Sunday, February 6, 2011


I finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars a few days ago, and, while it offered a tremendous amount to think—and, presumably, to write—about, I can't quite summon the necessary energy actually to gather my thoughts and present them.

The fault is certainly not in the book: I am beyond eager to read the next two installments in the trilogy and I cannot praise Red Mars highly enough. It is almost precisely the kind of book which should lead me to all kinds of verbosity, and which almost certainly should provoke at least an attempt at sustained engagement with the text. I mean, Fredric Jameson is in the acknowledgments and provides a blurb for the novel—I'm not sure any other work of fiction can make that boast.

And if that is the case, I think it is probably time to put this blog into something like hibernation, at least until the end of the year, when my academic obligations shift not so much in their weight or density but in (I believe) their distribution, and I may find some time to try out my ideas here once more.

My neglect of the past few months (if not longer) has probably already winnowed this blog's reader base, but I assume (or rather, Google Reader tells me) that some people are sticking around on RSS, for  which I'm quite grateful.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Desire Is a World by Night," by John Berryman

The history of strangers in their dreams
Being irresponsible, is fun for men,
Whose sons are neither at the Front nor frame
Humiliating weakness to keep at home
Nor wtnce on principle, wearing mother grey,
Honoured by radicals. When the mind is free
The catechetical mind can mincn and tear
Contemptible vermin from a stranger's hair
And then sleep.

          In our parents' dreams we see
Vigour abutting on senility,
Stiff blood, and weathered with the years, poor vane;
Unfortunate but inescapable.
Although the wind bullies the windowpane
Are the children to be kept responsible
For the world's decay? Carefully we choose
Our fathers, carefully we cut out those
On whom to exert the politics of praise.

Heard after dinner, in defenceless ease,
The dreams of friends can puzzle, dazzle us
With endless journeys through unfriendly snow,
Malevolent faces that appear and frown
Where nothing was expected, the sudden stain
On spotless window-ledges; these we take
Chuckling, but take them with us when we go,
To study in secret, late, brooding, looking
For trails and parallels. We have a stake
In this particular region, and we look
Excitedly for situations that we know.
—The disinterested man has gone abroad;
Winter is on the by-way where he rode
Erect and alone, summery years ago.

When we dream, paraphrase, analysis
Exhaust the crannies of the night. We stare,
Fresh sweat upon our foreheads, as they fade:
The melancholy and terror of avenues
Where long no single man has moved, but play
Under the arc-lights gangs of the grey dead
Running directionless. That bright blank place
Advances with us into fearful day,
Heady and insuppressible. Call in friends,
They grin and carry it carefully away,—
The fathers can't be trusted,—strangers wear
Their strengths, and visor. Last, authority,
The Listener borrow from an English grave
To solve our hatred and our bitterness..
The foul and absurd to solace or dismay.
All this will never appear; we will not say;
Let the evidence be buried in a cave
Off the main road. If anyone could see
The white scalp of that passionate will and those
Sullen desires, he would stumble, dumb,
Retreat into the time from which he came
Counting upon his fingers and toes.

-from The Dispossessed, (1948), reprinted in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Other Poems, (1968)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Amelia Atlas on Gabriel Josipovici

I had intended to write about Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? but I don't think I need to anymore: Amelia Atlas has said nearly all of what I would say, and has done so much more articulately than I could have. Read the whole thing on n+1, but here is what I consider the clinching argument:
To say [in Josipovici's earlier book, The World and the Book {1971}] that we are reading modern novels incorrectly is very different from—and more persuasive than—saying all novels should, accordingly, be modernist [Josipovici's argument in What Ever Happened…]. There are multiple traditions at work in the literary canon, and modernism isn’t the only one with a living inheritance from which to draw. Should it be? Josipovici grounds his case for the primacy of modernism in its ostensible moral superiority, its formal honesty. What separates the modernist novel is the “shock administered to the reader when the work reveals itself as a ‘pure object’”—that is, in accordance with his title, as a book, and not actually the world. “The final meaning of a Robbe-Grillet novel (or, as we have seen, of a Nabokov or a Golding or a Bellow novel),” he writes, “resides in the effect which this discovery has upon us, an effect far greater than that which a novel by George Eliot or Tolstoy could have, since it is a shock administered to that most precious part of ourselves, our pride or inherent narcissism.” The sensation Josipovici describes here may be a powerful one, but the notion that it should fall to the novel to jolt us, over and over, out of the reality of our solipsism is itself the worst form of solipsism.

Can the explosive feeling of being transported by a book into the world really only be achieved by the revelation of form? What happens when we turn a novel’s last page and pick up a new book? Must we go back into ourselves in order to again be rooted out? Josipovici’s self-referential vision of what it is to read dooms us to begin always with the self. It implies that the imagination turns endlessly inward. Call me an idealist, but I think novels by Eliot and Tolstoy administer a shock by daring to traffic with the world in a way that doesn’t take our narcissism as a given. Josipovici’s claim that the “classic” novel “confuses possibility and actuality” seems to me a fundamental misreading of the prerogatives of realism. He writes as if its only ambition were mimetic, as if the realist novel—from the nineteenth-century to the present—aspires to nothing more than the collapse of all distinction between art and world. Quite the contrary. It’s by producing an apparently real, but sensorily heightened world that novelists like Tolstoy and his brethren explore this very boundary. In returning from the novel to the real, we come away with a sense of what could be: how the world would look if we forced ourselves into contact with all the subtleties and subtexts that are actually at play. [my italics] 

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

[Wikipedia article for your reference]
I doubt I will find many fellow readers of Le Guin who will agree with me, but I was shocked (and obviously seriously dismayed) to find a subterranean similarity to Ayn Rand, and particularly to Anthem, in this novel.

There are a couple of positive references (1, 2) to libertarianism in The Dispossessed, but that is somewhat misleading and not what I am talking about; Anarres, the homeworld of the novel's protagonist, is diametrically opposite to the unfettered market and ultra-individualism that mark Rand's political visions. Anarres lacks any form of market whatsoever, and its basic unit of political organization is not the individual nor even a family but a syndicate or a work gang; the only forms of exchange are carried out in central depots or stockrooms where one may swap a broken chair for a new (or more likely a newly repaired) one, a mended pair of boots for a worn set. Possessiveness is absolutely minimal in Anarresti society, and if its inhabitants have a fault, it is that they push back too reflexively against anyone "egoizing"—drawing attention to themselves or attempting to consolidate power or authority, preventing either from being continuously and randomly distributed and redistributed. And if this weren't clear enough, Le Guin offers us a sort of techno-capitalist society for contrast: A-Io, a nation on Anarres's twin-world Urras, is much like the United States, only it reveres scientists and engineers much more, treating them like pashas. The class structure is also much more openly defined; the only societal arrangements that Le Guin shows resemble the upstairs-downstairs divisions of British manor houses. This isn't very much like Rand either.

What Le Guin's book holds in common with Rand, however, is an unfailing excitement at the quite adolescent belief that genius, like murder, will out, that the brightest lights can never be smothered or hidden, that even if you try, no bushel-basket will obscure nor occlude nor even diminish the full force of one's magnificence. "But you are not like other men," Shevek, the galactically brilliant physicist-protagonist, is told, "There is a difference in you." "Since he was very young he had known that in certain ways he was unlike anyone else he knew. For a child the consciousness of such difference is very painful, since, having done nothing yet and being incapable of doing anything, he cannot justify it." "If there was a circle of silence around him, it was no bother to him, he had always been alone." The scientist (or industrialist, for Rand) is a hero not so much for specific real achievements, but for being a sort of symbolic force in and of himself, a natural aristocrat, uncontainable, transcendent, magnetic. His suffering, which is a sort of Passion, occurs because (or occurs if) he feels slightly bad for being so naturally transcendent and wants to try to be ordinary, to put his shoulder against the common load.

I frankly found the supposedly charismatic Shevek to be fairly flat and dull, although I suppose some will claim that his blandness and generally self-righteous insipidity is beside the point—I forget, the focus of the book is the world-building, the world-building. I would believe that, only the world-building falls into some grey limbo midway between ethnography or microhistory and allegory; we get lots of lovely and highly textured detail, but Le Guin seems dissatisfied with letting anything remain a detail—her worlds don't just function (and frankly, I feel that at some points, their functionality is very open to question), but more importantly, they mean. Le Guin's world-building is too efficient—all material problems, such as famine, communication, violence, sexual reproduction, and so on, are squeezed for every drop of potential macro-level political analysis: every situation, every feature, every difference is an opportunity not for description, but for observation and a full-scale society-wide evaluation—an opportunity to turn the society into a metaphor, singular, smooth, and homogeneous.

Unlike many readers, I don't particularly mind preachiness or even propaganda in literature—or in film: concurrent with reading this novel, I watched and hugely enjoyed the USSR-Cuban collaboration Soy Cuba, which one might say is on the didactic side. I adamantly do not think that undigested political content is objectionable or automatically flaws a work. What I am objecting to about Le Guin's novel is not that its fingers of rhetoric are blunt and rather clasping. My objection is simply that Le Guin, rather like Rand, fails to acknowledge that those fingers might not grasp firmly enough: Le Guin has too much faith that her political analysis and her world-building are mutually supporting, that the worlds she builds furnish all the evidence she needs for the hypotheses she is testing, and that those hypotheses adequately encompass the worlds she is building. Nothing escapes.

It's not that there isn't variety within Anarresti society (or Urrasti society): there are people of many kinds, certainly. But society isn't really made up of people or even structures for Le Guin: it's made up of ideas—big solid ones, like anarchism or social Darwinism, which can be chosen as if on a menu, only not ever a la carte but always prix fixe. Furthermore, these big ideas, and the choices between them, are always present, even immediately available, to all the characters. There is no mediating term, or set of mediating terms, between the symbolic and the material—everyone is always conscious of the full ideological ramifications of each decision, each action, each word—there is basically no such thing as false consciousness or even indifferent consciousness. No one writes, no one works, no one speaks without considering where they stand ideologically. Everything is a clash of ideas, a validation of one idea or a rebuttal to another. It's somewhat exhausting, like an all-night freshman year bull-session. Or, perhaps, like certain moments in the Cold War.

This super-consciousness of ideology is, in a kind of brilliant but also a very overstated way, a politicization and massive enlargement of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which Wikipedia pointed out to me is a major theme of the novel). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, in simplistic terms, that the language you use (more accurately, the language that your society gives you to use) determines the way that you can think about the world. For instance, early in the novel, Shevek notes that the way Anarresti society acknowledges the importance of something is to say that it is "more central," whereas the way that Urrasti society flags importance is through height—better things are "higher," worse things are "lower" (15). The political ramifications of this basic divide are clear and rather elementary, although for a truly radical anarchism (as Le Guin claims Anarresti society is), ranking things based on their relationship to a center would still be a form of hierarchy; to some extent, it is that Le Guin's own conceptual categories are impeding her ability to form a clear distinction between the societies—she assumes hierarchy can only be vertically oriented.

Yet that is not the vindication of Sapir-Whorfianism that one might think, as the whole distinction makes little practical or experiential sense. It is worth noting, as it is rather indicative of my issues with Le Guin's schematism, that most English-users, at least those I have encountered, often use a mixture of these categories, and at times even invert the "high-low" valuation—when you say something is "more fundamental" or "more basic" or that you are "getting to the bottom of something," isn't the idea that the more valuable or more important things reside lower down? We may also conjoin temporality with significance: something that has greater "priority" is obviously more important, better for you to attend to. Even weight may serve to order degrees of importance: a light matter is a lesser matter. For Le Guin, as for the stronger versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, these kinds of mixtures are at least unlikely if not illusory; one can divide and analyze societies based on the metaphors or conceptual categories they employ because they are assumed to employ only one.

I think Le Guin probably knows that, actually, but the reason she makes things so stark and univocal is that she believes that a revolutionary society (like Anarres) will enforce such univocality (how that explains the starkness of Urrasti linguistic categories, I don't know). And to some extent, this is historically correct: in the wake of many revolutions, an attempt to "correct" or standardize language is common, from the renaming of months and the abolition of hereditary titles after the French Revolution to the distribution of Mao's pamphlets in the Cultural Revolution. Yet the story she tells about her revolutionary society—150 years before the action of the novel, there was a minority religious dissident group who convinced the Urrasti majority to transport (and abandon) them to their habitable but desolate "moon," Anarres, where this dissident group founded a new anarchist society and invented a new language—is peculiar, or rather inconsistent.

The point of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, at least as I understand it, is that someone is generally not aware of the conceptual limits placed upon her by the language she uses: she doesn't experience her language as insufficient, as "not having words for some things." The conceptual limits of a language are experienced as natural limits. Natural, that is, unless one comes into contact with a language that has words which have no possible cognate, or none that is easily articulable. Now, Le Guin attempts to isolate her revolutionary society so that these limits should not be experienced; communication with Urras is extremely limited, taking place within a very small circle of people, and knowledge of the Urrasti language is highly controlled. Yet the fact that the Anarrestis originated on Urras makes this isolation sort of hopeless: for instance in one scene, Shevek addresses his partner Takver thus: "What are you doing—indulging guilt feelings? Wallowing?" And Le Guin tells us in an aside:
The word he used was not "wallowing," there being no animals on Anarres to make wallows; it was a compound, meaning literally "coating continually and thickly with excrement." The flexibility and precision of Pravic [the revolutionary language of Anarres] lent itself to the creation of vivid metaphors quite unforeseen by its inventors. (332)
The Pravic word that Shevek uses—whatever it is—may be new, revolutionary, not indebted to Urras, but the concept "coating continually and thickly with excrement" is unthinkable apart from a memory of something that actually does this action—an Urrasti memory. Humans do not undertake this action and no one would think to associate self-indulgent self-recrimination with this action merely out of the blue; it seems implausible that anyone would even conceive of this action without some awareness of it being done by something somewhere. The name may have changed, but the persistence of the concept proves a continuity that suggests that Anarrestis must, from time-to-time, still experience linguistic lacks, unnameable residual concepts that make visible the artifices of their recently created language.

It is possible—in fact, it is definite—that Le Guin knows that the Anarresti revolution, the overthrow of "archism" (as in the opposite of anarchism) is always going to be incomplete, that power collects, aggregates, if not in the hands of individuals, then in the customs of society. This is largely the "lesson" one gets from reading the book. Yet that does not really let her off the hook. The point is not that no revolution can ever be complete (or, in slightly different language, that any revolution is perfect), but that the distinctions she draws between Anarres and Urras are not supported by the world she describes. The incomplete revolution is still so nakedly different from the lack of a revolution, and no one ever forgets that, not even while dealing with "excrement." Le Guin seems to assume that this permanent consciousness in fact determines the social being of her characters, but it becomes quite clear that this idealism is no more convincing than a vulgar materialism—social being mechanically determining or producing consciousness.

The Dispossessed is an experiment that quietly buries a number of its variables under the weight of metaphor. It wants to dramatize ideas without dramatizing enough life, and even on its own terms, I think it misses the mark it sets for itself.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Winter on Mars?

Would anyone be interested in another reading project? Or reading about another reading project?

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy has been on my reading list ever since I started (and disappointingly never finished) reading Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future, a study of utopian thought and science fiction. Robinson's trilogy gets significant attention in Jameson's book, and I was pretty enthused about it but failed to follow up. About a year and a half ago, a number of commenters on a post on this blog (and on The Valve) pushed me toward it yet again, but once more I thought "that sounds awesome! and I'll get to it later!" and later kept being later.

No more! I plan to follow a simple schedule similar to Party in the U.S.A.—one book every month, posts coming at the end of the month or the beginning of the following month. January is Red Mars; February is Green Mars; March, Blue Mars. (I'm ignoring The Martians.) Depending on how things go, I might try to read Icehenge alongside, but that will be strictly extracurricular.

I hope (despite the short notice) this might encourage a few people to join the reading; I imagine some readers of this blog may already have read the trilogy, or parts of it. If you have, and you've written something about it or about Robinson, or have run into something written about it or him, please post a link in the comments—it'll be a great way to get things started.

Monday, January 3, 2011

My Year in Reading

It would probably be gratuitous to round-up the things I have written this year, or to remark further upon the reading I have already posted about (to your right is the archive, and posting has been relatively light this year, so it should be unfortunately quite easy to navigate), but I want to attempt to account for some of the general trends in my reading for 2010, and to point to a few books that I have not yet brought up here.

2010 fiction:
Probably the greatest casualty of grad school has been my ability to keep up with newly published fiction. For many readers and many critics, this is no tragedy: the common assumption of the critics rounded up by the NYTBR for a seminar on "Why You Should Continue to Read and Pay for the NYTBR Instead of Those Annoyingly Popular Blogs" "Why Criticism Matters" seems to be that criticism is beleaguered not just because the educated reader is a (hardy but) menaced species, but because contemporary fiction is impoverished, dull, and repetitive. I tend to believe that if I haven't read a good novel published recently, then it must be from my lack of trying and not the fault of the literary community, but I believe I am in a minuscule minority in that sentiment. I find complaints of this sort ('it was a bad year for fiction'; 'there are no great writers anymore') generally unpersuasive; how is it possible to characterize the entire literary output of an industry whose scope of production we often have difficulty quantifying, much less evaluating? It's like saying it was a bad year for jeans or something: the fact that you bought a few pairs that don't fit you well says very little about the quality of production industry-wide. (On the other hand, it might say something about the accuracy of your self-image.)

At any rate, what new books did I read? I read The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, about which I had high hopes after having read Home Land a few years ago. The Ask didn't disappoint; it's a great novel in all dimensions. I think, though, if you haven't read Lipsyte before but have been intrigued, I would read The Ask first; Home Land is so much more spontaneous but not quite as involving, and I think both books would look their best read in that order. But read both. I also read Alejandro Zambra's The Private Life of Trees which, on the other hand, should definitely be read after Zambra's previous effort, Bonsai, as Zambra plays a couple mini-meta- or intertextual games. I remember hearing that The Private Life of Trees is not quite as good as Bonsai, but I would say that it is worth reading regardless; after all, it is very short—if one finds it in a bookstore, one could read it without drawing attention for loitering.

Then there is Freedom, which I already wrote about here. I am of two very different minds about the novel's reception: it's not worth all the fuss, but it's also good enough to be worth fighting for against its most obnoxious bashers.

Comics/Graphic Novels:
I had a pretty enjoyable year, although in large part that's the product of knowing so little about the medium; nearly everything impresses me. But some of the titles I read—Asterios Polyp, Sandman, Ex Machina, James Sturm's The Golem's Mighty Swing, Joe Sacco's The Fixer—have impressed a lot of other people as well, to say the least. I tried Grant Morrison's The Invisibles and, well, I'm going just to assume I'm not a Grant Morrison person.

Major novels/classics:
I think I did an adequate job filling in some gaps this year; the big project was John Dos Passos's U.S.A., but I also really enjoyed reading Vanity FairCall It SleepTess of the D'UrbervillesThe AmbassadorsFathers and SonsThe Octopus, The Education of Henry Adams, The House of Mirth, Billy Budd, Sister Carrie, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Le Père Goriot, and, way back at the beginning of the year, Middlemarch. I should have had something to say about Vanity Fair, Call It Sleep and Tess; I think I have mentioned all the others on here in one way or another, but unfortunately the fall semester got away from me. Allow me to say now, though, that Call It Sleep is dull for about 100 pages, and then is among the best lyrical writing in American literary history for the next 250 pages or so, and the ending is among the finest in all of literature.

Short novels:
Some that I have not mentioned, but deserve to be highlighted: Miramar, by Naguib Mahfouz; Wittgenstein's Mistress, by David Markson; Old Masters, by Thomas Bernhard; Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson; So Long a Letter, by Mariama Bâ; Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska.
Other odds and ends: Diary of a Nobody and Cranford are two books of rather similar temperament: they both seem like they could be filmed by Mike Leigh and would turn out very well.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan, is as good as the film, which for a suspenser directed by Alfred Hitchcock is pretty large praise (can you say it about any others? maybe Strangers on a Train, although I haven't read it).
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, was an alright novel, although I feel rather indifferent about it which, given the subject matter, was not likely Eugenides's intention. It's entirely possible I did not give it sufficient attention, though; I read most of it on an airplane ride, an environment which I think is conducive to some wonderful reading experiences (I read the whole of Netherland on a cross-country flight and that was nearly perfect), while others I think require the different pressure of solitude and reflection; a metal tube crowded with people is probably not ideal.

I cannot recommend highly enough two very unusual histories of popular music, both of which focus on how sound is recorded and manipulated post-recording: Albin Zak's The Poetics of Rock and Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever. Both will in all likelihood vastly change how you think about not just the technological processes that shape what we hear, but also the social processes—the experiential recalibrations that are brought about by being enveloped by certain types of sounds—that shape how we hear, what we think music "sounds like," and what are good sounds.

Also recommended are some excellent histories of specific genres or artists: Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, by Thomas Brothers; Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, by Virginia Danielson; Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South, by Patrick Huber; and Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio, by Louise Meintjes.

Those books were assigned in a course I took this fall about the history of recorded vernacular musics; in another course, which covered the rise of the "new middle class" (and, to some extent, the supposed "decline" of the genteel society) from the Civil War through the Great Depression, I would like particularly to praise George Fredrickson's The Inner Civil War; Highbrow/Lowbrow (covered here); The New Radicalism (covered here and here); Making America Corporate, by Olivier Zunz; and Selling Culture, by Richard Ohmann, which I'm having some trouble getting around to posting about, but which I intend to, I promise! It really is an immensely useful and brilliant book; it's like reading about fifteen histories all at once of the rise of mass culture, advertising, and what Warren Susman calls the culture of abundance. Zunz's book is much shorter but is also really incredible at synthesizing a number of different ways of thinking about the cultural and economic transformations that were occurring across the continent at the turn of the century. Few straight-up social or economic histories that I have read use literature and culture so effectively and so imaginatively. And I really cannot say enough good things about Fredrickson's book.

Well, that's about all the books I care to talk about for now, and my apologies for the abbreviated and probably unhelpful nature of this hodge-podge omnibus. I hope I can do better this year at keeping pace on this blog with my reading. Happy new year!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

From Warren Susman, Culture as History

From the Preface (pp. x-xi):
In the beginning there are the words, all kinds of words from all kinds of places: words from philosophical treatises and tombstones, from government documents and fairy tales, from scientific papers, advertisements, dictionaries, and collections of jokes. There are, of course, other sources of information: images, sounds, objects of use and of enjoyment, ledgers of debits and of credits, gathered statistics—countless cultural artifacts, each of enormous value but analyzable only when translated into words. Thus the historian's world is always a world of words; they become his primary data; from them he fashions facts. He can then go on to create other words, propositions about the world that follow from his study of those data.
This creation of fact is never an easy task. The historian must discover the precise nature of the human experience the words attempt to describe, the particular attitudes toward that experience they define. Thomas Hobbes warned us centuries ago that "words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon with them, but they are the money of fools." The historian must learn to tell the wise man from the fool—and then learn from both of them. He must learn how people do in fact "reckon" with words.
But the good historian is not done when he has presented the facts. He must be able to take words seriously but not always literally. He must pay special attention not only to what writers "parade but what they betray": the unstated sassumptions that make the stated words intelligible. The historian searches not only for truth but for meaning. In that process the very words the historian uses become symbols themselves. Each age has its special words, its own vocabulary, its own set of meanings, its particular symbolic order. This is true of the world about which the historian writes; it is equally true of the world in which he [sic] writes. Turning facts into interpreted symbols, the final stage of the historian's craft, becomes the most difficult and the most intellectually dangerous.
(Warren I. Susman, Culture as History. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003. Reprint of New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Provincialism and the Intellectual as a Social Type

Christopher Lasch opens this book about as directly as one possibly can: "The main argument of this book is that modern radicalism or liberalism can best be understood as a phase of the social history of the intellectuals. In the United States, to which this study is confined, the connection is particularly clear. There, the rise of the new radicalism coincided with the emergence of the intellectual as a distinctive social type" (ix).

It is interesting to compare this very plain thesis statement, however, with later iterations of the book's "main argument." For instance, although I think he reads feminism incorrectly as being seamlessly assimilated to his larger typology (his thoughts on feminism are face-palmingly bad), the following articulates very well how Lasch conceives of what goes into this "social history of the intellectuals":
When one sees the feminist impulse as an aspect of a more general development—the revolt of intellectuals against the middle class—one begins to understand the feminists' acute fear that life had passed them by. For this conviction that life lay always outside the narrow confines of one's own experience was common to all those, of whatever sex, who felt themselves imprisoned in the stale room of a borrowed culture.
Or later (though still quite problematically as it applies to feminism and as it applies to Bourne's physical disability):
[I]ndeed the sense of being cut off from "life," the sense of being in some way disabled and deformed, weighed heavily upon a whole generation of American intellectuals. As intellectuals they envied the working class. As women they envied men. But so did men envy women, and for the same thing, their easier access to experience… th[is] sense of "alienage" was a highly subjective state of mind, one which cannot be traced to any such simple source as the deprivations of American women or even to so real a disadvantage as a physical deformity. The pervasiveness among intellectuals of the fear that life had somehow passed them by suggests that the fear reflected the growing isolation of the intellectuals as a class from the main currents of American life. It was both cause and consequence of their rejection of their middle-class origins. Seeking experience, they rejected a culture which seemed to them increasingly artificial, increasingly cut off from life; yet, having broken away from the middle class, intellectuals often found themselves no near to "life" than before (100-101).
Only one more (long, but still quite interesting) passage before I try to make a slight alteration in Lasch's model and a few miscellaneous comments/critiques:
The originality of the new radicalism as a form of politics rested on a twofold discovery: the discovery of the dispossessed by men who themselves had never known poverty or prejudice, and the mutual self-discovery of the intellectuals. The combination of the two accounted for the intensity with which the intellectuals identified themselves with the outcasts of the social order: women, children, proletarians, Indians, and Jews. At the very moment when they became aware of the other half of humanity, they became aware of each other and came to see themselves as yet another class apart. In time, their very sense of kinship with one another made them all the more painfully conscious of their collective isolation from the rest of the society. Then the "submerged tenth" came to be seen not only as the visible representation of the unsublimated selfhood of mankind but, more immediately, as a potential political ally. The intellectuals came to court the dispossessed with an ardor doubly endowed. (147-148)
"The mutual self-discovery of the intellectuals" is a lovely, evocative phrase, and when one thinks of the vibrant energy behind all the "little magazines" and coteries being formed in the early years of the twentieth-century, it also seems remarkably apt. However, Lasch's description of this process is both rather weakly existential and abstractly or ethereally un-located ("they became aware of each other") and yet also, in another sense, implicitly quite concrete, located, and very embodied: the "mutual self-discovery of the intellectuals" was, for many though not quite all, carried through by the physical congregation of these intellectuals with one another and with "the submerged tenth" in the city—in bohemias and settlement houses, at strikes and on the street, in museums and lofts.

If we do add this more located history of the "mutual self-discovery" into the record, then the painful consciousness of "their collective isolation" must also be read in something more than existential terms, less as a "sense of 'alienage'" and more as a quite material experience of either separation, deprivation, or involuntary seclusion. It is the memory of distance not just as an emotional or even intellectual problem or as a figure of speech, but as a physical limitation or constraint, as a condition which removes many options for what one could do, acquire, and know, and makes still other options rare and strange—that memory, or the continued experience of it, is, I believe, the more potent "social history of the intellectual" at this time, at least for a very large number of the figures Lasch would have categorized as intellectuals.

One word to describe this more located history (although I think it is still too abstract and notional, or too metaphorical) is provincialism—it at least retains or includes, necessarily, some overtly spatial, if not actually embodied, meaning, whereas, I think, "isolation" or "alienation" lead inexorably toward over-abstraction, toward more primarily mental or emotional "senses"—"discontent" or Jackson Lears's (and Nietzsche's) "weightlessness," or "angst" or even "Weltschmerz" from an earlier epoch. I prefer "provincialism" not as a superior synonym for "isolation" or "alienation" (it is, clearly, not synonymous with them, as it is frequently used as a pejorative description of the condition of other people, not of the self, while "isolation" and "alienation" are generally more self-applied or self-inclusive), but as an alternative or substitution. A phrase like "the main currents of American life" (which Lasch uses on 101, 294, and 349) requires an objective correlative, a physical location that "isolation" only suggests figuratively. I feel that "provincialism," with its primary reference to actual geographical distance from "the main currents" of culture, power, and activity, better grounds the condition that Lasch is trying to identify and to theorize.

Lasch's intellectuals felt like provincials, physically unable to access "the main currents," either by the obstruction of gender, of geography, of class, or of (although this does not enter into Lasch's discussion) race or ethnicity. "Provincialism" is the belief that one is located wrongly—removed from where the action is when one belongs in the action. Print culture and correspondence can't fully make up for this dislocation; it requires re-location, and, at least for part of the history of the formation of Lasch's intellectuals, the destination of that re-location was not entirely taken for granted, as Europe still retained quite a hold, and the hierarchy of domestic cultural centers was at a moment of flux, with new centers (Chicago, San Francisco) emerging and older ones (Boston) waning. New York was (as Lasch argued in the passage I quoted from before) only now, at the turn of the century, consolidating the full range of activities and resources which would make it "the spiritual home of the American intellectual" (320), with an emphatic underline beneath the definite article. In a strong sense, this confusion meant that everyone had some claim to feeling provincial: when no one knows where the action is (or where the action next will be), all are peripheral to it.

Yet still we see that Lasch is content with New York as merely the intellectual's "spiritual home" when the point is that for many at this moment (though, of course, by no means all), the "spiritual" was insufficient. I think that part of what makes the "status group" that Lasch was trying to assemble actually cohere is the common experience of provincialism, of realizing that aspects of one's material life—one's geographical location, one's gender, class, or ethnicity—obstruct or put one at a distance from the "main currents," from where the action is. This recognition is what made the "mutual self-discovery of the intellectuals" so energetic, so intense, and so transformative.

Friday, December 3, 2010

From "The Comedian as the Letter C," by Wallace Stevens

The moonlight fiction disappeared. The spring,
Although contending featly in its veils,
Irised in dew and early fragrancies,
Was gemmy marionette to him that sought
A sinewy nakedness. A river bore
The vessel inward. Tilting up his nose,
He inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells
Of dampened lumber, emanations blown
From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes,
Decays of sacks, and all the arrant stinks
That helped him round his rude aesthetic out.
He savored rankness like a sensualist.
He marked the marshy ground around the dock,
The crawling railroad spur, the rotten fence,
Curriculum for the marvelous sophomore.
It purified. It made him see how much
Of what he saw he never saw at all.
He gripped more closely the essential prose
As being, in a world so falsified,
The one integrity for him, the one
Discovery still possible to make,
To which all poems were incident, unless
That prose should wear a poem's guise.

Monday, November 29, 2010


As you may have noticed, blogging has not gone particularly well around here for the last few weeks. Once the term ends (or maybe even before, but not until after I get the first draft of a research paper I'm working on), these are some topics I think I'll be covering:

  • The promised second post on Christopher Lasch's The New Radicalism in America, where I will try to add something to his theory about "the intellectual as social type"
  • Two posts about Richard Ohmann's sweeping study of turn-of-the-century mass culture, Selling Culture: the first dealing with Ohmann's definition of mass culture (I think there's a good discussion to be had about how we might adapt it to the present, or whether we should); the second dealing with the concept of a "national market" or a "national audience," and what is really entailed in invoking the "nation" in this manner.
  • Some thoughts about this year's music
  • Some contrarianism about the aesthetic and moral presumptions of modernism, or, rather, of the felt need to elevate it continuously

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

At the Crossroads: Middle America and the Battle to Save the Car Industry, by Abe Aamidor and Ted Evanoff

Oddly enough, this book tells a similar story to the David Brooks column I just shook my head over—but it tells that story responsibly and with a more than rhetorical sympathy for the economic struggles of Middle America.

Like Brooks's column, At the Crossroads admonishes the Obama government for essentially dropping the ball on the Midwest, but where Brooks sees this as inept political maneuvering—somehow Obama allowed blue-collar Midwesterners who "were willing to take a flier" on him in 2008 to become "disillusioned with Democratic policies"—Aamidor and Evanoff, the authors of At the Crossroads understand that the reality is quite a bit more complicated than poorly-managed political theater. Brooks acknowledges that "voters in this region face structural problems, not cyclical ones," but seems not to understand that "structural" means something more than "big, ugly, persistent mess."

At the Crossroads differs from Brooks and his ilk, therefore, not just by virtue of the fact that it is a book, not an editorial column, and can therefore bring to bear an armature of both statistical and quasi-ethnographic data about the collapsing industries of the Midwest and the political ramifications of that collapse, but also because At the Crossroads recognizes that elections and exit polls are not the only way to figure out what is going on within the electorate, or a portion thereof.

Aamidor and Evanoff also understand that Midwesterners are not, as Brooks depicts them, simply waiting around for the federal government to figure out how to talk nice enough to win their votes. At the Crossroads tells the story of how efforts by auto-city mayors and union leaders to retain jobs and find innovative ways of gaining some economic security for their communities. Traveling around mostly among a network of small Indiana cities that are, or were, satellites of the Detroit auto industry, the two authors fill in a rich picture of the challenges facing these communities and the obstacles that impede economic redevelopment—two of the most significant being the guiding political-economic philosophies of the past ("What's good for General Motors…") and the present ("What's good for Wall Street…").

I came across this book as part of the excellent Eco-Libris campaign to raise the profile of books printed on recycled/FSC-certified paper; At the Crossroads is printed by ECW Press in Canada.

Friday, November 5, 2010

This is the weirdest thing I've read in awhile

I had stopped reading David Brooks (and the rest of the NYT columnists, honestly), but I'm glad I took a peek back at this one.

It's amazing that anyone is paid to write something like, "[Republicans] score[d] gains nearly everywhere where disapproval of President Obama and his policies was high." Yeah. But that's not even the weird part:
It would take a Balzac to understand the perplexities and contradictions one finds in these [Midwestern] neighborhoods. On the one hand, people are living with the daily grind of getting by on $40,000 a year, but they’re also living with Xboxes and smartphones. People in these places have traditional bourgeois values, but they live amid a decaying social fabric, with high divorce rates and skyrocketing single parenthood numbers.
It would take a Balzac to understand that people are using credit cards to live beyond their means? Sucks for us that we only have Jonathan Franzen.