Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday has aged remarkably well. This cultural portrait of manic Twenties America as seen from the depressive early Thirties remains an essential text for anyone who wants to understand the texture of life among (mostly white, mostly middle-class) Americans in the 1920s. And within that parenthesis is the rub. For Allen largely concerns himself with the white urban bourgeoisie, and his book seriously slights African-American culture, completely ignoring the Harlem Renaissance writers and only superficially mentioning jazz. The white working class is likewise marginalized, portrayed alternately as an either too-violent or too-complacent mob. This is not a work of 'history from above,' and Allen should be commended for breaking with that long-standing tradition, but nor is it Zinn-like 'history from below'; it's definitely written from and to the Oreo-white 'middle' of Twenties and Thirties America.  These blind spots are mostly outweighed, however, by the book's journalistic immediacy. Penned soon after the facts it records, this is a 'first rough draft of history' that effectively puts the reader inside the 1920s, when Prohibition reigned and Al Capone ruled, when business boosterism reached levels of comic absurdity and 'Babbittry' became a word. Allen does a surprisingly large amount of debunking, for the myth of the 'Roaring Twenties' seems already to have been well-established by 1931, but Only Yesterday, with its manic energy--this is a work of nonfiction as readable and fast-paced as a best-seller (at least until the latter pages bog down in the minutia of the 1929 Wall Street crash)--also plays a part in the solidification of that myth. Yes, Lindbergh is debunked as a mere "stunt flyer," but the discussions of fads and fashions read like a long series of footnotes to Fitzgerald--and remain highly valuable as such. Long shelves of books have subsequently been written about topics that Allen (often rather impressively) dispatches in a page or paragraph, and as a popular history of the decade, Allen's work has been superseded by Geoffrey Perrett's amazingly good 1982 book, America in the Twenties, which deserves to be considered the standard comprehensive book on its topic, but Allen's book is valuable today not so much for its pioneering role in history writing (Perrett writes that "Only Yesterday virtually created popular social history in the English-speaking world."), as for its telling anecdotes and its inclusion of details that other historians exclude, such as the detailed description of how to start a Model T Ford, a complicated process that involved two controls on the dash, a crank on the front end, and a lot of luck. It's been almost a century since Allen's 'yesterday,' but in passages like this his book still has the power to take us there.


There's a very astute, incisive and philosophically rigorous critique of the Zizek-Lacan critical theory cabal in the sixth chapter of Walter A. Davis's Death's Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9-11. Davis does plenty of philosophical and psychoanalytic 'heavy lifting' there (in a chapter that also contains one of the clearest critical explications of Lacan I've ever read), so I'll limit this post to a couple of superficial thoughts about Slavoj Zizek's use of popular culture and his position as the reigning rock star of critical theory.

First, Zizek owes much of his Jimmy Page-like status to his use of 'easy' pop culture references to explicate concepts otherwise hidden in the notoriously obscure Amazonian jungle of Jacques Lacan's prose. (Lacan's prose is difficult enough to be worth a parenthetical digression. In one of the footnotes to the book mentioned above, Davis offers this explanation for the difficulties and densities of the Lacanian style: "For Lacan every utterance must gesture in three directions simultaneously: contempt for other thinkers, self-aggrandizement, and the search for opacity.") In Zizek's works, a given theoretical concept--the "obscene supplement," desire, objet petit a--is exemplified via a critical reading of a movie or TV show or some other popular phenomenon. (One of Zizek's more ingenious examples of obscene supplementation involves a deconstructive reading of The Sound of Music that shows how the film's German villains are inscribed as anti-semitic caricatures of Jews while its heroic Austrians are inscribed using the imagery of fascist kitsch.) This is a fun and powerful way to teach Lacan, and Zizek has spent the past quarter-century producing book after book in which Lacan's ideas are exemplified via the works of everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Halldor Laxness. But all of Zizek's cultural references, high and low, are forced to follow an unwritten but adamantine commandment: Thou shalt only exemplify Lacan; Thou shalt never criticize Him. Once Hitchcock's Vertigo, for example, has served its Zizekian exemplary purpose, Zizek metals his pedal and speeds on to the next example before the complexities of Vertigo (or any other cultural artifact) lead him into reflections that might undermine Lacan or Hegel or Marx. Zizek takes big Quarter Pounder-size bites out of art, but he never allows artworks to bite back. This is the fundamental superficiality of Zizek's relationship to art: artworks are only and always exemplary; they can never be permitted to criticize the Master. (I hereby challenge anyone to find a single example in all of Zizek's work that proves this statement wrong. Show me one time--just one!--when Slavoj permits a work of art, or even a work of kitsch, to undermine or contradict or even critique a basic Lacanian-Zizekian concept.)

With regard to Zizek's Claptonesque status in Theoryland (Tito-era walls all over Slovenia must surely wear the graffito "Slavoj is God," n'est-ce pas?), I think that as a popularizer of Lacan and an original leftist thinker he deserves all the attention he can get. But he should not be considered a 'leader' of anyone or anything (or for that matter, of any Ding). Lacan was arguably a 'leading' figure; while he worked in the wake of Freud and would've had no career without his illustrious Austrian predecessor, his Structuralization of Freudian thought was a powerful and arguably revolutionary move--not revolutionary in Freud's 'Copernican' sense, perhaps, but at least it allowed him to credibly play the role of leader of a recognizable ecole. Zizek, on the other hand, never really rises above the level of Lacanian explicator. He's a born follower, and his academic followers around the world are all playing the time-honored game of Follow The Follower. Like a parody of Lacan's theory of language as an unending chain of signifiers, the Zizekians follow Zizek who follows Lacan who follows Freud, and all their reams of Zizekian signifiers, full of Lacanian sound and fury, signify--you guessed it--nothing much.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Harold Pinter's unproduced Proust Screenplay stands on a shelf near my writing desk and frequently leads me into reveries about great literary adaptations that were never made--or never even conceived. These are my imaginary films. There have been some brilliant cinematic adaptations of great books (Orson Welles' The Trial, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Erich von Stroheim's Greed, James Ivory's Howard's End, Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds, Ken Russell's Women in Love, Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, and many others), but the films I have in mind are not included in the Criterion Collection and cannot be rented from Netflix. Here's the line-up for my First Annual Imaginary Film Festival, the only film festival not handicapped by the requirement that its films actually exist. Screen these literary adaptations in the cinema of your skull:
  • The Stranger, directed by Robert Bresson. After watching Bresson's Pickpocket (in a beautiful print that is available from the Criterion Collection), I concluded that he was the only director who could have faithfully adapted Camus' l'Etranger. Camus' prototypical 'new novel' minimalism would've found its perfect objective correlative in the visual minimalism of Bresson, a director who knew the secret of capturing wordless angst on film. The actor who starred in Pickpocket would also have been a perfect Meursault.
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities, directed by Robert Altman. Widely considered one of Brian de Palma's very worst films, this could have been one of Altman's masterpieces. Altman was at one time scheduled to direct the film of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime (Milos Forman was the final choice), and while that might have been a beautiful film, Altman's Bonfire would've been a mind-blowing one. Imagine a 1980s New York Nashville or Short Cuts, a panoramic portrait of class, race, money, politics, media and crime. Altman's film would've been the Balzacian human tragicomedy that Wolfe's novel only pretended to be.
  • A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, directed by Federico Fellini. The great social epicist of twentieth-century European decadence (see La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2) would've been the perfect director for Proust's anatomization of that society a few decades earlier. With a script by Pinter, this could've been the great masterpiece that's missing from Fellini's later years. Given the strength of the amazing "asa nisi masa" sequence in 8 1/2, I'm convinced that Fellini could've pulled a Proustian masterpiece out of his fashionably rumpled hat. As it stands, Raul Ruiz's fine and beautifully photographed Time Regained is probably as close as we will ever come to a 'comprehensive' film version of Proust's unfilmably large novel.
  • The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Who better than Bergman to film the unfilmable? Bergman would've transformed Rilke's plotless poetic novel of urban angst (a great Modernist novel that should be as widely read as those of Joyce and Woolf) into a visual poem in the Scandinavian Gothic mode of Persona and Hour of the Wolf. It would've been a great, grey song of death. Read the book and imagine how Bergman might have filmed the scenes.
  • Ulysses, directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Richard Ellmann tells us in his standard biography, James Joyce, that at some point in the 1930s, Joyce and Eisenstein met in Joyce's Paris apartment and discussed the possibility of a Ulysses film. Nothing came of the meeting except a literary footnote, but I've been fascinated for years by the fantasy of an Eisenstein Ulysses. What would it have looked like? The more naturalistic sections might've been filmed in the early style of Strike and Battleship Potemkin, but the "Circe" episode would've demanded the late, theatrical baroque of Ivan the Terrible. Two directors have attempted to film Ulysses and have produced two unavoidably uneven films (Joseph Strick's so-so Ulysses and Sean Walsh's superior Bloom) that leave out too much of the book. Eisenstein might've been more equal to the task.
  • Under the Volcano, directed by Luis Bunuel. In his odd little autobiography, My Last Sigh, a rambling book in which the subject spends pages describing the perfect martini and almost entirely ignores his personal life, Luis Bunuel mentions that he was approached several times by various producers to film Malcolm Lowry's masterpiece, but all the proffered screenplays came to shipwreck on the same problem--in Bunuel's words: " can inner conflicts be translated into effective images on a screen?" John Huston (whom Bunuel liked and respected) ultimately filmed a simplified and unsatisfying version of the novel that is remembered today only for Albert Finney's superlative performance. I pine for the lost Bunuel version, a film that might've been more symbolist and poetic--and would surely have been more political--than Huston's unexceptional adaptation.
  • Lolita, directed by Charles Chaplin. Nabokov approved of Kubrick's film, while Adrian Lyne's stayed closer to the book and boasted Jeremy Irons (whose voice will forever be 'the voice of Humbert' in my reading mind), but I have always fantasized about a version of the film directed by that noted lolitaphile Charlie Chaplin. More seriously, I think of the end of City Lights and imagine the complex mixture of irony and poignancy Chaplin might have achieved with the sad denouement of Nabokov's novel. But I doubt that even Chaplin would have been courageous enough to alienate his audience by casting an actress who looked Lolita's prepubescent age. (Sue Lyon and Dominique Swain, Kubrick's and Lyne's Lolitas, both looked importantly older than the character Nabokov created, thus lessening the visual impact of Humbert's crimes.)
  • The Metamorphosis, directed by David Lynch. A decade or more ago, I read somewhere that David Lynch wanted to film Kafka's novella, and I remember thinking that it seemed a perfect match of director and material. This irruption of unimaginable monstrosity at the center of an ordinary family, this bizarre mixture of the mundane and the surreal, would be perfect for the director of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. I imagine it as an early 20th-century period piece set in an unspecified but vaguely threatening Eastern Europe of the mind. It would be filmed in black-and-white, of course, switching to color only for the final scene, when the parents, having destroyed their son, turn their attentions to their daughter.
  • Crime and Punishment, directed by Orson Welles. If Welles had filmed Dostoyevsky's novel in the 1960s, as a pendant to his visually stunning adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, he would've given us the last great German Expressionist film, a dark, fast-paced psychological thriller composed and edited in a deliberately artificial style that produces a Brechtian alienation effect in the viewer. (This is exactly what Welles achieved in Touch of Evil, a great film that, like The Trial, Mr. Arkadin and the brilliant postmodern 'documentary' F for Fake, remains underrated.) Welles might even have had the chutzpah to alter Dostoyevsky's weak ending to something more unnerving and credible, something along the lines of the chilling end of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors.
  • Naked Lunch, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. David Cronenberg's film of Naked Lunch was weird enough and good enough ("It's time for our William Tell game."), but compared to Burroughs's book it was also rather tame. ('Tame' may be an unusual adjective for Cronenberg's film, but transgression is always relative, and Cronenberg doesn't touch the level of outrageousness in the book.) The director of the fearlessly disturbing and disgusting satire Salo would've been a perfect match for Burroughs's text. Pasolini would also have emphasized the political bottom line that tends to be lost amidst the druggy Burroughsian phantasmagoria.
  • Ficciones, directed by Peter Greenaway. This is an adaptation of five short stories by Jorge Luis Borges: "The Library of Babel" (in which all five stories--and all others--are found), "The Garden of Forking Paths," "Death and the Compass," "The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero" and "The Book of Sand." The film begins in the library, where Jorge, the blind librarian of Babel, narrates the first tale and leads us into books containing the central three tales, which are set outside the library in a clearly imaginary, artificial world. Jorge returns to narrate the final tale. Greenaway's Prospero's Books showed him to be our most Borgesian director; it's time for him to direct Borges.
  • Blood Meridian, directed by Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah didn't live long enough to film Blood Meridian, a novel that seems partly influenced by the violently poetic Southwest (and Northern Mexico) depicted in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. There has been talk of an adaptation for several years now, but the only living director of Westerns capable of doing justice to both the violence and the lyricism of Cormac McCarthy's novel, Clint Eastwood, hung up his spurs about 20 years ago upon completion of his one undeniable masterpiece of the genre, Unforgiven. (It's always good to quit while you're ahead, or as Clint might say, "A man has to know his limitations.") Besides, who could possibly play Judge Holden? The obvious choice would be a talented actor who died tragically before his time and would've been a revelation in the role: John Candy. (If you doubt Candy's dramatic chops, check out his all too brief cameo in Oliver Stone's JFK. Yes, he could've played the Judge, and he would've been terrifying.)

In Defense of Fredric Jameson's Prose (really)

Because I quoted Fredric Jameson in my last post, I feel compelled to say something about his oft-derided prose style. Jameson, America's best-known Marxist literary theorist and critic, is usually mentioned in polemics attacking the turgidity of academic writing. Exhibit A is sometimes the first few sentences of his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place. In that case, it either "expresses" some deeper irrepressible historical impulse (in however distorted a fashion) or effectively "represses" and diverts it, depending on the side of the ambiguity you happen to favor. Postmodernism, postmodern consciousness, may then amount to not much more than theorizing its own condition of possibility, which consists primarily in the sheer enumeration of changes and modifications.

OK, that's pretty tough. It's argued on a highly abstract level, but it's not beyond the understanding of anyone who gives it a college try. I suspect most non-academic readers stumble over the somewhat jarring phrase "think the present historically," but this use of 'think' to mean 'think about' or 'conceptualize' is Standard Academic English. The reader should also know that whenever a Marxist like Jameson uses the words 'history' or 'historically' he is almost always referring to the Marxist dialectical theory of history, in which artworks and ideologies 'reflect,' by way of a highly complex system of mediations, the socioeconomic facts of their historical moments. (Much of what is admittedly dry and tedious in Jameson's works--I'm thinking specifically of the long longueurs in The Political Unconscious--is an attempt to rigorously work out the mediating factors.) Finally, it's important to note the ironic tone of the above passage, signalled most obviously by the quotes around 'expresses' and 'represses' and less obviously by the passage's third word. For a serious critic, the 'safest' way to grasp something is usually the worst way. So this entire passage, which expands upon the 'safest' interpretation of postmodernism, exists under a sign of extreme irony.

When  these three factors are taken into account, the notorious passage becomes fairly understandable. But even if the reader fails to grasp it, the sentences that follow make these opening lines more clear. Interestingly, I have never seen any of Jameson's critics quote the entire passage. Here is the rest of it:

Modernism also thought compulsively about the New and tries to watch its coming into being (inventing for that purpose the registering and inscription devices akin to historical time-lapse photography), but the postmodern looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the telltale instant after which it is no longer the same; for the "When-it-all-changed," as Gibson puts it, or, better still, for shifts and irrevocable changes in the representation of things and of the way they change. The moderns were interested in what was likely to come of such changes and their general tendency: they thought about the thing itself, substantively, in Utopian or essential fashion. Postmodernism is more formal in that sense, and more 'distracted,' as Benjamin might put it; it only clocks the variations themselves, and knows only too well that the contents are just more images.

Thus Jameson presents, by means of a simple contrast, an explanation of what he means by postmodernism's contradictory effort to 'think the present historically.' Taken in context, the opening lines are not nearly so difficult as they appear when wrenched out of it. This, as I insinuated above, is probably why the rest of the passage is never quoted by critics of academic writing. To indict Jameson on the basis of his first few sentences is nearly as absurd as accusing Joyce of infantilization on the basis of the opening lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

I spent the past week reading Jameson--The Prison-House of Language, The Political Unconscious, some of the essays in The Modernism Papers--and I found him to be a much better and clearer writer than his critics would have us believe. If they can quote selectively, so can I. Here is Jameson at his best:

The history of thought is the history of its models. Classical mechanics, the organism, natural selection, the atomic nucleus or electronic field, the computer: such are some of the objects or systems which, first used to organize our understanding of the natural world, have then been called upon to illuminate human reality. -- The Prison-House of Language

[T]here are no preexisting laws that govern the elaboration of the novel as a form: each one is different, a leap in the void, an invention of content simultaneous with the invention of the form. -- The Prison-House of Language

...History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its "ruses" turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention. -- The Political Unconscious

Now, in the catastrophe of the postmodern, most of these canonical groupings--like the old-fashioned tableaux of nineteenth-century or seventeenth-century paintings--have disintegrated, leaving the surviving figures--Joyce, Proust, Kafka--visible like the occasional lone high-rise in a landscape of rubble. -- The Modernism Papers

The canvasses [of De Kooning] give me proof of the fragmentation of the modern senses and of the modern body. In the thinking part of my mind, I know where this fragmentation comes from; Schiller, Marx, Lukacs, Weber, tell me how the development of capital enforces a kind of psychic "division of labor," the advanced form of which can be observed in just this reification and autonomization of the various senses from one another. In front of the paintings, however, all I know is that the eye finds a space of sheer colored paint before it, in which it can lead a life of its own, beyond hearing and taste, and beyond the clock time of everyday life. -- The Modernism Papers

These examples are all perfectly clear and comparable in their lucidity to the prose of Bertrand Russell or Isaiah Berlin or Richard Rorty. With so many truly atrocious academic writers out there, it's time to stop using Jameson as a whipping boy.
That said, I must state that I prefer my Jameson bottled, not booked. I'm raising a shot glass to Marxy Fred right now.


The best way to begin any generic definition is to list several members of the presumptive genre. Here, then, is a list--exemplary but hardly exhaustive--of systems novels:
  • Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Against the Day.
  • Don DeLillo, White Noise, Libra, Running Dog, Underworld
  • William Gaddis, The Recognitions, JR
  • David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • William T. Vollmann, You Bright and Risen Angels
  • William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer
The second-best way to begin defining the "systems novel" is to consider this passage from Fredric Jameson's thought-provoking early book, The Prison-House of Language:

The deeper justification for the use of the linguistic model or metaphor [Jameson is writing about the 'linguistic turn' in 20th-century philosophy, specifically Structuralism] must, I think, be sought elsewhere, outside the claims and counterclaims for scientific validity and technological progress. It lies in the concrete character of the social life of the so-called advanced countries today, which offer the spectacle of a world from which nature as such has been eliminated, a world saturated with messages and information, whose intricate commodity network may be seen as the very prototype of a system of signs. There is therefore a profound consonance between linguistics as a method and that systematized and disembodied nightmare which is our culture today.

The systems novel takes as its explicit subject matter "that systematized and disembodied nightmare" of contemporary life, depicting a world in which human beings are formed, informed and deformed by ideological systems that compete, collide and collaborate across a novelistic canvas that can sometimes seem as vast as the world--or even the universe. (I should perhaps clarify that when I speak of "ideological systems" I mean not merely the commonly understood 'political' ideologies, but also 'ideology' in the broader Barthes-ian sense of "what goes without saying" at a given cultural moment. The dominant ideology of our time, for example, is neither Conservatism nor Liberalism but a Corporatism that contains them both. We have difficulty seeing this for the same reason that an intelligent fish would have no concept of "wetness." Corporate capitalism is not a ballot line; it is the matrix in which we live. American Conservatism and Liberalism are, respectively, its fundamentalist and pragmatic political manifestations.) The ideological systems these novels focus upon are as diverse as their authors: the military-industrial system (Pynchon), the corporatist-technological system (early Vollmann, Wallace, Gibson), the tragically routinized, systematic lifestyles of addiction (Burroughs, Wallace), politico-religious totalitarianism (Zamyatin, Orwell, Atwood), the highly-insular system that is the art world (The Recognitions), the world capitalist system (JR), the hermetically sealed absurdity of military systems (Catch-22), the nightmarish 50-year battle of mutually exclusive imperial systems that was the Cold War (DeLillo). All these diverse fictions are united, however, in their focus upon the essentially dehumanizing effect of the systems that define our world. Given this emphasis, the affinity between the systems novel and the science fiction genre should come as no surprise. Many systems novels might be categorized as science fiction (most of Pynchon's work, Vollmann's Angels, Infinite Jest, Burroughs), but it's probably more interesting to note that almost all science fiction novels can be classified as systems novels. Since science fiction is one of the ways in which our culture thinks about our technological world, and since that world is defined by its systems, this too should come as no surprise. We might consider science fiction the ur-genre of the systems novel, the pulpy matrix from which it emerged into 'serious' literature. The obvious influence of pulp SF on the generically seminal works of Burroughs and Pynchon seems to confirm this idea. The best SF works of Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing, et al. can be added to the above list. And this thought leads to an overwhelming question: Do we need the category of the "systems novel" at all? Isn't "systems novel" simply a literary snobs' euphemism for science fiction, akin to the absurd 'graphic novel,' a phrase invented for people afraid to admit that they read comic books? The answer to the second question would seem to be 'not entirely' (The Recognitions and Catch-22, for example, have little of SF about them), so I think the abstraction "systems novel" is justified as a way of expressing the quality that unites all the novels and novelists mentioned above. More importantly, the idea of "systems" foregrounds the important element of cultural criticism in these works. To read them as critiques of our systematized world--rather than as clever fantasies, surreal comedies or brainy literary games--is to release their most radical energies.

(My list of exemplary systems novels is almost entirely American. Is this a result of personal prejudice, or are the most obvious examples of the systems novel American novels because America is the paradigmatic corporate capitalist state? What are the major non-American, non-English language systems novels?)

Sunday, January 9, 2011


In the mid-1990s, Noam Chomsky posted the following statement on an online bulletin board. Since it's rather hard to find, and because it's Chomsky's only extended statement on the subject of postmodernism--and because watching Noam call Lacan "a perfectly self-conscious charlatan" is just good clean fun--I'm reprinting the entire post here:

CHOMSKY: I've returned from travel-speaking, where I spend most of my life, and found a collection of messages extending the discussion about "theory" and "philosophy," a debate that I find rather curious. A few reactions --- though I concede, from the start, that I may simply not understand what is going on.

As far as I do think I understand it, the debate was initiated by the charge that I, Mike, and maybe others don't have "theories" and therefore fail to give any explanation of why things are proceeding as they do. We must turn to "theory" and "philosophy" and "theoretical constructs" and the like to remedy this deficiency in our efforts to understand and address what is happening in the world. I won't speak for Mike. My response so far has pretty much been to reiterate something I wrote 35 years ago, long before "postmodernism" had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: "if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret," despite much "pseudo-scientific posturing."

To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call "theory" and "philosophy," but little that I can detect beyond "pseudo-scientific posturing." That little is, as I wrote, sometimes quite interesting, but lacks consequences for the real world problems that occupy my time and energies (Rawls's important work is the case I mentioned, in response to specific inquiry).

The latter fact has been noticed. One fine philosopher and social theorist (also activist), Alan Graubard, wrote an interesting review years ago of Robert Nozick's "libertarian" response to Rawls, and of the reactions to it. He pointed out that reactions were very enthusiastic. Reviewer after reviewer extolled the power of the arguments, etc., but no one accepted any of the real-world conclusions (unless they had previously reached them). That's correct, as were his observations on what it means.

The proponents of "theory" and "philosophy" have a very easy task if they want to make their case. Simply make known to me what was and remains a "secret" to me: I'll be happy to look. I've asked many times before, and still await an answer, which should be easy to provide: simply give some examples of "a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to" the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world's population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the "theory" or "philosophy" that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these "others" include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the "theoretical" obscurities entirely, or often on their own.

Again, those are simple requests. I've made them before, and remain in my state of ignorance. I also draw certain conclusions from the fact.

As for the "deconstruction" that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can't comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies --- of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren't, a possibility to which I'll return.

These are very easy requests to fulfill, if there is any basis to the claims put forth with such fervor and indignation. But instead of trying to provide an answer to this simple requests, the response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows "elitism," "anti-intellectualism," and other crimes --- though apparently it is not "elitist" to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another and (to my knowledge) don't enter into the kind of world in which I'd prefer to live. As for that world, I can reel off my speaking and writing schedule to illustrate what I mean, though I presume that most people in this discussion know, or can easily find out; and somehow I never find the "theoreticians" there, nor do I go to their conferences and parties. In short, we seem to inhabit quite different worlds, and I find it hard to see why mine is "elitist," not theirs. The opposite seems to be transparently the case, though I won't amplify.

To add another facet, I am absolutely deluged with requests to speak and can't possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I'd like to, so I suggest other people. But oddly, I never suggest those who propound "theories" and "philosophy," nor do I come across them, or for that matter rarely even their names, in my own (fairly extensive) experience with popular and activist groups and organizations, general community, college, church, union, etc., audiences here and abroad, third world women, refugees, etc.; I can easily give examples. Why, I wonder.

The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges --- but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.

It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.

Specific comment. Phetland asked who I'm referring to when I speak of "Paris school" and "postmodernist cults": the above is a sample.

He then asks, reasonably, why I am "dismissive" of it. Take, say, Derrida. Let me begin by saying that I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence, but I doubt that participants want a close analysis of de Saussure, say, in this forum, and I know that I'm not going to undertake it. I wouldn't say this if I hadn't been explicitly asked for my opinion --- and if asked to back it up, I'm going to respond that I don't think it merits the time to do so.

So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I've been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.

Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I've met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible --- he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I've discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven't met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones --- the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I've dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that's who I'm referring to, and why I don't proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it's not obvious.

For those interested in a literary depiction that reflects pretty much the same perceptions (but from the inside), I'd suggest David Lodge. Pretty much on target, as far as I can judge.

Phetland also found it "particularly puzzling" that I am so "curtly dismissive" of these intellectual circles while I spend a lot of time "exposing the posturing and obfuscation of the New York Times." So "why not give these guys the same treatment." Fair question. There are also simple answers. What appears in the work I do address (NYT, journals of opinion, much of scholarship, etc.) is simply written in intelligible prose and has a great impact on the world, establishing the doctrinal framework within which thought and expression are supposed to be contained, and largely are, in successful doctrinal systems such as ours. That has a huge impact on what happens to suffering people throughout the world, the ones who concern me, as distinct from those who live in the world that Lodge depicts (accurately, I think). So this work should be dealt with seriously, at least if one cares about ordinary people and their problems. The work to which Phetland refers has none of these characteristics, as far as I'm aware. It certainly has none of the impact, since it is addressed only to other intellectuals in the same circles. Furthermore, there is no effort that I am aware of to make it intelligible to the great mass of the population (say, to the people I'm constantly speaking to, meeting with, and writing letters to, and have in mind when I write, and who seem to understand what I say without any particular difficulty, though they generally seem to have the same cognitive disability I do when facing the postmodern cults). And I'm also aware of no effort to show how it applies to anything in the world in the sense I mentioned earlier: grounding conclusions that weren't already obvious. Since I don't happen to be much interested in the ways that intellectuals inflate their reputations, gain privilege and prestige, and disengage themselves from actual participation in popular struggle, I don't spend any time on it.

Phetland suggests starting with Foucault --- who, as I've written repeatedly, is somewhat apart from the others, for two reasons: I find at least some of what he writes intelligible, though generally not very interesting; second, he was not personally disengaged and did not restrict himself to interactions with others within the same highly privileged elite circles. Phetland then does exactly what I requested: he gives some illustrations of why he thinks Foucault's work is important. That's exactly the right way to proceed, and I think it helps understand why I take such a "dismissive" attitude towards all of this --- in fact, pay no attention to it.

What Phetland describes, accurately I'm sure, seems to me unimportant, because everyone always knew it --- apart from details of social and intellectual history, and about these, I'd suggest caution: some of these are areas I happen to have worked on fairly extensively myself, and I know that Foucault's scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don't trust it, without independent investigation, in areas that I don't know --- this comes up a bit in the discussion from 1972 that is in print. I think there is much better scholarship on the 17th and 18th century, and I keep to that, and my own research. But let's put aside the other historical work, and turn to the "theoretical constructs" and the explanations: that there has been "a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do" what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That's true enough, in fact, utter truism. If that's a "theory," then all the criticisms of me are wrong: I have a "theory" too, since I've been saying exactly that for years, and also giving the reasons and historical background, but without describing it as a theory (because it merits no such term), and without obfuscatory rhetoric (because it's so simple-minded), and without claiming that it is new (because it's a truism). It's been fully recognized for a long time that as the power to control and coerce has declined, it's more necessary to resort to what practitioners in the PR industry early in this century -- who understood all of this well -- called "controlling the public mind." The reasons, as observed by Hume in the 18th century, are that "the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers" relies ultimately on control of opinion and attitudes. Why these truisms should suddenly become "a theory" or "philosophy," others will have to explain; Hume would have laughed.

Some of Foucault's particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy. But the "theory" is merely an extremely complex and inflated restatement of what many others have put very simply, and without any pretense that anything deep is involved. There's nothing in what Phetland describes that I haven't been writing about myself for 35 years, also giving plenty of documentation to show that it was always obvious, and indeed hardly departs from truism. What's interesting about these trivialities is not the principle, which is transparent, but the demonstration of how it works itself out in specific detail to cases that are important to people: like intervention and aggression, exploitation and terror, "free market" scams, and so on. That I don't find in Foucault, though I find plenty of it by people who seem to be able to write sentences I can understand and who aren't placed in the intellectual firmament as "theoreticians."

To make myself clear, Phetland is doing exactly the right thing: presenting what he sees as "important insights and theoretical constructs" that he finds in Foucault. My problem is that the "insights" seem to me familiar and there are no "theoretical constructs," except in that simple and familiar ideas have been dressed up in complicated and pretentious rhetoric. Phetland asks whether I think this is "wrong, useless, or posturing." No. The historical parts look interesting sometimes, though they have to be treated with caution and independent verification is even more worth undertaking than it usually is. The parts that restate what has long been obvious and put in much simpler terms are not "useless," but indeed useful, which is why I and others have always made the very same points. As to "posturing," a lot of it is that, in my opinion, though I don't particularly blame Foucault for it: it's such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it. As for the "corruption" of this culture particularly since World War II, that's another topic, which I've discussed elsewhere and won't go into here. Frankly, I don't see why people in this forum should be much interested, just as I am not. There are more important things to do, in my opinion, than to inquire into the traits of elite intellectuals engaged in various careerist and other pursuits in their narrow and (to me, at least) pretty unininteresting circles. That's a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them: but I've been asked, and have answered the only specific point that I find raised. When asked about my general opinion, I can only give it, or if something more specific is posed, address that. I'm not going to undertake an essay on topics that don't interest me.

Unless someone can answer the simple questions that immediately arise in the mind of any reasonable person when claims about "theory" and "philosophy" are raised, I'll keep to work that seems to me sensible and enlightening, and to people who are interested in understanding and changing the world.

Johnb made the point that "plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener"; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent "theories." Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I've never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it's true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll. Johnb says that outside of circles like this forum, "to the rest of the country, he's incomprehensible" ("he" being me). That's absolutely counter to my rather ample experience, with all sorts of audiences. Rather, my experience is what I just described. The incomprehensibility roughly corresponds to the educational level. Take, say, talk radio. I'm on a fair amount, and it's usually pretty easy to guess from accents, etc., what kind of audience it is. I've repeatedly found that when the audience is mostly poor and less educated, I can skip lots of the background and "frame of reference" issues because it's already obvious and taken for granted by everyone, and can proceed to matters that occupy all of us. With more educated audiences, that's much harder; it's necessary to disentangle lots of ideological constructions.

It's certainly true that lots of people can't read the books I write. That's not because the ideas or language are complicated --- we have no problems in informal discussion on exactly the same points, and even in the same words. The reasons are different, maybe partly the fault of my writing style, partly the result of the need (which I feel, at least) to present pretty heavy documentation, which makes it tough reading. For these reasons, a number of people have taken pretty much the same material, often the very same words, and put them in pamphlet form and the like. No one seems to have much problem --- though again, reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement or professional academic journals don't have a clue as to what it's about, quite commonly; sometimes it's pretty comical.

A final point, something I've written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers, and the last chapter of Year 501). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like "mathematics for the millions" (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That's not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That's an organizer's dream, as I once heard Mike say. It's also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There's a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.

End of Reply, and (to be frank) of my personal interest in the matter, unless the obvious questions are answered.

It's clear that Chomsky doesn't understand Derrida and probably doesn't want to, that what Chomsky dismisses as Derrida's "misreading" is actually the deliberate "misreading" of deconstructive interpretation, i.e. reading against the grain of standard interpretations. (In this case, Chomsky's opening profession that he may not understand what's going on should be understood as something other than Socratic irony.) Many of Chomsky's other criticisms are both highly arguable and eminently understandable. His caveat about independently confirming Foucault's historical research may be the most valuable passage in the entire statement. The David Lodge book Chomsky twice refers to is surely Small World, Lodge's comic 'academic conference picaresque' novel set in the critical theory milieu ca.1979. It's a funny, smart, well-made novel, a superior follow-up to Lodge's Changing Places, the book that taught the world how to play 'Humiliation.' I recommend both.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Readers of my last post of 2010 (see below) will not be surprised to learn that I began 2011 with a reading of William Vollmann's 1987 debut novel. You Bright and Risen Angels is much more than a promising first novel. It is an annunciation of the arrival of a writer who seems to have sprung fully mature from the North American earth. It's one of the most audacious, self-assured first novels I have ever read, and while it falls easily into the comic/satirical line that stretches from Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy through Lewis Carroll and Mikhail Bulgakov to George Orwell and Thomas Pynchon, Vollmann's novel largely fights free of its influences and seems a sui generis work of American fiction. On one level, the book is a 1980s Silicon Valley compu-serf's revenge fantasy, a fantastically elaborate literalization of the computer 'bugs' that are every programmer's bane. Around this kernel of an idea, Vollmann imagines a dystopic America defined by four competing (and sometimes cooperating) systems: fascistic corporations, violent anti-corporate revolutionaries, sentient bugs (beetles, ants, etc.); and the force of electricity itself, the mysterious "blue globes" that hold the fundamental power in Vollmann's world. While Animal Farm is an obvious precursor, Vollmann eschews the paint-by-numbers allegory of Orwell's satire for something less easily legible and more complex--and insofar as it is more complex, both more 'realistic' and more akin to the satirical style of Pynchon's biography of Byron the Bulb in Gravity's Rainbow. Vollmann's leading reactionary, the aptly-named industrialist Mr. White, is neither Edison nor Ford nor Carnegie nor Rockefeller nor Westinghouse nor Tesla, but an amalgamation of the worst qualities of all those men, with unhealthy doses of Lester Maddox and Adolph Hitler tossed in for bad measure. And while the author's sympathies clearly lie with the revolutionaries who oppose Mr. White, they are also portrayed as cold-blooded slaughterers of the innocent. Neither right nor left escapes the barbs of Vollmann's satire, and one of the most discomforting questions this novel implies (and answers negatively) is: Can there be a revolution without revolutionary murder? Has there ever been one, even one? (The American Revolution gave us the Gnaddenhutten massacre; Gandhi's 'peaceful revolution' was accompanied by ferocious sectarian violence; one might mention the "Revolution of 1688" in England, but that was really more an international palace coup.) Vollmann challenges armchair leftists to be honest with themselves and cease all talk of 'revolution' unless they're willing to accept responsibility for the violence that real revolution entails.

This is but one level of a novel that overflows with meaning and incident. I've mentioned some of its higher-class precursors, but this book also partakes of pulp science fiction, comic books, TV cartoons (Vollmann subtitles the novel "A Cartoon") and the adrenaline-fueled absurdities of 1980s action movies. There's an impossible prison break that seems lifted from a Stallone film; there are major characters named Parker and Wayne (the 'real' names of Spiderman and Batman, respectively); there are people who look like plants, and bugs that pass for people; one character can stretch like Plasticman, others are so tediously nerdy they would be expelled from a John Hughes film. Vollmann expertly juggles his characters and commands a complicated nonlinear narrative with more finesse than most older writers could muster. (And as though to underline his youth, the first edition of this novel sports an author photo in which the 27-ish author looks about 17.) His energy flags only near the end, when the overlong "Blue Globes Forever" chapter threatens to stall the book out before the last of its 600+ pages. Fortunately, Vollmann's enigmatic and in-your-face "Author's Note" (which I remember hearing him read aloud on Michael Silverblatt's "Bookworm" radio program sometime in the 1990s) saves us from an otherwise disappointing ending.