Monday, February 13, 2006
Do You Believe In Magic? Literary Thinking and the New Left
Before I exhaust whatever goodwill survived my last post on the New Left, I encourage everyone to participate in the discussion about the past, present and future of academic blogging. Not to mention its form and content. And the nature of the community it builds. Now:
As Ray noted, the issue of The Yale Journal of Criticism on “Countercultural Capital: Essays on the Sixties from Some Who Weren’t There“ is now available online. The title defuses some of the issues raised in the previous thread concerning, among other things, my inability to understand events I didn’t experience. That titular orientation pays dividends, I think, by insisting that the Sixties be evaluated much like any other historical watershed: dispassionately and in a scholarly manner. The naysayers may deny the legitimacy of this move, but if they consider how academics evaluate every other tumultuous moment in American history, they’ll realize that all Szalay and McCann ask are that the Sixties be accorded the same respect as the Gilded Age despite the active participation of the professoriate in its tumult. Another way to state this would be to say that the current political and academic climate demands that primary sources be treated as such . . . even though their authors are still around to contest criticism of them. The experience shouldn’t be discounted so much as contextualized in the same way historians and historicists have always contextualized their sources.
That said, I want to focus here on what I avoided in the earlier post: the impact of the New Left on literature and literary studies. I warn you that what follows consists largely of excerpts from an essay better read in its entirety. But for those who lack access to it I want to hit the highlights here:
Building on the New Left’s anti-institutionalism, writers like Ursula K. Le Guin repudiated the utopian vision of the Old Left. In The Lathe of Heaven, Le Guin
offers an all but direct allegory in which a passive aesthetic sensibility comes to replace an illegitimate effort to transform the world through instrumental means. Le Guin’s George Orr discovers that his dreams change the world; almost nightly he has what he calls “effective dreams” that reshape existence. Upon waking, Orr is the only one who recalls what the world used to be like, the only one who realizes that each night his mind refashions the lives of the planet’s billions. Orr turns to government therapists to find assistance in ending his dreams, but is understood instead to be delusional and irrationally afraid of his unconscious. He is thus committed to the care of one William Haber, a state-employed psychiatrist who quickly discovers that Orr does indeed dream effectively, and who then tries to use Orr’s dreams to rid the world of misery. Orr objects, and Le Guin organizes this novel around the ensuing debate between the two men over whether it’s right to change the world.
Readers are quick to learn
that this kind of idealism comes at a high price. Every time Haber induces Orr to dream a better world, something in Orr resists; when told to solve the color problem, Orr dreams a world in which all are a dull and listless battleship gray; when told to end all human conflict, Orr invents an alien invasion that threatens earth from the sky. Awake, he tells Haber, “it’s not right to play God with masses of people. . . . just believing you are right and your motives are good isn’t enough.” Le Guin’s sympathies are unambiguously with her dreamer, whose resistance to Haber’s megalomania resembles both the New Left’s resistance to traditional politics and the Women’s Movement resistance to the New Left itself. Haber does eliminate the many ills on which he set his sights: he brags to Orr that they have “Eliminated overpopulation; restored the quality of urban life and the ecological balance of the planet. Eliminated cancer as a major killer. . . . Eliminated the color problem, racial hatred. Eliminated war. . . . Eliminated—no, say in the process of eliminating—poverty, economic inequality, the class war, all over the world.” But Orr refuses to grant the importance of these accomplishments because, regardless of the outcome, he doesn’t “want to change things.” These were views consistent with the widely shared sense that technocratic solutions to social problems were invariably misguided. But, like Mailer and many of her contemporaries, Le Guin does not merely worry about the unintended consequences or heedless arrogance of technocratic power; she counters it to what by contrast appears a more fundamental spiritual and political accomplishment—a therapeutic acceptance of reality itself. “We’re in the world, not against it,” Orr responds, “you have to let it be."
Le Guin’s novel epitomizes the era’s concern with letting things “be what they are.” Governmental institutions are necessarily corrupt. Reform the system from within is damned by virtue of its complicity in a bureaucracy structurally inimical to change. And those most invested in this inhumanly rational system? The middle class. Thus the main complaint of Toni Morrison’s Paradise is not that her characters have been unjustly treated, no, but that by becoming bourgeois they have become complicit and, in so doing, denied the political power of the “magical,” “sacred,” or “primitive,” that is, the anti-rational:
The paradise referred to by the title of her recent novel is thus like the utopia envisioned by Le Guin’s Haber—an ideal community that becomes oppressive less because its inhabitants pursue unlikely or authoritarian ideals than because they have not striven hard enough to throw off the yoke of conventional thinking. The alternative, therefore, is less to seek to constrain cruelty, than to pursue the extraordinary. As one of Morrison’s ultimately enlightened characters discovers, his mind opens “toward another place—neither life nor death—but there, just yonder, shaping thoughts he did not know he had."
DeLillo shares Morrison’s vision of a higher politics opposed to bureaucratic rationality:
Since government as DeLillo conceives it is a vast mechanism driven solely by the effort to hold off “apocalyptic change,” it is bound to run aground on the simple fact most cherished by DeLillo: things go unpredictably wrong. There are “forces beyond your control, lines of intersection that cut through history and logic and every reasonable layer of human expectation.” As in Morrison, a fascination with the limits of calculation runs hand in hand with a sacralization of the sublimely irrational. But the more important corollary to DeLillo’s investment in mystery lies in the belief he shares with Morrison that not merely the ambition to plan and calculate, but even the desire to deliberate and discuss is absurd. In her Nobel Prize lecture, Morrison contrasts dead, “statist language"—which has “no desire or purpose other than maintaining . . . its own exclusivity and dominance"—to an “unmolested language” best exemplified by the pure sound of “a cry without an alphabet.” By this account, language appears most vital not only when disconnected from the ends of government, but when unimpaired by any semantics, or even by words themselves. Against “arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness,” Morrison embraces a vision of language whose “felicity” lies “in its reach toward the ineffable” and in its ability to recall a forgotten time “when language was magic without meaning."
This same belief in the power of the ineffable, Szalay and McCann argue, maximizes the appeal of certain strains of contemporary theory:
For, whether in the messianic visions of Walter Benjamin, the spectral shades of Jacques Derrida, the strangely rapturous optimism of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, or the often apocalyptic antirationalism of poststructuralist philosophy generally, academic postmodernism has turned with increasing earnestness, as Gopal Balkrishnan has put it, to the unlikely promise of “magical serendipities.” Professors of literature have been most invested in these serendipities, adds John Guillory, in their tendency to imagine that, by the very nature of the fact that it draws on the non-rationalized realm of culture, their work taps into a special “‘power’ intrinsically finer, greater than that of science, a visionary power to which science, with its microscopes and telescopes, can never hope to aspire.” An attraction to the sorts of antirationalist ideas promoted by the counterculture and embraced by the New Left, as Guillory points out, is a tendency virtually built into the literary academic’s deformation professionel.
As recent debates demonstrated, the appeal of this politics hasn’t abated. Kenneth Rufo’s considered rebuttal of my original argument accounts for how a politics formulated thus complements the pragmatism it disdains. Responding to my original post, Ken notes how I
underestimate the role that a far left, even so-far-it’s-anti-left, can play in constructing the potential political horizon. For most agents, political activity is a compromise and negotiation. True for Derrida, true for my rabidly conservative Georgia students. The negotiation isn’t always the product of self-reflection, but the inventional processes that inform it require that certain horizons be taken into account as a structural influence. From there, agency is, as Laclau has described it, the distance between the decision and the structure that determines the decision. One of the things that helps the left is having a vocal extreme so extreme that the pragmatic left can subsequently present itself as the moderate compromise between the leftist extreme and the rightist extreme. No counterbalance has existed from the left for some time, and I think that - and this is what I’m hinting at with the idea of an imaginary - that one is necessary before we begin to think the correct political/symbolic act.
From a tactical perspective I can’t deny the brilliance of supporting a vocal but ultimately impotent extreme, one which would pull the debate to the left much as it has been pulled to the right in recent years. But I question whether those who advocate that leftism “so-far-it’s-anti-left” would approve of being considered pawns in a larger political struggle. The earnestness of their rhetoric would suggest otherwise. I know that such a balance is, in the end, beneficial to changing the system, but how do those who harbor dreams of its destruction feel about being nothing more than feints intended to secure its reform? Fundamentally unconcerned with whatever role they play in politics conventionally understood, would they consider their almost libertarian commitment to personal freedom the causative agent of whatever change happened to occur? Szalay and McCann think they would:
It is difficult not to see in that remark the mystified vision of society common to libertarian philosophies, where progress is brought about solely through the combined interaction of individual choices and the instrumentalities of the state turn out to be irrelevant. And indeed, during the seventies and eighties—when his seminar briefly considered the founding voices of contemporary libertarianism, Ludwig von Mises and Frederick Hayek—Foucault moved ever more radically away from political issues and ever more completely toward a therapeutic emphasis on, as he famously put it, the care of the self. In the late sixties and early seventies, New Left thinkers like Greg Calvert and Carol Neiman similarly argued that the elision of personal emancipation and political change was one of the principal accomplishments of the countercultural left. Genuine change would come about only when the movement abandoned a “politics of guilt"—built around the “liberal-reformist” desire to alleviate injustice—and fully committed instead to “personal liberation.” “The revolution,” they declared, “is about our lives.” Though less grandiosely, the late Foucault says much the same. “Care for others should not be put before the care of oneself,” he suggests, a premise consistent with the aim of his late work to replace an emphasis on “political institutions” with a private “exercise of the self on the self."
Thus, they conclude:
As our political and economic world has been shaped more and more by the prevalence of inegalitarian private agreements and weak public institutions, this longing for cultural power has left literary academics with ever less to say. Indeed, by at least one account, having nothing to say is how the academic left stays true to the sixties. Refusing to don “the pose of the ethically communicative replicant,” Lauren Berlant suggests, is the way to remain “‘68 or something.” To resist “the bureaucratic impulse” one must embrace “the sublime productivities of political failure” and say “‘something unspeakable.’”
That, we believe, is the dead end of cultural politics and an impasse long since time to step around. No doubt this notion will seem mistaken to many of our contemporaries. Those like Eric Lott who think that “the 60s” lives on most powerfully in a commitment to refuse the “liberal analytical division between symbolic politics and real politics” will continue to believe that “the realest way to intervene in matters of state” is to offer “continuing revelations” of the fact that “our relation to the state is by definition coerced, thus distant, thus mystified, thus, perforce, imaginary.” Readers who agree with this assessment might also agree with the editors of the recent volume Left Legalism/Left Critique who, believing that the most acute danger to “the left” today is not the vast power of the radical right but the fact that left ambitions have become “nearly indistinguishable from mainstream liberal ones,” also believe that criticisms of postmodern radicalism betray an “impoverished understanding.” But this attitude strikes us as exactly wrong. It is the romantic appeal to “the disruptive, disorienting” force of “vertiginous knowledge” that is impoverished; the fascination with the authority of “political inarticulateness” that is hackneyed and banal. All the trappings of this sort of thinking, we believe, deserve the scrutiny of the type offered by the essays in this volume. The simplistic visions of both “reason” and “the state”; the related dismissal of formal politics; the conviction that ordinary language is in some significant way a prison house; and, above all, the inflation of self-realization to revolutionary importance—all of these notions deserve to be seen for what they have become: less concepts that might ever be evaluated or tested than aspects of a cherished and ultimately comforting folklore of the late capitalist economy.
Hmm… It’s a very serious argument. And deserves to be taken seriously. And certainly there are those who throw up their hands and wait for the magical fingers of the Weltgeist to untie all the knots.
But it’s still hard to see, from what you’ve (re)produced here, how any of your / McCann’s / Szalay’s argument adds up to anything more than getting with the program, the program being the death march of liberalism. In short, how do we know what to do when we get there, the halls of power? How do we know that, say, welfare reform or the Iraq War is an unacceptable compromise? How do we know when our newly endorsed “bureaucratic impulse” has gotten out of hand? When we’ve had too much kool aid, so much that it’s spurting out the old nose?
In other words, is this an entirely formal critique? A contentless critique? Or there’s something that we’re going to do once we stop burning our draft cards and learn to love the democratic party? Because I don’t see it here.
And after all, given the last century or so, it’s not hard to understand why intellectual complicity with the worst is, well, a justifiable concern. The “idea” at the back of empire, the horrors of fascism and the excesses of communism, the mind-metal combinations of the last 50 years here in the US of A. I mean, it’s easy to forget, I guess, but it’s not like Auschwitz hasn’t been hovering over the humanities for a bit now…
In yet other words, all this may explain why “I” am useless. But perhaps better useless than complicit, no? At least sometimes.
(Further, there’s more to be said about the pursuit of the ineffable, things like Benjamin’s messianism… It, first of all, has a history - and a deeply literary one at that. But I won’t get into that for now...)
(All a bit enjambed and dislocated… But hopefully you can see my point here...)
Two points, and I know I’m repeating myself:
1) Liberalism has no lock on pragmatism. In other words, there can be many different conceptions of what it would mean to act pragmatically.
2) This whole dichotomization of “rational” and “primitive” has to be viewed from some other vantage point than US parochialism and/or exceptionalism.
NB I make these points not to close off debate, but to expand it.
For instance, and to say a little more about the second point, I’m far from suggesting that a postcolonial frame demands that one side with the magical against the englightenment. But it sure complicates that choice, including even the terms of that choice that otherwise can seem so simple, so pragmatic, when your focus closes off a consideration of colonial logics.
Nor is this some kind of unnatural, politcally correct imposition upon the issue. As I’ve also suggested before, the 1960s were marked precisely by a realization on the left of wider global implications to their politics, coinciding as they did not only with US neoimperial adventures in South East Asia, but also with decolonization, national liberation, and Third Worldism more generally.
(Oh, and as an aside: a little irony in the wake of this post. It turns out that the MP elected in the riding in which I reside switched parties even before the new parliament had time to be constituted. So much for the choice on offer, eh?)
I’m writing a chapter on *Paradise* right now, and I’ll admit that I’m quite sympathetic to a critique of the novel’s pluralism.
But McCann and Szalay’s (admittedly very brief) reading of the novel on pp 447-48 of “Do You Believe in Magic?” fails to contextualize the quotations they fit into their thesis—a failure that has consequences, if only for a proper understanding of the novel.
First off, Morrison’s target isn’t “the narrow-minded conventionality of the black middle class.” Her critique in *Paradise* is of community formation in general, the way group stability is founded on the violent exclusion of some other group. Basic scapegoat logic. It’s not the lifestyle of the townspeople of Ruby—for they were exclusionary from the start, before they achieved middle-class respectability.
The issue of middle-class lifestyles ONLY comes into play within Ruby itself: the patriarchs’ fear that they have become lazy, that without constant hardship and hard work, the town’s discipline will become flaccid. This fear is then projected onto a group of outsiders, who are slaughtered by the patriarchs of Ruby. Again, classic scapegoat logic with some American jeremiad thrown in.
So when Reverend Misner says, “[The men of Ruby] think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him,” he’s in NO WAY making a claim about the LIFESTYLES of Ruby. He is not saying that Ruby has become a boring middle-class town like other white boring middle-class towns. He is saying something very simple: in forming an all-black community in reaction to white racism, the town has wound up becoming as oppressive and violent toward internal “enemies” as racist whitefolk.
So I take issue with McCann and Szalay’s comment that “By Morrison’s account, politically minded African Americans seem almost fated to fall into this trap” (448). While Morrison’s work consistantly does attend to the exclusionary logic of group formation, she is in no way opposed to “real” political action. Let’s remember that the precursor to Ruby—the novel’s families’ first all-black community—is formed in reaction to the post-Reconstruction exclusion of black professionals from their professional and political posts. The patriarchs turned AWAY from the world; to read them as “political minded African Americans” is to misread them. The patriarchs who found Ruby do so to avoid confrontation, to avoid politics of any sort.
Instead, the novel supports political action. This is obvious in two of the novel’s only “good” characters: Anna Flood and Reverend Misner. Both are or have been active in Civil Rights politics. Both are “outcasts” within Ruby due to their real-world politics. Remember that the leaders of Ruby OPPOSE Civil Rights, despise Martin Luther King, and use violence to keep their own children from becoming politicized. Misner wants to use his new position as a religious leader in the town to make the community more politically active, not less.
Finally, there is the novel’s representation of the youngest generation (it is, after all, a novel of generations). It’s clear that Morrison’s hope as a novelist is embodied by these kids—kids who rebel not against their middle-class lifestyle but against the town patriarchs’ attempts to keep them out of the wider world (a wider world that includes politics—remember the black fist they graffiti onto the town’s hearth?).
In fact, the novel is at its best when lovingly representing the newfound peace and leisure of the Ruby women in the middle-class lifestyles they have struggled for and finally achieved. These are the same women who accept outsiders, who give their children leeway to find their political voices, who traffic with the community of outcasts ultimately destroyed by the patriarchs.
(The same could be said of *Sula*: Sula represents chaos. She’s not a “good” or “positive character.” She represents that which any community sees as toxic and so coheres against. The people of The Bottom are portrayed as complex, neither good nor bad. But one of their positive characteristics is that they ACCEPT evil, they don’t seek to destroy it. Their problem isn’t that they are “conventional” but that they seek an easy end to chaos and pain. The novel ultimately criticizes easy cure-alls like the magical National Suicide Day. Just as *Beloved* balances Baby Suggs’ mystical “love yourself” sermon with the town’s exclusion of Baby and Sethe, leading directly to Schoolteacher’s unannounced arrival at 124 and Sethe’s murder of her child.)
CR, it’s worth noting that the ‘clean hands’ argument you make is just as often made in the other direction. Zizek, for example, makes much of the fact that leftism is preferable to liberalism because the latter is a ‘beautiful-souled’ refusal to be complicit in ugly acts. That is: he assumes ‘complicit is better than useless’, ergo leftism - which might produce some sort of awful Stalinist crimes - is better than liberalism.
No great fan of the Z, myself… But I’m sure that his argument moves eyes open from the violence of liberalism toward the (lesser) violence of, well, Stalinism. Not endorsing that myself… But that’s how the argument usually goes, right?
So not complicit better than useless. But rather violent rather than complicit (and thus more violent). No?
(Please, Rich et al, don’t come after me for this. I’m not a Zizekian, nor a Stalinist, nor, really, am I really an advocate of violence at all… Just trying to get the moves straight here with John...)
John, I take your point to be another version of mine: that the opposition between a “pragmatic” liberalism and an “ineffable” left is poorly put. There’s nothing particularly ineffable about, say, sending someone to the Gulags or joining the Weathermen or marching on Washington.
CR, I’m not going to attack you for summarizing something that you don’t even endorse. I will note, since it was mentioned, that this “(lesser) violence of Stalinism” is factually wrong. Derrida tries a varient of this in _Specters of Marx_, when he writes that in absolute numbers, more people are under subjection and starving than ever before. Which is a How to Lie With Statistics 101 statement: more people are *alive* than ever before. Unless the proportion of people suffering decreases much more quickly than the absolute number of people increases, this will always be true. But the violence under Stalinism was worse, for the people living under it, than the suffering of those in the world today, even if you want to consider nominally Communist countries like China to be part of a neoliberal world system.
As I would have written on LS if Kenneth hadn’t gone into his master debater routine, “the role that a far left, even so-far-it’s-anti-left, can play in constructing the potential political horizon” is misunderstood by its advocates. Right-wing libertarians in the U.S. like to bring up the fact that a Socialist party platform from the early part of the 20th century had been nearly completely implemented by liberals through midcentury, as an example of how an extreme position can move the debate even if it never wins elections. But the Socialists were *organized* and provided a credible threat of replacing a power center within society. There is no need to make concessions to an extreme position merely because it is extreme.
Both of these paragraphs are linked by the belief of the putative radical that an idea must only exist in order to be important. For the Zizekian line, Stalinism makes a messianic promise of liberation, and therefore must be better than neoliberalism which does not even if the actual conditions under Stalinism were far worse and always failed in any liberatory mission. For the literary radical in general, the existence of an idea of the far left is more important than actually building a far left, which is impossible in any case since the same ideals that constitute their far left preclude engagement with or opposition to actual power structures.
Therefore, this ideology appears to me to be an ideology of the comfortable middle-class knowledge worker. The right-wing libertarian takes a political position that doesn’t threaten their existence within the system, but comforts themself with the radicialism of their pot smoking; the academic radical works for tenure but thinks about how their beautiful ideas are pushing back the imaginary political horizon.
But the violence under Stalinism was worse, for the people living under it, than the suffering of those in the world today, even if you want to consider nominally Communist countries like China to be part of a neoliberal world system.
This statement seems a bit hard to quantify, Rich…
It could be quantified by comparing percentage of people dying in episodes of mass starvation, percentage of people suffering from chronic malnutrition, percentage of people suffering from severe political violence, living standards of the poorest quartile of the population. If you prefer the level of ideas, it could be percentage of artists suffering from censorship of art works, or percentage of those in prison for support of political concepts. Environmental issues only achieved prominence long after Stalin, but the remaining bloc was worse on average in terms of environmental issues than the the rest of the world. Kotsko likes to bring up chattal slavery as sin of capitalism whenever this comparison is made, but this was no longer a feature of capitalism by the time Stalinism appeared. If you’d like comparison by treatment of disfavored societal groups, I don’t think that Stalin’s mass deportations and ethnic cleansing are going to compare favorably there either.
Against all this is balanced an essentially religious-messianic promise of liberation. It’s the opium of the masses, inverted as the self-justification of a powerless few. It’s as if the boss always promised that wages would be higher next week, and when unionists tried to organize the workers against this puffery, a few scabs indignantly said “But it’s a promise! If we didn’t have the boss, we wouldn’t have the promise of something better to look forward to.”
Which I see as an essential aspect of, yes, symbolic politics.
You post three insubstantial comments and then complain you “would have written it” had only I been less debaterish? I had no idea you ceded that much power to me, Rich. I don’t know if it’s flattery or post hoc rationalization.
Still, I think it’s worth questioning your assessment of the “literary radical in general,” which is an almost excessively general assessment. Who might you put forth as examples for this? And what are the reasons you see their work for the far left opposed to the possibility of the far left?
Scott, I owe you a huge debt for putting this stuff up and summarizing so gracefully. I was delaying myself for fear that everyone had gotten sick of the topic. Fwiw, I’ll post a reply to our formal critics (Bromwich, Lott, and Winter) in a few days.
Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the seriousness of all these comments. Just a few quick thoughts in reply. Jon, I quite agree with you that liberalism has no lock on pragmatism. Though I’m happy to count myself a liberal, Szalay and I made an effort to argue that the problem with the styles of thought we aim to criticize is that they’re equally disabling for, say, the kind of revolutioanry marxism supported by, e.g., Barbara Foley, as for liberalism. (It might be worth noting in this context, btw, that the remark snipped off just before the passage in which we refer to mystified visions of society is this quotation from Foucault: “The most important thing is that . . . [problems] be tested and stirred up so deep within society to the point that society allows a new balance of relations to flourish by itself.” [Remarks on Marx, 163]
Thanks for the correction, Luther. You’re right that our comments on Morrison are compressed in the extreme. I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say, though, that in Paradise and through much of her work Morrison views social repression and bourgeois conventionality as pretty much inextricable from each other. (Viewing the young and the bohemian as fundamentally challenging such repression fits perfectly with that attitude and is pretty much standard issue.) In fact, one of the things she stresses about the founders of Ruby is that they were the heirs of families with the skills and lifeways of the black elite. They are the children of politicians and craftsmen. (No workers in that town.) Interestingly, in keeping with the emphasis on the virtue of professional skill we emphasize throughout, Morrison actually draws a genealogical distinction between the descendents of politicians (repressive) and the descendents of craftsmen (less so). It’s true that Misner and Anna are alternatives, but I believe in the time frame of the novel, the days of their activism are mainly over. They’re committing to Ruby. No doubt you’re right that Morrison means to critique easy solutions to pain and suffering. Our point is that this attitude, which is itself so stock in the world of twentieth-century literature that it too could be called easy--becomes so sweeping that all efforts seem doubtful.
I don’t think we urge anyone to get with the program, CR. But it might be fair to say we think it would be a good idea not to be programmaticlly opposed to having programs.
Just to clarify, Jon, there was indeed nothing ineffable about joining Weatherman. Testimony of veterans suggests that part of appeal was how concrete, direct, authentic, etc. making revolution seemed. On the other hand, no one has ever been able to eff how Weatherman thought revolution could occur or what would happen when it did. An extreme case, but not otherwise unusual.
No time for a reasoned reply to your reasoned reply, Sean. But I do want quickly to say up front that I found your and Szalay’s essay elegent and powerfully argued. Part of our disagreement has to do with the difference between my “living with *Paradise*” perspective and your attempt to situate its impulses in broader historical discourses. I think that Morrison, like Pynchon, wants it both ways: active politics and withdrawn retreats into the mystical. John McClure has argued that this is a necessary real-world political rhythm: sorties in the real world lead to the need for retreat, meditation, care of self, etc. Here I’d present a novel like Bambara’s *The Salt Eaters* and its representation of the total, real life exhaustion of an engaged, grassroots activist. The novel’s mystical healing rite is in the service of a return to real politics, not an escape from them.
I do think you have DeLillo pinned down, and I’m glad you cited John McClure’s excellent work, *Late Imperial Romance*, which also situates DeLillo, Pynchon, and others in the context of a certain modernist strain of anti-bureaucratic apocalypticism. At the same time, it’s interesting that McClure’s latest work attempts to redeem the religious impulses of DeLillo for various political projects.
On the other hand, I’d argue that Pynchon is a lot more dialectical than you present him. His work on the whole is a sustained meditation on the limitations and value of both the “let it be” and “engaged” versions of politics in America. *Mason & Dixon* would be the mature statement here: a critique of certain kinds of technocratic and coercive engagement from above with a celebration of grassroots engagement from below. At the same time, there is the novel’s troubling, though mostly humorous, critique of the Enlightenment in the name of golems, ley lines, and feng shui. The novel’s attack on globalization and death-from-above style political coersion falls apart when the only other options are Capt. Zheng’s heroic feng shui attack on the fricking Jesuits!
This article might be relevant to the earlier thread: Bromwich, David, “The New Left before the Counter-Culture”. Be warned: it’s by a guy only slightly younger than me.
I can’t read it, of course. I don’t know what Project Muse thinks it’s doing by restricting access to writings which would never be printed in a commercial publication.
"Even when he took up a book and held it in front of his shortsighted eyes, he seemed to be reading quite other things out of it. He had an immeasurable respect for books, but he could laugh uproariously over a few lines of Kant, and was astonished when I did not join in. So it seemed to him an extraordinarily good joke when he found this maxim while looking over Hegel: The principle of magic consists in this, that the connection between the means and the effect shall not be recognized. He certainly despised me for not seeing the funny side of things as he did, and strangely enough I was inclined to ascribe to him a truer, if also more complicated, insight than I myself possessed. In any case it was only at things such as these that I had ever seen him laugh.”
--Chapter XLI, “The Realist”, The Sleepwalkers, Hermann Broch
John, I didn’t mean to devalue experience, but point to problems with historical analysis, or if not problems, then perhaps limitations. What is and isn’t codified or entered into the official record despite (or perhaps because of) the super-abundance of media (itself of variable degrees of preservability) &c. All of which makes historical work difficult . . . and I wanted to gesture to some of the possible benefits of such distance.
In yet other words, all this may explain why “I” am useless. But perhaps better useless than complicit, no? At least sometimes.
CR, I’m not sure how to answer this, in part because I think it’s an issue we face of structural necessity (at least if we teach at public institutions). You are complicit, already, and necessarily, and there’s no way around it. How to mitigate that complicity, then, is the key issue for me; and I don’t consider that complicity all that different from the embrace of the procedural liberalism Tim discussed earlier. You already work to undermine the system from within, no? I’m not sure, then, how a moral opposition to complicity holds. I think interaction with students makes a scholar feel more empowered, whereas participatory democracy makes one feel profoundly unempowered; but I both embrace a gradualistic philosophy which the New Left eschewed. Or I’ve conflated what can’t reasonably be and sound like a loon.
Jon, did the New Left create actual connections with global movements, or were they largely rhetorical? I know a little about the Panthers and pan-Africanism, but outside of that, most of what comes to mind is an ideological affiliation with marxist/socialist/communist philosophies and a celebration of the primitive (the turn to Native Americans as representatives of an authentic, unbureaucratic, anti-rational people, &c.) In other words, what did the New Left think about France in ‘68? Were there felt affinities? (I ask honestly, here. I know French ‘68 will be imported into academia as a seminal moment in the poststructuralist thought, but did their New Left contemporaries?)
LB, I should re-read Paradise before I answer that. Or leave it Sean.
And Sean, you’re welcome. I want to follow up with a little something on the McGurl and Steintrager essays, but that may have to wait a week or two . . . but I’m looking forward to hearing your response to your critics. Hell, maybe I can even convince Michael to chime in.
Scott, on the relation between the New Left and global movements… As I’ve said, I don’t know enough about the US New Left to reply with any great confidence. But I’d have thought that key markers of an increasing consciousness of global contexts for political struggles would include the reception of writers such as, say, Fanon or dependency theory (Gunder Frank et. al.), probably Mexico ‘68 rather than France ‘68, Puerto Rican and Chicano organizing as much as the Panthers, the influence of Bandung, and above all the Cuban Revolution.
I mean, yes, there was facile hippy romanticization of Native American cultures. And there’s the whole Carlos Castaneda thing. Though all this was already present with, say, the Beats; it simply became politicized in the 60s.
But there was also, and I’d suspect much more so, analysis and critique of the logic of imperialism. Which equally, and rather more seriously, would prompt a re-thinking of the rational/primitive and similar binaries that are in play here. Which no doubt resonated with the popularity of books such as Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.
A book worth reading in this regard (though to my shame I’ve only flicked through most of it) would be Jean Franco’s The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City. But there must be others.
Oh, and with the invocation of “magic” coupled with “literature” and the “1960s,” I feel I’ve neglected my duties by not mentioning that it was in the late sixties that the Latin American literary “Boom,” marketed under the rubric of “magic realism,” really took off. Though I’m not sure what influence that may or may not have had on the New Left. (On Toni Morrison, however, perhaps.)
I remember Adorno wrote about Benjamin’s “Arcades” that it stood at the crossroads of positivism and magic.
So, history. Because, you know, those who forget history are condemned to repeat ... uh ... to repeat ... um ...
One way of addressing these questions is to look as broadly successful reform movements from the past. Because, glum as I often feel about the state of the world (as I watch it behind the double glazing in my comfortable house with my fresh coffee steaming in my mug and no prospect of me ever going hungry or missing out on any vital healthcare I might need)--glum as I often feel about the state of the world, I have to agree with Rich that by any measurable quantifier people in the world today are better off than they’ve ever been: infant mortality is lower, life expectancy and literacy levels higher, general nutrition is better understood and better provided and so on. Those that insist that things are worse now than they’ve ever been have to fall back on an essentially ‘magical’ assessment of quality of life; that ‘something’s missing’, something that can’t be precisely quantified.
But, history. Is it useful to rephrase Scott’s question as a historical one. Take the Victorian period. Now I’m sentimentally attached to the Victorians, because of all the art they produced, and, you know, being Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of London and all. But I wouldn’t want to come close to denying that the laissez-faire, right-libertarian, religiously intolerant social model of the Victorian age generated (as well as huge wealth and expansion) quite staggering poverty, human misery and death. The stats are mind-boggling; not just the Irish famine, or the hungry forties, but all the criteria I mention in the last paragraph, right through the century.
Things got much, much better. In Britain, in the twentieth-century, we built a welfare state; women got the vote; we gave up empire; all those markers of quality of life improved sharply. I’d say this happened in large part because we abandoned the hard-right laissez-faire economics that dominated the C19th. But my question is: how was this reform orchestrated? Did it depend upon a coherent liberal-left effectively selling the dream to the people at large? Did it depend upon a socialist-radical-communist hard left restaging the debate so that even right-wing Brits found their centre of political gravity hauled over to the middle ground? Did it involve any ‘magical’ or ‘irrational’ political ethos?
I ask. I don’t answer.
Oh, and with the invocation of “magic” coupled with “literature” and the “1960s,” I feel I’ve neglected my duties by not mentioning that it was in the late sixties that the Latin American literary “Boom,” marketed under the rubric of “magic realism,” really took off.
Ah, but I knew there was another America being neglected in this USian conversation! The two histories are really linked of course (especially if you consider the longer political record of those currently in power) just as any discussion of “The New Left” and its lasting implications for literature cannot help but reflect a theory of these histories. Sorry to be so bland about it.
Adam, really?? Are you also reading Specters of Marx? (If so, would be curious to hear what you make of, say, pages 70-85--and there was of course, once you’ve finished with that, a sort of interesting follow-up in Ghostly Demarcations; see the fascinating thread here.)
But you don’t suppose things are a bit more precarious these days, what with the displaced and marginalized entire generations of poor, international CEO monopolies, curruption and organized crime, the far from resolved nuclear threats, militarization of space, 10 years or less to radically alter the entire planet’s lifestyle vis. a vis. dependence on fossil fuels or face unprecedented and disastrous climate change.
Don’t get me wrong though; I also enjoy my coffee.
I also have to wonder whether any discussion of utopias and magic would not be quite complete without Pierre Bourdieu at least at the table.
Adam R: “glum as I often feel about the state of the world, I have to agree with Rich that by any measurable quantifier people in the world today are better off than they’ve ever been [...] Those that insist that things are worse now than they’ve ever been have to fall back on an essentially ‘magical’ assessment of quality of life; that ‘something’s missing’, something that can’t be precisely quantified.”
I should add that by any measurable quantifier, ordinary people in the world today have more political power than they have ever had. (Not enough, in my opinion, but the statement is still true.) The sins of Bushism, for instance, are possible because somewhere around 45% of U.S. voters (after adjusting for election fraud) supported them, and the rest of the electorate was not sufficiently affected by them in the short term to make it worth while for them to vote.
So I think that I understand where the impulse towards magical thinking comes from. The facade of what people refer to as late capitalism could be swept away in an instant if people changed their minds about it. It’s powerful yet vulnerable, because it is composed of people who are as susceptible to having their minds changed en masse as anyone else, and who are in any case incapable of resisting concerted action. The essence of magic is to say a few words and make a tremendous rippling effect in the world. So why hasn’t it happened? Partially because of innate conservatism, in the sense that people are reistant to change. But mostly because no one has come up with anything proveably better.
The problem with ideas of literary theory when applied to politics is that they necessarily encourage you to think in terms of narrative, in terms of reference, even in terms of deconstruction. But political change isn’t any of these things. It’s mostly economics, and those parts of it that are not economics are mostly about power structures. People who have experience with literary theory are just as capable of political action in our society as any other group with a similar level of education and class position, but are no more capable by virtue of their specifically literary skills. That’s why the concern of literary theorists with politics is most often a gesture designed to reconcile their position with their literary sources rather than a truly political involvement.
In addition, the Great Man aspect of the humanities means that no major historic figure can ever be admitted to be “wrong”. So we have the spectacle of people defending Stalinism as somehow sharing in some essential element of the left, or talking about inheritances from Marx that don’t include any of the basics of Marx’s thought. The right can’t help but win in that kind of situation. There is no way in which leftist nostalgia can beat rightist nostalgia. Leftists are supposed to be coming up with new structures, and if necessary tossing out the old—but that is something that literary theorists are not inherently very good at.
Bourdieu, Matt? Taussig, I’d say.
Right Rich, unless you’d dare to wish for a more literate politics. Or, considering what we have now, is ‘politics’ just destined to be a sort of b-grade Oprah Book Club novel kind of affair? That strikes me as an extremely cynical, lethargic position, not least of all because of it’s concomitant definition of politics. In any case, it’s absolutely clear that you haven’t begun to understand what constitutes Derrida’s explicit resistance to nostalgia, and that you’re merely mining his book for cartoon oppositions and reconfirmations of your own worldview. Nothing too surprising in that, I suppose.
As for Scott’s question re: the international cross-polination, potential solidarity and general global confusion of the entire revolutionary era now conveniently cited as “May ‘68”...might I please recommend to the ALSC’s blog the aforementioned Chris Marker film, “Grin Without a Cat.” And not because it merely confirms my own worldview of course, but rather because it serves, I think, to complicate the picture.
Jon, you may be right.
Actually it strike me, Rich, that you might rather like Badiou. (But then, it previously struck me how you might like Zizek...ah well.)
Matt: “Right Rich, unless you’d dare to wish for a more literate politics. Or, considering what we have now, is ‘politics’ just destined to be a sort of b-grade Oprah Book Club novel kind of affair?”
Matt, I hate to use the word “elitist”, because that’s a right-wing propaganda word, but what you’ve written above is an elitist sneer. You list problems above as “displaced and marginalized entire generations of poor, international CEO monopolies, curruption and organized crime, the far from resolved nuclear threats, militarization of space, 10 years or less to radically alter the entire planet’s lifestyle vis. a vis. dependence on fossil fuels”, but when it comes right down to it, what you think is important is a literate politics, despite the literary world having little or nothing to say about these problems or their solutions. But hey, a more literate politics would assign a greater role to literary professionals, correct?
I mean, if you care about global climate change and its solutions, you might want to investigate how the Montreal Protocol happened. Not very literate politics there—but a global catastrophe was successfully (as far as we know) headed off. If global climate change is similarly headed off, literariness is going to have little to do with it.
As for Derrida, of course he gestures towards a resistance to nostalgia, just as Zizek does. But I am not so naive as to take him at his word. There is no way in which you can write about a Marx whose writings people must always return to, reject class analysis and not consider the labor theory of value, and not be fundamentally concerned with nostalgia. You can view this as my mining Derrida for cartoon oppositions if you want, or you can actually listen to someone’s point of view from outside your limited circle. It’s your choice.
Politics is economics, yes, but economics plus narrative. What’s the matter with Kansas? Why do richer states in the US vote with you, with your more egalitarian position, while poorer states vote for their own further despoilment?
Please don’t say “organization.” It’s not just organization. It’s ideology - ideology that takes, as ideology is wont to do, a narrative shape.
A short hand version of the problem is that we’re reading the wrong narratives, or reading the right narratives badly. The story of american triumphalism, the story of “by your own bootstraps,” the story of the industrious rise of those that have summerhouses in the Hamptons and the (racially hard wired) apathy and lassitude of the blacks downtown…
The stories that even the fairly affluent, reasonably educated believe. About the nature of progress, rising tides lift all boats, the grand end times narrative of “they hate our freedom” and the endgame that has to ensue.
“The poor will always be with us” - a parable for now and all times. The inevitablity of inequality. These things are ideas, often narrativized, the stories we carry around with ourselves in the backpockets of our brains.
The real whackjobs can already see the end of the story, with Jesus mounting the Temple of the Mount, people disappearing off airplanes, the unsaved and deviant cowering and shitting themselves as the angels filll the skies, whatever. It’s an extreme case, but if you can’t see the “narrative” in play there, well..
We can disagree whether the proper stance is toward a sudden break or gradualism. Believe it or not, that is something that theory has always been working out. In fact, my own work might be labelled an analysis of this very problem… But to dispute the fact that ideology exists, that it takes a narrative shape, that it is extremely politically powerful - that’s madness.
The fact that you can’t see the stories shows just how well they are working. If strict economic determinism was the order of the day, well, things would be a bit different across the board, wouldn’t they.
“In Britain, in the twentieth-century, we built a welfare state; women got the vote; we gave up empire; all those markers of quality of life improved sharply. [. . .] But my question is: how was this reform orchestrated?”
Well, on the second and third of your examples (women’s suffrage, decolonization), I’d say that the debate was conducted very often in terms of rationalism vs. some kind of primitivism. And it wasn’t the rationalists who won out.
(Which is not, of course, to say that the “primitivists” were indeed primitive; though chaining oneself to railings or marching for salt were in many ways end-runs around the constituted political process.)
CR: “Politics is economics, yes, but economics plus narrative. [...] It’s not just organization. It’s ideology - ideology that takes, as ideology is wont to do, a narrative shape.”
I’m not disagreeing with the above, precisely, and I’m certainly not denying that ideology exists. But the pool of available ideologies is constrained by economics. It’s not just a matter of changing the narrative from one in which everyone competes and the poor deserve what they get to one in which everyone cooperates and there are no poor. Until you come up with an economics within which the second narrative exists, attempts at changing the storyline fail.
To attempt to get back to the topic, I think that a good deal of the technophilia of the more or less libertarian descendents of the New Left is an ideological desire for an economics that will permit a post-scarcity society. The idea is that as productivity increases, it becomes more and more difficult to wall away the necessities of life from the poor, and liberalism turns into something like anarcho-socialism. Try reading one of Iain Banks’ SF books for a low-culture examination of this. (Actually, look at _Star Trek_—a socialist society in which money is unknown because everyone gets whatever they need.)
Well, you can call me an elitist, and I can call you sort of banally anti-intellectual, I suppose, until the cows come home. Neither adds much, and certainly neither has very much to do with Derrida’s actual position, which suffice to say is a wee bit more complex than you would seem willing to admit. Of course politics is literary, to the extent that it is composed of and dependent upon narratives (often boring, forgetful and misleading narratives). (Might also the major schools of economic thought be as often dependent upon a certain bedrock (dialectical) materialism, if not even a certain thinly veiled mysticism or faith, Marx’s included?) The entire edifice of “Bush” is propped up and maintained by market-tested, populist narratives and slogans, ones that have evolved just as the dynasty itself has evolved, from the days of economically supporting Hitler’s army on. Pointing this out does not discredit “the facts” or the need for facts, of course. But while this inherently narrative quality to politics, tied up with various competing powers as it is, may not reflect simply--or in any purely translated manner--the facts, some would argue, at least, that neither can the two be strictly separated (with elitists lining up on one side and slick-suited Democrats, cooly discerning realists or blog-activist pragmatists on the other). To be sure, there is at once another, more elusive and (in my view) important and interesting sense of what may designate the ‘literary,’ as either a unique condition of possibility, quality or impetus (or perhaps all three). It is the seriousness of that question which is worth articulating and fighting for--a Cause, if you will, and one to which a number of brilliant literary theorists (and bloggers) have dedicated no small amount of time. There is also the potential for another interesting debate here, one between say, Derrida and Badiou, and regarding their competing conceptions of ‘the political’ and ‘literature.’ But I’m afraid my elitism will have to insist on those inverted commas for now, at least in this particular context!
It’s not just a matter of changing the narrative from one in which everyone competes and the poor deserve what they get to one in which everyone cooperates and there are no poor.
Good grief, let’s hope not. This you learned from Star Trek?
"Good grief, let’s hope not. This you learned from Star Trek?”
You might learn something about ideologies of the time from TV shows, Matt. Isn’t that in part what Cultural Studies is about?
For the rest, I’ll point out that I didn’t call you an elitist; I wrote that you had written an elitist sneer—if I had to guess why, I’d guess that it has more to do with turf defense than anything else. You can call me an anti-intellectual if you wish, although I have to say that if you consider me to be an anti-intellectual, good luck with politics.
“It is the seriousness of that question which is worth articulating and fighting for--a Cause, if you will, and one to which a number of brilliant literary theorists (and bloggers) have dedicated no small amount of time.”
Uh huh. And I think that professional questions of environmental toxicology and conservation biology, to which a number of brilliant people have dedicated no small amount of time, are quite serious and make up part of a Cause worth fighting for. And I’d guess that you know little about them—but I’m not saying that they form part of a master narrative. You might really want to look back at the title of that _Theory’s Empire_ book and consider why it might be appropriate.
Thanks Rich, I stand corrected.
Only what’s this about master narratives? Afraid I don’t follow. The comment about a “Cause” was, of course, sarcastic, but by all means lump everyone concerned with questions of ‘the literary’ in with capital-T-"Theory" if you absolutely must. I’m sure the clichéd antagonism, given enough such repetition, can be made to resonate with the voters (or, as the case may be, at least distract them from looking too closely at who programs the voting machines). Oh what an enlightening debate we’re having; thanks!
Alternately, let me see if I can adjust to your most favored level. Ok I think I’ve got it. “Dude, just get off my turf. Man, my brother is a conservation biologist. I do so totally know about all that stuff.”
Matt: “or, as the case may be, at least distract them from looking too closely at who programs the voting machines”
Yep, that’s exactly why I referred to election fraud earlier in this very thread. To distract the voters from the voting machines.
Materialism a narrative? or narrative a manifestation of materialism. A story about starvation in the slums of Le Ciudad de Mexico obviously is not equivalent to an actual person starving in the slums of La Ciudad . While narrative may be essential for conveying information about the starvation, literary narratives have no necessary connection to the facts and thus may distract or distance readers from the economic and biological facts, and I doubt many people read fiction in an attempt to gather empirical information--we don’t need beat poets or folk singers to tell us about possible election fraud, we need clear=-headed objective reporting. Marx himself, with all of his flaws and overgeneralizations, realized this, and was, I believe, quite the philistine in regards to matters literary, tho’ making some exceptions for a few=--the Encyclopedists, Voltaire, etc. Were their some new Voltaires around perhaps literary shoppe talk might be worth something.
Jake, you keeping saying this bit about Marx and literature as if repetition will make it true. It’s not. Read his kids to much Shakespeare they could recite it backwards. And freaked Dickens out in his pursuit of facetime.
You’re wrong. Stop saying it.
Read his comments on Shaw and belle-lettrists. And Engels as well had some words for the uselessness of belle-lettres. M/E did praise Shelley and Byron and as I said Voltaire, I believe, but he was neither very much interested in aesthetics nor in literature. It was the E-word, man, as in Economicsna dn indeed empiricism (it really bothers would-be postmods when someone points out Marx’s praise of Hobbes, Locke and empirical methods and the repudiation of Kant AND Hegelian idealism--look it up in the beginning of the German Ideology or the Holy Family or intro to Capital). And using Shakespeare as pedagogy and rhetoric primer does not entail accepting Shakespeare as spokesman for monarchy.
last I say on the subject, trollo:
Make of it what you will.
Sorry Rich, but you must have lost me after “Derrida tries a variant of this”; afraid I missed your point about election fraud. Was it a good point? I don’t suppose either that it’s really necessary to point out my reference to voting, there, was purely rhetorical. Either you get it or you don’t, I guess (if this makes me an elitist, well...ok, and don’t you ever forget it.)
does that mean not party material, too, comrade; or perhaps not fit for the lit. tea shoppe?
As this interesting chat indicates, literary taxonomy, like Marxism itself, sort of comes pre-packaged with beaucoup ideological and ethical assumptions. Left connotes something positive to most of the readers here; tho’ what it denotes is perhaps not so easily defined--but the denotation of “leftist” would seemingly include as one of its attributes a type of solidarity and proletarian unity which is perhaps ultimately more a matter of faith than reason. The rise of multiculturalism and of identity politics, perhaps extensions of marxist class struggle, show that other factors--racial, linguistic, sexual--often prevent any sort of prole bonding. Biology overtakes ideology, and in many ways marxism is a product of the Enlightenment and thus of a belief in a Reason, which seems (regardless of the attacks on idealism) still more transcendent than scientific and material.
And like much Enlightenmwent lit. Marx held to Rousseauian models of freedom that may no longer be applicable apres fascism and stalinism; that’s not to say Skinner should be reanimated either, but determinism, genetic or environmental, agency, decision theory, ought to be part of the dissenting left’s program. It is the naive new left, perhaps as driven by Jefferson as by Marx, who contributed to a sort of libertarian hedonism which is now endemic to both corporate liberals and conservatives. Even a HS Thompson may have realized this: the freaks and beats somehow contributed to the creation of Vegas, Inc., to the freeway-laced malebolges that are LA and SF.