I recently finished the book Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century by the old China Hands Orville Schell and John Delury. The book is a walk through modern Chinese history focusing on intellectuals and leaders who wanted to reform and strengthen China, from the Qing scholar Wei Yuan to the Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The main idea of the book is, as varied and disparate as the ideas and allegiances modern Chinese intellectuals and leaders have held, most were bound by the idea that it is necessary for China to pursue “wealth and power” (fuqiang) in order to overcome its hundred years of humiliation to foreign powers, and that any method was up for grabs if it could strengthen the nation. As an introduction to modern Chinese history and intellectual thought the book is pretty good, covering the obvious points of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping, as well as more obscure thinkers from the early 20th century like Feng Guifen and Liang Qichao (who Pankaj Mishra also wrote excellently about in From the Ruins of Empire).
However, I have to quibble with one of the main arguments of the book about why exactly China modernized so rapidly and became an international power after 1976 under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. The argument is that, no matter how much earlier reformers wanted to modernize China, they were always held back by traditional values and outmoded social relations. It was only after the long reign of Mao and the utter destruction of the Cultural Revolution that China became a “blank slate” on which Deng could enact his capitalist “reform and opening” policies. Paradoxically then, even if Mao’s policies set back modernization during his rule they created the groundwork for the real modernization that has occurred since 1976.
Now, there are a couple problems I have with this argument. The simple one is that morally this argument is repugnant. Even if something like the Cultural Revolution paved the way for China’s success in the later 20th century that does not justify the suffering that occurred under Mao. Historically, this argument also does not truly answer the question of why and when did modernization occur in China as it did. For example, why did China not adopt modernizing reforms under the Qing in the 19th century when Japan was surging ahead in its modernization/Westernization programs? Why exactly did the Qing rulers fail to reform at this moment, despite the urging of men like Liang Qichao and the awareness of China’s weakness against foreign powers? To argue that China could only modernize after Mao’s reign means you also have to argue why it didn’t occur earlier.
Schell and Delury’s argument seems to be that before Mao there was too much traditional values and society to hinder reform, but they do not explain exactly whose traditional values. Was it the Qing rulers who did not want to give up power? Did the peasants hold onto traditional values too much, even though they were the most excited for reform and revolution in the 1930’s? Schell and Delury’s argument also seems to suggest that China’s traditional values have not survived to today, but this also seems unlikely with the mainstream focus on the revival of Confucianism and the Party’s desire to revive traditional values as an ideological replacement for communism. This argument also fails to explain why other Asian countries were able to modernize and maintain some traditional values without suffering the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, like in South Korea and Taiwan. This is all to say that Schell and Delury would benefit from acknowledging comparative cases of modernization in East Asia, even if they are focused on the particular question of how Chinese modernization happened.
The more likely argument that I took away from the story Schell and Delury tell is that when Deng Xiaoping took power for the first time in over a hundred years China had a leader who both desired reform and had the sovereign control to pursue it. For example, perhaps modernization could have kicked off under Chiang Kai-shek’s rule, who was in many ways a pretty modern leader, but of course his grasp on power in China was often tenuous and for most of his rule he had to deal with an internal civil war against the Communists and Japan’s invasion of the mainland, hardly ideal conditions for real infrastructural investment and industrial development. Deng, however, did have the power to implement reform, and reform was exactly halted in the periods where Deng was sidelined from leadership, such as in the brief period after 1989. Wealth and Power in some ways tells a too conventional story about how modernization occurs, even as it wants to use the concept of “wealth and power” to point out how Chinese leaders fashioned a particular idea of modernity for China. This opening, onto other histories of the modern, however is important and definitely worth pursuing in the interest of better mapping today’s international and social relations.
Stories about Ayer are legion. Many people know the incident when Ayer confronted Mike Tyson, at the time heavyweight boxing champion of the world. It took place in Manhattan at the party of Fernando Sanchez, a fashionable underwear designer (not many philosophers get invited to underwear designer parties). Ayer was talking to a group of models when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in the next room. Ayer went to the rescue and discovered Mike Tyson trying to force himself on a young British model called Naomi Campbell. Ayer warned Tyson to take his hands off her, to which Tyson replied, “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” Ayer replied, without missing a beat, “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” By which time, Naomi Campbell had escaped Tyson’s clutches.
on the death of Alfred Jules Ayer in The Book of Dead Philosophers - Simon Critchley
Over at The Atlantic, John Tierney has written a couple of articles about the Maine Maritime Academy and its success in the field of higher education. In the second article Tierney responds to critics of his original piece, which I noticed included a twitter fight Tierney had with the Dean of Students at my SLAC (Small Liberal Arts College) Alma Mater. That really piqued my interest in the debate Tierney started, which is an interesting one about, though well-traveled by now in many discussions, how career-focused or broad college education should be.
The debate Tierney had with the Dean of Students of my liberal arts college went like this, at least according to Tierney. He originally wrote a post about Maine Maritime Academy, a four-year public college that also is good at preparing students for careers in international shipping, marine biology, sailing, and other nautical pursuits. Tierney is pretty explicit in lauding MMA’s success and seeing it as a model for other colleges. On twitter my DoS accused MMA of not providing a broad-based education, in the model of the liberal arts, but only being vocational. In her words a broad education should teach “discovery, empathy, adaptability” and prepare students for life and jobs “known and unknown.” Tierney’s response was that MMA is not vocational but specialized in also helping students start careers. MMA does teach all the things a broad education should teach but also provides job skills.
Tierney reports that another MMA alumni also wrote him to say that MMA is not just a vocational school, but well known among Navy and Merchant Marines service members and nautical workers and provides a world-class education in those fields. To prove this point that MMA also provides a broad education, Tierney then goes through the distribution requirements of a couple MMA majors, International Business and Maritime Engineering, to show the breadth of humanities and social science courses that are also required. Indeed, if what Tierney says is true it’s concievable that a MMA student could take more humanities classes then an average science major at my SLAC alma mater. However, Tierney does not go into any detail of the rigor or quality of these non-major classes.
Tierney then asks what it is that makes administrators at SLACs and other elite schools think only their schools can teach the qualities necessary for a good life and not more specialized or career-oriented schools. It is a worthwhile question; there is a lot of discussions at liberal arts colleges about whether to emphasize “skills” or “careers” in their curriculum, particularly at a time when they are attacked precisely for not teaching “skills.” It also not clear how schools are supposed to even measure qualities like empathy or being adventurous. We should note, however, that much of this concern about the teaching of “skills” in higher education, as expressed in the national media and magazine articles, is nebulous and more often than not are means of expressing the concern that “colleges are not fully taking on the job-training role that companies no longer want to pay for.”
To better understand this debate about specialized versus broad education better, let’s take a closer look at MMA and what exactly makes it unique. First off, the college is situated in an idyllic New England coastal village with its own port facilities and high tech research labs. The school accepts highly-motivated and self-directed students who already know they want to work in the maritime fields. The school has about 1,000 students, an in-state tuition of about $9,000 and the rate of student loan default for its graduates in 1.5%. Students have access to state-of-the-art research labs and do a lot of on-hands learning. By this description MMA does not sound like a vocational or specialized college; it actually has the same broad student profile as many SLACs or flagship state schools.
Of course, MMA is unique in that many of its students come to study marine navigation, biology, international logistics, engineering, etc. According to Tierney this is because students know they can get lucrative jobs in these fields as soon as they graduate, because of the high demand for labor. Students also spend some time working on a boat at sea or in a work-cooperative, again to gain “real world” experience. According to MMA’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees “these students learn how to do things. We teach how to make it happen.” Of course, the next thought you may have is “isn’t that what all schools are supposed to teach?” By what it teaches MMA is a unique school in the landscape of higher ed, but in its other qualities it has more in common with SLACs or other schools that have secure financial resources, strong academic cultures, and draw highly motivated students. That MMA focuses more on helping students into careers still does not put it in the same category as for-profit schools or online education - the real banes to deep and broad learning.
The debate then is not truly between SLACs and specialized colleges like MMA, or broad versus vocational education. By most parameters MMA is as much an elite or selective college as many liberal arts colleges and students, no matter their interests, are for the most part served well at these kinds of schools. This is because, on average, they gain a quality education, financial aid is available, exorbitant student loans are not necessary and the material location and facilities of the school are very enjoyable. Tierney implicitly suggests that more colleges should models themselves on MMA’s more specialized education. However, part of MMA’s success seems to be exactly its selectivity and uniqueness. Especially in terms of providing its students jobs, MMA is linked to one of the few fields that has not been outsourced or seriously mechanized and is also growing. Naturally its graduates would fill a labor shortage and be paid well for it, but more schools training students in maritime careers would slowly erode MMA’s career advantages. Indeed, in terms of cost it makes more sense that more colleges should adopt broad liberal arts curriculums that would prepare students for the unknown, as they are actually cheaper to provide than MMA’s heavy emphasis on advanced engineering and sciences.
The schools Tierney should be worried are not SLACs and other elite colleges and universities. It’s the for-profits that claim to teach “skills” while milking students for tuition dollars and sacking them with thousands in student loan debt and no guarantee of even a associate’s degree. It’s the many community colleges and state schools that are not receiving adequate funding while forcing tuition hikes and service cutbacks on students. The broad versus specialized education debate is an important one, but it is often raised in the context of attempting to justify and defend higher education. Proponents of both believe that if colleges start following one model then they will be more successful, both pedagogically and financially. However, solving such debates will not solve the general problems afflicting higher education, especially in terms of funding. Only solving the defunding crisis and establishing an environment where all students have the right to some form of higher education will debates about its content truly become meaningful.
The Otter is impossibly Otter
Every day brings new and insightful articles on contemporary problems in higher education, covering the gamut of student loans, increasing precarity and adjunctification of professoriate, privatization of public education, attacks against the humanities, commercialization of the sciences, and so on. For example, Sydney Calkin in the UK writes about precarious working conditions that young PhD’s and professors face, as well as the increasing threat that universities will turn post-doc and research positions into another kind of unpaid internship. This is especially relevant in light of last weeks one-day university strike in the UK that saw both academic and staff workers walking out on their jobs while fighting for adequate wages. She also highlights the fact that even though many academics can analyze their changing working conditions few meaningfully fight against it, instead hunkering down in the hopes of being the one for whom everything works out. Academics in particular seems to be susceptible to strongly identifying their personal self-worth to their careers, an identification that makes it hard to recognize when the conditions of the ideal academic career have been destroyed all around you.
A NYT article over the weekend spoke to those academics for whom everything has not worked out and must now wrestle with their own emotional investments to the academic life. The article focuses on recent PhD graduates who cannot find a tenure-track job and are now abandoning the search entirely for either the corporate sector or “alt-ac” jobs. Publications like the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed have been covering the “alt-ac” sphere for a while, so there is nothing radically surprising there, and the article does a better job than others (ie. any NYT article on the humanities) at explaining complex issues in Higher Ed. However, the article does feature one of my biggest pet peeves in writing about higher education, which is portraying the Higher Ed sphere as separate and distinct from changes in the economy as a whole. For example, it is not personal failings that lead people to pursue humanities PhD’s; when the options are years of low-payed white collar labor or 5-7 years of low-pay but interesting mental labor, the latter choice doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
This is basically the argument Sarah Kendzior makes in her piece trending on Al-Jazeera about the post-employment economy. She points out that it’s not just students who majored in the humanities or the liberal arts (the “wrong” majors) who can’t find jobs. Unemployment is high across the field of STEM majors, lawyers, computer science workers, etc. The idea that corporations would hire in droves if only students could learn the write “skills,” skills that corporations themselves are loathe to actually teach on the job anymore, is a lie. It is in the interest of corporations to hire as few people as people and to provide no social security for those it does hire. We are all part of the reserve army of labor and the next recovery isn’t going to give all of us a middle-class life; many of us never had it to begin with anyways. The “crisis” of higher education then, as created by the 1%, is part of a systematic restructuring of the terms of the economy and labor itself. The precarious conditions of higher education prepare and come to mirror the precarious lives of most workers in our era of intensified neoliberalism and austerity politics. It is not yet clear what is to be done, but at least we know a lot more now about the real mess we find ourselves in and who has caused that mess (hint: it’s not English majors and their selfish decisions to study things they enjoy).
Excellent follow-up commentary that parses out some of my half-formed thoughts and extends a lot of my thinking to their ultimate conclusions:
There are two separate cuts of the music video for Lorde’s hit single “Royals.” Sharing many of the same shots, both videos guide us through quotidian scenes of a few young white men in an empty suburban landscape. The camera lingers on household objects, a television here or an empty bed…
I’d like to preface this with the statement that although Lorde is from New Zealand, she’s also operating within a Western model of music that’s located primarily in the United States (according to her Wikipedia page, she lists Etta James as a musical influence, and is a fan of Nicki Minaj, Lana Del Rey, and Kanye West).
Faye’s post got me to thinking, what might Royals look like if she called out wealth in historically white genres? And the only historically white genre that really deals with wealth is country music, and that mention of wealth usually refers to circumstances of poverty. So essentially, there are no historically white genres that frequently refer to symbols of wealth. Why does country music (which is really obviously dominated by white people) only talk about poverty? When white singers sing about their pasts in poverty, it’s a source of pain, and thus a source of creative inspiration. When they get rich, they don’t constantly sing about their new-found wealth because in a white world, class mobility is a given (at least prior to the most recent recession) and their new-found wealth isn’t abnormal but a natural succession of things in a world where anyone can move on up the ladder of wealth. Music rarely comes from a point of content acceptance of what is perceived as natural or normal, and so country music doesn’t really engage with a class critique beyond the point of “I’m poor and would really like not to be,” or a variation on that, all that often. This is a bit simple and sweeps too broadly, but speaking to the general trends in the music industry in which “Royals” is situated it more or less fits.
Systemic class mobility in the United States has never been a reality for black Americans. So when black rappers attain success, their success doesn’t fit into the same societal norms as when white country singers do. I was reading something the other day, and if I could find it I would cite it here, but since this is just a Facebook comment I’ll post without trying further. (But I do want to note that this is not all my own thinking and that this rests on analysis done by others. I think what I remember seeing was a paragraph or two on a post on Tumblr, which is a part of why I can’t find it.) So these symbols of wealth found in rap music aren’t just expressed as a result of vain materialism, but as a way of somehow succeeding in a social/economic/political system whose White creators set out to impoverish black people and keep them impoverished. A lot of these status symbols—gold teeth, gold chains, etc.—are really showy, easily visible. They immediately signify wealth in a way that white status symbols don’t. White status symbols tend to be nondescript and understated—in general, rich white people aren’t out to flaunt their wealth, which would be tacky or uncivil or impolite. (Just look at how much white people hate to talk about class, for example. So you don’t get white people singing about all of their riches, because in a culture of politeness that’s not a thing you do. From there, it’s pretty easy to see how politeness in this context works to obscure economic injustice by making it invisible.)
“Royals” ends up name checking status symbols associated primarily with people of color, even though the wealth Lorde opposes is primarily concentrated in the hands of white people. It’s extremely curious that Lorde’s critique of a dominantly white system of wealth is primarily focused at expressions of wealth by people of color within that system. Perhaps part of the reason, then, that “Royals” ultimately “fails to fully speak truth to capitalist power”, as Faye aptly points out, is that it blames blackness for a system that is defined at every level by its whiteness. I think Lorde sets out for “Royals” to be a class anthem from the start, but by accepting white supremacy’s views of rap music and their associations with blackness, it pits one group marginalized by classist white supremacy against another instead of addressing the classist white supremacy which marginalized both groups in the first instance.
I agree that class and race are central to “Royals,” but what strikes me in my own reading of the lyrics is how much of the song is about ambivalent desires. I don’t think the song can be read simply as a class anthem for the white working class against perceived and real royals. Almost every verse in the song consists of a list of signifiers of class – mainly drawn from hip hop videos and other mainstream party music – a claimed disavowal of those riches in the name of a local place or class-based identity, and then another anxious voice that envies or desires those same riches.
So in the first verse the Narrator claims that they have never seen a diamond, except on wedding rings in movies, and that while they are not proud of their hometown they are quick to note they do not have “postcode envy” either. In this beginning I think we already see two different desires set against each other. There is the almost proud acknowledgement of never having seen a diamond, while also saying that the Narrator has seen enough movies to know that a diamond is something they are supposed to desire. Then the Narrator seems to lament that they are from a “torn-up town” and not proud of it, but this fact is already undercut when the Narrator says that they are not envious of other places. In one line there is a juxtaposition of not identifying with a hometown and then not being envious of other places – a disjunction that would seem to place the Narrator in a non-space identifiable nowhere.
The second verse introduces the Narrator fast-paced listing of signifiers of class status.
“But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.”
Important to note is that these symbols are conveyed through songs, similar to the diamond rings the Narrator had seen in movies. Both songs and movies serve as vehicles of certain fantasies of class status and consumption. The Narrator claims that “We don’t care” (who exactly is this we?) but that they are fine driving their own low-status cars and not getting caught up in the personal lives of celebrities. But how earnest should we take that “I don’t care”? After listing such extravagances and indicating the Narrator’s familiarity with such fantasies, is it true that they don’t care or is it that they are attempting to disavow fantasies that they desire but know are also impossible to fulfill?
In the refrain we arrive at the crux of the matter:
“And we’ll never be royals (royals).
It don’t run in our blood,
That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.
Let me be your ruler (ruler),
You can call me queen Bee
And baby I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule.
Let me live that fantasy.”
The Narrator says they will not be a royal, that their blood does not link them to any histories of aristocratic privilege and inherited wealth. I agree that there is a certain disconnect between the signifiers of wealth listed in the last verse and the use of blood in the refrain. In the last verse the different luxury items were drawn from hip hop music and point to conspicuous consumption and a display of wealth that points exactly to its precarity than to any long-lasting lineage of inheritance. Of course, today’s truly wealthy do not always display their wealth so abundantly; they are too bourgeoisie for that. There is a certain irony that in American culture those who most readily display their wealth do it as part of an art form and from the position of a people whose economic profit has been systematically pilfered for centuries.
To return to the Narrator, if they truly disavow their desire to be a royal then how should we interpret their demand to “let me be your ruler”? In the second part of the refrain the Narrator revels in their desire to be the “queen Bee,” to rule, and “live that fantasy.” Similar to the earlier listing of wealth, these exclamations of desire for power seem to speak more earnestly of the Narrator’s wishes then their attempts to separate themselves from such wealth. The Narrator claims that they want a “different kind of buzz” but what exactly is this buzz? Can a buzz really stand up to the clear jouissance the Narrator seems to experience by just talking about their desire for wealth and power?
My reading is that the Narrator is stuck between their fantasies of wealth and power and their recognition that such fantasies are just that, unobtainable. The Narrator’s dilemma is that they know what the fantasies of wealth are and so they attempt to orient themselves around their daily life, trying to raise it up to the level of satisfaction that can be derived from fantasies. Yet at the same time the Narrator cannot resist the strength of fantasy, for it is the power of fantasy to get inside the self, to populate its desires, and drown out any other experiences. If anything the Narrator’s view of their daily life, with its “different kind of buzz,” may be just another fantasy, if one that cannot compare to the one constantly pushed by music and movies. The Narrator would seem to be in the same crisis of cruel optimism as described by Lauren Berlant (though I’m also hesitant cause I think I’m starting to use that term too much). They desire a fantasy they cannot have yet that knowledge does nothing to blunt the affective impact of the fantasy itself.
This reading of “Royals” as about the conflict between fantasies can still also usefully address class and race in the song. Of course there has been many writing about the affective and fantasy life of class, of how people who are actively harmed by class inequality and exploitation can still desire the class structure itself and fantasize about their own future class mobility. What are we to make then of the songs use of signifiers of wealth mainly drawn mainstream hip hop videos, and a particularly narrow strain at that? Here we can remember that blackness in the white imagination has often functioned as a signifier of secret desires and hidden pleasure. It becomes assumed that the black body has access to pleasures that the white body does not yet possess, and if the white body can come into contact with blackness then they too will have access to the secret pleasure. If the white body is denied access to blackness or does not experience the pleasure that had fantasized about, then they are as quick to turn to anger and disillusionment.
As my favorite saying of Zizek goes, hatred of the Other is born out of the belief that the Other has stolen my pleasure. This would accurately describe the Narrator’s relationship to wealth and blackness. The Narrator desires the wealth of hip hop artists but in trying to valorize their own reality they are also forced to disparage those same black bodies. Another vector that should be mentioned is if the Narrator is a woman then there is also the vexed relationship between the Narrator as a white woman and her desire/disavowal of black hip hop artists. This would draw on a long history of white women relating to black men as ways out of white patriarchy while also fearing blackness for its potential disruption of white supremacy.
Ultimately then I do not see “Royals” as a straight forward class anthem, as least in any traditional idea of an anthem. It does speak of certain working class anxieties born out of conflicting fantasies of the good life. Does the working class white subject desire wealth and power or their own hometown? Can the desire for wealth and power be disavowed only if it is placed in the bodies of undesirable others? Here I think it may be appropriate to talk of “Royals” as an anti-country song. It ruminates on the same themes, of class structure, race, and local identity but instead of clearly affirming the superiority of local identity against class and racial others, the song deals more with the tensions of the decision to choose local identity itself and what fantasies may need to given up for such a decision.
Addendum: of course this reading only works if we choose to read the Narrator’s remarks about desiring wealth as earnest instead of ironic. My own affective experience of the song is that the lyrics about wealth are exactly the most powerfully felt ones, so I have chosen to highlight their importance. Lorde’s own intentions may be to undercut traditional pop consumerism, but if that is the case then her own soulful performance and lyrics already undercut that critique.
JUST PUBLISHED: [from punctum books]: L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, STAYING ALIVE: A SURVIVAL MANUAL FOR THE LIBERAL ARTS, edited by Eileen A. Joy, and with companion-fugue essays from Donna Beth Ellard, Ruth Evans, Eileen A. Joy, Julie Orlemanski, Daniel C. Remein, and Michael D. Snediker. Go here to read Eileen A. Joy’s Prelude essay, “Hands Off Our Jouissance: The Collaborative Risk of a Shared Disorganization”: http://fb.me/2hSPu7QG6
The book is available as an open-access e-book and in a print edition [follow link above].
Really have been looking forward to this