Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Matrix

The best way to understand something is to experience it. For example, if you want to understand school, go to school: you will learn all about the expectations and pretensions of official education, and the more you know about it the better you will be at navigating that particular system. This is especially important if you want to learn anything apart from what the institution instructs. Personally, I don't remember much of anything that I was taught in school, but I do remember an awful lot about school. What it communicated to me was crystal clear.

On the other hand, if you want to understand the experiences of the average American working schlep, then you'll want to do some schlepping. You're not going to get anywhere talking "discourse" in some graduate course. Why, that's just problematic! No: you have to interact with people who think maybe Obama is a cool guy to hang out with, but that a cabal of "communist negroes" (except your esteemed colleagues will prefer a different word than "negro") is pushing him to the extreme with his ultra-left "cap and trade" policies. And basically, you have to understand where these people are coming from if you want to understand them, as well as yourself, in this particular situation.

The good news is that plenty of people like you and me are already working schleps; we already have some of this understanding. And most of us are also aware that the reality of our careers can diverge precipitously from the official narrative. The problem is that too many of us feel bad about ourselves in response, rather than treating our life as an object of inquiry -- like students trying to understand their own experiences.

If we want to understand our life, we have to regard it as a legitimate object of inquiry. In other words, this shit is happening to us anyway, so what does it all mean? Why is it happening? Who benefits, if not us? Or, in what proportion do we benefit as compared with other groups? Do those groups have more control over the situation or less? We can't take for granted the fact that significant parts of our lives suck: we have to understand why that is, and what the implications are for us in the long-term.

Some years back I was too easily fatigued by the enthusiasm my younger colleagues showed for the philosophical trappings of the Matrix movies, which as you know is all about changing your perspective in order to see reality clearly. I didn't have a way to articulate the fact that the whole Matrix principle is at work all the time -- but it has nothing to do with babies hooked up to robot squids in ectoplasm, or whatever. We don't learn anything from that. But the idea that there is a superficial reality that is maintained in order to obscure the real workings of modern societies in favor of particular interests -- I tell you: you are better off reading Capital -- and working -- than watching The Matrix. Not an easy sell, I realize, but true nonetheless.

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