Notes on Oppression

For decades, I have been dropping occasional quotes into various topical files. I use them to dress my office door (rarely noticed), or to add a veneer of scholarship to something I am writing. Together they affirm that I have spent far too much time on my bookshelf. Included here are quotes on Oppression. The message is that injustice is a nasty and sneaky business and can seep into us as just the way things are.

There is nothing systematic about the sample, although some seem to pair up nicely: Toni Morrison and Judith Shklar are fighting the same problem; Claude Lévi-Strauss and Michel Foucault are more aligned than recent treatments would allow; from W.B. Yeats to James Connelly is an unsurprising connection, but it is nice of H.G. Wells to articulate a literary version of what they (and Joyce) were up against in early twentieth century Dublin; Balzac and Baudelaire, yes, it’s a match, and Marx was breathing the same air. There are also surprises: of course James Baldwin and Paul Willis for quotes on oppression, but few would look to Ralph Waldo Emerson and no one to William James for an account of how much we are all invested— nice word: invested—in seeing others as less than ourselves.

The Sarah Lewis poems are the unpublished result of sitting next to each other at a meeting last year. I passed her a Marx line defining capital as profit stolen from labor (from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844), and we played with squeezing Marx into Japanese poetic forms: haiku (5-7-5 syllables) or tanka (5-7-5-7-7 syllables). I don’t remember who did what, but if they show any skill, they are more hers than mine. The Gellner quote comes from Zvi Bekerman and the Wells quote from Bill Murphy.


…the weight of the novel’s inquiry on so delicate and vulnerable a character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing…many readers remain touched but not moved.

— Toni Morrison, Afterward to The Bluest Eye(1993)

It is always easier to see misfortune rather than injustice in the afflictions of other people. Only the victims occasionally do not share the inclination.

— Judith Shklar, The Faces of Injustice (1990)

…for every society, the relation between normal and special modes of behavior is one of complementarity. That is obvious in the case of shamanism and spirit possession; but it would be no less true of modes of behavior which our own society refuses to group and legitimize as vocations. For there are individuals who, for social, historical, or physio-logical reasons (it does not much matter which), are sensitive to the contradictions and gaps in the social structure; and our society hands over to those individuals the task of realizing a statistical equivalent (by constituting that compliment, ‘abnormality,’ which alone can supply a definition of ‘the normal’)…in all their apparently aberrant modes of behavior, individuals who are ‘ill’ are just transcribing a state of the group, and making one or another of its constants manifest. Their peripheral position relative to a local system does not mean that they are not integral parts of the total system; they are, and just as much as the local system is. To be more precise, if they were not docile witnesses of this sort, the total system would be in danger of disintegrating into its local systems.

— Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction a l’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss (1950)

At the very moment in which this object, “madness,” took shape, there was also constructed the subject judged capable of understanding madness. To the construction of the object madness, there corresponded a rational subject who “knew” about madness and who understood it…I tried to understand this kind of collective, plural experience which was defined between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries and which was marked by the interaction between the birth of “rational” man who recognizes and “knows” madness, and madness itself as an object susceptible of being understood and determined.

Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx (1991)

Two of the Hammertown lads are put on probation for stealing car radios during the research. This is disastrous. Parents are brought into it, official reports written up, and all kinds of unspecified worries about procedures of the court and the interminable proceedings of the bureaucracy turn the original excitement to sickness. This is a moment again where the formal wins a decisive and irrevocable victory over the informal. The informal meanings do not survive a direct confrontation.

— Paul Willis, Learning to Labor (1977)

What is capital? What is capital? Private property ripped Private property built on
one hour at a time the work of others.
from the labor of others: the people without power.

What is capital? What is capital? Collective ownership Labor stolen in our sleep.
of time and space and place Awake! Daylight shines!
torn from tired but linked arms.
Beaten, we still surround them.

— Sarah Lewis (2006)

…at the base of the modern social order stands not the executioner but the professor. Not the guillotine, but the (aptly named) doctoral d’etat is the main tool and symbol of state power. The monopoly of legitimate education is more important, more central than is the monopoly of legitimate violence.

— Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (1983) It is intriguing to imagine Freud’s reaction if one of his patients a neurotic, but a politically lucid one in reply to the question which according to Freud was the best means of ‘ensnaring’ the patient: ‘What would you consider was the most unlikely thing in the world in that situation? What do you think was the furthest thing in the world from your mind at the time?’ – had answered: ‘I consider the most unlikely thing in the world would be to see a capitalist renounce his own privileges without any sense of force on the part of the workers he exploits.’ At this point, there would surely have been an exchange of roles: Freud himself would have succumbed to the behavior typical of a ‘patient,’ he would have lost his temper or changed the subject- in short, have revealed ‘resistances’ so strong that he would not even have been aware of their existence.

— Sebastiano Timpanaro, The Freudian Slip (1976)

All Irish writers have to choose whether they will write as the upper classes have done, not to express but to exploit this country; or join the intellectual movement which has raised the cry that was heard in Russia in the ‘seventies, the cry ‘to the people.’…Moses was little good to his people until he had killed an Egyptian; and for the most part a writer or public man of the upper classes is useless to this country till he has done something that separates him from his class. We wish to grow peaceful crops, but we must dig our furrows with the sword.

— William Butler Yeats, Samhain (1901)

In the long run, the freedom of a nation is measured by the freedom of its lowest classes. Every upward step of that class to the possibility of possessing higher things raises the standard of the nation in the scale of civilization.

— James Connelly (ca. 1914)

…you and I are set on absolutely different courses. Your training has been Catholic, Irish, and insurrectionary; mine, such as it was, was scientific, constructive and, I suppose, English. The frame of my mind is a world wherein a big unifying and concentrating process is possible (increase in power and range by economy and concentration of effort), a progress not inevitable but interesting and possible. That game attracted and holds me. For it, I want a language and statement as simple and clear as possible…...while you were brought up under the delusion of political suppression I was brought up under the delusion of political responsibility. It seems a fine thing for you to defy and break up. To me not in the least.

H.G. Wells, letter to James Joyce (1928)

The world’s definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one’s family, friends, or lovers—to say nothing of one’s children—to live according to the world’s definitions: one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.

— James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985)

There is a manner of obeying, which contains, on the part of the slave, a most withering scorn of the order.

— Honoré de Balzac, Les paysans (1845)

We encountered a poor man who held out his cap with a trembling hand. – I know nothing more disquieting than the mute eloquence of those supplicating eyes that contain at once, for the sensitive man who knows how to read them, so much humility and so much reproach.

— Charles Baudelaire, La fausse monnaie (1862)

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

— Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

As long as civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits, which we can taste with all the doors open, and which serves all men.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men (1850)

The truth is that we are doomed, by the fact that we are practical beings with very limited tasks to attend to, and special ideals to look after, to be absolutely blind and insensible to the inner feelings, and to the whole inner significance of lives that are different from our own. Our opinion of the worth of such lives is absolutely wide of the mark, and unfit to be counted at all.

— William James, Human Immortality (1898)


Ray McDermott

RAY MCDERMOTT is a cultural anthropologist who teaches Education at Stanford University.