Danah Boyd. “Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 23, issue 3, May 2018, pp.163-79, retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article/23/3/163/4962541
Christianity as a Weapon: The Appropriation of Western Constructs in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
This is a short paper I wrote for a graduate course in Black Literary Traditions. I was a bit disappointed in realizing that, although we were told to purchase a two-volume anthology of African American authors spanning two hundred years of literary craft, this course would focus almost exclusively on slave narratives. Although slave narratives undeniably play a critical role in the establishment of Black literary traditions, in my anecdotal experience, education in the United States seems doggedly determined to explore little of Black culture but the period of enslavement. This tunnel vision puts at our periphery a vivid, rich, unique, and compelling tradition of literature, political theory, poetry, and fiction which deserves exploration, critique, and response. I look forward to reading through the rest of the anthology on my own time.
I have other aspects about the course I find somewhat problematic, largely in how the material is presented and how prompts are composed, but they’re worth their own blog post, if I bother to get into them here.
John Adams is quoted as saying that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” and, technically, he would be correct: The United States Constitution was deliberately composed to omit any allusion or appeal to a god or higher power. Likewise, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federalist Papers undeniably support the secular origins of our government, and writings and quotes from various founding fathers affirm the desire for the clear separation of church and state. Despite these inarguable goals set out by the founders, the United States has been endlessly contextualized as a “Christian nation,” both historically and today, and religion is frequently and openly weaponized by the ruling class to perpetuate patriarchal Western rule and the subjugation of oppressed classes, both domestically and abroad. Recognition of women’s rights and reproductive choice/bodily autonomy as well as issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality have all faced strong, organized opposition within state and federal governments on the basis of Christian values. The ruling class has likewise utilized Christianity to create justification for the aggressive colonization of independent nations, oppression and genocide of indigenous peoples, and enslavement. However, members of oppressed classes have historically sought out avenues to leverage Western constructs and ideals on their journey to liberation, borrowing the immaterial weapons of the ruling class and using them for their own ends. In the essay “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself,” Douglass’s emphasis on Christianity within the work can be argued as a deliberate appropriation of a prominent construct of the ruling class, utilized by Douglass as both an act of rebellion against the ruling class and a display of commonality to a potentially sympathetic audience.
The “Curse of Ham” is one of the more common Biblical justifications for the enslavement of Black peoples, though the narrative makes little sense outside of Biblical context: Canaan, son of Ham, who is the son of Noah, is punished by God with a life of servitude after Ham witnesses Noah drunk and naked. In the colloquial and more popular version of the story, Canaan is omitted from the narrative, Ham is identified as a Black person, and his descendants are purported as Black peoples of all nations; Ham’s “curse” is thus put upon all Black peoples by extension, and their darker skin is framed as a signifier of their inherent “sin,” justifying their enslavement (Rae). Douglass makes direct reference to this Biblical passage in his own narrative: “If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery in the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters” (339). Here, Douglass showcases just one minor aspect of the hypocrisy between the Biblical justification of slavery and the material circumstances of enslavement. The commonality of slavery among Israelites and various snippets of the Old Testament were also popular in justifying slavery: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ…” (Authorized King James Version, Ephesians VI 5-7). Slavery was also purported as providence to the necessary “civilization” of enslaved and indigenous peoples, who were contextualized in the Western hierarchy as savage, barbarous, immoral, lazy and so on (Rae). The manufacture of “slave Bibles” was not uncommon, removing portions of scripture that could be perceived as inciting rebellion. Aligning with the still-common Western view of the white savior role, slavery was frequently contextualized as divine intervention to allow enslaved peoples exposure to the messages of white Christians, which, in the oppressor’s view, assured docility among enslaved peoples and allowed for the supposed “charitable” nature of their enslavement.
English literacy, another Western construct commonly weaponized by the ruling class, played an integral role in the liberation of enslaved peoples. Literacy in enslaved peoples was heavily discouraged by the white majority for this very reason, as Hugh Auld demonstrates early in “Narrative.” English literacy opened the door not just to the most common and accessible form of communication, but for appropriation of other social constructs in the Western context, such as religion, but also gender roles and familial structures, laws, press and media, transportation, and so on. Yolanda Pierce, dean of the divinity school at Howard University, says on the subject, “As soon as enslaved people learned to read English, they immediately began to read the Bible, and they immediately began to protest this idea of a biblical justification for slavery… As soon as Black people took pen to paper, we [were] arguing for our own liberation” (Zauzmer). This is true of many narratives of the enslaved, though Douglass is a particularly prominent figure on the subject of Christianity as an argument against slavery. The continued popularity of Douglass’s narrative may reside in just how effectively he appropriates Western views and constructs through both his actions and his words, which showcases an undeniable commonality between the oppressed classes and the ruling class, encouraging solidarity and sympathy from the oppressor to the oppressed. Douglass adheres closely to the idealized forms of Western gender roles in both feminine and masculine characterization and frames his narrative toward the attainment of other common Western ideals, such as formal education, economic prosperity, physical prowess, social clout, bodily autonomy, and, most emphatically, an individualistic attitude. However, English literacy and, by its extension, Christianity, prove to be the weapons Douglass wields most effectively, marrying the two in scathing attacks demonstrating the egregious hypocrisy between purportedly Christian values and the actions of Christian peoples: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (Rae). In “Narrative,” the audience sees such behavior exhibited repeatedly by the ruling class, such as Thomas Auld’s quotation of scripture after the merciless whipping of a young, lame enslaved woman.
The acceptance or rejection of Western constructs continues to be a topic of concern for much of the Black population in contemporary America, as Blacks face both sustained and new opposition and gatekeeping in the fight for respect and recognition of Black personhood. While the enduring prominence and popularity of Douglass’s many narratives may be popular because of their adherence to Western sensibilities, such as Christianity, they have likewise received criticism for that same aspect. In examining Douglass’s “Narrative,” Valerie Smith cautions that “by demonstrating that a slave can be a man in terms of all the qualities valued by his northern middle-class reader—physical power, perseverance, literacy—he lends credence to the patriarchal structure largely responsible for his oppression” (55). In other words, there is a danger of appealing and adhering to the values and ideals of the oppressor, as this works to uphold and validate the same constructs used to oppress selected populations. Christianity, likewise, has proven to hold a problematic dichotomy for Black populations. While Douglass and others embraced Christianity for its “powerful and profound sense of hope,” many of descendants of the enslaved have “rejected Christianity as the religion of the oppressor,” opting to explore the Islamic and African spiritual tendencies of their ancestors (Zauzmer). Ultimately, authentic faith in the religion was not necessary for the enslaved, and acceptance of the religion may have simply been part of a long history of shrewd social coding which Black and other non-white populations quickly adapted to aid in their continued survival. Rather, mere recognition of the influence which Christianity held within the ruling white population held sway towards Black liberation. Like English literacy, Christianity proved to be an avenue which enabled enslaved Blacks to appeal to white oppressors on terms they both understood and preferred. The appropriation of Christianity by the enslaved population not only emphasized commonalities of humanity between white oppressors and Black enslaved populations, it also allowed the narratives of Christianity to be weaponized against the horrific, inhumane acts of white slavers and the institution of slavery itself, as whites no longer had exclusive access to this social narrative or others. As Pierce says, “[Black populations] very quickly learned that the only way we can be heard is to speak the language of our slaveholders, to speak to them about the text that they love, that they believe in” (Zauzmer). Until whites recognize and respect the sovereignty of Black voices—a struggle still hugely prevalent today, as Americans march by the millions in protest of the unqualified oppression, imprisonment, and murder of Black populations—these voices will likely be forced to continue speaking on the terms of the oppressor. However, in continuing to selectively utilize these Western constructs as weapons, Black populations can leverage them on their own terms, for their own means.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature: Volume One, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith, third ed, 2014, pp.330-93.
Rae, Noel. The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery. Overlook Press, 2018, accessed via Google Books.
Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Harvard University Press, 1991, p 55.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 2021.
Zauzmer, Julie. “The Bible Was Used to Justify Slavery. Then the Africans Made It Their Path to Freedom.” Washington Post, 2019, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/local/the-bible-was-used-to-justify-slavery-then-africans-made-it-their-path-to-freedom/2019/04/29/34699e8e-6512-11e9-82ba-fcfeff232e8f_story.html
I took exactly one screenwriting course in my undergrad, and this was the final product. I had a ton of fun writing this story, but I was also painfully aware the entire time that screenwriting is just not my genre. I’m sure my professor would agree. We had a strict page limit, so it’s pretty short.
I wanted to write something funny and a little dark. My parents raised us kids on The X-Files; they carted around boxes full of episodes recorded from television to VHS for years, before the invention of DVDs (and later, streaming). My parents would tape and watch it before we could, so they could vet the episodes that they deemed “too scary,” which we just watched later when they weren’t home. We probably sacrificed quite a few home movies and recital tapes to the preservation of that show each week. It remains one of my favorite television series to this day. I wanted to write a screenplay that had a similar weird-but-cheeky, doesn’t-take-itself-too-seriously kind of feel.
I recently stumbled across this again while organizing computer files (isn’t adult life thrilling?) and it’s definitely not going anywhere else, so it might as well go here.
EXT – DR. AARON BRIDGER’S RESIDENCE – DAY
Seated inside a modest sedan idling in the drive of an equally modest townhome, DR. AARON BRIDGER, a short, paunchy, and overtly earnest man in his mid-fifties, fastens his seatbelt and meticulously adjusts his rearview mirror. He puts the car in reverse.
The sedan rolls slowly backwards off the driveway. An expensive imported roadster peels around the corner, gunning down the sleepy suburban lane. The sports car narrowly whips past the back end of Aaron’s sedan, the anonymous driver laying on the horn and flipping his middle finger out the window.
FUCKERRRRRRRRRRRRRR— (fades with distance)
Aaron cringes in his seat, sheepishly smiling, waving the driver on. His fingers unconsciously straighten the color-coded row of pens nestled inside the plastic well of his shirt pocket.
AARON (to himself)
INT – COFFEE SHOP – DAY
Aaron waits in the queue of a bustling big-chain café. An apathetic TEENAGE BARISTA punches buttons at the register.
TEENAGE BARISTA (with exaggerated inflection)
What. Will. It. Beeeee.
Oh—yes, uh—my apologies. Ah, dark roast, please, size medium, with cream. Please. Thank you.
Medium dark roast. Milk or cream?
Uh, yes. Cream. Please.
Aaron pays with a five, and the cashier looks quite expectantly from the tip jar to Aaron as he begins to slip the dollar bill and change back into his pocket. Aaron awkwardly removes the bill and drops it into the plastic bucket. As he does, the next in queue—a HANDSOME PATRON in a sharp dark suit—nudges his way past Aaron.
Dark roast. Size medium. With cream.
TEENAGE BARISTA (flirtatious, smiling)
Would you care to sample a muffin today, sir? Freshly baked.
Aaron sidles to the pickup counter and waits patiently. Patrons peck drinks off as they’re called by an equally indifferent adolescent barista.
TEENAGE BARISTA #2 (yells, deadpan)
Medium dark roast with cream on the bar.
As Aaron reaches for the cup, Handsome Patron swoops in to snatch it off the counter.
Oh—uh—I’m sorry, I think that’s my drink—
HANDSOME PATRON (examines side of cup)
Medium, dark roast, cream. Nope, mine. Thanks for the concern, though, pal.
Well, yes, but I—
Handsome Patron turns on an expensive Italian leather heel and makes his way to the exit, leaving Aaron gaping and stammering protests in his wake.
EXT – LUNAR AND PLANETARY INSTITUTE (PARKING LOT) – DAY
Aaron emerges from his sedan, briefcase and coffee in hand. The car is parked with a dozen or so others in a large rectangular plot of packed earth. Fields of dull yellow grain, sporadically punctuated by wandering cattle, expand in every direction. A handful of dusty golf carts are lined next to a small security office, the arm of a barricade blocking the pathway to a sprawling white mansion on top of a low hill. A sign in front of the small guard post is emblazoned with the NASA logo.
As Aaron approaches the security office, BILL HAMM, a jovial African-American man in his early twenties, emerges from the opening and gives Aaron a friendly wave.
Hey, Doc. You’re late! I was starting to wonder if you called off today. You wanna ride?
No, Bill, though I appreciate the offer.
Aaron glances down suspiciously at the paunch above his belt line.
I, ah, could use the exercise.
Ha! Well, couldn’t we all. You sure, though? Not the best day to be strolling into the office at half-past nine. The Director was in rare form this morning. All but screaming at some poor soul on the other side of his phone. Something ‘bout that Caltech project you mentioned.
Caltech? Do you know—Uh. Never mind. No, no ride today, Bill, thank you. No doubt that mess will be waiting for me upstairs. All the more reason to put off my arrival a few minutes more.
Aaron sighs and takes a sip of his coffee, then grimaces.
Something wrong, Doc?
Aaron trudges up the dirt path, breathing heavily and visibly sweating under the blazing Houston sun. He pauses by the fence lining both sides of the quarter-mile stretch of road leading to the mansion. A few yards from the fence, a black HEIFER regards him with beady suspicion.
AARON (quietly and a little self-consciously)
The cow continues its stare, unmoving.
AARON (louder, with greater effort)
Aaron, now smiling, turns and continues his way up toward the mansion. The cow turns and walks away from the fence, and as it does, the audience sees a complex brand—a series of small connected shapes reminiscent of common crop-circle patterns—burned on the Heifer’s rear flank.
INT – LUNAR AND PLANETARY INSTITUTE – DAY
Aaron stands in an extravagantly built but governmentally furnished break room—plastic tables, cheap white fridges, microwaves, an industrial double coffee-pot—an odd juxtaposition to the silk wallpapered walls, chandeliers, vaulted ceilings. Aaron frowns at a plastic container of powdered non-dairy creamer in his hand.
JOHN DEARBORN—a bearded and burly man, frenetic with energy, 40-something and business casual—bustles into the breakroom.
Bridger! Just the man I was looking for. You making your own hours these days or what? Haha!
John slaps Aaron meatily on the back. Aaron looks from the creamer to John, equally displeased to see them both, and says nothing. John’s slap has inadvertently knocked Aaron’s rimless bifocals halfway down his nose, and he carefully readjusts them.
JOHN (as he snatches the creamer from Aaron’s hand)
Our government repossesses a sixty-million-dollar mansion for Space Flight Simulation but can’t find the budget for real milk. Horseshit! Haha!
John slaps Aaron on the back again, seemingly serving as punctuation to each joke. John adds the creamer to his own coffee and puts it away in the cupboard without returning it to Aaron, who looks on with strangled exasperation.
Listen, I hate to do this to you, Bridger…
I can’t work late for you, John.
…But the girlfriend and I are headed to Surfside for the weekend…
I already covered your lab three times this month—
What? No, Wilson’s got the lab. The fuck else are interns good for? Haha!
But I do need you to cover the past thirty days’ data entry for the Edelson test before Monday.
The past thirty days?
You got it. Before Monday! Don’t forget! I owe you one.
John slaps Aaron on the back again as he heads briskly out of the break room.
JOHN (waving out the door)
No doubt this’ll earn you some points with Lansing! Thanks a ton!
Aaron throws his coffee cup in a blue recycle bin.
INT – DIRECTOR LANSING’S OFFICE – DAY
Aaron sits in a plastic swivel chair, across from DIRECTOR DARRYL LANSING, a sharky man, mid-sixties, with oddly oversized features. A wooden desk—not plastic, denoting his rank—separates the two men, and Lansing leans forward from his leather chair, regarding Aaron with thinly veiled disdain.
Everyone has to pitch in a little more every now and then, Dr. Bridger. I do not think my request is unreasonable.
No, sir, it’s not unreasonable. It’s just… I’ve already got Dearborn’s data for the last month to get compiled—
No one likes a martyr, Dr. Bridger.
That’s really not the—
I think you would understand by now, Dr. Bridger, that I do not readily suffer whiners. In fact, I might go as far as saying that I hate whiners.
Lansing stares down Aaron. Aaron looks away sheepishly and goes to work straightening the pens in his pocket protector.
I would think you would understand by now that what I need are team players. People who are team players move up in the ranks, Dr. Bridger. Your inability to properly manage your workload makes me seriously question whether you have the commitment to move onto something as big as, say… the Caltech project. I know you’re the current sweetheart for Head of Research, but my recommendation—or lack thereof—will have significant impact on your consideration for that position.
Lansing leans further over the desk, his eyes narrowing.
So, are you a whiner, Dr. Bridger, or a team player?
EXT – LUNAR AND PLANETARY INSTITUTE – NIGHT
The heavens are dark; this far away from the city, a hundred thousand stars blaze across the big Texas sky. Aaron, looking somewhat disheveled, dark circles clinging to the bottom of his eyes, raises his arms above his head in an exaggerated stretch, cracks his back, exhales heavily, and begins to shuffle down the track to the parking lot.
Aaron appears to be quite lost in his thoughts as he walks.
Aaron jumps and shrieks, quite girlishly, drawing his briefcase up to his chest for protection. He quickly realizes the origin of the disturbance and flushes with embarrassment, straightening the collar of his button-up and absently tidying the row of pens in his pocket protector. He adjusts the rimless spectacles on his face as he walks toward the fence, where the Heifer is standing.
Good god, Bess. Gave me a start. We’re both up late tonight then, eh?
As Aaron approaches the Heifer, he can see that the animal’s eyes are rolling in their sockets. Her nostrils flare wildly. Aaron places his briefcase on the ground, and approaches the animal cautiously, but with concern.
AARON (squints, whispering)
Now what’s got into you, girl?
As Aaron reaches the fence, he is abruptly surrounded by a tight circle of blindingly white light. He screams, throwing both arms in front of his face. The Heifer brays sounds of terrible, screeching panic, but does not move, her beady pupils now fixed directly above.
INT – THE ALIEN SHIP – SPACE
A close-up of Aaron as he mutters in his sleep, his head cradled in some sort of firm but pliable white foam. The movement of his eyes is visible beneath the tissue of his eyelids. He starts, and as his eyes fly open, he attempts to sit up, screaming repeatedly. Aaron realizes he is restrained from the neck down, the length of his body encased in a hard, glimmering, plastic-like sleeve. His screams go up an octave and the cords on his neck grotesquely bulge as he struggles impossibly within the capsule.
A FEMININE VOICE, cool and even—nearly robotic and vaguely British—hails Aaron from an unseen intercom.
Aaron Henry Bridger.
Aaron continues on his screaming.
FEMME (O.S.; monotone)
Aaron Henry Bridger. Aaron Henry Bridger. Aaron Henry Bridger.
Yes! Where the hell am I! What happened! Where am I!
Hello, Aaron Henry Bridger.
AARON (continuing to yell)
What! Who are you! Please, I don’t know exactly what happened—
Aaron gapes, his mouth gulping like a fish, as his jaw works but no sound emerges from his mouth.
We apologize for the inconvenience, Aaron Henry Bridger. It is imperative that you listen attentively, so we have temporarily disabled your vocal mechanism, more for your benefit than ours. You need to be undistracted. We are also administering a mild sedative to slow your heart rate and temper your emotional stress response, which can create unnecessary confusion during direct communication—
Aaron’s expression slackens as the hysteria dissipates. The cords on his neck begin to melt back into his skin, and the flush of his face fades.
—“telepathically,” as you so quaintly refer to it. The sedative will not hinder your cognition. There is a monumental decision to be made, and not much time to make it.
Aaron blinks a few times and peers curiously at the capsule around him, taking in the various displays, panels, lights.
Aaron Henry Bridger, you are under the medical supervision of a Mikardian crew, currently aboard a Class 4 Research Vessel orbiting approximately 86 million miles away from your Earth. You were intercepted during a routine stop of an unlicensed interplanetary transport. You were subsequently passed into our care by the overlying authority of Quadrant 4.1.867.
The incorporeal voice pauses for a short measure of time.
The release of urine is merely a physiological stress response; feelings of shame are wholly unnecessary, Aaron Henry Bridger. Perhaps a slightly elevated dose of sedative is warranted. (pause) May we continue?
Aaron closes his eyes and nods almost imperceptibly.
We regret to inform you that you have been the victim of an unauthorized abduction. A group of what you would call… adolescents. Generally, they stick to unregulated species, though human abduction remains a prevalent issue within this particular galaxy. You were discovered along with several specimens of Bos Taurus, so there is a possibility you were picked up unintentionally. A prank in its nature, but a serious infraction nonetheless.
Aaron’s eyes have widened perceptibly during this exchange, more an expression of astonishment than alarm. He then furrows his brow in an expression of puzzlement.
We will arrive at that point shortly. As mentioned, we are aboard a medical research vessel. We have explored your background, education, experience, and genetic history, Aaron Henry Bridger, and we believe that you would be an invaluable asset to the Human Abduction Field Team, which focuses on both the rehabilitation of unauthorized human abductees and the streamlining of authorized human abduction, as regulated under the parameters of… intergalactic law would be the closest approximation, in Human English.
Aaron’s eyes squint and he juts his chin slightly upward, an expression requesting clarification.
General mischief is a common motivator—particularly among pubescents. Sexual deviancy is another. Humans are a highly regulated species, but exotic, and those with the means and connections occasionally seek out a specimen for… domestication, similar to many of your feline or canine species. And, less commonly, more nefarious desires—torture, murder, infliction of fear—are observed. (pause) Yes. “Serial killer” is an appropriate comparison.
Aaron cringes, his grimace baring his teeth.
We digress, Aaron Henry Bridger. In few moments, we will link your mind with the necessary information to assist you in making the most rational decision regarding contractual employment. The choice remains yours. If you wish to be returned to your Earth, there will be little to no recollection of your experience here. Your acceptance of a role within the research community will be contracted for the entirety of your life—which will be considerably longer and more readily sustained under our care than on your planet. You will age at a fraction of your accustomed rate, and much of the deterioration of your current health can be improved or reversed entirely. We can benefit each other, Aaron Henry Bridger.
Aaron’s eyes are wide, and his mouth hangs slightly open.
There may be initial discomfort as the simulation begins, but only of the psychological nature—the link can be somewhat disconcerting for those with only peripheral experience in direct communication, such as human beings. We assure you that the sensation will dissipate quickly.
INT – BREAKROOM – DAY
Aaron is tucked comfortably in a sleek chair against a small white table, reading a book. His rimless bifocals are absent from his face, which has perceptibly slimmed and radiates with good health. The space he inhabits clean and modern, filled with golden syrupy late-afternoon light, emanating from rows of translucent white panels. Aaron pours thick white cream into a steaming cup of black coffee from a delicate china saucer, picks up an ornate silver spoon, and stirs.
DR. CLIFFORD “KIP” RUSSELL enters, a Clark Kent lookalike of somewhat undeterminable age, dressed in slim grey separates, reminiscent of hospital scrubs. He grins and lifts a hand to Aaron as he approaches a refrigerator-sized black panel, recessed into one of the walls. Aaron returns the gesture with a lift of his coffee cup.
Aaron! Surprised to see you around the lab this hour. Are you on your way out?
As he speaks, Kip touches his fingers to a few different places on the panel, invoking superimposed digital images of different food: grilled cheese, turkey club, ham and swiss. He swipes through the first few rapidly, discarding the images with his fingertips. He stares at the floating image of an impeccably assembled Monte Cristo and nods his head.
No, no, think it’ll be a late night for me. I’m heading out on leave next week. Got a few projects to tie up loose ends on.
A small, previously invisible door rises upward from the black panel where Kip stands with a soft whoosh, and he removes a perfectly crafted sandwich, beautifully plated with a pickle and chips on a gleaming white plate.
Vacation! Good for you. Earthside?
AARON (nods, grinning)
You got it. Two straight weeks on the white sandy shores of Antigua. Booze, bikinis, and boats galore.
KIP (exiting with sandwich)
Ah, man, heaven. I’ve got two weeks until my next off-rotation. I might just have to follow your lead. In the meanwhile, I’ve got to go track down Mansfield and get my culture results before he shrugs off for the day. (waves) See you at the port, man.
Aaron waves and returns to his coffee.
INT – SHIP LAB, MED DECK – NIGHT
Aaron, dressed in grey separates identical to those of Kip, dips his hands into a metal basin of viscous blue liquid. He removes his hands carefully, fingers splayed, and the blue liquid coating up to his forearms dries and seems to shrink or tighten, creating a tissue-thin blue layer, like a surgical glove. The room around him is cold, steely, sterile; various instruments, tables, and computer panels line the walls.
Aaron seems to take inventory of a nearby tray of gleaming surgical instruments, touching and straightening each tool as he goes. He selects a long, thin needle with a tear-drop shaped steel bulb at one end—something that has the appearance of an oversized antique hat pin. His index finger touches the bulb, and a drop of clear serum emerges from the end of the menacing-looking needle.
Aaron walks briskly across the room to a smooth, plastic-like capsule, identical to the one he was housed in while under medical supervision. He touches his fingertips to a few places on a nearby glowing wall panel, and the top of the capsules glides slowly downward, revealing the face and naked chest of DIRECTOR LANSING.
Lansing’s mouth gapes open and closed like a fish, but no sound emerges. Aaron leans over the capsules, the long needle raised next to his face. Lansing’s eyes threaten to bulge out of their sockets as he recognizes the face of his long-missing former employee.
So, are you a whiner, Lansing, or are you a team player?
CUT TO BLACK.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2016, all rights reserved.
Another workshop, another shorty, another Kate story.
I know, I know–get another protagonist, amirite? Maybe, but perhaps, dear reader, youarewrong. I write a lot of stories without Kate; I just finished one, actually, but I’d like to take a stab at shopping it and thus will hold off on posting it here. I have several more that just need editing and will get thrown up here… sooooon? And while I have a little collection of Kate stories, they’re not all the same Kate, exactly, but they also are all the same Kate… exactly. Kate alternately represents little facets of unresolved fear and injury and humiliation that take up endless space in my head; I won’t ever be entirely rid of her. The stories that feature her are just my way of making her contribute a little rent.
(Something I noticed literally just as I was composing this blog: in every Kate story I’ve written, there’s only one where she doesn’t have a guardian of some kind. She dies in that one. Hm.)
Annie was a fun character to write–I dive heavy into archetypes in all of my writing and studying, and I wanted to create a woman who embodied the transition from Mother to Crone, lifebringer to deathgiver. She was also an exploration of the feminine appropriation of traditionally masculine power: violence.
As always, thank you for reading.
“I—I’m sorry,” Kate whispered. Her puffy eyes flittered up to his own and Mr. Bircher felt a whisper of pity for the mousy, disheveled girl cowering in his office. Invisible weights pulled her gaze back to the floor. “I did ask to be excused,” Kate supplied his silence, elbows pressed to her ribs, fists buried in the oversized pockets of her wooly grey cardigan.
“You are afforded ample time during the lunch period,” Mr. Bircher countered with a dismissive wave of his meaty, catcher-mitt palm.
“I’m sorry,” Kate repeated.
Mr. Bircher sighed. His smoker’s nose long ago smothered his sense of both taste and smell, so he simply had to imagine the whiff of acridity which would no doubt emanate from the back of her damp skirt, her soaked panties. She’d cleaned herself up, anyway; he could see beads of water glinting on the brief interruption of her inner thigh: an inch of white, scrubbed pink, irritated and glowing between her socks and skirt. Mr. Bircher felt a stir in his groin which alerted his gaze back upward, but all he was looking at was the crown of the girl’s limp, brown hair.
He swallowed before speaking, worming a finger between his stubbled red neck and the collar of his dress shirt, enjoying the throb of his own pulse. “Well, young lady, if you are not willing to cooperate with a routine investigation into the, ah, incident, we’re going to have to start talking about detention.”
Her wounded-bird eyes flashed back to his, wide and fearful. Mr. Bircher felt himself gaining traction.
The acts of disorder which had landed decades of students in Mr. Bircher’s office were rarely inventive and, in his experience, varied little from one generation to the next. The stories which accompanied the acts, however—the dramas, the sobbing, the excuses, the ratting, the bribes, the bargaining, the alliances, the rivalries, the fears, secrets, lies, scandals—they symbolized to Mr. Bircher the hot, frenetic entropy of human nature, bubbling just beneath the crust of the social strata. Teenagers, he thought, embodied the inevitable descent of every interaction towards chaos, and Mr. Bircher was fascinated by the barely checked wildness of these unrefined beings, only a few degrees removed from animals themselves: running, shrieking, fucking, playing, spitting, cursing, pissing. Their primal essence, as he thought of it, both aroused and terrified him. They were the id, and he and his peers, the governing superego; still, he could not help but relish in their ruthless pursuits of desire-fulfillment.
However, the Cavanaugh girl wouldn’t cough up anything more than half-sentences and apologies. There were no places, names, details; he lacked his setting, his cast. The students’ acts of contrition—these office confessionals—allowed Mr. Bircher opportunities to safely indulge in their wild adolescent exoticism, like a man on safari. There was a darker need lurking below, of which Mr. Bircher was only peripherally aware; he longed to see the event reincarnated on the girl’s face, to drink in all her humiliation and fear. He especially liked the way the girls always crossed up their arms and legs as they tried not to cry, tight like little clamshells, dying to fold themselves out of existence. Just his awareness of her shameful display gave him some perverse joy, but Mr. Bircher’s stunted, bland imagination could conjure no scenario, no material whatsoever to accompany the deed, and thus he could not obtain the satisfaction this encounter should rightfully offer. It was like lighting a cigarette, yet inhaling only air.
Kate had returned to her love affair with the green carpet.
“Do you want to tell me what happened, then?” Mr. Bircher’s tongue caressed the dark bristle above his lip. He shifted his pelvis forward in his chair, relieving the press of his gut. “Did you… for example… throw your panties away? After you went to the restroom?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to her feet.
Mr. Bircher sniffed. “Detention, then.”
“Do you seek permission before you urinate?”
“Excuse me?” Mr. Bircher’s wide, pink face flushed red.
“Was my question unclear?”
“She’s sixteen,” Mrs. Cavanaugh cut him off, leaning into his stare across the gleaming mahogany slab between them. She inhaled dark wood panels, leatherbound books, old tobacco, his nervous sweat. She had made her name and profession traversing the boundaries of schools, offices, precincts, courthouses—all hollow pantheons of masculine authority which made up the framework of American society. It was a familiar setting; Mrs. Cavanaugh was in her element. “I myself have spent forty years on this earth, and I can’t recall a single scenario in which more than a perfunctory excusal was necessary for such business.”
“We have to keep the children from—”
“From peeing?” She lifted a neat, arched brow. “Yes, you’ve made your agenda quite clear.”
The air that escaped from Mr. Bircher’s mouth seemed less like a sigh and more like an emergency pressure release. She watched as he brought his two clubby index fingers to a steeple at the bridge of his nose, pinching the red skin white. He closed his eyes, as if from a headache.
“Mrs. Cavanaugh,” Mr. Bircher began again, “It would simply be anarchy, were we to—”
“Anarchy? Autonomous trips to the bathroom are considered a state of lawlessness? Again, Mr. Bircher, do you seek permission before you pee?”
His internal boiler let off another burst of steam. “No.”
“Should I, then, consider you an anarchist?”
“You’re being rather unreasonable,” he said, but his voice had lost any semblance of authority. He pooched his lower lip like a petulant child. Beads of sweat huddled in the scrub of his mustache like soldiers in a jungle. “We are simply trying to prepare them for—for real life. Adult responsibilities.”
“She wishes to become an English professor. Is pissing yourself in front of students a prerequisite to that career path?”
“I think that’s quite enou—”
“Are you a Constitutionalist, Mr. Bircher?”
“A Constitutionalist, Mr. Bircher. I would expect the high school principal to understand the difference.”
“I do not understand why you insist on—on speaking in political terms.” The chair squalled as Mr. Bircher shifted beneath her clear, direct gaze. He couldn’t recall seeing her blink, not once, since she charged self-righteously into his office ten minutes prior. Mrs. Cavanaugh’s hot green stare reminded Mr. Bircher distinctly of his own mother, and he shifted again, to the chair’s repeated protests. He was desperate to be rid of her. “However, I am willing to relent on the matter of detention—”
“Constitutionalism is the idea, often associated with the political theories of John Locke and the founders of the American democratic republic, that government can and should be limited in its powers, and that any prescribed authority or legitimacy granted to the government depends on observing these limitations. I would think such an avid reader of Locke would hold closely to such ideals. Your actions suggest otherwise.”
“I’m afraid I’m not following you,” he said carefully.
“No, you clearly are not. I have a document here, Point Venuti Academy’s Rules and Regulations. It is the most current edition, 1965, updated just last year. Would you be kind enough, Mr. Bircher, to direct me to the section where authority figures are given the right to deny schoolchildren a reasonable opportunity to evacuate their bladders and bowels?”
Mr. Bircher’s eyes fixed on the white, trifold photocopy she brandished toward his chest; a sword raised en garde. He felt slow, drugged. He could not find a logical thread to pull on, could not untangle the rat’s nest of her reasoning. He had stubbed out a freshly lit cigarette upon her intrusion; he felt a maddening desire now to take the squashed thing out of the ashtray and put it back in his mouth.
Mr. Bircher realized she was waiting for him to say something, and likewise realized, with the poetic horror of a student called to the board without an answer to the question, that he had not been paying any attention to the words coming from her small, pert mouth. The clanking machinery of his brain latched onto the last phrase it recognized.
“Ah, John Locke?” Mr. Bircher’s beady eyes remained on Mrs. Cavanaugh’s outstretched pamphlet, paper gripped delicately between thumb and index, arm untrembling. Her hand was small, almost childlike. The fine bones and translucent skin looked papery, skeletal, hovering above the lamp-warmed glow of the wood.
“Philosophical Works, Volume Two.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Mrs. Cavanaugh gave him a feline smile, retracting her outstretched arm and depositing the pamphlet back into her leather folio in one swift movement.
She leaned in, green eyes like weapons. Though this woman’s slim, suited figure and prim, dark bob were the direct antithesis of the buxom, hulking, fearsome figure that had been Richard Bircher’s mother, Mrs. Cavanaugh’s gaze still struck him down to a child of three, of five, of fifteen.
Caught, those mother-eyes said. Caught.
“Mr. Bircher, are you intoxicated?”
He was, in fact, though he felt he had sobered up a good measure since this woman’s egregious barrage into his office. He’d barely even had time to get started, anyway; it was only half past four, and the majority of the staff and student body had dispersed only a half an hour or so prior. Mr. Bircher thought of the scene Mrs. Cavanaugh might have charged into, say, twenty minutes later, and felt a warm roil in his guts, both thrill and shame.
“Missus, uh, Cavanaugh,” he took a breath, grounding himself, and began shuffling papers at random around the expansive desk. “I am afraid I am no longer willing to indulge you on this matter. I have made a reasonable offer to rescind Kate’s detention, which should conclude any further discussion. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I, ah, have other business to attend to.”
The casters of Mr. Bircher’s chair wailed as he shifted his considerable bulk to open the bottom drawer of his desk. He began fingering through payroll files, both to avoid Mrs. Cavanaugh’s sharp, smiling face and also to suggest some air of dismissal. His peripheral vision caught her standing as if to leave, and the feeling that rushed through his innards this time was a sweet, amber relief.
But she paused, and Mr. Bircher looked up in exasperation to see her pale hand reaching for the oversized tome on his desk. “I must admit, I haven’t come across this particular edition before—”
Mrs. Cavanaugh was wholly unprepared for the banshee screech that emanated from Mr. Bircher as his eyes traced the destination of her outstretched hand. He shot up and out from his exhausted chair, sending the wheeled thing hurtling into the bookshelves and connecting his left knee with the corner of the open desk drawer. He made a desperate grab for the same book the woman was reaching her death-like hand toward.
It was a book he had misplaced the title of until just a moment ago: Philosophical Works, Volume Two, by John Locke.
He grasped for the book, and knocked it to the floor.
Annie stared at the oversized double doors of the school through the windshield of her immaculate Chrysler—a prized item whisked from the estate of the erstwhile Mr. Cavanaugh a mere five years before. She’d kept the name, too. Like the car, Annie appreciated the practicality and use of the thing; also, like the car, it was something her husband once held dear, which now belonged to her.
Katy—well, there had been no dispute there. Katydid had always been hers.
Annie smiled, eyes still set on the doors.
October air sauntered in through the cranked-down window, all salt and fir. Within its fresh bite was the first suggestion of the steely, damp months which constituted winter in northern California. The air was heavy, pregnant with cold mist, the sky sheeted grey.
“He gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Kate had sniffed from under her floral comforter the evening before, blanket pulled all the way up to her chin, like a child. Cici’s purr ran like a steady motor by the girl’s feet, seeming to sense her need for reassurance. Kate’s doe eyes were red, miserable.
Annie was up to her elbows in closing the Barrett estate, the October tax payments being just over a week away, and had reluctantly phoned Marvin to fetch Kate in the limo. He was a familiar enough face; professional, discrete. Not that it really mattered. If thirty kids see you wet yourself, people will talk.
“He sits in on almost all the detention periods. I’m not the only one, either. I’ve heard the other girls. He’s a big creep,” she finished with a shaky exhale.
Annie had wanted to run the girl down with questions, but her Katydid was a fragile personality, even under the best of circumstances, and she instead resolved to make her observations firsthand.
Annie Cavanaugh was rarely surprised, but even she had not been expecting the panties.
Mr. Bircher had not imparted the impression of an avid reader. Like most of her breakthrough discoveries—gold mined while pouring through letters, leases, tax records, deeds, covenants, addenda—it was merely a nag, a sense of something off, a blip in the natural chains of cause and effect to which she was so intuitively attuned.
There had been scores of books paneling Mr. Bircher’s derisorily grandiose office, but each spine gleamed seamless and smooth, as if in a bookstore, with no indication of reference or wear.
There was a single dark cavity among the shelves behind his head, and there was a single hardcover selection on his desk: Philosophical Works, Volume Two.
Something about the book. Something off.
He had been intoxicated; Annie was quite certain. Although distasteful, she recognized there was little way to prove such an issue, and even less recourse or repercussion for such behavior, even on school grounds. He had relented on the ridiculous detention assignment, and that was good enough for now; she had clearly rattled the man, and that was even better.
When he attempted to excuse himself for the last time, Annie was resolved to let Mr. Bircher off the hook, but likewise considered that a discrete yet thorough review of his background and affairs might be in order. But like the tongue’s fixation on the void of a missing tooth, her mind kept returning the book on the desk, that whiff of something rotten.
So, Annie had poked at the subject one final time before leaving—poked quite literally—and the man had screamed, lunging for the volume, his face melting from panic to stupor as he knocked it to the floor.
There had been many talismans squirreled away in Principal Bircher’s hollow book: a tortoiseshell hair comb; an oversized marble; a small pocketknife; several wallet-sized photos which fluttered to the carpet like snow. The one which landed face-up onto the carpet showed the round, beaming face of a girl of six or seven, framed by a simple brown bob much like her own.
It was the panties, however, that shrieked at Annie from the floor. They puddled on the dark green carpet like a stain; a dingy, over-washed white, trimmed in scalloped pink elastic, fraying here and there. They were an innocuous and universal symbol in the Sacred Order of Little Girls, but in that dim, smoke-choked office they were a blasphemy, a perversion, an accusation.
Annie had been seven, going on eight. Mama had never brought home a boyfriend, and there had been no context in which to place the dripping, suffocative affections of this new man. The showers of toys, the lingering hugs. The casual brush of his hand up her leg, her ribs, his fingers squeezing the back of her neck. The requests to come sit on his lap, as if she were still a baby.
That first nocturnal visit—and there were far, far too many before Mama caught on—Annie had spent fixed on the spill of her own white panties, peeled from her warm, sleepy body and deposited casually in one of squares of ice-blue moonlight that painted her carpet from the frame of the window.
She could not, would not, look at him. He was panting, like a dog, as Annie silently wept, paralyzed, sick with confusion and a massive, unnamed shame that threatened to crush the foundation of every joy she had ever known.
Annie had buried her panties in the yard the next day, afraid her mother might find them in the trash. She did not want to look at them, could not bear the idea of putting them anywhere near that sore, sick ache he had left.
“Those are, uh… not mine,” had been the first words stammered from Mr. Bircher’s dumbfounded face.
“No, I do not believe they are your size,” Mrs. Cavanaugh murmured, only half-aware she’d made the remark.
Lost and found, Mr. Bircher had insisted from his hands and knees, clawing items from the floor with his meaty fists and shoving them back into their wooden compartment.
Mrs. Cavanaugh had left without bothering to challenge the statement.
The first fat drops streaked her windshield as Mr. Bircher’s lumbering figure stumbled down the steps to the staff parking lot. His suit-jacket shoulders were hunched against his balding head, arms shot straight down his sides, fists balled to pistons. The violent, metallic bang of his car door was felt as much as heard, and his tires gave a yelp as Mr. Bircher’s brown coupe whipped from the deserted lot. His headlights were not on.
Annie watched his eastbound descent for a few moments before starting her ignition.
They drove for twenty minutes, thirty, stretching up the coastal frontage road for ten or so miles, then taking a small fork, veering inland, toward the redwoods. She could not imagine his residence was located at such a distance from the school, which made the question of his destination all the more pressing.
Trees and fog pushed in from both sides of the road, and her wipers sluiced a predictable rhythm which comforted her in the silence: squelch-thump, squelch-thump. There were no stars. It was getting close to dinner, and she thought Kate might be missing her.
Annie maintained a steady, careful distance from the weaving red lights ahead—Mr. Bircher had, a few miles into the drive, finally snapped on his beams. Still, Annie must have spooked him, her trail perhaps too obvious on the deserted two-lane, because she watched his car take on an unexpected burst of speed.
Annie faltered for only a moment before fixing her resolve. This was no longer mere suspicion, she reasoned; not some flit of feminine intuition. She stepped on the gas, leaning toward windshield, straining to see anything but the reflection of her own headlights against the press of fog. Condensation crawled up the edges of the wet glass. The veins of her slim hands bulged with the strain of her grip on the wheel.
She gained speed, emboldened by a perceived vindication for her earlier misgivings, longing for a taste of righteous justice. Annie’s car hauled itself over the crest of a hill, and she came upon the taillights of Mr. Bircher’s coupe so suddenly she nearly rammed into him; he had, apparently, slowed back down to accommodate the poor visibility.
However, in tragically similar fashion to the book incident, Mr. Bircher managed to act as the catalyst of his own undoing: Annie slammed on her brakes, and Mr. Bircher, startled, slammed on the gas. His engine growled for only a few moments before being overtaken by a short, metallic scream. There was a pause, then a strangely muffled thump in the shrouded distance ahead.
Annie coasted down the hill and carefully pulled off; the two-lane pass was narrow, and without guard rails in several areas. She walked the rest of the way down the road, guided by the weak, diffused patch of light emanating from below the cliff’s edge. She thought of the small nightlight, shaped like a candle, that shone demurely from the floorboard of Kate’s bedroom.
The little car had managed to slip or turn and land tail-first into the ravine below. The dirt and trunks and bushes suspending the car were illuminated in pink, one taillight burning red, the other broken, spilling white. The windshield was facing her, but she could not see well behind the glass, the glare of the still-firing headlights pointed directly in her eyes.
As Annie’s face peered over the edge, the horn began stammering in clipped, weak bursts.
Annie withdrew a few steps, pressing her palms to her eyes to try and dispel the stars she saw as a result of peering into Mr. Bircher’s headlights. Fog clung to her hair, her face, her freezing hands, its clammy grip working its way under her clothes. Her own headlights, forty or fifty feet down the road, joined Mr. Bircher’s in illuminating the soft swirl of moisture suspended in the air. Fog always looked denser three or four feet ahead of where you stood; it had vexed her as a child, as she desperately longed to cup the thick flow of it in her palms.
Annie thought of that same child, a girl going on eight, clawing her fingers into wet mulch and hard, dark dirt, her feet and ankles soaked and itching from the cold dew of the grass, pink nightgown stuck to goosebumped, sweating skin. Her mind’s eye saw little Annie’s white cotton panties, dropped on the emerald grass next to the flower bed, waiting to be buried along with her notions of innocence, justice, and goodness in the world.
White panties, green carpet.
To her right, the horn let out three choked brays. Annie slipped off her sensible leather heels where she stood and waded cautiously along the side of the road, stepping gingerly in hopes of avoiding glass or sharp rocks, the soles of her pantyhose immediately wet and gritty.
She located a particularly large chunk of what she thought might be granite. The rock was incredibly heavy, and she was small, but Annie found she could lift it to at least chest height.
White mist drew her in like a UFO, framed by the branches of hulking, sentinel trees brimming with artificial light. It took several minutes to carefully cradle and walk the rock to the edge; she stopped to rest for a short period midway, because she didn’t want to entirely exhaust her arms.
The horn let out a short blat as soon as Annie peered her head over the lip of the road, as if she had startled the car itself. The headlights flashed, off-on-off-on, and the whites of Mr. Bircher’s wild, rolling eyes were visible in the momentary darkness.
The snap of the great rock plummeting through the windshield was like a boot heel through thin ice. This was followed by a meaty crack that informed the small, stiff woman standing ten feet above that her rock had not missed its intended target.
Annie Cavanaugh brushed off the dirty soles of her feet with her equally dirty palms and slipped on her heels. Shrouded in the soft, swirling white, she started a careful path back toward the car.
She thought Kate might be missing her.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2020, all rights reserved.
Literary Analysis: Marx’s “Crisis Theory,” Freud’s “Tripartite Personality,” and Orwell’s “1984”
The following was a discussion post I put together for a Master’s lit course. The selected passage to be analyzed starts on page 85, from the paragraph beginning “Since about that time, war had been literally continuous” to the end of the chapter on page 91, which ends, “succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent, for the first time in several years” (page numbers from print edition).
Marx’s crisis theory asserts that the unsatisfiable demand for the generation of capital creates the very conditions which necessitate capitalism’s eventual collapse. Capitalism seeks to debase and disperse the power of labor—for example, through assembly lines or outsourcing—and as a result, wages fall. As a result of wage repression, corporate profits increase, roughly proportional to wage deflation. In order for these corporations to continue positive profit generation—now inflated by wage deflation—additional demand must be created in the market to sell more goods/services. However, the consumer pool purchasing these goods/services is generally the same pool of workers experiencing the effects of wage repression. The buying power of the market is thus reduced, and corporate profits cannot be elevated above the levels brought about by wage repression. As a result, labor is further dispersed and/or wages are further repressed to generate profits, and credit markets are inflated to compensate for a lack of discretionary income. Increased debt and decreased wages eventually generate a torrent of defaults, resulting in institutional and/or market collapse. In the United States, the housing market collapse and subsequent economic recession of 2008 serves as a material example of the contradictions outlined by Marx’s crisis theory.
Additionally, manufactured scarcity of employment, food, and housing are all common sociocultural stressors which result from the outlined contradictions created by capitalist modes of production. Despite necessitating these conditions through the governing economic structure, the Western sociocultural hegemony simultaneously exalts and values consumerism, material possession, and wealth accumulation as the highest markers of both social and moral valuation. These idealizations are necessary to continue compelling the consumer market to spend their wage in the consumer market, and thus satisfy the capitalist market’s singular interest of creating more capital. Capitalism demands the continued generation of massive capital wealth in a few hands while simultaneously and deliberately suppressing the purchasing power of the entire working class, thus demanding blood from stone.
In 1984, The Party relies on memory as a form of capital to justify its continued expansion and influence over the people, much the same way capitalism continuously demands the generation of monetary capital to justify expansion of production and consumerism. The concept of memory utilized as capital by the Party is demonstrated by the lengths exacted to see the Party’s narrative actualized: the literal and continuous altering and revising of historic fact and media account and the endless, cloying production and cultural emphasis of propaganda to be “bought” by the market. Take, for example, a Party slogan: “Who controls the past… controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 41). In capitalism, those who control the capital control the market; those who control the market control the perceived value of capital. Marx explains that when capitalism “defines the relationship of wages to profit, it takes the interest of the capitalists to be the ultimate cause; i.e. it takes for granted what it is supposed to evolve” (718). Likewise, when the Party (inexplicitly) defines the relationship of memory to influence, it takes the interest of the Party to the be ultimate cause.
In the selected passage, contradictions showcased in Winston’s internal narrative serve as micro representations of contradictions presented by Marx’s crisis theory of capitalist production and class structure. Capitalism’s contradictions “demand blood from a stone” by degrading the wealth of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding wealth from the oppressed class; this is achieved by creating debt, “notes” of owed wealth deliberately issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be repaid in full. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse. The Party expresses this same contradiction by degrading the memory of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding the actualization and adherence to a “remembered” narrative; this is achieved by creating information, “notes” of constructed and artificial reality that are issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be sustained in full. Winston demonstrates: “There was no knowing how much of this legend was true and how much invented. Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence… Sometimes, indeed, you could put your finger on a definite lie” (Orwell 42-3). The Party builds by perpetuating its current version of reality, but simultaneously bankrupts the oppressed population’s perception of reality by constantly demanding revision. Again, Winston: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies… That was the ultimate subtlety” (Orwell 42). In this way, the Party likewise demands blood from stone. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse—some irreparable snag, like Winston’s known lie, can call into question the legitimacy of the entire structure.
Freud’s theory of personality presents a tripartite view of the self, three unique but interdependent systems which develop at various stages of life. The id is the earliest development of consciousness, representing biological or instinctual desires and demands. The id seeks to fulfill every demand immediately and has no perception of consequence, no awareness of reality or logic, and does not grow or change as a result of time or experience. When the demands of the id are satisfied, the self experiences pleasure; when these demands are delayed or ignored, the result is anxiety, tension, anger, or other forms of displeasure. The ego is the logical and reason-governed component of the personality. While the ego simultaneously seeks to fulfill the irrational and unrelenting demands of the id, it also works to avoid harm to the self, both literally and in terms of social harm or ostracization. The ego, however, does not govern morality; any action is good if it satisfies desire and avoids harm, any action is bad if one of these aspects fails. The ego is the sense of self-control, evaluating various methods of desire fulfillment and weighing those options against potential consequences based on known boundaries. The superego works as the conscience and informs the ego of the “ideal self,” or ego-ideal. The ego-ideal is a fantasized version of the self that drives the ego to operate beyond pleasure fulfillment and strive to work toward some greater goal or purpose.
Freud argues that the superego is largely informed by the parental figure(s). However, independent or separated from the parental units, humans are also necessarily informed by a governing culture. A child who was spanked by their parents might grow up to be an adult who does not spank their children, because the governing culture has influenced the moral paradigm of the superego. If a person shoplifts to obtain desire-fulfillment, the superego may inflict feelings of guilt or shame, if that person was raised in a culture which places value on corporate compensation. If that person was being initiated into a street gang, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might incite feelings of accomplishment or superiority in the superego. If that person was an anarchist, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might bring feelings of vindication and liberation in the superego. The superego’s morality is not inherent; it is a learned construct, based on the familiar values and taboos of the most influential authority to the consciousness at any given point in life.
In the selected passage, Winston’s internal narrative showcases contradictions between the superego, informed by the governing culture, and the ego, which strives to rationally fulfill the irrational, genetically encoded demands of the id. Winston, suffering from violent coughing fits, vigorously participates in the calisthenics program mandated by the Party. Despite being in physical distress—highly aversive from the pleasure-seeking impulses of the id and ego—Winston’s superego compels him to not only continue the action, but to feign enjoyment: “Wearing on his face the look of grim enjoyment which was considered proper… with a violent lunge, [Winston] succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent” (Orwell 39, 43). Though this action seems innocuous on the surface, the greater implication is more sinister; the governing culture’s influence over the superego is strong enough to compel the self to override its most inherent instincts, such as pain avoidance, as a means of demonstrating fealty. The self is sustained and protected through learned physical and emotional boundaries, i.e. this action causes pain, and this action causes shame. These boundaries are created to keep the self alive and part of the social collective (thus, with a better chance of staying alive, and procreating). The Party’s ability to override these boundaries suggests the Party’s ability to compel the destruction of the self.
Contradictions created within the self are also showcased through the Party’s manipulation of memory. If sociocultural boundaries endlessly shift and alter, the ego and superego lack appropriate and/or accessible input to comfortably navigate sociocultural expectations. Because boundaries are essential to the self’s imperatives of harm reduction and social affirmation, their lack fosters a sense of unease and tends to easily trigger fight-or-flight mechanisms. Winston perpetually exists in this state, though he fights against it: “Never show dismay! Never show resentment! A single flicker of the eyes could give you away” (Orwell 43). Winston’s superego attempts to exert control over the immediate harm-reduction instincts of the ego because it is aware that the greater harm lies in the Party’s ability to make the self non-existent. The Party’s omnipotent reach and scope in rewriting sociocultural narratives, and thus memory, and thus reality, is to Winston, “more terrifying than mere torture and death” (Orwell 41). Winston’s superego contradicts imperatives of the id and ego to show fealty to the governing culture, but the self is still essentially acting in self-preservation, aware that dissonance from the moral paradigm of the superego necessitates death.
Freud, Sigmund. “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 615.
Marx, Karl. “The Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 718.
Orwell, George. 1984. Houghton Mifflin Court, 1949, pp 39-44, accessed via Google Books.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
Deconstructionist Analysis: “Heart of Darkness”
I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations… And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance—barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn’t so good, on account of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
A deconstructionist view argues that language is uncentered; we cannot perfectly convey the ideas in our heads because of the limits inherit to the signifier/signified relationship. For example, if I say “cat,” there is a distinct image (the signified) which comes as a result from reading or hearing the word “cat” (the signifier). However, the image which appears in your mind is not a perfect replication of the image which is in my mind. I could say, “a cat with black and white spots and a grey patch over one eye,” and the signified image in your head might be closer to what I am imagining, but there is inevitably some sort of failure, some room for interpretation. Where are the cat’s spots located? Does it have a few large spots, or many small ones? Is the grey patch representative of a discolored area of fur, or is the cat wearing an actual eyepatch? Another example could be our dictionaries. If you look up any given word, there are more words used to describe that word. If you look up those words, there will be more words to reference and point to the meaning of what is trying to be conveyed. Eventually, you’d just end up starting back at the original word you looked up. Derrida argues that language conveys ideas imperfectly, and thus fails every time we utilize it to express ourselves. As a result, absolute truths cannot be discovered in language or speech, because there is an inherent failure to communicate absolute truth from the moment that we start to express ourselves. If it sounds a bit nihilistic, well, it is.
When we look at fiction, we generally look to find meaning by examining the tensions/conflicts/oppositions of the narrative and the way these things are rectified (or not rectified) at the resolution. Often, these tensions are described in terms of binary oppositions: male/female, good/evil, white/black, culture/nature, speech/writing, with each precedent of these pairs having an implied or presumed hierarchal governance over the other, as a result of the dominance of Western-European cultural paradigms. The goal of the deconstructionist lens is to show that these elements are not actually in opposition or that tensions do not exist, not by reversing the hierarchal structure, but rather by neutralizing hierarchy entirely. This is often done by critiquing the sociocultural structures and beliefs that reinforce these binaries.
Examining the passage above in a deconstructionist lens, there are a number of oppositions suggested in the excerpt which could be examined: civilized/uncivilized, sane/insane, tamed/wild, pure/corrupt, moral/immoral, rationality/instinct, or the greater opposition which these all allude to, good/evil. Marlow listens to Kurtz grieve for his “immense plans,” and takes this as affirmation of Kurtz’s aspirations of aristocracy: “Your success in Europe is assured in any case” (Conrad). Within this context, Marlow assumes Kurtz’s “final burst of sincerity” is a mourning of the sacrifice of his career, engagement, and wealth for a strange, predatory reign over the indigenous people of the land (Conrad). Marlow believes the isolation of the wilderness has put Kurtz under a “spell,” having “beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations” (Conrad). The implication is that Kurtz’s behavior in the jungle is entirely uncivilized, and, had Kurtz simply held steadfast to his supposedly civilized principles, he would not have been torn apart by regret and shame in his final hours, and may have lived a great deal longer.
However, Marlow’s assumptions present a number of problems. First, Marlow defines Kurtz’s sanity in the moment quite plainly: “I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear” (Conrad). Marlow weakens his own argument by portraying Kurtz as a rational, sane, and intelligible human; he is not, therefore, insane. Kurtz has enough cognizance to “struggle blindly” with an issue which is implied by Marlow as relating to his behavior in the wilderness, suggesting the presence of a moral paradigm. So, though he may have succumbed to immoral behavior, the suggestion is that Kurtz is a moral person, now weighed by the gravity of his decisions. This would likewise weaken the suggestion of the good/evil binary attached to Kurtz by proxy.
The most fatal blow to Marlow’s observations, however, is the colonizers’ occupation of the continent. Marlow critiques Kurtz actions in the jungle: his baseless governance over the indigenous people; his tactics of manipulation and influence; the exploitation and oppression of an unsuspecting and vulnerable population; the leveraging of resources and power to intimidate, enact violence, and overthrow existing hierarchies, and so on. As a result, Marlow brands Kurtz as insane, irrational, uncivilized, and/or evil. However, every single one of these actions is reflected in the very trade which affords Kurtz his resources: his wealth, his connections, his status, his career, his fiancé, and so on. These are the things which Marlow believes Kurtz laments in the throes of death. They are the things which sparked Marlow’s interest in Kurtz. They are the very source of power which arguably compelled Kurtz to his current predicament. They are also composed of the Western European sociocultural signifiers that suggest Kurtz was once a successful and therefore good person, and would have continued to be, had he kept to that path.
However, had Kurtz kept to his accepted path, he nonetheless would have participated in all the same activities for which he is demonized, even without his pretentious and violent “reign” over the indigenous people. The looting and aggressive colonization of the African continent for the enrichment of the European economy constituted a baseless governance over indigenous people, exploitation and manipulation of a vulnerable population, the leveraging of resources to intimidate, enact violence, and overthrow, and so on. Kurtz is merely deemed evil, insane, or uncivilized because he did not participate in these activities in a way which held to the expectations of the sponsoring organization. Therefore, Marlow’s implied qualification of Kurtz as evil, insane, or uncivilized does not hold up; the performative manner of these exact same actions is all that concerns the civilized group. The civil, sane, or good population participates in the exact same behavior as Kurtz; the behavior is merely hidden behind a corporate umbrella.
I chose to examine this passage through a deconstructionist lens for a few reasons. First, Marxist theory is heavily criticized for its lack of intersectionality; the oppositions examined through this view are generally only bourgeoisie/proletariat, ruling class/working class, or oppressor/oppressed. Though this could provide some compelling insights into the power dynamics of the narrative, I felt that this piece would be more effective with both a wider and a more cynical lens. There are obvious, problematic views in this novel, particularly in terms of racial oppression, and the Marxist view generally disregards race in favor for class. Marlow and Kurtz are arguably of similar class distinction, making the Marxist lens somewhat less compelling for this piece. I favored the deconstructionist lens for its ability to critically examine and take apart the implied hierarchal structures or binary oppositions of this piece, specifically because those structures are inherently problematic.
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Project Gutenberg, 2018, retrieved from https://gutenberg.org/files/219/219-h/219-h.htm.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
I composed this from a free-writing prompt a few days ago. I looked at it again, added punctuation, made a few edits, and thought it was generally okay. Not my finest work, but does well enough at evoking a certain feeling–we often are terrorized by things in the night, though rarely is there anything supernatural about it.
Every night, at nine p.m., I lose my mind.
The darkness doesn’t come as soon now, because it’s getting warm, and we all did the thing that changes our imaginary clocks; in the winter, perhaps it’s seven, or even six, and that’s much worse. But the sun stretches her arms this time of year, and for now, it happens at nine.
I work at my computer, stifling exasperation at the baby’s interruptions, pensively observing the light framed in the window shift from yellow to blue to purple. A nasty bruise, like a prophecy of my inevitable beating at the end of the day.
Eventually, I must close the computer, and put the baby to bed.
The television is off—my meager DVD collection terminally exhausted, and there is no internet in this house, no, that is a luxury I cannot afford—and I frantically try to get my broken phone to charge, just please charge, alternately pleading and berating this inanimate thing. Sometimes having it helps, like a sort of tether, a feeble string tying me to humanity, and I am clawing for it now, feeling the oncoming storm in my brain exactly like the insistent ache of my knees when the thunderheads roll in.
But the broken phone won’t charge, and even when it does, it’s a sick and magicless talisman against the haunting. There are nights—most nights—when the faces and words staring from behind the glass only make it worse, when the imagined raft in the churning sea turns out to only be driftwood, and I sink below the surface, still clinging.
The house is empty, and dead, and undead, too. The silence boils with a cacophony of voices that, like all ghosts, and demons, and vampires, and monsters, seem to only be ever stifled by the light of the sun:
My father, and her father, and all the other men I have disappointed simply by existing—
And the ghosts of all the ones I thought I loved, or thought loved me—
And my mother, and the other mother, and all their endless questioning—
And the imagined laughter of my faraway friends, who never care enough to come—
And the buzz of my neighbor’s gossip through the walls—
And the scream in my jaw from the rotting tooth I cannot pay to fix—
And the rumble of passing traffic, confirming my isolation, because no one is coming home to me—
And the blare of plastic primary colors strewn across the floor, demanding to be picked up—
And the cold clang of the pots that have sat in the sink since last night—
And the creak of my muscles, pushed to frantic, obsessive exhaustion each and every morning—
And the red shriek of the past-due bills on the microwave—
And the flutter of book pages my mind sees but cannot read—
And the sigh from the pile of laundry, snaring my foot as I walk by—
And the crunch of the cereal below my feet, discarded, unwanted, filthy as me—
And the hiss of the tattered broom across the tile, mocking all attempts to make clean—
And the metallic screech of utensils on ceramic, trashing the food I have no will to eat—
And the clatter of the keyboard, recording worthless musings of a depraved sack of bones—
And the pounding of water on tile, as if I could scald revulsion out of my body—
And the small girl inside me, who loathes the woman I’ve become—
And the woman I’ve become, who urgently tries to soothe the small girl—
And the scratch of my nails on neck, as if I could dig them both out of me—
And the sob of the baby in her sleep, who will hate me always for saving her from her father—
And there he is again, contradicting me—
And they all crowd in at once, and I go mad, and the noise swallows me up until I drown. I am left to do nothing but wander the dark rooms, and move up and down the halls, and touch things, and cry, and pantomime the ghost I secretly wish to be. For once the haunter, and not the haunted; perhaps, as a ghost, someone would finally see me.
Every night, at nine p.m., I lose my mind.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find”: A Marxist Critique
Through literary theory, art is given an opportunity to take on new meaning. Literary theory challenges the critic to shed personal biases and presuppositions—a deliberate and artistic practice of cultural relativism—while critically examining “‘the best that has been thought and said in the world” through lenses that encourage profound interpretation, impart meaning, inform context, and expand worldviews (Bertens 5). Viewing the same work through alternate forms of literary theory can shed light on the values, patterns, structures, beliefs, and assumptions of any given viewpoint (Bertens 1-2). Rather than taking a piece of art at face value, literary theory encourages the interpreter to ask meaningful questions which uncover historical, social, or cultural context; to search for underlying themes and elements which refer to intentions or motivations in creating the work, whether unconscious or deliberate; and examine structures and elements in the form of the work, lending deeper understanding to what makes a piece of writing “literary”.
Literary theory and literary criticism are two different beasts, though on the surface, they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another. Literary criticism focuses on the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literary works, generally with a focus on thematic elements, narrative, and characterization. Literary theory urges the critic move beyond the basic building blocks of writing and instead consider and interpret the nature, definition, and parameters of literature; the sociopolitical, economical, and cultural influences that inform a work; and the concrete form and structure of literary texts (Bertens 2-3). Where criticism often places the most emphasis on discovering meaning, much of literary theory dismisses meaning as ultimately arbitrary, and instead focuses on context. The nature of this context varies depending on what discipline of literary theory is emphasized by the interpreter. It is also pertinent to note that, like meaning, much of literary theory can also be considered as subjective to the interpreter.
Flannery O’Connor remains a highly respected American writer, particularly within the short story genre. Her work, typically categorized in the “Southern Gothic” style, often features grotesque characters, graphic violence, and dark humor; her writing deals predominantly in themes regarding religious salvation and societal alienation. In this paper, I intend to explore one of O’Connor’s most famous works, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a short story concerning the violent death of a vacationing family by the hands of a motely crew of social outcasts. Through the lens of Marxist criticism, I intend to explore how both the protagonist (a middle-class grandmother) and the antagonist (an exiled hillbilly) of the narrative are both merely facets within the gem of O’Connor’s total worldview. The grandmother’s salvation at the time of her death is often regarded as the most significant point of the narrative; through the Marxist view, I will argue that O’Connor’s Misfit can be viewed as the most influential character of the story.
The school of thought known today as Marxism began in the mid-19th century, to the credit of German artist, writer, and philosopher Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, his colleague, Frederic Engels. Marxism came about in reaction to the oppressive and autocratic social and economic standards that dominated Germany’s landscape during the Industrial Revolution (Bramann). Political activism was often regarded as a criminal endeavor; despite the risks, after receiving his doctorate, Marx “dedicated himself to the project of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines” (Bramann). Both Marx and Engels—who first introduced Marx to the ideals of socialism and communism—became influential figures within a massive, international labor movement (Bramann). Marx played a significant role in the Revolution of 1848 as a newspaper editor; in the wake of the revolution’s defeat by the ruling monarchists, Marx fled Germany. He spent his remaining years in London, dedicating his life’s work to the study of economy, art, literature, nature, and science (Bramann).
In the simplest terms, the tenets of Marxist criticism rely on the premise that our social being influences our social consciousness. That is to say, the dominant hegemony—the economic structure and subsequent social hierarchy—of any given historical period aggressively shapes an individual’s personal worldviews (Eagleton 2). Additionally, residual and emergent hegemonies also play a role in social consciousness during periods of radical social change, which Marx argues are necessary for the evolution of society. The “economic base” of any given society consists of the means of production (tools in various forms), commodities, technological innovations, the ways we organize (such as the manager/subordinate relationship), and the proletariat/bourgeoisie dynamic (Eagleton 2). The “ideological superstructure” includes what Marxists would broadly refer to as our “consciousness,” meaning law, education, religion, art, literature, media—the elements which comprise culture (Eagleton 2). Marxism argues that the base largely informs the superstructure—our culture is defined by our market—though the relationship can certainly be regarded as reciprocal in some respects.
This explanation in no way exhausts the vast scope of Marxist philosophy. For the purpose of this critique, there is one particular tenant of Marxism that must be examined in further detail: Marx’s Theory of Alienation. In a precapitalistic society, the laboring class held some measure of autonomy: they made/forged/grew their own products, dictated their working conditions, set their own hours, bartered and sold directly, and so on (Bramann). Under capitalist rule, workers are alienated from their labor, with little or no influence over the means, process, product, and relations of production (Bramann). Ultimately, Marx argues, this separation from work fosters separation from our entire lives, as more and more of what the laboring class does is dictated by forces other than our own will. Put succinctly, the depersonalization of mass production works to estrange humans from their instinctively creative and productive nature. The Marxist view necessitates the abolishment of capitalism in order for society to actualize human autonomy.
In order to understand how Marx’s concept of alienation applies to O’Connor’s work, the historical context of O’Connor’s life must be examined. After all, it is the overarching economical constructs which, Marx argues, directly influence our culture, including literary work. O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1953, at a time of massive industrial change in America. Soldiers returned en masse to the labor force at the end of World War II; economic growth soared; mass production boomed; suburbs sprawled; populations grew; television became the dominant media force in American households (Beckman). Religious devotion, as well, saw an unprecedented rise in the post-war era. Amongst the burgeoning suburbs, highways, and shopping centers, couples were married, babies were christened, and religious—namely Christian—worship became an unquestioned standard of middle-class life (Beckman).
O’Connor was an only child, born into a prominent and devoutly Roman Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia. Writing was still considered an unorthodox profession for a woman in that time; O’Connor’s university scholarship and post-graduation acceptance into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop was a testament to her talent in this regard (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor’s father died from complications of lupus when O’Connor was thirteen, and after being awarded an MFA from University of Iowa, O’Connor’s inheritance of the same disease saw her life relocated to a small farm in Milledgeville, Georgia (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor lived modestly, continuing to write as she raised peafowl with her mother—and occasionally travelling to lecture or speak at seminars—until her untimely death in 1964, at the age of 39 (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor never married, nor had children, which were particularly stark social deviations for a young woman in the throes of the post-war baby boom.
Small farming was one of the few industries that saw massive decline in the post-war economic boom. As the middle-class grew and demand for food production exponentially increased, corporations began aggressively shaping agricultural consolidation throughout the United States, leaving family farmers to either be bought out or try their best to compete against the overwhelming forces of cheap, mass-produced livestock and crops (University of Groningen, 2012). This consolidation left many farmers displaced from an industry which traditionally was passed down through generations; perhaps O’Connor perceived herself as alienated to some extent from her true “creative” self because of the economic demands of her “laboring” self, brought about by the loss of the typically-breadwinning patriarchal family figure. This is one of many possible demonstrations of Marx’ alienation at work, similar to the social and economic alienation so often featured in O’Connor’s writing, including “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. An alternate viewpoint might be that O’Connor’s return to the farmstead was instead a fulfillment of human autonomy; through separation from the ruling class, O’Connor had gained complete freedom to dictate the means, conditions, relations, and products of her labor, both in her writing and in her farming.
O’Connor’s educational success and literary accolades could not counteract the economic depression she and her mother were pigeonholed into after her father’s death; it is likely their small peafowl farm struggled to some extent, like most others, under the corporation monopolization of farming practices. It does not seem out of the realm of possibility that O’Connor expressed some measure of her social displacement through her writing: a prestigious, devout, and yet socially rebellious woman, riddled with talent and illness alike; a woman who came from a once-prominent family and who had achieved a high level of education, eventually reduced to a bed-ridden, working-class farm life (Encyclopaedia Britannica). In a Marxist examination of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the characterization of both the grandmother and the Misfit would suggest two conflicting and alternating worldviews that O’Connor attempted to reconcile through her craft.
O’Connor remained pious throughout the entirety of her life, her personal journals often concerning themselves obsessively with channeling her Catholic religion through her writing (O’Connor). Marx famously argued that religion was merely another man-made ideology—“ideology” specifically in the Marxist sense, encompassing all the various elements which inform our culture—dictated by the hegemonic forces of any given society, meant only to impart a false sense of purpose and moral sanction in an increasingly purposeless regime: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx). It is obvious from O’Connor’s journals that she felt endlessly compelled to bring her faith to the forefront of her life’s work, which suggests, at some level, there existed an internal struggle against her religion. I believe this struggle is documented in the character of the Misfit, as well as in the other violent, grotesque, cynical, and faithless characters featured in her body of work.
The character of the grandmother deals predominantly with issues of social affirmation, wealth, and status; these would suggest concerns of the bourgeoisie, or the ruling class. For example, the grandmother disparages the casual dress of her son’s wife, opting to clad herself in stately attire for a long road trip to Florida: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor). Even at the thought of her own fragile mortality, the grandmother is entirely concerned with keeping up appearances of social hierarchy. Though putting forth all the surface appeal of a “good Christian woman,” the grandmother is generally selfish, vapid, and petulant in her actions and dialogue; she lies, panders, and has little regard for anyone but herself (Leonard 52). Even as her entire family is systemically murdered before her, the grandmother continues to plea with the Misfit only for her own life: “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” (O’Connor). O’Connor’s subversive criticism of American religious culture through the grandmother character suggests a certain level of dissatisfaction with the generally shallow religious discipline of the middle-class; perhaps, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the content of her personal journals, it also suggests a dissatisfaction in the depth of her own faith: “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You. Please help me to get down under things and find where You are” (O’Connor).
The grandmother’s supposed salvation comes moments before she is shot dead by the Misfit; after a moment of religious doubt (“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead”) the grandmother is possessed by the spirit of Christ (O’Connor). In a stereotypically Catholic “moment of grace,” she recognizes the Misfit as simply another child of her god, and thus by her possession, a child of her own: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor). The grandmother attempts to usher the fervor of her faith—perhaps literally, perhaps figuratively—upon the Misfit, who “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (O’Connor). O’Connor spent much of her time defending this violent end to critics and readers alike, arguing that the murder of the grandmother was necessary to her spiritual realization: “The devil accomplishes a great deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective” (Leonard 52). The grandmother’s last pious exclamations and her contented post-mortem expression both offer religious affirmation and reinforcement of hegemonically-dictated roles: she finds joy in death in the recognition of her “child,” affirming her matriarchal status; she achieves deliverance from the mortal realm by the hands of a male (the Misfit) into the hands of a male (God), affirming patriarchal positions of power.
In stark contrast to the character of the grandmother, the Misfit is not in any way concerned with appearances or adherence to social norms, starting with deviations as minor as appearing to the family without a shirt on, ending with the mass-murder of the group under little to no pretense (O’Connor). Where the grandmother has wholly conceded herself to the dominant hegemony of 1950s America, the Misfit lives beyond it: working when, where, and how he pleases; living as a nomad; rejecting religion for his own moral code; learning independently; collaborating only with those he chooses; and yes, even murdering, the starkest of social deviations. The grandmother, in comparison, adheres to appearances; places upmost value on wealth and status; clings to superficial religious ideals without explicitly practicing them; and is hopelessly self-centered (Leonard 52-3). The Misfit recognizes the grandmother’s supposed spiritual awakening for what it is: “only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself” (Marx). The Misfit vehemently rejects the grandmother’s imposed salvation upon him, recognizing that her personal ideals only materialized in the ultimately selfish moment of her demise: “’She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’” (O’Connor).
The alienation of the Misfit in the
narrative is different than alienation in the Marxist sense; however, I argue
that O’Connor’s own (Marxist) alienation from her true “creative” self—through
labor, through patriarchal rule, through illness—spurs the need to endlessly
negotiate these barriers in the body of her work. I also argue that, through a
Marxist lens, it is the Misfit who serves as the grotesque antihero of the
narrative; a man who has achieved as much human autonomy as can be afforded
under a ruling capitalist regime. The grandmother and her family have bowed
under the weight of the dominant hegemony, and the end result is death; the
protagonist is ultimately afforded nothing more than her precious “opium,”
while the Misfit continues on with life as he sees fit. In a microscopic
example of the societal cycle Marx predicts, the governing class is overthrown
by the revolutionists. The Misfit holds no false preconceptions about the man
he is, and makes little in the way of moral judgments for what he does; he
allows himself simply to exist, and to exist in ultimate freedom, living closer
to Marx’s ideal of “true self” than any other character of the narrative. O’Connor’s
endless flirtation with the binaries of faithlessness/salvation,
inclusion/alienation, and domination/subordination could all be considered as
reflections of an internal struggle against her “true” self and the imposed
societal standards and structures of post-war, capitalist America.
Beckman, Joanne. “Religion in Post-World War II America”. Duke University, 2000, retrieved from nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/trelww2.htm
Bramann, Jorn K. Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies. Nightsun Books, 2009, retrieved from faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Marx.htm
Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Taylor & Francis Group, 2014, ProQuest Ebook Central, retrieved from ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/snhu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=180126
Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Flannery O’Connor”. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2019, retrieved from britannica.com/biography/Flannery-OConnor
Leonard, Douglas N. “Experiencing Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’”. Interpretations, 1983, retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/stable/23241513?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. 1953, retrieved from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/goodman.html
O’Connor, Flannery. “My Dear God”. New Yorker, 2013, retrieved from newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/16/my-dear-god
Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844, retrieved from marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm, accessed 11 February 2019. University of Groningen. “The Post-War Economy: 1945-1960”. GMW, 2012, retrieved from let.rug.nl/usa/outlines/history-1994/postwar-america/the-postwar-economy-1945-1960.php
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
A Philosophical Examination of Native American and Maori Cultures
The indigenous Polynesian and North American cultures are both comprised of unique and largely independent tribes; yet there exist broad, archetypal threads uniting the philosophies of each distinct subculture. Prevalent in both cultures is a strict code of “environmental ethics,” along with a custodial attitude toward the ecology’s continued sustainment (Callicott and Overholt 46, Patterson 33). Both cultures demonstrate animism—the idea at all elements of the physical world, both animate and inanimate, possess some type of life-force, awareness, and purpose (Callicott and Overholt 51-2, Patterson 36). Coinciding with shared animistic beliefs, both cultures stress an entirely non-individualistic worldview, with emphasis on the good of the whole over the benefit (or detriment) of the individual. I intend to explore Maori and Native American perceptions of time and epistemology through the examination of each culture’s shared ideals of non-individualism and ecological interdependence.
Familial and tribal hierarchy reflect the ideology of interdependence prevalent in both the Maori and Native American peoples. Callicott and Overholt note that “the concept of the Great Spirit and of the Earth Mother and the family-like relatedness of all creatures seems… to have been a very common, not to say universal, American Indian idea… likewise, the concept of a spiritual dimension or aspect to all things” (53). These indigenous societies lack the patriarchal tendencies of Judeo-Christian Europe, and entire tribes—comprised of dozens of families—are regarded as cohesive, familial structures. Shared contribution and adherence to duty are the most basal expectations of each individual, while the greater purpose of the collective is geared toward honoring the governing spirits and sustaining the physical land. One practice of the Australian aboriginals reflects this attitude concisely: “Each child’s umbilical cord is placed in a special tree, one for each child. What happens to the tree happens to the child—therefore the child has a responsibility to take care of the land” (Goode 23-4). Mono tribe member and archaeologist Ron Goode also writes:
“Our knowledge is based on a philosophy that says we are at one with Mother Earth and Creator. Our philosophy dictates our practice. Our gathering philosophy is our ecological policy. Gather what you need, leave some for the next gatherer, leave some for the animals, leave some for seed, leave some for the bush itself—no one wants to be left naked.” (26)
These beliefs are reflected in daily practices, with rules and rituals that govern hunting, gathering, farming, and social conduct within the tribe’s environment. Most pervasively, the sustainment of human life is not prioritized over the sustainment of the conceived universe (Perrett 258 and Patterson 35). Each tribe’s unique set of practices serve as demonstrations of their reverential and sacred regard for their world; they are also physical reflections of the theology and storytelling practices alive in both the Maori and Native American cultures.
The interdependent worldview shared by these societies does not end at the physical realm. The mythology and oral traditions of both cultures have had significant influence on the beliefs, rituals, and codes of conduct that regulate everyday life. Storytelling serves not only to connect people to the physical realm, but also the physical realm to the spiritual (Callicott and Overholt 53). Gods and spirits are believed to interact regularly and intimately with all inhabitants of the physical world. The Maori concept of wairuo (“two waters”) represents this idea—that the spiritual and the physical are “understood as analogous to two streams merging as a flowing river, with associated ebbs, eddies and currents” (Rameka 388). In many Native American tribes, the dreaming state is considered a higher or “truer” reality than the perceptions of the waking world; it is believed that, while asleep, one is able to temporarily shed their physical body and freely roam the spiritual planes (Callicott and Overholt 55). This indistinction between corporeal and incorporeal existence not only encourages each culture’s beliefs of animism—spiritual life imbued upon all things—but also influences perceptions of time and epistemology.
The Western view of time typically dictates the past as an inert collection of experiences; the present as the active, living moment in time; and the future as a nebulous cloud of unrealized possibilities and aspirations. The views within the Maori and Native American cultures represent non-linear perceptions of time and particularly contrast the Western view. The Maori have a common idiom: “Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua; I walk with backwards into the future, with my eyes fixed on my past” (Rameka 387). Rather than “facing” the future and leaving the past “behind,” the Maori see their past as the only truly knowable experiences from which they can direct their present choices. Experience and knowledge of the past is believed to continually shape and influence the present moment. Thus, the Maori carry their past and present at the forefront of their mind as they travel blindly—rearward—into the future. This is another example of the intuitive epistemology of these indigenous people. It is true that one cannot know the future with any certainty, and most, if not all, of an individual’s decisions are in fact guided by either previous experience or shared wisdom. It could logically follow that one would continuously reflect upon the past for guidance as they move into the uncharted waters of the future.
Alternately, the Native American perception of time is generally viewed as cyclical and regenerative. Again, this experienced-based knowledge feels quite intuitive when placed in the context of the “universal ethos” and animistic beliefs which are common of the Native American peoples (Callicott and Overholt47). Life in nature isundeniably cyclical: the rising and setting of the sun; the phases of the moon; the sprouting and wilting of crops; the shifting of the seasons; the shortening and lengthening of days; changing of the tides; the migration of animals; even the culling and regrowth of forests by fire—a sustainability practice common among many indigenous North American tribes (Goode 23-4). The continued observance of these naturally-occurring cycles in the physical world, combined with the theology of a single, unifying Great Spirit, instinctively leads to the cyclical perceptions of life and death which are quite common in the Native American culture.
Non-linear views of time also serve to bolster the non-individualistic worldview and universal ethos common within both cultures. A cyclical view of time, in conjunction with an animistic worldview, all but demands non-individualistic perceptions: if every understanding of the universe is based in unity with the Great Spirit or other cosmological power, then all elements of the universe must be treated with the same respect that the Great Spirit would be afforded (Callicott and Overholt47). This includes both past and future generations. Spirits of the Native American peoples are believed to act intimately within the land, touching all of existence, regardless of time (Perrett 255-8). Similar beliefs are held within the Maori culture: “Ancestors who have passed on, while existing within the spiritual realm, still remain in the physical, alongside the living… life is seen as a transitory process moving from body-to-body and generation-to-generation” (Rameka 388). This active and participatory acknowledgment of generations gone, along with those yet to come, encourages the individual to look beyond themselves, adhere to tradition and ritual, maintain social norms, avoid taboos, preserve the ecology, and ensure sustainment of the tribe.
But how does this universal ethos—a stark contrast to the typically Western view of ecology—come to fruition? Both Maori and Native American creation myths typically assign some sort of human-esque personification to the elements of the natural world (Perrett 258, Alexander 385-6). The sky, earth, moon, sun, storms, waters, mountains, animals, grasses and trees; they are spiritually imbued, personified, familial relations of a greater, unifying cosmological entity (Patterson 34-5). These entities are alternately male, female, or instilled with the qualities of both sexes. This is another logical and intuitive assumption, as the majority of the elements in nature require the joining of two binary sexes in order to reproduce. Alexander notes that “the creation is the joint effort of a community, not often the work of one deity alone,” which further supports a worldview of interdependence and non-individualism (385). This “familial relation” to the gods then encourages views of interconnectedness, animism, and non-individualism within the people and their environment (Perrett 258). The gods and spirits are not distant, alien, untouchable beings; they are active, intimate, and unavoidable entities which live inside every element of the earth and are closely related to human beings.
This is an interesting contrast against the Judeo-Christian “sky god”; a singular, omnipotent male figure, utterly separated from the physical world, and believed to only interact—and interact quite abstractly—with those holy and worthy enough to be afforded his attention. Whereas the Maori and Native American cultures see the physical world as a holy realm, distinct but not in any way separate from the spiritual world, the Judeo-European attitude requires deliberate severance from the physical world. To “be of the world,” is a sin, and unity with the Father-God is only achieved after an ascension from our natural environment. Alexander argues: “The fundamental religious attitude is up, and focuses upon the idea of leaving the earth at death… Down is a metaphor for ‘bad’: the Fall, Hell, the ‘lower desires’ and the ‘lower animals’ are schematized in our moral vocabulary by this image” (384). This attitude supports the Western view of environmental dominance over dependence and entirely disassociates the physical world with any of the reverence and holiness so prominent within the Maori and Native American cultures.
Though the Western cultural view still typically perpetuates a classically Greek attitude toward nature—mechanical, unconscious, and wholly distinct from human existence—the modern, scientific view of the world falls more closely in line with the attitudes of the indigenous cultures explored throughout this paper. We now understand that the ecosystem of our world is vastly interdependent; we have witnessed and recorded the consequences of rampant colonialism, deforestation, poaching, extinction, over-farming, pollution, and the depletion of much of the earth’s natural resources (Goode 23-8, Callicott and Overholt 50). And though the Western attitude generally touts itself as utterly logical and scientific, our cultural attitude has yet to catch up to the mountains of empirical evidence available to the world. We continue to regard our environment as disposable, unchanged, and persistent in the wake of our rampant destruction.
In sum, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned
from cultures once debased as “savage” or “inhuman”; cultures which we now
understand to have held a more scientifically sound and appropriate attitude
towards our Earth than our “civilized” European ancestors. Mysticism aside,
there is no denying the role that each species–plant, animal, mineral—plays
within their ecosystem; there is also no denying the detriment that our
individualistic and dominant Western attitude has had in reshaping the planet.
Goode writes: “What are global warming, climate change, drought, dustbowls?
These are terminology for a humankind out of sync” (27). These indigenous
people, nearly erased in the insatiable Western appetite for dominance, likely
hold the keys to restoration of our once-wild lands.
Alexander, Thomas. “The Fourth World of American Philosophy: The Philosophical Significance of Native American Culture”. Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society, vol XXXII, no 3, EBSCO Publishing, Summer 1996, pp 375-402.
Thomas examines the mythology of various tribes of native people across all of North America, tying the storytelling and oral traditions of the peoples into the emergence of their philosophical standpoints. He contrasts beliefs of indigenous Americans with the imported European Judeo-Christian ideals, and the various branches of philosophy that have emerged from that theology.
Callicott, J. Baird and Thomas W. Overholt. “Traditional American Indian Attitudes toward Nature”. From Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Philosophy, 2nd ed, edited by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, pp 45-66.
Callicott and Overholt draw stark contrasts between philosophies of indigenous Americans and European colonizers, focusing particularly on ethics and environmental responsibility. The lore, cosmology, and theology of Native Americans is used to trace the lineage of traditionally Native American worldviews.
Goode, Ron W. “Tribal-Traditional Ecological Knowledge”. News from Native California, California State University at Chico, Spring 2015, pp 23-28.
Goode, a Native American of the Mono tribe, explores the impact of colonization on the management and sustainability of indigenous lands, and explores the modern philosophical and cultural significances of an interconnected worldview.
Patterson, John. “Respecting Nature: The Maori Way”. The Ecologist, vol 29, no 1, ProQuest, Jan/Feb 1999, pp 33-8.
Patterson looks at the natural world philosophies of the Maori people and the potential impact adopting such protective and harmonious standards could have on modern culture. He closely ties his arguments into the Maori idea of all things containing mauri, or life force.
Perrett, Roy W. “Ngā Whakaaro Māori: Māori Philosophy”. From Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Philosophy. 2nd ed, edited by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, pp 255-68.
Perrett examines numerous facets of both past and modern Maori philosophy, tracing its origins to the myths and traditions of Maori ancestors. Additionally, Perrett points to the influence those ideals have had on the social and political landscape of New Zealand.
Rameka, Leslie. “Kia Whakatōmuri te Haere Whakamua: ‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past’”. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, vol 17, no 4,Sage Publishing, 2016, pp 387-98.
Through Maori myth and cosmology, Rameka explains Maori philosophies of time and epistemology. She also examines the impact that non-linear time perception has on other areas of Maori life, such as personal responsibility and the familial structure.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2016, all rights reserved.
Sociological Impact of the Decriminalization of Marijuana
I. Introduction and Historical Background
Participants of perceived social deviance throughout the 1950s and 60s—the emergence of hippie culture, “free love,” the Civil Rights movement, and protest of the Vietnam war—were often directly (though not always fairly) associated with drug use; the most common and widespread association being the recreational use of marijuana. That association likely helped to facilitate marijuana’s inclusion into the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 by the Nixon administration. However, negative connotations with the substance began in the early 1900s, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 saw a massive influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States (Hay, 2015).
Recreational use of marijuana was an established and integral part of the Hispanic culture, and the drug quickly began to take root in the United States, particularly in the south. Prohibition of alcohol had almost immediately made marijuana an attractive, easily accessible, and largely unregulated choice for recreational pleasure (Schlosser, 1994). However, growing racism and prejudice against the influx of immigrants was further inflamed by narratives of the “Marijuana Menace,” a drug which was suddenly and intentionally purported to corrupt morality and incite violent crime (Frontline, 2014). Even the common name we now use for the drug—“marijuana”—was an intentional push to associate what had previously been referred to as “cannabis” with Mexican culture, and thus further inflame the growing anti-immigrant sentiments of the Depression era (Thompson, 2013).
Examples of anti-marijuana propaganda (Sullum, 2018)
Much of this misinformation and anti-marijuana propaganda was deliberately fueled by Harry Anslinger, the U.S. Narcotics Commissioner and leader of the federal Prohibition agency—the originating government agency which would later evolve into the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Anslinger recognized that he was facing potential unemployment when alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, and he swiftly turned his efforts instead to the criminalization of marijuana. Cultural stresses due to the massive financial recession had already created an atmosphere in which much of the white population feared a further shortage of resources and employment from the Hispanic population seeking asylum in the United States. Anslinger recognized and capitalized on the fears and prejudices of the time. In a 1937 testimony before Congress urging federal restriction on marijuana, Anslinger stated: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret [sic] can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions” (Thompson, 2013). These sweeping, stereotypical, and factually untrue assumptions point toward the deeply problematic and unsound correlations between race and criminality which still permeate every level of the American justice system today.
At the outset of marijuana prohibition, the federal government encouraged any concerned state governments to regulate marijuana independently. By 1931, twenty-nine states had outlawed the substance, and the 1937 Marijuana Stamp Act—again, largely facilitated by Harry Anslinger—effectively criminalized the drug for recreational use (Frontline, 2015). Later reports commissioned by the Kennedy administration supported decriminalization of marijuana due to the perceived low risks of its use. Substantial evidence contradicted previous claims of the dangers of marijuana, but the plant was ultimately classified as an illegal Schedule I Narcotic by the Nixon administration in 1970. This inclusion was made against a report made by the Shafer Commission, a bipartisan committee appointed by Congress to provide recommendations on the regulation of marijuana (Frontline, 2014). The Shafer Commission determined personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized; Nixon vehemently opposed this recommendation (Hay, 2015). Despite the effective prohibition of the substance, eleven states still made the decision to decriminalize marijuana throughout the 1970s and many more lessened their penalties for possession. Today, twenty-nine states have legalized medical marijuana, eight states have legalized recreational use for adults over twenty-one years of age, and almost all states have deprioritized marijuana-related offenses, but the substance remains illegal at the federal level.
II. Cultural Beliefs and Biases
In researching recent efforts in marijuana legalization, it’s become apparent that only a small handful of the total population in the U.S. still holds to the antiquated belief that marijuana is a dangerous or risky substance in need of stringent regulation. Most states now consider the substance legal in some capacity, and two-thirds of Americans support federal legalization (NORML, 2017). The cultural belief that marijuana is dangerous never actually stemmed from scientific evidence, but rather from lingering associations with negative stereotypes deeply rooted in racism and prejudice.
Staggering unemployment rates during the Great Depression fueled resentment and distrust of incoming Mexican immigrants, and their cultural association with marijuana was ample fuel for Anslinger’s newest crusade after the end of alcohol prohibition (Frontline, 2014). Likewise, marijuana also had a long history of being used as a sedation drug for slaves throughout Jamaica and the Caribbean; forced use of the substance eventually evolved into an accepted, recreational habit in these cultures as slavery slowly came to an end (Hay, 2015). Since hundreds of thousands of these slaves were eventually imported to the United States, recreational marijuana usage had also become a normalized part of the African-American culture. So, an existing association of marijuana with perceived “second-class citizens” or those who were “racially inferior” was further exploited and inflamed by political agenda.
The persisting cultural belief that minorities compromise the majority of drug users has led to institutionalized and systemic racism within the justice system. Historically, minorities have been arrested, convicted, and served time for minor drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites faced with similar charges (Drug Policy Alliance, 2018). This demonstrates how an issue that begins as an individual belief or bias can become deeply engrained in societal norms: a relatively minor cultural association between minorities and drug use is propagated and enflamed by political agenda; government propaganda causes this belief to become entrenched in our society; societal belief leads to targeting by law enforcement for these crimes; established bias also creates the more likely outcome of conviction by a jury after arrest. Perceived deviant behavior is most often regulated by law in our society, and we are only now beginning to see a shift in the legislation to reflect our culture’s changing perceptions on marijuana use. One major player with vehement resistance against legalization is the American pharmaceutical industry.
Though in the past, Americans often inherently believed and trusted the advising of government agencies such as the Federal Drug Administration, growing turmoil amid the opioid crisis and other public health threats has created an overwhelming sense of mistrust with many aspects of government regulation (Norman, 2016). The current quasi-legal status of marijuana is no exception. Despite threats to enforce federal laws, numerous representatives and state governors are standing their ground against the current administration’s threats against legalization (Tumulty and Sullivan, 2018). There has been a significant cultural shift against the idea that government agencies are diligently working with the peoples’ best interests at heart. The state-by-state legalization of marijuana is another example of how individualism can have a massive impact on societal institutions. Over time, both anecdotal and scientific evidence demonstrated that marijuana is in fact a beneficial drug, with a low rate of risk and dependency. As a result, our societal view on the supposed deviancy associated with marijuana use slowly began to change. A movement that started with a handful of grassroots activists has now swept the majority of states and the regulation of marijuana is being challenged at the federal level.
III. Social Roles
Despite the overall shift in cultural acceptance of marijuana, the acceptance of medical usage has been more widespread than recreational use. Stereotypes of “stoners” or associations with laziness and social deviance have persisted against those who choose to use marijuana recreationally, which has manifested in the slow progression of legality of recreational marijuana. Recreational users in legal states are also subject to more stringent purchasing limits than those who are medically licensed, and still cannot legally grow their own plants (Wells, 2017). All users are still subject to stringent local laws regarding where and when they can consume and under what circumstances.
Many recreational users still feel the need to hide use from employers, family, and friends due to lingering discriminatory attitudes against marijuana versus other recreational substances, such as alcohol, though that stigma appears to be waning nationwide (Brooks, 2016). A significant milestone in that shifting attitude was the 2017 introduction of legal “pot clubs,” in Colorado. Pot clubs are private venues where recreational users can smoke and socialize, much like your average bar (Markus, 2017). This filled a growing need in the marijuana tourism industry, as most tourists coming to Colorado risked fines from hotels for smoking privately or encounters with police for smoking publicly, effectively giving tourists the opportunity to buy but denying them the opportunity to smoke.
There are still issues of social inequality for medical and recreational users alike. It is important to note that in the process of obtaining a medical license, a doctor provides a recommendation for medical marijuana use, not a prescription. Due to marijuana’s persisting illegality at the federal level, there are no HIPPA protections for those that medically use. Many people have found themselves unemployed or unable to obtain employment due to corporate drug screenings – unlike prescribed medications, marijuana use can still be discriminated against by employers, even for those who are medically licensed (Flock and Taylor, 2012). Our culture creates a dysfunctional view of marijuana use because of the separation of these two roles. On the one hand, we are willing to give the sickest and most vulnerable of our citizens complete access to this drug, which was initially only available legally to those with terminal or life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or HIV (Thompson, 2018). On the other hand, despite zero associated deaths, a relatively low dependency rate, and a wealth of benefits (such as lowered opioid dependency, lowered crime rates, and benefit for those with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, epilepsy, and other non-life-threatening disorders), our society has stalled against access to marijuana as a recreational substance available for use to the public. Our major societal institutions—the law, the government, and most religions—still brand the drug as dangerous, addictive, and ultimately harmful to the quality of life. The unrelenting bias of the federal government, instigated by political agenda and fueled by corporate investment, creates a conflict of scientific evidence against law; our cultural conflict of allowing access to a relatively innocuous substance for those who are ill but restricting it for those who are not is ultimately divisive and perpetuates the myths surrounding marijuana use.
IV. Social Issues
There persists an issue of discrimination against those who have criminal records relating to marijuana use in now-legal states. Drug convictions can disqualify citizens from educational loans, housing, job opportunities, and most importantly, the ability to vote. California is leading the way in this aspect, with numerous counties now allowing prior marijuana convictions to be sealed or expunged from criminal records after a petition process (Quinton, 2017). Still, this process is slow and expensive; many of those with criminal records lack the means to be able to begin petition. The issue remains rampant in many other states, particularly those without recreational legalization. These convictions have largely plagued minority communities (Drug Policy Alliance, 2018). Though marijuana arrests have sharply declined due to deprioritization and legalization, this issue continues to feed the faulty belief that marijuana is largely used by minorities; they are simply more likely to be punished for it.
Gerrymandering via drug conviction is an example of how racism continues to influence our societal institutions. Societal bias causes minorities to be disproportionately targeted for drug offenses by police, which means minorities overwhelmingly carry criminal convictions throughout their lives (Thompson, 2018). As a result, large groups of people—primarily African-Americans—have lost their ability to vote for representatives in their communities and their government. It’s estimated that one out of thirteen African-Americans (seven percent of the national population) is currently disenfranchised (Green, 2016). The voices of these communities then go unrepresented year after year, which means issues such as the sealing of drug convictions are left unaddressed unless those without drug convictions choose to get involved in the matter. The constituents most in need of representation are effectively silenced; governing societal institutions are then slow to change; in reflection of our laws, negative cultural biases persist.
Additionally, prior drug convictions have barred tens of thousands of minorities from the ability to enter the legal marijuana industry: Almost all twenty-nine states have varying laws barring or restricting previous drug offenders from seeking employment in both the recreational and medical marijuana industries (Thompson, 2017). A massive report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union, based on nine years of data compiled by U.S. Census and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program from 2001-2010, concluded that the African-American population across the entirety of the U.S. is “3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates”; thus, people of color disproportionately hold criminal records related to drug possession despite a negligible difference in the reported rate of use between the minority and white populations (ACLU, 2013). The majority of legalized states include “Good Moral Character” clauses which entirely prevent individuals with any prior drug-related convictions to participate in the legalized marijuana industry (Thompson, 2017). Only Oregon and California allow those with prior drug convictions to hold a position within the legalized industry, and only after an arduous and expensive process of sealing or overturning former convictions (Thompson, 2017). For most, hiring a lawyer and participating in the lengthy legal process is simply not a viable option.
Essentially, minorities have been unfairly targeted for illegal possession and distribution of marijuana for decades; now that the substance is legal, they have been widely excluded from participation in the legal market. Because of the quasi-legality, the black market for marijuana has now dwindled, leaving the lucrative financial benefits of the industry overwhelmingly in the hands of the white population: the population which first demanded criminalization the substance; purported and encouraged associations between marijuana, minority races, and criminal behavior; and then demanded and shaped the substance’s legality for our own personal benefit and monetary gain. Those who distribute illegally are still subject to penalty under the law, which continues to perpetuate the harmful societal associations with minorities and criminal behavior. The gentrification of the marijuana industry is a reflection of the larger issue of racism that still permeates nearly every aspect of our society.
V. Challenging Social Conditions
Marijuana is challenging the current state of politics in its pseudo-legal status: while legal in some form in the majority of states, the drug remains illegal at the federal level. Despite bipartisan support of ending prohibition, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made numerous threats to begin enforcing federal laws regarding marijuana, something which was publicly “unprioritized” under the Obama administration (Angell, 2018). Legislation was introduced March of 2018 by 62 bipartisan representatives, requesting that the federal government not pursue prosecution of individuals and businesses complying with local state laws concerning medical and recreational marijuana (Angell, 2018). The provision was approved by the House floor and was adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but the Sessions is still able to direct the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Administration as he sees fit. This creates a dysfunction in our society because even those operating legally under state law have a looming threat of federal enforcement of their trade.
In the past, arguments against marijuana legalization often centered around two issues: increased adolescent drug use and increased crime rates (including DUIs). The newest data—still limited information, due to the brevity of the period of legality—has shown no negative correlation to these issues. In fact, legalization has decreased gang violence, illegal trafficking, and violent crime rates in border states; decreased crime rates overall in legalized states; and despite steadily rising teen drug use over the past two decades, has not been shown to further facilitate or encourage drug use in youth residing in legalized states (Messamore, 2017; Sarich, 2014; Ingraham, 2017). This preliminary data was surprising to opponents and even some supporters of legalization. However, it is still too early to definitively see the long-term impact that legalization will ultimately have on states and their communities; federal legalization would likely have a significant impact on accessibility and regulation.
Decriminalization of marijuana has also challenged social perceptions. As mentioned before, in the throes of a nationwide opioid epidemic, attitudes are shifting not only positively toward marijuana usage, but negatively toward the pharmaceutical industry as a whole (NORML, 2017; Norman, 2016). The pharmaceutical industry has spent the past decade under intense public scrutiny for unethical practices such as price fixing, artificial inflation, and offering extravagant kickbacks or incentives for doctors to unnecessarily or over-prescribe medications (Norman, 2016). One of the end results of these profit-driven practices has been a nationwide opioid epidemic; it recently became enough of a problem to be declared a “Public Health Emergency” by the current Trump administration (Allen and Kelly, 2017). Many states have turned to marijuana legalization not just as a source of tax revenue, but also as a means to combat exponentially rising opioid dependence and its related fatalities. The pharmaceutical industry has thus lobbied adamantly against legalization, funneling money to anti-legalization groups nationwide and keeping the pockets of powerful political figures – such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions – generously lined (Ingraham, 2016). The industry continues to purport the idea that marijuana is dangerous while simultaneously working to synthesize the drug artificially, the ultimate goal there being to have control over the trade of THC.
While many who used marijuana were previously subjected to negative stereotypes concerning “stoners,” “hippies,” or “drug users,” two-thirds of the American population now supports ending marijuana prohibition. As the declining opioid use in legal states shows, many people realize that the numerous benefits of marijuana are a viable alternative to often risky and highly addictive prescription medication. As with the ending of alcohol prohibition, the cessation of marijuana prohibition at the federal level will be a battleground slowly won, state by state.
Allen, Greg and Amita Kelly. (2017). Trump administration declares opioid crisis a public health emergency. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/10/26/560083795/president-trump-may-declare-opioid-epidemic-national-emergency
Angell, Tom. (2018). Stop Jeff Sessions from busting medical marijuana, bipartisan lawmakers demand. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomangell/2018/03/16/stop-jeff-sessions-from-busting-medical-marijuana-bipartisan-lawmakers-demand/#5e5932ab1a74
Brooks, Megan. (2016). More US adults using marijuana as attitudes change. Medscape. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/868282
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