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Steinbeck And Contemporary Culture: Capital And Postmodernity

1338 words - 5 pages

Steinbeck and Contemporary Culture: Capital and Postmodernity

Modernity was an era characterized by an explosion of revolutionary,
productive, creative, critical, and rational human energy. Man was an
end in himself, the remaining absolute in a relativistic universe. The
liberating dialectics of the modern era have come into equilibrium,
however, with the postmodern era in which traditional dichotomies lose
their distinctions and information spreads at exponential rates. The
Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck foreshadows a contemporary culture defined by dehumanization
in his treatment of capital and the landed class. Steinbeck's most
marked criticism of the psychological and economic consequences of
capitalism is found in the novel's interchapters. In an anonymous and
exemplary exchange between an evicted tenant and a landlord, the
tenant desires to "fight to keep [his] land" and shoot someone, but
the owner maintains that the force responsible for the tenant's
eviction is not human, but "the monster," an impersonal and abstract
entity representing capitalism (45). Steinbeck underscores the
contrast between humanity and the capital interest, as represented by
the monster: "[They] don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They
breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it,
they die the way you die without air, without side-meat" (43). The
monster, moreover, "has to have profits all the time….When the monster
stops growing, it dies. It can't stay one size" (44). Capital,
Steinbeck comments, must constantly be in flux and reproduction of
itself. The owners who serve capital are all "caught in something
larger than themselves" (42); the tractor driver, contextually
interchangeable with the owner, becomes "a part of the monster, a
robot in the seat" (48). The tractor driver, as such, becomes removed
from sensory experience: "He [cannot] see the land as it [is], he
[cannot] smell the land as it [smells]; his feet [do] not…feel the
warmth and power of the earth" (48). "The machine man," furthermore,
"is contemptuous of the land and of himself" (158). Steinbeck comments
that as capitalism spreads and reifies sensuous human labor into the
extracted, abstract form of commodity, people become dissociated from
ordinary sensuous experience and accordingly lose the footing of their
personhood and identity. Steinbeck thus foreshadows mass cultural
dehumanization in his treatment of capitalism.

Postmodernity, according to Baudrillard, is distinguished from
modernity by the dehumanizing phenomena in the proliferation of
simulacra. Contemporary society, his argument follows, has become so
dependent on representations, symbols, signs, and images that people
have severed their link with the reality preceding representation.
Reality itself has begun to simply mimic...

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