As I think about Teju Cole’s Every Day is the Day for the Thief, I am reminded of Ben Lerner’s work in trying to ferret out the subjective vs. objective narrator (Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04). I’m not even sure that this critique is a thing, and I’ll talk about Cole’s amazing novel more in another post, but the conversation prompted me to think about the commodified nature of service, something that seems to happen a lot in my professional life.
I can’t help but go back to Marx, and I thank wikipedia for allowing me to not have to type this out:
As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.
As a culture, we talk about a lot about being service-oriented in all that we do – we fetishize military service (there are other more academic sources, but I don’t have access to my list at the moment), corporate cultures talk incessantly about ways in which their employees can better serve all kinds of folks, and an entire cottage industry has arisen out of figuring out how Piketty understands service in contemporary economics. Marx I think provides us a way to look at that service orientation as a ‘fantastic form of a relation between things,’ one that puts what is essentially a dollar value – and a ‘misty’ one at that – on what on another level could simply be an interaction between people.
The problem, though, is that this move to a service orientation should be great stuff, right? Service should be something that we value, a way to orient ourselves in a corporatist culture that reifies relationships between people as only being possible in commodity terms. It enables us to recognize our privilege, and to ameliorate its harmful effects in ways that help other people materially and spiritually.
And yet, as I hear endless praise of the idea of service, and I do my own volunteer work and attempt to serve others from my position of financial, racial, and cis-gendered privilege, I wonder about the systems that my devotion to this type of practice, well, serve. Am I countering or critiquing or simply confirming that these systems are in place, that they are intractable and maybe irreversible? Do the contradictions and binaries overwhelm my attempts at action? Am I inherently compromised, and is that even a thing?
My own readerly expectations become part of this equation. I originally read Lerner from the perspective of a reader of a lot of what now seem to be fluffy, ridiculous novels in the 80’s that were barely disguised hagiographies to the authors’ younger selves, faux attempts at critique that were mildly nauseating and incredibly self-indulgent. I kept reading Lerner with that lens, forgetting Audre Lorde’s claim that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (her wikipedia entry), an argument that always makes me want to say “but surely you can” and yet trail off into ellipses of regret and apology. Maybe what writers as gifted as Lerner and Cole are doing is just that – using tools of narrative to dismantle the master narratives that solidify as real and natural the commodified relationships that are now called service – in ways that directly challenge Lourde’s argument. If we only think of interacting with each other in these terms, are we simply serving forces that clearly oppress others? Is service our corporatist answer to questions of how we relate to each other in a relatively civil and mass commodified way?
I think back to how quickly I grew frustrated with punk rock attempts to be truly democratic, a use of the word true that will probably frustrate the rhetorician in me. “Who cares how far the damned van seat is moved back, anyway – we’re going to be late for the show!” The patience and language and what then felt like self-indulgence and lack of humility required to argue that long over the ramifications of a very simple act in a very complex world were characteristics I didn’t possess.
In the vein of using the masters’ tools, then, I think that what Lerner and Cole are attempting is possible, even with Lorde’s wise words hanging in the air. Lerner and Cole do not portray themselves as heroes in any sense – Cole’s narrator makes the unheroic decision to return to the U.S. despite being immersed in the subsystems in Nigeria that are fighting the corruption and oppression, and Lerner’s narrators’ constant self-deprecation and calling attention to his own self-indulgent artist persona is hardly flattering. And yet for me as a reader I constantly struggle with seeing outside my own ur-tropes, the expectations that I bring to story-telling that seem to be some sort of binary between realism and hope for the Grand Disruption, or as William Gibson describes in Neuromancer, the moment ‘when-it-all-changed.’ The use of service as a masters’ tool might be something that feels impossible, but perhaps I’m just not thinking of the ways in which we can truly fight back.
Can we parse out these message(s) in ways that make sense for our own lives? I have hope…