This week we will delve into a subject that is particularly close to my own academic and political priorities: figuring out why, despite knowing the many negative consequences of capitalism, many of us still participate in its activities every day, often even enjoying it.

First, we ask that you read Reluctant Subjects: Subjection and Becoming,” a chapter from J.K. Gibson-Graham’s book A Postcapitalist Politics. In this chapter, the authors use an extended case study in Australia to theorize the production of a region’s economic subjects. Specifically, the authors investigate how discourse and governmentality can inhibit our desire for something new. Gibson-Graham detail three different devices of meaning production and then propose a “politics of becoming” that exploits the interruptions, discontinuities, and fugitive energies reluctant subjects experience when subjected to hegemonic formations, such as capitalism. The article is, at times, dense and theoretical; however, it is one of the most powerful and provocative articles I have read to date and well worth the time and effort necessary to read it carefully.

Second, we ask that you read the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin. In many ways, this four-page story is a fictional representation of what Gibson-Graham would call “reluctant subjects.” It tells the story of a mythical “city of happiness,” Omelas, where the community’s endless joys “depend wholly on [a] child’s abominable misery,” similar to how today’s affluent nations’ abundance comes from the abysmal labor conditions of poorer countries. Le Guin challenges her readers to ask: what are we willing to sacrifice to walk away from this system?

Discussion Questions

  • How do capitalism formations direct, alter, and influence one’s identity? Gibson-Graham describes 3 different “devices of meaning production” (a numeric/statistic system of judgment, a consumer-citizen discourse, and a fragmented mapping of community “grid of visualization). Each of these devices is inscribed in political texts (policy proposals, surveys, maps, etc.). What other devices of meaning production are present in American culture and political discourse? Where are these devices inscribed? What values and desires are promoted and limited? How do these devices produce a lack of desire?
  • One of the most inspiring aspects of the “Reluctant Subjects” chapter is Gibson-Graham’s proposal that the hegemonic power of the dominant discourse and governmentality is not total or absolute. There are always fissures, breaks, interruptions, and fugitive energies through which new identities can form. How do we mobilize that hope of being otherwise? How do we activate a politics of becoming?
  • How can we apply the theory presented by Gibson-Graham to understand Le Guin’s story? Does Le Guin see the population of Olemas as “reluctant subjects?” Are those walking away practicing a sort of politics of becoming? Do we get a sense of what meaning-making devices are used to subdue the population?
  • In what ways does Le Guin’s story model the sort of (reluctant) acceptance and rationalization of unjust economic relations that structure our lives? How do discourses of powerlessness and futility perpetuate our lack of desire for change?
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