October 18, 2005

Paper Term

In the midst of heated and compelling debates, in the middle of our life's journey, it's sometimes worth stepping back to clarify terms; I am reminded of this not just via the thoughtful posts by Bachelardette, Franklin et al, but by my Monday night reading group, which is sick with extraordinarily insightful, patient people of varying interests and analyses. My Tuesdays are always about admiring them.

The term I hope to get closer to today is "false consciousness," since it seems to have been used recently in a way that suggests I have it all wrong. Perhaps I can call upon the intranet participating in this recent debate to act here as a distributed reading group, and help clarify.

My understanding is as such: false consciousness is a specific term from the Marxist tradition (though apparently not found in Marx) with two related but distinct uses. Both of them concern the consciousness of a social class. Now it is of course true that one may choose to refute the entire conception of "classes." If so, this wouldn't alter the idea of "false consciousness"; it would simply make it irrelevant. So this note is only relevant to those who use the term; the clarification I seek regarding the term is for those who would like to, you know, do thinking in relation to it.

The first usage as I understand it, associated with Engels, describes the situation when one social class identifies with the interests of another. For example, when people who can't afford private health care vote for tax cuts that will affect their medical coverage, this would an example of this variety of false consciousness.

The second usage is associated more closely with Lukacs (and is perhaps more interesting to literary types because of the relationship it bears to his "Theory of the Novel" and general account of how different literary forms rise to primacy in different historical moments). This use is a specific description of the bourgeoisie's apostrophizing of the singular self, the autonomy of the individual, etc (hence the term "bourgeois individualism"). The argument is that this particular consciousness must suppress at all costs the idea of a social totality, because to confront it would mean recognizing themselves/ourselves not as a bunch of atomized individuals but as a class (and the problems asscoiated thereto). A crude example of this version of false consciousness would be, say, insisting it's your individual choice to drive an SUV, that such a choice is about "freedom." But a general panic around the dangers of "totality" would also be an example.

So in my understanding, the engagement with the idea of a social totalityówithout being necessarily good or bad, right or wrongówould be the opposite of false consciousness, as the term has developed historically. Do I have this wrong? Thanks for thinking this through with me, you...

[p.s.: the Village Voice's Jessica Winter deploys version one in the current isssue. Oh happenstancy world!]

Posted by jane at October 18, 2005 12:35 PM | TrackBack