“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, August 06, 2016

My problematic liberalism

Although I try, most of the time, to be a good American liberal, there is only so much I can take before the un-American Marxist in my soul shows up and mugs my cut-out.
For instance: lately I’ve been noticing a meme that has migrated from Romney’s campaign into the analysis of good liberals. We all remember, I hope, the makers and the takers. According to a speech Romney made to some halfwit club of greedheads, in the US, 47 percent were on the dole, of one type or another – takers. Which left only 52 percent makers. Romney didn’t even have to wink to imply that of that 52 percent, a good 90 percent were losers.
When a film of this warm encounter between Romney and his deepest admirers surfaced, he obfuscated it all. But good liberals served up the incident as an x ray into what Romney really thought.
That was then. Lately, I’ve noticed that “populism” or whatever it is called is being hauled over the coals by true liberals, dismayed by the way the plebes have not been following the program. Two instances really attracted my attention.
One was a very well publicized report by George Saunders on the Trump campaign. Saunders, tossing aside any economic explanation of discontent as too much blah blah blah, made a heartfelt comparison between those discontented with the state of things in America and himself as an engineering student. In his account, he was not a very good engineering student. So he compensated by blasting better engineering students and generally not recognizing that he just wasn’t good enough.
“In college, I was a budding Republican, an Ayn Rand acolyte. I voted for Reagan. I’d been a bad student in high school and now, in engineering school, felt (and was) academically outgunned, way behind the curve. In that state, I constructed a world view in which I was not behind the curve but ahead of it. I conjured up a set of hazy villains, who were, I can see now, externalized manifestations, imaginary versions of those who were leaving me behind; i.e., my better-prepared, more sophisticated fellow-students. They were, yes, smarter and sharper than I was (as indicated by the tests on which they were always creaming me), but I was . . . what was I? Uh, tougher, more resilient, more able to get down and dirty as needed. I distinctly remember the feeling of casting about for some world view in which my shortfall somehow constituted a hidden noble advantage.
Of course, now, now George Saunders isn’t a Ayn Rand acolyte, but a man of liberal sentiments who, of course, recognizes that some people – the people ahead of the curve, apparently – just merit their positions, and we can recognize that while all doing our best to make sure our kids go to Ivy League schools or something. We can lean in, that is it, that’s what we can do. As for the rest, they can watch their tacky tv or something. In fact, perhaps we can call the ahead of the curve group makers, and the others takers… But since Saunders is now firmly liberal, and he’s writing for the firmly liberal New Yorker,  he isn’t going to go that far explicitly.  What he does do is the Clinton watusi about how this is already a great country and shouldn’t we be unified? And doesn’t it depress us that a lot of angry people haven’t given up their sophomoric idea that they deserve better? Of course, this all plugs into Unity, a description of collective agreement that  has somehow transmorgified into some kind of liberal virtue in the last couple of years.  

A more straightforward Romneyism comes overseas from the LRB. John Lancester is lamenting Brexit, and he comes, reluctantly, to the core of the thing, the people who voted for Brexit:

“The people in the rich parts of the country pay the taxes which support the poor parts. If I had to pick a single fact which has played no role in political discourse but which sums up the current position of the UK, it would be that most people in the UK receive more from the state, in direct cash transfers and in benefits such as health and education, than they contribute to it. The numbers are eerily similar to the referendum outcome: 48 per cent net contributors, 52 per cent net recipients.

This did make me wonder whether it was the rich parts or the poor parts who benefited from the  1, 162 billion  pounds of government outlay for the banks – that's a trillion some for you pikers out there - but I realize that this is still only cheap liberalism. The unrepentant Marxist in me remembered something that is now deeply unpopular to even mention. It is called the level of exploitation. It is the theory that wealth is not the product of management or of clever bets in the stock market. Rather it is the cumulative effect of  the labor of the workers. It is even, according to this theory, the surplus labor value – the amount taken from the worker by capital – that supports the entire structure of capital.
Silly silly silly of course. And yet, without that theory, what you get, eventually, is Romneyism.
And I’m one of those people who are in the just say no to Romneyism camp, even if it comes from various rich journalists and writers who are totally out there for, say, transgender rights. Cause I’m remembering that transgender folks, like everybody else, work. And the majority of them work for the man, and are skinned by the man.

Remembering the real source of productivity and of wealth is a very hard thing to do when it is a truth universally denied in the mainstream press. Nevertheless, I’m for remembering it.  

Monday, August 01, 2016

ambition and the novel

The first novels examined in Peter Brooks’  Reading For the Plot come from the nineteenth century, and in particular, the French nineteenth century. Putting such enormous critical stress on Balzac, Stendhal and Zola helps Brooks maintain his historical thesis  - that the novel is in rapport with the bourgeois revolution in values, which changed the meaning of ambition in the stereotypical life cycle. It isn’t that the bourgeois ethos encourages unilaterally the valorization  of ambition, in contradiction to the norms of the ancien regime; but ambition becomes an intrinsic part of plotting.
“The ambitious heros of the 19th century novel – those of Balzac, for instance – may regularly be conceived as ‘desiring machines’ whose presence in the text sustains narrative movement through the forward march of desire… Etymology may suggest that the self creates a ‘circle’ – an ambitus – or aureola around itself, mainly in front of itself.”
This interesting but awkwardly phrased notion of the ambitus (is the circle in front of the self a projection?) is, to my mind, a potent hint at the role ambition plays both within and without the novel. Ambition is a capturing passion – it doesn’t desire to incorporate the circled objects so much as to hold them, to an extent, hostage. Outside the novel, ambitiom is given now a positive, now a negative meaning, an ambiguity generated in a commercial society that has secularized charisma as salesmanship without quite being comfortable at the fundamental substitutability of all things – including the self – implied by the universal dissolvant of capitalism.
Joanne Bamberger has written that Hillary Clinton’s ambition is negatively coded, in contrast to the praise male politicians receive for being ambitious. I’m not sure that she is right about all male politicians – especially her example, which is Obama. Obama’s ambition to be president in 2008 was regularly mocked as overreach for a man whose whole experience in politics was rather shortlived. However, Bamberger has a point that ambition for a woman is often viewed as a negative – the archetype of Lady Macbeth is just below the surface in certain attacks on Clinton.
The shift in the value attached to ambition derives I think from the way the social unconscious invests in the the image of the ambitus. On the one hand, we within the circle participate, by proximity, to the charismatic and, ultimately, divine. On the other hand, reverse the values and we within the circle participate, unwillingly, in the abject and the soiled.  Aversion transforms proximity into infection.
In the American novel, under the sign of ambition, there is a pattern of such transformations from infatuation to aversion. You can see this kind of mechanism at work in Dreiser’s novels. And yet that novel type is, to contemporary readers, I think, a little too transparent. Or at least it is in the novel – it lives happily in film.

Outside of the sign of ambition, though, a strange thing happens in the novel. The protagonist falls into despair – or at least the threat of despair becomes one of the great patterns in the non-realistic novel. That despair arises from the fact that, without ambition, the novel itself, and the narrative logic of the world by which the protagonist parses the world, is fundamentally threatened. The spirit around the social that makes acts and events meaningful, in commercial society, is exorcized, but no ready replacement comes into view. The non-ambitious self confronts a world of pure, baseless induction, of sequences that are purely conjunctive, but void of life. In fact, without ambition, the self confronts its own routines as malevolent and other. This is the dark side of the futurist exhiliration in de-routinizing the given – without some utopian ambition that lends to the de-routinized moment some satisfying sense of  authenticity, the de-routinized just becomes a reminder of hopelessly one is bound to routine, as an intimate enemy, an irrational tic for which there is no cure.