Steinbeck and Contemporary Culture: Capital and Postmodernity
Modernity was an era characterized by an explosion of revolutionary,productive, creative, critical, and rational human energy. Man was anend in himself, the remaining absolute in a relativistic universe. Theliberating dialectics of the modern era have come into equilibrium,however, with the postmodern era in which traditional dichotomies losetheir distinctions and information spreads at exponential rates. TheGrapes of Wrath
Steinbeck foreshadows a contemporary culture defined by dehumanizationin his treatment of capital and the landed class. Steinbeck’s mostmarked criticism of the psychological and economic consequences ofcapitalism is found in the novel’s interchapters. In an anonymous andexemplary exchange between an evicted tenant and a landlord, thetenant desires to “fight to keep [his] land” and shoot someone, butthe owner maintains that the force responsible for the tenant’seviction is not human, but “the monster,” an impersonal and abstractentity representing capitalism (45). Steinbeck underscores thecontrast between humanity and the capital interest, as represented bythe monster: “[They] don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. Theybreathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it,they die the way you die without air, without side-meat” (43). Themonster, moreover, “has to have profits all the timeaˆ¦.When the monsterstops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size” (44). Capital,Steinbeck comments, must constantly be in flux and reproduction ofitself. The owners who serve capital are all “caught in somethinglarger than t…
…more real than real” (81) -that is, the realization of ideal body image, status, and personalityattributes in the advertised image – the actual social sphere losesits meaning. Mass production, Baudrillard concludes, is no longer forthe masses, but of the masses (68). This psychological reversal of theproduction dynamics that characterized modernity subverts
Whereas capital in The Grapes of Wrath dissociates the bourgeoisiefrom their physical humanity, Steinbeck’s ideal remains intact. InSimulacra and Simulation, however, Baudrillard carries the causalchain to man’s inessentiality in postmodern culture.
Baudrillard, Jean. Glaser, Sheila Faria, trans. Simulacra andSimulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.