Here we are at Issue # 9, wondering, as you are, how we got this far. Hard work? Nah. Perseverance? Not that, either. What then? Got me. But we did just incorporate.
John McClure, our man on the scene in Spain who has kept us abreast of Podemos and the larger seismic shifts in European politics, moves in this issue to a different venue in every sense. The story he tells is again a mystery, almost a matter of detective fiction, but the setting is now Kenya, the time is the 1960s, and the cast of characters includes the author himself, a Peace Corps volunteer back in that now distant day. This story is still not over. Let’s read on for a new ending.
Frances Negron-Mutaner meanwhile gets even more post-colonial. She rehearses the presidential pledges to validate Puerto Rican plebiscites on statehood with the recent referendum in mind, but reminds us that only a Congressional decision can change the island’s status—according to the Insular Cases of 1901-1922, and related statutes, the Jim Crow rationale for Puerto Rican subjection is still derived from Plessy V. Ferguson (1896). So she recommends that the sovereign United States ought to “start their own decolonization” by ending its standing as a colonial power and declaring instead for democracy.
Ashik Kumar goes her one better. He reviews Meena Kandaswamy’s novel, The Gypsy Goddess, which centers on—it neither begins nor ends there—the Kilvenmani massacre of Xmas 1968 perpetrated by Hindi thugs in the employ of local landlords and provincial officials. Kumar begins with a startling, pragmatic question: “What can a novel do?” He ends with this no less startling judgment: “A novel should add indispensable and uniquely to our understanding of its subject.” That’s what 19th century literary critics called “a surplus of meaning.” Kumar claims that neither film documentary nor journalism can provide that charge—only fiction, because it is “intimate by nature,” will produce it. And Kandaswamy’s novel, a semi-realistic pastiche that refuses its own postmodernist connotations (are we certain of that?), doesn’t measure up to Kumar’s standard, as, say, Garcia-Marquez does in One Hundred Years of Solitude. We’re not sure we agree with it, but it’s a standard worth considering, and arguing.
Jess Engrebretsen picks up where Kumar leaves off, with a close reading of the memory of atrocity which allowed, or rather animated, the invention of what we call English Literature. That memory is contained, in both senses, by Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant. Engrebretsen wonders about the “bias toward forgetting” which the doubled boatman seems to embody, and asks whether his “implied valorization of the present” comports with our certainty that it was “produced by violence we would never want to condone.” The invocation of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History could not be more oblique—nor more telling, because Engrebretsen concentrates hereafter on the boatman’s “elastic” deployment of the second person pronoun, to the point where the audience of his utterance includes us all. You know who you are.
Ben Libman provides us our second review of Lee Konstantinou’s Cool Characters. We publish it because we don’t think the argument about this important book has concluded, or should be, and because this isn’t a reiteration. Libman insists that the cool lineage of beat, punk, hipster, and occupier just won’t fit the bill of irony vs. sincerity which Konstantinou posits as his hook. Libman’s telling examples are, of all authors and actors, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Aziz Ansari, the creator, writer, and star of “Master of None,” the cable series featuring a hapless millennial navigating the career and dating scenes via smartphone. These are master ironists, but Libman finds hilarious layers of sincerity in their sentences. And, in the end—don’t you hate that phrase?—he knows where to look for he ambiguity he finally elicits from Konstantinou himself. It comes of ironizing the commodity form itself: “through such commodities [the phones, the apps]its characters might be able to forge real romantic ties and other meaningful forms of connection.”
Walt Whitman thought so, at any rate, when he was writing poetry, fiction, and journalism in the 1850s along with those 19th-century literary critics I mentioned. Here’s the conclusion of “Song For Occupations” from 1855.
“When a university course convinces like a slumbering woman and child convince,
When the minted gold in the vault smiles like the nightwatchman’s daughter,
When warrantee deeds loafe in chairs opposite and are my friendly companions,
I intend to reach them my hand and make as much of them as I do of men and women.”
Racheal Fest thinks so, too. The intrusion of old Walt on the signature cable series of our time, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” which assumed that the epitomes of the commodity form—advertising and the gangsterism of the drug trade—were dimensions of everyday life, and which featured characters named for the ideal tramp, well, she argues that this was no accident. The question she raises is the one we’ll always ask when it comes to reading Whitman. But her answers point us in new directions. What is this self you’re singing to? Is he prior to these others you celebrate, or does he exist as a social function of their actions? Would the poet be surprised to hear an echo of his thrumming on television?
Richard Dienst gives us a bracing meditation on debt that might be read as a reply to David Graeber’s monumental book on the subject. A reply because Dienst won’t stand for Graeber’s notion that debt and capitalism are the same thing, and thus that capitalism—not trade, money, property, or greed—is a trans-historical phenomenon, erupting as early as sedentary human civilization. Dienst draws on Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, and David Harvey without affirming their conclusions about the business cycle, the falling rate of profit, the financialization of assets, or the globalization of debt. Instead, he asks why a crisis of debt is a crisis of knowledge, and why that manifests symptomatically as a social/psychic disease. In this profound sense, Dienst echoes William James, who long ago explained why, when “truth operates on a credit system,” the crisis comes when we can no longer trade on each other’s truths.
But, speaking of credit systems, Jason Fitgerald reads Yuval Harari’s new Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow as The End of History absent the boredom induced by Francis Fukuyama and the attendant anxiety created, in response, by Jacques Derrida. According to Harari, homo sapiens differ from other species by virtue—if that is the right word—of their capacity to produce and convey fictions that combine or unite “infinitely massive groups.” Religion is the historical template here, but Fitzgerald rightly notes that ideologies, nations, corporations, and monetary systems share this fictional scope and effect. He also notes that “Dataism,” what Harari sees as the emergent, algorithmic future, is the “logic of capitalism,” at least as Friedrich von Hayek described and praised it—as the sum of individual choices made without regard to anything more than availability. The End is nigh, and Liberalism is not the victor.
But Fitzgerald turns tragedy into comedy by an ingenious device, by asking, all right, let’s assume that Harari is right, that ideology, the mother of all fiction, is the motor of history—what follows? It turns out that the humanities, those maligned fields that don’t pay much upon graduation, might derail the juggernaut of modernity, which leads by way of the Scientific Revolution to the incineration of the planet, the history of tomorrow. How so? By retelling the story, by following Chekhov’s example in The Cherry Orchard. The gun introduced in Act I doesn’t have to be fired in Act III, off stage or not. It can be replaced, or ignored, as the dramatic action requires. This is the most effective defense of the humanities curriculum I’ve seen since Gerald Graff became a dean somewhere.
My contribution to # 9 is the third part of an interview with Andrew Hartman at USIH about the relation between liberalism and the American Left. My argument here has deep roots in what Lenin excoriated as the “revisionist” tradition sponsored by Eduard Bernstein in Evolutionary Socialism (1899), and more recent origins in what John Maynard Keynes called “liberal socialism.” The American version of this tradition—personified, for example, by Kenneth Burke in the 1930s—has been so overshadowed by the adventures of the Communist Party USA in the era of the Popular Front, and by the extremities of the New Left in the 1960s, that it seems, by now, to be aberrant or absent. But it abides in the new examples of Occupy, MoveOn, and Bernie Sanders, and in the “old” example of DSA.