Hayden White Talks Trash
Issue #55, May 2001
I met with Professor Hayden White at Stanford University where I ran down a list of questions regarding the issues of Marxism, the consumption/production dialetic, and garbage. (In the interest of saving page space, I omit the questions.)
Hayden White: OK. OK, shoot then.
Frederick Luis Aldama: OK. So where is Marxist thought today? Has it been deemed garbage in our late capitalist world system?
H.W.: Well, of course it has. You know that as well as I. And, of course, the topos that names it: since the collapse of the Soviet Union, right, here is a society that had tried to build itself on Marxist principles, however they understood them. The collapse of the Soviet Union means that we, the capitalists, have won, and this is the way it goes.Now, this is, of course, a typical move that would be made by anyone who sees Marxism not as a discourse about the nature of social structures and transformations of society under the press of expanding market conditions, under the press of fundamental transformation in the modes of production, and so forth, but sees it rather just as a political system and not a discourse, not something that shares many of the presuppositions about the nature of society with its capitalist alternative or opponents:I mean the labor theory of value, theory of surplus value, the importance of the falling rate of profits. I mean, class. The one thing, of course, that the right or the liberal equivalents of the Marxist scholar wants to deny is that there are classes. It seems to me that a fundamental characteristic of a Marxist conception of society is contained in the conception of class and class conflict. And even though the classes are changing and the modes of production, social relations of production, and so forth.
It strikes me that Marxism is not in any way disconfirmed by the fall of the Soviet system. But rather the fall of the Soviet system is utterly understandable in terms of the analysis that Marxists give of the ways in which fundamental historical transformations occur, in the same way that a Marxist analysis of the phases of capitalism and the boom and bust and unpredictability of the capitalist system, the way in which these are comprehensible from a Marxist viewpoint, and the way that they are not from a capitalist viewpoint. I mean capitalist economics and capitalist social science mystifies all of these changes; it cannot find any causal system that allows you to maybe not predict them, but to comprehend them retrospectively, once they occur. The capitalist notion that the market economy will solve social problems if you allow the market merely to function strikes me as absurd, as I think it should anyone else.
So what you have, I think, is a Marxism which, on the theoretical level, is stronger than ever. They think of people who remain Marxists these days--in their conceptions either of social structure or social transformation, historical transformation--as merely stubborn and prejudiced and unresponsive to the facts. In point of fact, it seems to me, it's the other side who are mystified (in the light of their own theory of social transformation in the wake of fundamental economic transformations) that make no sense. These are the people that make no sense to me. The right wing economists which you encounter today. I mean the CIA was completely unprepared to entertain the idea that the Soviet Union was falling apart when all the evidence was right there before them. And why? Mystification? Cold War mystification.
All my friends who were Marxists once in Europe and Western Europe and in Eastern Europe, for that matter, are no longer so. I mean almost to a person. They've become liberals, they say. But in my estimation this is bailing out. You know, like they said once about Governor Connally, when he bolted the Democratic party and became a Republican, they said it was the first time they had ever seen a rat boarding a sinking ship [laughs]. So I see that as the problem. My journeys and visits to Poland and Hungary and places like that, where I met philosophers and social scientists, all of whom now identified themselves as positivists, they were all ex-Marxists. They are all on the side of the positivists and now they're doing empirical social science. And they've abandoned these Marxist principles, which I think alone allowed one to comprehend the kind of social dynamics of the situations in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and not to say Western Europe. So why in the United States does Marxism hang on? I think it's stronger here than it is in most European countries, and different from its Maoist or its Chinese version. But I think that the reason is that we experience the effects of late capitalism more perspicuously, much more clearly here than our European counterparts where social democracy is really a kind of dominant strain. We don't have that kind of tradition, on the one hand, but we have the experience of a kind of rampaging capitalism that's gone global and now transcends any kind of loyalty to local conditions, national, regional, and so forth. And this just creates bewilderment and confusion on the part of our legislators and our social scientists, who've completely mystified the notion of globalization, for example. It's perfectly comprehendable and was predicted, in fact, by Marx in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels. So does Marxism have a future? Yes, of course, it has a future. Every time you have a recession you get people sort of rethinking.
The current recession is a perfect example. The chief executive of Yahoo--which was supposed to be the show-piece corporation of the next big boom, right? --just resigned. Why? Because of profits. Not only is the rate of growth down, in absolute terms it's just breaking even. So humiliating.
F.L.A.: Yeah. How about the question of multiculturalism and the culture wars of the late late '80s and the '90s? In your mind, how does this play into or against, Marxist ...
H.W.: Well, it seems to me that a Marxist conception of ideology is the most profitable one for thinking about not only class consciousness, but race, gender, and ethnic consciousness as well. The culture wars undertaken to identify an essence of blackness or an essence of Hispanidad, essence of you name it, is going to fail, as every kind of metaphysics. I mean this is racist itself. A Marxist view of consciousness sees class consciousness as a relationship, not as a thing, not as an entity, not as an essence, not as a substance. So that you can begin to think about ideology in terms of class fantasy or ethnic community fantasies, which have to do with both identifications with other races, classes, and so forth and fears of these other races, classes, and so forth.
So this allows you to account for all the ambivalence that informs the efforts to construct a Chicano consciousness, a black consciousness, and so forth. It allows you to account for the fact that you have many Blacks, like Condeleza Rice and Colin Powell and so forth, linking up with and giving their support to the Bush administration, right? I mean these people are identified with this middle class, capitalist, white machismo way, right? You can't account for such things as class self-loathing, ethnic, you know, self-loathing and such things as that as long as you're going to reify things like class or ethnic consciousness and so forth. It's really the Right that believes in class consciousness in a reified form and fails to see that class consciousness, ethnic consciousness, gender consciousness and so forth is a structured relationship, both imaginary and real, with the other components of the society that are similarly defined in race, ethnic,and gender terms.
So I think that this is the important analytical thrust of a Marxist conception of the culture wars, which has to see that it's as much based upon the articulation of fantasies and anxieties with respect to concrete social realities organized racially, in a gendered way, and in a class way that, I think, we need an ideological analysis of the culture wars and of the various programs of cultural identification that have been fostered upon us and are useful from the standpoint of the political Right. They're very useful because they can arouse fears in the dominant white or straight white majority that could be played upon in order to create the kinds of conflict that you get between poor southern whites, survivalists and so forth, and black people or other colored people or straight lower-class illiterate males and the kind of homophobia that can be promoted this way in order to justify, increase military and police power, various kinds of repression, filling the prison systems with people who are victims rather than primarily perpetrators of crime.
F.L.A.: What about in terms of academics and their role in facilitating the engagement with these fantasies or at least making them visible, say?
H.W.: Well, when you say the academics, you're talking about people in the humanities, some of the social sciences, rather than the physical sciences, I presume. You're talking about people whose professions, whose work is, fortunately, tolerated if it's on the Left in American universities, colleges. Here again you're having to deal with intellectuals whose practice or profession is oftentimes at odds with the political and social ideals that they they're trying to promote because you have the commodification of knowledge and the political organization of knowledge, which permeates the academy. The arms industry, government grants for research in the physical sciences, all of this sort of thing creates the atmosphere within which you have to do your work in the academy. It also provides the wealth that allows successful social scientists and humanists to earn a good living and live the American dream of consumer capitalism, right?
Unfortunately, we don't have in the United States a tradition of intellectual work outside the academy. Journalists constitute part of the intelligentsia in European countries. They don't really here. I mean journalists are lackies, for the most part, of people who control the press. Even so-called intellectual journals like The New York Review of Books and so forth, are all tied into the publishing industry, as an industry, and, you know, are complicit in the promotion of a lot of kitsch that passes for literary culture. We're blessed in having an institution that allows from time to time at least a modestly Left agenda to be promoted, but cracks down when it really gets dangerous--as it has since the beginning of the American university system. It's been under the control of either religious powers or state power, or the interests of an economic elite class. The Left activism of the American university system between the late Sixties and the late Eighties was an exceptional time in the history of the American university. Typically, the American university has been the servant, served the interests of power in the same way as the American Bar Association and members of the American bar do. All the professions do. Medicine, pharmacology, pharmaceutical firms and so forth are all tied into the market. Everyone knows that the Left is pretty much neutralized as a voice in the society at large, right?
So, no, you have a tax, therefore, upon academic learning and scholarship and intellectual life, both from the Left and the Right. From the disaffected Left there are people like Russell Jacoby who makes a kind of career out of nattering away at the air-head intellectuals, you know, who are playing these formalist games of textualism and reading Foucault when they should be out organizing the workers. Well, that is bullshit because the academic Left has never been successful at leading the working class [laughs] in this country, and probably never could be. And, in fact, alliances between intellectuals and working class, even in the Industrial period were very rare.
The point about the academic intellectuals is that it's all we've got in this country. And, you know, one's grateful that it is given a little space. But it isn't much. You can see what happens any time there's a real concerted effort to establish some alternative educational courses, where you try to get second language acquisition or second language teaching, bilingualism, gender equality. A few gestures are made, put on the periphery, and things go on as they were before. Do you think not?
F.L.A.: I think so, especially with my experiences with bilingual education. You know, after the anti-bilingual propositions passed, my biological mother, who worked as a bilingual teacher in Salinas, suddenly found that the few resources she did have (all textbooks in English that she had to translate) stopped. Then she had to keep her doors open because the hallways were being policed by administrators, Chicano/Chicana administrators, saying if you speak a word of Spanish in your classroom and you're caught, you'll face the firing squad.
H.W.: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, after 25 years of agitation for gender equality in the academy, the figures are quite plain. Women get paid on the average 80 percent of what their male counterparts at similar ranks get paid. It was recently revealed in the that the University of California system has dropped its policy of aggressive recruitment of women faculty.
F.L.A.: With the academy, then, is the idea to at least keep the this almost sacred space from being diminished more, and also producing young scholars who will then go into the world and begin to transform certain sectors? . .
H.W.: Oh, I don't think it's that. The academy functions as part of the ideological state apparatus, to use Althusser's term. It's that simple. And the apparatus is controlled either by overt political manipulation, as when, for example, Governor Davis voluntarily, as it were, initiates two new programs at 75 million dollars each for research in the physical sciences and technology. 75 million dollars that will be raised very easily by government grants and so forth as matching funds to promote jobs in California:he means in the work sector, in the technology and commercial sectors. As part of the state apparatus,the educational institutions are structurally responsive to the market, to market forces. And you can see it. Now, there are two kinds of things produced in the academy--culture and science. And there's overlap here, but they're two different things. Now, we in the humanities are concerned primarily with the monitoring of the dominant cultural tradition, its preservation and its purveyance, right? Its consolidation, critical pruning and so forth, its adaptation to changing realities, but in the interest always of dominant forces in society. These remain white, straight [laughs], and you name it, all the way down. It's the world of George Bush, the one that he regards as natural. Right? Not social.
So I don't think you can reform educational institutions in radical ways, except in the wake of a revolution. The great educational reforms of the Modern period were begun in the wake of the French Revolution. The other great educational reforms were in the wake of the economic revolution that put a particular kind of capitalism at play on this continent, North America. And there was a big revolution in public education that was marked by the advent of the Land Grant universities, which were manifestly set up to produce trained and skilled technicians, secretaries, functionaries and so forth. They were essentially trade schools that added a cultural component only under the press of ideological necessity when they entered into competition with the Yale, Harvard, Princeton world, which was there primarily to provide the culture for the economic-political elite that was supposed to rule the country.
F.L.A.: To follow up on this idea of revolution, do you think it can work in our era of late capitalism and globalization? Are we coming any closer to the idea of the formation of an international proletariat?
H.W.: I don't think so. By revolution I meant a fundamental overturning. Think of the revolution in the Mexican system of higher education after the 1910 triumph of the Radical party. I mean they completely wiped out whole areas of instruction they'd inherited from the Spanish models. So this is what I meant by revolution, kind of a complete breakdown of system. Then you can probably change it. Of course, the thing we in the United States had was the transformation of this society by the westward expansion and the expansion out of the East Coast, which was really an extension of England and Europe. This was the process of Americanization that radically transformed the notion of a cultural endowment and its function and purpose;commodified it, made it into something you could use as a way of gaining access to higher positions in business and power.
And what you've got now is such a draining down that you've got the last two candidates for the presidency, one from Harvard, one from Yale, right? Both kind of illiterate. I mean like puppets. They have no culture. Neither of them has any culture. I mean so that the law schools, the business schools and so forth take over the function of education for life, while we in the humanities remain starry-eyed idealists. The University of California's upper administration of the whole system is run primarily by scientists, chemists, technicians, engineers. I don't know when the last humanist was a president of the University of California system. You know, you get lawyers.
F.L.A.: That's right, yeah. Condelleza Rice at Stanford actually, right?
H.W.: Well, she was the Provost, but at the time the president of the institution was a lawyer.And the most recent president is a computer scientist.
F.L.A.: Hm. Outside the academy with the wild globalization that's taking place and the recent turn toward an economic recession, do you see us moving any closer toward brown and white working class peoples seeing eye to eye?
H.W.: Unfortunately, suffering doesn't make people compadres. (There's an old story, you know? People in a lifeboat are supposed to become friendly, but, you know, once the lifeboat's taken to shore, they go their own ways.) No, I don't see that. I think that the older Marxist conception of class consciousness as a function of the position you occupy in the class system as a direct reflection just doesn't work. I mean the real failure of Marxism lay in this prediction that there would crystallize a distinct working class consciousness that would have political implications, that could aspire to political power and, indeed, to total power. That didn't happen, so it turns out that that's one of the reasons that contemporary Marxist thought about culture and about consciousness has to factor in certain truths one gets from psychoanalysis or psychology that deal with fantasies, delusions, the imaginary dimensions of a life lived in poverty. People respond to poverty in different ways. There is no mechanical way that produces worker consciousness. So that's where a theory or a conception of the imaginary and of the imagination which has traditionally been in the care of our artists, our writers, and so forth comes in. It turns out that the utopian visionary thought about the future and so forth doesn't always take a liberatory turn. It also can take the form of a new system of oppression, in which you live out fantasies of domination against what you regard as the enemy of the community, whoever it may be, whether defined in terms of race or class.
F.L.A.: Yeah, that actually reminds me of the late '90s when plenty of Chicanos went to the Republican side to vote against Affirmative Action and bilingual education propositions.
H.W.: Sure. They've had no trouble getting articulate blacks, for the most part men, I think, coming out against Affirmative Action in this state and in the nation in the last election.
Of course, for any rational person there has to be good arguments against any given political policy that you can conjure up, depending upon what you're appealing to--economic effects, social effects, psychological effects, and so forth. I mean no public policy that is meant to ameliorate a specific group within society is going to be without legitimate criticism. But that's why you need leadership in the political class that is willing to undertake programs that run against the illusions of hate mongers like the Ku Klux Klan, these survivalists or Skinheads and so forth.
F.L.A.: To take us back to the issue of garbage ...
H.W.: Yeah, I was interested in that. I hoped we'd get to the garbage. What about garbage? Why are you guys specializing in garbage?
F.L.A.: Perhaps we can use the consumption/production paradigm that garbage suggests to interpret, say, individual and collective fantasies and discourses that circulate in today's global capitalist economy?
H.W.: Mm hmm. Well, of course, by garbage I take it what you mean are things that are considered worthy to be thrown out, so that has to do with everything from shit to broken tools and broken people.
H.W.: Of course, you put this forward in an atmosphere where waste products and what to do with them in general is becoming a real problem. We dump them in Africa. We dump it in Latin American countries. The waste products from uranium, everything. Not just to think of the garbage scows that go from New York City.
And, of course, one thinks of Don DeLillo's book, Underworld, which raises the question: what do you do with all this shit that we're creating. Capitalism. We're drowning in our own shit, right? It's becoming now the cause of all sorts of maladies, God knows how many. The run-off of the agricultural pesticides from the area above Sacramento down in the Bay Area seems to be correlatable with the high increase of cancer in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay area.
So you put this question forward within the atmosphere also of the ideology of recycling. That we're going to turn shit back into gold. Right? [chuckles] Capitalism turns gold into shit, I mean kind of the reverse, you see, of the alchemists, right? I mean where you get consumption as an end in itself, right? This production of shit that's the final product. Where production is not in the interest of need, but in these orgies of consumption, so you get more and more shit. Where do you put it? What do you do with it? And the dream, of course, is exactly like the alchemist's dream. Let's find some way of converting all this shit into usable fuel, right? Into fertilizer.
And so it's like the dream of turning the ocean water into drinkable water at a very low cost. Again, this is alchemical thinking. And it's like the fetishism of commodities. So you fetishize shit now. So I think what you have to ask is what are the political implications of this kind of fantasy? You have one scenario in the Greens, right? In the minor triumph of the Greens in the parliaments of Germany, Italy, France, you get a few Greens in there. That's an eco-ideology. But the other fuels fantasies, you see, of escape from planet Earth. The planet's dying because it's being filled with shit, pesticides, by-products of atomic energy production, and so forth. This feeds the space war, the spaceship Earth, you see, and these fantasies of colonizing the moon, Mars. They're spending vast, vast sums that add to the waste product, right? Exponentially, in exponential ratios. And at the same time, this can be lauded as a triumph of the society and its science as it conquers space, right?
Fantasies that are examined in things like Alien, right?, where you go and you find the ore you need on an alien planet, but it turns out that it brings super monsters back [laughs] that need human beings for their own to consume. You know what I mean. So I take garbage theory, as it's called in anthropology in all of its tracks: the phenomena of the potlatch and shows that if you start out giving gifts, you see, then each gift has to be topped so you get more and more gifts being exchanged that ultimately bankrupt both parties because neither of them can finally up the ante sufficiently, like a poker game, and then finally it reduces everything back to ground zero and you start the process over again. But these are in limited economies.
We're talking about global shit now, right? And shit on a global scale. You can call it garbage if you want to, or, you know, waste. But then there was a book about 25 years ago. Who was that guy? He wrote a book called Garbage Theory. He was an anthropologist who worked on the potlatch originally and became fascinated with these cycles by which a thing had value, lost value, regained value. And you can say that these are kind of utopian fantasies of redemption, not unlike the idea that you'll have the resurrection of the body as well as the spirit when Jesus comes to get us all at the end.[laughs]Right?
This guy was trying to track the fate of a commodity from being a useful item, an item that could be exchanged for another item, then with use became something that could be treated perhaps as something really old and, therefore, lost value. Second hand, therefore had a second hand value. Then it could perhaps be thrown out. It would be something that turned up on a dump. It would be found by somebody, restored. It turns into an antique. And the question is, you know, can you do this with institutions? Can you do this with human beings?
F.L.A.: Do you think this be a more useful tool--rather than, say, a self/other model--to understand ourselves in the world?
H.W.: So, rather than talk about self and other the idea of garbage or shit or excresence--and it seems one wants to think about are the etymology of these terms, and what we're really talking about here--the prime metaphor is feces and waste products of the body that really give the idea some kind of emotional charge. So that, garbage sort of distances it from the wish fulfillment fantasies and anxieties that really motivate our interest in garbage, which really has to do with the way the body is reconstituted:the healthy body, the unhealthy body and so forth. How you get rid of cancer cells, for example. How do you flush impurities. You know, you get all these natural food freaks that think that if they eat whole grains and honey [laughs], you know, that they can purify their body in some kind of spiritual way. And, therefore, get taken in by the organic food industry. [laughs]Spa fitness. And body building again. I mean it turns into an industry all over again.
F.L.A.: They have coffee enemas?
H.W.: [laughs]Yeah, well this is kind like gourmet enemas, right?[laughs]
F.L.A.: [laughs]You mentioned bodies. Of course, metaphors of the cancerous and healthy cell have been transposed onto real bodies. We see this in in terms of the migrant Mexicano or the Filipino, you know, who is of no value in their own nation-state, but then becomes of value to a certain degree once a border is crossed?
H.W.: Right, right, right.
F.L.A.: What about the idea of purging the nation-state body and how this plays into the national fantasy of the receiving nation-state?
H.W.: Well, OK. You know as well as I do that most of the employers who are now trying to get these guest worker permits for Chicanos, are Anglos, right? So they regard these Mexicans as expendable, as garbage, right? They treat them that way when they bring them up here as seasonal workers and force them to live under the conditions that they do, and then they send them back. Now they've decided they're redeemable while they need them. Why? So they don't have to hire their white equivalents, right? Because they will take less pay, right?
They will be non-unionized, and the result is this will create a warfare not between the workers and the managers, but between two classes of workers, right? Those that are the white unionized trade and craft unions and their Mexican counterparts. No. This whole question of the refuse of society gets extended to bodies too. You see it most vividly, of course, in those films about the death camps, right? Where the bodies are being bulldozed and so forth.
But, you know, I was just reading about the young peasants, Indian peasants in Chiapas. One said her diet consists of tortillas and salt year-round, and maybe some vegetables, only occasionally, a potato or something like that. And meat at most once a year. A small piece of meat. I mean tortillas and salt is, you know, for all of the value of the tortilla as a symbol [laughs], you know, it doesn't take you very far. So the whole question about the redemption of the body is really, as my friend Fred Jameson views it, what all utopias are about finally. It's all religious desire to avoid death or, failing that, at least hoping for resurrection [laughs]. So I think that garbage theory would be a good way of getting us to think about the bodily anxieties that fuel our fantasies of both bondage and liberation or redemption, and it gives us concrete ideas of what we mean by a utopian alternative to impossible conditions that groups in the community find themselves living in, the homeless, for example.
F.L.A.: Right. Great. Well, thank you.
H.W.: Was that all?
Frederick Aldama is a member of the Bad Subjects production team.