Money, Power, Sex versus Subsistence

Brief Note: So, I’m grading intro to lit papers. I don’t mind so much because the class is unusually good this semester and the books they chose are ones that interest me – as well as interest them. One of my students has been, in my opinion, led astray by the famous Achebe essay that simplifies Conrad. He is eating it up – in fact, his conclusion is that the Bible’s message (and I guess Achebe’s and what Conrad’s should have been) is that we should never judge anyone else. But in the midst of the paper is this interesting observation: “As most people would agree, he who has the gold makes the rules, and so wealthier nations are looking at having the correct ideas of culture because they are thriving more than other cultures. I think the line is drawn between people that are in pursuit of money, power, and sex versus people in pursuit of survival.”

Well, there’s human nature and there’s human nature. We might not like power struggles, but subsistence cultures have their downsides. My task now is to tactfully ask how the first sentence relates to the second, since the “gold” – valuable resources – are in Africa, where the pursuit is primarily for subsistence. And perhaps the whole system he disparages (that is “judgemental”) and its concomitant rule of law might have something to do with that difference. Of course, Conrad shows cannibals who restrain themselves because of their rules (rules by which, one assumes, they judge one another) even when starving.

The student is a nice guy; he handed in a paper twice as long and spent twice the thought needed to be to get a decent grade. But he’s given to impulses. He walked out of class the first day to get a drink of water after he had come in late and sat at the front. I pointed out, after class, that that wasn’t very polite. He apologized profusely. He is the same student who was taken from class by the police one day. The police had been waiting outside when I arrived; I was surprised they wanted any one from this generally pleasant class but they said they only had his name but not his picture, so I called to him and he left in their custody. He sent me another e-mail, feeling he should explain that he’d thought he’d paid all his fines for the day he had two citations, but it turned out he’d only paid one. He apologized profusely. You get the picture – he’s a nice guy and is actually pretty respectful to the police and to me, but he hasn’t quite reached the stage of impulse control yet. I don’t think Achebe is going to help him reach it – though I think Conrad might.

10 thoughts on “Money, Power, Sex versus Subsistence”

  1. I suspect a necessity for a thriving culture is rule of law, though probably the scientific method doesn’t hurt. You realize, Jonathan, that your observation is heretical. A process that “works” is necessarily exploitative and one that doesn’t is because of the purity of the victim. Look at UNWRA’s useful interpretations.

  2. I suppose noble savage only seems noble because his exploits and those of his society weren’t recorded permanently, in detail, for posterity.

  3. Conrad, a racist. Pretty funny, really, given the lengths that he goes to dramatizing that “a man’s a man for all that”.

  4. Most of the 3rd world countries have one thing in common – an authoritative leader who got there by less than democratic means.

    I remember being in Kenya in the early 80s – and Danial Arap Moi (sp?) was the benevolent dictator there for many years.

    Kenya is tribal oriented – as is most of Africa – all politics originates from one’s tribe. Six main tribes comprise Kenya and one is a tribal member of XXXXX first, then a Kenyan.

    All though Kenya I saw the slowly deteriorating infrastructure of the British presence – libraries, hotels…and think how much better they were under British rule.

    That’s not PC, I know.

    As to the cannibal; statement that seems rather silly from your young student. I think – most cannibalism practiced is against one’s enemies, not as a main course for Friday supper ;-)

  5. The observation that “wealthier nations are looking at having the correct ideas of culture because they are thriving more than other cultures” has nothing to do with the notion “he who has the gold makes the rules”.

    And the notion that money, power, and (especially) sex are unrelated to survival, on the cultural level, is shortsighted to say the least.

  6. Guns make the rules, not gold. Guns separate gold from its owners. Absent guns, pointy weapons make the rules. This includes fang and claw. Some parts of the world favor making weapons. the jungle is not one of them.

  7. Marlow is surprised the cannibals don’t eat the colonizers – not each other.
    Sure, guns make the rules, but culture makes the guns.
    My student wasn’t being all that stupid – his observation (I think) was that the exchange of money, the desire for political power, and more complex forms of sexual courtship are the signs of a culture that may – under it all – be foraging for subsistence, but is doing it it a more complicated way and in a culture in which the first thought each day isn’t if I will eat but what will I eat – the culture of Europe in 1900 and not Africa.

  8. I think the young writer misunderstands the world. The most primitive third worlder aspires to money, power and sex with vigor equal to that of the Wall Street tycoon – the difference is the amount of money (or the local currency at least) and the scope of the power the third world aspires to in his wildest dreams is much lower. As for the quality and quantity of the comparative sexual aspirations, well, I suppose that is in the eye of the beholder.

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