Sunday, February 05, 2006

Marx and me

Now there's a pretentious blog entry title, eh?

We've been discussing Marx in my theory class. It's been going okay. Not as well as I always hope, and not as horribly as I always dread. When you tease it out on the board, Marx's logic is beautiful. After class the other day, as I was starting to erase the board, one of my students stopped next to me on his way out.

"This is interesting stuff," he said. I agreed with some enthusiasm, because, really it IS.

"I'm no Marxist or anything..."

I cut him off a little quickly, and maybe rudely. I hate when people say "I'm no [fill in some position the right demonizes]." So I tried to open a space where Marxism is actually okay, and not just some strawman for conservative demonizing.

Then he got to his real question, "It all makes so much sense. Why hasn't it worked out?"

Sure, Bardiac, explain the whole of the 20th century as people from the next class sidle in quietly. No problem! Worth a try, eh? You have eight minutes, after all!

"I can think of two basic issues." He nodded and listened. "First, it really hasn't been properly tried. If Marx is right, then changing consciousnesses is going to take a whole change in the foundation, and in our relations to production and such, and that really hasn't happened."

"And then there's the teleological problem." I said, and he frowned.

"Remember when we talked about Hegel, and said what an optimist he was, that he thought the goal of history is for Mind to recognize itself fully and such? And how, if he were really right, his book sort of would have or should have done that, but that it doesn't seem to have worked?"

He said he remembered, and I thanked whichever of my surviving brain cells had prompted me to give them more Hegel background than last year.

"So, what does Marx think is the goal of history?"

He thought a moment, and then tentatively, "liberation or something?"

"Right! Marx thinks the goal of history is the liberation of man."

He mused, "so what's the problem?"

"Most philosophers today don't think history has a goal, or a purpose."

Now he looked really troubled. "So if it doesn't have a goal," he hesitated and pondered. He put two and two together and came up with 22. Good job, I thought. He nodded, smiling in that way that people have when they actually get WHY 22 can be a good answer, and teased out some implications.

"Yep," I said, "Then we're just muddling through." Always happy to share my existential angst!

It strikes me that one of the great difficulties we have in communicating and explaining complex ideas from theory is that it's so easy to fall into teleological language, to imply intent and purpose when what we observe is accident and chance. Much of our human experience is tied up in understanding and dealing with our desires, translating those into goals, and understanding each others' purpose; our language use reflect that experience.

And then we try to explain or understand theory, history, or evolutionary theory (where the whole teleological thing is really at stake these days), and we just can't get there somehow. Or getting to a sense of purposelessness and nonintentionality is just too scary to face. Because, really, if there is no grand meaning, why did I get up and reread Marx? It's hard stuff. I could have stayed in bed, or turned on the tube, or played a computer game or something much easier and more immediately pleasurable. (Like, say, blogging?)

1 comment:

  1. I had never thought of it this way, but I think you've put your finger on why I find theories of complexity, and especially the notion of emergence, so compelling.

    There's no overarching teleology, no grand narrative, no "invisible hand"--but it's also not a nihilistic perspective. What we do has effects on what comes after, and fits into a larger cultural pattern. The pattern is constantly changing, but there can be meaning even if it's not permanent.

    Some authors have tried to paint emergence as evidence of a higher power (there's always going to be somebody doing that), but most research on biological, physical and social systems addresses it as a natural phenomenon.

    Probably not suitable for an undergraduate class--especially with my crappy explanations--but your post made me think of it. Maybe the theories themselves are the emergent result of an attempt to resolve the existential angst! ;>