Thursday 21 May 2015

Where the Wild Things Are - what can marxist approaches to the book suggest?

[UPDATE: I have added some notes to this article in my next blog]

Where the Wild Things Are appears to be a book about things that we call 'personal' - in this case 'anger'. It presents them in a way that we might call 'mythic' (in that the shape and form of the story is similar to folk tales, legends and myths). We might also call it 'fantasy' in that some of the events and creatures are clearly not 'real', and some things (like the forest growing in the boy's bedroom)  happen in a seemingly magical way. Or we might call it in part 'surreal' in that some of the events happen in ways which juxtapose 'real' things in ways that are 'unreal'.

With all this being the case, this surely is a book which does not lend itself to marxist criticism. Let's see what happens if we view the book with some of the critical apparatus that has developed under the heading of marxist criticism. Areas that might come into the reckoning here are:
'what marxists have said' about such matters as:
commodity fetishism
social and economic reproduction

According to Marx we are all positioned within class, classes and indeed within the 'class struggle' which is an inevitable part of how things are made and serviced in a capitalist society. At the core of society in what he called 'production' (the making and servicing of the things we need, desire and consume), is a battle over the price of labour. This may be expressed as a direct conflict over the amount of wages, it might be a conflict over the number of people employed, or it might be an indirect conflict over conditions of work, holidays, pensions or over that part of the national cake which is given over to health care, education and welfare.

At first glance, this has nothing to do with WTWTA. That said, any book which shows people and the places they live in can't help but give off signals about their conditions of living. This household is clearly not fabulously wealthy, and though absence cannot be taken as non-existence, it's a household that doesn't appear to have servants. It's modestly furnished. There is no indication that a father is present. But it's a house, not a hovel. It's not overcrowded. At the very least, this gives us a kind of window within which this little unit - Max and his mother - appear to live. They are adequately but not luxuriously resourced.

This is a white family, which in a US context means that it has a position in the race hierarchy born of its history of slavery which, in the wider context of the world, is born of how Europe colonised the rest of the world. Just to be clear, this is about a hierarchy of how we receive such notions of superior/inferior rather than simply or only a matter of income. However, the very fact that there is a hierarchy has served the most powerful, most rich of this world rather well. Max is a boy (and not a girl)  and is therefore positioned in another hierarchy in which part of his formation (if we take him to be 'real') is in making him masculine not feminine. The book itself may be part of how this formation comes about, that is in how masculinity is produced, or part of how to be a good or 'normal' male, according to what this particular society validates and approves of as good or normal. Again, this hierarchy with its huge differentials in pay and opportunity seems to have served the owners and controllers of power and wealth extremely well. There are other hierarchies he is part of - he is not disabled though it's clear he is doing things which his prime carer thinks is problematic. In modern jargon he has 'anger-issues'!

He is also in a hierarchy of adult-child. His prime carer clearly has the power to send him away, and sends him to a particular place, a place that historically has been carved out of our habitations within which most of the world now thinks is a good place for children to sleep - a place separate from adults in which they can or should 'play'. In fact, this idea is enshrined within the massive industry of house and apartment building, and is a crucial fact in the housing market. It is a fundamental part of everyday existence for billions of people and yet we should remember that it's something created within history. It is not a universal part of all children's lives now, nor has it ever been. This historically contingent fact, then, is part of what enables the mother to detach Max from her. So, the 'psychological' feature of 'detachment' is in fact intertwined with the historical and class aspect of being able to detach in that particular way. In a way, 'Go to your room!' is a class statement. Indeed this detachment process has been identified as one of the ways in which we teach children 'discipline', i.e. how to survive without being 'attached' to our parents, better able, it is argued to accept the rigours and disciplines of the workplace, where we are required to detach ourselves from those we love and are loved by so that we can devote our energies to helping produce things and profits for someone employing us. Max is sent somewhere that is historically important for this social process to be carried out. It is not 'innocent' of such connections.

Culturally speaking, WTWTA comes to us a 'picture book'. This is an artefact that has been created and modified in the modern era. In its present form, it's only possible to create it as a cheap, colourful object as a result of mass production, though its roots are in small-scale artisan printing and production. WTWTA comes out of a large corporation, its pages printed far from the offices that plan its distribution. It is part of globalisation. The very fact that I know it and have seen hundreds of copies of it, is a result of that. Any reader of the book is part of that system of production and distribution. Thousands of people are responsible for this - from editors, publicists through to truck-drivers, printers, ink-makers, paper-makers, sailors, salespeople, shop staff and so on. This production process depends on the same kinds of hierarchies that I've already mentioned - where huge differentials of pay and power result from class, and hierarchies of race, gender and physical/mental ability.

But this production and distribution network works hand in hand with validation. WTWTA only reaches us because it is validated by a system of criticism in papers and magazines, This feeds into a buying network of individuals and institutions - especially schools. A book like this survives and flourishes as a result of validation and is enabled by the system of production and distribution. This 'mediation' becomes part of the meanings we make of the book itself. One key example of this is the construction of the notion of a 'classic'. In the end it becomes impossible to distinguish between meanings apparently contained within the text, the meanings we as individual readers make and the construction of a book through its mediation. This is a useful reminder that ideology is not a matter of simply reading a viewpoint off any given text.  Nevertheless we can see that WTWTA is positioned for us now as a classic. We can ask why that might be.

At the heart of the story, is the tale of one white, able bodied, adequately fed and sheltered, cared-for male (thereby ticking off several scores in the various hierarchies). He is a child (lower on the adult-child hierarchy) but as we shall see, that is part of one of the institutional functions of the book. It is also significant that whatever problems or struggles he faces, he faces these as an individual.  This slots him into a long literary tradition in which a hero or anti-hero goes through the world, society, war, struggles, quests, challenges on his (it is nearly always a male) own. In this case, Max also follows another long standing tradition:  he 'sails away' - he leaves what appears to be a western urban situation - and goes to somewhere seemingly tropical and 'uncivilised'. In other words, he follows a tradition going back as least as far as 'Robinson Crusoe', which of course is riven through with colonial and imperial assumptions. On arrival, Max meets 'wild' things, hybrid humanoid-animal creatures who are explicitly un-tamed. As is part of this tradition,  these wild things are immediately framed as threatening to the western white male. As has often been pointed out, the net effect of western occupations  and colonialisations has been to inflict terrible damage on indigenous populations. In other words, the literary representation of these encounters has been a projection of western genocidal views on to supposedly 'savage' populations who are supposedly going to wipe out the white male, whereas it was the converse that actually took place - nowhere more poignantly and obviously within the US itself.

So, Max 'tames' the wild things, whereupon these seemingly savage beings 'know' that they need and want a king, who is of course the young white male. This replicates the scenes in 'Robinson Crusoe' in which Friday 'knows' that Crusoe is his superior and his ideal position is as Crusoe's servant.

Now, it can easily be pointed out that this isn't the 'point' of this encounter, that this story is about a boy mastering his anger, that the 'wild things' are 'just' or 'only' representations of his inner demons and the like and the 'king' is a Freudian symbol of how the 'ego' masters the 'id' and so on.  But what this illustrates is that notions like this come to us in this book embodied in what is the classic form of the colonial encounter. In the jargon:  the ideas are 'freighted' with colonialism.  The idea of overcoming anger is carried by the metaphor or 'figure' of a colonial encounter. And this is one of the key ways in which ideology works. That is, it arrives not as 'the message' but as the unstated, not-foregrounded 'point' of the story. It arrives as an assumption. 'Of course wild things can be tamed by a white male, albeit a very young one, and of course they will ask him to be king.'

In its route to becoming a classic, the book has been invested with a capacity to help people overcome irrational anger.  Max at the beginning is himself 'uncivilised' (part of a longstanding trope that young children are like 'savages' and 'savages' are like young children, each with their uncontained desires and 'wild' behaviours, and naive thought processes - supposedly).  He has threatened to harm the very person who nurtures him ('I'll eat you up') but when he comes back home, he has calmed these urges (as represented symbolically by calming the wild things) and someone has forgiven him:  there is hot food waiting for him. The undertow here is that this is 'freeing' Max from his unconfined and unrestrained and uncivilised urges. There is, it is suggested some kind of progressive liberation going on here.

So far, so good. The problem though is that this liberation (if that's what it is) has taken place in the form of a distinctly un-liberatory encounter - this quasi-neo-colonial one. In some marxist accounts of what happens in fiction, (e.g. Jameson, Macherey) this expresses 'contradiction' or the contradictory 'unconscious' of the story. What appears to be the story's prime motive appears to be countered or contradicted by the ideology of its form: liberation within an oppressive encounter.

The book doesn't exist separately from its role in 'production' nor isolated from any socio-political function. As well as being a book, it is also a commodity. Again, according to marxism, capitalism creates or embodies or produces 'commodity fetishism'. This isn't simply a matter of fetishising products or 'consumerism', as we call it. It is also, more significantly, a process by which anything in the universe can be made 'equivalent' through the cash nexus, that is reduced to the quality of being a 'thing'.  Anything can be bought and sold, including our own minds, bodies and emotions. So, though WTWTA embodies ideas and feelings it is also a necessary commodity that has a price which is part of the overall process of producing profits within a corporation.

In its dual role as commodity and bearer of ideas and feelings it is placed in two key institutions - the institution of nurture and the institution of education. The nature of capitalist society requires these two institutions to deliver up packages of labour power (individuals with skills and abilities) to society and industry. In its role as a carrier of ideas and feelings, the book enters a conversation or discourse about how we nurture and educate. In society, we have conversations about 'discipline'. This is a key marker of how any given society controls, contains, shapes and represses its younger generation. For several hundred years, western society has been dominated by the idea that children need 'discipline', that they are wild or sinful unless they are controlled by all-knowing adults. Counter to that idea, have been  various ideas which suggest that children can be encouraged to find other ways to proceed: e.g.  through co-operation, empathy, self-awareness and the like. In fact, education has been one of the battlegrounds in which this very struggle has taken place.

WTWTA seems to embody several positions. Max is 'disciplined'. Because he has said something deemed by the mother to be wrong, he is detached from motherly love. He is sent away to sit on his own. This is a sanction, as the child-rearing books put it, or 'time out'. In the situation of coming face to face with his own anger, Max then overcomes his apparent badness and becomes good again. No matter how much of an achievement this is shown to be as performed by Max on his own, the means by which it happened was a sanction. And his achievement is then validated (positively reinforced) by the hot food at the end. Superficially then, the book appears to validate self-realisation and 'good' individuation and 'good' self-control, but in actual fact it is framed by parental 'discipline'. This is not to say that such parental behaviour in real life is either good or bad - that's not the discussion I'm having here. What is significant is that it is the adult's actions and approach which are validated by the book. And yet, if we look at this encounter as one of millions, we can ask ourselves what is it about this adult world's values that are worth validating? Put it this way: the adult world out of which this book appeared, and then went on to validate the book, was dripping with the blood of terrible wars, many of which were directed towards indigenous peoples thousands of miles from the metropolitan west. Perhaps children's books in general and this one in particular served a function (of several functions) in patting adults on the back at the very moment in which the adult world was/is seriously screwing up. The child figure was then 'used' by the piece of fiction to do this.

Further to this, one key marxist concept that is enmeshed within these questions of nurture and education is what is termed 'reproduction' - not in the sense of sexual reproduction but in the sense of how it is that a society reproduces itself. So, since capitalism was invented, how has it been able to reproduce itself? One obvious way is for the rich and powerful to pass on riches and power dynastically - that is through inheritance to children.  One part of the structure of capitalism is quite literally reproduced that way. But another kind of reproduction is necessary: people who have nothing but their labour power to sell as a means of earning their livelihood have to be convinced to go on doing it, and indeed to pass on that 'discipline' to their offspring. Given that work is hard and it is quite obvious that no matter how hard you work, you will never earn enough to have all the things you need, want or desire, how is this matter managed? It has been suggested that this is engineered in several ways at the same time: through commodity fetishism; through the manufacture of desire (largely through advertising);  through the false prospect that 'anyone' can succeed is the same as saying that 'everyone' can succeed;  through suggesting that competition with our fellow-humans achieves more than co-operation;  through the almost compulsory acquisition of debt (thereby ensuring the prospect that penury lies around the corner unless you go to work tomorrow);  and various other mechanisms to ensure passivity - through e.g. instilling a sense of never being as 'good' or as beautiful as the super-humans who are paraded in front of us…and so on. Further, it is necessary for a capitalist society to produce elites whose main function is to proclaim the worth of a capitalist society and/or to ensure its smooth working. These elites are also self-reproducing, usually through the mechanism of a confluence between home and school. That's to say the processes of education with its systems of the private acquisition of knowledge, reinforced through the enforced test-crazy regime, are reinforced or even engineered by the home background of elite parents. The kinds of knowledge rated by elite families are similar to the kinds of knowledge prioritised within the exam system while other kinds of knowledge e.g. cooking or hands-on engineering are given low status. Even linguistic strategies developed within the homes of elite families seem confluent with those that are given high rating within the exams - written rather than oral; extended non-fiction prose rather than drama, fiction and poetry, and so on.

So, WTWTA lands into this process of reproduction. In some respects, as a consequence of its popularity and widespread distribution within the school system, the book holds within it certain reproduction-busting elements: a complex story about a child's emotions is accessible to millions of children at a time when children's emotions are given low status and low priority within the education system. At times in the story, the adult-child hierarchy is broken by the seriousness with which the book takes a child's emotions. Yet, I am suggesting that through its class, gender, race and physical positioning this subversive element is at least in part undermined. Similarly, the symbolic representation of 'overcoming' anger as a western white male being crowned king by wild indigenous peoples far from the boy's home, likewise rebounds back against the book's ability to break the cycle of reproduction. In crude terms, the book shows kingship (boss-ship) as good and being ruled or being lower class as not so good. To be fair though, the boy learns freedom, joy and pleasure from the lower orders, experiencing a form of liberation through the 'wild rumpus'. The constraints of his life back in 'civilisation' are thrown off in the rumpus. But he can't stay. The rumpus comes to an end, it is contained by closure. The form requires him to return to 'civilisation' where his 'real' life, the norm,  can carry on. Max is saved for reproduction. He will be able to dutifully do what society (as embodied by his mother at this stage in his life) asks him to do.

The critic Raymond Williams suggested that at any given moment, culture or a cultural artefact expresses 'residual', 'dominant' and 'emergent' aspects. In other words, cultural forms do not tally exactly with the economic forms. Under capitalism, it may at times be convenient or necessary to express cultural ideas that stem from, say, a feudal outlook (i.e. residual) or from a liberated, co-operative, utopian perspective (i.e. emergent) or simply as a kind of mouthpiece for the main outlook of capitalism's ruling class (i.e. dominant).

WTWTA appeared and goes on appearing at a time that some have called 'late capitalism'. It appeared at the height of the cold war when we were told that a struggle for the very life of capitalism was under way. Some suggested that much of this was bogus, and that the threat of communism served capitalism very well. It discouraged working people from envisaging any opposition or utopia  based on a non-capitalist set-up. It helped bolster the biggest arms industry the world has ever known thereby diverting huge resources into the production of weapons rather than healthcare, education and welfare. Now, the great problem facing capitalism is its own tendency towards crisis, produced probably by the central problem at its heart: more commodities are produced than can be bought by the people. That's because capitalism works by not paying employees the full value (as measured by the total price of goods sold) of their work. They never earn enough to buy what the produce. To compensate for this, capitalism diverts billions into creating demand and desire.

In one sense, WTWTA is part of that. An apparatus of critical thought (of which this essay is part) has as its ultimate message 'buy it'. In fact, for that book to pass on its ideas and feelings, it has to be bought. Though many of the ideas and feelings are confluent with the dominant of the ideas of the day, it also contains within it some residual ideas e.g. in relation to 'kings' and savages along with some emergent ones, in relation to the legitimation of a child's emotions. Further, the book often ends up in places where it is received and interpreted collectively - in kindergartens and places of shared care and education of very young children. There are many occasions where meanings are produced and contested  in this shared environment. More than likely, these situations are not ones where there will be some tested outcome based on the narrow criteria required by tests: those of 'retrieval' and 'inference' , which close down and control 'interpretation',  thereby eliminating open-ended and collective learning. It enters what I would call, then, emergent practice. I'm suggesting that this will de-individuate the story. It becomes less of a story about 'I' and more of a story about how 'we' have these feelings and emotions - though, as I've said, the solution expressed within the book is an 'I' solution not a 'we' one. Even so, the book results in shared subjectivities, an emergent - even subversive idea, particularly for members of non-elite groups, members of people on the lower end of society's hierarchies.