Skip to main content Skip to navigation

assessed essay questions, 1st set, 2012-13

Literary and Cultural Theory, 2012-2013

Assessed Essay Questions 1st paper

Answer ONE of the following questions. Please note that essays are due on 4th December (Tuesday of Week 10).

1. ‘Are we now living in an enlightened age? No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment’. Explain what Kant means by this distinction. If the question were to be asked once more today, how would you answer it?

2. ‘By the public use of one’s own reason I understand that use which someone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the world of readers’/‘By the public use of one’s own reason I mean that use which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public’. These are two translations of this key sentence in Immanuel Kant’s essay, ‘What is Enlightenment’. The ideas of disinterestedness and universality seem fundamental to Kant’s conception. Indeed, the ‘public’ use of reason is often construed as ‘reasoning for reason’s sake’. Is such a use of reason even possible, do you think? Give reasons for your answer.

3. ‘The hypothesis I should like to propose is that this little text is located in a sense at the crossroads of critical reflection and reflection on history. It is a reflection by Kant on the contemporary status of his own enterprise. No doubt it is not the first time that a philosopher has given his reasons for undertaking his work at a particular moment. But it seems to me that it is the first time that a philosopher has connected in this way, closely and from the inside, the significance of his work with respect to knowledge, a reflection on history and a particular analysis of the specific moment at which he is writing and because of which he is writing. It is in the reflection on 'today' as difference in history and as motive for a particular philosophical task that the novelty of this text appears to me to lie. And, by looking at it in this way, it seems to me we may recognize a point of departure: the outline of what one might call the attitude of modernity’ (Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’). Discuss Foucault’s ‘hypothesis’ about Kant’s essay. What does Foucault mean when he speaks of ‘the attitude of modernity’?

4. ‘However much the Tisgesellschaften, salons, and coffee houses may have differed in the size and composition of their publics, the style of their proceedings, the climate of their debates, and their topical orientations, they all organized discussion among private people that tended to be ongoing; hence they had a number of institutional criteria in common. First, they preserved a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether. The tendency replaced the celebration of rank with a tact befitting equals. The parity on whose basis alone the authority of the better argument could assert itself against that of social hierarchy and in the end can carry the day meant, in the thought of the day, the parity of “common humanity”… [E]conomic dependencies also in principle had no influence. Laws of the market were suspended as were laws of the state. Not that this idea of the public was actually realized in earnest in the coffee houses, the salons, and the societies; but as an idea it had become institutionalized and thereby stated as an objective claim. If not realized, it was at least consequential’ (Habermas, Structural Transformation, p. 36). Write an essay on this passage, discussing especially its final sentence: what was of consequence about this particular idea of the public, and why was it of consequence? What implications follow from the fact that, as Habermas himself specifies, this idea was ‘not realized’, i.e., never fully put into practice?

5. Some of Habermas’s readers argue that he fails to reckon with the degree to which the exclusions of particular sets of people (e.g., women, members of the working classes) from the institutions of the public sphere were constitutive of the discourse, hence of the ideas and ideals generated within it. Other readers defend Habermas against this charge, arguing that the principle of ‘the unforced force of the better argument’ can serve as a regulative ideal despite the failures of the actual historical institutions of the public sphere to realise it. Where would you position yourself in this ongoing debate, and why?

6. Discuss the characteristics of ‘use-value’ and ‘exchange-value’ as Marx presents them in the opening chapter of Capital.

7. Section 4 of the first chapter of Capital, entitled ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret’, ‘is written in a completely different, rather literary, style [from Section 3] – evocative and metaphoric, imaginative, playful and emotive, full of allusions and references to magic, mysteries and necromancies. There is a marked contrast with the dull accountancy style of the previous section’ (Harvey, Companion, p. 38). Write an essay on the use of language, register and literary style in the opening two chapters of Capital.

8. ‘You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price – the “how much” – is socially determined, and the price is a monetary representation of value. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers – those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the labouring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them’ (Harvey, Companion, pp. 39-40). How do you understand the notion of ‘commodity fetishism’ as it is presented in Marx and Harvey?

9. ‘Sexual community is the reciprocal use made by one person of the sexual organs and faculties of another… [M]arriage… is the union of two people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other’s sexual attributes for the duration of their lives’. Lukács cites this definition from Kant in support of his argument that the social logic of commodification ‘cannot … content itself with the reduction of all objects for the gratification of human needs to commodities. It stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man’ (p. 100). What is reification, for Lukács, and how does he see it operating in modern capitalist society?

10. How does Klein’s analysis of the ‘brand’ and of ‘branding’ extend, qualify or revise the analysis deriving from Marx and Lukács, before her?

11. ‘[The figure of the flâneur] has both its hour and place: the early history of the metropolis. It is there, like artificial street lighting, in the twilight of incipient despair, that this strange, dangerous, and imperious form emits its beam to eternalize, garishly, life as it slips away’ (T.W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989 [1962]: 10). Discuss, with reference to Poe, Baudelaire and Benjamin.

12. ‘Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man “a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness.” Whereas Poe’s passers-by cast glances in all directions, seemingly without cause, today’s pedestrians are obliged to look about them so that they can be aware of traffic signals. Thus technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training. There came a day when a new and urgent need for stimuli was met by film. In a film, perception conditioned by shock [chockförmige Wahrnehmung] was established as a formal principle. What determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the same thing that underlies the rhythm of reception in the film’ (Benjamin, ‘Motifs’, p. 328). Discuss the relationship between new technologies and the structure of experience in the mid-19th century, as Benjamin presents it in his essay on Baudelaire.

13. If the bourgeoisie has torn the veils of sentiment and superstition from the actual workings of society, why, according to Marx and Engels, does it require an ideology of its own?

14. ‘Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’ (Marx & Engels, pp. 39-40). Discuss the presentation of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto as simultaneously a revolutionary force and yet one destined to lead to its own destruction.

15. ‘[I]mages have, in a sense, themselves become commodities’ (Harvey, Condition, p. 287). Discuss Harvey’s particular contribution to the debate about exchange value, advertising and commodity fetishism as we have encountered it in various writings this term.

16. ‘The conclusion we should draw is simply that neither time nor space can be assigned objective meanings independently of material processes, and that it is only through investigation of the latter that we can properly ground our concepts of the former’ (Harvey, Condition, p. 204). This deceptively simple sentence packs a weighty critical punch. Discuss Harvey’s ‘conclusion’ here, drawing out (some of) its implications.