Friday, February 13, 2009

Walter Benn Michaels, the Novel, and The Wire


Walter Benn Michaels has been trying awfully hard for some years now to drive a wedge between, well, mostly between everyone and himself, since I'm not sure who's actually lining up behind him, but I suppose what he thinks he's been doing is convincing people that liberal attention paid to (mostly racial) diversity has been at the expense of any consideration of economic inequality. I haven't read his book The Trouble with Diversity, but I did follow along closely when n+1 ran his piece "The Neoliberal Imagination" (not available online) and then Bruce Robbins wrote in with a harsh critique and Michaels responded and Robbins responded back (the latter two are found here—I can't find the first Robbins critique).

Michaels accuses liberals of stooping to a politics of respect or recognition where we should be practicing a politics of redistribution. "[T]he politics of the neoliberal imagination involve respecting the poor, not getting rid of poverty—eliminating inequality without redistributing wealth." Liberals, he argues, like to treat classism as homologous to racism or sexism—as being primarily about the destructive force of prejudice, rather than the destructive force of not having enough money to pay for basic needs. "So, just as being opposed to racism is by no means to be opposed to racial difference… to be opposed to classism is by no means to oppose class difference."

There are two crucial jumps for Michaels here: the first is to turn this homology into history, which he tries to do by arguing that the increased commitment to racial/gender diversity both in the academy and the private sector has coincided with the exponential growth of economic inequality during the same period. (This is a fairly truncated view of a rather long struggle against prejudice and racial and gendered forms of injustice, struggles which have remained active in greater or lesser measure through periods of widening and decreasing inequality, and which have often worked as not against a struggle for economic equality.) The second jump is to turn the history into action: because fighting for diversity has coincided with greater economic inequality, give up diversity as an agenda-setting value for the left. Michaels openly acknowledges that he sees diversity vs. equality not only as an historically adversarial relation but a zero-sum game. So, presto-changeo, ignoring diversity will lead every good leftist (and, it seems, also all the faint-hearted liberals who warm to diversity because it's so much easier than fighting inequality) to re-commit themselves to the struggle for redistributive national economic policies. Hmm. I'm probably missing something here, but even if I'm missing a lot, I can't imagine that in all of this, Michaels isn't missing more than a little.

Of course, it's quite interesting to re-visit this ca. 2006 thesis in the midst of a depression global clusterfuck recession like we have today, and Michaels obligingly does this in this essay, "Going Boom," in the most recent issue of Bookforum. He writes,
What if what we’re seeing now is not just the end of a boom but the beginning of a new period of “ideological struggle”? If good for markets was bad for art, will bad for markets be good for art? For it does seem fairly clear that, with respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism hasn’t been so great. The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have been committed to historical caretaking… [Although these historical caretaking novels] about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans, are more or less definitionally sad, it’s also true that the logic by which they are produced and that makes them so attractive is an optimistic one.
From there, Michaels goes on to accuse novels about slavery and the Holocaust of basically pandering to a liberal desire to ignore inequality, but Michaels offers the solace that everyone might soon be so economically screwed ("disapproval of holocausts is getting serious competition from fear of poverty") that we will all start writing and reading novels about hard times and the vileness of capitalism again.

Novels he suggests we write would be like… American Psycho???

Actually, a quote (the same quote he cites here) from Easton Ellis's novel showed up in his original n+1 piece, so I think he's being serious about holding it up as the type of literature which will return us all to our redistributive consciences, despite the fact that it worked demonstrably better in the film version when it took on masculinity and gender, a re-focusing which probably did not please Michaels. Whatever. Michaels goes on:
So—no memoirs, no historicist novels, what else? Actually, a lot of other novels will have to go, too. The end of the novel is sort of like the weather, people are always talking about it . . . but maybe this time, we’ll get some results. For sure, no more books like The Corrections, or any of Oprah’s other choices. And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages. But they don’t. You get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from any of Ellis’s famous descriptions of what people are wearing (“a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren”) than you do from all the accounts of people reclaiming, refusing, or repurposing their cultural identities.
And then, in the move that's rapidly becoming popular with every single critic of the State of the Novel everywhere, he suggests that maybe the novel isn't the answer: the answer is TV (a.k.a The Wire). It's amazing to me how much like a mirror The Wire has become: everyone sees the justice of their vision reflected in its complexity. (It also allows Michaels to end the essay showing that he's cool with urban minorities. Sort of.)

At any rate, the easy thing to say is that I don't know where the hell he gets his idea that novels like American Psycho are going to change the world. The slightly harder thing is to recognize that Michaels shows no real concern with changing the world: his critique is bindingly local, devoted really only to America. Every single first person plural pronoun (and there are a lot of them in this essay) refers directly to Americans, to citizens of the US of A. Immigrants are just Americans with a past that they spend time writing about, and which non-immigrant Americans read to "sentimentalize" class conflict. At this point I should probably also admit that I haven't read Michaels's book on nativism, which I probably should if I want to critique his attitude toward immigrant narratives, but it seems to me awfully, awfully obtuse to treat immigrant narratives so simplistically and so indiscriminately. I wonder if he's read Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist… I'm dubious.

Putting Michaels's argument in a global context does quickly raise some fairly obvious questions, which Robbins (rather glibly) articulated at the end of the response cited above: "Consider, if we're in the business of raising the moral ante, that Americans constitute roughly 5% of the world's population but consume roughly 30% of the world's resources. In other words, the playing field at the level of the planet is even more racially tilted than it is at the level of the nation. How is giving poor American whites a better chance at $135,000 a year legal jobs (Michaels's example) going to have any effect on that inequality?" It should be said that in fighting against inequality, moving quickly to a larger context of inequality can just as quickly gut the will and drive to do anything: Americans do need better, more progressive economic policies, and the existence of massive global poverty doesn't really change that need.

However, there is a difference between arguing for immediate local action and ignoring global consequences, connections, and commonalities. The "historical caretaking" which Michaels so derides is often an attempt to split this difference, and at its best it is able to inspire both global consciousness and local action. Avoiding the easy lapse into Michaels's political provincialism (neoliberalism for him seems to be a primarily American tragedy, always ruining American lives first and not even really considering who else gets jacked in the process of ruining America) is precisely the reason why we should read authors like Toni Morrison. Morrison's narratives make it very difficult to see property and ownership as something unproblematic (an effect which I would think Michaels might applaud), but also make it impossible to see the present problems of property and ownership as something historically disconnected from a much more overtly violent and cruel understanding of what it means to "own." Morrison's historical caretaking is not just about "the burden of the past," a phrase which positions racism's legacy as something which can eventually be removed from its carriers—it's about how the past lives still. And that past's persistence creates not just a critique of prejudice, but a critique of capitalism, a critique of a system that has built into its notion of economic expansion a ready willingness to abuse labor to the greatest extent possible.

Michaels's turn at the end of the essay to The Wire is, perhaps, not surprising. For him, America is Baltimore as the show depicts it. Although there are obligatory nods in the show to the larger world (the FBI's unwillingness to help Baltimore police unless they can connect the drug trade to terrorism or corruption; the second season's globalized crime syndicate that operates out of the city's ports), the efforts to correct injustice are self-laceratingly local. Baltimore is a hell, but hell is a fairly bounded place. I'm not sure how different Michaels's attitude toward the United States is. The literature Michaels derides at least shows how easily hell spills into other places, or how hells can flow together. I just don't think McNulty Michaels is that interested.

16 comments:

zunguzungu said...

This is a great piece, and I don't just say that because I'm obsessed with the Wire and also really like Michaels' nativism book (which is quite good, but manages not to talk about immigrants so much as nativists and doesn't say anything that would take from your thesis).

Lots to say. But your "Michaels sees America as Baltimore" line also seems right to me on a level you didn't address. In the second season, the fact that the dock workers are the representatives of the embattled white working class is a brilliant choice because it shows how fundamentally "whiteness" is already always a global discourse: they can only be white with respect to the circuits of global commerce which they try to be gatekeepers for. The Wire is a whole lot smarter -- on some level -- about thinking through the ways local inequalities are fundamentally and basically integrated *into* global inequalities, after all, the way different systems intermesh. Baltimore might be a local place, but its localness is partially a construct of its global positioning (thus "locals" construct tnheir insularity as a defense against threatening forces from the outside?).

Andrew Seal said...

Absolutely--I completely agree that The Wire is really smart at demonstrating the ways that these systems intermesh. But (and I've only seen the first two and a third seasons) what I'm taking from the show (and some interviews with Simon) is an enormous sense of anger at the immobility of the city and so much in it—a sense of rage that the extremely mobile global flows of capital, data, etc. have made local inequalities more deeply rooted, have made things like the city's police force and justice system significantly less able to address problems that were once considered simply local. The mobility of the drug trade, for instance, has made homicides almost impossible to police, and the same goes twice over for bureaucratic corruption.

Drugs move, money moves, but the police are almost immobile, the corner boys are almost immobile, the dockworkers are really fucking immobile, and (I think the third season is beginning to show this more) the citizens of Baltimore are definitely immobile. And David Simon hates this with a magnificent fury.

But I see a less magnificent shade of this obsession with the mobility of capital/immobility of people in Michaels's dismissal of immigrant writers. He isn't really interested in the ways people move--he's interested in how capital moves, so immigrant narratives must be about family and "whether and where they fit into American culture"--a narrative arc which works toward a settling down, a cessation of movement. I personally think Michaels's reading is an awful way of thinking about writers who actually are interested in the ways people move, and the effects human movement has on communities and individuals.

Sorry--a lot of that didn't have to do with the specifics of your comment, which I agree very much with. Thanks for priming me to do some more thinking, though!

Tony Christini said...

"And then, in the move that's rapidly becoming popular with every single critic of the State of the Novel everywhere, he suggests that maybe the novel isn't the answer: the answer is TV (a.k.a The Wire)."

If you're actually talking about "every single critic of the State of the Novel everywhere" this is incorrect or trope. If you mean to point out a tendency among relatively prominent critics and reviewers, or dominant discourse in general, then it may be an indication of how threatening to power and ideology some independent novels and independent critics are becoming.

Otherwise, such a grasping for (commercial) TV in this regard shows how limited is most such mainstream discussion of novels/fiction, which may result not only from ideological reasons but from the current relatively weak state of the commercial and academic novel and short fiction.

In any event, there are far more institutional constraints (not least those of advertising and ownership) on commercial TV than there are on independent websites, novels, and films - and yes independent TV.

Which is why it is safe, professionally acceptable, to flock to corporate approved productions for "the answer" - and necessary if novels prove either too limp for doing too little or too threatening for doing too much.

It might be noted too that your post seems to make little or no attempt to advance any argument about the state of the novel beyond defense of the status quo, however warranted in face of reaction. Even WBM for all the grievous flaws, for all the provocations, retrograde comments, and illogic, tries to do more than defend or technically appraise the status quo. Moreover, this post seems to write out of history "every single critic of the State of the Novel everywhere" who doesn't turn to TV for the "answer."

"It's amazing to me how much like a mirror The Wire has become: everyone sees the justice of their vision reflected in its complexity."

Don't know about everyone but ran into a disconnect with Aaron on the matter previously at the Valve: http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/you_know_i_blame_the_system_the_wire_barrack_obama_and_omar_for_president/

Visual media like TV and film can do much more with open ended effects than can the novel which by nature tends to be much more expository in achieving its greatest effects. A novel is kind of a combination of the movies and nonfiction exposition, i.e., the sensory and the expository, rendered imaginative or speculative. Novels can possibly best combine the open-endedness of the visual with exposition - "a setting forth of the meaning or purpose"..."discourse or an example of it designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand" - to nearly any great effect a novel sets for itself. Movies, TV can do very little explaining and still be powerful - a great strength and a great weakness both.

zunguzungu said...

I genuinely wonder whether "Michaels's dismissal of immigrant writers" is the same as the kind of fury you see in Simon's worldview, which you've aptly summarized. On the one hand, The Wire does often seem to be incredibly smart about making these interactions exactly as complex as they are; the dock-worker narrative is pretty great for thinking about the modernity of tradition, for example (a narrative I may overemphasize because I'm so interested in it wrt African lit). And the magnificent complexity of the show's narrative scope and depth often makes the simple narratives (capitalizm killz teh poors!) stand out as completely inadequate as they are. But it also really likes those narratives, and finds ways to recover them. Your description of Simon is dead on; The Wire often seems, like Michaels, to be just as "interested in how capital moves" by situating "family" in a kind agonistic position with respect to those flows: instead of thinking about how the families are formed *through* capitalism, the family is always under threat from the mobility which powerful institutional forces monopolize. and the only response is a kind of bunkering down and rage against the dying of the light. The fifth season really makes it clear, I think, that there is no way to ride the tiger and our only hope is to live in the ruins as long as we can before they're blown away.

The interesting questions (that Michaels explicitly denies, and The Wire often seems to ask but shy away from) are, as you say: how is it that people move? How is it that people adapt and change under globalization, etc? The worst failing of Michaels' narrative, I think, is that by focusing so obstinately on how immigrants become American (implying that the former changes, the latter stays the same), he misses the ways the reverse happens: America becomes a country of immigrants. And there is very little space in his Nativism book, by the way, for reflecting on the various people who were genuinely interested in that possibility, in the idea of an America defined by its immigrants and so forth.

zunguzungu said...

Hey Tony! I'm not sure my response is any different than it was before. But I think you missed the point of Andrew's reference to "every single critic"; he might have been critical of it for different reasons than you, but I think he was pointing out the insufficiencies of that move, the way its become all vogueish to turn to the Wire (now that its over).

Tony Christini said...

No, actually you miss my point, do you not? It seems clear that Andrew is criticizing "that move" to TV/The Wire, as I do in my own way. Again, my point is that apart from whether critics should so move or not, "every single critic of the State of the Novel" is not in fact moving in that direction. As I wrote, Andrew's observation is either literally inaccurate or it is trope, an exaggeration.

That leads in to the larger observations of my comment: While WBM criticizes some relatively strong and lively discourse in art that Andrew and others do well to defend (diversity/ race work), WBM goes further and points out a basis (greater class consciousness) upon which art could greatly improve. That WBM is in various ways mistaken about his views on diversity and the connection to class, and that he offers very limited or flawed insight into creating greater class consciousness – this is rather easy to show, as thoughtful critics do. However when critics stop there, they leave almost wholly unaddressed the most critical, cutting edge, difficult issue raised – the class limits of establishment art, the glaring basic socio-political deficiencies that gut insight into the full human condition, and badly gut the vitality, relevance, and import of much art. If that's where the criticism ends, a defense of the status quo, then that's a problem in all kinds of way. It can also make WBM's criticism look more vital than it actually is, since he comes off as trying to cross into a vital frontier (greater class consciousness) while the critics busy and limit themselves to defending a few sectors of liberation within a fundamentally oppressive status quo. Again, WBM takes the argument about class and art almost nowhere, but at least he raises that vital focus. It's a shame to then see it sidestepped or not picked up with more insight or with virtually any movement forward.

Andrew Seal said...

Jeepers, Tony, it was an exaggeration, meant (as Aaron said) to voice frustration with the fact that The Wire can be so many things to so many people--even used as a vindication of conservative ideology (as Aaron has pointed out). I'm not sure why exaggerating the popularity of this move pissed you off so much. I wasn't trying to slight anyone, or "write them out of history.

Secondly, I think you're confusing analysis/criticism of already-existing literature (which is what this blog is for, and what I want to do) with a "defense of the status quo." Just because I'm not sounding a clarion call for what literature should be doesn't mean I'm at ease with what literature is. I am much more interested in figuring out what literature is doing than in figuring out what it should do, partly because I have no desire to write literature myself, so I feel like any effort on my part to demand a certain type of literature would be ridiculous when I can't or don't wish to make it myself. Praising literature that does useful things, faulting literature for doing useful things poorly or not at all or for doing harmful things--this is what I am writing for.

I'm sorry, but I just don't understand your impatience with my not moving from critique to exhortation. They also serve who only analyze.

Andrew Seal said...

Aaron--sorry, I didn't mean to imply that Simon and Michaels have similar attitudes wrt immigration/immigrants. If I have understood you, I meant to make the same comparison you did (I just didn't do it as well)--simply that both Simon and Michaels are attached to a dialectic of mobile capital vs. immobile people, though Simon is more able or more willing to pursue/allow other questions to emerge. I certainly don't think of Simon as uninterested in or dismissive of immigration.

Tony Christini said...

You erect straw men and demolish them well. First, nothing "pissed" me off. Second, I don't suggest exhorting but analyzing more fully. So let's leave the straw men behind and return to the analysis.

Progressive literature, progressive criticism does exist. I pointed some of it out. Progressive literature exists today - both critical and imaginative - as it has in the past.

I think your critique is more accurate than WBM's critique, as I noted, however I also pointed out that in my view his critique is at least rhetorically stronger in attempting to fundamentally claim more than you fundamentally attempt to refute, concur with, or much address. In other words, in my view, your analysis would be much strengthened by taking it farther. Otherwise, you limit the power of your analysis, especially as in comparison with the scope of what WBM addresses.

I mean this as explicit encouragement. Such analysis is not beyond anyone's capacity or propriety, and may well be essential to it.

Andrew Seal said...

Tony, I'm sorry--I wasn't trying to create a straw man--you did seem testy, although I must have misread you. Accusing me of writing people out of history isn't a very moderate critique; I suppose I took it as more pointed than it was intended.

But as for exhortation--maybe I'm just not understanding what you're encouraging me towards. It seems to me that you are saying that, while Michaels's critique has some blind spots, it raises the crucial question of class, whereas I am able to point out the blind spots but am otherwise defending the (class-blind) status quo of the novel, or in your words I'm merely "defend[ing] or technically apprais[ing] the status quo."

To me, those are two different and in some cases disharmonious projects, first of all, but also I don't see where I'm defending the status quo here at all. You seem to see it (and please set me aright if I'm misunderstanding you again) in the omission of a call (like Michaels's) for greater class-consciousness in art. Because I don't explicitly take up Michaels's focus on class, I have stopped short and need to "take it farther."

But as far as I understand it, the way you would have me "take it farther" would be to advocate as Michaels does that the status quo be upended in favor of class-conscious art. This is exhortation, as far as I can tell. Otherwise, what? A clearer focus on the way class comes into play in the novels I talk about? I'm hoping to do that and will readily acknowledge that I find it difficult to explore this dimension as thoroughly as other facets, but I don't see how reading literature for the class-consciousness that is already there isn't just more of the "technical appraisal" you think is a defense of the status quo.

Tony Christini said...

"Accusing me of writing people out of history isn't a very moderate critique…"

"I am much more interested in figuring out what literature is doing than in figuring out what it should do…"

You see, it is my contention that there is vital progressive literature, including liberatory class conscious literature, that you (and certainly WBM) elide, or at least give no hint of its existence. (And not you alone, far from it, but dominant discourse in general.) You suggest that some of the establishment novels WBM dismisses are in fact strongly class conscious. Your discussion here of Morrison is a specific example of a defense of the class conscious nature of status quo lit. You break no orthodoxy on class consciousness. Your analysis doesn't go that far, doesn't claim to. At least WBM claims that class consciousness in novels is deficient. It is vital that critics (and novelists) see that. There are gaping chasms in class conscious lit and literature of power writ large. Moreover, there do exist striking examples of such liberatory work, and they tend to be marginalized.

But even if there were no examples of such work, surely critics are as free to criticize and critique a perceived lack, in addition to whatever exists. Even if you don't intend to be a novelist, you are still a human being, and a member of larger collectives of human beings, who has to live with the consequences of literature in this world.

Shelley Ettinger at Read Red can answer the question that WBM cannot, goes far beyond demonstrating what he cannot, the existence of vital class and power politics literature that may border on the revolutionary. Ettinger asks, how can the establishment (the "capitalist class") "enforce the almost complete banning of truly revolutionary literature?" She comments that there are especially international writers -

"whose work is truly radical, Marxist writers even, but whom the U.S. critical establishment manages to at once praise and marginalize as if their work is of only local interest in their own part of the world and of no real relevance or threat here. I'm thinking of, among others, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, whose marvelous novel Wizard of the Crow I recently read. This book is brilliant on many levels. And it is nothing if not political. My guess is that in this country it is read simplemindedly as a parody of "African corruption," rather than in its true, complete aspect as a head-on, full-throttled, multifaceted expose of British colonialism and U.S. imperialism and what they have wrought in the lands they've ravaged. Or at least that this is how they hope to co-opt it."

As I've written elsewhere: commenting at Amazon.com, Patricia Kramer writes, “The satire is biting, the laughs come often but then the reality of our country’s present policies sets in. We would be lucky to have a Wizard of the Crow right now in America.” Such a pointed global epic from the US rather than “from Africa” or Asia, et al, would preferably be one that advances well beyond even the mighty Wizard. Such a novel and any clear-eyed criticism will have to wait, and if and when that day arrives, will have to be fought for [to be published prominently and/or disseminated widely]. That’s the reality.

You write, "the way you would have me "take it farther" would be to advocate as Michaels does that the status quo be upended in favor of class-conscious art. This is exhortation, as far as I can tell."

Normative analysis is always and everywhere exhortation? That would be false. One could compare (analyze) norms as expressed in a novel to the norms of a society, or to, say, the norms that are expressed in the Declaration of Human Rights, or to any idealized set of norms. That would be a normative analysis. One could also compare the norms of some contemporary establishment novel to the norms expressed in, say, Wizard of the Crow – among other novels and films – that are marginalized in ways that Ettinger points out and in ways that liberatory critics have noted throughout the years. Such marginalization badly undermines, truncates, distorts analysis of the pertinent topics in the dominant media.

Blogs face no such constraints and of course should not self impose them. I'm not suggesting you are doing so purposefully, nor uniquely, nor that you think you are. You may not be aware of actual progressive "alternative" instantiations, or of the bulk of critical thinking that has gone on for decades and longer in this regard. How could you be? This sort of thing has been forced greatly out of history. And you might not view such work as so very liberatory or vital to literature after all. (I had an interesting private exchange about this recently with a prominent critic. I wish he would consent to make the exchange public, an edited version. It might help clarify a lot. On the other hand, my blog is loaded with such research, analysis, and examples.) I've written at length about the past and ongoing marginalization of such work. WBM certainly sees a lack in the way novels treat class and power. That's a good insight, in the abstract, though I agree that his critique flounders so badly as to go virtually nowhere.

"Otherwise, what? A clearer focus on the way class comes into play in the novels I talk about? I'm hoping to do that and will readily acknowledge that I find it difficult to explore this dimension as thoroughly as other facets, but I don't see how reading literature for the class-consciousness that is already there isn't just more of the "technical appraisal" you think is a defense of the status quo."

Apparently part of what WBM claims to seek is a more vital or perhaps more comprehensive or a furthering of a profound class conscious literature, a worthy goal; it's one worthy function and end of criticism. Again, there is a long tradition (or a tendency) of such criticism, liberatory criticism far surpassing the rather retrograde articles I've read by WBM. It's not a dominant tradition. Revolutionary liberatory criticism especially is marginalized. Such criticism is just as analytical as anything produced by the establishment. Often it is more analytical being less bound up in the "necessary illusions" (or obfuscating games) of the literature establishment. There are much stronger examples of progressive literature than the works celebrated and rendered prominent by the establishment. As one would expect, no?

ZNet is currently running an article of mine that takes another look at debilitating ideology within the literature establishment, a status quo that constrains, effectively censors out, much progressive criticism, creation, and production: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/20580

This may all be way more than you're interested in here, so of course feel free to leave it as is. Or if interested further pursuit might best be expressed in a new post somewhere in the future. In other words, as far as the matter of clarity goes here, I don't know how much more clear I can be about my earlier comments.

zunguzungu said...

Tony,
I think I'm more sympathetic to your point than I realized before (should have read more carefully), but I'm also very skeptical of letting "class consciousness" go unexamined as a term, or of letting you claim a complete "orthodoxy" that I see nowhere in evidence. In the first place, there's a reason why so many minority writers have failed to find a congenial home within movements that see things strictly in terms of economic class: the oppression faced by people of color both in the united states and abroad is not reducible to economics, or (at least) is not the same kind of economic dispossession as that faced by majority culture citizens. Attempts (like Michaels') to deny this difference feels uncomfortably like all the times leftist organizations have focused on destroying capitalism while tacitly accepting racial oppression ("that'll come later"); I'm not saying this is what you're doing, but this is why I'm uncomfortable with the claim that there's a single "class consciousness" that needs to be the focus. There isn't; there are many classes, differently integrated and differently articulated. Morrison's project is simply different than Ngugi's, and both of them are "class conscious," just with different classes in mind. But claiming that only economic class is real (as you seem to be doing) will never be very convincing to people who understand their identity through different metaphors and consciousnesses (nor will telling them they are wrong to do so). Which brings me to my second point: Ngugi *is* the orthodoxy, a professor at UC Irvine and a widely published and read author. He is in no way "almost completely banned," and while I take the point that most readings of his last book might emphasize it as "African corruption" narrative, getting a few misleading reviews is not the same as being "banned." IMHO, actually, I think the thing that makes him most attractive to US audiences is precisely the Fanon-esque view of the world which you seem to be championing (correct me if I'm wrong) which puts all of AFrica's problems at the doorstep of the West. Now, no one has hands which are less clean than the US and BRitain, and I'm absolutely not trying to defend them. But at this point in time, the forces which were set in motion years ago by colonialism can stand on their own two feet: corruption and political violence in Kenya, for example, is not in the US's best interest, nor does the US have any real power or influence or interest in what happens there. THe political dynamics which were set up by colonialism are no longer colonial; while it might flatter the US self image to pretend that the dark invisible hand of neo-colonialism is at the root of everything, this is largely a fantasy. The villains in KEnya's recent clusterfuck, for example, are not Americans or British; they are Kenyan political elites who manipulate global capital to their own ends quite successfully. Blaming neocolonialism doesn't touch such people; to a large extent, it is precisely by blaming colonialism that people like Mugabe manage to stay in power.

bianca_steele said...

AS,
The way you use "neoliberal" and "liberal" interchangeably seems off to me. I have some longer comments on what I think it means, at my blog http://biancasteele.typepad.com/.

Tony Christini said...

--> Look, I don't make the claims that you imply or state that I do. It's hard to address or present a large "point" in a comment box, so no surprise that what I try to explain may be not all that clear, especially to those who have not read my criticism at length, or other such criticism, which is where a basic criticism of my views would best be leveled, at my detailed and elaborated work. But I can reply briefly here, at the arrows (-->).

"I think I'm more sympathetic to your point than I realized before (should have read more carefully), but I'm also very skeptical of letting "class consciousness" go unexamined as a term, or of letting you claim a complete "orthodoxy" that I see nowhere in evidence."

--> "Class consciousness" is a term I rarely use in my criticism, and I wouldn't let it "go unexamined as a term," I employ it here as a shorthand for a certain type of lack in fiction because it works well enough to describe or stand in for certain types of establishment biases and ideologies, for power politics - and because the term picks up from Andrew's post about WBM. For example, one related and overlapping orthodoxy I've focused on in detail is the case of overt investigative antiwar novels. Where are they? Gone missing, overtly discouraged, and de facto censored by the establishment. That's an argument I've elaborated and provided detailed evidence for elsewhere, in which one can clearly see an establishment orthodoxy, partly inclusive of class. It's not affluent populations the US is smashing across the world for the most part, not least in western Asia. And the US record in impoverished Africa and elsewhere in recent decades is murderous and extensive, documented in detail in the independent media.

"In the first place, there's a reason why so many minority writers have failed to find a congenial home within movements that see things strictly in terms of economic class:"

--> I don't see things strictly "in terms of economic class." Remember, I don't agree with WBM. That said, it makes sense to point out various specific aspects of repression and oppression, in literature and life, to better address them. Thus economic class based analyses are quite worthwhile. Possibly complicating matters along these lines is that in the US in particular class and race are greatly tied together.

--> Thus, I agree with this next section where you state:

"the oppression faced by people of color both in the united states and abroad is not reducible to economics, or (at least) is not the same kind of economic dispossession as that faced by majority culture citizens. Attempts (like Michaels') to deny this difference feels uncomfortably like all the times leftist organizations have focused on destroying capitalism while tacitly accepting racial oppression ("that'll come later"); I'm not saying this is what you're doing, but this is why I'm uncomfortable with the claim that there's a single "class consciousness" that needs to be the focus. There isn't; there are many classes, differently integrated and differently articulated.

--> I only partly agree with the following comment, which is probably the most potentially confusing part of this discussion:

"Morrison's project is simply different than Ngugi's, and both of them are "class conscious," just with different classes in mind."

--> Ngugi's exiled relationship to Kenya is totally different from Morrison's establishment embedded relationship to the US. The relationship of their novels to the powers of their respective countries is very different. Ngugi's work is far more threatening to the establishment there, and he and his work have been persecuted severely. Ngugi analogues in the US are not typically exiled from the country; things work differently here. They are blocked out in other ways, sort of internally exiled, and possibly more thoroughly discouraged from coming into existence in the first place, through some subtle and not so subtle socio-cultural mechanisms, very powerful.

--> That said, as I've noted repeatedly elsewhere, the multicultural expansion in lit realms in recent decades is a liberatory phenomenon that the establishment has more or less been forced to accept and continues to try to co-opt. And for the ongoing struggles in this regard see some of the criticism by Ishmael Reed and probably many others you can think of. The work of Morrison is part of that important, vital liberatory expansion, on a wide variety of topics including race and class. My claim is that works of and about the US roughly analogous to Ngugi's works of and about Kenya and Africa do exist (and should and could exist far moreso) but are discouraged and propagandized against via an orthodoxy that effectively blocks out such vital works, or greatly marginalizes them and their most threatening liberatory aspects, or kills in the crib. There is a qualitative difference between the work of Morrison and the work of Ngugi in relation to their home countries. Ngugi, as is well known, or should be, purposefully writes in his native language for his native land, then translates his work into English - so it's not as if the US is his primary audience.

"But claiming that only economic class is real (as you seem to be doing)"

--> This notion above, as best I can understand it, I don't say and wouldn't say. It's absurd.

"will never be very convincing to people who understand their identity through different metaphors and consciousnesses (nor will telling them they are wrong to do so)."

--> No kidding. Not to mention it is utterly preposterous. This is an outlandish strawman. I don't think you mean it to be that, but what else is it? Where does it come from?

--> More understandably, you largely misconstrue the example of Ngugi and Wizard of the Crow. Ngugi has been in exile from Kenya for nearly 2 decades. In the US, liberatory writers are not run out of the country. They are typically de facto censored. Moreover, I state that "Such a pointed global epic from the US rather than “from Africa” or Asia, et al, would preferably be one that advances well beyond even the mighty Wizard." And that "Such a novel and any clear-eyed criticism will have to wait, and if and when that day arrives, will have to be fought for [to be published prominently and/or disseminated widely]." Obviously, Ngugi exiled is the opposite of the establishment in Kenya. The orthodox methods of silencing much dissent in the US, particularly in US literature, are far more sophisticated, and, as I argue with evidence in detail elsewhere, no less effective. The ideological and other blocks are arrayed against economic class narrowly defined and widely defined, as well as against race and gender narrowly and widely defined, and so on. There is sort of a liberal illusion of an open or non-ideological playing field. Establishment publishing is biased and prejudiced, in a variety of ways, including some profound and central ways which are extremely debilitated and debilitating. Establishment publishing is class based. It would make sense for it and the rest of the media to appear to be equal access, non-ideological forums. The reality is far different. Morrison and her work is liberatory in vital ways, and both have long been simultaneously heavily embraced or highly esteemed by the establishment, for good reason largely it seems to me. However, another reason is that her work is not especially fundamentally challenging to the establishment, certainly not in comparison to Ngugi and his work in relation to Kenya.

--> I do agree that Wizard of the Crow is a strong critique of African power politics, as Ngugi intends, and less a "a head-on, full-throttled, multifaceted expose of British colonialism and U.S. imperialism," on the one hand. However, given the crucial and central involvement of the IMF/World Bank in guise of the "Global Bank" in the novel, financial institutions of power dominated by the US and the West, there is a strong critique of US imperialism, and Ettinger appropriately emphasizes crucial US-related aspects of the novel, levels and degrees of complicity, that are greatly underplayed in reviews of it, that would make humanistic and literary sense to emphasize by US reviewers for US audiences. Instead, in reviews the extensive grim US/Western involvement in contemporary Africa, as well as the greatly analogous debased nature of African politics to US politics, goes ignored. I've written about this in some detail previously, excerpted below, and found in full at the link following:

--> "Just so, we may review, we may praise an other masterpiece, either not from here or about not here, and we may write glowing analyses, including a genuinely illuminating one – though with a key flaw – as did Scott Esposito on Ngugi wa Thiong'o's accurately self-described “global epic from Africa,” Wizard of the Crow. The ideological flaw in his essay (if not a simpler mistake), where establishment perspective, wittingly or not, gets the better of an otherwise astute work, is where Esposito, exactingly, in much more detail than I quote below, assesses Ngugi’s vibrant fictive depiction of a particular sort of politics as “African” and, by misleading inference, not American – not quite, not remotely…. Far more to point [for a Western audience]: this is how centralized governments in the age of propaganda function globally, more or less, not least in the US (where Ngugi has lived and worked for 16 years, since 1992, the beginning of President Bill Clinton’s terms). The Clinton-Bush regimes in Washington DC were forced to “continually invent tales that, with breathtaking speed, become the new realities that the country must live by” whether to invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely, or to demonize welfare, or to endlessly bailout high finance, or to flood prisons with non-violent drug-law offenders, or to continually prop-up pharmaceutical and insurance companies while demonizing Medicare for all, and on and on. President Bush II shoved the military into Iraq and Afghanistan with his “iron hand” and by way of “dealing businessmen” in the media and elsewhere (often not so “ignorant”). The Bush regime could and so it did, even though the majority public opposed it, even in the US except for a few months in the beginning of the invasion when the massive fraudulent propaganda deluge worked its effect, mentally cleansing the US majority ever so briefly. And now the Barack Obama incipient regime, only slightly less status quo aggressive and fanatic, has more subtly maneuvered, but in just as wholesale a fashion, America’s “desperation” in grasping at fake change “to a vision of national strength, fervently attended to by popular demonstrations all over the country” and beyond (hundreds of thousands gathered to cheer him on while in Europe prior to the US election). “Significantly, the [presumptive] Ruler has not said a word to create this new reality,” not a word that is meaningful in any basic concrete way. “He has spurred his [PR] ministers to invent an entirely new reality, and to find methods by which to force it into existence” at least in appearance. While not from the US but Africa as Ngugi points out, Wizard of the Crow is far more a global novel than Esposito indicates, and far more a US novel than he hints...

http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2008/10/13/fg-four/

"…the Fanon-esque view of the world which you seem to be championing (correct me if I'm wrong) which puts all of Africa's problems at the doorstep of the West."

--> Again, this is an outlandish strawman.

"Now, no one has hands which are less clean than the US and BRitain, and I'm absolutely not trying to defend them. But at this point in time, the forces which were set in motion years ago by colonialism can stand on their own two feet: corruption and political violence in Kenya, for example, is not in the US's best interest, nor does the US have any real power or influence or interest in what happens there. THe political dynamics which were set up by colonialism are no longer colonial; while it might flatter the US self image to pretend that the dark invisible hand of neo-colonialism is at the root of everything, this is largely a fantasy. The villains in KEnya's recent clusterfuck, for example, are not Americans or British; they are Kenyan political elites who manipulate global capital to their own ends quite successfully. Blaming neocolonialism doesn't touch such people; to a large extent, it is precisely by blaming colonialism that people like Mugabe manage to stay in power."

--> Ngugi in Wizard of the Crow and elsewhere goes into great detail about the responsibilities of African, Kenyans, and others - including accurately the US - for contemporary troubles in Kenya and Africa. Part of the novel is set in New York for a central reason. Thus, Ettinger's brief comments are far more accurate than yours. While some of what you say in this last bit makes sense, in relation to my comments and arguments, as well as Ettinger's, it amounts to batting at strawmen. It seems we disagree on too much to fruitfully engage here.

zunguzungu said...

>> It seems we disagree on too much to fruitfully engage here.

Perhaps, though if I've assaulted as many straw men as you say, I'm pretty mystified as to what we disagree about.

I would say, though, that your description of "the establishment" in Kenya looks very little like the situation as I understand it. Ngugi went into exile decades ago, under Moi, for very particular reasons, but those are not the same reasons why he's not safe in Kenya now. I'm still not sure exactly what you take the substance of Ngugi's anti-establishment challenge to be, but I would suggest that his relationship to the current government is infinitely much more complicated than your narrative allows, in ways which make him a poor analogy for the sorts of things Andrew was originally talking about.

For example, you write that "Ngugi, as is well known, or should be, purposefully writes in his native language for his native land, then translates his work into English - so it's not as if the US is his primary audience." This is true as far as it goes, but especially these days, writing in Gikuyu is definitely not the same thing as writing for Kenyans; one can hardly blame Ngugi for the ethnic violence that is still tearing Kenya apart (and his responses to the crisis have all been on point as far as I'm concerned), but English is the closest thing to a pan-tribal language Kenya has. The gesture of turning away from colonialist language means something very different than it did a few decades ago, I think; this is not to fault Ngugi in any way, but Western critics have so often lauded (with a kind of Fanonian glee) the idea of a postcolonial writer turning away from English and writing in his native language (without having any real sense of what writing in Gikuyu actually means in the Kenyan context) that I tend to treat it with a certain amount of skepticism. I'm not going to make an argument for what it *does* mean, but I know enough to be skeptical of those kinds of narratives; for example, the closest thing Kenya has to a unified "establishment" is the Mt Kenya Mafia, and those guys are all Gikuyu businessmen who stay in the positions they're in on the basis of tribal politics at least as much as any neo-colonial relationships with the IMF; in such a context, it simply doesn't make any sense to me to hold up Ngugi's decision to write in Gikuyu as an anti-establishment gesture. Other parts of his critique, perhaps, but that's a different story (and one on which, I bet, we're not in substantive disagreement)

Tony Christini said...

You leave the impression here that your objections to my argument are slight to trivial, because you object to an example, that I could have simply selected a better analogy or example than Ngugi and his works. We disagree greatly on the quality of the example/analogy.

And yet you leave no impression that there exists anything but "a poor analogy for the sorts of things Andrew was originally talking about" or that the discussion has been substantively advanced in any specific way.

You "see nowhere in evidence...[a] complete 'orthodoxy'" that you say I claim. I claim an orthodoxy, not a "complete" one. In fact, I point out some prominent liberatory exceptions and elements of the establishment (some multicultural aspects, in particular).

So any way it's looked at, the discussion here appears tapped out.