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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Drug Policy Alliance. (2018). From prohibition to progress: A status report on marijuana legalization. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/legalization-status-report
Flock, Brian M. and M. Edward Taylor. (2012). Medical marijuana and drug testing – what employers need to know. MRSC. Retrieved from http://mrsc.org/Home/Stay-Informed/MRSC-Insight/Archives/Medical-Marijuana-and-Drug-Testing-What-Employers.aspx
Frontline. (2014). Marijuana timeline. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html
Green, Matthew. (2016). States where convicted felons can’t vote. KQED. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/lowdown/11897/map-felon-voter-disenfranchisement-by-the-numbers
Hay, Mark. (2015). Marijuana’s early history in the United States. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xd7d8d/how-marijuana-came-the-united-states-456
Ingraham, Christopher. (2016). One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/13/one-striking-chart-shows-why-pharma-companies-are-fighting-legal-marijuana/?utm_term=.2cdbd207e68d
Ingraham, Christopher. (2017). Following marijuana legalization, teen drug use is down in Colorado. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/11/following-marijuana-legalization-teen-drug-use-is-down-in-colorado/?utm_term=.12eef3b0e77b
Messamore, W. E. (2017). Marijuana legalization is reducing violent crime in border states. IVN. Retrieved from https://ivn.us/2017/07/06/marijuana-legalization-decreasing-violent-crime-border-states/
Norman, Jim. (2016). American’s views of pharmaceutical industry take a tumble. Gallup. Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/poll/185432/americans-views-pharmaceutical-industry-tumble.aspx
NORML. (2017). All time high: New poll shows two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization. Retrieved from http://blog.norml.org/2017/10/25/all-time-high-new-poll-shows-two-thirds-of-americans-support-marijuana-legalization/
Quinton, Sophie. (2017). In these states, past marijuana crimes can go away. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/11/20/in-these-states-past-marijuana-crimes-can-go-away
RAND Corporation. (2018). Link between medical marijuana and fewer opioid deaths is more complex than previously reported. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/news/press/2018/02/06.html
Sarich, Christina. Colorado crime rates down 14.6% since legalizing marijuana. Natural Society. Retrieved from http://naturalsociety.com/colorado-crime-rates-14-6-since-legalizing-marijuana/
Schlosser, Eric. (1994). Reefer madness. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/08/reefer-madness/303476/
Sullum, Jacob. (2018). Fear of Mexicans, not blacks, led to Kansas ban on marijuana. Reason. Retrieved from https://reason.com/blog/2018/01/10/fear-of-mexicans-not-blacks-led-kansas-t
Thompson, Beverly Yuen. (2017). As marijuana becomes legal, the legacy of structural racism still haunts many. Sociology in Focus. Retrieved from http://sociologyinfocus.com/2017/02/as-marijuana-becomes-legal-the-legacy-of-structural-racism-still-haunts-many/
Thompson, Matt. (2013). The mysterious history of ‘marijuana’. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/07/14/201981025/the-mysterious-history-of-marijuana
Tumulty, Karen and Sean Sullivan. (2018). ‘That’s the model’: Republican Cory Gardner stands up to President Trump. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/thats-the-model-cory-gardner-stands-up-to-president-trump/2018/01/05/b3b9b2b6-f17b-11e7-b3bf-ab90a706e175_story.html?utm_term=.195fd287a05f Wells, Joey. (2017). How much weed can I buy? A state-by-state guide. Leafbuyer. Retrieved from https://www.leafbuyer.com/blog/how-much-weed-can-i-buy/
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2018, all rights reserved.
Another project. This is a comparative, linguistic analysis between a historic work and a contemporary one: “Völuspá,” an excerpt of the Poetic Edda, and “Before the Beginning, and After,” taken from Neil Gaiman’s magnificent Norse Mythology. If you know the guy, feel free to pass this along.
For this project, I plan to analyze and compare two works of Norse mythology. “Völuspá,” or “The Prophecy of the Seeress,” is a creation poem featured in both Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and the elder Poetic Edda of the Codex Regius (“Royal Book”), which remains unattributed to an author. “Before the Beginning, and After,” is an excerpt from Norse Mythology, a collection of Norse myths retold by best-selling fiction author Neil Gaiman. The English translation of “Völuspá” used in this paper was originally published by Henry Adams Bellows in 1936 and is now a work of public domain. Small fragments of the translated prose were altered in 2006 by Dr. Marion Ingham, to reflect a more literal translation of Old Norse. The original manuscripts of the Prose and Poetic Eddas date back to the early 13th century. In comparison, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology was published quite recently, in February of 2017.
Both versions of the narrative provide some measure of context for the entire Norse mythos, introducing the Nine Worlds and how they each came to be. The creation of gods, giants, men, and dwarves—and the conflict and chaos that eternally rules their existence—is laid out within these verses. The traditional telling of “Völuspá” is from the perspective of a certain volva, or wise-woman, raised from the dead by Odin to foretell of Ragnarök, or “The Fate of the Gods”. In Gaiman’s adaptation, the author serves in place of the oracle, imparting a quick and easily digestible framework for the Norse chaos/creation/destruction myths.
II. Morphological, Phonological, and Semantic Analysis
Before being recorded in piecemeal by Christian missionaries, Norse mythology was strictly an oral tradition. Gaiman had similar intentions for his own retellings of the Norse mythos—he himself is the narrator of the audio version of Norse Mythology, and his introduction urges readers to “…on some dark and icy winter’s evening, or on a summer night when the sun will not set, tell your friends what happened when Thor’s hammer was stolen, or how Odin obtained the mead of poetry for the gods…” (6). From a linguistic perspective, I thought it would be compelling to examine the shifts in language from traditional Skaldic poetry (translated) to English (U.K.) fiction. Because these works were intended to be spoken, I think a phonemic analysis may provide curious insights into how the sounds of our storytelling traditions have changed over nearly ninety years, since Bellow’s 1936 translation.
Verses 33 and 34 of “Völuspá” features more voiced constants than voiceless, the voiced of which are emphasized here:
33. From the branch which seemed | so slender and fair
Came a harmful shaft | that Hoth should hurl;
But the brother of Baldr | was born ere long,
And one night old | fought Othin‘s son.
34. His hands he washed not, | his hair he combed not,
Till he bore to the bale-blaze | Baldr‘s foe.
But in Fensalir | did Frigg weep sore
For Valhall‘s need: | would you know yet more? (33-4)
Reading the prose aloud, I was struck by the sound of these verses in particular; though not pure alliteration, there are similar voiced and voiceless consonant and vowel sounds repeated within each line. Alveolar consonant phonemes are the most prevalent, but they also appear to generally be the most prevalent within the English language—there are more sounds listed in that column than any other, so that may simply be expected. The third line of verse 33 and the second line of verse 34 repeat the bilabial / b / stop four times within each respective line. These stress of these word-initial consonants starkly contrast the nasal, glide, and liquid manners of articulation that comprise most of the sounds in these verses. The stops seemed to act as a sort of punctuation, causing the narrator to slow and annunciate each / b /, where the rest of the sounds behave in a way congruent to their descriptors: the mouth moves with a gliding, liquid-like buoyancy in comparison to the choppy / b / breakers.
In Gaiman’s “Before the Beginning, and After,” another alliterative sentence caught my attention: “Niflheim was colder than cold, and the murky mist that cloaked everything hung heavily” (14). Beyond the obvious repetition of consonant sounds seems to be an almost formulaic sound construction: Nasal, glide, stop, fricative, stop, nasal, fricative, nasal, nasal, fricative, stop, fricative, glide, glide. As they did in “Völuspá,” the / k / stops here—all the same phoneme—seem to serve as a rhythmic punctuation between silkier sounds, drawing the listener’s attention and forcing the narrator to articulate carefully to avoid slipping the tongue. Repeating the consonant sounds most likely to be stressed when speaking, you end up with something like [ kuh-kuh-muh-muh-kuh-huh-huh ] (colder/cold, murky/mist, cloaked, hung/heavily). The repetition of sound and stress here echoes the poetic and near-lyrical quality of the “Völuspá” verses.
“Before the Beginning, and After,” and “Voluspo,” are both works of fiction; the latter is more likely to be defined as literature than the former, though both cover the subject matter of the ancient Norse mythos. Due to the fictional nature of the two works, an examination of the figurative language contained within both pieces seemed the most appropriate choice in semantic analysis. According to Linguistics for Everyone (2013),figurative language is generally defined as “language that shifts meaning from the primary meaning of the word” (p. 310). However, there are many specific types of figurative language, a few of which will be explored in these selected works.
Metaphors are probably the most common and easily recognizable category of figurative language. We use metaphors in our everyday language to draw comparisons between one idea and another: something is like something else. Denham and Lobeck (2013) inform us that the word metaphor comes from the Greek metaphero, which means to “transfer” or “carry over” (p. 312). Metaphors are often heavily used in fictional writing as a means to convey an image, idea, or sensation to the reader through imagery and association: He said the words, and her heart cracked like an old mirror. In this example, the girl’s heart isn’t actually anything like an old mirror, but the figurative comparison allows the reader to draw a mental imagery and association of things broken, shattered, irreparable, and so on.
Gaiman is a celebrated fantasy author, but the writing in “Before the Beginning, and After,” takes an almost scholarly tone, and the information contained therein—though rooted in mythology and entirely fictional—is presented in a straightforward and largely factual manner, lending Gaiman’s voice an authoritative quality. This deliberate separation from commonly used figurative literary devices makes the creation story of Gaiman’s Norse mythos more comparable to canonized religious texts, such as the Bible; there is a marked difference in the writing here when compared to the other plot-driven and traditionally-presented narratives contained in Norse Mythology.
In order to achieve this scholarly tone, Gaiman’s writing in “Before the Beginning” is markedly restrained in the use of metaphors and other non-literal language, though there are still a select few buried within the text: “The land was aflame with the roaring heat of a blacksmith’s fire,” (p. 14) or “a person bigger than worlds” (p. 15). What is interesting about these metaphors is that, though they draw comparisons between two concepts or ideas—a piece of land as a blacksmith’s pit, or a humanoid entity larger than a planet—these ideas are still expressed in a way which maintains continuity of Gaiman’s authoritative and factual voice. Gaiman seems to deliberately avoid the word like: Ymir, ancestor of all giants, is not presented as like a planet, but “a person bigger than worlds” (p. 15). The latter phrasing lends more weight than the former, presenting the idea as concrete and indisputable rather than imaginative. The same presentation is given in Gaiman’s description of the flame-world of Muspell. The land is not like the heat of a blacksmith’s fire, but rather, the blistering heat of a blacksmith’s fire is undeniably contained within the land.
Personification is a specific type of metaphor, and another example of a commonly used figurative device. Denham and Lobeck (2013) define personification as the “attribution of human qualities to something that is not human” (p. 313). Personification is not always immediately obvious—a sentence like the tree’s branches grasped at her hair might not immediately strike a casual reader as personification, though in actuality, a tree’s branches lack the nervous system, muscle, nerves, tendons, and bones, and other tissues to be able to grasp anything the way a human hand would, as is suggested by the text. Thus, personification is simply a more specific characterization of something is like something else.
Personification is used heavily throughout the writing in “Voluspo”: “The sun, the sister / of the moon, from the south / Her right hand cast / over heaven’s rim” (stanza 5). The sun is entirely devoid of any true human attributes, but mythology across all cultures often utilizes personification in the description of many earthly and celestial elements. This particularly makes sense when you consider that many cultures’ mythology includes ideals of animism, or the belief that both animate and inanimate entities (animals, trees, rocks, rivers, stars, etc.) contain a human-esque consciousness, awareness, or soul (Solomon & Higgins, 2003). The heavy use of personification in many mythological works, including “Voluspo,” likely has ties to the animistic beliefs of pagan and Viking cultures.
Drawing comparisons between human beings and non-human objects, ideas, or entities may have been a more effective use of non-literal language and imagery versus other methods; in the early 13th century, when the oral traditions of the Norse peoples were first transposed to written record by Christian missionaries, worldviews and education were likely to be highly limited, particularly among the “common” folk these myths so often entertained. Drawing comparisons between human attributes and non-human entities/objects/ideas could be reasonably seen as one of the most effective and easily understood uses of figurative language. Human beings are inherently social creatures, intimately knowledgeable from a tender age of the expressions, movements, sounds, and other non-verbal cues that humans use to convey meaning. Thus, it would seem logical that personification would be a common well of comparison to draw from, easily understood and put into the proper context by the masses.
III. Register Levels
In any written or spoken work, the narrator’s selection of language affects the register of the text or dialogue. Denham and Lobeck (2013) define register as a “speech or writing style adopted for a particular audience” (p. 350). This means that humans adapt the style, word selection, formality, and tone of our language depending on the context of the situation and intended audience. In his article titled “What Is Register in Linguistics?” (2018), linguistics professor and English expert Dr. Richard Nordguist explains that there are five generally accepted forms of register: frozen (or “static”), meaning language that is intended to remain unchanged, such as the recitation of a formal prayer; formal, which is used in academic and professional settings; consultative, which is the register used when imparting specialized knowledge or advice; casual, which is the relaxed and informal register used between friends and family; and intimate, which is a private—often loving, sexual, or conspiratorial—register used between two people.
As touched on previously, the register level within “Before the Beginning, and After,” reads differently than the subsequent chapters. This part of the narrative is conveyed factually, with unadorned language, consistent grammar, few figurative devices, and no dialogue; Gaiman’s seeming canonization of an uncanonized belief system lends the opening chapter a consultative register, such as that of a scholar or historian. In contrast, subsequent stories in Norse Mythology heavily feature informal and non-literal language (euphemisms, idioms, similes, metaphors, etc.), slang, dialogue exchanges, expletives, and so on. Once the setting and cast of characters have been formally introduced by Gaiman, the register takes on a much more lively and unceremonious tone. Though the creation myth contained in “Before the Beginning” is highly imaginative and entirely fictional, Gaiman chose practical language and heavily favorited literal description in creating the readers’ context for the remainder of the mythos.
The register of “Voluspo” is a bit more difficult to ascertain, largely due to the archaic language and poetic structure of the narrative. In this story, Odin summons a volva, meaning a seer, oracle, or wise-woman, from her grave in order to discover the future which awaits the gods. The volva initially addresses the gods with a tone somewhere between formal and consultative, seeking to impress the gathering of gods with her formidable knowledge of past, present, and future events. However, despite the formality of the volva’s language, slang, euphemisms, personification, metaphors, similes, and other forms of poetic license are heavily at play. Thus, it is necessary to make a distinction between the register of the characters and the overall register of the writing, which is lively, highly imaginative, and grammatically impractical in comparison to contemporary language use (though this is common in all poetry, even modern). So, while the register of volva to gods reads as formal and consultative, the overall register of the piece can be perceived as casual: the imparting of a wildly imagined tale from storyteller to audience; the tone is engaging, and the language, vivid.
The dialect of “Voluspo” can make interpretation and analyzation of the piece more challenging than other works of poetry, particularly when compared to contemporary pieces. The edition of “Voluspo” analyzed in this paper was translated by Henry Adams Bellows in 1936; even considering how recent that translation is in comparison to the timeline of the Edda’s existence, there are still peculiarities in the dialect that stem from conversion from Old Norse to English, artistic license and interpretation, grammatical irregularities, and so on. The language, structure, grammar, and voice of “Voluspo” immediately indicate to the audience that this work is likely historic. When reading through the piece, it’s often necessary to laboriously rearrange and contextualize the language to properly comprehend the message conveyed by the writing. Though much must be left to the interpretation of the translator, Bellows’ likely prerogative was to preserve the integrity of the original work as much as possible; this potentially affects word choice in the translation and may result in some measure of grammatical or contextual oddities within the text.
Though Neil Gaiman hails from Portchester in the United Kingdom, there is a stark absence of regionally-specific English in his writing. I imagine this is likely the work of skillful editors and, were a reader to buy the U.K. edition of Norse Mythology, they would likely find discrepancies between the American-English version and British-English version of the books. This is not an uncommon occurrence; take, for example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which is alternately titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone throughout the European nations. The title change in the North American release was simply due to the fact that J.K. Rowling’s publisher did not believe American children would be interested in reading a book with the word philosopher in the title; sorcerer imparted a more exciting and magical inflection.
The dialect within “Before the Beginning” is difficult to specify, as the opening chapter reads more like the retelling of a myth that would perhaps be contained within a textbook on anthropology or philosophy or religion: factual (though it indeed is not), unembellished, and largely expository. The most curious feature within the dialect of this work are the names—both of geographic locations and characters—which efficiently inform a non-Nordic reader of the tale’s exotic origins: Niflheim, Hvergelmir, Muspell, Ymir, Ginnungagap, and so on. These are not words (or even arrangements of letters or phonemes) that would seem intuitive to a native English speaker and indicate to the audience that Gaiman’s story takes place in a time and/or location different than our own.
V. Stylistic Elements, Use of Language, Intended Message, and Recommendations
The writing of “Voluspo” certainly informs the audience of the period from which it originated, but that is not the most interesting stylistic element of the piece. “Voluspo” is narrated through one character—the volva, or oracle—and the stylistic elements of her speech to the gods takes an interesting journey through the sixty-odd stanzas that comprise the poem. Her recollections of past, present, and future are not presented to the reader or listener on a linear timeline, but they are effective enough in informing the audience of a general series of events that leads from the creation of the gods, giants, and the Nine Worlds to the eventual (and inevitable) destruction of the known universe—Ragnarok.
Word repetition seems to play two key roles within “Voluspo”. First, names and/or locations appear repetitious when signifying importance, either in status or relevance to the plot. For example, Othin (Odin) is almost exclusively referred to by his proper name throughout the body of the text. In contrast, many other major characters are described within the tale in more indirect ways: Freyja is “Oth’s bride,” Fjalar is “the rust-red bird,” Fenrir is simply “the wolf” (stanzas 25, 43, 40). The repetitious use of Othin’s name seems to set him apart from the other gods, which makes sense in the context of the Norse mythos: Othin is the All-Father, the Heerfather, the Old One; he is the most wise, ancient, and powerful of the gods. The repeated use of his name, in this instance, seems to serve as an honorific to distinguish Odin from the rest of the characters.
Secondly, repetition of certain phrases is used to convey and stress certain messages to the audience of gods within the myth, as well as the reader. Near closing of the prose, the volva presents Odin with a question at the end of each of her revelations: “Would you yet know more?” (stanzas 48-66). The repetition of this phrase creates tension in the plot, as the oracle flaunts her power (with a decided measure of haughtiness) in the face of the most powerful and terrible of all the gods. These demonstrations of prophesy and the challenge the volva presents to Odin at the end of each one also signals to the reader the impending climax of the narrative, which is the foretelling of Ragnarok, the “Twilight of the Gods”.
Where Gaiman’s approach is straightforward and studious, the originating poem is a madcap whirlwind of places, periods, events, and characters. The word choice is vivid and melodic; the prose is heavy with imagery, figurative language, and grammatical flexibility. Though the formatting of “Voluspo” reads as decidedly nonstandard in today’s world, without a proper understanding of the syntax of Old Norse, it’s difficult to ascertain whether grammatical inconsistencies are a result of translation or whether they are built within the framework of the poem’s original structure. Lines such as “Loud roar the dwarfs / by the doors of stone,” demonstrate nonstandard but not unintelligible grammar; were the sentence written in “plain English,” it would likely translate to “By the doors of stone, the dwarves loudly roar,” or some variation thereof. However, shifting the grammatical structure does a fundamental disservice—if not outright damage—to the lilt and rhythm of the prose. In contrast, Gaiman’s approach to grammar is entirely standard and fairly unremarkable: “The giant drank the milk, and grew” (p. 16). Much like the straightforward approach Gaiman took to language, voice, and style in this piece, this fastidiously minimalist approach seems rooted in a desire to mute the absurdity of the myth and instill in his audience a sense of factualness and believability.
VI. Changes and Differences Throughout Time
In “Before the Beginning, and After,” Gaiman lays an expository framework for his mythological retellings in the form of the Norse creation/origin story. “Voluspo” similarly deals with the Norse destruction myth, though only in its foretelling; “Voluspo” is not the poem of Ragnarok. Additionally, the volva featured in “Voluspo” through which the poem is narrated makes several passing references to the original creation myth; thus, “Before the Beginning” and “Voluspo” both deal with a small measure of overlapping subject matter. Because of this, it is not necessary to entirely speculate at what “Voluspo” might look like in modern interpretation; there are a few small examples of contemporary shifts hidden within Gaiman’s work. Consider stanzas three and four from Henry Bellows’ 1936 translation of “Voluspo”:
3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.
4. Then Bur’s sons lifted | the level land,
Mithgarth the mighty | there they made;
The sun from the south | warmed the stones of earth,
And green was the ground | with growing leeks. (Bellows)
In examining changes from a phonetic view, there are two notable phoneme shifts comparable between the Bellows’ translation of “Voluspo” and Gaiman’s “Before the Beginning”. First, the consonant evolution of the voiceless fricative / θ / to the voiced stop / d /, observable in shifts such as Mithgarth to Midgard and Othin to Odin; secondly, the vowel shift of the mid-central / ^ / (but) to the mid-back / o / (boat) in words such as Bur to Bor and Skuld to Skold (Denham and Lobeck, 74-85). The phonological processing of the consonants / θ / → / d / seems intuitive when you consider how frequently English (particularly American) speakers unconsciously shift / t / → / d /. For example, the word butter is generally heard as “budder” rather than “but-ter” in the majority of North American diction. The vowel shift from / ^ / → / o / is likely a form of phonetic assimilation, where one vowel sound is overtaken by a similar vowel sound depending on regional, cultural, or environmental norms. Consider the many different pronunciations of bag in the English language: bahg, baeg, baag, beag.
The fact that “Voluspo” is a work of prose lends the piece a large measure of flexibility concerning grammatical structure; poetry tends to violate grammatical rules of English more often than follow them, generally from a motivation of artistic expression. “Before the Beginning” is decidedly standard in its use of grammar. Compare Bellows’ translation of the aforementioned third stanza to Gaiman’s take on the same subject: “There was no sea and no sand, no grass nor rocks, no soil, no trees, no sky, no stars” (16). Gaiman makes a notable shift from the subject + adverb structure used almost exclusively in “Voluspo” to an adverb + subject form, which is more commonly used in standard grammatical English (“I walked the dog” versus “The dog I walked”). However, the non-standard use of grammar in “Voluspo” could easily be argued as artistic, and therefore still applicable in a contemporary, prose-driven interpretation of the work.
Beyond proper nouns—names of specific people and locations—the vocabulary of “Voluspo” is not wildly different than the word selection featured in Gaiman’s contemporary work. This is more likely due to Gaiman’s desire to maintain a certain amount of continuity and integrity between the original Norse myths and his reinterpretation of them. The register of Gaiman’s work in “Before the Beginning” is formal and consultative; had he chosen to write from a more casual register, the vernacular and style may have created a drastically different impression on its audience. In the 82 years between Bellows’ translation and Gaiman’s reinterpretation of the myths, the formal use of English has shifted only slightly, while the colloquial use of English has seen dramatic change—consider recent dictionary additions such as weak sauce (n.) or facepalm (v.), or the newly-introduced verb form of the noun ghost (Debczak). Gaiman, therefore, shows a good measure of restraint and reflection of the original work in his word choice in order to retain a certain formality and create an appropriately anachronistic feel to the narrative; his deliberate selection of language enhances his intended message, rather than hindering it.
VII. Environmental, Historical, and Cultural Influences
Though there are examples of now-dated language used throughout “Voluspo”—words such as oft, hither, girdled, trodden are infrequently used in contemporary English—context and semantics would likely allow for any average reader to discern their meaning. Confusion is more likely to arise from grammatical structure, which, as previously noted, often takes the opposite form of standard, present-day English. For example, take the first two lines of stanza 23: “On the host his spear / did Othin hurl, / Then in the world / did war first come” (“Voluspo”). Though the vocabulary is fairly unremarkable, the reader will likely make a mental rearrangement of the lines before discerning the intended message: “Did Othin hurl / on the host his spear / Did war first come / then in the world,” which can then translate to something such as, “Odin and the gods take up arms, and the first war of the Nine Worlds is waged.” Though the grammar used in “Voluspo” often requires the contemporary reader to carefully analyze and restructure the language to discern the intended meaning, poetry often presents this challenge, even in modern forms. Thus, it is necessary to consider that the intended message may include the artistic structuring of the language; the non-standard use of grammar often creates a distinction between prose and literature, and may be essential to maintaining the overall integrity of the narrative.
Gaiman’s general avoidance of slang, idioms, euphemisms, metaphors, and regionally-specific or colloquial language—even the marked absence of dialogue within the story—lends the piece a certain formality which could be argued as historically influential. The restraint and simplicity demonstrated throughout “Before the Beginning” allows the work to be easily connected to the original myth, where a more casual register or relaxed approach to vocabulary may have obscured the myth beyond recognition.
Still, Gaiman’s approach does away with the outdated vernacular seen throughout “Voluspo”—you rather than ye, had over hath. Likewise, Bellows’ translation of Old Norse demonstrates significant changes in English language use between the Cottle translations (1796) and his own (1936). Consider the format and vocabulary of this excerpt from Cottle’s version of “Voluspo”:
With magic rites the concave rung;
Necromantic airs he sung;
Hyperborean climates view’d;
Runic rhymes around he strew’d;
Deep the incantation wrought;
Then the maid sepulchral sought. (Cottle, 105)
Where Bellows’ vocabulary feels only slightly dated when compared with Gaiman’s language use, the word choice in Cottle’s translation adds an additional level of obscurity, more so than the prose structure alone: words such as hyperborean and sepulchral, or the seemingly peculiar use of concave, might require a good deal of mental gymnastics for the average reader to properly comprehend.Much in the same way Gaiman’s reinterpretation of the Norse mythos feels appropriately modern, Bellows’ translation likely read as quite contemporary in 1936, when compared to previous translations of the Eddas. The evolution of the same myths—from English translations dating two hundred and twenty-two years apart—demonstrates remarkable shifts in vocabulary, grammar, structure, pronunciation, spelling, and definition.
The evolution of storytelling, speech, mythology, and
narrative is directly tied to the evolution of language. Distinct and recognizable
shifts in pronunciation, grammar, slang, word choice, and so on are essential
to informing the reader of not just the when,
but also the where and likely
even the why of a given narration. The
stories contained within “Before the Beginning” and “Voluspo” are essentially
the same; it is the selection and application of language which makes these two
works entirely distinct from one another. However, through attentive and
meticulous analyzation, it is still entirely possible to trace the roots of one
myth to another. Understanding where language originates from, how it is used,
and how it changes over time lends a deeper and richer understanding of the
cultures built around language, the nuances and subtleties of human
communication, and the way those two elements converge to endlessly shape and
reshape the expression of unique ideas.
Cottle, A.S. “The Edda of Saemund Translated into English Verse”. Magdalen College, 1796, p 102, PDF, accessed 30 November 2018.
Debczak, Michele. “30 of the New Words Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary”. Mental Floss, 8 February 2017, retrieved from mentalfloss.com/article/92032/30-new-words-added-merriam-webster-dictionary, accessed 30 November 2018.
Denham, Kristin, and Anne Lobeck. Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth Publishing, 2013, pp 69-103, MBS Direct, accessed 30 November 2018.
Gaiman, Neil. “Before the Beginning, and After”. Norse Mythology, Bloomsbury Publishing, 7 February 2017, pp 6-14, Google Play Books, accessed 10 November 2018.
“Völuspá”. Poetic Edda, circa13th century, translated by Henry Adams Bellows (1936), edited by Marion Ingham, 2006, verses 33-4, retrieved from voluspa.org/voluspa31-35.htm, accessed 10 November 2018.
Nordguist, R. “What Is Register in Linguistics?” ThoughtCo, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/register-language-style-1692038
Solomon, Robert, and Kathleen Higgins. From Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Mythology, 2003, Rowman & Littlefield, MBS Direct, accessed 16 December 2018.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2018, all rights reserved.
This was a paper I composed for my American Politics 210 course, back in mid-2017. If I get motivated enough, I’ll do an update on significant changes between the time this was written and the recent Timbs vs. Indiana Supreme Court ruling (woot).
Though the idea has Biblical roots, civil forfeiture (or civil asset forfeiture) originated in the United States as practice of import regulation. Born from demand to seize smuggled or non-tariffed goods, civil forfeiture was a way to legalize these seizures without first prosecuting overseas property holders. Four subsequent acts of government have pushed the scope of civil forfeiture immeasurably beyond the original intentions of the Founders. I will argue that our government deliberately allowed the creation of a gaping loophole within the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, allowing for immediate and complete avoidance of due process, imposition of excessive fines, and unreasonable government search and seizure of the property of U.S. citizens.
Civil forfeiture was first ruled on by the Supreme Court in 1827, in the case of The Palmyra, 25 U.S. 1, 14(1827). The Palmyra was a private vessel under commission of the King of Spain and was believed to have been used for piracy against other U.S. ships. The Grampus, a U.S. vessel of war, captured The Palmyra, brought it to port, and the government attempted to seize the ship and all goods upon it. When the ship’s captain brought forth the argument that the Palmyra could not be forfeited until he was proven he was guilty of a crime, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that “the thing is here primarily considered the offender, or rather the offence is attached primarily to the thing” (Fuchs 2014).
This first ruling still seems somewhat bizarre – perhaps born more from convenience of prosecution than from honest and labored reflection of the Constitution. However, the scope of this decision was at the time limited to circumstances of jure belli, the laws or acts of war, or marine tort, meaning “injury, loss or damage caused to a person or their interests in a maritime setting” (Stonecypher 2008). This resulted in a narrow set of circumstances allowing for a civil, rather than a criminal, in rem seizure of property without requiring a preceding in personam criminal conviction of the property owner(s). This means the government had the right to seize property or vessels in maritime settings that were acting against U.S. law without first bringing criminal charges against the holders of the property. Civil forfeiture was most commonly used to seize smuggled goods in payment of circumvented import taxes (Keblesh 2017). These laws have been in effect since the founding of the United States (Jones 2017).
Civil forfeiture remained a narrow and uncommon practice until the 1970s, though the Prohibition-era enactment allowing for warrantless search of automobiles later influenced the scope of civil forfeiture as it stands today (Carroll 1925). The enactment of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 was the first expansion of civil forfeiture, extending the practice to the seizure of illegal drugs, drug paraphernalia, and drug manufacturing equipment (Jones 2017). The idea was to apply civil forfeiture laws to assist in crippling the manufacturing and trafficking of illicit drugs.
Though the 1970 expansion widened the umbrella of civil forfeiture, the practice did not skyrocket until the eighties. During the Reagan administration’s “tough on crime” reforms, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 was passed, albeit under varying bipartisan support. The twenty-three chapters of updated crime statutes included a broad loosening of civil forfeiture. Title III of this act and one additional piece of legislation in 1986 allowed civil forfeiture to include seizure of “money, securities, and other proceeds traceable to drug transactions… property equal in value to forfeitable property that is no longer available or accessible… cash, bank accounts, jewelry, cars, boats, airplanes, businesses, houses, and land” (Drug Policy Alliance 2014). Beyond the expansion of what and how property could be forfeited, the act also created the Department of Justice Assets Forfeiture Fund. This fund was created to deposit the proceeds of forfeitures outside of the Treasury’s General Fund and allow “equitable sharing” of profits between federal and local law enforcement agencies. This allowed local law enforcement to bypass stricter state regulation on forfeiture, with as much as 80% of any seizure’s value returning to the coffers of local law enforcement participating in the program.
Few measures were initially put in place to avoid abuse, and with the extremely high return on investment, law enforcement agencies now had incredible incentive to actively seek out civil forfeiture. Limited oversight in the spending of the proceeds meant that law enforcement could use their newly-acquired funding in just about any way they pleased. Many states began to pass legislation to reflect the federal standards of civil forfeiture. Today, there are only 9 states with strict regulation on the practice; in the other 41 states, between 50-100% of proceeds go back into the hands of local law enforcement without requiring the “adoption” of goods by the federal government (Drug Policy Alliance 2014). The laws of the other 9 states are easily circumvented by participation in the federal Equitable Sharing program. From 1985 to 1993, more than $3 billion in assets was seized by the government (Enders 1993). Those numbers have not decreased; in 2014 alone, the Assets Forfeiture Fund deposited over $5 billion – $1.5 billion more than all burglaries in the United States that same year (Ingraham 2015). The estimated total revenue of the past decade is estimated to be around $28 billion, though quite questionably, “the federal government doesn’t keep data collections on its forfeiture programs for further program study” (Ford 2017). States and the federal government are often unwilling to impose limiting statutes because it would fall on the state or law enforcement agency to close the massive budget gaps that abandoning the current practice of civil forfeiture would leave.
The financial incentive of forfeiture has become so engrained that a survey of law enforcement agencies reported that “forty percent of police executives believe civil forfeiture funds are ‘necessary as a budget supplement’” (Jones 2017). In 1990, the Attorney General announced “we must significantly increase forfeiture production to reach our budget target… Every effort must be made to increase forfeiture income” (Drug Policy Alliance 2014). Police actively seek out forfeiture, often targeting innocent civilians to ramp up department revenue, particularly small business owners, long-distance travelers, minorities, and low-income citizens who may be less likely to keep funds in bank accounts or in the process of transporting cash (O’Harrow, et al. 2014, Ford 2017). These easy targets often also lack the means to challenge forfeitures in court. The ever-increasing emphasis on seizures could mean that law enforcement agencies are putting their most deliberate efforts in taking money from citizens to supplement their budgets and neglecting other objectives that explicitly and directly impact public safety.
Tens of thousands of cases of alleged abuse have been brought to court, but civilians have their work cut out for them. Civil forfeiture allows for seizure under mere suspicion of ties to a crime; it does not require any criminal charges levied against a person or that any party be found guilty. Instead, it is a civil matter levied against the property itself (Jones 2017, Keblesh 2017). Because these cases are civil lawsuits against an inanimate object, the Supreme Court has ruled that the protections of the Constitution do not apply. The seized property is treated as an entity independent from the owner of the property and the “entity” is not awarded due process, right to an attorney, assumption of innocence, or objection to hearsay, and guilt does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt (Jones 2017, Fuchs 2014). It often takes years and tens of thousands of dollars in court and legal fees for citizens to regain seized assets; many of these cases end up as settlements with the government keeping a substantial portion of the proceeds (Sallah, et al. 2014). Small business owners have had their accounts drained due to legally-reported large cash deposits; families have had their homes seized due to alleged (and unsubstantiated) drug dealings; vehicles have been seized due to misdemeanor infractions; travelers have had their cash savings confiscated simply for travelling within “known drug corridors” (Seo 2017). Police officers regularly ask for disclosure of large amounts of cash during routine traffic stops. Almost anything can be confiscated by the loosest implications of crime, and there is very little opportunity of remittance for citizens subjected to the “stop-and-seizure” behavior of law enforcement (Sallah, et al. 2014).
The magnitude of the current practice of civil forfeiture has been the subject of widespread outcry from citizens, representatives across party lines, and by organizations such as the ACLU, Heritage Foundation, Institute for Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (Ford 2017). Attorney General Jeff Session’s 2017 repeal of the Obama administration’s regulations on civil forfeiture opens the issue up for challenge by the Supreme Court, and Justice Clarence Thomas has made it apparent that he intends on challenging the precedents of the court (Ford 2017, Seo 2017). There are grounds to do so: there is a strong argument that the current practice of civil asset forfeiture directly violates the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. It has only been the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions that these protections do not apply to civil matters that has kept civil forfeiture a booming business for the government. Those who favor judicial restraint must recognize that the original laws of civil forfeiture were only meant to enforce customs and tax law, and that the expansion of civil forfeiture to rampant, highly unregulated, nationwide criminal enforcement was not the intention of the Founders. Judicial activism played the largest role in the expansion of civil forfeiture. Modern interpretation of the Constitution allowed for the application of warrantless searches beyond sea vessels to automobiles during the 1920s, and allowed the further expansion of the scope of civil forfeiture.
While some criminal activity is hindered by civil asset forfeiture, it has largely impacted innocent civilians. In a recent study of 100 DEA forfeiture cases by the Inspector General, only 44 of those cases had any ties to current investigations or resulted in new investigations – meaning that over half of the cases did nothing to further the inherent purpose of the Drug Enforcement Agency (Seo 2017). A report on these findings from the Inspector General reprimanded the DEA, stating “When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution, law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution” (Seo 2017). Reform is necessary to place protections on innocent civilians and keep the spirit of the Constitution intact.
The Fourth Amendment reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Modern technology negates the necessity for warrantless automobile searches; law enforcement officers can now communicate easily and instantaneously with judges via platforms like Skype and FaceTime (Seo 2017). The staggering revenue, lack of criminal convictions or investigations, and number of contested cases of civil forfeiture is grounds for violation of the Fourth Amendment. Additionally, there are thousands of cases never contested in court due to the hardship it would impose upon the property owner (Sallah, et al. 2014).
The Fifth Amendment reads: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Supreme Court needs to address issues of double jeopardy in which citizens are subjected to both criminal and civil forfeiture proceedings and essentially punished twice for the same crime (Drug Policy Alliance 2014). The deprivation of property without the due process of law – such as the lack of criminal conviction, holding of a trial without representation, the right to testify, the right to object to hearsay, or even the right to be a party at the civil proceedings – is a glaring issue of current civil forfeiture practices (Drug Policy Alliance 2014).
Requiring criminal conviction as a
prerequisite to forfeiture, providing legal counsel for parties involved in
proceedings, imposing a greater burden of proof in civil proceedings,
redirecting funds of forfeiture out of the hands of the federal government and
state law enforcement, abolishing the Equitable Sharing loopholes and allowing
for state regulation are reforms that would massively alter the rampant malpractice
of civil asset forfeiture. The Founders put these Amendments of the
Constitution in place to safeguard the citizens from abuse by the government,
but that is inarguably what has happened within this broad and unregulated
practice. In a recent statement, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said,
“This system – where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight
and retain it for their own use – has led to egregious and well-chronicled
abuses… In the absence of this
historical practice, the Constitution presumably would require the Court to
align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines
governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation” (Seo
2017). Civil asset forfeiture as it stands is entirely unconstitutional – and I
believe the Founders would strongly agree.
Carroll v. United States. 267 U.S. 132. (1925). Retrieved from http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/267/132/case.html
Drug Policy Alliance. (2014, Jan). Civil asset forfeiture. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/resource/civil-asset-forfeiture
Enders, John. (1993, April). Forfeiture law casts a shadow on presumption of innocence. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1993-04-18/local/me-24209_1_forfeiture-law
Ford, Matt. (2017, April). Justice Thomas’s doubts about civil forfeiture. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/clarence-thomas-civil-forfeiture/521583/
Fuchs, Erin. (2014, Nov). Why cops can seize your property even if you’re innocent. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/supreme-court-ruling-on-civil-forfeiture-2014-11
Ingraham, Christopher. (2015, Nov). Law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did last year. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/23/cops-took-more-stuff-from-people-than-burglars-did-last-year/?utm_term=.081e0b322987
Jones, Rachel. (2017, May). Excessively unconstitutional: civil asset forfeiture and the excessive fines clause in Virginia. William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 25(4), 1393-1422. Retrieved from SNHU Shapiro Library. HTML.
Keblesh, Michael J. (2017, June). Using insurance to regulate civil forfeiture. Creighton Law Review, 50(3), 455-478. Retrieved from SNHU Shapiro Library. PDF.
O’Harrow, Robert Jr., et al. (2014, Sept). They fought the law. Who won? Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/08/they-fought-the-law-who-won/?utm_term=.be9f299db84a
Sallah, Michael, et al. (2014 Sept). Stop and seize: Aggressive police take hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists not charged with crimes. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/06/stop-and-seize/?utm_term=.cdba0f31f36a
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