Transnational Healing in "Karma Capitalism": Spirit and Class in House of Sand and Fog

Amrohini Sahay

The "spiritual turn" in "leftist" social and cultural theory—from the recent books of Eagleton, Derrida, Badiou, Zizek,… to its second-order appearance in such volumes as Spiritual Shakespeares as part of the Routledge Accent series which are central texts of dissemination of academic theory for large graduate and undergraduate audiences in the U.S. and the U.K.—has been the subject of much commentary in recent years.  What is missing in these discussions, however, is any concept that the "new" theological turn in speculative theory and on the left more broadly is part of the formation of the ethical pedagogy of transnationalism to manage the contradictions of class relations now—by spiritualizing them. As such it is but the latest moment of the wider conversion of the economic into the cultural ("the cultural turn") in order to propose a non-material (spiritual) solution to the intensifying contradictions of capitalism. To be more clear, as the economic strength and global dominance of the advanced industrial economies of the West increasingly declines[1] leading to ever more massive growth in inequality as well as "market opportunity," the culture industry as the ideological arm of the transnational bourgeoisie is ever more focused on producing subjects who respond to the new material conditions of labor in a way that defuses the class tensions and divisions and re-aligns subjects into a post-class "community": that is, in order to solve in the cultural imaginary what cannot be solved in the material (economic) relations. The turn to spirit in "high theory" as well as its everyday correlate ("cultural studies") in the emphasis on affect, the emotional, and empathy, which are offered as the new spaces for overcoming and "healing" the divisions produced by the deteriorating economic and life conditions of workers has thus displaced the older rhetoric of an unbridled "desire" and the emphasis on the autonomous subject of difference/différance "free" of any social constraints ("norms") which had dominated cultural discourses in the West since the 60s. (It is necessary to add here that it is of course an index of the depth and breadth of the political crisis on the left that the overt move to reinstate the primacy of spirit over matter is not limited to the hegemonic left anti-realism. Even such a staunch defender of realism as Roy Bhaskar has now succumbed to the new religiosity—albeit in a more New Age-y vein.)[2]   

This "spirit-ing" of the new conditions of labor of course extends beyond the left "theory"—which is itself but a moment of an emergent mass religio-cultural pedagogy which is not only increasingly saturating media culture as well as business circles[3] but has also, after 2004, become the official electoral strategy of the Democratic party for courting the "values" voters. Indeed, contemporary films such as House of Sand and Fog (based on the book of the same title by Andre Dubus III, which became a major bestseller after Oprah, that arch pedagogue of the affective, ensured its mass circulation by placing it on her book list) do for mainstream audiences the identical ideological work that is done for academic audiences in a more technical and abstruse language. Contrary to liberal film critics who dismiss such films as morally trite and contrived, or to leftists for whom the representation of working class characters and their conditions of life are progressive in and of themselves, it is important to read such films carefully not only for how they frame the problems of class society but also the ways in which they provide exemplary lessons in the manufacturing of an "appropriate" class subjectivity in the contemporary.  

Formally, at the level of plot, House of Sand and Fog is the story of the battle for ownership of a modest suburban house in Northern California between its two central characters, Kathy Nicolo and Iranian-American immigrant and ex-colonel Massoud Behrani. As a result of a bureaucratic mix-up by the local state officials, Kathy's inherited bungalow is placed on auction and she is evicted from her home. While she struggles to regain ownership of the house, it is bought for significantly less than its market value by the colonel who sees it as an opportunity to lift himself and his family out of poverty and back into an upper middle class life by "flipping" the house—that is, reselling it for several times the price at which he bought it. The conflict that then ensues between Behrani and Kathy for ownership of the house is complicated not only by the fact that Behrani, having sunk his life savings into the property and quit one of his jobs, refuses to transfer the house back to Kathy for anything less than the going market price, but also by Kathy's involvement with an emotionally needy cop, Lester Burden, who reinforces her racist perception of the Behranis. After the cop decides to take the situation into his own hands by threatening the Behranis with deportation, the ensuing sequence of events lead to a "tragic" end to the story as the police killing of Behrani's son drives him to end the lives of himself and his wife. 

More fundamentally, by taking the house as the object of conflict between Kathy and Behrani, the film metaphorically narrativizes—and attempts to address—the class crisis of the "American Dream" (of home ownership, stable consumption, and upward mobility) for workers on the margins of the global economy, both white and immigrant, who are denied the possibilities of a middle class life which is now increasingly reserved for the thin layer of workers employed by or directly servicing transnational capital.  It does this, as I shall argue, on two interrelated levels: that of a reformulation of "acceptable" desire and that of an affective relation to the other. 

On the first level, Kathy, recently divorced as a result of her desire for children and a recovering addict who works as a house cleaner in the homes of the rich, symbolically represents the position of a section of the white working class which no longer has access to the possibilities of an earlier generation of workers symbolized in the film by her dead father. (As she says to Lester in telling him how it came about that she lost the house, "It took [my father] 30 years to pay it off. And it took me 8 months to fuck it up.") Positioned as a subject without the requisite "knowledge skills" necessary for middle class existence in a postindustrial economy—not only does she lack a college education but she lacks the cultural make-up ("motivation" and "savvy") of the successful worker—she is a worker who has fallen through the cracks of the global economy.  Here the film both acknowledges the conservative argument that such a class fate is deserved and is an effect of the "laziness" and sense of entitlement of privileged American workers and, in accord with its "progressive" left-liberal ideology, undercuts it.  Thus, on the one hand, Kathy's fate is framed by the colonel's comment that Americans "do not deserve what they have. They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in the mouth. We are not like them. We know rich opportunities when we see them."  Nevertheless, this view is denied by way of the colonels own class fate. In his case, as the film shows, those workers who do possess the "drive" to succeed (such as Behrani himself who not only possesses "cultural capital" from his previous life in Iran, but embodies the stereotype of the Asian-American "model minority" immigrant who works two menial jobs, keeps meticulous accounts, and carefully tabulates even his most minor expenses) are also denied the American Dream.  In doing so the film opens up the space for a critique of class-as-structure, which would indicate that class position is dependent not on the "merit" of individual workers but on the systematic and impersonal production of workers to fit (or not to fit) the various and historically changing needs of capital. But this is of course the very critique that it is ideologically unable to make and thus the "twist" is that the film ultimately argues, in effect, that such workers should be reconciled to their class fate: denied the "American Dream" ("the ownership society"), they should realize that it is an alienating dream anyway and should learn a new set of values which would help them live without it.  Workers, the film says, should be happy with what they have.    

Here, to restate, the ideological lesson that the film encodes is the disciplining of a "desire" which no longer corresponds to the realities of the economic world in which most American workers now live.  What are coded as "excessive" desires—such as Kathy's desire for children, Behrani's drive to re-attain the class position that he had in the Shah's Iran, and even Lester's dissatisfaction with his family life and desire for Kathy—lead to disastrous situations for all of them.  As in a classical moral fable, it is, according to the film, when people "over-reach" that problems arise. Thus Kathy should have done what she could to hold on to what her father's work made possible (the house) as well as to her husband, and it is because she forgot this that she lost both; Behrani should have remained content with having acquired American citizenship for himself and his family, and should have saved all of his earnings rather than keeping up the pretense of a lifestyle which he could no longer afford; and finally, Lester should have been content with his wife, kids, and respectable (if low-level) job rather than becoming dissatisfied and destroying both in his pursuit of Kathy.  In this sense the film is a lesson in "shoulds" and a disciplining of "wants" which teaches the contemporary worker the "appropriate" relation to their material situation. 

 Yet if the first moment of the film functions by way of negative example, it is in its second and related moment that it goes on to make its "positive" argument with respect to a call for new intersubjective relations based on affect and empathy as the solution to the alienating conditions within which workers find themselves. What ultimately drives the plot forward—and is reproduced formally at the level of the alternating points of view of Kathy and Behrani, neither of which is privileged in the narrative—is that both have within their own respective frames of reference a "legitimate" claim to the house, and neither are, for most of the film, willing to see outside these frames of reference. Moreover, in the context of their conflict, neither the bureaucratic state nor the legal system can effectively adjudicate their claims or produce a mutually acceptable outcome for them. Cut off from one another by their struggle for ownership of the house and by their racist and sexist readings of the "other" both thus engage in forms of violent interpersonal relations which have calamitous consequences beyond their intentions or control.  And yet, by way of contrast to the tragic denouement, the film also provides for another potentiality of relations between the two.  Thus toward the later moments of the film, after Behrani takes in Kathy following her attempted suicide, we see both Behrani and Kathy moving toward new and different ethical relations of "openness to the other" which, the film says, if only realized earlier could have formed the grounds for their reconciliation. The privileged frame for this new ethical relation established between the two by the end of the film is, quite predictably, the trope of family (especially marked in the film via the characters of Behrani's wife and son as the embodiments of ethical subjects). Therefore, although the film ends in tragedy, with the death of the racial others, it also provides the resolution of the conflict in the image of Kathy lying in a foetal position between the dead bodies of Behrani and his wife—thus acknowledging their "true" relations as bound by a (neo-familial) ethics extending beyond the boundaries of race, nationality, and cultural difference. Indeed, this ethical relation to (the claims of) the other is only underscored when, in the final scene of the film, Kathy rejects her claim to ownership of the house; and it is in this context that the pursuit of a "perverse"—white, masculinist, and nationalist—ethics by the cop functions as a negative counterpoint to the model of the new inclusive transnationalist ethics as post-white, post-masculinist, and post-nationalist. 

What is of course telling here for a materialist cultural critique is that the grounds for Kathy's and Behrani's movement toward recognition of their commonality despite their cultural differences is established in the narrative not by way of arriving at any new conceptual understanding of their common class position and interests, but simply by way of a new openness of "feeling" toward the other. As such, the film works (as does much of contemporary theoretical writing) primarily as a lesson in the ethics of transnationalism which posits a relation to others based not simply on tolerance or even celebration of differences (as in the old multicultural and identity politics models) but on the notion of identification—an emphasis on sameness over and across differences which, for example, Negri and Hardt call "love" (Multitude) and which Paul Gilroy has recently elaborated in terms of a "planetary humanism" (Against Race). Translated into the logic of the film, Kathy and Behrani are brought together, that is, not as workers or by any knowledge that they have a commonality grounded in their material position in class society, but affectively—through the realization that the other can be mourned and loved rather than "hated." The new "common" reflexively established by the film is thus based not on the shared interests of the objective, but subjectively—and again, as in current cultural theory, it is in fact a deformation of class solidarity. 

In privileging the "values" of community based on new affective relations of identification which are a mode of spiritual healing of the rifts of class society, the emphasis in contemporary cultural narratives seems to be a critique of and resistance to the relations of private property ownership and the individualism stemming from a market society which separates and divides workers globally and thus alienates them from collective humanity. In fact, however, as I have indicated, such value narratives need to be re-read as the latest strategy of capital to defound any grasping of the objective—the common position of the subject of labor in the relations of production—which could lead to a revolutionary collectivity capable of acting materially in its own class interests. Instead, by positing a subjective "solution" to the emptying out of any common identity by commodity relations which produce workers as monadic/nomadic subjects-of-difference cut off and isolated from what Marx, in one of his richest early writings, calls "species-being" (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), contemporary spiritualism in fact protects capital from any global critique and intervention. 

As Marx points out in his discussion of alienation, the necessary "consequence of man's estrangement from the product of his labour, his life activity, his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man."[4]  In such a historical situation of estranged labor, that is, persons are not only alienated from collectivity ("species-life") and their material relations to others, but such alienation means that their collective life itself appears as only a means for individual life: the "good" of each individual is therefore pitted against the good of all the others. The response of transnational ethics, like all forms of spiritualism, to this real, material social alienation and conflict is then of course an inverted one which follows the laws of an inverted society: it recognizes commonality only on the secondary plane of a cultural "common-ness" which attempts to suture over the trauma of the isolated subject of labor.  Such recognition of the subject only as a non-objective (spiritual) being, and of collectivity only as an affective "bringing together" is of course, in the end, a relay of the religious world view. And, in its current as in its older forms, while it is a mode of response to the real suffering and deprivation produced by an economic system based on private ownership of the product of collective labor, should be seen as a device of class adjustment and reconciliation. 


[1] On the decline of the economic position of the West, and the U.S. in particular see among others: Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival; David Harvey, The New Imperialism; and Giovanni Arrighi's long essay in two parts, "Hegemony Unravelling" (in New Left Review, 2005).  For a discussion of the EU see Gabor Steingart's World War for Wealth: The Global Grab for Power and Prosperity.

[2] See his From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul.

[3] A recent issue of Business Week thus refers to the trend in big business to embrace Indian philosophy as a management guide and glosses it as follows: "You might also call it Karma Capitalism. For both organizations and individuals, it's a gentler, more empathetic ethos that resonates in the post-tech-bubble, post-Enron zeitgeist. These days, concepts such as "emotional intelligence" and "servant leadership" are in vogue. Where once corporate philanthropy was an obligation, these days it's fast becoming viewed as a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining top talent. Where the rallying cry in the 1980s and '90s may have been "greed is good," today it's becoming 'green is good'" (Business Week, October 30, 2006).

[4] The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

THE RED CRITIQUE 12 (Winter/Spring 2007)