One of the
issues you raised in your reply is the level of violence
When the actor quits.
by Christian Smith
When I came to understand Karl Marx's theory of reification I knew I had arrived at a meaningful way to view life in our world. I believe that the understanding of reification is the point of all his work. What Marx was trying to tell us is that through the system of living that we call capitalism we lose our humanity. We cease being humans and become things. We elevate things-like money, machines and gods-to the status of humans. These fetishized things we allow to rule us, while we alienate our humanity to those who wield the power in our society-capitalists. It is Marx's statement early on in Capital that "things are converted into persons" while "persons are converted into things" that brings tears to my eyes. The reality of our robotic existence as slaves to the irrational and vicious system of profit accumulation pains my heart and fuels my revolutionary activity.
In 1998 we are treated to a dead-on description of reification through Peter Weir's film The Truman Show. Was writer Andrew Niccol planning this to be a tale about reification, did it occur accidentally or am I reading my own trip into it? Niccol, in the Forward to the published script, talks about the inauthenticity of our life and states that his "biggest criticism of the stage play people insist on calling 'real life' is the script-varying between the mundanely predictable and the wildly implausible." He does not mention anything about the material basis for this inauthenticity-the process of reification that occurs in class-divided society. The Truman Show allows me to explain some aspects of reification.
A crucial aspect of reification is that the workers do not know that they are being used/oppressed/dominated. They think that the current condition of their life is the way it has always been. Reified workers have no sense of history. Further, they have no sense that they are reified. Their condition of being cogs in the capitalist machine obediently and voluntarily walking in to work every day to make profit for the boss seems natural. When you suggest that life could be different, the reified worker stares vacantly at you, incapable of comprehending what you are talking about.
An interviewer in the movie asked Cristoff, who plays the part of the absolutely powerful and authoritarian director, why Truman had never come close to discovering the true nature of his world. Cristoff answered, "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented."
Workers are actors in a capitalist drama. As long as they stick to the script that has been written for them since before they were born, the drama continues uninterrupted. The goal is the constant production of profit. Just like the corporation (Omnicam) that adopted Truman Burbank and made him the unwitting star in their for-profit production, corporations in our world depend on our starring role in their theater. The reified worker acts like a commodity when he sells his capacity to work (labor power) to the capitalist. The capitalist uses this labor power along with other commodities (raw materials, factories, offices, machinery, computers, etc.) that he has bought to produce even more commodities. Yet unlike other commodities, the commodity labor power is necessarily attached to a living human.
The critical factor that allows this drama to continue is that the worker reduces herself to a thing and acts the role of a part in the capitalist machine. Even though she may be tired, bored or horny she continues to work. Even though she may have carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist, pain in her lower back and strain in her eyes she continues working. She can't fathom any other way.
The worker would be seized with fear if he had to live any other way. As Christof so correctly said to Lauren/Sylvia (The film's protester) "I think what really distresses you is that ultimately Truman prefers the comfort of his 'cell' as you call it." Reified workers have been conditioned to fear life. To settle for the pseudo-comfort of alienated living. The sites of this conditioning are family, church, school, sports and work. Rebellious, energetic, not-controllable people are punished and shaped in these sites. They are shaped into fodder for capitalism-useful yet docile. Those that don't conform are sent to prisons or mental hospitals. Only people who fear life and obey authority are allowed to survive unmolested in the capitalist world.
As Niccol, Weir and Carrey showed us in the movie, fear was the mechanism through which Truman was kept in his place. The first thing that occurred each morning when he ventured out into the world, was that he was approached by a dog. He was afraid of the dog. Cristoff made sure that he reminded Truman of his fear every morning. Interestingly, Truman later he realizes that the he is supposed to be afraid of the dog.
Once he figured out that something was amiss, and started attempting to break out of the script, the level fear was turned up. Cristoff had already seared fear into Truman's consciousness through the drowning of his father. This being particularly effective in the psychological domain. If Daddy couldn't make it crossing the big sea that keeps me on this island, how can I? It not only created a post-traumatic stress basis for fear, but it also struck deep into the core of Truman's self-confidence.
Capitalism requires that workers lack self-esteem and self-confidence. People who hold their self in high esteem would not tolerate being worked hard every day to make some lazy stock holders wealthy. Emotionally healthy people don't tolerate being controlled by supervisors. Confident, brave people would tell anyone who asked them to alienate their power to go f-ck themselves. Cristoff knew this and had to create a traumatic enough incident to make Truman neurotic. He reinforced it every day with the dog, the anti-exploration messages at school, the sunken boat by the dock, the anti-travel travel posters, and so on. "You've got to know your limitations," his father told Truman when he was young. Fear is the fetter that keeps us from seeking liberation.
As long as Truman did not know that he was an actor, the production of profit could continue. The movie made it clear that Christof's corporation made money through product placement. Everything was for sale. All camera shots included an advertisement. Only while Truman continued to act unwittingly could the profit train chug down the track. The danger was that the star would find out. This is the danger in our capitalist world also. It is the core of reification. As long as we continue to act in the capitalist drama, as long as we obey/comply/participate we keep the profit train moving.
Capitalism/profit accumulation can continue only if we participate. Workers are the stars of capitalism. Only labor can add value to the boss' commodities (raw materials, machines, office) and make them into sellable products. We the workers are the core of capitalism. We who work daily for the boss are the ones who keep the boss in power. Cristoff could only be the director of the Truman Show if Truman continued to be the star. The capitalist can only continue being a capitalist if we continue to be workers. The Master is a master only if the slave is a slave. This is the essence of alienation and reification. Our belief and participation in the system of oppression and domination are exactly what allows the system to continue oppressing us.
When the actor quits the play ends. When Truman stopped playing, the Truman Show and its profits were threatened. Awareness that we are actors is the turning point of the drama called capitalism as it was for the Truman Show.
So what happens when people stop obeying the master? The master reveals his fascist core. Yet he can't do this too early in the game. It gives away the magic. When those in power act like they are in power, the battle lines are clear. Class consciousness is transparent. The slaves know whose house to burn down during their uprising. Serfs under feudalism knew whose heads to lop off in the guillotine. Capitalism, on the other hand, has, through the process of reification, veiled its authoritarian core.
It is when the actors get uppity that the director has to risk baring his real agenda and crack down. When the character that played Truman's dad snuck back on the set, the innocuous woman with the dog and the man in the suit suddenly broke out of their roles and turned Gestapo. When Truman escaped out of the camera's constant vigilance, the dopey twins became SWAT. Pluto, the neighbor's dog, bared his teeth and the military efficiency of a fascist state stepped into action.
This reminds me of a concept in anatomy. Some tubes in the body like the intestines and the vagina are called virtual spaces. They are only open if something is in them. Otherwise their walls lie next to each other closing the space. As soon as they begin to be filled the potential space opens up and assumes its open position. Capitalist governments are the same. As long as everyone is obediently reified, there is no need for fascism. It would only betray the reality of the situation. When enough people start to openly disobey, the state opens up its fascist options. This is what I call virtual fascism.
Cristoff did everything in his power to keep Truman obedient. Including almost killing him. Truman had to transcend his fear in order to sail across the ocean of reification and unveil the truth. He risked his life for liberation.
What started Truman's voyage to unveil the truth? What was the spark of his de-reification?
Desire. Truman and Lauren/Sylvia, the extra, connected to each other through their eyes. While Truman's appointed air-head wife-to-be and his purposefully inane school buddy tried their best to distract them, Truman and Lauren had a moment of authentic communication. He came to desire her. He pursued this desire and she told him the truth that he was on television. Predictably Cristoff had her labeled schizophrenic. Niccol is so right on with this point. Our deepest desires and truths usually end up as diagnosis in the DSM-IV (the psychiatric diagnostic manual).
Desire is a revolutionary force. It is the antithesis of and therefore the antidote to reification. The system is always trying to distract us from our desire because desire points to the way toward liberation. Truman kept trying to get to Fiji to see Lauren. This opened the path to his unwittingly challenging the system of his bondage. It resulted in the unveiling of the reality of oppression-the first and most critical step in the process of de-reification. Awareness.
Unveiling the truth of our bondage is gut wrenching. Not just the attempt to do it but especially the moment of enlightenment. Just like Truman, we too will pound the walls that have kept us encased in this system of accumulation of profit and destruction of humans. We have to realize that they don't have a camera in our head. We can think for ourselves and stop acting the capitalist's script. Just like Truman we can find the Exit door and step off the stage. Step out of the factory of capitalism. Exit the office of reification and begin to truly live life.
But the piece's claim that the system is based on violence is, I believe, too strongly stated, at least as it applies to the United States and similar nations. I believe the implication, indirect as it is, that the use of force may be one appropriate response is off the mark for at least three reasons. First, we can solve these problems using the tools of democracy. Second, violent revolution can only be justified against entrenched dictatorships in which it is the only recourse. And third, violence would bring a calamity far worse than living in a society in which the rich and powerful use money and media for their own benefit.
The system has much that is bad but I don't believe it is as extreme as the author believes. And it is better than virtually everything that has come before it, which suggests that we can and very likely will progress beyond it.
I believe it is correct to say that if you challenge the system, you will get various kinds of responses that are, to put it nicely, undemocratic. But if enough people put on pressure, the system will change. The governing classes in this society take advantage of their position only because the American people let them. Underneath the "fascist core" is a democratic core.
Readers may also want to look at an essay on this site that suggests America is a virtual oligarchy, and an essay on the movie, The Electric Horseman. Responses from the author and others are invited.
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