Sobrina de Alguien
Translation: Roderic Day, Nia Frome

The Narrative Devices of Criticism: Capital vs. Breaking Bad

Popular opinion on whether any given piece of media constitutes “a critique” is often split. Some people, for example, claim that Breaking Bad criticizes sexism, whereas others think it’s a sexist show. In this essay I want to shed some light on the different theories of criticism underlying this kind of disagreement. To do so, I’ll describe various techniques of narrative construction, starting with the most basic — things that are widely understood as markers of criticism — and ending with the most abstract — things that aren’t always seen as defining traits of criticism. Next, I’ll briefly analyze the relationship between these techniques in two works that employ them very differently. One is a book about political theory whose claim to the title of criticism is beyond dispute: Marx’s Capital. The other is a work of fiction whose critical character is often disputed: Breaking Bad.

Vilification and Heroization: these consist in the construction of characters from attributes and behaviours that are socially rejected or valued. Those who understand vilification as the principal resource of critique suppose that to criticize is to affirm the moral reprehensibility of something. From this perspective, if a character or a phenomenon is built up as “bad,” then we can say there’s been critique. The opposite of vilification is heroization.

Reward and Punishment: these are not generated at the moment of character creation, but emerge in the course of the narrative. Punishment consists in creating negative consequences for a character who may or may not be vilified. Those who understand punishment as the principal resource of critique believe that critique boils down to disincentivizing a given behaviour by showing it punished. The opposite of punishment is reward.

Invisibilization and Centering: these are produced by the selection of a story’s main themes and the perspectives from which it will be told. A character is invisible when the story they’re part of isn’t interested in speaking about them or through them. They’re centered when the story dwells on them, and even more so when the world is seen through their eyes. Regardless of whether they’re heroized, rewarded, vilified, or punished, paying great attention to a character binds us to them emotionally. Whether it’s out of love or hate, they hold our interest, and we cannot be indifferent to what happens to them. Those who understand the selection of themes and perspectives as the defining aspect of critique believe that to criticize is to obstruct the process whereby an audience comes to identify or solidarize with a character by denying them the spotlight.

Historicization and Fetishization: these are the most abstract techniques used in narrative construction, and are not always associated with critique. They can be observed in how a story depicts the processes of understanding and transformation of its themes and characters. Historicization shows that all things have an explanation, a beginning and an end, whereas fetishization presents them as opaque and eternal. In other words, historicization is a kind of centering that is a partisan of intelligibility and change, whereas fetishization invisibilizes both. For those who understand historicization as the defining aspect of critique, to criticize is to make understandable both the spatial-temporal limits of a thing and the laws of its movement, with the ulterior motive of directing its transformation towards a desired end.

Now let’s look at how these techniques interact in Capital. Here there are two main characters: capital and labour. Capital has a heroic side and a villainous one. Its heroic side appears whenever its effect on the organization of production is compared with the slave system. In the times of capital, the slave becomes a wage labourer — a condition preferable to slavery. What’s more, production is socialized and made more efficient through technological innovation. Spaces like factories and offices put many workers together in one place, where they become dependent on each other for the creation of a final product. This socialization of labour allows the generation of wealth and technical knowledge on a scale that would have been unthinkable if work had remained atomized and primitive, that is, had each petty producer stuck to doing artisan labour in a workshop or tilling their Lord’s demesne with rudimentary machines. This capacity to produce at great scale and with advanced technology is a requirement for society to grow and satisfy its needs. But it’s important to ask: can society (that is, labour) satisfy its needs adequately in this moment? No, because it does not have the right to its own products, since these belong exclusively to the owners of companies. Here the dark side of our main character starts to emerge. Capital socializes labour, but not its products. It is neither able nor willing to share the wealth — it only wants to assimilate it into itself so that it can grow larger and larger. From this follows the exploitation of workers, their subjection to long hours and inhuman conditions. From this follows the capitalists’ interest in there always being a large mass of the unemployed, since unemployment exerts downwards pressure on wages, which is a requirement for the accumulation of profit, which is a requirement for unlimited and uninterrupted growth. Thus, as far as the socialization of labour goes, capital is heroic. But as an obstacle to the socialization of labour’s products and to the improvement of workers’ living conditions, capital is a villain: the exploiter.

Capitalists have no interest in allowing producers to decide for themselves what to do with existing wealth, nor how or when it should be created. In fact, they fight tooth and nail to preserve their control over these decisions. Thus, vile capital and its agents must be defeated by a new hero that is willing and able to organize the economy for the benefit of the majority. This hero is labour. The new order in which labour defeats and subordinates capital in order to guide it towards its disappearance is called socialism. In socialism, both the process of production and its products are socialized. Exploited workers and the unemployed are the principal beneficiaries of the emancipation of labour from capital. Marx’s book aims to be a tool that aids them in the difficult task of understanding the economy in order to revolutionize it. If they succeed, workers will be rewarded with the ability to control production and therefore their own lives as well.

Marx’s account narrates the story of the economy from the point of view of both labour and capital. The purpose of this back-and-forth is not to give the same status to both, but to clearly illustrate the differences between them. In the final analysis, Marx privileges the subject-standpoint of labour, whereas capital is more of an object, the topic that labour comes to understand on the basis of its own interests. This represents an inversion of the roles of subject and object as they appear in the traditional story of the political economists. The political economists narrated economic history exclusively from the point of view of capital, making labour into an object with which the audience could not identify. Capital is, so to speak, a spin-off of political economy, one that allows us to identify with the hitherto invisibilized perspective of labour. The purpose of this story is not to show capital going about its business to make audiences identify with it and share its hopes and dreams, but to historicize it as an object. It aims to identify the strengths and weaknesses of an enemy. If no one disputes that Marx’s book is a ruthless critique of capital, it’s because Marx deploys every narrative weapon in his arsenal against it. This leaves no room for ambiguity.

Now let’s take a look at how these techniques interact in Breaking Bad. The theme and main character of this show isn’t Walter White, but his transformation. But what does he transform into? Here there’s an ambiguity. The title of the show tells us that he becomes a villain. As the story develops, we watch terrible things happen to this villain: persecution, the destruction of his bonds of affection, the loss of his own identity as a good man. On this basis, one might think he’s a villain being punished. However, Walter also acquires wealth, power, and prestige in the criminal world to which he finds himself so well-suited. It’s made clear that, from Walter’s perspective, emasculation is a denigrating condition. He begins his story emasculated, stuck in the feminine role of using his knowledge to educate kids that neither respect nor fear him, and making hardly any money. The situation is exacerbated by an illness that makes him physically and economically vulnerable. Asking friends and acquaintances to pay his medical bills would have only aggravated the problem. So Walter decides on a course of action that will let him simultaneously resolve his money problems and restore his truncated masculinity in the most direct way possible.

In economic terms, the process that Walter undergoes is the transformation from proletarian to petty-bourgeois. He gets his start working out of the back of a Winnebago, as a humble methamphetamine artisan. Little by little, he makes contact with the capital he needs to upgrade his equipment and expand his operation, until he finally becomes an autonomous entrepreneur. However, even though he manages to accumulate insane amounts of money, the characteristics of his economic activity stand in the way of his becoming a pure capitalist. From start to finish, Walter plays the part of both worker, who provides knowledge and labour power, and capitalist, who accumulates wealth and turns it into capital through reinvestment.

Maybe loneliness, persecution, and the moral judgment of others are the price one must pay to attain the ideal of masculinity and petty-bourgeois independence, or perhaps they are part of the reward that comes with getting rich: the tragic and therefore sublime dimension of pursuing a great ideal that this modern world no longer appreciates as it should. The villain is powerful, bold, cunning, and feared. He’s the manliest of men: the true hero of capitalist society. The series is called Breaking Bad because, when the showrunners were deciding on a title, they did so not from Walter’s perspective, but from a separate moral perspective. If they’d chosen to reflect Walter’s own values, it might have been called Breaking Badass.

The story of Walter’s transformation is told from the point of view of Walter. This creates an emotional bond between the audience, the character, and his transformation. It doesn’t matter whether you call this bond aversion or admiration. What matters is that it exists. Everyone who watches Breaking Bad gains, irreversibly, the ability to see the world through Walter’s eyes, because the show presses on audiences everything they need to assimilate his perspective. This is not the case with characters like Skyler or Junior. In fact, to identify with them, the audience has to resist the influence of Walter’s perspective. They have to develop their own mental spin-off that centers the subjective perspective of other characters, with no resources other than their own imagination. A critique of Walter’s perspective would have required granting equal or longer runtime to an opposed perspective. The creators of Breaking Bad make Walter and Jesse subjects, while they make the rest of the cast objects. In that sense, they emulate political economy’s treatment of capital, through whose eyes it sees the world, and of labour, a mere object in capital’s field of vision.

Now the fact that this is a story about a process of change might make us think that it can’t fetishize. After all, Walter’s transformation isn’t invisibilized or made opaque, but centered and explained: Walter isn’t born an emperor of methamphetamine; he becomes one. However, from the opening credits it’s understood that breaking bad is the only transformation possible for him. The show bombards us with elements that railroad us into accepting that there were no alternatives. In this way, Walter’s process of change is itself fetishized. Though it is explainable and situated in time, it isn’t avoidable. Moreover, Walter never understands the laws of his own development. He’s passive and blind with respect to his own motives. He’s eternally condemned to a process of change that he can’t understand or control. Whereas in Marx the project of observing the enemy is subordinated to the goal of defeating him, in Breaking Bad observing Walter’s transformation is an end in itself. It’s not about empowering the audience to fight this villain, it’s about getting to know him as a person so that we can, in the final analysis, accept him. It could be said that Marx fetishizes the transition from capitalism to socialism in an analogous way. But even as early as the Communist Manifesto, he recognizes that the final outcome of class struggle is uncertain; it’s “a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Marx understands and accepts that the process of the emancipation of labour can’t be taken for granted. This is why he later dedicates so many years of his life to creating a work like Capital. He’s not sure what’s going to happen, but he knows that the balance favours the class that best understands the situation and that, according to that understanding, devises the best strategies to guarantee its victory.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to say something about authors’ subjective attitudes towards their works, and what our attitude should be towards that relationship. The political economists did not see themselves as either defenders or critics of capital. From their point of view, they were describing the economy as it was, not as they wanted it to be. Marx ignored these opinions and produced a critique of capital in which the apologetic and tendentious character of political economy was exposed. Nowadays many authors and audiences have reached higher and stranger degrees of naiveté, for they interpret the mere act of showing a thing as criticism of that thing. They believe that showing a man hitting a woman is a critique of misogynist violence against women; that showing a person being emotionally abusive towards another is a critique of emotional abuse; that showing a white working class man transforming into a petty-bourgeois criminal is a critique of petty-bourgeois criminality. By this logic, we would be fools not to understand the profound truth that every painted still life is actually a subtle attack on fruits and flowerpots.

How, then, can we tell whether we’re dealing with a critical representation, an homage, or a politically neutral image, like a still life? The answer doesn’t lie in authorial intent, since in many cases not even the authors know what they’re driving at. Instead it’s to be found in the real effect that the representation of a thing has on the audience’s relationship with said thing. The narrative strategies described here can affect this relationship in various ways. But they’re not all equally powerful. Invisibilization and centering, as well as historicization and fetishization, produce the most radical effects, which is why some of us take them to be the defining aspects of critique. Moreover, these strategies are the ones employed when criticism in the domain of morality — vilification, punishment — does not seem promising. Intelligent defenders of capitalism don’t want to put themselves in the uncomfortable position of arguing for the heroism of a system that impoverishes the majority. Besides, how can they show capital being rewarded, when it already owns everything? This is why they tend to adopt a strategy of alternately vilifying and invisibilizing the socialist alternative. On the rare occasion that socialism is mentioned, it’s to say that it’s evil, never to study it in detail, and certainly never to see the world through its eyes. The correlate of this vilification is the indirect heroization of capitalism as lesser evil, and fetishization of injustice by way of hackneyed talk about “human nature.” [1] When all of this is accompanied by the very real punishment of anyone who actually attempts to build a socialist alternative, it ends up being very persuasive. This is why so many people tend to focus on surviving these conditions rather than changing them.

I hope to have shown that the narrative devices described here are useful tools to both evaluate the critical character of a discursive work and to make intelligible to ourselves and others the critical paradigms we take up and advance.

  1. Sobrina de Alguien, 2021. “And they lived unhappily ever after…” [web]