Sunday, November 26, 2006

Your Final Exam

Here is your final exam. You must answer Question One (although it is up to you to choose which two pieces you are going to compare and contrast) and then choose to answer one more question from the five remaining options. Each of your answers should be approximately 3-4 pages long. You may spend as much time as you wish on the exam and you should use your texts to help substantiate your points. Stick to the questions and be sure to finish on time. You are to submit a physical copy of your exam to me on the last scheduled meeting of the course.

Question One:

To be recognized as human is to be accorded a special or “authentic” kind of ethical standing, while to be dismissed as nonhuman, subhuman, infrahuman through racializing, sexualizing, pathologizing, infantilizing, primitivizing, or bestializing language is to be rendered especially vulnerable to being cast outside of both culture and history. Discuss what you take to be significant similarities or differences in the role of this proposition in any two of the pieces we read in class by Valerie Solanas, Judith Butler, Franz Fanon, Carol Adams, or Donna Haraway.

Question Two:

In his 1888 Preface to The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels attributes to Marx a “proposition which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology[.]” This proposition is as follows:

“[I]n every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiters and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class -– the proletariat –- cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class –- the bourgeoisie -– without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.”

First, describe simply and in your own words the three propositions that characterize Marx’s unique contribution to the interpretation of history from this viewpoint. And second, describe the status of these three propositions in Barthes' Mythologies and how any change in their status for Barthes might have an impact on his own interpretive project as a Marxist or post-marxist critical theorist.

Question Three:

In the Preface to the 1970 edition of his Mythologies Roland Barthes says that his ambition for the book was to “account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.” In the extended theoretical essay “Myth Today,” at the end of the volume, Barthes spells out this transformation in greater detail. In a key section of that culminating essay, “Myth as Depoliticized Speech,” Barthes writes:

[M]yth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology… [M]yth is the most appropriate instrument for the ideological inversion which defines this society… [:] What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined… by the way in which men have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality… The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature[.]

In the series of shorter essays that make up the bulk of the volume, Barthes offers up interpretations of a host of phenomena, popular icons, events, attitudes, and so forth. In each essay he exposes is the way something that is actually a contingent and specific product of historical circumstances (which might therefore be open to contestation and reform in the ongoing social struggle of history) has come to assume the status of the natural, the inevitable, the taken-for-granted, the best of all possible worlds, the best workable solution, and so on. But although each short essay testifies in its own way to the ideological accomplishment of naturalization, the fact is that the force of “nature” for each of the objects of his interpretations is a bit different in the specific work it seems to do, and in the specific forms it seems to take.

Pick two of the objects Barthes interprets in his shorter essays. First, show how these essays both illustrate the more general thesis that myth is naturalization, and then point to some significant differences in the way “the natural” seems to function more specifically in each of your chosen examples.

Question Four:

Would you characterize John Carpenter’s film “They Live” as a film about ideology? Why or why not? In what ways does the film recognizably depict the workings of ideology in contemporary American society? Do you think the account of ideology we discussed in Barthes’ Mythologies corresponds to (or interestingly fails to do so) the account of ideology one might discern in the film? Does Carpenter’s film express its own ideological commitments? Substantiate your claims with examples from the film and quotations from any relevant texts.

Question Five:

In the History of Sexuality, Vol. I, Michel Foucault complains that “[i]n political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king.” Similarly, quite early on in the text he expresses doubt at the notion that “the workings of power… belong primarily to the category of repression.” Is Foucault’s own account of power in the book different in a way that makes a difference from the account he criticizes? Why or why not? Provide concrete textual evidence in support of your view.

Question Six:

Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo certainly appears at first glance to be an exercise in rampant and relentless megalomania. But how might you the argument that Nietzsche is actually rather modest in the claims he makes in the book? What insight might this modesty provide as we try to make sense of Nietzsche’s project and his interpretive method of “affirmation” in Ecce Homo?

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