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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Survival Stories: What Is the What, The Hurt Locker, and The Wire

Posted by Andrew Seal on 02/22/10 at 11:08 PM

In a Blographia Literaria post about The Forever War and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which I meant to cross-post here, I promised a further exploration of what I saw as a common theme in both those texts and in Dave Eggers’s novel What Is the What. All three novels, and a number of others besides, attempt to find a way out of a dilemma posed between liberty and equality by supplying the third term of the French Revolutionary slogan: fraternité. What Is the What also makes more explicit what these other two works do to a lesser extent: fraternity is at root about survival. For fraternity is, after all, most needed and most likely to be found (at least in novels) at those moments where one is too weak to survive on one’s own.

The narrative pattern proper to the ideal of fraternity therefore will always be a survival story, a narrative reduced to an account of its own possibility, how the narrator managed to live to the point of his or her narration, if it is told in the first person (which I think is the most common), or how the protagonist manages to get from the chaotic past to a stable (and therefore narratable) present. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is just as much a survival story (and obviously just as much dependent on the {broken} ideal of fraternity) as What Is the What, and it is certainly not alone in this regard among memoirs.

The most interesting thing about the survival story, I find, is its relationship to ideology. To be very general, the attitude of the survival story is that, because it is focused almost entirely on the mundane necessities of subsistence, because it has no time for ideology, it exists in a sort of sub-ideological space, or creates for itself a space below ideology, below the arguments for or against the events that have reduced its characters to this struggle for bare existence. Its narrative expression, therefore, is supposed also to be sub-ideological (which is sometimes mistaken for being post-ideological), to be invested only in the telling of itself, existing merely to continue existing, the direct corollary of the survival experience itself. The final paragraph of What Is the What expresses this directly:

Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.

There is, to be sure, ideology working through this—the reference to God, the categorical invocation of the “human” both leave marks of a very nineteenth-century liberalism. But the stunning thing about this novel is that it actually achieves something that I feel we must recognize as a successful resolution of this project of creating a sub-ideological narrative space. While it will never not be ideological, the novel has found a strategy of non-resistance to ideology, a means of allowing any ideology—the various programs of the SPLA, global capitalism, global humanitarian efforts and NGOs, animism, tribalism, racism, militant Islam, Christianity, individualism—to wash over the subject, Valentino Achak Deng, such that he effectively sinks beneath them. These conflicting values and ideologies overdetermine his life to such an extent that he is pushed underneath their rushing and collisions, leaving him open to telling his narrative independently of them: “however I find a way to live"—seven words, already a narrative, bumping along innocently beneath the tumult of ideologies clashing, accepting the existence (and even the validity) of all possible ideological indictments of the situation, yet not yielding outright to nihilism. This last part is very important: this sub-ideological space is also a margin between a non-resistance to ideology and an ultimate refusal of nihilism.

Obviously, this strategy—this claiming a space below ideology or ideologies—is itself ineradicably political; I do not mean to argue that narrative actually can ever really occupy this position, or that this sub-ideological position could ever exist as such. What I mean to bring out or highlight by speaking of What Is the What as a “successful resolution” of this project is that it has successfully obviated the role of critique in addressing conflict by making critique antithetical to its own plan and by making the absence of critique not only go potentially unremarked but actually seem palatable, even desirable. We wouldn’t want a harangue from Deng about the rapacity of US oil interests in Sudan; an anecdote about George Bush (Sr.) discovering oil in Sudan shows that Deng is aware that it is a contributing factor, but its importance is both stated and hedged against by turning it into the story of one boy’s misfortunes: “Lino can tell you, Julian, about the role oil played in his own displacement.” Oil is, at its most significant, “the beginning of the middle of the war,” a prolonging concern, not a root cause. More importantly, it displaced Lino and his family, and the story of that event is far more significant to the book than a critique of the flow of petro-capital into Sudan could have been. And we, the readers, may even prefer this story to that critique. Eggers’s novel has certainly sold better than any non-fiction book about Sudan.

But critique is not only less significant than “story,” but I would argue that it must in fact be removed as a strategy of resistance for the narrator because maintaining the practice of critique would take attention away from the story of survival. Mere subsistence, in other words, must be the exclusive concern of the narrator and of the narrative; everything else—especially critique—must go. This structural obviation of critique may not be unprecedented (I’ll come to some other examples which are actually contemporary, but I bet I could think of some predecessors as well), but it is worth inquiring what its conditions of possibility are, because I see this strategy of “survival as sub-ideology” as very likely to be proliferated in future narratives about conflict and violence. I only want to articulate a few of these conditions because I am considering expanding on these points in another forum.

First of all, I think it is important to recognize that Eggers (and, I suppose, Deng) refuses to believe that blame or responsibility can actually be adjudicated—Omar al-Bashir is a monster, the SPLA is monstrous, the industrial Western nations are hideously cavalier about African lives, but these competing claims to responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of Southern Sudan cannot be perfectly parsed, and so Eggers does not intend to parse them. Or rather, and I think this is very important, the idea is probably not that blame or responsibility cannot be adjudicated, but that it cannot be adjudicated through narrative. There is, in fact, a suspicion of narrative that derives from the debates on (and ultimate rejection of) the idea of mimesis as something at least potentially direct and transparent. No longer is it assumed that a narrative can represent without distortion; everything is always already situated.

Secondly, I think there has been since the First World War but more particularly in the wake of the Vietnam War a preference for what might be called a “corporal’s-eye-view,” an assumption that the most objective vantage point on war or conflict in general is to be found in the enlisted infantry. There is probably a longer history of this preference or assumption, but it has never, I think, been as pronounced as it has been since the Vietnam War. One thinks here especially of Tim O’Brien’s novels and memoirs (whose quote from If I Die in a Combat Zone… sums up what I’m trying to articulate here pretty well: “Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.") but if we were to go back to WWI it could be traced back to All Quiet on the Western Front (which, like The Forever War, is about the transition from grunt to commander) and films like The Big Parade as well as the famous poems of the war (e.g. “Dulce et decorum est"). At any rate, there is a very active assumption, or maybe a hope, that the division of enlisted and officers produces something like a division between ideological and non-ideological experiences of the war.

This is an ongoing assumption and a very live project, now updated to the Iraq War, where we might take In the Loop, which (as far as I know) does not delve into the experience of foot-soldiers as exemplary of the type of narrative which takes as its subjects the ideological class of officers and politicians, and The Hurt Locker, which features officers very rarely (and then only to underline how removed they are from the “reality” of war), as exemplary of the “survival as sub-ideology” strategy. The bulky IED-defusing suit, which is the perfect icon of the film, might also be taken to be the perfect metonym of this genre: inside the suit, there is (supposedly) no ideology, only the experience of the war and the creation of a war story.

But I also think we can view The Wire as a multi-protagonist version of this genre, although it is certainly more canny about the possibilities of truly sinking beneath ideology. It has also been seen as a sort of “post-” or “non-ideological” text, and one of the remarkable things about it is how readily anyone can find their own ideology validated in it—conservatives see indictments of welfare policies as surely as liberals see indictments of the drug war. (Liberals are more right, but that’s not the point.) To return full-circle, I think it is very possible to read The Wire as the survival story par excellence of our time, and to see fraternity as its greatest ideal—again, a broken ideal, but nevertheless, the ideal and central theme of the show. And it too features a very extreme distinction between foot-soldiers and commanders, and some of its central plots are about the impossibility of moving from one position to the other. And, although, as I said, it is never innocent of the pervasiveness of ideology, one of its most straightforward points is that the “higher-ups” in the police force, the government, or the newspaper are more ideological, more given to justifying their actions through abstractions. Bullshit, in words more appropriate to the subject, always rises.

Obviously it is no great scandal to talk about the unparalleled success of The Wire in achieving its vision; I think it is also very reasonable to suggest that its success is part of a broader turn toward this particular strategy of using survival as a figure for a sub-ideological space in narrative, a margin between a non-resistance to ideology and an ultimate refusal of nihilism. I see this particular paradigm as culturally dominant in contemporary depictions of conflict and violence, and likely to become more so.


Comments

I am rather surprised to read a post that mentions
a) The Hurt Locker
b) The Wire
c) the grunt’s-eye view approach to war and the split between officers and other-ranks, particularly as regards the Iraq war -

and yet does not mention Generation Kill at all; haven’t you seen it?

On another point, you’re right that In the Loop doesn’t delve into the experiences of foot soldiers. It all takes place before the outbreak of war, there’s only one military character and he doesn’t really mention his combat experience (if any).

By on 02/23/10 at 07:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ajay,
I haven’t seen Generation Kill (or read the book), but it’s on my to-do list. Thanks for the reminder!

Tony,
“it should be pointed out that it doesn’t have to be this way, only, and that what is dominant in the establishment does not remotely define what exists elsewhere, let alone what is possible”

I’m not sure that this categorical reminder is really necessary: my argument was not that this emergent strategy or genre foreclosed other narrative or ideological positions, merely that it is proliferating.

I agree, it would be interesting to look back to older works to find examples of reactions to conflict and violence which do not attempt to occupy this sub-ideological space, but again, my argument was not that this strategy has always been existent, or that it would necessarily be found in works as old as Banjo. I reached back to WWI only to indicate where I feel a particular element of this strategy may have originated; it was not my intention to argue that WWI represents the origin of the whole strategy itself, or that works after WWI might be read in terms of this strategy.

By Andrew Seal on 02/23/10 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

*that last bit should be “or that works written after WWI must be read in terms of this strategy.

By Andrew Seal on 02/23/10 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry, Tony--I thought “not necessarily so” indicated some (minimal) agreement that what I had defined does in fact exist, at least, even if it’s not the only form available. If that’s not what you meant and were in fact rejecting the concept entirely, I just misread you.

By “categorical reminder,” I simply meant that you often seem to structure your comments as a sort of admonition that radical or “liberation” literature or simply literature external to the “establishment” exists. I don’t feel that I have made an attempt to argue against that.

Can you expand on how you find “sub-ideological” misleading and/or wrong?

By Andrew Seal on 02/23/10 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I don’t see the confusion.”
I didn’t either at first, and then you insisted that I didn’t get what you were saying. That did end up confusing me.

“You don’t qualify it by saying survival stories of the establishment today.”
C’mon, the fact that the examples of this genre I give all are post-Vietnam (which I do go on to emphasize) doesn’t periodize the concept?

“What is not ideological in lit?”
Right, which is why I wrote “Obviously, this strategy—this claiming a space below ideology or ideologies—is itself ineradicably political; I do not mean to argue that narrative actually can ever really occupy this position, or that this sub-ideological position could ever exist as such.”

By Andrew Seal on 02/24/10 at 12:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, this is “establishmentized"--the point was that this strategy has taken root as what you’d call an establishment practice.

I don’t really see the point of trying to convince you that you haven’t read my post well or at least charitably, so I’ll just close by saying that I am not myself terribly interested in doing criticism the way that you want it done, although I appreciate that others are doing it. But I don’t really care for novels that act as show trials and I don’t really care to write posts that act as show trials or pure consciousness raising. I want to find out how phenomenon--many of which are produced by the dominant class--work because I think a better understanding of how they work provides superior grounds for action than the type of strategies you prefer. But I have tried to be very open to hearing your advocacy for your strategies and your books; you have not done the same at any point for me.

By Andrew Seal on 02/24/10 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This reminds me of how easy it is to run a supposed critique of (eg) “Gone with the Wind” without ever mentioning slaves; the standard melodrama in the *false foreground* mops up all the attention while the “background” (the context and the point) delivers the message (which remains unmolested by analysis). Next: a critique of “Jud Süß” that doesn’t mention… you know… “all that”.

By StevenAugustine on 02/25/10 at 06:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew --
You gotta know that the knives will come out when you use phrases like “sub-ideological” and “more ideological.” Ideology is never more at play than when it denies its presence (think the Devil and Keyser Soze).  You need a different term there.  You can’t really maintain that it’s sub-ideological, except that you know it’s not, but you’re going to keep calling it that.  I get the sense that you’re reaching towards a version of pragmatic humanism.  You might find Louis Menand’s _The Metaphysical Club_ interesting, as it recasts the birth of pragmatism as a kind of survival story of the Civil War, particularly in the case of the thrice-shot Holmes Jr.  A self-declaredly “sub-ideological space” that is a “margin between a non-resistance to ideology and an ultimate refusal of nihilism” isn’t a bad gloss for (some strains of) pragmatism.  That will also trouble your “contemporary” framework a bit, but in a good way, I think.

Some other questions / comments, which I offer in the spirit, I hope, of expressing that I enjoyed reading your post:

What’s the line between sub-ideological fraternity and political disengagement?  It’s great that Deng greets everyone in the club, but someone’s still got to deal with the oil.  Doing so will inevitably involve crude simplifications, bullshit, and all the other indignities of political life, but such is the world.

The way you oppose “story” and “critique” has, I hate to say it, a whiff of the old argument that politics is antithetical to art.  Why don’t we want to hear “a critique of the flow of petro-capital into Sudan?”

The Hurt Locker seems to work against your hypothesis that survival stories are about fraternity, no?  SFC William James (funny name, that ...) is ultimately all about William James, it seems to me.

Anyway, your post got me thinking, for which I thank you, even if I disagree on some points.
-- Adam

By Adam Haile on 02/25/10 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam,
The pragmatist echo you hear is definitely not accidental; it is certainly at play in what I’m bringing to these texts. The historical aspect of it I had not considered, though--and that is a very fascinating way to break up the framework I was thinking in.

I did notice the significance of James’s name, but for the life of me, I can’t put my finger on exactly how it connects. I’d be interested in hearing what you think, though.

I do think The Hurt Locker is about fraternity as an ideal, but one that is becoming increasingly difficult to hold onto within the context of the U.S. military. Although the film depicts only U.S. Army soldiers and not private contractors, there is a strong sense that the film puts into question whether the technology, economy, and politics of war haven’t turned it into a radically individuating experience incapable of maintaining the types of fraternal bonds supposedly at the heart of military life. Survival is the (extremely slender) thread still connecting army life to the ideal fraternity--it becomes viscerally clear that fraternity may not be enough to save you, but it is more than enough to get you killed or wounded. That may not be the way fraternity and survival are connected in other texts, but it is still a vital connection.

By saying “we, the readers, may even prefer this story to that critique” I meant to indict the impulse, not to justify it. But the point remains that (not to be flip, but) I’m not the one opposing “story” to “critique”; these texts are doing so. Some more so than others, certainly, but this is a strategy they share.

I agree that someone’s still got to deal with the oil; Eggers didn’t, though, and I’m more interested (for the moment) in how he makes the book he wrote “good” (satisfying aesthetically and emotionally) without doing so, or perhaps even because he didn’t do so. Some good novels do separate “story” and “critique” and privilege the former and reject the latter, and I’m interested in how they remain good despite this, or because of this. (This is where I depart from Tony.)

But in regards to the term “sub-ideological"--I think I want to write a post more fully explaining why I chose this term, but the short end of it is that there is a reality to the desire for this impossible position below ideology, and I think it’s important to recognize not only that this desire exists, but it has been successfully imagined to such an extent that it seems almost possible (and definitely valuable).

By Andrew Seal on 02/25/10 at 06:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Although the film depicts only U.S. Army soldiers and not private contractors

There’s a long sequence involving the EOD team’s encounter with a group of private contractors, led by Liam Neeson.

By on 02/26/10 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You mean Ralph Fiennes? I thought they were just mercenaries/bounty hunters (i.e. differing from contractors in that they weren’t actually under contract--in other words, not Blackwater). But the IMDb page does call them contractors--my mistake.

By Andrew Seal on 02/26/10 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew,

Leaving aside your analysis of survival stories, ideological, sub-ideological, or whatever, there’s a real problem with your passing comments about The Wire: they’re wrong.

You write that The Wire “too features a very extreme distinction between foot-soldiers and commanders, and some of its central plots are about the impossibility of moving from one position to the other” and say that “one of its most straightforward points is that the ‘higher-ups’ in the police force, the government, or the newspaper are more ideological, more given to justifying their actions through abstractions.” Did you watch the same mini-series as I did? The one that tracked the stories of various foot-soldiers as they made their way (or didn’t) into positions of command? The one that showed how perspectives and priorities change depending on the responsibilities of the role one has to perform? The miniseries that followed the characters D’Angelo, Marlo Stanfield, Bunny Colvin, Herc, Carver, Cedric Daniels, Kima, Carcetti, and Pearlman, as they were promoted, demoted, became gang-leaders, judges, lieutenants, or even ran for Governor? The one that showed how McNulty’s grunt-level stubbornness can be as self-serving and full of shit as Rawls or Valchek’s higher-level BS?

Because if you did watch the same show I did, then it seems to me that you are offering a brutally simplistic and woefully tendentious reading of a show that was remarkable most of all for the complexity of its portrayal of the way people are caught in and make their way through institutions and “ideology.”

To second Ajay, though, if you’re gonna write on this, you need to watch Generation Kill, which actually is as simplistically grunt-level as you assert The Wire to be, and illuminates how refreshingly different and perceptive The Wire’s complex multi-level view actually was.

By Roy Scranton on 02/26/10 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t argue this point without spoilers, so anyone reading who hasn’t watched the show (wtf are you doing--watch it now and) you’ve been warned.

“impossibility of moving from one position to another”

I wasn’t arguing that promotions didn’t happen. I said “impossibility” because the plot lines of all those characters you mentionare about promotions that either

objectively fail: D’Angelo, Bunny, Daniels--the promotions of each end up disasters professionally and, to different extents, personally. Daniels and Bunny manage to make something out of their failure, but command really doesn’t work out for them

or subjectively fail: I think Carver makes some peace with what his limits as a commander are, but those limits can be pretty fierce and brutally damaging, as we see with Randy; Kima--does she get what she wants by moving up to homicide? Marlo--he gets to wear the crown, but he also has to accept a coup that is demeaning to him; Carcetti--completely loses his compass, and he knows it, but he’s stuck--you have to keep rising or everything catches up to you.

Herc is an interesting case (although recall that he does have a promotion that very much fails--the assignment to the mayor’s detachment) because his life improves, but I don’t know if I’d really call his position as Levy’s lackey one of command. He’s a grunt, still. He’s just a better paid grunt. He gets to play both sides to some extent, but he does so only opportunistically.

Pearlman, I think is actually unique, and for awhile I really wanted to write a post about how unique she is in the show. She sacrifices almost nothing, and she ends up not only promoted, but more able to control her own path of further advancement and more able to live up to her sense of ethics and justice. The reason I didn’t mention her as an exception was just that I was being general. If I expanded this post, I would certainly talk about her unique position in the show and the reasons for why she’s able to occupy it.

Regarding McNulty--I’m not sure what your point is. McNulty may be as much of a prick as Rawls or Valchek, but that doesn’t mean that he is more ideological in the way I defined it--he doesn’t hide behind protocol or use ideas to justify his actions--it’s all visceral for McNulty. And while that intuitive sense of right is, in fact, also ideological--we know that, but McNulty (and pretty much everyone else in the show) doesn’t think that way, and to some extent the show upholds the idea that there is a distinction between the ideology of intuitive justice and the ideology of bureaucracy. In this sense, McNulty *is* less ideological than Rawls or Valchek.

By Andrew Seal on 02/26/10 at 08:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Or, indeed, Ralph Fiennes. Sorry. (I don’t think there were independent bounty hunters running round Iraq. There were and are in Afghanistan, but they tend to be locals.)

Generation Kill’s simplistically grunt-level because of two reasons: first, limits of time - there’s just not enough time in the month or so that the show covers for anyone to get promoted, and there’s only one demotion, of a minor character. Second, limits of scope - it’s a true story, written by a journalist who was embedded with a single team. He couldn’t have written a Wire-level account if he’d wanted to. (Though he tries; you occasionally see things that happened when he wasn’t around, such as things that happen to A Coy).

By on 03/01/10 at 05:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew, I’m not sure I agree with your statement

Obviously, this strategy—this claiming a space below ideology or ideologies—is itself ineradicably political;

I have only to think of Dickens’ frequent insistence that the privileged members of his contemporary system needed to express greater sentimentality and concern toward their fellows. I believe he managed this without really implying one way or another whether he thought any structural change was necessary: in other words, I belive he expressed this as a felt social need irrespective of any political needs.

And I compare this to T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” which I just bought used, not having read it for several decades, and then put back on the shelf after encountering his editorial comment that the simple village farm laborers were happy and blessed and any medieval social problems were caused only by a few squires who were bad apples.

Unless you would suggest that Dickens not calling openly for structural change was tacit assent? Which is a defensible position, but then there is the example of the school reforms occasioned by “Nicholas Nickleby”. (He may have made public statements with which I am not familiar, but I am thinking of the implicit effect of his fiction on me as a reader, and assuming that the lack of any significant reputation that I know of, on Dickens’ part, for political opinions, means those statements are not very important.)

In any case thanks for the post, and you have made me now want to read “What is the What”, which I hadn’t before!

By on 03/01/10 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, Neal Peart said it better: “If you choose not to decide/ you still have made a choice.”

Here’s my critical position: The status quo is multidimensional. Greater sensibility and commonality can be advocated without reference to what political factions will make of it. But doing so is not trivial, and it is easy for the unwary or uncaring artist to slip into political prescriptions. This makes for a more interesting conversation: how good a job did they do? Were they even trying? (TH White wasn’t.)

To interpret everything as an expression of politics is one possible logically consistent framework. One could equally well interpret everything as a form of advertising. (An interesting exercise if you haven’t tried it.) Unipolar interpretive schemes lead to predictable results which after a while are obviously more about the scheme itself than the works they allegedly analyze.

By on 03/03/10 at 05:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew wrote: But the stunning thing about this novel is that it actually achieves something that I feel we must recognize as a successful resolution of this project of creating a sub-ideological narrative space. While it will never not be ideological, the novel has found a strategy of non-resistance to ideology ...
Obviously, this strategy—this claiming a space below ideology or ideologies—is itself ineradicably political; I do not mean to argue that narrative actually can ever really occupy this position, or that this sub-ideological position could ever exist as such.

What I would *like* to discuss, if interest remains or can be reconstituted, is the assertion that it is impossible to have a truly subideological survival story. Taking this premise for granted, Andrew asserts that _What Is The What_ fakes it, with admirable effect. If nothing else this is an interesting bit of criticism, which as I said made me want to read the novel. But I want to question the premise. 

The few examples given seem to be contentious, and I like to work from examples so I threw out Dickens. Presumably we’ve all read him.

Tony: The point is, artists whether they know it or not are inevitably operating in a “political” mode,

I repeat my earlier point. All artists can of course be interpreted in this way, but it is not always the most relevant approach to their work.
One should be able to write about humanity, or about politics, or about humanity AND politics; also one should be able to criticize independently from the point of view of humanity, politics, or both. Andrew asserted instead that an ideology is essential to every work. I’m interested in hearing this unpacked.

Michael Jordan once famously said “both Democrats and Republicans like to watch basketball”. There are many valuable and interesting political analyses to be made of his career. Should he have had them in mind while he was on court? No; nor should an artist feel obliged to have the political analyses in mind while he or she is creating—unless that is what he or she wants.

Meanwhile, obviously you privilege your own genre: the ideologically challenging novel. And in your last comment you indicate that publishing is necessarily ideological. I can see why that might be on your mind, but it is not an answer to my question. Which wasn’t directed at you.

By on 03/04/10 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The needless contentiousness of this entire comment thread is a wonderful counterpoint to the current post entitled “Academic Publishing Again (or, Still)”.

Tony, your demeanor suggests you have the idea I’m some kind of ignoramus who doesn’t deserve courtesy. I asked a question of Andrew—with reference to the original post, not the intervening discussion—and you jumped in to inform me “what we were talking about”. Since then we’ve simply been talking past one another.

Let me return to the original quote. Yes: nowhere does Andrew state explicitly that “an ideology is essential to every work”. I believe he implies it.

Andrew: Obviously, this strategy—this claiming a space below ideology or ideologies—is itself ineradicably political;

If this is so, how then can one write a non-ideological work? If one cannot write a non-ideological work, then ideology is surely essential to every work? (Which is a defensible and respectable position: if I understand China Mieville’s remarks in his book event on Crooked Timber a few years ago, I think he would advocate this.)

Tony says much the same thing: The point is, artists whether they know it or not are inevitably operating in a “political” mode

This is dialectical sloppiness. (I’m an old Kierkegaard scholar, if you must know. The “Logic 101” comment made me laugh coffee up into my nose.)

You (Tony) say that it is inevitable for artists to operate in a political mode. Now I am confused. You say you agree with me that an artist can write about humanity as distinct from writing about politics or humanity+politics. But how is that possible if the artist must operate in a political mode? If the artist cannot “operate” in other than a political mode, how is it other than a distinction without a difference to say that the artwork need not be essentially political?

I’m not trying to catch you out: I want to know what the categories are. They have consequences.

Maybe the answer from Andrew will be that though he didn’t mention the existence of the non-ideological category, it of course exists alongside the sub-ideological. In which case I am curious how he might define the boundaries between them. I’m certainly not trying to catch him out.

Andrew: I repeat my thanks for your stimulating original post. Maybe these issues will come up again in the future ...

By on 03/06/10 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, I’m sorry that there is not more patience between the two of us. If we ever meet f2f I’ll buy you a beer.

All I want to know is whether we believe it is possible for a work of art to be so powerful in its expression of something other than politics or ideology that it transcends politics or ideology. (And also if that belief is not unwittingly contradicted by some of our jargon, which might subtly influence our thoughs.)

Here’s what I mean by that transcendence: Could you or I write a novel about extremely politicized circumstances such as those surrounding a child soldier, and yet have that novel express humanity so powerfully, that everyone who reads it says “yes of course the author’s choice to avoid any particular expression of ideology in these circumstances can be interpreted as a political decision, but the vision of humanity so dominates the effect of the book that to discuss politics or ideology in their own terms is clearly to miss the point of the book”? Could we or anyone really do that? Or is it just a theoretical possibility?

What is it that we are willing to permit our arts to do for us. That’s what I care about. The original statement seemed to be possibly closing off some of those possibilities.

By on 03/06/10 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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