Posted by The Happy Tutor
On the recommendation of Inspector Lohmann, I have been reading James Scott, a Yale anthropologist who has himself read Bakhtin. Scott's conceptual framework is simple but powerful. Oppressor (Master) and oppressed (slave), both have their public and private transcripts. The public transcript is what historians study, the media covers, what ends up in the record books as the events, sights, sounds, spectacles, and stories of an epoch. The public transcript, of course, is written by the Oppressor. Now, both Oppressor and oppressed also have their private transcript, the conversations either group has out of earshot of the other. What Masters say about slaves behind the slaves back, or Philanthropists say about losers, is not really part of the public record. A certain decorum draws a veil, as the powerful meet in safe places to speak candidly. Yet, in the Big House, the servants do hear things, and stand like statues, mute and unseeing in their livery. They are not human. Their feelings need not be taken into account. What happens in the Big House stays in the Big House. Those house slaves who fail to follow that rule are sanctioned and replaced with those who know how the game is played. By the same token, the slaves have their own hush arbors, their own secret haunts where they meet far from the aptly named overseer's eyes and ears to tell their own stories. Yet, of course, such stories are dangerous. Better to speak in code, by telling stories of a Fox and a Rabbit. Scott makes clear that these cultures that butt up against each other in the public transcript, dominated by the ruling group, can continue for hundreds or thousands of years like this, in parallel. One is history; the other is largely lost to history. Yet, of particular interest are the crossover points, the crossroads, the thresholds and eruptions of the subaltern transcript into the dominant one. We see that in Carnival, Saturnalia, in folklore, myth, rumor, jokes, memes, folk music, rap and riffs that go from mouth to mouth without an author. What these have in common is that either the messenger or the message is disguised. Who can say where a joke started and who is responsible? In the house of rumor it is the winds who speak. In Carnival masks, as the dancers and party goers swirl into the streets, who can say who is whom or who said what? Alternatively, the hidden transcript can erupt through a priestess in a trance at Delphi, or through the mouth of a Fool, or in the words of a madman who knows not what he says, or it can arrive on the lips of a prophet whose head will soon be displayed on a sliver charger.
In the case of Mandela or Biko, the private transcript of a subordinate group, its healing stories, its self-respect and dignity, assert themselves in the public transcript, attempting to establish a new storyline, a new hero story, a new history and new and more open future. Such charismatic moments, not unlike the French Revolution, that so inspired Wordsworth ("Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive") are also fraught. Mandela went to prison but survived. Biko died like our dearly departed Author Function under the care of the Anti-Terror Torture Police who operated within the alternative procedures required to maintain ordered liberty in that oppressive state in that oppressive era. What the stories of Uncle Remus show is another ideal, another and less risky strategy for survival with some shred of dignity and self respect even within a position of constant humiliation: How to make do in the meantime, how to get by, hidden in plain sight, using "the weapons of the weak," as Scott calls them, including in our case blogs here in our hush arbor, or Dumpster, hidden in plain sight, not seen by the powers that be, but over-looked, not heard but over-heard, in the uneasy truce, or constant cold war, or guerrilla struggle, between transcripts public and private.
For me this conceptual grid, as over-simplified as it may be (since it includes only two groups when there are really so many levels and factions) finally explains a mystery on which I was called out years ago by Turbulent Velvet. He asked why I, as an egalitarian, was drawn to satires written by figures like Juvenal, Horace, and Swift who were quite clearly and conspicuously in the service of Empire and the religious and cultural traditions that supported Empire. Was I crazy? Now I think the mystery is solved. Satire is written into the public transcript, but subsumes and draws upon and cycles back and co-opts, the weapons of the weak. Swift, Rabelais, Erasmus, Dryden, Gay, Pope, and on and on down through Wilde were certainly more closely associated with Oppressor than oppressed, when it comes to rank, social position, social circles, education, beliefs, and way of life. Yet in their work the language of Carnival, language from below, the language of Dionysian revelry, of Beggars beneath a bridge, of Grub Street, of pickpockets, thieves, and prostitutes, of sexual energy, violence, gluttony, and scatology gets cycled back into the public record, but (as Bakhtin would say) "re-accentuated" to bear the stamp of the ruling group's ideology. As with dreams, and jokes, the imagery of elite satire is a condensation of contradictions, hence its explosive power, its danger, for it pulls both ways, towards the private and public transcripts of power and also towards the hidden traditions of the oppressed. The result can be called a safety valve, periodic release, or co-optation, or it can present itself with an alibi ("Just joking, Sir") but it can also open or presage a revolutionary moment, as it did with Swift, Dr. Johnson, and Voltaire. Glasnost and Perestroika may start with samizdat to be ratified later by an official decree when the movement from below has gone to far to be stopped.
So, Gifthtub, The World We Want, and Wealth Bondage - not hard to parse these on the story told above. Two languages, the smooth and candid language of established power, and the contorted language of humiliated peoples, enter the public transcript, in various ratios and measures: At Gifthub, as literal dominant speech, or as comedy; at The World We Want as managerial/promotional discourse written to, by and for the dominant giving class who imagine the world we want as a casual extrapolation of current dominant trends; and at dear old Wealth Bondage, more subversively in an ongoing but unlicensed Saturnalia open to all comers, out in the public square, like a Dumpster or public convenience on whose walls are scribbled the secret thoughts of an oppressed people in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. For us, members of the Dumpster Tong, no official holiday as yet has been declared. Some day, perhaps, we will have our Happy Tutor day, or Dumpster Day, much like the Fourth of July, to celebrate real Freedom - not the phony sort that we have now, ruled under the newly revised law by abduction, torture, and secret military tribunals, but the kind of political liberty on which this country was originally founded and for which so many brave people have already given their lives. In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They have no Decider, no CEO, no Emperor, no King, no President strutting about in Flight Gear and declaring Defeat to be Victory and Torture to be Freedom because he says so upon pain of reprisal. We do not take our opinions from the society of the spectacle. As concerned citizens, we reason with one another, and present our words as a gift to our fellow citizens, though disguised and displaced since Candidia is always listening and brooks no dissent from her dominant narratives of Domination termed Freedom.
Wealth Bondage is a dangerously ambiguous point of intersection, where the Dumpster butts up against the Corporate Head Quarters, for here Uncle Tom , the good house slave, the trusted advisor, who has heard the private transcript of the rich, the private protocols of philanthropists in their safe places, holds forth as Uncle Remus, telling preposterous tales of characters with funny names. In so doing, the Author Function, may he rest in peace, rules from the grave, like a good philanthropist. And perhaps like Biko his death will one day be honored with a peaceful day of Reconciliation where those who abducted him, and tortured him, are brought to justice and tried for War Crimes committed (legally under laws they passed for that purpose) in the War on Terror in which we lost our political liberties, before winning them back in peaceful struggle however long that takes, no matter what the price. But best always to keep the benefits high and the cost low. That is what satire, and carnival, my friends, are all about when they boil over into the public square as a Dumpster Dialogue. Grab a mask. Make your voice heard, but only in jest, parable and story. Why make it easy on those who wish us ill? Let them join us here on our own terms - those of a free people in Wealth Bondage. They too, the rich, the powerful, the think tank thinkers, all of you! Welcome! In your own chosen mask, tell us who you really are, and what you really think. We are all house slaves one way or another. Right? (No? My dear colleagues and fellow servants of wealth, please don't make me prove it from your public transcript, that would be painful for us both. You can ignore me, my colleagues, but I know you well and your story will be told - something about a Fox, maybe.) So, give it up, settle down, take a hit from the bottle of Thunderbird we pass around to confirm our fellowship. I do not judge you. You have done nothing I have not done worse and for less money. You think you are a whore? What about me? I have never pretended to be anything else. We do what we must in this hard world to get by. So, relax. We are all sinners here. We are delighted to have your company.