Being introduced to Marxism; or, a brief history of courses I’ve taken

In my last academic year (2006-2007), I took a course on aesthetics and politics at UofT, Marxism and Form (VIC401, based on the book of the same title by Fredric Jameson), taught by Eric Cazdyn. Taking the course was one of the more intelligent moves I made while at UofT. It was a graduate seminar and I had absolutely no idea what I was in for: it was probably only long after the full-year course had been completed, when I read Aesthetics & Politics cover-to-cover that I became relatively comfortable with the concepts discussed in the course.

Literature & Theory

I’d taken a course on English literature in the 20th century (ENG140). The emphasis of that course, as I recall (which I don’t recall well because I took it in the summer of 2004 while I was working full-time and taking another course on comparative politics) was not so much on the political or social implications of the texts (and we read some very good texts) as the moves within aesthetics, almost devoid of context — from romanticism to naturalism to … I don’t even remember. I do recall the professor’s analysis of the purple triangle in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a recurring motif, the significance of which flew over my head and probably still would (unless it was related to the politics of queer liberation, which, I can assure you, it wasn’t). I’m probably being unfair to the course, we did read In the Skin of a Lion, as well as Waiting for Godot, and I remember something about postmodernism being discussed (so maybe the course was moving through the major trends of literature?). Though, at the time, in the class I was taking on comparative politics, I learned about the concept of post-materialism which made a lot more sense to me. I should go back to my notes and see if I can actually give a fair and balanced account of the course content. Suffice it to say it bored me, very much.

My next experience with literature was a course on graphic novels (The ‘New Comics’, VIC300) with Luca Somigli. I enjoyed the content of the course, I’d already read most of the comics covered before starting the course anyway; and, judging from the mark I got on my final paper, Prof. Somigli enjoyed my paper very much. I wrote about Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde and his use of stereotypes to advance his political and moral agenda. Still, the discussions of literary theory and aesthetic theory, most of which I don’t recall anyway, probably went flying over my head. From these, and other experiences, I’d reckon that the most difficult thing in taking courses that are entirely outside of one’s academic purview is to acquire and maintain the vocabulary. By vocabulary, I don’t mean just the meanings of new words, but the significances and usages thereof. It took me, for instance, two whole years to wrap my head around the idea of postmodernism.

I suspect a lot of this had to do with the fact that I didn’t really think such terms and courses would be of much use to me — I was focusing on getting into medical school, not graduate school — and no one in life science or the kind of political science I was taking at UofT really cared about such things. That makes me wonder, as an aside, do Straussians bother to acknowledge postmodernism or think it worthy of being addressed? I don’t know of anyone like Harvey Mansfield — whose translations of The Prince and Discourses on Livy are superb — having written on Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Unmanly Liberal Academics.

Political Theory

I had taken a full-year course in 2005-2006 on Straussian theory of foreign policy, Might and Right Among Nations (POL323), which, as hinted at in the title, really just boils down to “might is right”. The readings — classical texts all: Thucydides, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Rousseau — seemed to be about finding some “deeper meaning” (might is right?) that I couldn’t quite seem to grasp. My assessment of the course, after I’d completed it, was not at all charitable. The other course I’d taken, the standard political science course in political theory (POL320), covered works by Rousseau, Mill, Hegel and Marx, but in the worst way possible — it seems to me, reading Hegel and Marx from the perspective of Mill (juridical liberty for all, except coolies and niggers). If we had been introduced to the intricacies and nuances of the dialectical method before reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and various of Marx’s works, we would have gotten a lot more out of the course. Most of my classmates seemed to have found themselves quite comfortable with Hegel, who seemed very much like a nutjob to me, whereas they didn’t seem to be so comfortable with Marx (what’s all this about alienation?), but that was precisely what actually made me take an interest in the course — it’s disappointing that I only really got interested in the course in the last few weeks (my GPA has known better days).

Coming from this kind of a theoretical background (in terms of courses), the course on Marxism & Form was really something new, something I wasn’t expecting to be able to get from UofT — something that challenged dominant paradigms root and branch rather than confirming them or looking to modify some twigs. The reasons I felt this kind of a perspective is necessary are manifold, but chiefly it seemed that everyone else was saying — in some cases literally — “Yes, the world is an awful place, but what can we do about it?” without doing a thorough analysis of history and the relationship between politics and economics.

Political Economy

I got my first real dose of this in a course on the politics of Africa (POL301, Antoinette Handley), though I didn’t entirely realize it at the time. The syllabus of the course was very carefully crafted and the readings were truly epiphanous, precisely because they uprooted so many of my own conceptions about “Africa”. Let me expand on this a bit more, I didn’t know a lot about the history and politics of countries in Africa, I didn’t know (and still don’t know) much about the cultures and ideas, either. I think that most people, including those who want to save Africa, are in the same boat. However, this lack of knowledge is not a void or a black hole, rather it’s full of half-true, patently false and/or ethnocentric (and racist) assumptions and ideas. Doing a little research into the history of colonialism and politics in Africa — as well as examining the study of Africa — is tremendously illuminating. The idea of “ethnicity” and “tribal” warfare, the causes of “African” poverty, the idea of perpetual instability, all of these things can and should be examined through deeply critical lenses — but they’re not. Being critical, to some degree anyway, is what this course helped me do. For that reason, it’s hard for me not to look at the would-be saviours of Darfur or the critics of “corruption and waste” with utter disdain.

A vast, ahistorical set of purposeful misunderstanding exists when it comes to Africa — but not just Africa, this applies pretty much everywhere. Questions thus arise about our understandings of the relationships among culture (and cultural productions, e.g., art), politics, socio-economics and history — questions that aren’t handled well (or at all) in mainstream discourse. Culture, for instance, becomes this feature of societies, disembodied from any material — economic, social and political — roots. Consider the notion that Africans are tribal and prone to petty violence. This view does not take into consideration the construction of “Africa”, the diversity of Africans, the political construction of tribes and tribalisms as a result of colonialism, and the exploitation of ossified identities by politicians and international powers for economic and political gain. Or consider the idea that poor people are lazy. This doesn’t take into consideration the structural conditions of capitalist economy that actually produce and perpetuate poverty, the way that poverty influences familial relationships and lack of opportunities or lack of access to opportunities, or how poverty afflicts particularly those who work really, really hard and still have nothing to show for it (it also ignores the many, many rich people who are tremendously lazy).

Aesthetics & Politics

And so that brings us to this course on Marxism & Form. The idea being that you can dialectically see two movements within a piece of art, one is the content of the work, and the other is its form. I tried to read Jameson’s book in the two weeks allotted, but I found the concepts too new, the prose too dense and the pages too many to be able to do so. But then we slowed down and started going into detail into the theorists discussed in Jameson’s work (to say we slowed down is not quite accurate, we were more-or-less required to read a book per week). I can’t say I was able to grasp all of it, and probably I didn’t. Yet, the learning experience was undoubtedly the most significant yet. To his credit, Cazdyn not only tolerated but encouraged a free flow of ideas and (at least in my case) blog-like responses to allow my understanding to develop, without condescension.

Right off the bat, we discussed interdisciplinarity (which was flying through my head at the time), and how the concept of discrete and separate disciplines doesn’t make too much sense in a broader Marxist analysis: disciplines may be useful for isolating and examining certain phenomena but, in a dialectical analysis, we realize that everything (yes, every bloody thing) is related back to a totality (underlying logic of social and economic realities) and is a specific iteration thereof. But that’s a debate within itself — to what extent is the cultural sphere an iteration of underlying socioeconomic realities, and to what extent is it autonomous? What is the role of art — is it to advance its own formal logic (avant-gardism), or is it to reflect and comment on social realities? How do changes in technology (i.e., economics) modulate the function and role of art? What about situating a work (of art, or whatever else) in its social and historical setting to recognize what influenced it? And, though I didn’t name it at the time, I kept talking about ideology over and over again:

That is a pretty “democratic” notion: that nothing but money determines a person’s worth; it’s almost like the Islamic notion that what determines a person’s worth is his or her deeds (even taking into account the prerequisite for proper faith in Islam). If, apparently, what determines how much money you have is how good you are at making it, then the idea that money determines worth is seemingly egalitarian. But, in Islam, it’s not a zero-sum game, as such. That is to say, if you are born rich, and it is easier for you to be a good person (a good Muslim), and you die, the ease of your life is taken into account. Similarly, if you’re poor, and it’s hard to be a good Muslim, Allah takes that into account as well. There is no afterlife in capitalism.

I was also taking a course on the anthropology of space (ANT459), which was a poorly crafted course, but the readings on David Harvey’s ideas of Marxism and space really meshed in with what I was reading in and thinking about in Marxism & Form (I also brought back ideas from the latter to write a paper for the former). I thus kept going on and on with Marxist theory, and the world — more complicated now than it ever was — nevertheless started making more sense. And I’m now taking a look at aesthetics, politics and popular culture (particularly comics). The aesthetic theory of Brecht, in particular, has interested me (which is why I’ve been reading up on Brecht) — but that’s for another post.


Between May and September 2006, with a lot of help, I was introduced to several aspects of postcolonial theory and I read Said’s Orientalism — which was like reading things I’d experienced and realized but didn’t know how to name. (I later took a course on postcolonial theory, WGS369, which I dropped.) This was vital in complementing the very Eurocentric bias of the Marxism & Form course. At one point, one of my classmates wailed about “the persistence of Eastern despotism” (again, one of those “cultural” things that doesn’t take into account history), and when a friend and I promptly called her out on it, she became a native informant — one had to “live in the Middle East” to realize what she was talking about. When I told her I’d grown up in Saudi Arabia (not that it mattered) the conversation effectively ended. At any rate, the experience solidified the necessity of (postcolonial) historical analysis.

So in 2007 I took Sean Hawkin’s course on subjectivity in sub-Saharan Africa (HIS486), which was really more about Western perceptions of Africans, especially in relation to animals. The course had some remarkable readings, particularly works by Terry Ranger (Voices from the Rocks) and Roderick Neumann (Imposing Wilderness) that highlighted how colonial actors artificially constructed “wilderness” reserves by removing humans and obscuring the history of human occupation of such areas (and, also, fundamentally restructuring economic relations in the process), and how these reserves have perpetuated (and denied the indigenous inhabitants their livelihoods) to this day. There were also works of philosophy and animal rights activists to consider (the latter were roundly trashed). I found my ideas of biodiversity and the necessity of conserving animal life being challenged fundamentally. In several years of fighting, millions upon millions of people have died in the Congo — but the Western media and activists would rather focus on gorillas. Hawkins asked, pointedly, “So what if all the animals die?” I had no answer, and I still don’t.


Other than the content of the course, I found several aspects of Sean Hawkins’s pedagogy quite remarkable. He was willing to take the time out to meet with each student individually (that would be 19 students) after each paper to discuss how its writing and content could be improved. While he claimed these would be 20 minute appointments, he’s also quite verbose once he gets started (my first “twenty minute appointment” went a bit over an hour) — so he set aside several hours of his time to consult with students if they wished. There’s something to be said about that kind of dedication (not least of which, how on earth does a professor find that much time?).

I also finished up a course I was eager to take, but disappointed once it started, on social theory through popular culture (ANT323), taught by Marcel Danesi. On the first day of class, Danesi told the students not to come to class. So I didn’t. I attended class once after that, and then solely to write the three multiple-choice tests that were based largely on his textbook and a packet of readings. Danesi’s textbook was also awful. His project was to “depoliticize” semiotics (I’m really not sure what that means), but it was simply a series of lists of popular culture milestones. Even then, he dedicated one entire sentence to Bollywood in his chapter on films. He also screwed up the definition and discussion of comics. My final paper was about Orientalism in mainstream comics, which, I reckon, the TA who marked it liked very much (I got an A+ on it). I finished the course with a 95, the highest mark I got in university, with absolutely minimal effort. There was really no development of social theory through popular culture, it was more like pandering to grade-grubbing, resume-padding, bird-course-seeking students — which, I suppose, is Danesi’s function at UofT.


All of the above is perhaps quite self-indulgent, but if I wasn’t an egoist I wouldn’t have a blog. At any rate, the most important courses I’ve taken at this university are POL301, VIC401 and HIS486. There are certainly other courses I could have, and should have taken, but for whatever reason I didn’t. Nevertheless, most of my education occurred outside of the classroom in profound discussions with friends and activists. But I’m glad to look back and realize that my undergraduate career wasn’t entirely useless. Coming to an understanding of theory and academia is a process, and I suppose that includes going through all the neoliberal and neoconservative crap — the problem, of course, is that most people don’t come out on the other side. Going through the archives on my blog, I’ve realized how much I’ve changed politically. As little as a year ago, my positions were quite “liberal” — that is to say, those of a social democrat, happy with liberal democracy — and that’s quite far away from the way I think now. this!

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