Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience, 2

Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 19-68.

This selection of White’s book includes two chapters, which I will take up separately.

In chapter 2, “Imagination Dead Imagine,” White begins to formulate a “spirit of disobedience” by looking at the spiritual role of art. Over the course of the chapter, he considers four main artistic expressions, including the film Office Space, the novel The Da Vinci Code, Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and the film Brokeback Mountain. Interesting, while he defends Hamlet and Brokeback as authentic art, he condemns Office Space and the Code as betrayals of art. The latter two works, in fact, White sees as representative of a “self-disciplining” or self censorship, which is another way to say that they are sell-outs (21). He chose these two contemporary blockbusters for criticism, however, because they both exhibit a certain subversive potential, which he pretty persuasively argues that they betray. I want to save a more detailed dicussion of his criticism for class, but it’s worth noting that White uses Office Space to elucidate “our” fear-hate relationship with what he calls the “corporate life-world” (24), and he uses the Code as a way to point to our spiritual impoverishment. His criticism of these two works (and his positive analyses of Hamlet and Brokeback) plays a key role in his larger critique of American culture. In short, we should pay attention to what White is saying about good art and fraudulent art.

Chapter 3, “Beyond the Golden Rule,” is a more trying chapter to read — especially if one doesn’t share White’s hostility toward the status quo — because he shifts from a critique of our culture’s art to our overall way of life. Although White unleashes attacks here on Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, U.S. foreign policy, and Wal-Mart, it’s important to note that the chapter is not in any simple way a liberal screed or rant. Yes, White’s targets in the chapter are common subjects of liberal criticism, but he uses the chapter to make a larger point that transcends the liberal-conservative divide. In a nutshell, he is arguing that the Golden Rule of Christianity is “unavailable to us in the present” (27). The various segments of this argument deserve consideration, but he introduces one concept that seems central to the chapter and the book: the idea of “radical evil” (48).

These two chapters leave us with a great deal to discuss, so let me close by raising just a few of questions.

  1. Why does White see Office Space and The Da Vinci Code as betrayals? What do they betray?
  2. How does White define real art? How does art fit with his larger concept of disobedience?
  3. What does White mean by “radical evil,” and how does the concept play into his argument about the current inaccessibility of the Golden Rule?

— D. Voelker

9 thoughts on “Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience, 2”

  1. I like the point he makes early on in the reading about how as much as we despise the current state of affairs regarding the consumpution culture that we live in with its depletion of the Earths resources, the abject poverty it causes and, degrading working conditions, that we still fear the break up of that system. He states that this is because even though we do not like to work we depend on our jobs in order to survive in the modern world. The story about the college woman who worked at a debt collection agency was very interesting. Although she despised her job and the way she had to threaten those most in need, she depended on this job in order for her to stay in school and pay the bills.

  2. Curtis White cynically opposes capitalism and the free market economy with attacks on “self discipline” he exposes in the publishing and entertainment (movies) in popular culture. Because, as he put it, the story is in a “frightening” way the truth that “our dominant Christian culture anticipates this ‘world laid waste’ as if it were good or at least inevitable way” (32).. The fraudulent books and movies that bait and switch, although unintentionally, deceive us with their “familiar ephemeral enthusiasm, and willingness to stimulate ‘market'” (32) and the betrayal is in ourselves falling prey to the very thing we want to see destroyed, our society of “peasure-commodity” and spiritual failure. But, he suggests, like Thoreau, there is a meaningfulness in life that we are “seeking” in these and other forms of knowledge that must be taken seriously. I’m excited to learn more about his suggested pragmatic solution of disobedience in order to avert the inevitability of the evil that “our social double bind” will self destruct.

  3. By “radical evil,” White means the evils of desire for power, fame, etc. become institutionalized. This has happened in America, where the desire for a good job and a good lifestlye has trumped everything else. Previously, the ideal had been for people to live the Christian way by giving without expecting anything in return. This had lead people to only wear the guise of Christianity, without any of the meaning underneath. All of this prevents people from living by the Golden Rule.

  4. I agree with Eric, when White talks about “radical evil” he is talking about how people today are consumed with wanting to gain power and fame. This prevents people from helping out other people as they are so consumed with their own being. This self consumption leads us to break the golden rule, we no longer do onto others what we would have them do to us.

  5. Office Space is a betrayal in the fact that it starts out with the main character deciding that he isn’t going to work, because he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to give into the Capitalist society in which we live in, but actually, White sees him as just as bad. Peter tells the company that there is no motivation to work harder, because he doesn’t get paid more. White says,”Peter doesn’t want freedom, apparently. He doesn’t want creativity or personal autonomy. He want’s “profit sharing.” In the end of the movie nothing changes and Peter conforms by getting another meaningless job as a construction worker.

  6. To some degree, I agree with White! We live in a world in which people care more for power and money then for the other person. For most people this is the most important part of there life. But this also applies for companies. Companies no longer care for there employees, profit is the number one concern. Employees are no longer loyal to there employer, because they will just get replaced with someone younger. Companies are going overseas for cheaper product, and do not care if it is safe for the consumer or not. They buy the product cheap sell it for four times as much as what they had to pay for.

  7. Here and in class, I think that we need further discussion of “radical evil.” What does it mean for evil to be institutionalized, as White argues?

  8. First of all, I think that White looks to much into Office Space as a negative thing. Not only is Office Space humurous, but it is a good representation of the real workforce. To me, this movie does not show how our society sees problems but choses not to fix them. I see this movie as a way of letting the working class know that the problems they face are in fact real and noticiable and it’s nice to see Hollywood represent your side of the story.

    As for the “Christian golden rule–do unto others as they do unto you” is not a rule anyone should live by, especially a true Christian. I believe that we are living by the golden rule today. If we feel that someone has betrayed us or hurt us, we go back to them and hurt them with our words or actoins. A true Christian or someone who wants to change the world for the better, does not follow the golden rule, because a “good” person would take the things that people have done to them–good or bad–and do only good unto others.

  9. I disagree with Erica I think the Christian golden rule is something Americans should try and live by. It’s do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The golden rule is saying if you would like to be respected , you should respect others, and it does not encourage revenge. I really liked this section of White’s book. I never looked at Office Space with the view White has. I never looked at the end as a betrayal, but when I thought about what White said he had a really good point. The main character ended up leaving his job, but still ended up conforming. I also like his comments on the Da Vinci Code. I really enjoyed the book, but I understand White’s reasoning saying, “The Da Vinci Code’s seriousness is deeply unserious.” (White 34) The book was a work of fiction and presents many things as truths, typical mass society easily can confuse the two.

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