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Walking a Tight Rope: Accounting for Oppression and Resistance.


Writing yet another piece of text about the uniqueness of the human condition in the contemporary context is a tricky enterprise, precisely because there already is a vertiginous amount of literature that has piled up which claim to have solved this question one way or another. One could only hope that acknowledging this fact will redeem this particular paper in comparison with it’s competitors.

The particular aspect of contemporary life I wish to address is the relationship between object (I use a broad definition for object including: ideas, systems, designs etc) and subject.

There is an influential current of thought within the study of politics which draws attention to the increasing sophistication of the apparatus of power. The broad outline of this position can be identified in the work of Steven Lukes. The core of the argument is that the nature of power must be expanded to include unobservable power. Lukes is pointing out the element of insidiousness contained within the notion of power.

Lukes’ contribution certainly allows the analyst of contemporary society to develop new tools to identify aspects of power which had priorly escaped political philosophers. Like the biologist needs a microscope to observe the aspects of an organism that were previously out of reach, so does the social scientist need the idea of three dimensional power to observe elements of authority which priorly eluded perception. Nevertheless, a social scientist should not rely on this particular instrument to draw definite conclusions, any more than the biologist relies on the microscope for the same purpose.

If we consider the power apparatus as an object and the society it imposes itself upon as the subject, Lukes’ argument would come to imply the predominance of the object over subject. Hence, the machinery of oppression has disguised itself so craftily, that it’s invisibility has become the very source of it’s potency. We can now have a brief look at the specific debates which stem from this fundamental opposition.

The high profile debates concerning religion is a good example. The ‘radical atheist’ idea could be viewed as taking the position of the supremacy of the object (in this case religion) over the subject. There is a very clear current of thought in these arguments about how religion and idiocy come hand in hand.

Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish gene’ and it’s extension to the realm of ideas with the notion of the ‘meme’ is unique in the sense that it almost grants an aspect of materiality to ideas. The question of who benefits from the presence of ideas is answered as follows: “not brains, individuals or societies but memes themselves. Just as genes or viruses seek serial immortality by successively using, then discarding the individual organisms that host them, so memes seek to perpetuate themselves by nesting and nurturing in mind after mind.” (Atran 2001 p5).

The parallels with Lukes’ insidious machinery of power and Dawkins’ memes should be clear. Both are arguing for the presence of a self interested apparatus which imposes itself on individuals or societies and short circuits their better judgement to take control of their agency.

It follows from this, that religion is a similarly imposing structure which eludes the rational defences of the human mind and attaches itself to it’s receptacle much like a parasite would. The radical atheist view then goes on to describe how religion debilitates the critical faculties of human reflection and causes humanity to commit heinous acts.

Scott Atran exposes the weakness of Dawkins’ construct with a series of simple experiments, which not only demonstrate the untenability of memes, on the basis that ideas do not create perfect reproductions of themselves between receptacles. But also makes it clear without a shadow of a doubt that, prof. Richard Dawkins, needs to go out more often.

For example, in another set of classroom experiments, I asked students to writedown on a piece of paper the meanings of three of the Ten
Commandments: (1) Thou Shall Not Bow Down Before False Idols; (2) Remember the Sabbath;(3) Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother. Despite the students’ own expectations of consensus,little was apparent. One class of 10 students interpreted (1) as: “Only worship the ChristianGod”; “Don’t follow anyone else’s rules but God’s”; “Only believe in what is good or you go toHell”; “Be careful not to pay too much attention to wealth and material things”; “Be true to yourself and don’t compromise your ideals just to satisfy short-term goals”; “”Believe in thesystem your parents inflicted on you”; “Why not believe in celebrities?’ “Don’t follow badexamples”; “You should not worship objects, persons or gods outside your religion”; “It means that person who is false – a person who does not show cooperation should not be someone I follow.” These responses, in turn, were presented to another class, and students were againasked to give the meaning of the expressions read. Not one produced a recognizable version of (1). Interpretations of the other commandments showed similar ranges of variation.
(Atran 2001 p21-22)

Atran reveals the insult to human intelligence Dawkins’ proposition contains. The political implication of Dawkins’ idea runs deep. It claims that we as humans are incapable of making up our minds ‘correctly’ and need to be told by scientists who somehow have privileged access to truth. This is essentially the central argument of Daniel Dennet’s 2007 TED talk about consciousness: “Scientists using their from-the-outside third person method, can tell you things about your own consciousness that you would never dream of. And in fact you are not the authority on your consciousness that you think you are […] we have to have more theory and it can come as much from top down” (Dennet 2007). Incidentally, Dennet starts the talk by complaining about his social awkwardness at parties he attends. Which should not be surprising given his authoritative view of human consciousness and his irritating habit of mouth-breathing which is clearly audible during his entire talk.

So although the contribution of radical atheists in opening up the dogma of religion to debate is absolutely invaluable, these theories fail to give humanity it’s real due. Individual interpretations are entirely factored out of the model, and ideas/memes are presented as monolithic structures, with the strength to entirely overpower human agency.

Further application of the object-subject question can be observed in the debate over the role of culture in the assignment of class in contemporary post-industrial societies. In his groundbreaking work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu adopts a similar view to that of Lukes’ by emphasising the misleading self-effacing nature of the distribution of cultural capital in the expense of the working classes. It is difficult to resist Bourdieu’s call for re-examining the role of culture on social justice

“Against the charismatic ideology which holds that legitimate tastes in matters of culture are a gift of nature, scientific evidence shows that cultural needs are the products of education: the survey establishes that all the practices (frequentation of museums , concerts, exhibitions, lectures etc.) and the preferences in matters of literature, painting or music are tightly linked to the level of instruction (measured by academic titles or number of years of study), and secondly to social origin”
(Bourdieu 1979 p1; translation my own)

It would be a great mistake to deny legitimacy to Bourdieu’s account of class distinction. Valid observation of cultural phenomena does necessitate to adopt a stance of ‘methodological philistinism’ (Gell 1992) similar to that of ‘methodological atheism’ which is considered to be consensus in studying religion. Some of the very real social problems created by the ‘culture industry’ deserve to be persistently exposed by empirical research.

Some of the most striking work regarding the clash between high and low culture addresses the issue of urban gentrification. Sharon Zukin’s examination of how the SoHo district of New York was stripped entirely from it’s industry and replaced by artist studios first and fancy living lofts for yuppies working at Wall Street (Zukin 1989). The study establishes links between political lobbies composed of the financial elite intend on cleaning the area of the ‘unsavoury’ working class characters, the government policies to encourage conversion of small industries into living lofts and the increasing appeal of loft living thanks to the community of artists who moved in. All this has been done under the pretence that the small industry in the region was failing anyway. Which according to Zukin’s analysis is simply not true.

We see art being literally shoved into the area as a celebration of cultural progress over the dying remains of industry. In reality however this is nothing but the mischievous machinery to which Bourdieu and Lukes points our attention to. The emerging picture is that of colonisation of a neighbourhood by a cultural elite, who constantly push the prior occupants further and further to the edge of the city.

Although the problem of object-subject relationship is far more valid on the subject of cultural capital than it is on the question of religion for various reasons that are beyond the scope of this individual project. Nevertheless; there is a similar mistrust to human capability engrained in Bourdieu’s methodology. The implication is that the working classes are fooled by the educational and cultural capital system to act against their own interest.

The assumption is that much like the religion meme disregards the well being of the organism it inhabits, the educational system relies on the illusion that it gives equal advantages for everyone to achieve. Once society has been duped into believing the goodwill of the educational institution, it becomes easier for the same institution to bar the working classes from the higher echelons of society. Educators then acquire the right to say that children from unprivileged backgrounds have underachieved and hence don’t deserve to benefit from the otherwise perfectly fair ‘meritocracy’.

Paul Willis responds to this line of thinking in his Learning to Labour How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Willis conducts fieldwork with a group of students in an underprivileged school and explains how quite contrary to being dupes of the system, working class children are in fact wilfully resisting predominant middle class values like conformism and competition. “The refusal to compete, implicit in the counter-school culture, is therefore in this sense a radical act: it refuses to collude in its own educational suppression” (Willis 1977 p128).

So on one hand we have the object oriented thinking of Bourdieu which declares the game of cultural capital acquisition as a profoundly rigged system that serves to benefit the ruling class. The defining feature of this system is once again it’s unidentifiable nature, it’s elusiveness. On the other hand we have the fieldwork evidence brought up by Willis which suggest that getting ‘further’ in life is a dreadfully unattractive prospect that involves submitting to authority and jumping through educational hoops.

The importance of striking a compromise between these two positions is absolutely critical to understanding and solving problems that spring up from the object-subject dichotomy. The pragmatic necessities that come out of both perspectives are absolutely critical, if we choose to follow the former position of allowing the object supreme power over the direction of social agency, if we choose to follow the former position of allowing the object supreme power over the direction of social agency we will acquire an invaluable instrument that allows us to see through some of the hidden aspects of social control. However Submitting to this idea entirely will introduce the danger of ignoring actual instances of resistance and submitting to a methodology that leads more to a form of conspiracy theory than an acceptable scientific analysis of contemporary actuality.

If on the other hand we decide to bank on the ethnographic evidence presented by scholars like Atran and Willis, we may end up taking the risk of putting too much faith in the resistance of human agency and ignore some very real problems caused by the imposition of insidious forms of political oppression.

It is almost impossible to over-emphasize the importance of formulating a compromise between these two positions as a political imperative. If as analysts we end up supporting one or the other with blind faith as it were a football team, we will enter this second decade of the new millennium with a level of impotence which will be astonishing even for the traditionally detached institution we work for aka the university.

Kind Regards,
Uncle Joe


Atran Scott ‘Trouble with Memes: Inference Versus Imitation in Cultural Creation’, Human Nature 2001 12/4 p 351-381
accessible from:

Bourdieu Pierre, ‘La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement’, Les Editions de Minuit: Paris 1979

Dennet Daniel ‘Dan Dennet on Conciousness’ TED talks, Filmed: February 2003, Posted: April 2007
accessible from:

Alfred Gell, The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology. In Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. J. Coote and A. Shelton, eds. pp. 40–66. Oxford: Clarendon

Willis Paul Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, Columbia Press: New York 1977

Zukin Sharon Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Rutgers University Press: New Rutgers, New Jersey 1989.

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