Glitches in the Matrix

From the Books Combined archive, Colleen Eren on the books which most deconstructed and reconstructed her worldview. Originally from 2017:

An undergraduate student recently remarked to me, “I think I’m going to be coming to you for advisement, you’re a sociologist, and sociologists are people who can see glitches in the Matrix.” For those unacquainted with the cult classic science fiction film he was alluding to, a very brief explanation: the protagonist, a computer hacker named Neo, is awoken to the shocking realization that the world as he experiences it is nothing more than an artifice, a kind of virtual reality fabricated by a sentient computer program to enslave the minds and bodies of humanity. “The Matrix,” then, is the term for that all-encompassing mental construction.

Leaving aside the obvious imperfections of the analogy (after all, in the film sentient computers are using bodies in vats to harvest energy, and “glitches in the Matrix” are essentially program malfunctions evidenced through experiences of deja vu), my student’s observation captured the enormously powerful, unsettling experience of having one’s sense of the taken-for-granted nature of the social order disrupted through knowledge. It spoke of the exhilaration of having the narratives we’ve convinced ourselves are expressive of timeless truth exposed as constructed and arbitrary, subject to the whims of culture and history. It was just such moments of having personal paradigm shifts, of feeling a seismic shift in thinking about and relating to a world that was now incompatible with preexisting notions (“seeing glitches in the Matrix”) which led me to become a sociologist, and they always came about through books, primarily read as an undergraduate or graduate student. With my student’s analogy in mind, I tried to recall the books which most deconstructed and then reconstructed anew my worldview.  In typical sociological fashion, I thought of books that provided “glitches” in my understanding about gender, race, and class but also about the entire configuration of society.

I had just graduated from 13 years in Catholic grammar and all girls’ high schools where discussion of non-heterosexual relationships and sexual orientation was verboten, when I was exposed to writing that exploded the idea of neat sexual/gender dichotomies so omnipresent in Western thinking. A Cultural Studies professor assigned Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Declaring “nature/nuture is indivisible,” she included an image which never left me of a Mobius strip representing how the social can become somatic, how the outside (society, culture) is never completely disconnected from the inherited/genetic “inside” and so the task of separating how much of gender is “biological” is impossible. Later classes would introduce me to Judith Butler’s classic Gender Trouble, with its concept of gender performativity, how gender is always enacted within a heterosexual matrix (there’s that word again!) through language, speech, dress, and action, rather than existing in some preexisting, internal state.

Historian David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World had a similar impact, assigned for a Race and Ethnicity course. A sweeping account of slavery from ancient times to the American Civil War, the book described evolving ideological justifications for the institutions of human bondage, including the race-based myths that were necessary to its maintenance and allowed for blackness to be constructed as a mark of inferiority. When immersed in societies where racial hierarchies with whiteness as an indicator of privilege are assumed, there may appear to be an ineluctability or “naturalness” to raced-based antipathy that operates independently of economic and political developments. Davis smashes such limited thinking.

The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison by Jeffrey Reiman not only shifted my paradigms, but was perhaps one of the most influential books to my work as a critical criminologist who focuses on white collar crimes. It did not only just decry the racial and class-based injustices of the US criminal justice system, but raised the provocative thesis that the criminal justice system is designed to fail in its stated objective—but that it succeeds in its failure because it keeps certain classes of people (poor people, primarily of color) in positions of marginalization, which allows for the more harmful crimes of the elites to go ignored and unpunished. Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow’s extension of the argument with a provocative twist—that the criminal justice system operates as new way of maintaining racial caste made me think in a completely new way about evolving systems of control.

Last, it is cliché for a sociologist, but reading Capital and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was my greatest “glitch in the Matrix” moment, when, I discovered just how deep the rabbit hole may go. Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, would go on to show me what was missing in Marx–the story of women’s subjugation under a patriarchal social order as a necessary part of the development of capitalism. Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction radically changed and deepened my understanding of class, showing how one’s ‘preferences’ (leisure time pursuits, foods, music, and so on) are governed through internalized class schemas. And Daniel Quinn’s Beyond Civilization would further tantalize me with visions of alternatives to the current social order.

This very brief discussion is not meant to be in any way an exhaustive list or syllabus. It is deeply personal. When I crowdsourced the question “which books changed your paradigms” on social media, what was remarkable was the lack of overlap in the responses. Although there is doubtlessly a performative aspect in trying to talk about one’s most paradigm-shifting literary experiences (e.g. does this book make me look smart?) I have attempted give a sincere account. Looking back, is hard to imagine a time when I did not “see” the insights these books provided, as at this point they seem like truisms. The most wondrous aspect of my life as an academic is having not only the ability, but a responsibility to continue to probe the depths of these rabbit holes, disrupt the many constraining Matrixes, and to help my students “see” glitches as well.

Colleen P. Eren is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, LaGuardia Community College and the author of Bernie Madoff and the Crisis: The Public Trial of Capitalism, published by Stanford University Press (2017)