Talking ToK | Aga Khan Academies

Talking ToK

19 February 2021

Here are some reflections from Ms.Jina Saha’s ToK Talk “Identity traverses capitalist roads in the mid-20th century” to DP1 students who are studying Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman and Amartya Sen’s prose. The session, conducted by the ToK Department, was an attempt to seek connections between two IB subject groups – Group 1 (Studies in Language & Literature) and Group 3 (Individuals and Societies).

Interdisciplinary learning often facilities unique avenues of learning and inquiry. The session by Miss Jina evidenced this. The talk, which lay in the intersection of economics, Language and Literature, and TOK, explored the driving ideas behind capitalism and a capitalist identity, which are fundamental themes in the text we are currently studying, Death of Salesman by Arthur Miller, and the body of works by Amartya Sen. Throughout the talk, I noticed explicit conceptual connections between the nature of capitalism and the events of the play. For instance, Miss Jina mentioned the two defining features of a consumer society to be “propulsive power of envy” and “slow unleashing of inquisitive instinct”. Using these as a lens to analyse the behaviour of characters in the play led to insightful realizations on the nature of “tragedy” in the play, and helped me better understand – and to an extent, empathize with - the dilemmas confounding the characters. This illustrated how valuable interdisciplinary lenses can be to our learning. The talk also underscored an important connection between reason, capitalism, and our individual identities. This left me questioning whether reason - or as Amartya Sen says, enlightenment - truly holds power in liberating ourselves from systems of dogmatic belief, and whether in a world defined by capitalism, one can hope of constructing an identity free of its ill-influence.

Jacintha Thota DP1

The ToK Talk by Ms Jina enhanced my understanding of consumerist behaviour, our perception of identity, and the concept of change as progress. She gave examples of prominent works by Amartya Sen, Arthur Miller, and others with reference to the capitalist context of the play ‘Death of a Salesman’. The quotes developed my interpretation of the word ‘identity’ as a term with an economic aspect and what we as individuals choose to define identity to be. I remember one of the images in the presentation which portrayed the evolution of homo sapiens from apes to barcodes as a metamorphic transformation.  To me, this illustration seemed like a combination of change and identity because with the ‘progress’ in technology somewhere we find ourselves lost in the algorithms and thus doubt who we really are.

Aksha Hemnani DP1

After the presentation was over, I was overwhelmed by a cascade of thoughts as I tried to process all the information and connect the dots. From all these thoughts, what struck me most was this quote. “The only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell.” This line speaks so much truth, and is a reflection of our progress as a modern society. The presentation was given primarily from the perspective of a consumer, as we looked at where we’ve come from in our journey of attaining the ideal way of living, which was the essence of the “American Dream”. We try to comprehend the way in which intricate concepts and aspects of society were built throughout history, through events and phases such as the industrial revolution and the great depression. We make an attempt to understand how it affects who we are, why we do what we do, and the ethics behind it. This experience was a mix of literature, economics, and theory of knowledge, where we build on our understanding of the world to recognize the significance of each persons’ knowledge, be it Ms. Jina or Arthur Miller. After all, the only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell!

Shreyan Roy DP1

The fact that we are able to connect two or more subjects together and talk about them as an interdisciplinary idea, is what I really like about the International Baccalaureate and the Theory of Knowledge. This ability to look at a particular theme from different viewpoints can be so beneficial. The talk by Ms. Jina Saha, was very intriguing, because I was able to analyze the text at hand in a better way. I am an Economics HL student, and we do talk about human behaviour, but this session intensified my individual inquiries about human behaviour. The whole idea of maintaining a social stature that you are happy with, and the way one’s economic status affects that stature is something that we talked about, and some aspects were surely relatable.

Ayman Daredia DP1

The ToK Talk by Ms Jina threw light on the implications of the play “Death of a Salesman” and Amartya Sen’s prose from an economic perspective. It not only gave me an insight into the history of the origin of capitalism in the industrialized world but also helped me to examine deeply some of the important concepts such as  ‘agency well-being’ and ‘the good life’. The talk provoked me to re-visit the inquiry questions I have in the context of Amartya Sen, his concepts of identify, freedom and choice.  I am left with a couple of ethical questions: Does our economic well-being really define our worth? What are the moral implications of possessing knowledge about human behaviour?

Aleena Parbatani DP1

A teacher’s reflection:

I have read and taught Miller’s Death of a Salesman previously. I have therefore been a participant in impassioned and perceptive classroom discussions around themes that are implicit yet central to the fibre of the play. The talk by Ms. Jina Saha provoked and challenged my ideas about the play in interesting ways.

There were two main learnings that will stay with me. One was the quote by William Leach, “Whoever has the power to project the vision of a good life and make it prevail has the most decisive power of all.” I was reminded of the play’s protagonist, Willy Loman’s incessant struggle to ‘project’ and an even more agonizing and pathetic attempt at making this vision ‘prevail.’ A broken Willy confided in his wife, “I’m tired to death. I couldn’t make it Linda. I just couldn’t make it.”

This leads me to the second aspect of the talk that struck me deeply. Ms. Jina shared a powerful image of a familiar visual of the evolution of man but the last man is melding into a barcode in the image! A powerful symbol of modern capitalism, barcodes are plastered across every object we buy or trade. The beep of the machine (echoing the point made in the talk about Industrial Revolution) that scans the barcode has become an intrinsic note in humanity’s progress. Man has simply walked into this capitalistic world and symbolic thick black lines have overwhelmed ‘identity’. Miller ends his play with prophetic words, “Only the music of the flute is left on the darkening stage as over the house the hard towers of the apartment buildings rise into sharp focus.” Willy has killed himself just before this as the Salesman in him could not survive and ‘prevail’. He has surrendered to the lines in the barcode. Miller’s urban and capitalistic imagery of the rising hard towers of apartment buildings overwhelm Willy just as the man in Jina’s image surrenders to the barcode.

I am excited about a nuanced study of the play with my students this year! Thank you Jina!

Chandreyee Das Gupta

Department of English/ToK