Reading under Neoliberalism

in Andrew Goldstone, Joshua Landy, neoliberalism, The Millions, The Program Era

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

This post is a response to a comment made by Andrew Goldstone in a comments thread on Joshua Landy’s fascinating Arcade blog post, "Human Minds, Literary Texts, and CD Players."  I was originally going to post this as a comment, but the response grew too long and unwieldy, so here it is as a stand-alone blog post. Suffice it to say, you should read Josh’s provocative posting, and the comments thread before proceeding.

In his original post, Josh proposes that "[i]f we abandon our efforts to train minds" in the project of reading and appreciating poetry "certain kinds of human pleasure [i.e., poetry reading –LK] will eventually fall forever out of reach," and poetry will come to resemble CDs in a world without CD players.  In my original comment, I agreed with this sentiment, and suggested that the source of poetry’s public decline can be traced to changes in our educational institutions and reading priorities, which have also eroded the public position of literary fiction.  Andrew asks, in response to my comment, about Mark McGurl’s claim, in The Program Era, that university creative writing programs have radically enlarged the sphere of "good" writing.

I largely agree with Mark’s claim that more good fiction is being produced now than has ever been produced before, though The Program Era reads texts (and careers) in relation to the institutional context of their production, and (understandably) doesn’t do the empirical legwork of quantifying this big, provocative claim — if such quantification is even possible.  Still, I am enough of a vulgar materialist to believe that when the R&D-oriented university pours cash into the project of developing good fiction writers, it will yield fruit.  It indisputably has.

The question Josh’s post got me thinking about is the demand side of the equation, whether this flood of good fiction is connecting with readers, and — if so — how.  Readers read, as they always have, even in an increasingly complex media environment, but what do they read?  How do they read?  In what direction is our reading culture heading?

I began thinking about these questions at last year’s ACLA, where I was part of a panel called "Master of the Universe: Literature, Culture, and Finance Culture"; the panel organizer, Patrick Gallagher, gave a fascinating paper on the rise of conglomerate-owned publishers and the effect of media conglomeration on literary production.  The short version is that midlist authors got killed.  In the era of what we could call "neoliberal publishing," every book was now supposed to turn a profit; bestsellers no longer subsidized what editors deemed to be high-quality products.  Editors became warier of taking risks "developing" young writers.  The results are obvious for all to see.  We now live in the era of gigantic-advance-getting celebrity authors.  Even literary authors operate on the model of celebrity.  These developments occurred alongside other developments, including the rise of creative writing, but I think they had a serious effect.

Literary scholars need to investigate this transformation in literary culture.  My unsubstantiated hunch is that the reading public has begun a long-term process of parting ways with literary writers.  I think, beyond the rise of the university creative writing program and the conglomeration of publishing, transformations in the broader US economy have had a serious effect on our public literary culture.  My very sketchy thesis would go like so:  When the American economy experienced its postwar boom — across-the-board manufacturing-led growth — readers sought to "sophisticate" themselves.  Suburbs expanded, cars were purchased; the population was upwardly mobile on a number of fronts, including in the domain of literary consumption.  Sometime around the early seventies, things began to change.  Stagflation hit the economy; manufacturing fractured, and the service economy absorbed formerly high-wage upwardly mobile unionized workers; inequality began to increase, leading to social and educational stratification; an increasingly competitive media environment put downward pressure on the low-profit literary marketplace.  For the "ambitious" literary writer, the University became appealing because it provided a shelter from the broader economy.  

Thus: Time once put Updike on its covers; today, it features Dan Brown.  Readers of the New Yorker needn’t worry, though; they still enjoy interesting reviews of high literature (whether or not you like James Wood).  Mysteriously, though, the copies of the New Yorker sitting open beside me as I type this post have advertisements for BMW, Louis Vuitton, and iPhones.  

Whether the parting ways of reader and writer is good or bad remains unclear.  If literature has a public mission — if reading a well-crafted novel (or poetry) affords unique, serious, and vital pleasures for all people — then we are moving in a bad direction, despite the profusion of good writing in creative writing programs.  If long-form prose fiction gives us nothing that an engaging television show doesn’t already give us — and I in no way mean to disparage television; I’ve watched more than my fair share — then there’s no reason to worry; we can just renew our subscriptions to Netflix.

The truth may live somewhere between those two poles, but I must admit, I am a partisan to the idea that every person ought to have the capacity — and the desire — to occasionally sit down and read a long, difficult, rewarding novel.  Many, many people still do.  But we should not assume that they always will, even if great fiction continues to be produced in great quantities.

Norms, Norms, Norms

in Amanda Anderson, Judith Butler, Richard Rorty, Seyla Benhabib

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I’ve been rereading Amanda Anderson’s fascinating and cogent collection of essays, The Way We Argue Now. Reading through her opening account of the debate between Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler, a version of the Habermas-Foucault debate in the domain of feminist theory, we find this cogent summary by Anderson of the differences between each thinker’s definition of the term "norm":

Paralleling these divergent understandings of autonomy are fundamentally different conceptions of “norms.” For Benhabib, a norm is a rule or principle that provides criteria for evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an action or practice. One might specify such norms as evaluative norms. While Benhabib believes the norms of reciprocity and respect are embedded in communicative practices and reproduced through socialization, she follows Habermas in calling for our selfreflexive justification and extension of such norms. For Butler, by contrast, norms are mechanisms of social reproduction and identity formation internal to hegemonic social structures. One might specify these norms as functional or normalizing norms. Whereas Benhabib would certainly distinguish between these two senses of norm and fully admit the existence of the latter, it is not at all clear that Butler admits a distinction in kind between them. Indeed it would seem for her that all normativity ultimately reduces to normalization. Even more: Butler feels that evaluative norms are insidious precisely insofar as they attempt to mask their normalizing power. (30)

I find this to be a very succinct description of the two senses in which humanities scholars use the term "norm." We either celebrate the aspiration toward a universal system of ethical principles, on the theory that such a system promises human liberation, or we decry the secretly normalizing impact of allegedly universal claims, focusing on who gets necessarily excluded by the project of articulating universalist ethical principles.

I am interested in what seems to me to be a signifiant omission here: a sense of norm I would term "functional norms," a sense quite important to parliamentary procedures, traffic management, etiquette, and narratology. When we drive down a road and keep (in the U.S.) to the right side of the road — to give the most banal but clearest example — are we not performing and possibly internalizing norms just as much as when we (as Benhabib would emphasize) condemn a neoNazi from a universalist stance or when we (as Butler would emphasize) accept a pernicious heteronormativity?

Is not most or all literature built around the arguably "functional" norms of typography, bibliographic convention, and tacit understandings of intelligibility (I specifically omit linguistic and syntactic regularities and patterns, because I believe these are less norms in my sense than cognitive capacities)? Does literary theory have adequate terms, tools, and categories to deal with functional norms? Is the idea of a functional norm itself a sort of pernicious obfuscation? Or, as someone like Richard Rorty might argue, are evaluative and normalizing norms really all secretly reducible to functional norms, that is norms are just conventions we let each other get away with?

Life, Art, Life

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I remember hearing once that FBI agents who had wiretaps on various mafia operations noted a change in the speaking style of the gangsters they were monitoring after Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was released in 1972.  The real gangsters began imitating the patois of their film counterparts, thoroughly identifying with their brutal ethos. 


Today, I found another example of film invading life.  Palestinian protesters are reportedly dressing up as Na’vi from James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar.  The AP notes that these activists have compared "their struggle to the intergalactic one portrayed in the film," and are opposing the separation barrier Israel has constructed in the West Bank.

Ignoring the fact that Avatar depicts an interplanetary — not intergalactic — struggle, we should ask, What does this mode of activism say about how narrative templates and popular culture shape everyday life and real-world political struggle?  Obviously, unlike the case of The Godfather, Palestinians don’t think they literally are the Na’vi, but to what degree can digital blue aliens serve as the locus of identity-formation, ethical self-definition, and new conceptualizations of human rights (ironically, or perhaps necessarily, triangulated off of the digital non-human)? 

Is this an example of activists cleverly appropriating popular culture, or an example of popular culture even more cleverly appropriating the imagination of activists?  Or is this perhaps an example of the desperate lengths to which an activist must go to get our attention — by flattering our pop cultural vanity?  Would I have written a post about Israel and Palestine if these activists had not dressed up like fictional blue aliens in a blockbuster film?  The answer is probably no.  Is that a problem? 

1 Comment

The Threshold of Politics

in Amir Eshel, Arcade crosspost, Diary of a Bad Year, Francis Fukuyama, J.M. Coetzee, Walter Benn Michaels

(Crossposted at my new blog at Arcade.)

Amir Eshel has been composing a series of fascinating posts on his Arcade blog, which I presume are related to his current book project, on life after the End of History, the return of liberalism as an object of scholarly interest, and recent trends in contemporary literature. I recommend that you read all three posts (here, here, and here) to get context for what follows. In sum, Eshel proposes that the end of the cold war saw the renewed focus on a kind of political agency that had previously been absent from film and literature.

In my response to these inquiries, I questioned Eshel’s use of the term "agency." Wasn’t the end of history supposed to be precisely the time when politics went away for good, leaving only the refinement of technical systems, the solving of local problems, and a relaxation in ideological conflict? Walter Benn Michaels reminds us of this common interpretation of the End of History in the inaugural issue of the second volume of The Baffler.

When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history back in 1989, he did so with mixed feelings. The good news, he thought, was the ideological triumph of free markets and of the political arrangement most suited to them. Even communists were talking about the importance of being competitive in the marketplace. The bad news was that without “the worldwide ideological struggle” between capitalism and socialism to inspire us, we were in for “a very sad time.” “In the post-historical period,” he wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The end of history would be good for markets, bad for art.

I should start by saying that I agree with using 1989 as a periodizing marker; what my comment was asking was whether the transition from pre- to post-89 might have had more to do with a stripping away of political agency, more a sclerosis of the political imagination than its renewal. My own research on what I call postirony underscores the plausibility of this interpretation for me, because everywhere I look on the literary scene I see authors who wonder whether they have any agency in an era of the world market, of the total system, of — in a word — postmodernity triumphant.

In his thoughtful response to my questions, Eshel invokes J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Coetzee’s novel is a complex, highly ironized artifact, which stages multiple voices in conversation, voices which literally map onto the space of the page. One of our characters is the politically frustrated C., an aging South African writer, living in Australia, and author of Waiting for the Barbarians, a clear a stand-in for Coetzee. His short political screeds, "Strong Opinions," occupy the top stack or "story" of the three-story page. The middle story of the page features a diary C. is keeping, the eponymous diary of what is a bad year indeed for C. On the lowest story of the page we meet Anya, a sexy Filipina — arguably a cliched and unconvincing character — who is employed as a typist by C., and who comments on the inanity of C.’s political fulminations.

The crux of Eshel’s response seems to be encapsulated in a complex affirmation of Anya’s claim that “Politics is all around us, it’s like the air, it’s like pollution. You can’t fight pollution. Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt.” In a supportive gloss of this sentiment, Eshel writes, “politics today might simply mean making sure that as many people as possible have clean water, minimal healthcare, functioning sewage systems and opportunities to advance. Adapting might mean seeing how this kind of politics is, indeed, ‘all around us,’ and accepting that challenge.” This is ethics (we might also say politics) without ontology.

At one level, I agree completely with Eshel’s argument. What Eshel calls "politics today" very clearly describes the dominant, pragmatic relationship citizens have to politics today, a good description of how our world actually works, day after day. On another level, what Anya is arguing for might be understood as just another way of saying what I have suggested above. The problems of the world, problems of human making, are something that are “best to ignore” or “adapt” to. In light of the political impact C. wants to have, the impact he wishes intellectuals could have, this is the end of a certain kind of agency. But what about clean water and healthcare? Are these the intellectually nonsexy issues that C. should be focusing on if he wants to be a political “agent” post-89? What is missing from Eshel’s account, it seems to me, is a justification for what it is legitimate to disagree about, or criteria for determining what belongs in the category of small-p politics and what belongs to large-P Politics. What is up for grabs, and what is off limits?

If only the projects of the world’s Stalins, Maos, Hitlers, and Pol Pots count as capital-P politics, then C. should be celebrating the end of politics. But what about the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, and the United Nations? What about labor unions, anti-war activists, and the ACLU? Preventing Anya’s boyfriend Alan from swindling an elderly intellectual: this is the crux of Anya’s "political" intervention in the novel, Eshel suggests. But is this politics or an episode of Law and Order? (And don’t get me wrong: I like Law and Order!) To bring this question back to the text of Diary of a Bad Year, let’s examine one of the most intense and uncomfortable essays that C. writes, “On national shame.”

C. informs us that

An article in a recent New Yorker makes it as plain as day that the US administration… not only sanctions the torture of prisoners taken in the so-called war on terror but is active in every way to subvert laws and conventions proscribing torture… The shamlessness is quite extraordinary … Suicide would save one’s honor, and perhaps there have already been honour suicides among Americans that one does not hear of. But what of political action? Will political action — not armed resistance but action within the ground rules of the democratic system (circulating petitions, organizing meetings, writing letters) — suffice?… In the present climate of whipped-up fear, and in the absence of any groundswell of popular revulsion against torture, political actions by individual citizens seem unlikely to have any practical effect. Yet perhaps, pursued doggedly and in a spirit of outrage, such actions will at least allow people to hold their heads up. Mere symbolic actions, on the other hand–burning the flag, pronouncing aloud the words “I abhor the leaders of my country and dissociate myself from them” — will certainly not be enough.

There is an obvious irony here. C.’s name-checking the New Yorker should inspire a bit of eye-rolling — despite Jane Mayer’s very important reporting on the U.S. torture regime, which is what C. must be reading. We might also sigh at the bombast of C.’s suggesting that the route to alleviating the shame produced by U.S. torture policies is suicide — as if this were a serious solution to serious political problems. And yet the question remains. Torture was happening. It was approved of at the highest levels, and openly applauded in the mainstream media and by esteemed public intellectuals after 9/11.

What if you, like C., don’t approve?

“Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt”?

Coetzee is here engaging in a form of postirony. C. and Anya ironize each other through mutual commentary, destabilizing C.’s skewed sense of what impact an isolated intellectual can have on mainstream political life. But the bottom line is that Coetzee, like C., cares about ending torture. Through all the novel’s layers of structural irony, his fear that he has no agency, his words have the force of conviction. I would argue that Diary of a Bad Year dramatizes the difference between Politics and politics as the difference between caring about Guantanamo Bay and caring about getting through the day. If the question is “what of political action?” and the answer is “Best to ignore it,” then perhaps C. has a reason to mourn the rise of the regime of small-p politics.

The question of whether to provide water or health care through the private market or public systems (municipal water, the Veteran’s Administration) is also a question for politics, of course, even if this is not the politics of a Lenin or Mao. And yet the nature of this political decision may turn out to be huge: transforming a private medical system to a public system, turning a public Social Security system into a big hedge fund. What seemed to have “ended” at the End of History was the viability of debate on matters that many — on the left at least — felt were not settled questions. Do markets lead to optimal outcomes? Is individual liberty really identical, or even plausibly correlated with, to the freedom to buy and sell on a market without interference?” Those who mourn the passing of capital-P Politics, more often than not, are mourning the narrowness of debate on a host of questions of enormous human significance.

Is C. not right to mourn?


in David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

I haven’t had a chance to write up the MLA panel I helped organize, “The Legacy of David Foster Wallace.” It was very well attended — especially for an 8:30 a.m. panel on the last day of the convention — and the talks were all terrific. Fortunately for me, Kathleen Fitzpatrick has written up the special session, offering much more detail than my swiss cheese memory would have been able to provide.

Here are some key tidbits (from Michael Pietsch’s talk) about Wallace’s forthcoming unfinished novel, The Pale King:

Pietsch says Wallace had been working on since 1996, and the novel went through various working titles, including “Glitterer,” “SJF” (which stood for Sir John Feelgood), and “What is Peoria For?” As we’ve heard, Wallace did extensive research for the novel in accounting, tax processes, and so forth. What I hadn’t heard before today was that various pieces we’ve seen in stand-alone form are in fact chapters of the novel, including “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and “Incarnations of Burned Children.” Pietsch is working with more than 1000 pages of manuscript, in 150 unique chapters; the novel will be published in time for tax day in April 2011. As we know, the subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity. The finished book is expected to be more than 400 pages, and will be explicitly subtitled “An Unfinished Novel”; the plan is to make available the drafts and phases the text went through on a website that will exist alongside the book. Pietsch is editing the book in close collaboration with Bonnie Nadell and the estate, but as we’ve heard him say before, he sees his role very clearly as attempting to order the text into a unified whole, and not making changes that the author isn’t there to argue with.

There is something deeply appropriate about Wallace’s decision to confront the question of boredom, given how much Infinite Jest is concerned with rapturous entertainment. It’s almost as if Wallace saw in the boring, the banal, and the cliché the best candidates for what used to be called grace or spiritual enlightenment.

My New Year’s Paradox

in 2010

My 2010 resolutions: (i) to separate myself from this diabolical device known as the Internet, which sucks up my time, distracts me from what I would at some second-order level of intelligence prefer to be doing, and doesn’t really lead to lasting learning and/or self-improvement; (ii) to turn this Web site into a real blog, to actually, like, post semi-regularly about my life, books, ideas, and other stuff. Is this a paradoxical resolution or merely a hypocritical one? I.e., am I not going to be able to keep this promise to myself in full, because to do so is impossible, or am I going to be able to do what I want only by posting things to an Internet that I want to have nothing to do with (but that I demand that you want to have something to do with)? I suspect the latter.

eBook Revolution?

in 73

Amazon is reporting that on Christmas it sold more Kindle books than physicals books. At the moment, because it insists on charging no more than $9.99 for books, even for best-sellers, and despite publisher protests, Amazon loses money on each Kindle book it sells.

Now, we may find this impressive or not in and of itself — and, speaking in my capacity as an author, I’m perfectly happy to sell e-books to those who prefer to read in that format; and I see the value in selling a high volume of individually cheaper books — but I’m skeptical about this statistic and its importance. To understand why, look at the list of Kindle bestsellers.

At the time of this posting, 7 out of 10 of the bestselling books for the Kindle cost $0.00. That’s right, lots of authors are giving Kindle books away, and consumers predictably prefer free books to books that cost them money. I mean, really, is it any surprise that people are willing to download lots and lots of free books?

Mind Reading, Writing

in h+

The Singularity-loving transhumanist guys over at h+ magazine have an interesting article on technologies that allow people to interface with machines via thought.

A brain wave study presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Epilepsy Society shows that people with electrodes in their brains can “type” (input data into a computer) using just their minds…. The patients were asked to say or imagine words flashed on a screen while their brain activity was recorded. Schalk’s team then used specially designed decoder algorithms to predict the vowels and consonants of the word, using only the pattern of brain activity. They found that both speaking and imagining the word gave roughly the same level of accuracy.

The article emphasizes the active aspects of this technology, what it allows users to do with/to their computers, e.g. writing, tweeting, moving a cursor across the screen. What Surfdaddy Orca — the author of this article; I’m not joking… — doesn’t talk about are the obvious ethical/philosophical/political counterparts to all the active things this technology lets us do or will let us do someday.

I.e., helping quadriplegics communicate is vitally important and wonderful, but to work in the first place, this set of technologies needs first to be able to read minds accurately and reliably. If we can do that (read minds), can we also read them from a distance? If we can read minds from a distance, should I be ordering myself up a tinfoil hat?

That thin and flimsy fiberboard wall separating our outside from our inside may just have gotten a little thinner.


in David Foster Wallace, MLA, Uncategorized

I’m still working on trying to figure out how to restore my older blog postings. I think my XML export file might’ve been corrupted during export. In the worst case scenario, I’ll manually restore my old posts, though that’ll screw up the dates and mean all comments on these posts will be forever lost.

On an unrelated note, I want to put in a plug for the special session I helped organize at the upcoming MLA Convention in Philadelphia. If you’re around, please stop by “The Legacy of David Foster Wallace,” which is at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, December 30th, in Independence Salon I at the Philadelphia Marriott.

We have a distinguished group of panelists including Stephen J. Burn (North Michigan U.), Marshall Boswell (Rhodes C.), Sam Cohen (U. of Missouri, Columbia), John Conley (UMN, Twin Cities), Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Pomona), Mary Holland (SUNY New Paltz), and — very fortunately — Wallace’s Little, Brown editor, Michael Pietsch.

I’ll be talking about how Wallace’s interpretation of the role of the avant-garde shaped his literary projects.


From Google Goggles to Omni Science

in Pop Apocalypse

Google has created an interesting new product for Android-based mobile devices called Google Goggles, which allows you to do visual searches based on images your phone’s camera captures.  Needless to say, this is just one more step on the long road to the visual search revolution, as described in Pop Apocalypse.  It’s all happening right on schedule, and each incremental step will seem — as this does! — real neat when it happens.