Monday, July 28, 2008
"What is new about President Bush's order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POW's as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of persons charged with a crime according to American laws. Neither prisoners nor persons accused, but simply 'detainees', they are the object of a pure de facto rule, of a detention that is indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely removed from the law and from judicial oversight. . . . As Judith Butler has effectively shown, in the detainee at Guantanamo, bare life reaches its maximum indeterminancy." Agamben examines the history of the "state of exception" in 20th-century politics, tracing how it has spread beginning in WWI to the point where legal norms are now regularly contradicted by leaders who nevertheless claim to be applying the law (he notes that invocations of the exception are in the thousands for many countries). In the 20th-century, democracy has in fact practiced the "voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency." Agamben also provides a genealogy of the exception, tracing it back through medieval and Roman juridical thought with a breadth and familiarity that he is perhaps singular in being able to provide (which also makes this aspect of his work difficult to evaluate). Agamben has to directly confront Carl Schmitt's work on this subject, but he interestingly does so by turning to the obscure debate between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. Agamben boldly claims that Schmitt's Political Theology was a response to Benjamin's essay "Critique of Violence," and also shows how Benjamin responds to Schmitt at numerous points, perhaps most insightfully in his 8th thesis on the concept of history. Agamben claims Schmitt always attempted to "reinscribe violence within a juridical context," that is to say, the violence of the exception may transcend the legal norms, but ultimately its aim was to make those norms applicable, to restore the legal order by temporarily surpassing it. Benjamin's theory of a "pure violence" detaches violence from being the means to any such ends. This severing of the nexus between violence and law would allow the use of the law freed from the state of exception and a violence towards life. What is at stake in this disagreement is foreclosing any ability to justify violence (of the state/sovereign) as necessary for the preservation of the law, even if that violence is a temporary contradiction of the law. Violence would no longer appear as violence-towards-a-good-end, but simply as violence. The law, too, would be freed for a kind of "play" that would allow justice.
"The multitude is a diffuse set of singularities that produce a common life; it is a kind of social flesh that organizes itself into a new social body. This is what defines biopolitics." Hardt & Negri's follow-up to Empire is consistently frustrating and unrewarding, a promise of new ideas that never get delivered in the text. This is primarily the result of their style and scope: as they impressively pull an enormous range of history and philosophy into a single, popularized theory, the productive differences and idiosyncrasies of that history and philosophy get digested into a too-monotonous voice. In the end, their theory wanders away from its Deleuzian origins towards the kind of journalistic narrative topicality of Naomi Klein's two recent and related books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. This is not the worst place to be, but not what the reader probably demands from Hardt & Negri. Despite their claims to be exploring an ontology, the book's unwillingness to generate a real ontological account of the multitude (which might require passing through the Deleuze-Badiou disagreement as well as the ideas of Simondon and Luhmann) leaves the multitude described as merely a self-organizing distributed network, just like the internet. There is definitely some generic truth in this description, but self-organization and networks remain two of the most over-used conceptual "black-boxes" that are dead-ends for critical thought since it is nearly impossible to surpass the most general descriptions of them. At least someone like Luhmann self-reflexively approaches this characteristic of self-organization by theorizing how such systems operate precisely through an "ecology of ignorance." Much of the book also repeats, in an abstracted and historically-dramatized manner, work on post-Fordism and neoliberal economics. In particular, "immaterial labour" reiterates ideas about flexible specialization and corporate teams (see Alan Liu's The Laws of Cool). Immaterial labour produces the "new nature" or "the human" itself or the social patterns of humanity. But why remain so firmly within Marx's prioritization of human labour here, which, along with the concept of the multitude, seems to remain too narrowly within the realm of the human species? Bernard Stiegler's work on the de-fault of humanity tells a similar historical narrative but grants technical systems far greater autonomy and therefore complicates Hardt & Negri's call for an immanent, non-sovereign democracy of the multitude.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
"Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." That is to say, the sovereign both decides that the exception exists and decides what to do in the case of an exception. In most "normal" situations, norms and legal orders can regulate events without requiring a decision. But the exception cannot be codified in the existing norms and legal orders, and therefore prompts a decision that restores an "order." Schimitt asserts the origin of the decision (which might be restated as the decision to decide) "emanates from nothingness," which seems to skirt around the problem of causation/agency. The friend/enemy division, the central focus of Schmitt's "The Concept of the Political," doesn't show up here. Paolo Virno has recently compared Schmitt on the sovereign decision on the exception and Wittgenstein on the decision how to apply a rule (see the previous blog), claiming the most significant difference is merely that Schmitt holds a more elitist concept of the decision, whereas Wittgenstein portrays it as available to all linguistic animals. The title refers to Schimitt's claim that "All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts." Although his definition of sovereignty seems formal and ahistorical, Schmitt does show how theories of sovereignty tend to suit their historical-political context. After the revolutionary movements replaced the sovereignty of the monarch with an immanent people or neutralized legal order, the counter-revolutionary attempt to re-install a sovereign was easily portrayed as Satanic. Recent liberal democracy (as well as most other modern governments) has assaulted anything that positions itself as transcendent vis-a-vis the people or the legal order, and has hence devalued the sovereign and the decision. Drawing on Max Weber, Schmitt claims, "Today nothing is more modern than the onslaught against the political. American financiers, industrial technicians, Marxist socialists, and anarchic-syndicalist revolutionaries unite in demanding that the biased rule of politics over unbiased economic management be done away with. There must no longer be political problems, only organizational-technical and economic sociological tasks." This is, perhaps, a case of bad faith on the part of liberal democracies: "According to Donoso Cortes, it was characteristic of bourgeois liberalism not to deicde in this battle but instead to begin a discussion. He straightfowardly defined the bourgeoisie as a 'discussing class' . . . . This definition contains the class characteristic of wanting to evade the decision."
Thursday, July 24, 2008
"The inconspicuous laboratory of the transformation of a form of life lies within the dissimilar, and at times, contradictory ways, in which it is possible to apply a rule to a particular case. The 'creativity' of the human animal is nothing other than a response to the dilemmas provoked by this application. Jokes exhibit the logicolinguistic resources that nurture innovation in general, precisely because they are found in a no-man's land that separates any norm from its own realization within a contingent situation."
The first essay, "So-called 'Evil' and Criticism of the State," searches for a radicalism that can address the potential "evil" of humanity without producing the need for a State to control that evil. Radicals who attack the State often assume that humanity is necessarily "good," and that only the State prevents that goodness from being manifest (think of the counterculture and much recent critical thought that hides a libertarian hostility towards the State). Virno directly opposes this stance because he feels the potential, undefined, creative nature of humanity can be either good or evil, and the latter presents problems for such positive-thinking. But Virno also realizes that belief in the potential evil of humanity is the primary justification for the State and its repressive measures (political "realists" thrive on descriptions of human evil), so he searches for a third way, a radicalism that grows out of the acknolwedgement of the ambivalent nature of human potental. Virno borrows from Marx's "Grundrisse" the concept of a "general intellect" (which I had always found to be an unusable metaphysical archaism in Marx), which is a kind of potentiality grounded in the human faculty for thinking with words (see the comments on Wittgenstein's language games below). Virno claims humanity has always had general intellect, but it is only in post-Fordist capitalism that it has become the principle productive force. He calls general intellect "historiconatural" since it is a natural trait that only becomes universally used in a specific historical context. Virno gestures to the multitude as the fundamental form of political existence that emerges from this humanity united in general intellect.
Anyone who has spent some substantial time with Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations" and Aristotle's "Rhetoric" may be underwhelmed by the second essay, "Jokes and Innovative Action." In particular, it strongly echoes the work of Michel de Certeau (who also draws on Wittgenstein and Benveniste) on the tactics that emerge from the disjunction between any system and a particular act/enunication within that system. The essay begins with Freud's book on jokes, and then works through a close reading of Wittgenstein on the impossibility of presenting an ultimate rule to guide the application of another rule, since that guiding rule also would require its own rule of application, which would also require a rule of application, leading to an infinite regress. Only a decision "truncates" that infinite regress, putting a stop to it. While Virno draws from Schmitt's political theory of sovereign decisions, he adds that this "decision" need not be something like a choice made by a free, autonomous individual, but is simply any stopping of the regress. He claims this decision is grounded in habit or a "species regularity," a set of assumptions about "the common behavior of mankind" (and I believe this puts him on some rather dubious biological ground). Virno argues there is a persistent disconnect between the norm/rule (what he calls the "grammatical" clause) and the normal, everyday frame in which that norm/rule is applied (what he calls the "empirical" clause). In most cases we apply the rule without making explicit that the application of the rule relies on a tacit decision about how to apply it. But in a "state of exception," that truncating becomes evident, as we realize that the application of the rule ultimately has no final ground beyond the decision, and it appears as if the application of the rule transforms the rule as much as the rule transforms the situation it is applied to. Jokes play on this disconnect between the rule and its application, exploring the dissimilar and/or contradictory ways a rule can be applied. Virno is most original in isolating Wittgenstein's rare accounts of the changes and crises in language games, those breakdowns in the normal application of the rules of the game. He even brings in Joseph Schumpeter, claiming the entrepreneur needs to be detached from his capitalist context and understood as someone who is able to exploit the disconnect between rule and application to produce innovation. This makes sense since post-Fordism has been theorized through neo-Schumpeter economics: the universalization of the use of general intellect would then give everyone a chance at being entrepreneurs, at least of language.
The final essay, "Mirror Neurons, Linguistic Negation, Reciprocal Recognition," draws on neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese's work on "mirror neurons." Mirror neurons are neurons that imitate the behavior of other humans that are observed - when we see someone else do something, these neurons automatically fire as if we were doing that action ourselves. Mirror neurons provide a non-subjective, pre-psychological recognition of other humans and sociability. Given this biological base, language does not create mutual recognition between humans (Virno directly objects to those who want to grant language the magical power of allowing us to become conscious of each other's humanity). Instead, language is capable of negating the primary recognition, of saying "this man" is "not a man" (Virno has the holocaust in mind). Fortunately, language also retains the power to negate the negation, and Virno claims that the public sphere is just such an attempt to claim that others are "non non-man."
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
"The reporter, watching in safety from the nineteenth floor, could understand now how Mussolini's son-in-law had once been able to find the bombs he dropped from his airplane beautiful as they burst, yes, children, and youth, and middle-aged men and women were being pounded and clubbed and gassed and beaten, hunted and driven, sent scattering in all direction by teams of policemen who had exploded out of their restraints like the bursting of a boil, and nonetheless he felt a sense of calm and beauty, void even of the desire to be down there, as if in years to come there would be beatings enough, some chosen, some from nowhere, but it was if the war had finally begun, and this was therefore a great and solemn moment." The first half of the book recounts the 1968 Republican convention in Miami, which nominated Richard Nixon as its presidential candidate. As Mailer admits, the Republican convention had few surprises, so he devotes his literary talents to ambiance (the opening pages are a virtuosic account of the jungle and swamp of Miami being converted into moneyed splendor, providing a deterministic setting for the convention) and physiognomy (he uses his firsthand encounters with the physical presence and appearance of the nominees to evaluate their political speeches and presidential worthiness). The second half of the book decribes the Democratic convention in Chicago, which filled the political void left by President Lyndon Johnson's refusal to run and the assassination of Robert Kennedy by nominating Hubert Humphrey. The convention found itself amidst protests, often turning into violent assaults by the police, because of the Yippies and radicals occupying Lincoln Park and threatening to march on the convention center. Whereas in Armies of the Night Mailer was the reluctant "participant," here he is merely the nameless "reporter," and a reporter who misses most of the events occurring outside of the convention and must rely on other news sources to fill in the gaps. Mailer has his chance to participate, but flees an early demonstration at Lincoln Park only to cross paths with William Burroughs, Terry Southern, Jean Genet, and Allen Ginsberg, writers "engaged" in the events unfolding. At the last moment, Mailer gives a speech and tries to convince Democrat delegates to participate in a march, but fails miserably. The Chicago half of the book provides a series of excellent descriptions/phenomenologies of crowd/mob behavior, both inside and outside of the convention center. Mailer is particularly good at describing the sheer irrationality of the convention process, with mobs screaming and chanting to occupy the center of attention or to manipulate the political debate. The protests going on in the streets of the city are primarily described from his omniscient view from his room in the Hilton on the edge of the park, yet he also nicely the catches the breakdown of all communication within the hotel and the effects of the tear gas spreading throughout the city drifting into the official political arenas. In the end, Mailer restrains himself from active intervention (the end of the novel has him running off with friends to the Playboy mansion) as he takes up the prophetic role of claiming an event had occurred that would take decades to discern completely or reverse. Perhaps the most interesting passages occur when he admits that his first priority may be writing, not politics, and that the status quo has been more conducive to his living as a writer than he imagines the radical politics developing outside would be. If he fails to fully engage, he at least uses his potential hypocrisy to theorize his own class position as an artist.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
"[A]cts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence of identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that is has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality." The book begins by distinguishing three terms/levels - sex, gender, desire - and arguing the three have been historically aligned into a coherent identity, yet each can be disentangled from any necessary relation with the others. Butler spends most of the book closely reading French feminism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, criticizing their tendencies towards ontologized bodies/sexes or reified accounts of (both heterosexual and homosexual) desire. She discusses Simone de Beauvoir ("one is not born a woman, but, rather becomes, one," in other words, gender is constructed), Luce Irigaray (woman is "the sex which is not one" since she is totally excluded from the masculine, Symbolic monologue/monologic), Julia Kristeva (the maternal body produces the semiotic, whose libidinal multiplicity subverts the order of the Symbolic), and Monique Wittig (man is disembodied, universal humanity, whereas woman is the particular, marked, sexed body). The book demonstrates how far one can go with a little Foucault, in this case Foucault's discussion of sexuality and sex in the first volume of The History of Sexuality. Foucault argued that sex is not some anterior, ontological cause of sexuality; rather, sexuality is discursively produced, and sex is retrospectively posited as the cause of that sexuality. Instead of beginning with a primary sexual ontology and deriving secondary gender and sexuality characteristics, Foucault inverts the logic, so that ontology is a secondary, imaginary effect. Butler relentlessly applies this logic, in which causes become effects, and begins to formulate her theory of performativity, which remains fairly undeveloped in this book. Performative gender is "the stylization of the body" through the repetition of acts over time that can produce the idea of an internal essence unifying those acts, but that also can be used to subvert any account of coherent identity. Butler appropriates of Foucault to bar any easy recourse to an outside or anterior to existing power as a foundation for resistance; instead of radicality, she promotes "subversion," a term that unfortunately her followers have applied thoughtlessly to every conceivable action, even those that would seem to be nothing more than powerless ressentiment. Butler is more careful, working, like Michel de Certeau had in his pieces on the practice of everyday life, through this middling, middle ground of participation in the ongoing, dramatic, contingent construction of meaning.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Terry Southern is better known as the screenwriter of the films Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, and Barbarella, and rightfully so, since he was more a comedian than a writer and his novels, including this one, tend to be episodic and do nothing with language (either in style or form). Like Norman Mailer, Southern was over-assured of his status as the exceptional white guy who is hip to race; he is too confident in his belief that racial minorities would really align themselves with himself against the square white middle class, and is too thoughtless in his use of racial slurs as ironic humor. The novel's narrative describes a pointless evening that billionaire Guy Grand spends inanely chatting with his wealthy aunts, cutting back frequently to the enormous pranks Grand has played on society throughout his life. These pranks aren't far removed from the "Happenings" Frank Kaprow began creating that same year, except the social participation is much less voluntary. Grand's pranks are all ostensibly about wealth: the desire to get it or the hatred of those who have it. But there is little coherence to them, as neither Grand nor Southern seem to have any consistent ideas about money. One set of pranks mirrors contemporary reality television and involves making random strangers do disgusting things (i.e., eating a parking ticket, swimming in animal guts) to get money that Grand doles out. When aimed at the middle- and upper-classes and the 1950s affluent society, this is interesting, if not really entertaining. But when Grand aims these pranks at working class people, such as the hot dog vendor in the book's opening episode, it comes across as satirical condenscension on both his and Southern's part. Another set of pranks involves Grand, whose primary business is a mutual funds firm, buying controlling stakes in other corporations, and then directing those corporations towards idiosyncratic or socially abrasive ends. Grand takes advantage of the passive form of corporate ownership - stocks widely owned - to steal control of businesses and then turn them away from those functionalist quests for profit that stockholders demand. He creates an image of an irrational, un-reasoning capitalism, with neither meaningful goals nor methods. The final set of pranks involves breaking into the secure, buffered consciousness of the very rich, injecting the surreal into their moneyed comfort. The title of the book comes from such a prank: Grand creates a cruise ship of offensive luxury named "The Magic Christian" and takes the rich on board, but then the ship slowly begins to fall apart, the captain appears to be abducted, and a circus freak show is let loose on board. To be honest, none of the pranks come across as particularly clever or biting, and the writing style does nothing to sharpen them. In addition to its brevity, the book creates little effect because it is difficult to separate Southern from the smug superficiality of Grand, though critically it is vital to do so. Grand is clearly amused by his own actions, and many of the pranks position the reader to be amused alongside Grand, giving them little motive to distinguish between Grand's self understanding and a more substantial critique of the grand capitalist's transcendence of social mores.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Meillassoux teaches at the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS) and is a former student of Alain Badiou. He is associated with the "speculative realism" group and the British journal Collapse. Meillassoux begins with the fact that modern science makes statements about an "ancestral" reality (that is, a reality anterior to the emergence of human beings and hence scientific observers) based on "arche-fossils" (materials that indicate that ancestral reality prior to the human). Yet philosophy since Kant has not been able admit such statements about a reality anterior to humans. Kant rightfully attacked the pre-critical, naive realism of dogmatic metaphysics, which claimed access to a necessary truth of being; but Kant also trapped philosophy in what Meillassoux terms "correlationism," which asserts "we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being." In correlationism (in which Meillassoux productively yet reductively lumps Kant, phenomenology, and even analytical philosophy), there is never access to an object "in itself," only in its relation to a subject, just as there is never access to the subject "in itself," but only in its relation to an object. As a result, correlationists have lost "the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers" and entered into a kind of "species solipsism." Because correlationism is unable to think of reality except as it relates to the subject, it is unable to think the ancestral, which would be a reality anterior to any subject to relate it to. The best correlationism can do is bar the idea of the ancestral, or understand it as the backwards projection of the present experience of a subject. Meillassoux realizes there is no direct return to a pre-critical, metaphysical philosophy, and he especially emphasizes that (and here the politics first creeps in) the "critique of ideologies . . . is essentially indissociable from the critique of metaphysics." Yet he also realizes that correlationism has allowed the defense, if not the generalization, of religiosity (of the worst kinds) by denying the transcendental subject access to the absolute or the in itself, and therefore is guilty of protecting and reserving that realm for any kind of religious claim by barring from philosophy from addressing it all. Rather than opposing Kant, Meillassoux attempts to work through correlationism towards what he calls a "speculative realism," a speculation that would be able access an absolute, but one voided of its content and metaphysical bagage. To do so, he asserts that the only necessity is absolute contingency: that there is no law or reason or founding principle behind reality that might make it necessary. There is only contingency: "Everything is possible, anything can happen - except a necessary entity." To defend the idea of absolute contingency, he turn to Hume. He claims that Hume's skepticism is not aimed at the laws of nature, but at humanity's ability to ground those laws in reason and necessity (that is to say, Hume doesn't seriously doubt that the laws of nature will persist). Meillassoux wants to take Hume's problem and go further: he directly attacks those laws of nature, claiming they are contingent. The commonsensical objection to Meillassou'x position is that if the laws of nature are contingent, then we would have observed them change. It is improbable that reality would not change before our eyes or that evolution could even produce human observers if the laws of nature were not necessary. Meillassoux responds by labelling this objection "frequentialist": it assumes that one can imagine a totalization of what is possible, and based on that total, show that the consistency of our reality would be improbable without laws of nature. Meillassoux, as a student of Badiou, points to Cantor's set theory and the idea of the "transfinite," which shows it is possible that there is no totalization, and therefore no total set of possibilities from which to base a probabalistic argument. Therefore, just because there are no laws of nature (or even laws of the laws of nature), we need not assume that reality will frequently change. Absolute contingency is therefore completely consistent with our everyday experiences of reality.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
"Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority - the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the oustanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present." The founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), drafted by Tom Hayden from the meetings held at Port Huron, Michigan in 1962, and widely circulated as a new political manifesto for the 1960s. A great deal of the document consists of arguments (that are common sense today) about the need for greater public political awareness and for the end of the Cold War and racism. The statement features at least three elements that make it a relevant document (beyond its immediate, historical effects) in understanding the history of the U.S. left. First, the statement identifies the university as a key locus for social struggle and students and faculty as key actors in that struggle. It claims, "the university could serve as a significant source of social criticism and an initiator of new modes and molders of attitudes," but students and faculty "must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy." In seeing the university as a microcosm or mirror of the rest of society, the document may overstate the power of the university or ignore its significant differences (in structure and in demographics) from the rest of the nation. But the statement also identifies how the university plays a vital role in the production of economic and cultural power; whether considered as an Althusserian Ideological State Apparatus or a training school for the new breed of technocrats, academia remains a key site in the reproduction of modern society. Yet the emphasis on the student and the university remains ambiguous: it is both the self-reflexive consideration of their own class and social positions and the tendency to universalize, or at least over-value, those positions. The second important aspect of the document, implicit in its student priorities, is the marginalization of labor and the organizing efforts of the Old Left. The document does make clear concessions to the unions, but they are still heavily criticized for being confined by their past successes and current timidity. Automation and the growth of white-collar work had also changed the grounds and terms of the labor struggle beyond what the Old Left could comprehend and resist. The third key feature, again reinforced by the previous ones, is the expansion of the political into all of life. In its call for "participatory democracy," the statement is not merely concerned with making people politically responsible, but also in politics contributing to the value of life. It claims, "politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life." At this point, politics blurs with culture, and the document foresees much of what has been called the "cultural turn" of the left.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
"Now that he had lost the vague rebelliousness which he had once attached to his notion of the life of the mind, he found that he enjoyed his mind far more and used it much better. . . . He knew that we would never be great, he was reconciled to being useful." John Laskell, recovering from a near fatal illness, travels to rural New England to visit some leftist friends, and ends up spending his time debating politics with them and other liberal and radical acquaintances. The book is openly a novel of political ideas, with different characters being assigned political positions ranging from liberalism to radicalism to libertarianism. The central tension in the novel is Gifford Maxim's break with the Communist Party. Though none of the other characters are card-carrying members of the Party, Maxim's break robs them of the inspiration of his ideological purity and leads each to examine his or her personal trajectory towards or away from political radicalism. For all of them, the Party had served as a reference point from which to measure or identify their own political stance, so Maxim's break throws them all into a sea of ideological confusion. Trilling admitted in a later introduction that Maxim had been based on Whittaker Chambers, who later became famous for accusing Alger Hiss of being a Communist, an unfortunate scandal that helped ignite McCarthyism and the 1950s Cold War Inquisition. Trilling's novel benefits from appearing on the cusp of that period, since it is able to register the emergence of the shift from radicalism to Cold War conservatism without being forced into an immediate allegiance to either. Trilling's characters are all aware of how their own actions and speech could be reduced, via something like a Marxist dialectical approach, to a reflection of their economic and historical origins. Maxim, as a former Marxist, in particular likes to sarcastically assert that his friends are merely acting out their historically and economically given roles. Trilling perhaps is not directly opposed to this way of comprehending individuality, but he refines it through his Jamesian sensitivity to the nuances of personality and culture. Each character's political statements illustrate not just their class context, but also a potentially endless number of biographical, cultural, and historical factors. The dialogues between them achieve far more than the conflict of ideas because each character spends half of his or her efforts merely trying to grasp those subtle factors that are intertwined with the political ideologies. Since the explosion of French theory into the American academia, U.S. intellectuals have oddly, though sometimes productively, understood the history of radicalism through its French manifestations, becoming experts on May '68 and French Maoism while having only the most vague comprehension of the Popular Front or the New Left. Trilling's novel, including as it does things such as a discussion about the necessity of a Leninist political avant-garde and the different temporalities of liberalism and radicalism, should be re-introduced to such contemporary readers. Trilling has been aligned with neoconservatism, or the left's shift right from radicalism towards reformism (often coded as a new political "realism"). The novel supports such a label, and Trilling's ability to fairly present the interaction of his politically opposite characters is perhaps enabled by a dubious assumption of holding the political middle ground. I wouldn't want to defend Trilling or his novel's conclusions about politics, but I would acknowledge that the novel, as an interpretive event, perhaps accomplishes in its subtle contrasts and situations more than a polemical or engaged work on politics could.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
"[T]he insistent claims of his own inner life had made him too concerned with himself to cast his lot wholeheartedly with Negroes in terms of racial struggle. Practically he was with them, but emotionally he was not of them. He felt keenly their sufferings and would have bettled desperately for any Negro trapped in a racial conflict, bu his character had been so shaped that his decisive life struggle was a personal fight for the realization of himself." African American intellectual Damon Cross takes advantage of a subway accident to fake his own death and escape his responsibilities towards his wife, underage lover, and children. He flees from Chicago to New York, where he quickly becomes involved in the Communist Party and a series of murders, mostly involving those (such as members of the Party) who attempt to take power or impose their belief systems onto Cross. Both in its critique of Communist manipulation of African Americans and its theme of black men as invisible outsiders of white society, the novel overlaps heavily with Ralph Elllison's "Invisible Man," which appeared a year earlier and demonstrated far greater modernist stylistic virtuosity. Wright always had a tendency to speechify: court testimony in "Native Son," Freudian psychology in "Savage Holiday," and existential theories here. At one point, a District Attorney mentions that detectives discovered Cross was a fan of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Dostoevsky, and believed that modern man must be stripped of the religious and metaphysical illusions that hide the nothingness of existence. This is no surprise, since the novel indulges in long passages that might have been lifted straight from those works, without any kind of fictional mediation. Many more highly-praised works also draw from those writers (whom I'm sympathetic to) with little modification, so I am left wondering how important a novelist's obfuscation of his intellectual sources is in the evaluation of a text? Is criticism of Wright's bluntness nothing more than a plea for a game of critical hide and seek? Or is the point of a novel precisely to think those ideas through a singular individual/cultural situation? Thankfully, the majority of the novel is a suspenseful and solidly written narrative of Cross's continuous flight from his violent responses to modern society, offering a drifting (both subjective and geographical) pleasure similar to Antonioni's "The Passenger."
Thursday, July 3, 2008
"[M]urder offers the promise of vast relief. It is never unsexual. But there is little which is sexual about suicide. It is a lonely landscape with the pale light of a dream and something is calling to you, a voice on the wind." Stephen Rojack is an existential psychologist with his own television show who murders his wife, and then spends the following days wandering the city, dealing with the police, and seducing women, all the while feeling good old "fear and trembling." Two different aspects of his existential crisis need to be distinguished here: first, there is the critique of the banality, conformity, and ideological dubiousness of bourgeois everyday life, which the existential crisis reveals as absurd and perhaps overcomes. When Mailer shows the economic and racial hypocrisy of society, the mafia and racial double standard behind the law, the book is on steady, if by now unoriginal, ground. Second, there is the attempt to escape, as Stephen says, the "rational man . . . nailed tight to details, promiscuous, reasonable, blind to the reach of the seas." Unfortunately for Mailer, this second form of the existential crisis involves an immersion in the senses and the body, which for him are always marked as masculine and sexual. As a result, clumsy and embarassing sexual ideology gets spliced into elements of Stephen's crisis, interjecting the metaphysical into what should have been the escape from the metaphysical. Mailer goes so far as to ask the reader to take seriously Stephen's anxious belief that vast existential consequences are involved in choosing whether to ejaculate into a lover's vagina or ass. Even if the body and senses weren't always masculine and misogynist in the novel, this attempt to reach the body's pure "presence" seems inherently metaphysical, promising some truth or revelation if obtained. But if there is nothing there to be learned, that the only gain is from the first critical project I mentioned above, then the attempt appears as nothing more than misguided mysticism. Yet there is something valuable in the embarassing extent to which Mailer pushes the seriousnes of Stephen's crisis. Mailer goes beyond all good taste (especially in his engagement with race and gender), but wouldn't a real existential crisis also necessarily be beyond taste? My wincing while reading revealed the novel succeeded at least on that level.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
"How orderly, clean and sensible the world seems; above all how light, as if these were the beginnings of a world, a chain of mornings. It is late in the day, late in this history of this part of the world, but this lateness does nothing to eclipse their ardor." This disagreeable book is an inversion of all that Sartre, around the same time, argued for in “A Plea for Intellectuals." Instead of an engaged writer who attempts to push through his singularity towards a universality (or as Sartre writes, "to situate himself in the social universe in order to be able to grasp and destroy within and without himself the limits that ideology imposes on knowledge"), Cheever simply detaches himself from the setting of his novel and looks down on it like an angelic observer (don't let the narrator's persona as an interested neighbour fool you). As a result, Cheever puts forward the appearance of timeless wisdom as he highlights the "humanity" his characters display, and even the most tragic of events are transformed into a demonstration of universal truths, but this is a false wisdom, unable to think through its own conditions of possibility. Sexual and alcoholic humor make the novel palpable, but can do little to overcome the underlying conservative system.