Reading Karl Marx
Reading Karl Marx is a rather simple book -- not that by "simple" I mean to deride its value. Rather, it's a rather elegant and wonderful book about books, and more importantly, about reading, and the effects that theoretical works can have on communities more inclined toward practice.
Reading Karl Marx collects a number of photographs taken of small groups doing what the title implies, reading selections from Marx's works with the guidance of the author, who also provides correspondence between himself and two critics regarding the project, not only of the book, but the reading groups, as well as Ganahl's photography. The subject of the book is twofold: The look of a community at work (the participants in the reading groups), embodied in the photographs, and the validity of the project (the subject of the correspondence), and if it is valid, as what, practice or theory.
The images -- and I'm not about to argue as to whether they are properly "art" or not (in many respects, I don't think it really matters at all) -- are not very startling in their content. Students of various ages and in various places express dismay, fervor, quiet interest, epiphanies, and boredom. The latter two are the most interesting of the lot: Very rarely do we have a moment, and a rather Benjamanian moment at that, captured on film that properly depicts the way it looks to make a personal breakthrough. Mirrors are rarely in reach, let alone in plain view, when it happens to us, but if we're lucky we sometimes catch a student's face as the weight of an idea finally hits home. And so Ganahl's photos of such are rather warming; they're evidence of the efficacy of the project, and of Marx's continued relevance. The boredom photos, on the other hand, are rather distressing, like boredom is in any classroom. It's rather distressing to see a room full of students who look like they're struggling to stay awake, let alone be interested in the reading or the project. Like the epiphanies, it's rare to see it in ourselves, but we know how it feels. And how it looks when our friends and students are rather bored by the subject at hand. If the epiphanies help to show Marx's ghost still haunting us, the boredom photos help to show how limited our ways of acquiring new knowledge really are -- and maybe that it's time to embrace new ways to teach old ideas.
And this, in part, is the problem addressed in the correspondence. Ganahl's critics, Craig Martin and Anthony Iles, point to a number of issues in the process and production of the reading groups. (The correspondence, presumably, is culled from the discussion boards at <www.ganahlmarx.com> -- a site dedicated to the project, which continues to host discussions of the project.) While Martin begins by questioning whether a reading of Marx can even really be done in such a way -- with people that are either wholly unfamiliar with Marx and his work, or simply unprepared scholastically for such a discussion -- this is quickly dispelled in favor of a broader discussion of what the project means and whether acting in such small groups, doing such limited reading, can prove politically effective.
Ganahl concludes the book with this rather provocative statement, "There are many ways of being activist via political associations, fashion, corporations, special interest groups or institutions…the less activism fits the given notions of activism the more it might prove effective" (48). The debate between theory and practice, sadly, will haunt classrooms and academic debates for as long as people demand upon some division thereof, which, ultimately, is simply fruitless. We all act, we're all constantly acting, and everything that we produce, whether it's interacted with by one person or a million, will affect some change. Ganahl's detractors, and it seems also that some of the bored participants in the reading groups suffer from such, seem stuck on this division. If Ganahl's photos do one thing it is this: They show that even the act of reading is a form of activism. His detractors would do well to take a look at the images, and remember what it's like to have an epiphany. And while they might not be the best photos to hang on your wall, they're reassuring and even rather promising.