Friday, July 29, 2005

Recasting "The Lorax"; Or, The Triumph of the Crits

Todd Zywicki points us to a property-rights reinterpretation of Dr. Seuss' classic environmental, er, tract, "The Lorax."

I repost it in full, only because you need to read all of it to understand the point I'm making (and, given my own experience with reading assignments in High School, I don't trust you folks to actually do it yourselves!):
Dr. Seuss' story of the Lorax is an environmental classic (as is the television version that I've just seen). The conventional interpretation is that it's a tale of market-driven environmental ruin. The greedy Once-ler ignores the Lorax's warnings of environmental ruin as he turns truffula trees into thneeds (for a thneed, after all, is a thing that everyone needs!). As the truffula trees disappear the animals run off in fear, smog fills up the air yet the Once-ler doesn't care. Eventually the Once-ler cuts the last truffula down, and his entire corporate empire folds up and leaves town.

Environmentalists love to present this as a parable of modern industry's exploitation of the natural world. The relentless pursuit of profit leads to environmental -- and economic -- ruin. When the last truffula falls, so does the natural base for the Once-ler's wealth. And unless humans learn to care for the natural environment, and control industrial development, we will produce ecological devastation. But is this the best interpretation?

Paul Feine of the Institute for Humane Studies suggests the Lorax is subject to alternative interpretations. Viewing the tale of the Lorax through an institutional lens, ruin is not the result of corporate greed, but a lack of institutions. The truffula trees grow in an unowned commons. (The Lorax may speak for the trees, but he does not own them.) The Once-ler has no incentive to conserve the truffula trees for, as he notes to himself, if he doesn't cut them down someone else will. He's responding to the incentives created by a lack of property rights in the trees, and the inevitable tragedy results. Had the Once-ler owned the trees, his incentives would have been quite different -- and he would likely have acted accordingly -- even if he remained dismissive of the Lorax's environmental concerns.

The story ends with the Once-ler giving a young boy the last truffula seed. He tells him to plant it and treat it with care, and then maybe the Lorax will come back from there. The traditional interpretation is simply that we must all care more for the environment. If we only control corporate greed we can prevent environmental ruin. But perhaps it means something else. Perhaps the lesson is that this boy should plant his truffula trees, and act as their steward. Perhaps giving the boy the last seed is an act of transferring the truffula from the open-access commons to private stewardship. Indeed, the final image -- the ring of stones labeled with the word "unless" -- could well suggest that enclosure, and the creation of property rights to protect natural resources, is necessary for the Lorax to ever return.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that this is the interpretation Dr. Seuss intended. Yet the Lorax, like any text, is open to multiple interpretations -- and this institutional interpretation is certainly compatible with the text. As is, perhaps, another interpretation in which the Lorax is himself an owner whose property rights are ignored by an unaccountable corporation. Either way, the Lorax is easily seen a story about property rights -- or the lack thereof -- and the inevitable environmental consequences of poor institutions. Something to think about the next time you hear the Lorax mentioned in an environmental policy debate.

So--let's break this down to the roots. A story that has a dominant, superficial message (corporate greed leads to environmental destruction), and, as the critic admits, probably was intended to forward precisely that message, still contains within in it traces of other meanings which subvert and undermine the primary interpretation and the accompanying ideology.

If this sounds familiar, that's because this is precisely how post-modern literary critics make their living. Yet here, we have a conservative blogger using the same method to make a conservative argument (replacing a traditional liberal environmentalist model with a conservative one emphasizing property rights).

I've registered my own support for this type of method before--but that shouldn't be surprising, since I'm a liberal. What is interesting is seeing how conservatives have adapted this style in their own arguments, probably without realizing its roots. Another example is conservative blogger Steve Bainbridge defending under "Just War" theories the destruction of Alderaan (that's right, we're talking Star Wars. For another "neo-imperialist" argument by a prominent conservative, see here in The Weekly Standard). In another post, which unfortunately points to a broken link, Bainbridge notes that just because they wear black, doesn't make them evil. The point is that the imagery of Star Wars is clearly designed to point the viewer to certain conclusions (sometimes overtly--who names their own ships and installations "Death Star," "Executor," "Tyrant," etc.?), but look underneath the surface and the meaning isn't inevitable (despite the clear intention of the author). This parallels almost exactly the indeterminacy theories forwarded by much of the academic left.

What's funny is that conservatives claim to loathe these theories (see, for just one example, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL)). Indeed, Bainbridge himself has called it "bogus." Yet, here he is, engaging in precisely the critical endeavor he claims to abhor. What gives?

Other parts of the critical movement are rapidly making themselves known in conservative circles as well. Storytelling scholarship, despite often coming under criticism, is used by virtually all members of the political spectrum (as Richard Delgado puts it: "who has not run into the conservative or anti-PC detractor who begins by recounting: 'I know a story . . . .' and then tells of a mythical professor who was so hounded by PC fanatics that he hung up his coffee cup and retired" [Richard Delgado, Rodrigo's Book of Manners: How to Conduct a Conversation on Race -- Standing, Imperial Scholarship, and Beyond (Reviewing "BEYOND ALL REASON: THE RADICAL ASSAULT ON TRUTH IN AMERICAN LAW" by Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry), 86 GEO. L.J. 1051, 1072 (1998)]). In an article published in a campus political journal, I noted how conservative arguments for ideological diversity on campus mirror almost exactly liberal arguments for racial diversity--and how the responses of both "embattled minorities" is very similar: Both political minorities and racial minorities tend to separate themselves out from the rest of campus, form groups specifically designed to advocate and protect their interests as well as offering a safe space for members to congregate, and advocate vociferously to defend encroachments on their dignity while at the same time trying to avoid the backlash that is concurrent with being seen as a "pushy minority." Indeed, conservatives seem awfully comfortable with critical theory--aside from the fact that they hate it.

Although part of me does rebel about such a lovely story as The Lorax being co-opted to the conservative cause, I am far more pleased to see a philosophy I find important and compelling being adopted across ideological divides. Indeed, while I expect to hear protests and assaults on post-modernism for years to come, judging by what conservatives are saying, the Crits have already won.


Double Birdie said...

Fascinating post, especially the part about how conservative groups on predominantly liberal campus behave in much the same way as racial minorities have in the past.

You may want to correct this error, though:

What is interesting is seeing how conservatives have adapted this style in their own arguments, probably without realizing it's roots.

You mean to say "...without realizing its roots." Yeah, I often mix those two up, easy enough to do.

Alan Stewart Carl said...

Critical theory in the world of literature is fascinating. And fun (if you're a complete nerd like me). It's intellectually enthralling to go back to a text and "find" (really, invent) new meanings. The value of the new interpretation actually lies in the intellectual effort more than anything else, but it is a process that can expand the mind.

My problem with critical thinking (and I would assume most conservatives' problem--although I am not really a conservative) is when critical theory is applied outside the realm of academics and used in, for lack of a better word, the real world. It's one thing to find pro-property rights messages in The Lorax but it's a whole other thing to, say, reinterpret the motivations of terrorists.

Seuss's original intent is not of dire importance because it has no real consequence--the reinterpretation is just a game. But terrorism's original intent is vital and any reinterpretation would be much more than a game. Using the intellectual flexibilty of critical theory on the real world can lead otherwise intelligent people to believe interpretations that are mere inventions or even out-right lies.

The entire "we caused terrorism, we are wholly or mainly to blame" reasoning is, I think, the consequence of using criticial theory on the real world. It is a wholly argurable theory from an intellectual standpoint--but it is compelely wrong in that it disgards orginal intent in favor of a new (invented) interpretation.

Anyway, that's probably way off topic. I just thought I'd point out that the real problem with critical theory is not when it's used in literature, but when it's used on reality.

David Schraub said...

Alan: A cogent critique. I would say that Crits should try and offer a multiplicity of perspectives so we see the "whole picture" (or at least, as much as possible), rather than elevate one over the other. As you know, Derrida believed that in order to eliminate hierarchies in writing (or at least move in that direction, I doubt he thought they could be wholly destroyed), first you had to INVERT the hierarchy, and then you could eliminate it. That's why you see crits focus so much on interps that seem to exclusively blame the West. I think it would be more powerful to fuse the stories together--take what we know from critical theory and add it in to our "standard" interpretation. But I'd agree, many are failing to do that (or at least aren't making it clear).

3of6: Glad you liked it. To be clear, I don't think that the said actions of racial minorities is "in the past," at least given what I see on my own campus.

And thanks for the "its" correction (this is SO revenge for my Huntington nitpick, right? :) )

Randomscrub said...

One could also easily argue that the roots of such a technique of literary analysis lie not in postmodernism, but in Augustine. One text (for Augustine, the Bible) can have several true interpretations. Authorial intent is only one. I think that would be a position Bainbridge would be quite comfortable defending.

PS - I somehow doubt your "destruction of Alderaan" link was intended to take me to your "exclusive language of marriage" post.

David Schraub said...

Hmm...que weird. Yes, that is a mistake. But we could make all sorts of Freudian claims about what my subconscious is telling us ("Destroying marriage is just like destroying Alderaan! Moral catastrophe aaaaaaahhhh!!!"). In any event, It will be fixed momentarily.

And yes, textual indeterminancy has deep roots. Indeed, it goes back further than St. Augestine--Talmudic scholarship going back to around the First Century incorporates these ideals. For example, tradition has it that when asked to decide whether the competing interpretations of the Hillel and Shammai schools were correct, God was to have said "these and these [I.E., both] are the word of God". See also Suzanne Last Stone, In Pursuit of the Counter-Text: The Turn to the Jewish Legal Model in Contemporary American Legal Theory, 106 Harv. L. Rev. 813, 834-38 (1993).

hf said...

I was going to say that it sounds like a straightforward application of Kabbalistic techniques invented to help you see God everywhere. See, for example, Aleister Crowley's Kabbalistic analysis of nursery rhymes. I wonder, why do you call it a theory? You don't need to accept a particular doctrine to use the techniques, as these conservatives demonstrate once again.