Monday, February 22, 2010

What Is the What, by Dave Eggers

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

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

The most interesting thing about the survival story is its relationship to ideology. To be very general, the attitude of the survival story is that, because it is focused almost entirely on the mundane necessities of subsistence, because it has no time for ideology, it exists in a sort of sub-ideological space, or creates for itself a space below ideology, below the arguments for or against the events that have reduced its characters to this struggle for bare existence. Its narrative expression, therefore, is supposed also to be sub-ideological (which is sometimes mistaken for being post-ideological), to be invested only in the telling of itself, existing merely to continue existing, the direct corollary of the survival experience itself. The final paragraph of What Is the What expresses this directly:
Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.
There is, to be sure, ideology working through this—the reference to God, the categorical invocation of the "human" both leave marks of a very nineteenth-century liberalism. But the stunning thing about this novel is that it actually achieves something that I feel we must recognize as a successful resolution of this project of creating a sub-ideological narrative space. While it will never not be ideological, the novel has found a strategy of non-resistance to ideology, a means of allowing any ideology—the various programs of the SPLA, global capitalism, global humanitarian efforts and NGOs, animism, tribalism, racism, militant Islam, Christianity, individualism—to wash over the subject, Valentino Achak Deng, such that he effectively sinks beneath them. These conflicting values and ideologies overdetermine his life to such an extent that he is pushed underneath their rushing and collisions, leaving him open to telling his narrative independently of them: "however I find a way to live"—seven words, already a narrative, bumping along innocently beneath the tumult of ideologies clashing, accepting the existence (and even the validity) of all possible ideological indictments of the situation, yet not yielding outright to nihilism. This last part is very important: this sub-ideological space is also a margin between a non-resistance to ideology and an ultimate refusal of nihilism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tony Christini said...

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

This has been increasingly true for a very long time. Take your example of war novels. What the establishment means by war novels is warrior novels, especially of the rank and file warrior, rather than some more (vastly) more comprehensive political or experiential exploration and purview. And this certainly serves the status quo, and no wonder is celebrated by it. And this is a tremendous problem, for as Kenneth Burke pointed out in the Philosophy of Literary Form:
"Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. And if it leads us to a state of acquiescence at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question, we get a paradox whereby the soundest adjunct to ethics, the aesthetic, threatens to uphold an unethical condition. For this reason it seems that under conditions of competitive capitalism there must necessarily be a large corrective or propaganda element in art. Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, ‘purest’ art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propaganda. Hence we feel that the moral breach arising from vitiation of the work-patterns calls for a propaganda art. And incidentally, our distinction as so stated should make it apparent that much of the so-called ‘pure’ art of the nineteenth century was of a pronouncedly propagandist or corrective coloring. In proportion as the conditions of economic warfare grew in intensity throughout the ‘century of progress,’ and the church proper gradually adapted its doctrines to serve merely the protection of private gain and the upholding of manipulated law, the ‘priestly’ function was carried on by the ‘secular’ poets, often avowedly agnostic.
"Our thesis is by no means intended to imply that ‘pure’ art or ‘acquiescent’ art should be abandoned. ..."

The survival story as you define it is very narrow, and very problematic or troublesome in its narrowness, as Burke explains.

"The narrative pattern proper to the ideal of fraternity therefore will always be a survival story, a narrative reduced to an account of its own possibility," ...

That is not necessarily so.

You are good at identifying what the establishment is doing and celebrating, but it should be pointed out that it doesn't have to be this way, only, and that what is dominant in the establishment does not remotely define what exists elsewhere, let alone what is possible. For example, one of the great novels of all time (terribly neglected and highly pertinent to our time) is Claude McKay's Banjo which is thoroughly a story of fraternity, of solidarity, a survival story, from start to finish. A great story of immigration and race, survival and society, fraternity or solidarity, extraordinary ideology and socio-political essay. It is a highly expansive survival story compared to that which you critique and define here, because it has plenty of room for all the sorts of detailed critiques and ideological discussion that you claim are defined away by survival stories. Not so. Banjo is one great proof. It exists, let alone is conceptually possible. I taught it in class last night.

Andrew Seal said...

For anyone interested, I answered Tony and we've been carrying on this discussion over at The Valve.

Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts re: the incredible arrogance of a white guy from Lake Forest, Illinois calling this Sudanese man's story as rendered in the white guy's prose an "autobiography"?

Andrew Seal said...

Given my general feelings about Eggers, I have a hard time saying this, but honestly, I don't have much of a problem with it. There's no reason to believe that Deng would have been able to produce a narrative of his experiences beyond, perhaps, relating it in fragments to friends or at a speaking engagement--he just would not have had the time, resources, or connections to compose and sell a manuscript. If you've read What Is the What, you know that it was a struggle for him to be able to put the money and time together just to accumulate enough credits to apply to a 4-year college.

Of course, that doesn't really get to the question of the nature of Eggers's involvement. There were obviously a number of different roles he could have taken instead of the unusual one he did--should he have been merely a consultant or adviser? That still doesn't answer the question of how Deng would put the time and money together to write, unless you think Eggers should essentially have given Deng a grant. But really, if that were the case, I don't think the paternalistic overtones have really gone away; it's Deng's voice, but Eggers is now the svengali, or would be perceived to be the svengali.

Maybe it should have been an oral history or an as-told-to biography. I don't think those read that well (generally--Terkel is another story), but that's sort of beside the point. Part of the problematic nature of Deng's story is that much of it is actually unrecoverable--he was very young when much of this happened. Claiming that the narrative they produced was "biography" rather than fiction would either have committed them to telling a much less complete story or would have forced them into passing off some fabrications as fact, which would not have helped Deng's cause very much.

I genuinely think this was the best solution to the challenges of getting Deng's story out into the world. And I'm glad you brought this up, because it is a sort of elephant in the room, but I didn't really feel the need to address it in my post--it's really one of the least interesting issues about the book, in my opinion.