You know when someone smiles and waves at you, and then you realise that they’re actually looking at someone behind you? Like at the beginning of ‘Spider-Man’? It’s not very nice. I think it also has political significance.
All around us are things that address us: for example, the road is there so ‘we’ can drive on it, cars have been built so that ‘we’ can drive them, the word ‘drive’ has been invented because ‘we’ do that activity a lot. When we watch an advert, it’s trying to tempt ‘us’ to buy its product; when we watch drama, it’s trying to get ‘us’ to identify with its characters. A key feature of living in a social world, a world redesigned by human beings, is that things ‘talk’, i.e. to understand, we must understand the relationship they hold out to ‘the public’, ‘people’.
Where this relates to the unpleasant experience I mentioned at the start is that often this ‘we’ turns out to not be us. And that’s analogous to the moment when we realise that this other person isn’t actually looking at us but at someone else. And just as that experience is quite an unpleasant one, a little bit soul-crushing, so too should we expect this social experience to be a little bit soul-crushing.
Some concrete examples (I’m sure there are more):
- Money. Adverts want you to spend it; shops are full of things to buy with it. But what if you don’t have much money? Then it’s not for you. The rows of goods on the shelves, they were put there for someone, but not for you. The adverts were commissioned to appeal to someone, but not to you. Everything that costs money (which is a lot of things) is designed around someone else, someone more important and more wealthy than you are. What are you even doing here? Stop wasting my time. Get out.
- Fictional Characters. You identify with the characters in films and books and comics and TV shows – that, after all, is the point. What if there’s something about you that doesn’t seem to appear in those fictional worlds? For example, you’re one race, and everyone there, or at least all the main characters, is a different race. That’s going to set up some cognitive dissonance. For example, I recently stumbled across the story that ‘Avatar: the Last Airbender’, an anime that I’d vaguely heard of, was being turned into a film with an all-white cast, despite being conspicuously Asian. This has stoked a fair bit of criticism.
- Language. All of language appeals to ‘you’, aims for ‘you’ to understand, rests on a shared identification to allow different people to communicate. Which is one of the reasons why it’s an issue that so many parts of language basically say you have a penis. The neuter use of ‘he’ is dropping away, along with -man words, at least in the linguistic circles I frequent, but it certainly remains to some extent, and in languages with genders it’s even more deeply rooted.
Any suggestions of further examples are very welcome.
I know this isn’t really an earth-shattering point. But I thought the experience with individual people seeming to address you until you realise they’re talking to someone else might be a useful route into understanding an otherwise fairly ethereal issue of ‘symbolic exclusion’ and ‘cultural alienation’, not to mention the ‘social subject’ that I’ve mentioned in previous posts: the social subject is the person being addressed in all these ways, and a key part of oppression is when groups of people don’t get to fully be the social subject.
Participation in the social subject is, I think, a very important benefit of society: it’s basically having millions of people encourage you to be a person, to think and choose and act and value yourself. Allowing all citizens to participate in the social subject, the ‘we’, the ‘someone’, is I think a key political goal for a just society – a goal which, as my examples show, requires both an engagement with ‘culture’, with representations and the media, but also an engagement with very concrete material issues like wealth distribution.