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Monday, November 28, 2016

studs terkel and negative 20 questions liberalism


There’s a party game called twenty questions. One person goes out of the room, and the people in the room then discuss among themselves and choose an object in the room. Then the person is recalled, and he asks the people in the room up to twenty questions – classically, of the kind : is it bigger than a breadbox – in order to guess the object. John Wheeler, the physicist, spun off another game that he claimed was closer to the quantum world, or what at least it meant to investigate the quantum world. The structure of sending a person outside of the room remains constant. What this person doesn’t know, however, is that in this version of the game, all the people in the room pick their objects and don’t speak to each other. When the questioner is called in and asks the questions – for instance, is it bigger than a breadbox – the person who answers changes the object, in as much as his reply makes the other people in the room silently repick their object. So say x has chosen a matchbox and y has chosen a sofa, if the questioner asks x if it is bigger than a breadbox (to which x says no), then y has to quickly chose some other object (which may be the matchbox or may be a match, etc) in order to remain consistent with the line of questioning.
To my mind, conventional wisdom in the 20th century in America was largely concerned with the orthodox 20 questions game. In this game, identities of race or gender or class were agreed upon tacitly by everyone – or so the conventional wise men, the press guys, the politicos, the influential sociologists and economists, claimed. But we have reached a point that the recent election has made clearer. All the time, we have been playing negative 20 questions. Our assumption, for instance, that women identify with women, is an orthodox 20 questions truth, which is shattered in a negative 20 questions world.  
However, the counter-cultural narrative in America has long been one in which it is obvious that we are a negative 20 questions nation. The most interesting liberals – people like Ralph Ellison or John Kenneth Galbraith or Rachel Carson – saw this clearly. So, in fact, did certain rightwingers, even as they held to a creed that said that the negative 20 question world was the world turned upside down, one without a natural order. The rightwing text par excellence, here, was Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Wheeler claimed that the most common pattern, in negative 20 questions, was for the answering side to break down. Imagine that the answerers are expanded to 3 or more and you can see why. The answerers must not only process new information, but they must perform that rarest of human abilities: logical improvisation.  In our own lives we invariably trade freedom for routine. Humankind seems not able to withstand too many negative 20 questions sessions. And yet, routine isn’t easy. It is based on agreements that we tend to believe are solid, but that can vanish in the space of a lifetime, or even a fashion season.

One of the great decades in the 20th century – the 60s – seemed, to those most politically or culturally active in it, to be a vast negative 20 questions session. I’ve been thinking about the liberal response then, and now. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Studs Terkel’s Division Street (1967). Terkel began  working on the book at the suggestion of a publisher who had read Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village, which consisted of oral accounts of the Cultural Revolution in a Chinese village. Terkel at this time was a well known figure in the Chicago media world. He had a regular radio show. He was a bit afraid that he was too well known, but found out that, fortunately and humblingly, he was not as well known as all that. His plan was to find one street that would go through rich neighborhoods and poor ones, black and white ones, etc. He discovered there was no such street. So, he divided the oral histories up into both the sociological litany of class, race, sex, and the geography of the city of Chicago, wherte there were distinct differences between, say, the South neighborhoods and the North. I’d urge you to generally skip the fast sociology of trumpland now being conducted in the papers and go to Division Street to get ahold of phenomena that have been with us at least since the sixties – the working class Goldwater freak, the activist who came up against liberal blindness when it came to “urban renewal”, etc.  I think I’m going to write at least another post about the book, cause it is of a richness...

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