Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.Donald Rumsfeld, 2002
If everything a human being could visually perceive was a variation of the colour blue, would we have the word and concept of blueness? It seems intuitively obvious that while we might then distinguish between the different hues and shades of blue, we would have no point of reference by which to pick out blue itself. It would be intensely familiar but utterly alien.
In 1927 the horror and science fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft published ‘The Colour Out of Space’, a short story in which a new colour arrives on Earth by a meteor and wreaks untold havoc on the fragile nature of human reality. It is one of the cleverest variations on his theme of the limits of the sensory being transgressed, which alongside ‘The Music of Erich Zann’ that does the same for auditory phenomena, plays on the idea that outside regular experience lurks untold terrors.
Lovecraft has been called a writer of cosmic xenophobia, where what is outside the everyday is rendered disturbing not only at the mundane levels of his undeniable racism and misogyny, but in a fear of the extradimensional, extraterrestrial and metaphysical. His worldview was not merely parochial, but parochialism elevated into an aesthetic philosophy that seemed as afraid of Immanuel Kant’s musings on the noumenal as it was prone to indulge the worst prejudices of his contemporary American context.
What his fiction does expose to us is the way in which human beings take what is given in their context as what is pregiven in every context. But what if our ability to conceive outside of our norms was even more ingrained than merely lacking a point of reference? What if the mere repetition of an idea renders it meaningless to us, so ingrained it can no longer be picked out and therefore no longer interrogated, transcended, changed? Leon Jakobovits James’ doctoral dissertation identified the phenomena of semantic satiation, whereby the repetition of a word or phrase eventually causes us to lose our grasp of its meaning.
Humanity has a tenuous grasp on what transcends the given but also of the given. The ultimate way in which something is naturalised is for it to be rendered outside, even the intelligible, and it could be that Lovecraft was wrong to point to alien terrors but should have been far more afraid of dangers that are so familiar to us we do not even perceive them at all.
We often expect the unknown unknowns to be the most distant things from ourselves, far outside of our everyday realities. This expectation drove Lovecraft’s fiction. But as a trans person, I have discovered quite the opposite. Living for decades in an assumed gender that made me unhappy, it was only by interrogating parts of myself I simply overlooked, because of my enculturation, that I found a part of myself I have come to regard as vital to my human flourishing.
Gender has an imperialistic quality; it invades and colonises everything about our society, sorting us out in often arbitrary ways that frequently do not serve our wellbeing. And yet, to speak of studying it, in the sense of gender studies, is also regarded as contemptible (especially by the right, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently pushing to outright ban the discipline). How do you reconcile derision at studying something when it has such a profound impact on everyone? The answer, what is so pervasive, is seen as also being beneath study, unworthy of understanding.
Had a new colour crashed into earth and impacted our lives as profoundly as gender, to borrow from Lovecraft’s imagination, it would be intensely researched and its effects scrutinised as to whether they were beneficial. But gender is unworthy of such attention because, after all, it just is. Never mind that gender has taken so many guises in so many societies, it is clearly far from a stable, natural thing, somehow indistinguishable from the makeup of reality itself. We take it for granted, and it becomes an unknown unknown—one whose unquestioned norms in our class societies also frequently and demonstrably devastate the lives of cis women and sexual and gender minorities.
Or to put gender to one side, take the problem of bullying in the UK. Statistics show that the UK has some of the highest school bullying rates in Europe; we also have a pronounced problem with cyberbullying, and a staggering quarter of British workers have experienced workplace bullying/harassment. So when the UK Deputy PM Dominic Raab resigns after an independent investigation into bullying complaints against him, it is perhaps not surprising that his letter treats the whole matter as an injustice perpetrated against himself. (Nor that it took so long for him to be able to gracefully walk away, hardly recompense for the lives of the civil servants he blighted.)
Bullying is woven into the very fabric of British society. Children are exposed to it during their educations and then continue to experience it at work before retiring to institutions also rife with bullies and abuse. With most public services in freefall, the only social institution the British genuinely assure from cradle to grave is being relentlessly bullied. It is a ubiquitous guarantee of British life, albeit unevenly allocated to the marginalised, the disabled, racialised groups, trans people, women, etc.
And while the Tories have an endemic problem with bullying, Labour shows few indications of being superior, with examples including former party leaders and institutional transphobia. Indeed, the evidence points to our legislature being a hotbed of bullying even by the standards of a country where it is overall normalised. No wonder Dom feels like he’s being picked on; it would be stranger for him not to be a bully in a profession of bullies!
Like gender, bullying in the UK is so difficult to grasp because being British is so synonymous with being either bullied, a bully, or both, that we cannot even see bullying as distinguishable from being. Notions such as “Tories as the natural party of government” or the necessity of an ill-defined “economic growth” could also be added. They are all examples of phenomena that are so familiar they become unknown unknowns, inseparable from life. They are naturalised.
Marx, Interrogating Naturalisation
One philosopher stands out in modernity for interrogating the natural. Marx, as a philosopher of history, was also a philosopher who sought to denaturalise the everyday world. And Marx saw this project as intimately associated with freeing human beings from systems of dominance and exploitation, but also as a form of enlightenment, of a better grasping of our realities.
For Marx, all of history was the history of class conflict. This conflict drove societies to assume certain forms of social arrangement, ultimately resting on the organisation of economies—how we distribute those goods we need and want to make life liveable, to reproduce our social existences. The shifts between these social forms are dramatic, qualitative and revolutionary, but they are also the culmination of a slow process of smaller quantitive changes that are brought about by the contradictory elements inevitable because of class divisions.
But Marx also realised that the way we organise ourselves inevitably shapes our sensuous realities and how we experience daily life and that this shapes our ideas about the world and what is possible. Marx meant this when he noted, ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’. He did not mean that the ruling class brainwashes us all into accepting their ideas, but that the ruling class organise society in their own image, and then the organisation of those societies, in turn, shapes all of our thinking. It is not a conspiratorial process but an unwitting one the elites might then enshrine but only inadvertently create.
Marx believed that we are historically positioned to create a completely new form of society, without classes, in which the ruling ideas, therefore, become more universal and more truly malleable to conscious, human, social change. The great impediment to achieving this new society was believing that the current modes of existence were inevitable, natural, and had always been. And so he put history to a radical purpose, exposing that social institutions we consider natural, such as the way that capitalist society organises work and, thereby, everything else, is contingent, incidental, and susceptible to change.
Marx here is a philosopher shining a light not on some great alien entity, the monsters that plagued and haunted Lovecraft’s mythos, but on something far more terrible; on the alien in ourselves, on how we have made our everyday experiences something alienated from us. Marx believed that while all class society introduced alienation into humanity’s relationships with itself and the world, capitalist class society created four extreme forms of alienation.
He argued that we are alienated from the product of our labour (we have no autonomy over what we produce); in the process of our labours (we are given few opportunities to express our organic humanity creatively in our most frequent activities); from others (against whom we are encouraged to mainly compete); and from ourselves (as a corollary, as a social species who seek creative expressions in the world, of being alienated from others and our labours). But perhaps worst of all, through the naturalisation of our class society, we are alienated even from the fact that we are alienated.
Unsurprisingly, marxism is the tradition of thought to aggressively open the everyday to interrogation. Marxist philosophers such as Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Ernst Bloch took as their point of departure for research, not exceptional lives or events, but the pedestrian. As a practice of questioning, it has embodied Pascal’s aphorism, ‘Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.’ Whether it is bullying or gender in the UK context or racism, the ravishing of the habitable planet, or the assumptions of power, marxism aims to familiarise us with the too familiar, to make us pay attention to what has been rendered meaningless by repetition.
And while the parochial right (and even reactionaries embedded in our own labour movements) will look on studying the everyday with contempt, we must ignore their sneering and insist that what they demand we take as given is anything but.
Thanks Rowan. Very interesting little article.
Thanks Paul 🙂