Hipsters and the New Gilded Age

in hipsters, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Mark Greif, new gilded age, Richard Lloyd

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I’d like to post a few comments on Mark Greif’s excellent essay, "What was the Hipster?" which was published in New York magazine and is part of a new book of the same name put out by the n+1 Foundation.

I.

Greif’s essay has led me to reflect on some theories I’ve been cultivating, in the darkest recesses of my academic mind, over the last year. Sometime in the middle of 2009, I became convinced that literature — and the support systems that give it life — don’t arise from a vacuum, though literary critics often treat it as if it does. This thought is, in a sense, quite elementary:  writers and readers develop within specific institutional contexts — educational, economic, and juridical, which are necessary for literature to flourish.  My own sense of literary possibility, my own love of certain writers, arose within such institutions.  As a correlary, I have become convinced that, though critics endlessly love to complain about it, the midcentury ascendence of middlebrow culture (and the authority of the literary novel in the United States) is intimately tied to the history of the middle class, which as a group has the resources, education, and leisure to produce and consume such literature.  Though these institutions, and the forms of authority they have engendered, have often excluded and marginalized nonwhites, women, nonheterosexuals, among others, our goal should be to make our institutions more egalitarian, more inclusive, more reflective of our highest aspirations for freedom and creative life.

All of this isn’t to say that the relationship between the middle class and literature is in any way simple or mechanical, nor do I mean to imply that only the middle class produces literary readers and writers — such a claim would be absurd — but I would claim that the rise of the middle class after World War II played a decisive, and in many ways positive, role in shaping contemporary reading publics and constructing an environment in which literary art could flourish on a historically unprecedented scale.

If these claims are true, then the gradual but persistent erosion of the middle class — what many, including the economist Paul Krugman, have called the "new gilded age" — foretells the coming of a "correction" — perhaps massive, perhaps middling in scope — within literary culture, a correction for the worse. This correction has been the story of American literature since the early 1970s:  the destruction of the midlist, the rise of celebrity authors, the mania of the book auction, the quiet transformation of reading publics. Though magnificent literary work continues to be be written and published — and we should have no doubt that great art will continue do be created — the conditions under which art is produced and consumed are growing more constricted, leading many creative writers to take refuge in the University, if they’re lucky. While many critics blame technology and mass media for declining mass interest in serious literature — and some critics, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick, make the claim that the discourse of the death of the novel arises from male white anxiety about the multicultural expansion of literary culture — I think changes within our socioeconomic life since the early 1970s are a crucial and understudied part of the story.

II.

(1) It is in the context of these reflections that I think we must understand what the hipster is and what he (the hipster is almost invariably male) portends for the relationship between economic and cultural life. I should say from the outset that the sort of hipster Greif is talking about has only a glancing relationship to the midcentury hipster celebrated by Anatole Broyard, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer; there is much to say about this earlier incarnation of the hipster (in my dissertation, I wrote almost eighty pages on the midcentury hipster), but this figure bears little connection to what we mean today when we call someone a hipster.

Greif describes the contemporary hipster this way:

When we talk about the contemporary hipster, we’re talking about a subcultural figure who emerged by 1999, enjoyed a narrow but robust first phase until 2003, and then seemed about to dissipate into the primordial subcultural soup, only to undergo a reorganization and creeping spread from 2004 to the present.

The matrix from which the hipster emerged included the dimension of nineties youth culture, often called alternative or indie, that defined itself by its rejection of consumerism. Yet in an ethnography of Wicker Park, Chicago, in the nineties, the sociologist Richard Lloyd documented how what he called “neo-bohemia” unwittingly turned into something else: the seedbed for post-1999 hipsterism. Lloyd showed how a culture of aspiring artists who worked day jobs in bars and coffee shops could unintentionally provide a milieu for new, late-capitalist commerce in design, marketing, and web development. The neo-bohemian neighborhoods, near to the explosion of new wealth in city financial centers, became amusement districts for a new class of rich young people. The indie bohemians (denigrated as slackers) encountered the flannel-clad proto-businessmen and dot-com paper millionaires (denigrated as yuppies), and something unanticipated came of this friction

And, elaborating on the hipster’s relationship to oppositional culture and the avant-garde, Greif concludes:

One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters.

Though well-observed and pleasantly cutting — as a resident of San Francisco’s Mission district, I can testify to the accuracy of this assessment — Greif misses an opportunity to decisively define the new breed of hipster, let alone find adequate grounds for critiquing this figure, and he proceeds instead through the accretion of examples and the dropping of accurate hipster brand names (showing, of course, his own critical hipness). Greif gives us a hint of a truely critical definition of the hipster in his discussion of Richard Lloyd’s terrific 2005 study, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, but he misses what may be Lloyd’s most startling point. The neo-bohemian enclaves of Wicker Park, Williamsburg, and the Mission are filled with aspiring artists and "creative-class" quasiprofessionals who accept disempowering, low-wage work in the creative service economy as a sign of distinction and liberation.  These new hipsters are just waiting for their big break while waiting tables.

In my own work, which builds on Lloyd’s study, I define the contemporary hipster as a type of person who is intensely focused on a process of self-making by means of strategic consumption. That is, the hipster constructs an identity by becoming something like a professional shopper, an "early adopter" of trends and fashions, as Greif rightly points out. What the hipster disavows is, quite specifically, an awareness of his class situation. What is the hipster’s class situation? Fundamentally, I would argue, the hipster is a child of the middle class, typically college educated, who — as Lloyd points out — has abandoned the project of reproducing his class status in order to enter the perpetual carnival of the lifestyle service industry. College degree in hand, the hipster works in coffee shops, in bars, as a permanent intern, aspires to artistic greatness, and is enjoying his relative penury, which is convenient because during the "new gilded age" there simply aren’t enough jobs to reproduce the hipster’s class, even if he wanted to.

(2) This leads me to a second critique of Greif’s argument. Perhaps inadvertently, "What was the hipster?" reproduces the authenticity-seeking imperative of hipness. In his important books, The Conquest of Cool and One Market Under God, Thomas Frank’s point isn’t that rebel consumers constitute a "fake" counterculture but rather that counterculture is, and has always been, completely harmonious with the ethic of consumption. Malcolm Cowley got it right when he diagnosed the bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village as, at root, a "consumption ethic," observing in 1934 that "self-expression and paganism encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match," that "[l]iving for the moment meant buying an automobile, radio or house, using it now and paying for it tomorrow." The notion that hipsters ought, like "real" counterculturalists — by Greif’s account, "bike messengers, straight-edge skaters, Lesbian Avengers, freegans, enviro-anarchists, and interracial hip-hoppers who live as they please" — raise "a spiritual middle finger" in the face of authority misses the salient point that (like Broyard’s midcentury hipsters) the middle finger in question is only ever spiritual or symbolic. Is a middle-finger-waving Lesbian Avenger, who feel spiritually good, but has no political power, in any better situation than the ever vilified hipster?

(3) I would thus emphasize that what is missing from Greif’s analysis of the new hipster is a robust notion of class as well as a critique of the way in which the imaginative life of the hipster is premised on certain kinds of obfuscations and short-term magical thinking. The hipster is a person who is convinced he is going to be a Great Artist — even if his art is a form of lifestyle or brand management — and he tells himself that he will keep working that bartending job another year, keep working as a barista until his band, his brand, his novel takes flight. There will, of course, come a time of reckoning — what I have sometimes described to friends as a Great Sucking Sound — as the college-educated aesthetes of the middle class find themselves unable to reproduce their class status. Some would-be hipsters will find salvation in grad school, some will make their way into elite law schools, and some will rediscover their inner management consultant, but not all of them will, not enough.  After the reckoning to come, the pool of the middle class will have shrunk, and the children of hipsters will, when taken as a group, find themselves unable to reproduce the neo-bohemian folkways of their fathers and mothers. Unless, of course, the middle finger they raise ceases to be symbolic or spiritual.

III.

I write all of this not to counsel despair or cynicism. Quite the opposite. I think that the seeds of genuine opposition to authority — of an art-loving coalition committed to unmaking the new gilded age — might need to find grounds other than the symbolic or the spiritual. My premise is that by understanding our situation, we can work to change it. Am I wrong to think so?

1 Comment

The Xtranormal Future of the Humanities

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

In the spirit of continuing the conversation we have been having on Arcade about Stanley Fish, the recent axing of French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theatre at SUNY Albany, and the future of the humanities, I’d like to present this video (h/t Mark Vega).

This is a video created using "xtranormal," a service that allows one to choreograph computer generated figurines, creating primitive animated three dimensional storyboards, based on text inputs. While painful and funny — especially for those of us who are on the job market this year — xtranormal raises interesting questions about possible new directions in the development of narrative art, giving us a hint of what is to come, what critics will have to give consideration to.

The tools with which this video were created are relatively primitive, but should we expect narrative art of considerable sophistication to be created using tools such as this in the near future? It seems clear to me that the answer is yes — we will in a not-too-near future be inundated by animated narrative in huge quantities. And, as I hope this video makes plain, such videos can be incredibly intelligent and engaging. Of course, anyone who has ever watched South Park — or, as I have, taught episodes of South Park in a course — already knows this.

In a future where anyone, working more or less alone, can construct films of (increasing) sophistication, will the ultimate promise of being a novelist — sole, individual control over one’s artistic output, at least in theory — give way to a world of one-person moviemakers? Will all classic literature be mediated by a new layer of animated figures acting out plots and scenarios originally written in novelistic form? If so, is this a bad thing? Are there pedagogical opportunities such systems offer teachers willing to embed new media in the classroom?

Lacanian Lipstick on an Unconscious Pig

in Adam Serwer, Amy Hungerford, Fredric Jameson, Gavin Miller, Jacques Lacan, Philip Roth, Philosophy and Literature, psychoanalysis, The Human Stain

(Crossposted at ARCADE.)

Gavin Miller has a written a fascinating article,"The Apathetic Fallacy," in the April 2010 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Following up on the arguments made by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in "Against Theory," Miller argues that the humanities are plagued by a wide-ranging — and harmful — taboo against speaking about intentionality and subjective epistemology.  Our main mistake, he contends, is that we mistake objective ontology with objective epistemology.  Because we aspire to be scientific, we dismiss arguments that rely on introspection and fear the consequences of accepting "first-person warranted claims" (a fear first expressed by advocates of behaviorist psychology).  This leads to absurd readings of texts, such as Fredric Jameson’s famous Lacan-inspired misreading of Bob Perelman’s "China," which allegedly exemplifies the schizophrenic breakdown of signifying chains under conditions of late capitalism.

Let me share my favorite paragraph of Miller’s essay, an example meant to illustrate the limitations of Lacanian psychoanalysis: 

The ethics of the Lacanian “unconscious” are, I believe, less than benign. The interpretative practice that Fink describes seems indistinguishable from the hermeneutics of abuse directed at Barack Obama for his 2008 campaign comment that “you can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” This remark was meant as a metaphor for Republican policy, but was interpreted by the Republicans as a reference to Sarah Palin’s candidature for Vice-President. The “pig” in the metaphor, they insisted, was Palin, who had earlier joked—with implicit reference to herself—that the difference between “a hockey mom and a pit bull [terrier]” was “lipstick.” Had only the Republicans been more Lacanian, they could have added that Obama’s repudiation of this interpretation indicated his pre-analytic investment in a specular image of wholeness and self-identity.

This example neatly expresses the crux of Miller’s argument, revealing both its strengths and the questions it begs. lipstick on a pigMiller is in essence asking, what kind of loon would blame Obama for calling Sarah Palin a lipstick-wearing pig?  George Saunders might say this kind:

So, when Barack Obama says he will put some lipstick on my pig, I am, like, Are you calling me a pig? If so, thanks! Pigs are the most non-Élite of all barnyard animals. And also, if you put lipstick on my pig, do you know what the difference will be between that pig and a pit bull? I’ll tell you: a pit bull can easily kill a pig. And, as the pig dies, guess what the Hockey Mom is doing? Going to her car, putting on more lipstick, so that, upon returning, finding that pig dead, she once again looks identical to that pit bull, which, staying on mission, the two of them step over the dead pig, looking exactly like twins, except the pit bull is scratching his lower ass with one frantic leg, whereas the Hockey Mom is carrying an extra hockey stick in case Todd breaks his again. But both are going, like, Ha ha, where’s that dumb pig now? Dead, that’s who, and also: not a smidge of lipstick.

A lose-lose for the pig.

As the political blogger Adam Serwer has recently argued, the American right has increasingly taken up the mantle of identity politics — "an identity politics which perceives persecution, and possible extinction, for a culturally constructed usually white, conservative, ‘real American’" — embracing the politically correct tendencies formerly associated with liberalism.  More and more, I would add, it is the left (more so even than liberalism) that is opposing identity politics, trying to make connections, to disrupt the absurdist malfunction of reasoning that Saunders represents in the form of his narrator’s damaged discourse.  Which is not to say that Saunders doesn’t also reinforce some hoary culture war stereotypes — his satire was, after all, published in the New Yorker, and seems to complain that supporters of Palin aren’t merely wrong, but stupid.  My minimal point, though, is that the apathetic fallacy Miller discusses is a bipartisan affair on the American political scene.

But is there no defense we might mount of Saunders’s narrator’s misinterpretation of Obama or Jameson’s misreading of Perelman?  I am certainly a fan of referring to intentionality in critical arguments I make.  I’ve spent a considerable about of time in archives this summer and during previous summers looking for evidence to justify my various critical claims, on the assumption that authorial intention matters.  But isn’t the common confusion of intended-meaning with what we might call significance, well, significant?

And, if we are to speak of the ethical dimensions of how we use language, to what degree should we hold someone responsible for the significance of the words they use?  To what degree is it valid to judge the success of art in terms of its effect on its consumer?  It seems hard to maintain that intention should always trump significance.  Aesthetic responses are, to different degrees, grounded upon our appreciation of the nonsemantic qualities of speech, as Amy Hungerford points out on her recent study, Postmodern Belief.  We frequently treat the nonsemantic — the aesthetic, cultural, social, historical — as though it were a kind of meaning or had the force of meaning.  Whole artistic movements have been built around such conflations.  Should we simply banish or ignore these movements?  Judge them as failures because they get their theory wrong?

This sort of confusion is at the heart of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, a novel that revolves around the "politically correct" misapprehension of intention.  Coleman Silk, a classics professor at Athena College, is punished as racist for using the word "spook" in reference to two absent black students, despite the fact that he meant the expression to have no racist meaning.  He was merely referring to the ghost-like absence of his students, he explains.  And yet Roth is too cagy to simply come out on the side of intention, against significance, though his sympathies pretty clearly lie with Silk.  After all, Roth might have constructed his parable of political correctness run amok without also making Silk someone who is passing for white and as a Jew.  This plot development exposes some of the limits of grounding critical analysis in the investigation of intentionality.  Can Silk "intend" himself white?  Clearly, Silk doesn’t think so.  He believes that his blackness is a function of who he is, not what he means or what he does.  Otherwise, there would be no such practice as "passing."  As Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, without a sense of racial essentialism, a "passing" Coleman Silk would simply be white because he is taken as white. 

But if blackness isn’t what Silk does, but rather who he is, then he shouldn’t be able to submit his blackness as evidence that he is not racist, at least not if he believes that it is only his intentions that ought to count in judging his language.  His blackness is, because he understands himself to be passing, definitionally not a function of his intentions and meanings.  So, paradoxically, Silk is submitting his blackness (who he is) as evidence that he could not be making a racist statement (what he means), despite the fact that being who he is by definition has no meaning if intention is what really matters.  It only has significance.  Ergo, Silk must be saying something like, "As a black man, I am alive to the significance of racist words and phrases.  It is therefore reasonable for you to assume that I would not use words with a pejorative significance.  From this set of facts, you can reverse-engineer my intention and my true meaning."  

So even Silk must rest his self-defense on the notion that there ought limits to what one can say — he implicitly accepts these limits, tacitly claims to be very much aware of them — regardless of one’s true intentions.  Though he avoids the apathetic fallacy, his difference from his persecutors is one of degree, not kind.  Silk continues to believe, as the administration of Athena College does, that you are obliged to confront common or public interpretations of your words even if those interpretations don’t express your real intention.  Just as one cannot defend oneself when breaking the law by claiming not to know the law — "I shouldn’t be fined because I didn’t know I was supposed to curb my dog!" — one cannot disown the significance of one’s language.  This in no way is meant to be a judgment about what specific consequences should follow from violating these socially determined limits, only to say that Silk seems to be on the same page as his enemies.

Bringing this discussion back to "The Apathetic Fallacy," I find myself agreeing with Miller that we should not commit the apathetic fallacy — we should not discount subjective epistemology or confuse objectivity in epistemology with objectivity in ontology — but I do feel we should also guard against the false belief that in not committing this fallacy we have excised the responsibility that we have for our words (both their meaning and their significance).  Miller doesn’t seem to hold to a strong version of this view, but in the Manichean cultures that have defined literary study over the last thirty years, and here Michaels can be deemed as guilty as those who he often rightly disagrees with, swinging too far the other way is a… significant risk.  

Op-Ed Preview: WikiLeaks vs. Top Secret America

in Uncategorized

My satirical political novel "Pop Apocalypse" presents a future world in which the U.S. goes on an invasion spree around the world. Among other places, I had my fictional U.S. invade Iceland. It seemed like a great gag: Why would the U.S. want to invade a tiny country of 250,000 people in the Arctic Circle whose most notable export is Bjork?

But reality always finds a way of outrunning satire. On Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen suggested that Iceland is, in effect, aiding an enemy of the U.S., Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Last week, WikiLeaks released more than 90,000 classified documents related to the Afghan war, which paint a ground-level picture of the war far grimmer than official pronouncements.

Assange often works from Iceland. Thiessen thinks the government can — and by implication should — consider "not only law enforcement but also intelligence and military assets to bring Assange to justice and put his criminal syndicate out of business.

So should we expect drone strikes over Iceland? Will the U.S. render Assange to a black site? Will he be held indefinitely in a cell as an enemy combatant?

To read the rest of "WikiLeaks vs. Top Secret America," visit AOL News.

Thanks to Gina Misiroglu for connecting me to AOL.

The New Sociology, or, in Praise of the Middle Zone

in 20 under 40, James F. English, LATfob, new sociology, New Yorker

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Mark McGurl’s The Program Era ends with an insightful reflection on the problem of "scale" in literary study — our almost automatic assumption that we must always scale up the stakes of literary study in order to argue for our relevance.  Bigger, we commonly assume, is better, and will garner for us more funding, more attention, more significance. "[I]t is characteristic of the cognitive expansionism of literary studies… that most of its energy has been invested in extending outward from the nation rather than inward to the regions and localities, not to mention the institutions, that are equally corrective to the thoughtless assumption of disciplinary nationalism." McGurl concludes (rightly, I think) that there is no one right scale of literary study, and that a focus on the subnational — for example, on the institution — is as valid an area of critical focus as a focus on the transnational, cosmopolitan, diasporic, and global.

James F. English makes a similar point in his brilliant book on cultural prizes — both literary and nonliterary —The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Value.

On the other hand, we have various attempts to survey and pronounce upon the circumstances and trajectories of cultural life as a whole, based on general theories of cultural production and consumption and broad assessments of national or global trends. What’s left out is the whole middle-zone of cultural space, a space crowded not just with artists and consumers but with bureaucrats, functionaries, patrons, and administrators of culture, vigorously producing and deploying such instruments as the best-of list, the film festival, the artists’ convention, the book club, the piano competition. Scholars have barely begun to study these sorts of instruments in any detail, to construct their histories, gather ethnographic data from their participants, come to an understanding of their specific logics or rules and of the different ways they are being played and played with. In our time, prizes have become by far the most widespread and powerful of all such instruments. But there are many other candidates for the sort of analysis I am undertaking here, especially in the areas of arts sponsorship, journalism, and higher education.

McGurl and English participate in what English has called — and what I think we should all, in our mania for naming, call — the "New Sociology of Literature" (on which there will be a forthcoming issue of NLH). Take a look at English’s course description of the same name, to get a sense of its contours:

[T]he convergence of sociology and literary studies has never been more widespread or more productive. Some instances include the history of the book, as developed by Chartier, Darnton, Stallybrass, and others; the sociological critique of aesthetics as revolutionized by Bourdieu, Herrnstein Smith, Guillory, and the New Economic critics; analyses of literary intellectuals and the conditions of academic life (Graff, Readings, Watkins, Collini, etc.); the expansion of reception studies (Radway); the impact of systems theory on literary studies and aesthetics (Luhmann); and recent scholarship on culture and governmentality (Hunter, Bennett). Meanwhile, within Sociology departments, the study of literature has acquired new energy and visibility, thanks to the revitalizing impact of Bourdieu, the influence of Konstanz school reception aesthetics (Griswold, Long), the “strong program” in cultural sociology at Yale (Alexander, Smith), and the explosive theoretical interventions of Bruno Latour. Finally, we can point to the recent impact of work by Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova, suggesting as it does that the expanded optic required by comparative, transnational, or global frameworks of analysis demands a new articulation of literary with sociological method.

I think this middle zone — whether or not we want to call its study "sociology" — has much to recommend it as an area of focus. At best, our focus on the "middle" helps us keep in sight both the difficulties that inhere in individual works or groups of works and the broader "field" within which authors reflexively position themselves. For example, does this framework — English’s focus on prizes; and his discussion of the analogy between athletic and humanistic contests — not illuminate the New Yorker‘s recent cover, "Literary Field," by Chris Ware, which launches its "20 under 40" fiction issues (more of which are forthcoming)?  Is the bitter, eye-rolling, angry conversation the publication of this list has aroused not precisely predicted by English’s analysis, not in some sense precisely its point?

 

What is the significance of issues like this?  A similar commotion or uproar arose — entirely predictably — after The Millions released its "Best Fiction of the Millennium" list last year.  To what degree should we accept such lists and prizes as a natural part of the cultural field, or, if we don’t like such lists and prizes, what can we do to dismantle these middle-zone institutions?  I ask these questions both because I’d love to read your answers in comments and also to remind skeptics what reflexive sociology should be: not a weary explanation for why we’re all fundamentally cynical position-seekers — though who can deny that we sometimes are? — but rather a way of understanding our own situation, and the larger dynamics our individual choices participate in creating, that allows us finally to take control over that situation, to change the field or dynamic we are also analyzing and embedded within. 

The Origins of Bad Writing

in bad writing, future of the humanities

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

As Cecile Alduy points out in a recent ARCADE post, bad writing is far too common in literary criticism, which is surprising given the degree to which we are supposed to be attentive students of language and style. Cecile’s post has gotten me thinking, Why do we write so badly? This badness originates, I think, from a set of conflicting institutional imperatives, which get turned into habits of mind. Here go a few explanations I’ve come up with. Please do add more in the comments section.

(i) Despite various disciplinary innovations over the last three decades, we are still asked to become specialists in historically and nationally defined fields, but we are simultaneously told that the essence of literary study is attention to form. Thus, our object of expertise is confused right from the start. Are we formalists or historians? Can we be both?

(ii) Despite the wane of theory, we are still told that literary study must be made "rigorous" through the "application" of various kinds of theory. Unfortunately, each theory or theoretical tradition is taught to us only in partial or fragmentary form, either in "Introduction to Theory" courses or as secondary reading in traditionally (historically, formally) denominated courses. E.g., Let’s read a helping of queer theory with our early modern drama! This gives birth to a theoretical "mash-up" culture, in which radically incompatible theories populate our arguments. E.g., I’m a Lacanian postMarxist deeply concerned with a Spinozan debates surrounding postcolonial ethics, especially in relation to the Victorian novel!

(iii) Part of our scholarly training involves reading huge amounts of secondary material larded with jargon. We learn that to be a serious scholar or critic is to speak in a certain idiom. Canny aspiring professionals, we write in the style of what we are asked to read.

(iv) Often, despite our disciplinary self-definition, there is an attendant sense that simply writing about literature or cultural phenomena is not sufficient. If we want the grant or the fellowship that will get us through the next year, we need to concoct elaborate answers to the "so-what" question. We therefore have an incentive to aggrandize the importance of our work: we’re being political, challenging norms, overturning conventional modes of thought, etc. Who knew a close reading of a naturalist novel could do so much positive political work!

(v) Finally, after we’ve written our stylistically mangled dissertations, which try to speak to or satisfy all of the above, we’re asked to turn the dissertation into a book that has a "wider audience." Well, we’ve already written three or four hundred pages in our carefully cultivated "bad" style. We’re not likely to make much of a change, and — I’d suggest — we’ve largely internalized the habits of writing that result in the badness of our style. From here on out, this is how we’ve habituated ourselves to write critical prose. Breaking those habits — which, if we’re lucky, have led to our successful academic careers — will be very difficult, indeed.

This is, as I say, only a partial list of explanations, and certainly not meant to be a deterministic account of why any one person makes whatever choices he or she makes on the page. It is, at best, a model that offers guidance in formulating a new way forward. If we want to overcome our badness, I am suggesting, we need to become aware of why we’ve become bad in the first place. That is, we don’t write badly because we’re bad writers. We write badly because we’re canny or good writers, who write to survive in a very confused institutional ecology. As we change our writing — and we are each responsible for our own writing — we must also change that ecology. How to do so may become the subject of a future post. Suggestions are welcome.

Interview

in Alex Kudera

Over at When Falls the Coliseum — a “journal of American culture [of lack thereof]” — Alex Kudera interviews your truly. We discussed politics, literature, and doppelgangers, not necessarily in that order. Check it out.

Beard’s Women, or, the Problem with Ian McEwan’s “Solar” (2010)

in Ian McEwan, Solar

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) has received mixed reviews, and for good reason. It’s a novel that starts with remarkable strength. Unlike Adam Roberts, over at The Valve, I found the novel’s Arctic penis-freezing-and-possible-castration set piece somewhat funny, in a South Parkish sort of way; although I must, only somewhat proudly, admit to the utter baseness of my sense of humor. But after a strong start (which could almost serve as a stand-alone novella), Solar quickly peters out, dissipating much of the momentum it builds in its first part. The remainder of the novel is only intermittently successful as a satire of the global warming debate. Writing for the Telegraph, Tibor Fischer describes the novel ably as "a mash-up of the Hampstead adultery novel and a conflation of the Bradbury/Lodge academic satire, with the merest dash of politics (George W, New Labour spin), and a side order of the trusty McEwan standby of violence." "Merest dash" is absolutely right.

Told in three parts, Solar narrates the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel prize winning physicist whose best days are behind him. Riding off the fumes of his Prize, he floats from one occasional position to another, giving speeches, cashing in his cultural capital. He is also a global warming skeptic who is invited to become part of the National Centre for Renewable Energy, which is dedicated to spearheading technological solutions to climate change. As we might expect of McEwan, various complicated plot developments ensue. By the end of the novel, Beard — who becomes a believer in the reality of anthropogenic climate change — has stolen the work of a colleague at the Centre, has created his own solar cell start-up, which will deploy a new generation of solar cells in New Mexico, and stands on the cusp of his greatest triumph, a worthy followup to his brilliant earlier work. Things, as you might expect, don’t work out so well for Beard. The façade of fraud he has built his success upon threatens to crush him under its tremendous weight. And it does, in a kind of creaking or mechanical way.

The main problem with the book is Beard. As many others have noted, Solar is only indirectly about global warming, though McEwan slips in his own relatively uninteresting, New Labourish views of the debate. (Spoiler alert: The market and technology will save the day!). McEwan’s real concern is apparent in his novel’s first line: “He belonged to that class of men — vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever — who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.” Solar is really about Beard’s myriad farcical relationships with beautiful women, all of whom find him unaccountably attractive. Indeed, we never witness Beard being clever. The account of the seduction of his first wife — his decision to learn about Milton in order to impress her — comes across as flat and unconvincing. In the immortal terms of creative writing teachers everywhere, one wishes McEwan would do a little more “showing” and a little less “telling” about Beard’s charm, wit, and appeal.

Why does this matter? It matters because Solar‘s plot depends on whether or not we believe in the truth of the novel’s first line. That is, McEwan’s failure to “show” matters because the crescendo of the novel stages the collision of two of Beard’s women, his only child, and his solar cell project in New Mexico. By the end of the novel, one wonders why anyone would want to have anything to do with Beard. His behavior is so self-destructive, his decisions so ridiculously implausible, his grotesque fatness so disgustingly rendered, that one cannot help but conclude that Beard’s women are (1) unaccountably stupid, or (2) caricatures unworthy of our interest or attention.

This is all a backhanded way of saying I wish Solar had actually been a novel about global warming rather than a novel that uses global warming as a backdrop or fashionable context within which to paint the portrait of a boorish, narcissistic, and unrepentant protagonist. Not that I have any problems with representing “unsympathetic” characters in fiction. The problem is, even accepting McEwan’s peripheral interest in global warming, that Beard is not unsympathetic in any interesting ways and that his caddish appeal is unconvincingly rendered. In her sharp blog posting on the novel, Rohan Amanda Maitzen claims that Solar is successful at stimulating the head but not the heart. On the contrary, though I agree that my heart did not much notice Solar, the novel was not particularly successful at stimulating my head, despite its excellent opening section.

The Blank Page with the Blinking Cursor

in future of publishing

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

What does it mean to own a community?

This is something like the central question motivating a fascinating talk by Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press and founder of Cursor, a reading start-up that promises to "[t]ransform[] the social contract of publishing by restoring the writer-reader relationship to its true equilibrium," whatever that means.

I have a number of complex reactions to Nash’s argument.  Many might object to the marketing-heavy language ("brand equity," etc.) here, but I have imbibed enough marketing theory to be convinced that Nash is basically right about the need for publishers to reimagine what they’re doing.  Moreover, he is right to say that Oprah’s book club is more about injecting more Oprah into the heads of her viewers — should they consider wearing tinfoil hats, just to be safe? — than it is about giving an altruistic helping hand to a struggling publishing industry.  As though James Frey needs her pity — I suspect he has more serious problems.

My main objection is that Nash focuses too much on the management of demand for literature, but says almost nothing about how that demand comes into the world.  Who or what produces demand?  Demand for what exactly?  As I’ve argued elsewhere on Arcade, it is our educational systems, among other literary institutions, that produce demand.  To be as clear as possible, it is not the market operating on its own that produces demand — including, especially, during the so-called golden age of publishing — but rather massive quantities of public money, pumped into literary education decade after decade, your tax dollars and mine at work.

Unless we again prime the pump of demand creation — i.e., fund humanistic education at all levels, provide a decent standard of living to every person — does publishing not risk riding the demand curve down the long tail of oblivion?

Restoration, Rejoice!

in Uncategorized

It has taken a while, largely due to my laziness, but I’ve finally found a way to restore the blog postings that got lost in the shuffle when my site was hacked back around December. Their formatting’s a bit wonky, but the old posts are back. Enjoy.