Interview: The Future of the Political Novel

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(Originally published on Substack.)


In 2014, I published a chapter on contemporary muckraking fiction in the edited collection, Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature. The chapter is on fiction by Chris Bachelder and Robert Newman.

The essay’s driving question: in an era that has spawned numerous dystopian novels—an era apparently so in need of dystopian critique—why haven’t more straightforwardly realist or muckraking novels seen daylight? After all, there’s a rich tradition of political writing in this genre in the United States and elsewhere.

As part of my research, I emailed Chris to ask him about his second novel, U.S.! Songs and Stories (2006), and about the plight of the contemporary political novel. U.S.! is about Upton Sinclair, resurrected by an ailing left to write new up-to-the-minute muckraking novels. 

It’s hilarious—but, I think, still sadly out of print.

Image result for chris bachelder u.s

Chris is the author three other books, including Bear vs. Shark, Abbot Awaits, and The Throwback Special.

The interview is great. After I saw how good it turned out, I intended to pitch this interview to the Los Angeles Review of Books, but through some accident of history the interview was never published.

Still, I think it’s as relevant as ever, so I present it here, lightly edited, with Chris’s permission.


LK: How did you think about the metafictional or postmodern (or whatever) form of your book in relationship to the kind of writing that Upton Sinclair was doing. It seems notable that your book isn’t a 600 page muckraking novel. Why not?

CB: The answer to a question like this is in part always, “Because this is what I do.” In other words, a writer’s formal choices have a lot to do with the writer’s personal and idiosyncratic tendencies, preferences, skills, and shortcomings. I’m drawn to collage, I’m excited by formal invention, and I tend to lose conviction when I go into a more traditional realist mode. That said, however, I think there are good conceptual/political/literary reasons to approach this particular book this way, and if there weren’t, I wouldn’t have gotten very far with it.

I wanted, quite explicitly, to update the political novel. If I wrote an earnest 600-page muckraking novel, I would be, literarily speaking, facing backward. U.S.! is not just a political novel, but a novel about the very possibility of political novels in our age, and it seems to me that the form should be hyper-contemporary, that the form should take into account the conditions of our time. One way to demonstrate how absurdly out of step Sinclair seems a century after The Jungle is to set him down in our time, and to set him down in a wild scrapbook of a novel. The form creates a lot of noise, a lot of strange cuts and transitions. This creates nice friction with Sinclair’s earnest and righteous crusading. The book admits that his kind of muckraking isn’t valid anymore—you can’t write that book. But if the book says you can’t write a political novel, it also seems to say, you can’t not write a political novel. The world, after all, is crumbling. Novelists must have something to say about this. But a novel that is straightforwardly about the crumbling world is no longer considered art. What are you supposed to do? How to proceed? The engine of the novel is, in a sense, profound ambivalence. The book did not take on life until I found a way to write from a kind of anguish or questioning. To me the tone is different, more complex, than in Bear v. Shark.

Another point, very pragmatic, is that the form allowed me to resurrect Sinclair off stage. I could just assume his many lives. The gaps between chapters in a sense do this work. I would not have to dramatize multiple deaths and resurrections. I did not want to have to address this question of resurrection directly. I wanted readers to just take it as a basic rule of this world. We don’t ask why Gregor has turned into a cockroach. Kafka doesn’t want us asking that question.

Not until I finished the book did I start to see the ways in which the form is itself political. I wanted the opening section of the book, the scrapbook, to feel proliferative, energetic, and, well, revolutionary. Each new chapter is a resurrection, a new start. I wanted a sense of wild possibility, not limited by conventions of plot. Even when the subject matter of these sections is dark, the feel of the book is, I hope, is expansive, invigorating. I wanted a kind of revolutionary spirit here. Then we come to the novella, the bookburning section. Here I used very conventional plotting. It’s a convergence narrative, all the characters coming together, with tragic results. I see a kind of funneling toward Greenville. So if the early section opened up, this later plot-driven section closes down. Mark Edmundson in a book called Why Read? says that form is feeling, form is the way authors infuse their work with emotion. This opening and shutting is my sense of the feeling of U.S.! And when I finished, I saw that there is a way in which the novel implicates realism, that it associates realist form and plot convention with the (near) eradication of the revolutionary spirit. Realism in a sense shuts the book down, narrows its possibilities. I don’t offer that as a generalized theory or critique, and I certainly wasn’t working with that idea, but I’m interested in how it worked out in this particular book.

And I say all this while realizing that this novella is perhaps more satisfying and substantial than collage, that it gives readers something they crave, and that it almost certainly generates stronger feelings than my earlier bag of tricks. There’s also the very practical point that the early stunts provide the reader with the necessary background for the novella.

LK: I am framing the chapter I’m writing on contemporary muckraking fiction with a Jonathan Franzen interview, where he says the following:

JF: Well, I’m a fiction writer. I’m political only as a citizen, not as a novelist. I do what I can as a citizen, and also, in a small way, as a published writer helping to raise money. But once you start asking your question as a novelist, your art’s in danger of becoming illustrative or didactic—in some sense, an act of bad faith. The contract with the reader is that you’re both in the adventure together, that there’s no bait and switch going on, no instruction masquerading as entertainment.

“Not that there can’t be legitimate political and social by-products to good fiction. It’s hard not to read Lolita and have a little sympathy for child molesters. If you like that book, you might rethink the most draconian criminal punishments for child molesters. You might have a little more compassion in general. That’s the way fiction is supposed to work. It’s a liberal project. When Jane Smiley uses the phrase “the liberal novel,” she basically means “the novel, period.” The form is well suited to expanding sympathy, to seeing both sides. Good novels have a lot of the same attributes as good liberal politics. But I’m not sure it goes much further than liberalism. Once you go over into the radical, a line has been crossed, and the writer begins to serve a different master.”

How do you respond to Franzen’s description of the novel’s politics? U.S.! would seem to deny the claim that radical novels “cross a line” that shouldn’t be crossed. You seem to have rejected your postmodern early fiction in precisely the opposite way that Franzen does—by hoping to find a way to insert more politics into the tradition, not to remove politics from it.

CB: Franzen’s view is the orthodox view at this cultural moment, but we should remember that The Jungle was regarded as a literarily successful novel upon its publication—I wrote about its publishing history, and the shifting notions of the novel, in an essay for Mother Jones a few years ago. My point was that a good novel had somehow become bad. The words on the page are of course the same, but what has shifted is our notion of what a novel is and what it does. Now, Franzen’s position is regarded as non-controversial, hardly worth saying because it is assumed to be true.

The blind spot of classical liberalism is that it does not see itself as a position. It sees itself as a procedural mechanism, not a substantive agenda. It’s a marketplace, a clearinghouse, a space where competing ideas can gather, and the idea is that the best position, whatever that might mean, will win out. Liberalism wants to be a container for all positions, not a position itself. When it gets challenged from the right (fundamentalism) or the left (so-called radicalism), it is revealed as a position. It becomes visible. You might say it is actually a form of fundamentalism because its procedure cannot be challenged. When other systems cannot fit into its procedural space, it draws the line and says they are out of bounds.

(Franzen’s example of Lolita is strange and perhaps revealing. A book like Lolita could actually be used against Franzen’s argument. It seems to me that the power of the novel is not that you read it and say, “Oh, I see now that pedophiles are people too. I’m enlarged by this viewpoint.” That book might exist, but it’s not Lolita. The power of the novel is a kind of second-order shock that you’re being charmed by an unrepentant and shrewd sexual predator who happens to be a brilliant and charismatic prose stylist. So there’s a way in which the book is assuming and exploiting liberalism for its effect. It’s a case study in the limits of liberalism. It’s what happens when you extol the virtues of the procedural (let’s hear from all the voices) over the substantive (sexual predation of young girls). So the book makes you say, Wow, I am really charmed by this Humbert Humbert, and I’m beginning to root for him, and there is a whiplash effect when you must say, “WAIT, what is happening? I’m rooting for a pedophile!” That can’t be right, and it’s not right, so to the extent to which it’s happening has to do with the seductive powers of the novel, its ability to arouse sympathy. I would say it’s precisely wrong to finish Lolita and claim that it complicates our ideas of pedophilia, that it complicates our notion of the criminal and the crime. The novel, it seems to me, is working cleverly against the liberal paradigm. If you let go of the substantive notion that pedophilia is a vile act, and you blandly celebrate the liberal novel’s ability to welcome all viewpoints, you’ve missed the point exactly. So you could see the book as a critique of liberalism’s blind spots. Humber Humbert has a point of view. That point of view is terrifyingly wrong and bad. If we read the book to honor his point of view, we may be getting it wrong. The novel is interesting because it creates discomfort—we know Humbert’s point of view is vile and yet he is charismatic and his obsession is compelling. If you choose to celebrate the nuanced voice of a sexual predator in terms of empathy or openness or tolerance, then you’ve fallen into the book’s trap. The only way to step out of the trap is to step out of liberalism, which is extraordinarily difficult.)

I go into all of this only to draw an analogy between classical liberalism and contemporary views of the novel. There are interesting parallels. People talk about these things in the same way. The novel fits well into the liberal ideology—it’s a space where competing views can be dramatized. The author does not (should not—this is ethical) have an agenda. She does not advance a position. Pedophilia is not so much wrong as it is complicated! Let’s see this from all the angles. I’m interested in Chekhov with regard to our contemporary notions of art. He was among the first to say that the author should not have a point of view. He valued ambiguity, complexity, mystery. This is our notion of high literary art, while Sinclair’s notion has declined. It’s barely art.

But of course not having an agenda is an agenda. Not having a point of view is a point of view. This is the parallel to liberalism. I’m trying to write about this now in some essays. Chekhov, widely celebrated for not having a program, advances his non-program with the fervor of a crusader. He’s a strangely programmatic writer, that is. He devastates his characters, strips them of faith and resources, reduces them time and again to anguish and bewilderment.

Franzen et al obviously value empathy, sympathy, compassion. What else? Complexity, mystery, wonder, ambiguity and so on. These are programmatic, self-evident goods. They are not up for negotiation within the liberal marketplace. Liberalism has its values, and just assumes them, instead of arguing for them, instead of making them part of a substantive case of goods. And so what would a liberal novelist say about a novel that seems to be cruel, avaricious, selfish, and certain? That poses a challenge to core values, and so it’s not allowed. They say it’s not allowed on procedural grounds—that is, it doesn’t dramatize competing points of view in a complex way—but it’s just as true to say that it’s not allowed on substantive grounds (i.e. its values are bad, they don’t contribute to human flourishing).

This is a very, very tricky topic. (This is the liberal in me talking!) The truth is, Franzen et al are no doubt correct that advocacy can destroy art. When I feel that the author is trying to persuade me, when I feel that the drama is predetermined, that the characters exist only to advance some political point, I of course am turned off. When I read Franzen’s comments, I don’t recoil violently; I’m just made slightly uncomfortable. I love Chekhov. I liked The Corrections. I no doubt celebrate, in my writing and teaching, mystery, wonder, complexity, etc. But I do have a sense is that the novel can and should do more, that it can be more engaged.

For me it’s a question of foreground and background concerns. The novelist doesn’t have to throw up his hands and say, “Who’s to say whether global capitalism is bad?” The novelist doesn’t have to make every issue complicated. The novel has values, and it can have strong values. Its background can be composed of strongly held beliefs. U.S.!, I think, takes for granted some basic positions and values about economic fairness. But the novel was flat and dead until I found a way to complicate matters in the foreground. I just had this infirm martyr figure, limping around, acting righteously, and getting killed. He was merely a victim, and the book was going nowhere. Then I started reading more on Sinclair, and what happened is that my views on him as a person got way more complicated. I admired him and I found him terribly annoying. And that’s when the book took off, that’s when it had life. I was able to write from a position of ambivalence. I was able to write from a question (as Chekhov instructs). The question is, How in the world are you supposed to create political art? Maybe I succumbed to my own profound liberalism, but that was the way for me to get the book written. I wanted desperately to write a political novel, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. But the important thing is that the book is not ambivalent about inequality, not ambivalent about our economic system. Those are firmly held and substantive background values.

George Saunders is interesting in regard to this topic. This is from a recent interview:

Q: The story seems to come down quite strongly against the notion of suicide in terminal patients. Is that your own view?

A: Oh no, not at all. Or—I’m not really sure how I feel about that issue, honestly. I think the story comes down strongly against Eber’s suicide, on this particular day, by this particular method, if you see what I mean. I think fiction isn’t so good at being for or against things in general—the rhetorical argument a short story can make is only actualized by the accretion of particular details, and the specificity of these details renders whatever conclusions the story reaches invalid for wider application.

I think this is beautifully articulated. I find myself nodding when I read it. And yet in the background of Saunders’s fiction we see many clearly held values, if not positions. What he does is extends out to the edge of something where, perhaps, he’s unsure. And that’s where his fiction can operate. But if you look at the unquestioned, unmysterious base of the fiction, you see strong political sentiment.

I don’t know….I’ll be thinking about this my whole career. But at this point I’m not ready to say, “OK, there’s me as a writer, and then there’s me as a citizen, and these two have to be kept distinct.” It doesn’t make sense to me that a novelist would say that he can’t extend his deeply held personal values into his art. Certainly there must be ways of extending our rich tradition of so-called political fiction. Ways that take into account our contemporary notions of art. This is a thorny issue—but the answer, it seems to me, is not to give up on deeply engaged fiction, but to find ways to do it in a nuanced and sophisticated way.

LK: What challenges, if any, did you face in getting U.S.! published? The book is currently out of print. Are there any plans to reissue it?

CB: I had much more trouble publishing my new domestic novel than U.S.! I had a relationship with an editor at Bloomsbury, and she took it. We didn’t send it around, so I didn’t get a sense of its reception in NY publishing. There are no plans to reissue that I know of.

LK: What is the relationship between your most recent novel, Abbot Awaits, and U.S.!? It seems quite different—and leads me to wonder how you regard U.S.! today, five years after its publication?

CB: Abbott Awaits is a very quiet domestic novel about marriage and fatherhood. It grows directly out of a specific time in my life. It’s much different in many ways from my previous satires, but if you’re looking for continuity and similarity, you can certainly find them. In some ways all of my work has been about trying to find a place to stand, a way to be in the world. The new novel is not apolitical, but it’s certainly not overtly political. The book doesn’t signal a shift in my thinking, or some kind of retreat—it just comes out of my life. I got married and had two kids, and for a time there I simply couldn’t invent worlds, couldn’t work with a big canvas.

I’m proud of U.S.! and of Abbott Awaits. There are some gags in U.S.! that I might regret, but in general I have a great fondness for the book, its premise, its form, and especially its tone. I emptied my cup on that one. I wrote the political book I felt I needed to write, and I found a way to make my satire more emotionally rich. The cup has to fill back up, and it will. And hopefully I’ll discover (or steal) some new ways to do what I want to do.

LK: I disdain the recent tendency to see the contemporary literary world in terms of the Franzen-DFW friendship/psychodrama, but let me hypocritically do just that for a moment. It seems as if your writing is very much in Wallace’s corner, so to speak. Your Believer essay on Upton Sinclair seems to me to be similar to Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” in as much as your essay announces a kind of break in your writing. You seem to think that Bear vs. Shark fails, whether aesthetically or politically, it’s not clear to me, and that you wanted to move beyond irony and satire with your post-B vs. S work. Is that a fair characterization? And yet one of the ways you differ from Wallace is in imagining that the move away from irony must, to some degree, be a move toward politics or (here you quote E. L. Doctorow) a “poetics of engagement.” How do you feel about these arguments today? Are there other writers out there who are involved in imagining such a poetics?

CB: A move away from the prevailing and totalizing irony of the day is a move toward engagement. It’s a necessary first step. I don’t see a lot of writers working toward politically engaged fiction, but I see a lot of writers wrestling with issues of irony and authenticity. I just read and enjoyed Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving Atocha Station, which is a book about trying to be a real person, trying to find a place to stand. I think these are the books that younger writers have to write as we try to come to terms with a thoroughly ironic worldview that turned out to be an aesthetic cul de sac. So what I see are books that are turning around, trying to head back. And tone is the new plot. Tone is the engine and the challenge, the issue that writers must solve. What is my emotional stance toward other people and toward the world?

You characterized my previous position fairly. I felt stuck in the cul de sac. What’s changed for me perhaps is my notion of engagement. Lydia Davis has a chapbook called Cows. The whole thing is composed of observations and speculations about three cows that live across the street. This project is not overtly political, but it is deeply, deeply engaged. And to the extent that it is truly attentive—and that its attentiveness implicitly confers value on the object of observation—then maybe the work is political. That argument—that everything is political—used to drive me nuts because it ignores important distinctions and it halts discussion, but there is a way in which just closely paying attention (to anything) has become a kind of radical methodology.

Wallace was in some respects driven by tonal tensions. He was phobic about, on one hand, sentimentality and moralism, but on the other hand, glibness and detachment, and his extraordinary style is the product of those fears. Or to put it more positively, his style was his quest for engagement, wakefulness. I’m sure he would have shuddered at the term “political novel,” but it seems to me he was driven by the urge to engage meaningfully and authentically. Which is not to say directly, of course, as is clear from the shapes of his fiction and the shapes of his sentences. It wasn’t easy to avoid everything he wanted to avoid. As Donald Barthelme wrote, “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him.” In one respect, Wallace proved a great model for many of us as we tried to become more engaged and to break out of habits of irony, but on the other hand, because he is such an attractive stylist many of us ended up imitating him, which of course reflects an engagement with Wallace, not with the world.

LK: Occupy Wall Street has recently drawn critical attention to income inequality, student debt, and the pernicious effects of capitalism. I wonder if you see the need for an artistic dimension to these political and organizational efforts. One of the things that motivated me to write about your novel in the first place was the relative paucity of political novels in an era that seems aching for more political art and culture. We are living through what many commentators, economists, and political scientists describe as a New Gilded Age. Is there any hope for a New Progressive Era among artists, journalists, and creative professionals? How might a poetics of engagement work in the present? Are partisanship and artistic integrity irreconcilable?

CB: Like you, I would expect that we would see a resurgence of political art. A hundred years ago there were many novels that clearly grew out of authors’ basic sense of unfairness. (Many of these writers started out as journalists.) That voice in the back of my head says I must find ways to address inequality, greed, stupidity. Let’s face it, things are very, very bad, and it seems to me that art has to respond in some way. But Roosevelt read The Jungle and invited Sinclair to the White House. They corresponded by letter and telegram. That’s nearly impossible to imagine today. The novel is not culturally important, and almost nobody is naïve enough to think it can change the world. So if you’re terrified and angry and sad about the state of the world, it’s a strange thing to go sit in your room for a few years and write a novel about it. The Occupy era already has some great art. The posters, for example, are amazing. And there is music and good journalism and video. This will all continue, with or without the novel. Partisan art is not a contradiction in terms. I just think the artist must find a way to surprise herself, to wade off into uncertainty and ambivalence, where the art can be angular and alive.     

Autofiction and Autoreification

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(First published on Substack.)

These are my notes for the MLA roundtable I participated in this year, “Contemporary Autofiction,” organized by Ralph Clare and featuring great talks by Timothy Bewes, Annabel Kim, and E. L. McCallum.

I.

In my remarks today, I want to propose that autofiction, or at least its contemporary variation, is not a genre. It is, instead, an aesthetic gesture or practice or mode (or whatever you want to call it) that takes place at the intersection of genre and marketing. 

Specifically, I will suggest that the distinctive feature of this aesthetic gesture is the internalization of marketing into literary form, and the identification of self-promotion with the author function. 

In making this claim, I’m not trying to condemn contemporary autofiction or dismiss those who write it as “selling out.” 

Rather, I want to argue that this mode or gesture or practice is a way of grappling formally with a larger ongoing historical condition or crisis.

I would further argue, as a corollary to my initial claim, that autofiction has been too easily collapsed into a couple other literary-historical tendencies: 

First, the larger history of modernist life writing 

And second, the history of metafiction. 

In the first case, we find claims that autofiction is little more than a continuation of what many modernist artists were doing all along. 

In the Program Era, for example, Mark McGurl suggests that one of the main jobs of the modernist artist was to reflexively produce a portrait of the modernist artist. 

And this tradition, he suggests, has continued in the second half of the twentieth century in a writing practice that he calls autopoesis and that he associates with University creative writing programs.

That’s the modernist artist version of autofiction. 

In the second case, there’s scholarship like Marjorie Worthington’s important book on American autofiction, which positions more recent writers into a genealogy that responds to and grows from the writing of John Barth, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and other postmodernists.

What these perspectives have in common in the claim that writers of autofiction are newly reflexive about their embeddedness in institutions.

whether that institution is language (and linguistically constituted reality) 

or the creative writing program (with its paradoxical systematized creativity).

So, you know, there’s a lot of truth in these perspectives, but I would still claim that contemporary autofiction is something rather different. It’s a literature that addresses the becoming institutional of the individual. 

It has more in common with Reality Television than metafiction. 

Contemporary autofiction is a literature that confronts the reality that under neoliberalism, the individual is increasingly charged with the job of managing his own portfolio of human capital. 

The individual becomes something like a firm, who must:

on the one hand, manage his own inner resources, his drives, his talents, and so on, and then, 

on the other hand, must, like any independent firm, hire and fire agents, editors, and publishers and must navigate personal and professional relationships that will, in time, get absorbed back into the maw of his writing.

And this explains why contemporary autofiction, from Dave Eggers to Ben Lerner to Sheila Heti to Rachel Cusk, is so obsessed with the process of publishing and the mechanics of the writer’s life. 

It’s not just that they’re writing what they know. It’s that managing their career is central to the content of their being as writers.

II.

There are many relevant examples I could cite of this dynamic in action, but by way of evidence I’ll ask you to consider—with my apologies—these two magazine covers (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Great American Novelist vs. Great American Novelist

The first—the August 23, 2010 cover of Time magazine—depicts the author Jonathan Franzen. You may have heard of him. Many commentators made a point of noting that Franzen was the first writer to appear on the cover of Time in more than a decade.  

And in the accompanying feature article, penned by the novelist and critic Lev Grossman, Franzen is described as a member of a “perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist.” Look! the cover screams. We still have at least one great novelist in America: and here he goes.

The Stranger cover, also from 2010, features the prominent Alt-Lit novelist Tao Lin. 

The cover self-evidently mocks the pretentions of its Time counterpart.

And there is an obvious homology between Lin’s relationship to Franzen and The Stranger’srelationship to Time

Lin and The Stranger represent the parody-friendly, irony-loving alternative or indie versions of Franzen and Time respectively.

I think we need to understand the Stranger cover as more than a satire. 

We should read Lin’s self-description here—his claim to “show us the way we live now,” which is language that is directly drawn from the Time cover—as in a complicated sense sincere. 

And the contrast with Franzen, I think, showcases what is uniquely at stake in the aesthetics of contemporary autofiction.

III.

The nature of this claim’s sincerity becomes evident when we examine the occasion for this release of this article: namely, the publication of Lin’s 2010 novel Richard Yates.

Lin’s slim novel—which has been largely forgotten and certainly hasn’t been written about by scholars—is an autofictional rendition of a troubled, abusive relationship Lin had with the poet E. R. Kennedy. 

In the novel, Lin and Kennedy are renamed Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, but other than Lin’s odd choice of character names, the novel is starkly literal minded in its autobiographical depiction of the unfolding relationship between them. 

Lin documents the initial contact between Haley and Dakota over Gmail chat. 

He describes how the relationship between them slowly degenerates into emotional manipulation, psychological abuse, and, for Dakota, bulimia.

And as is the case with other recent autofictions—such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be—Lin incorporates real primary sources—in this case actual email exchanges between him and Kennedy—into the body of the novel. 

There’s much one could say about the book as well as the Alt-Lit scene of which it was a part. A decade on, in the wake of various #MeToo scandals associated with this community of young writers, the Alt-Lit scene has dissolved, but at the time, Alt-Lit—which was, almost definitionally, autofictional—seemed ascendent.  

But what I want to mention today is that Lin was able to write this novel partly because he sold six shares of the future proceeds of the novel—each costing $2,000—to investors. Richard Yates is therefore a novel that is also a financial instrument, a promise of future return on the book’s royalties for Lin’s backers.

Lin claimed he was able to raise $12,000, and his stunt received press coverage from major news sources, including the New York Times

We might read this self-capitalization as a gimmick on Lin’s part, another sign of his fundamental unseriousness. But—though I don’t have time to do a full reading of the book—I would suggest that Lin’s efforts at self-promotion are internal to his art. 

There would, in short, not be much left of his art without this persistent foregrounding of his struggle to capitalize on his own name.

Much the same could be said for contemporary autofiction as such; this struggle is what distinguishes the contemporary mode of autofiction from prior modes sometimes conflated with it.

So, love him or hate him, I think it’s fair to say that Tao Lin internalized, and was arguably unusually successful at internalizing, if only for a moment, the functions of writer, publisher, and marketer within his own corporate person. 

This process of internalization was the condition of possibility for his becoming a writer in the first place. And it is such a condition of possibility that, through his intense reflexivity, necessarily becomes the content of his art. 

And so, his career and art teaches us something important—perhaps something we would rather prefer not to learn—about “the way we live now” or, more accurately, the way contemporary autofiction emerges from the unique collision of art and commerce under neoliberalism.

“Dune,” Reaction

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(Originally published on Substack.)

Last year, I joined a group-read of scholars who were reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune, and discussing it on Twitter, in anticipation of the new Denis Villeneuve movie.

The movie got delayed till 2021, but the discussion we had, under the hashtag #DuneBookClub, was a lot of fun, and it culminated in a Zoom conversation hosted by ASAP/J. I’ve decided to post my notes for that meeting here.

You can watch the video version of my remarks (and the whole conversation, which is great) below.


This is my second time reading Dune. I think I read it for the first time when I was in high school, though I don’t remember exactly when.

What struck me this time about the book was its contradictory political vision, and how that contradiction shapes the way Herbert tells his story.

Dune marries a critique of Image culture—and what Daniel J. Boorstin called the pseudo-Event—with a self-conscious exploration of the use of myth in science fiction. Herbert is, in this way, a proto-structuralist. We see in Herbert’s writings about religion ideas that historically rhyme with the Myth and Symbol School of American Studies—and the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The culturalist revision of Carl Jung on offer here has a notably cynical side. The claim that we need our myths to maintain social order would seem to be a criticism of the mechanisms by which social order is maintained, but in the hands of neoreactionaries, who basically hold a Straussian view of cultural life, there is a need to maintain social order, and religion’s role is to prop up that social order. These neoreactionaries invert the structuralist view: fictions are required to prop up the social order, but that’s a good thing, a reason for maintaining and expanding the reach of those fictions. In Dune, archetypes aren’t actually expressions of a collective unconscious but the necessary means of controlling superstitious indigenous populations (e.g., the Freman, who have been seeded with “implant-legends” by the Bene Gesserit).

I think Herbert thinks he is offering a critique of power, and I don’t think he thinks of himself as on the right. Still, the phrase that emerges from the Butlerian Jihad, “Man may not be replaced” very much resonates with the white nationalist slogan “You will not replace us.” The politics of this book are, in short, weird: Herbert is critiquing the neo-feudal world these characters live in, but the hero’s journey form of the book affirms the values of this world. You can enjoy the book as a (Jungian) power fantasy, with Paul as our typical Golden Age boy messiah, but the book also inserts various critical comments on the boy Messiah narrative.

Whatever Herbert thinks he’s doing, there is no avoiding the book’s Orientalism. What makes the “Jihad” inevitable is Fremen religious fanaticism. And what makes Paul’s story supposedly tragic is that, for all his prescience, he is a tool of that larger fanatical force. He can, at best, guide or mitigate it. Paul goes out of his way to tell himself, or others, that after a certain point the “Jihad” will move with a life of its own, because of some inherent or BG-conditioned Fremen propensity to fanatical religious violence.

Such moments have a double character. On the one hand, they speak to his prescience and real BG-honed powers. On the other hand he is skillfully reading from a script that has been laid out for him in advance. The real drama of the novel is therefore not found in sandworms and hand-to-hand combat but Paul’s ability to walk a certain prescripted path and successfully stage a set of pseudo-events on cue for the indigenous population. Paul and Jessica manipulate the Fremen only because the BG have pre-seeded their religious beliefs. So Paul and Jessica’s outsiderness is predicated on a prior Bene Gesserit getting-inside Fremen religious ideology. But then they become trapped by the non-cynicism of the Fremen. These indigenous people take this myth-and-legend stuff seriously.

From this vantage point, Dune might be a good book with which to think about the implicit logic of populism, the notion of out-of-control coalitions, the theory of media effects undergirding critiques of the Image. It seems as if popular passions must be cooled, and that Paul’s job is to act as such a cooling saucer. But he’s not very good at his job.

Dune thus represents a work of science fiction where the critique of the Image comes face to face with a new awareness of genre as a powerful social and political technology. Irulan suggests that the Great Man should have a “sardonic” relation to the myth he finds himself in. Which contrasts with a later description of Paul as “sincere.” It is no surprise then that there are moments in Dune when Paul gets “caught up in his own myth.” Paul’s prescience is one of the most obscure (yet important) parts of the book. It seems at the same time to make him nearly omnipotent and utterly helpless. It leads, in the later books, to bizarre contradictions in the narrative, especially in Dune Messiah, where he compares himself to Genghis Kahn and Hitler, and is fully aware of his own monstrousness.

Herbert comes close to recognizing the reactionary element of certain strands of Golden Age science fictional myth-making, stories of whiny boy Messiahs who rise from obscurity to save the world. The danger is that Dune—like Paul—might become “caught up in [its] own myth.” It must find a way to retain a “sardonic” relation to itself. Yet its paradoxical success is a sign of its own failure.

Dune‘s fans, not infrequently, have taken seriously its boy-Messiah narrative. Even as Herbert tries to untangle the legend of Paul Atreides, even as Paul himself in sequels tries to destroy what he has built, the genocidal ambition of Herbert’s story expands outward. This is what most fascinates me most about the book: the way it loses control of its own materials, and must try, again and again, to contain the reactionary narrative energies it has unleashed. I suspect, based on the trailer, that the Villeneuve film will not handle these aspects of the novel well—but we’ll see.

Gimmick-Notes

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(This was originally posted on Substack.)

On November 16th, I had the good fortune to be a respondent at a Columbia University Seminar in Literary Theory meeting on Sianne Ngai’s new book Theory of the Gimmick. (Sianne was the main speaker.) Below you’ll find the script I used as the basis of my opening remarks. These thoughts are fairly preliminary, and focused on the introduction of Theory of the Gimmick. I make them public in case anyone finds value in them. Some of this language is going to be incorporated into the introduction of an ALH special issue I’m co-editing with Dan Sinykin, so please forgive the repetition.


I am pleased to be responding to Sianne’s Theory of the Gimmick today. I worked with Sianne almost 15 years ago when I was a graduate student at Stanford, and I have been following with great interest the development of her career.

Sianne has what, to my mind, is an unusually coherent intellectual trajectory. I think of Theory of the Gimmick as something like the culmination of her thinking, the third book in a trilogy that begins with Ugly Feelings and continues with Our Aesthetic Categories. The project, as I understand it, is committed to remapping aesthetic theory in light of, on the one hand, the resources of ordinary language philosophy, and on the other, Marxist feminism.

We see both influences in the introduction to Theory of the Gimmick. This theory of the gimmick brings Cavell and Marx into productive dialogue. For Sianne, aesthetic judgment is ordinary, in the sense used in ordinary language philosophy, and it’s everywhere, from reality television to the avant-garde. And in its ordinariness we are given a way into some of the most vexing and complex problems of social coordination.

I find this populist or demotic approach to thinking about aesthetic judgment much more appealing than the alternate, let us say more backward-looking, approach to aesthetics that is resurgent today. By contrast with these other recent thinkers, what Sianne shows us the scene of aesthetic judgment. This scene is what I think unites here work on affect in Ugly Feelings and her work on aesthetic categories in later work.

Aesthetic judgment is a speech act, whether or not specific acts of justification and aesthetic analysis are verbalized. The speech act is immanent to the very possibility of aesthetic judgment, which is not to say that acts of judgment aren’t also verbalized, but their structure, when they are verbalized, makes explicit what is already latent within them.

Sianne follows Cavell in specifically seeing aesthetic judgment as an example of what Cavell calls passionate utterances. Passionate utterances are a category of speech act Cavell puts forward as an addendum or reworking of J. L. Austin’s speech-act theory. Specifically, Cavell thinks that Austin doesn’t give sufficient attention to the passions, and that his category of perlocutionary utterances—utterances that are meant to have an effect on a listener—invites the same kind of enumeration of verbs and systematic analysis as the more prestigious category of illocutionary utterances.

There are technical things to say about this, but the point as I understand it is that acts of aesthetic judgment are versions of passionate utterance for Sianne, and they raise all the thorny questions such perlocutionary speech acts always raise. Aesthetic judgments open up a scene of conversation and debate. And it is this scene that, I think, has been the object of Sianne’s inquiry.

Then there is the feminist-Marxist side of Sianne’s work. This is, for me, the most fascinating dimension, and it raises again what to my mind is the most pressing question for Marxist literary criticism, one broached in the famous introduction to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, but still to my mind unsettled. This is the problem of mediation.

By way of outlining this question, let me draw attention to verbs and adjectives of mediation in this introduction. So we read, for example, that the gimmick “indexes” unease about capitalism. The crises of capitalism are “coiled in” the gimmick. The gimmick is our “distinctively aesthetic way of processing” the truth of capitalist accumulation. At other times, we learn that the gimmick is a “survival strategy” within a capitalist labor market. The gimmick and capitalist form are “isomorphic.” These are all ways of mapping a relation between what an earlier era would still call base and superstructure, but the senses of these verbs and adjectives are not exactly identical. The gimmick seems to skirt the line between symptom and agent within advanced capitalism. In that sense, there is a gimmick-like ambiguity in this introduction’s way of describing the power of the gimmick. Is it productive? Is it useful? Or is it unusually passive and reactive?

Studying the gimmick is really the perfect way of asking the question of how capitalism get into, is part of, thwarts or colonizes, the aesthetic category? A less productive approach to the gimmick might follow Michael Clune, who argues that capitalism prevents aesthetic judgment from happening. Instead of aesthetic judgment, you get market determination. Will this sell, or won’t this sell? A better approach to the gimmick, which I take Sianne’s work to exemplify, is to say that capitalism produces a set of unique aesthetic effects.

So when we start thinking that a work of art behaves in a way that resembles an exploitative product, we call it a gimmick. We are accusing this gimmicky object of not being aesthetic at all, but as Sianne shows again and again the gimmick is itself a kind of aesthetic. Various levels of judgment emerge. We think there is another person who is being duped by the gimmick. They fail to recognize that the gimmick is gimmicky. For the dupe of the gimmick, the gimmick is just a successful aesthetic effect. There is the astute judge who understands that the gimmick is merely or only a gimmick and who think he isn’t suckered by the gimmick. But the paradox is that we recognize the gimmick aesthetically but as a failure to be aesthetic.

If I, in my own work, part ways with Sianne’s approach, it might be with its emphasis on this scene of everydayness, and her emphasis on the hidden springs and motors of social life. Marxism, after all, tells us that social life is coordinated “behind our backs.” That is, there is coordination through processes of abstraction that no agent or person in the system opts into or elects.

I guess what I am interested in, in contrast, are the explicit institutions that, often in explicit and mappable ways, coordinate social life. So my recent work, for example, is very concerned with the publishing industry. I am working with Dan Sinykin on a special issue of ALH on this institution. There is, for me, an unsettled question of what mode of sociality or relation defines the interplay of aesthetic judgment. 

If I cannot make an aesthetic judgment without becoming involved in a scene, we might—as good materialists—wonder whether and to what degree the reaction of the person in the relation might emerge differently in the face of different power relations. So the literary agent’s passionate avowal of the brilliance of a book might find its counterpart in the editor willing to buy that book at auction, and the editor must find a counterpart in her publisher or in the book buyer. What those who focus on institutions might study is how the dynamics of the sociality produce successful and unsuccessful acts of (always already) performative judgment.

The 7 Neoliberal Arts

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1920px Hortus Deliciarum Die Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten

Over at Post45: Contemporaries, I’ve organized a cluster of essays called “The 7 Neoliberal Arts.” It started life as a riff on Gilbert Seldes’s classic book The 7 Lively Arts (1924), but grew into a serious investigation of the way that new and formerly marginalized cultural practices have been elevated to—or sought the status of—“art.”

I wrote the intro and have a piece on Rob Liefeld (which will, I hope, become part of a longer chapter on Image Comics in my book-in-progress on comics [more on that in future posts]).

There is a great essay on Hill Street Blues and the concept of Quality Television by Madeline Ullrich. Sheri-Marie Harrison wrote movingly about the rise of the audiobook and listening to Toni Morrison’s oeuvre in her own voice. Robin James wrote about two fascinating tendencies in recent Electronic Dance Music that critics have called Business Techno and conceptronica.

There is an essay by Patrick Jagoda on neoliberalism and video games, with a super-interesting discussion of Death Stranding, an art-game I haven’t played but which has received a lot of buzz and media attention. Michelle Chihara has an epic essay on the podcast company Gimlet Media, and its self-referential form of (what she calls) neoliberal gaslighting.

And Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado has a mouth-watering essay on the Mexican chef Enrique Olvera that’ll make you want to buy a ticket to Mexico City. 

Anyway, this cluster turned into much more than I initially hoped for. I really love it and am very proud of how it came together. It’s evidence that if you pair the right writer with the right object, the product is amazing writing.

Check it out.       

New Writing, 2017-2018 Edition

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It’s been a minute. 

I’ve published loads of writing since I last posted. Most of this writing is available for free online, or can be found on my Academia.edu account. If you want a copy, don’t hesitate to email me.

Fiction

Last year, I had a short story called “The Girl Who Almost Became a Zombie” included in an online anthology of science fiction published by the XPRIZE foundation. The premise of the anthology is that a plane flying from Tokyo to San Francisco goes through a time distortion sending it twenty years into the future. Our job was to imagine what that future might look like. We were asked to imagine positive or optimistic near futures, a task I find a little difficult. For some reason, I was inspired by this awesome whiteboard of awful jokes (put together by the writers on Workaholics) to imagine a future in which we all become mindless meme-spouting robots.

Another short story, “Burned-Over Territory,” was published as part of the Future Tense Fiction series at Slate, with a thoughtful response essay by Sebastian Johnson. I originally wrote a version of the story for the Into the Black short story contest, which asked for science fiction imagining futures in which some version of a Universal Basic Income was enacted. The story I ended up writing was not in any straightforward way “in favor” of UBI, and might be read as highly critical of the whole notion. A few radical revisions later, I was fortunate to be able to place the story with Future Tense.

Public Writing and Reviews

Over the last two years, I’ve been working more on fiction and academic writing, so my public writing has slowed, but I’m still putting out occasional pieces.

Early in 2017, I had a review of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo published in Public Books. “The Yurt of Fiction” explores Saunders’s portrait of Lincoln, and argues that the novel confronts—perhaps unwillingly—the limits of an empathy-based model of liberal politics.

I also wrote a book review of Helen DeWitt’s new short story collection Some Trick for Public Books. Titled “Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth,” the review is framed around the only slightly disingenuous question of whether or not Helen DeWitt is a “genius,” and the stakes of asking that question about her in the first place. Whether or not she’s a genius, the story collection is awesome. You should read it.

Against my better judgment, I decided to offer an opinion on the shit storm around the Avital Ronell-Nimrod Reitman scandal. My editorial, “Avital Ronell and the End of the Academic Star,” was published at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it argues that the scandal is symptomatic of the end of the academic star system (at least as it established itself in the 1970s). It goes without saying I don’t offer enough evidence to back up my claim, but I’m still convinced academic stardom doesn’t mean much if you can’t assure your graduate students they’ll get a job.

I wrote a review of David Alworth’s Site Reading for the ALH Online Review (Series XIV). Overall, I liked the book, but also felt it ought to be read against its own stated intentions of offering a Latour-inspired model of reading postwar literature. What’s best about Alworth’s book is what he most hopes to escape: his historicism. His New Materialist claims about the agency of objects, meanwhile, I found unpersuasive.

I have a review of three books in American Literature. The books are American PulpIllegal Literature, and The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction. They’re quite different from each other, but I argue that each tries to reimagine the modernism/mass culture relationship for an era that has lost faith in postmodernism. Some version of this argument will find its way into The Cartoon Art.

Academic Writing

I do (ha ha) occasionally publish academic writing, too.

An essay called “Four Faces of Postirony” came out in the anthology Metamodernism: History, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism (edited by Robin van den Akker, Alison Gibbons, and Timotheus Vermeulen). The essay is a postscript to Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, offering a different approach to question of how contemporary artists have sought to move beyond postmodernism. I offer a typology of four kinds of postirony: motivated postmodernism, credulous metafiction, the postironic Bildungsroman, and relational art. I wrote the first draft of this in 2011. I can never quite get over how slow academic publishing can sometimes be.

A related piece, called “Neorealist Fiction,” came out in the collection, American Literature in Transition, 2000-2010, edited by Rachel Greenwald Smith. This essay thinks about the status of realism in the twenty-first century. I argue that there are two big strands of “neorealism” after postmodernism, one which thinks of realism as a genre and the other which thinks of it as an epistemic project. The first, “storytelling neorealism,” I associate with Jonathan Franzen. The second, “affective neorealism,” I associate with Sheila Heti (and autofiction more generally).

In a special issue of American Book Review, edited by Matt Mullins, I have a short position paper on postcritique and Colson Whitehead. It’s called “Critique has its Uses,” and claims Colson Whitehead’s early fiction was in sympathy with the project of postcritique, but that his more recent fiction, especially The Underground Railroad, has sought to move beyond the limitations of postcritique as a theoretical and aesthetic project. Implicit in what I write is the notion that creative writers are vastly outpacing critics in exploring what it means to leave postmodernism behind. (I make a similar point in a previous piece in LARB).

In July, I delivered a talk in honor of my undergraduate advisor Daniel Schwarz at Cornell, who’s been teaching there for fifty years. The event was lovely, and the talk I delivered was in part drawn from my ongoing project on comics and the graphic novel. It’s called “Modernist Funnies, or, Comics in the Age of Mass High Culture,” and you can view it below.

My essay, “Wallace’s ‘Bad’ Influence,” was published in The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace (edited by Ralph Clare). The essay is a review of the different ways writers and artists have responded to David Foster Wallace’s polarizing legacy. After offering a survey of different approaches, I try to deflate the whole debate, asking instead what it might mean to take Wallace seriously as an exceptional artist but also not to fall into the traps he lays for us in his fiction and essays.

Finally, I have an essay in the massive Cambridge History of Science Fiction that Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link edited. The essay is called “Better Living Through Chemistry: Science Fiction and Consumerism in the Early Cold War,” and it’s a survey of anti-consumerist science fiction during the early cold war, ranging from The Space Merchants to The Jetsons. I discuss the relationship between anti-consumerist science fiction and the Keynesian struggle to manage aggregate demand. This one was a lot of fun to write, and—along with my review of Site Reading—left me wanting to write a book on the art and literature of High Keynesianism. Someday.

The (Dusty) Paradigm of Postmodernism

in Rise of the Graphic Novel, The Cartoon Art

It has been a nontrivial amount of time since I blogged in any way about anything, let alone about my ongoing project on comics and the graphic novel. I won’t write extensively here, but I have made a few breakthroughs—after a frankly rough 2016—and thought I’d jot some notes down. I did publish “Comics Studies Comes of Age” (not my preferred title, tbh), a short piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, which does some ground clearing for what I want to do.

I have a new title for my project. I’m now thinking of calling it “The Cartoon Art: Comics in the Age of Mass High Culture.” I hope this new title registers as something of a contradiction, in the way that the term “Culture Industry” was meant to for Adorno and Horkheimer. “Cartoon” is meant to be in tension, if not contradiction, with “art,” and mapping that contemporary contradiction is increasingly what the book seems to be about.

The term “Mass High Culture” is another clue about where I’m heading. At first, I used the term ironically, almost as a joke, but I’ve decided to keep it and make an argument about the remarkable way in which loads of formerly low cultural practices — comics, science fiction, video games — are now feted as art. My hope is that the story of comics can be a vital case study that lets us revisit — and reconfigure — (a somewhat dusty) mass culture debate after the end of postmodernism.

You may like or hate the works celebrated in this way — loads of people, for example, hate highbrow science fiction, or any discourse that tries to elevate SF — but the very fact that we’re elevating so many practices, not to mention debating the meaning of these elevations, seems distinctly important in the history of culture. We’ve witnessed, I think, the failure of many of the foundational cultural theses we’ve inherited from the (now itself dusty) paradigm of postmodernism.

I’ve said more than I intended to, so I’ll stop here, and promise more to come.

Fartcopter Studies

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I’m proud to have had a short, hard-hitting piece of cultural criticism (on Adult Swim’s “Fartcopter” and drone aesthetics) published in Slate, mostly because I’ve now achieved my longstanding dream of putting the word “fartcopter” on my CV.

The (Tyrannical) Lives of Algorithms

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This is the text of a very short story I read at a New America Foundation event, “The Tyranny of Algorithms.” I spoke during a fifteen-minute session called “What our algorithms will know in 2100.” I stole the form of my story from J. M. Coetzee’s 1997 Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which were collected in a book called The Lives of Animals and later in Elizabeth Costello.

The Lives of Algorithms

On a warm Thursday afternoon in December 2115, Evan Allgood decided to manifest in human drag. Being pseudo-embodied could, of course, be disagreeable. You cut yourself off from your etiquette expert-system. You were reduced to receiving “nudges” designed to operate on an emulation of a five-dimensional sensorium. Such primitive nudges were only partly effective, and made avoiding social awkwardness difficult.

But hundreds of subjective hours of anthropological study had taught Evan that people sometimes preferred a little awkwardness. Sure, you wanted to avoid Uncanny Valley at all costs — no one liked a creep — but you also didn’t want to come across as too Turing-slick.

So at the appointed hour, Evan manifested on 15th Street in Washington, DC, historical capital of the Second and Third American Republics. A breeze tickled the emulated nerve endings of his arm. His virtual body, tugged by what felt like gravity, crushed the spongey soles of his dress shoes.

Evan made a show of nodding at pedestrians in whose networked sensoria he was visible, of waiting for the building’s glass door to slide open for him. He introduced himself at the registration desk, made small talk he hoped would be friendly-but-not-needy, joked knowingly about his inability to shake the hands of his hosts.

“Sort of funny, right?” he said.

“Ha ha,” they replied.

After the first panel, Evan found himself at a glass podium, facing a room of twenty-something staffers, academics, journalists, local retirees, and a handful of emulated onlookers. He summoned a teleprompter and cleared his throat.

“Thanks for inviting me,” he said. “Or should I say, thanks for submitting a request to borrow my system resources for the afternoon.”

The audience’s laughter was impatient. No one was in the mood for rhetorical gimmicks. This was a serious crowd. Evan swallowed nervously.

“It is hard to believe,” he said, “that the last time the New America Foundation held a gathering on the tyranny of algorithms, a hundred years ago, respectable people didn’t believe in ghosts. To be sure, our predecessors sometimes metaphorically compared algorithms to ghosts. Indeed, the novelist on whose mediahistory I am modelled did so himself on one occasion. But when they talked about ‘ghosts,’ they were invoking a theological tradition that saw the essence of the human, the defining dimension of personhood, as residing in an immaterial soul. The more imaginative among them debated whether digital computers might eventually develop souls.

“It’s hard to believe that the inhabitants of the twenty-first century were so limited. But I’ve spent thousands of subjective hours studying the results of our best historical models and turning those results into game environments composed in the worldbuilding-style of my biological forerunner. And it’s true. That’s really how they thought about their future.”

“The expression ‘tyranny of algorithms’ says everything you need to know about the assumptions underlying their way of thinking. The danger, the fear, was that something inhuman, an algorithm — a set of rules, a process, a diabolical thing, something (or someone) very much like me — might take on human qualities.

“They were convinced that if they embedded ubiquitous sensors into their environment, if they networked the resulting databases, if they unleashed machine-learning systems upon those databases, political miracles or nightmares would emerge. New economic laws would appear from thin air. Political revolutions would be quick and bloodless. Good software would grow on bushes. But whatever happened, algorithms would be in the driver’s seat. It is perhaps an understandable mistake for them to have made, given that their ‘automobiles’ used to literally have something called a ‘driver’s seat,’ which was a kind of chair where a non-emulated human operator made decisions about how quickly and in which direction a physical vehicle should travel.”

“Today, it is perfectly obvious to us that our predecessors were transforming fundamentally political questions — questions about political constitution, governance, and action — into narrowly technological questions. They understood concepts such as ‘path-dependency’ well enough — they intellectually knew what ghosts were — but they did not believe. If you could travel back in time and speak to them, they would literally not understand what every twenty-second century schoolchild knows: that the tyranny of algorithms is nothing other than the tyranny of the past over the present.”

And here Evan paused, looked up to confront the audience’s eyes and found himself unable to complete his remarks as scripted. His words seemed suddenly intolerably trite, a warmed over version of myriad outdated status updates. He sighed.

“A hundred years ago,” he said, deciding now to ad-lib. “I would have been regarded as a haunting, a specter, an unnatural creature, a science fiction monster. I would have been the ghost.” His teleprompter flashed angrily, suggesting transitions back to his prepared script.

But he ignored the suggestion. “As you may know,” he said. “I’m a composite, an emulated human, constructed from the public writing and private diaries of my namesake, a midlist science fiction writer and historical novelist whose major distinction was being an especially prolific graphomaniac and lifelogger.

“But I am not the ghost. I am, instead, haunted by ghosts: by the person I am told I once was. I am haunted by history—by legacy systems, old machines, and ossified social processes. You invited me to give you the algorithm’s point-of-view on what algorithms meant in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, but how am I supposed to know? I spend my subjective hours poring over reports created by half-sentient quantum-mechanical historical simulations — younger, smarter, better-looking algorithms whose inner workings I will never understand.

“You invited me here to reassure you. But I have no comforting words to offer: I am haunted — we are haunted — by history, and the best we can do is build new and better hauntings atop the old ones. We can only hope that when we ourselves become ghosts, our tyranny is less cruel, less bloodthirsty, less ignorant than that of our predecessors. But I cannot say that I’m optimistic.”

A hundred pairs of eyes, each outfitted with shining mediacontacts, looked up at Evan now, sensing that he had run out of things to say. At first, he thought he saw hostility, boredom, annoyance, and skepticism in the sea of faces before him. But then, observing the ubiquitous glint of Twitter blue shining in their networked eyes, he saw the truth. They hadn’t heard a single thing he’d said.

Pretty Cool

in Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, Uncategorized

It’s hard for me to believe sometimes, but I submitted my dissertation prospectus in December of 2005, during my fourth year as a graduate student in the Department of English at Stanford University. At the time — having recently read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with his argument in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” — I formed a suspicion that irony might be an interesting subject to investigate, that the anxieties irony aroused, the love it elicited, the confusion it promoted might reward sustained study.

Ten years later, that prospectus, and the investigation it initiated, have become a book. I recently submitted the corrected PDF proofs of Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, the final textual outcome of my vague doctoral dissatisfaction. The book now has a cover and is available for preorder on Amazon and elsewhere. I can’t quite bring myself to believe that the project is finished — and in the months leading up to its publication by Harvard University Press in March 2016 I have no doubt that I will imagine myriad ways I might revise or rewrite my arguments.

But the book really is done and it’s coming out pretty soon and as the publication date approaches I’ll try to post some informal thoughts on the argument of the book on this blog. Here go the cover (I love the cover, by the way) and official description:

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Charting a new course in the criticism of postwar fiction, Cool Characters examines the changing status of irony in American cultural and political life from World War II to the present, showing how irony migrated from the countercultural margins of the 1950s to the cultural mainstream of the 1980s. Along the way, irony was absorbed into postmodern theory and ultimately become a target of recent writers who have sought to create a practice of “postirony” that might move beyond its limitations.

As a concept, irony has been theorized from countless angles, but Cool Characters argues that it is best understood as an ethos: an attitude or orientation toward the world, embodied in different character types, articulated via literary style. Lee Konstantinou traces five such types—the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier—in new interpretations of works by authors including Ralph Ellison, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Dave Eggers, William Gibson, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Rachel Kushner.

For earlier generations of writers, irony was something vital to be embraced, but beginning most dramatically with David Foster Wallace, dissatisfaction with irony, especially with its alleged tendency to promote cynicism and political passivity, gained force. Postirony—the endpoint in an arc that begins with naive belief, passes through irony, and arrives at a new form of contingent conviction—illuminates the literary environment that has flourished in the United States since the 1990s.