A Review of Herman Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania, 2018)
Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves is a teaser, an invitation to think through the historiography on Atlantic slavery as a liberal metanarrative, one that has separated the oikos (economics) from the polis. Liberalism has considered slavery as a regime of property and labor, the very antithesis of liberalism. Each slave was the property of the master and the state therefore had no recourse to intervene and regulate the master’s power. Abolitionism therefore cast itself as a movement to gain freedom for slaves. Marxism and its various historiographical incantations, from Eugene Genovese to Paul Gilroy, did not buy into this liberal narrative of freedom and tied capitalism firmly to slavery, refusing to sever slavery from the rise of the modern liberal regime. Yet, Bennett argues, these writers still rely on the same conceptual and discursive liberal underpinnings of the Enlightenment: slavery belongs in political economy.
Bennett also takes on the narratives of slave resistance as part of the same liberal discourse, because they build on individual agency as their unit of analysis. Not surprisingly, Bennett offers a critique of Orlando Paterson’s Slavery and Social Death since it is the violent deracination of the individual that kills political and cultural community. If for Bennett the category of social death is problematic, so too is that of ethnogenesis. The liberal underpinnings of the diasporic historiography, Bennett argues, have led to an obsession with “culture.” The newer diasporic historiography has sought to reconnect the deracinated individual back to resilient and original African cultures or to Afro-American creole ones, created in haphazard mixings and transoceanic and continental movements.
Bennett explores an alternative understanding of slavery as co-constitutive of early modern notions of European sovereignty, not merely economics and culture. In his rendering, there is no possible theorization of the early modern “absolutist” state without slavery, and no understanding of slavery without theology and political culture. From Victoria to Bodin, slavery was at the core of any definition of dominium and imperium, in short, sovereignty. According to Bennett, Catholic writers did not separate the oikos from the polis, that is, they did not render property and labor into fetishes, categories with no anchor in theories of sovereignty. For authors like Victoria, Bennett argues, there was no autonomous master or slave outside the purview of the sovereign. Notions of individual slave- or master- agency had no room in this political theory. The authority of the individual was always implicitly or explicitly curtailed. Slaves could be taken away from masters by the church. There were also masterless slaves, namely, the slaves of the king.
Bennett goes back to 1450 to 1500, to the encounter of Portugal with the peoples of Guinea. He uses papal bulls, the writings of travelers like Ca’ da Mosto, and the contracts (charters or entradas) between adelantados (entrepreneurs) and the crown (all three types of document translated from Latin and Portuguese and long published in English; Bennett offer no new archival evidence) to investigate the role of slavery in the constitution of the sovereign. The things Bennett describes in these documents should be familiar to those acquainted with sixteenth-century Ibero America.
Contrary to common belief, the papal bulls never assumed Guinea to be a land of pagans whose property and political authority was there for the taking. The pope simply acted as broker between rival European kings claiming monopoly to engage, within a given area stipulated in the charter, in trade and treaties with local lords to win them over to conversion. Iberian kings themselves issued charters to entrepreneurs not to take property or land away from anyone; nor could adelantados become lords of lands that already had natural lords in the first place. Entrepreneurs got contracts over vast coastal areas where to trade, not unlike the charters which the Pilgrims and Puritans got in the 1630s to set up islands of sovereignty in Massachusetts. Adelantados got charters to set up fatorias (fortified trading posts) in “empty” spaces (islands in deltas or off the coast). It was only in these fatorias-vacant lands where adelantados could exercise sovereignty (issue grace and legislation and mete out justice).
Bennett describes how Adelantados shared with travelers taxonomies of African sovereignty that determined their relations to the various African territories. A place was considered “empty” if it had stateless, lord-less peoples. Peoples and lands were there to be taken. There was little incentive to acquire dominium over “empty” spaces, however, because there was no trade to be had. One could raid these lands for captives; but since there were no African lords, there was no effort to set up fatorias on tiny islands of European sovereignty. There was no trade in “deserts.” Territories with lords, however, were something else.
According to Bennett, taxonomies of lordship were essentially based on the political analysis of African spectacle and pageantry. Adelantados and travelers were keen at recognizing local lords’ political-ritual language of sovereignty and acting accordingly. Lord-led territories were worth “controlling,” not by dispossession but by acknowledging the authority of the natural lord to trade in slaves and conversion. For Europeans, the sovereignty of local lords began with the recognition of the lords’ power to sell captives. Europeans might have doubts on the legality of systems used by lords to seize captives to trade, but the status of the captive was never questioned. Adelantados thus had sovereignty to purchase, via rescate, captives to take back to households in the Canaries, Azores, and Portugal.
Bennett argues that sixteenth-century Catholic theorists began to call into question the expansion of rescate as the main system for the expansion of slavery, for the trade itself had the secondary effect of separating slaves from sovereignty as property. According to Bennett, this was the crux of Victoria and Mercado’s critique of the early modern slave trade. Bennett takes on Davis’s Problem of Slavery in Western Culture for having presented these early modern Catholic theologians as the first critics of the slave trade and therefore the first abolitionist writers. Theirs was not a liberal critique of slavery as labor system and as the antithesis of freedom; theirs was a critique of aspects of the growing challenge of the oikos to overwhelm the polis, as economic motives began to challenge sovereignty and therefore “absolutism.”
Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves is a challenging book. While it does not bring new documents to light, it succeeds as a polemics. It offers a most provocative critique of the unspoken liberal underpinning of historiography on slavery. It is also a book addressed to Europeanists who have ignored the centrality of slavery to early modern political theory.
Everyone knows the first 3 waves of feminism: the first was the political fight for women’s suffrage (let’s say 1880-1920), the second was the revival of the struggle around issues of sexual and financial freedom, inspired by the Civil Rights movement (around 1965-1980), and the third is whatever the hell happened after 1980. Various candidates for what counts as Third Wave include the expansion of the white women’s struggle to women of color, a new openness to gay rights, the rise of queer theory, the revaluation of femme fashion choices (but absolutely not in a backlashy way), sex-positive feminism, and the expansion of academic women’s studies to other groups defined by gender, such as masculinity or trans studies.
It’s clear we’re now in a different moment, albeit one that incorporates elements of the previous movements. Wikipedia says we are currently in a “fourth wave,” linked to the revival of open feminist activism around 2012. But I’d like to muddy the waters by suggesting that we have actually experienced two separate waves of feminism since Y2K, and that they are quite different from each other. Both of them are mediated more or less through internet communication: the fourth through blogs and chat rooms, and the fifth through social media.
Here’s my suggestion for what constituted fourth wave feminism—a phenomenon that went under the radar because it was explicitly opposed to academic feminism, and was considered too trivial to be interesting to the national media. Fourth wave feminism was the rise of girls’ fan culture on the internet in response to popular culture.
Hear me out! The early 2000s were an age when the internet rapidly democratized and we found out what people really care about: cat pictures and porn. (It was not, as I mention here, the cyberpunk dystopia our science fiction had prepared us for.) In this cultural turmoil, new communities formed around fan groups, some of the first of which were the communities around TV recap sites. The best of these was probably Television Without Pity, which originated in 1998 as a recap site for the teen drama Dawson’s Creek, and by 2002 had expanded its focus to 30 shows.
Eventually, with the rise of prestige TV, recap culture was integrated into the rest of entertainment journalism. (This article by Alison Herman tells the story.) The writing was personal, funny, irreverent, and addictive—it was an entirely new voice, and one that rapidly spread to the rest of the internet. The recappers and their communities identified fiercely with the characters and their bad choices, and “shipped” characters they longed to see in romantic relationships.
From the perspective of academic literary criticism this point of view is a basic category error: as Linda Holmes recalls in Herman’s article, “It’s easy to think ‘they’re getting angry at a fictional character.’” Fiction is not life, and fictional characters are not real people: this is the basic epistemological bracket within which all literary criticism takes place (though this point gets fudged all the time when we talk about the important historical context of works of art). The idea of “caring” about the characters is not totally scorned, but it’s considered a little immature: literary study means also learning to consider the characters’ actions from a more distanced perspective in the context of the work as a whole.
So there was a true gulf here between academic and popular responses to these TV shows, even though the idea that popular culture is worthy of study was not itself controversial in the academy (see Anne Jamison’s 2013 Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over The World.) Both in academia and in entertainment journalism, a bit of lingering sexism also made pop culture aimed at boys (like Star Wars) seem just a little more serious than the “trivial” romances aimed at girls (like Twilight). Imagine Fredric Jameson writing about Twilight!
But was this really a new wave of feminism, in particular? Many other marginalized groups and voices also seized this opportunity to have an impact—think, for example, of the impact of African-American fan communities on twitter as they discovered they could boost the ratings of Scandal by live-tweeting it on Thursday nights. However, I believe we can’t understand what’s happening in feminism today unless we understand what was happening in the early 2000s outside the academy and traditional understandings of activist politics. This moment changed feminism in 3 ways:
1. It was highly democratic, inviting in people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, including tweens, teens, and older women. The only requirement was access to a television and some kind of linked computer. You didn’t need a college degree to understand the community’s codes—all you needed was an opinion.
2. It was based on passionate enthusiasms that were both shared and highly individualistic. This kind of enthusiasm (often for swoony romance genres or dumb reality shows) had been kept at arm’s length by the other waves of feminism, and especially the academic kinds, which were eager to prove that women were not hysterical but in fact deeply learned and professional. It overturned Gen X’s penchant for cynical grownup approaches to culture, and was in harmony with what would become the millennial mood of creative collaboration (with a bit of faux-infantile absurdism). Feminism was about to lose the slight air of elitist snobbery that separated it from girlish play.
3. It was powerfully inclusive of all sexual orientations and experiences—as long as they were consensual. As I noticed here, it sidestepped a lot of complicated ‘90s gender theory and drew directly on the experience of frustrated desire we associate with the teen years. Shows that showcased this openness to queer experiences—like the optimistic TV series Glee, which premiered in 2009—were rewarded by ardent fan bases.
The fourth wave gave new confidence to teens and young women, helping them feel their voices mattered and that they were understood by networks of people like themselves. At the same time, the relation to celebrity was one of direct and probably unhealthy over-identification, blurring the lines between reality and entertainment just like reality TV was doing, and by extension Trump’s political career would do. A more inclusive popular culture was the goal of the fourth wave; undramatic matters such as abortion access and getting more women to vote were less compelling. Just as the second wave was inspired by the other liberation movements of the ‘60s, the fourth wave shared its essential shape with the fun-loving, infantile, oversharing, and profoundly democratic spirit of the internet in the 2000s.
As for the fifth wave, with its organized political activism, its radical fight against sexual abuse on every level, and its keen distress at the overwhelming pressure of entrenched misogyny—I feel that began precisely in August 2014, around the time the internet began to suck. Trolls and flame wars had been endemic to internet communication since the days of e-mail, but Gamergate was something new. We now can see that the gangs of organized trolls who gleefully doxxed female tech journalists for the crime of being SJWs were inspired by Steve Bannon, who would use the same techniques to catalyze the rise of the alt-right in 2016.
August 2014 was also the month Beyoncé famously used the then-shocking word “Feminist” as the backdrop to her song “***Flawless” at the VMA's, as well as the month of the protests in Ferguson, MO that would give rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The moment of the fourth wave, which rejected conventional political action in favor of individual personal testimony, was passing. Everything got darker, more intense, and more horrifying—we were plunged into an information war of which the stakes were very real. The fifth wave looks more like the second wave, and so we recognize it as “feminism,” whereas the fourth wave—which avoided the vocabulary of “opposition” and “fighting” in favor of identificatory feelings and personal stories—didn’t feel like a noticeable shift, even though it radically transformed the way women articulated their experiences.
Two separate waves of feminism within twenty years! Neither of them will reflect every woman’s interests, but together they have massively expanded the ways women can talk about their experiences in public, and inch closer to a recognition of collective possibilities. For those of us who grew up feeling that feminism had basically done its work, the past few decades have been nothing but wake-up call after wake-up call.
There’s an enchantment readers feel when we stumble on a relatable novel. To find a story that reflects our lives, and to read ourselves in its characters, their background, the places they frequent, and the difficulties they encounter. If the author is skillful enough, she’ll smoothly strum across our reality and fantasies, leaving us believing the story could well be ours. Yes, novels can induce a state of literary insobriety, a conscious high that develops a better understanding of our human dynamics.
I know the feeling because I’ve experienced it many times. Not recently, though.
No sooner had I learned to read than I started devouring the novels I found on the shelves at home. In fact, my fascination with books began long before that. At the age of three or four, I’d put on my father’s reading glasses, browse through the pages, and fake amusement as if I fully understood what was going on. It didn’t matter much that the novels we had were by Egyptian authors. It was the mid-seventies, and the Ba’athists’ strong grip over the cultural scene made it very difficult for noncompliant novelists to publish their work. Many writers left Iraq, while others decided to stay but stopped writing altogether. We didn’t have a single Iraqi novel in the house, I’m certain, but that wasn’t a problem because I immensely enjoyed the stories told by two particular Egyptian novelists: Naguib Mahfouz (first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1988) and Ihsan Abdel Quddous.
While Mahfouz’s famed Trilogy and other novels navigated the fantastical bygone alleys of Cairo with their prostitutes and thugs, tyrannical husbands and submissive wives, Abdel Quddous’s novels seemed incredibly vivid and relatable. His educated-middle-class protagonists straddled two different cultures, as did my father, who was a descendant of farmers with a post graduate degree in Internal Medicine and Cardiology from Columbia University, NY. The working women in Mahfouz's novels and their fight for their rights resonated with my mother, an independent and headstrong teacher of history. And indeed, the westernized children’s rebellion against their parents and their constant questioning of issues like love, sex, politics and religion sounded exactly like mine, as well as my siblings’ and friends’.
Ihsan Abdel Quddous didn’t shy away from tackling social ills. His strong advocacy for gender equality manifested itself in the way he portrayed many of his female characters. Ana Hurra (I Am Free, 1952), to cite one example, tells the story of a young middle-class girl who embarks on a journey to defy the patriarchal authority of her family and society. The novel immediately stirred up controversy, earning Quddous the title of an adept interpreter of modern day Arab women’s aspirations and feelings.
Influenced by a journalistic background, Quddous’s style was fresh, unpretentious, and irresistibly cinematic. Dozens of his novels and short stories were thus adapted into films that varied in quality and depth.
Naguib Mahfouz’s and Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s personalities couldn’t have been more different, and yet the two great novelists had mutual respect and admiration for one another. The screenwriter for several films based on Abdel Quddous novels was none other than Naguib Mahfouz. But, unlike Mahfouz, who was keen not to upset the Egyptian leaders of his time, Abdel Quddous, a born confrontationist, was jailed several times for his political views and stances. Another difference between the two was that Mahfouz had a small circle of friends and abhorred travelling, so much so that he declined to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, and sent his daughters to receive the accolade on his behalf. Abdel Quddous, on the other hand, was a world traveller and a socialite, hence the remarkable diversity of form in his writings, covering such genres as fictional travelogue, diaries, and psychological fiction. Several of his books were translated to English and other foreign languages.
In an interview with Hadil Ghoneim for Mada Masr in 2015, translator and scholar Trevor le Gassick admitted that Abdel Quddous was envied by many of his fellow writerfolk. “The fact was, everybody was reading his work, and everybody knew that everybody else was reading his work. He reached a level of popularity that nobody else had. The American University in Cairo did a survey at one time on who was the most popular novelist, and Ihsan topped the list,” le Gassick said. However, when the Nobel went to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, everything started to change.
The American University in Cairo Press has since published over forty volumes of Mahfouz’s writing translated into English. In 1996, it established the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, awarded annually in support of Arabic literature in translation. AUC Press’s Facebook page rightly proclaims itself “the leading English-language publisher in the region, offering a backlist of more than 1,200 publications including e-books, and publishes annually up to 100 new books.” That’s wonderful! But how many novels or short story collections by Ihsan Abdel Quddous did AUC Press translate? Zero!
The emphasis on Naguib Mahfouz’s bona fide localist literature and the total negligence of Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s overreaching novels might well be part of the university’s and its press’s attempt to rebut the allegations of a Western-colonialist mission that have surrounded them. But they’re not the only ones to blame.
It’s undeniable that there has been a significant shift over the years in the social structure in most Arab countries. The gap between the rich and the poor is drastically widening, threatening to swallow much of the middle and upper-middle classes, which should be all the more reason for western publishers to provide titles by the insiders in the middle who can see how the economic pressures are reshaping the cultural and political scene. Instead, presses choose to invest in the unwavering appeal of Orientalism and translated several books about ISIS and its horror stories of atrocities. I’m not insinuating in any way that those accounts are unimportant or they don’t deserve to be shared. On the contrary, they are and they should. It’s just that dwelling on them alone doesn’t allow the readers to understand the big picture. Symptoms are features of the disease, but they’re not the disease.
Another factor that’s been driving the lack of interest in publishing novels about or by the Arab middle class, deeming their stories and viewpoints superficial, and thereby illegitimate material for valuable fiction, is the current Arab Gulf's domination over the publishing industry. If a certain press today is barred from the only remaining and thriving book markets in the Arab world and the handsome literary prizes awarded by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar — unless it relies on other foreign funding — that may well be the end of it. The aforementioned prizes, worth hundreds of thousands of American dollars, have been going, with a few exceptions, to either historical, fantasy or extremely abstract works. There’s hardly any meaningful tackling of modern-day problems.
Even some of the Lebanese publishers, once known for their daring and liberal editorial policies, have been domesticated by the new bosses, who can’t tolerate the call for personal and political freedoms. It’s not allowed in the lands of the rich to talk about injustice or to pinpoint the other flaws in their prevalent system. Abdel Quddousean characters are considered a threat to autocracy and patriarchy. And to be honest, they are!
Twenty-eight years have passed since Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s death. His novels are still widely circulated throughout the Arab world—albeit mainly in pirated digital copies. The challenges and conflicts endured by his characters are as relevant today as they ever were. But when I tried to search for their English translations, I could hardly find any in print.
It’s also been a while since I last read an Arabic novel that I could see myself in, or anyone I know for that matter. And the argument that the middle class is not influential anymore doesn’t make much sense, because just like my father’s generation had played a significant role in modernizing their communities in the mid-to-late twentieth-century, the young educated middle class Arabs are also leading political reform movements. They may have lost the battle for an Arab Spring to the Islamists, but they haven’t given up the fight.
First appeared in ArabLit, titled “The Silencing of Ihsan Abdel Quddous”
The Age of Trump has pushed irony once again to the forefront of our cultural conversation. In a 2016 essay published in the New York Times, Christy Wampole argued that the “Age of Irony ended abruptly on Nov. 9, 2016” with the election of Donald Trump. The corrosive irony that had inundated the “blue bubbles of educated, left-leaning, white middle-class people in cities, suburbia, and college towns,” evaporated in the face of the “cataclysmic election.” Wampole suggests an America split between those who live “defensively” and those who live earnestly. In a December 2017 essay for Salon, Sophia A. McClennan suggests just the reverse: that Trump’s deliberately imprecise use of language has turned all political discourse ironic—the only important question is how that irony is being used. But we have been here before. An historical excursion can help clarify today’s debate. During World War II, American politicians, academics, and writers using the language of “morale” were similarly concerned with issues of irony and sincerity: did Americans sincerely believe in the fight, in the pronouncements of its politicians and military officials? Did irony end with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor? There was never a clear answer then, or now, because we have been, and continue to be, a culture both thoroughly ironic and unabashedly sentimental.
The bestselling American novel of the World War II years was written by a then 65-year old Congregational clergyman, Dr. Lloyd C. Douglas. Published in October of 1942, The Robe tells the story of Marcellus, a young Roman soldier, who participates in Christ’s crucifixion and then wins his robe in a dice game. Marcellus’s encounters with Christ’s garment are dramatic, at first deranging him and then healing him. A transformed Marcellus, accompanied by his Greek slave Demetrius, search out information about Jesus, his teachings, and his followers.
It is not surprising that Americans—at least the white middle-class readership that was Douglas’ primary audience—would seek wartime comfort in a spiritually uplifting story of personal transformation. The first year of American involvement in the war was grim and uncertain, good news scarce. Who could blame readers for wanting both escape and reassurance? And although the culture was suffused with patriotism and an earnest commitment to fight, many Americans—soldiers included—remained suspicious of the war and the government officials that were directing it. The armed forces conducted many large-scale surveys of soldiers, and it is surprising to learn just how uncertain so many GI’s were about why they were fighting (these surveys were collected and analyzed in the landmark volumes of The American Soldier, published in 1949 under the direction of sociologist Samuel A. Stouffer). Ernie Pyle’s popular wartime journalism articulated one very popular version of this detached attitude: soldiers fought to get home, not to end tyranny.
In 1942, Lloyd C. Douglas was already a successful novelist. His breakthrough came with 1929’s Magnificent Obsession, a surprise bestseller about a spoiled playboy’s transformation into a selfless doctor. So it wasn’t unexpected that The Robe might sell; but the novel’s tremendous success was surprising. According to a 1946 Life profile of the author, The Robe “used up so much paper that its embarrassed publishers, Houghton Mifflin Company, were compelled to rent their rights in the property to the firm of Grosset & Dunlap.” On its release, the novel stayed on the bestseller list for nine months, was translated into 12 languages, and sold $1, 396, 000 copies. Most people today know The Robe from the grand 1953 film adaptation directed by Henry Koster and starring a young Richard Burton.
Critical reception of the novel ran from tepid—an “admirable” fusion of historical fact and fiction well told (New York Times)—to cantankerous—a “pathetic” and “vague sociological experiment” (America: A Catholic Review of the Week). In his extraordinary New Yorker review from 1944, the literary critic Edmund Wilson dismantles the novel’s literary aspirations. “It is so difficult,” Wilson writes, “when one first glances into The Robe, to imagine that any literate person with the faintest trace of literary taste could ever get through more than two pages of it for pleasure that one is astounded and terrified at the thought that seven million American have found something in it to hold their attention.” And yet, amid the snark, Wilson is clearly sympathetic to the book’s great success, its good “old-fashioned” storytelling with an uplifting message for a very dark time. “It is quite natural,” he writes, “that people should find it a relief to hear about somebody who was interested in healing the blind and the crippled rather than in blinding and crippling people, and in comforting the persecuted rather than in outlawing large groups of human beings.”
Here Wilson approaches one of the reasons—perhaps the essential one—for the book’s massive popularity: its sentimentality. Cosmopolitan magazine noted this in an editorial preface to an essay by Douglas, contrasting the book’s simple and dramatic story with the “cynical age” it inhabited. The primary characters of The Robe—Marcellus and Demetrius—through tears and struggles shed their cynicism for the satisfaction of spiritual commitment. But when I describe The Robe as sentimental I am not using that term only in its common meaning of excessive or unwarranted emotion (although it has some of that. Douglas is excessively fond of the exclamation point!). The Robe is sentimental in a specifically historical way, part of a long Anglo-American literary and philosophical tradition. In the United States that tradition is best represented by mid- 19th century novels, many of them by women, the most famous being Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The sentimental tradition emphasized the power of emotion and sympathy to morally improve ourselves and the world around us. Religion, particularly protestant religion, was central to this effort, manifested in what literary historian Claudia Stokes calls “sentimental piety,” a generalized Christian spirituality composed of prayer, Bible readings, and moral improvement (in fact, as Stokes shows, what seems so “colorless or indistinct” to us today was actually riddled with diverse, controversial theological commitments).
As a cultural force in American life, sentimentality withered along with the Victorian morality of the late 19th century. But as a set of cultural tropes— themes, images, and ideas—sentimentality lived on, thriving in 20th century modern mass culture’s novels, magazines, films, radio serials, and popular songs. In this context, The Robe’s success makes perfect sense. Sentimental piety was waxing in the early years of the war. The Robe shared the bestseller list with two other popular Christian novels (interestingly, both written by Jewish authors): Franz Werfel’s Song of Bernadette (1941) and Sholem Asch’s The Apostle (1943). One of the most popular radio “soaps” of the early 1940s, Irna Phillip’s The Guiding Light centered on a non-sectarian minister named John Rutledge and the Five Points community he served. The show’s title and opening music—a ringing church organ—set the pious tone, a contrast to the sordid problems faced by the shows’s characters. Bing Crosby, the bestselling American musical artist of the era, had hits with songs such as 1944’s “Just a Prayer Away” and, most famously, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” (1942).
Crosby also carried sentimental piety to the screen, portraying easy-going Father O’Malley in Going My Way (1944) and the Bells of St. Mary (1945). Both films were massive commercial and critical successes that solidified Crosby as the era’s defining celebrity. The character of Father O’Malley drew closely on the actor’s star persona—a down-to-earth, slightly mischievous, everyman. O’Malley is a believer but he is also modern—he likes to play golf and watch baseball—and he wears his religion lightly. Both films, despite their setting, are not specifically religious. In fact, it is O’Malley’s secular musical abilities that save the church in Going My Way. These films’ portrayal of a generalized Christian faith strongly echoed 19th-century sentimental piety with its emphasis on prayer, Bible reading, and faith. Like Douglas’ novel, the Father O’Malley films studiously avoided controversial theological ideas.
Next to radio soap operas, Christmas songs, and affable Hollywood priests, Douglas’s novel may seem the odd one out. But despite its more overt religiosity—telling the story of Christ’s crucifixion and the early years of the church—the novel is deliberately ecumenical. The main characters—Marcellus and Demetrius—are pragmatic, hard-headed, and rational people. They take an ambivalent stand on the miraculous nature of the Robe (Douglas nearly always capitalizes the noun), rationalizing its power in distinctly modern psychological terms. When Marcellus finally accepts the truth of Jesus’ miracles, he reluctantly acknowledges that reason has failed him: “There’s no use trying to explain…I gathered up the Robe in my hand—and it healed my mind.” For the majority of the novel Marcellus remains a hardboiled pragmatist, skeptical of people’s motives and frequently doubting the truth of what he hears from Roman and Jew alike. At least until his total spiritual transformation, Marcellus lives “defensively,” using irony as way to navigate his often deceitful world.
The Robe then is simply a different perspective on the same cultural dynamic—the revival of sentimental piety as counterweight to the era’s hardboiled cynicism: just as Irna Philips and Bing Crosby infused sentimental popular mass culture with a generalized religiosity, Douglas modernized Protestant piety for the hardboiled wartime American masses. As with any popular cultural text, the novel undoubtedly meant many things to its diverse readership. The novel reads as a thinly veiled critique of the materialism and decadence of modern American life. And it certainly had a strong resonance with the war and its many atrocities, some of which had already been reported on. But The Robe is, above all, classically sentimental, focused on the emotional and tearful transformations of its central characters. When the distraught Marcellus finally touches the Robe for a second time, he is flooded with emotion—a “curious elation,” “an indefinable sense of relief from everything.” During World War II Americans wanted to read stories of Ernie Pyle’s battle-hardened GI’s as much as they also yearned for the joyful rapture of sincere emotional catharsis: “He wasn’t afraid any more! Hot tears gathered in his eyes and overflowed.” Despite its distance from our postmodern moment, The Robe traces some very familiar cultural terrain: the concern that irony saps moral certainty and political action. But the novel is also a reminder of the enormous influence of the sentimental tradition, a persistent companion to Americans’ ironic habit. Between irony and sincerity, Americans continue to choose both.
Titled Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care (University of Nebraska Press, July 2018) my recent book develops the insights of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) for critical theory and aesthetics. While the modern Liberal imagination treats money as a finite, private and decentralized exchange instrument that seems incapable of serving all, MMT’s state or “chartalist” approach to political economy insists that money is an inalienable public utility that can always be mobilized to meet social and ecological needs. In Declarations, I trace the historical repression of chartalist ideas to the rise of modern Western metaphysics through the negation of the medieval Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. I uncover the impoverished social topology upon which both Liberal modernity and critical aesthetics have historically relied. Ultimately, I labor to redeem critical theory and aesthetics by recovering a more capacious social topology from the Thomist theology that modern Western philosophy supplanted.
Here, I would like to extend this project by complicating the Westphalian model of sovereignty, which MMT’s state theory of money presumes. My contention is not that international finance, supply chains, and NGOs somehow render the modern-nation state powerless or passé, as theorists of globalization regularly claim. Rather, I contend that the metaphysical suppositions behind modern Westphalian sovereignty obscure globalization’s interdependent legal architecture, while simultaneously naturalizing a politics of irresponsibility. In response, I argue, MMT would do well to return to a Thomistic topology of law and politics, which figures law as the center of global interdependence and governance as unavoidably answerable to all worldly forms.
That MMT sounds foreign to contemporary ears owes to the fact that it unwittingly conjures a whole topological and causal background, which modern Western metaphysics long ago rejected. During Europe’s High Middle Ages, however, a similar social topology became legible in the scholastic theology centered around the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas.
Writing during the great political and economic expansion of the High Middle Ages, Thomas argued that Being takes the shape of a centralizing, inalienable, and inescapably interdependent cascade. While no doubt reliant upon the contiguous comings and goings of individual creatures and things, this cascade realizes the broad labor of Creation all at once via its entire mediating infrastructure. Emblematized by the miraculously inexhaustible transubstantiation of the Eucharist on disparate altars, Thomas’s metaphysics sought to make sense of the mystery of the late medieval period’s ballooning political economy and converging heterogenous cultures. What is more, his topology served as the basis for legal conceptions of the fiscal apparatus or treasury, what contemporary jurists from Bracton to Accursius referred to as the “most holy fisc.”
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, Franciscan theologians such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham and humanists from Petrarch to Erasmus challenged the Thomistic synthesis with a new metaphysics and a recognizably modern social topology. This metaphysical topos decentered Thomism’s boundless cascade, reconstituting the Christian God as an absolute and immediate willing power in a definitively contiguous world. In so doing, the Franciscans and humanists variously contracted Creation’s wide causal breadth into a contiguous and alienable “thisness,” which Scotus famously dubbed “haecceity.” As a consequence, this new topology reduced causality to a series of proximate relations and deemed anything like concurrent mediation at a distance either unnecessary, artificial, or impossible.
Over time, the topos of haecceity became the unquestioned metaphysical backdrop for an ascendant Westphalian modernity. It enabled influential Franciscans and humanists to reject Thomist visions of an incorruptible sacred fisc and to re-envision money as an alienable medium of exchange well before the likes of John Locke. It also gave rise to Reformation conceptions of the Almighty as an immediately willing God which, in turn, perpetuated destructive wars of religion and the rise of a Westphalian system of fiscally-strapped sovereign states.
The problem with modernity’s contracted haecceity metaphysics is that it grounds human relationality upon a primary unboundedness or non-relationality, which externalizes the question of relationality from the start. Beginning from this lethal premise, modern metaphysics thereby envisions the central challenge of collective belonging not as governing an always-already interdependent and bounded reality, but as finding means to unify ontologically disaggregated beings into some kind of coherent and legitimate whole. Far from natural, this seemingly primordial difficulty is metaphysically spurious, thoroughly modern, and exceedingly political.
Liberal money is the most salient expression of this fantasmatic non-relationality, and money appears non-relational because the modern metaphysics of haecceity has inscribed estrangement into the heart of law and politics. To put a finer point on it, this originary alienation weaves itself into how Western modernity figures the topological relation between law and politics. In the eyes of Westphalian modernity, or if one prefers, Jean Bodin or Thomas Hobbes, sovereignty is exclusive and primary, and law is an extension of sovereign power. Should law spill over sovereignty’s jurisdiction, it is characterized either as geopolitical domination, a compact between sovereign wills, or wishful thinking.
On my reading, such a topology turns the relationship between law and politics disastrously inside-out and the modern Liberal money form is the result. This modern view of law and politics casts money as a decentered global exchange relation for which no governing body is ultimately responsible. It exculpates modern governance from perpetual legal entanglements in what are characterized as external social and ecological problems.
I would like to recast this inside-out relation between law and politics from the vantage of the Thomist metaphysics that modern thought has rejected. Thomas’s understanding of law and politics is most discernable in his philosophy of “natural law.” In Thomism, natural law is mostly empty of positive precepts and commandments. Instead, natural law marks the ineludible riddle of social and material interdependence from the widest to the smallest scales. This riddle knows no outside. It assumes a tiered, heterogenous, and overlapping structure. But it traces no external bounds. Natural law, according to Thomas, is the basis for the various positive laws that organize a given social order. Yet, for Thomas, just like the natural law it realizes, positive law forever mediates the many from one, ex uno plura, rather than tenuously forging one from many, e pluribus unum.
Having predicated law in an ineluctable dependence, Thomas then characterizes the rapport between human governance and law via the scholastic method of analogy. He begins with the broader relation between God and what he calls “eternal law,” a kind of cosmic or supranatural interdependence that forms the mysterious basis of all order in the universe. Articulating this relationship, Thomas once again proves perplexing since, for him, God is both an infinite font of Creation and a legally bounded subject of His own created order. On Thomas’s reasoning, that is, God is the boundless and omnipresent center of Being’s continual Creation, not the absolute power or unbounded will characteristic of post-Reformation divinity. Yet at the same time, God’s infinitude is ineluctably restricted by eternal law’s own sublime interdependence. As a result, law appears simultaneously to proceed from God’s boundless creativity and to hold sway over Creation in ways that no divine agent can instantly dismantle. Therefore, God is nothing like an absolute will or power, Thomas concludes, precisely because the Divine remains forever indebted to the order to which divinity gives rise.
We discover a similarly paradoxical topology in Thomas’s theorization of the rapport between human governance and law. A governing institution is a site and source of social provisioning which, as every MMTer knows, must remain indebted to a particular society in the long run if that society is to continue to reproduce itself. To do so, a governing institution wields law’s infinite capacities to organize a certain scale of social and material creation. Yet Thomas argues that law as such always traces wider, narrower, and overlapping scales of interdependence than any particular governing institution can possibly oversee. Demarcated by neither territory nor sovereign will, these many scales of interdependence meet at Creation’s widest circumference and encircle each particular governing institution on all sides. It is therefore impossible for any governing institution to operate either before or outside law. Governing institutions can contest, suspend, or overturn specific instances of positive law. They may collapse in revolution or war. But, for Thomas, even states of exception and political chaos never fully circumvent the abiding quandary of social and material interdependence.
Today, I think it can equally be said that nothing escapes law’s interdependent causal horizon and charge. Law’s purview weds the present-day nation-state to cities, unemployed persons, and territorial resources as well as to other polities, stateless peoples, and the challenges of global climate change. Thomist legal and political philosophy makes these elementary connections freshly perceptible by folding the relationship between governance and law radically outside-in. At the same time, Thomas’s insistence that this legal relationality leans on a boundless center lifts the fiscal ceiling that presently prevents governing institutions from meeting social and ecological needs.
In this way, Thomism appears to both buttress MMT’s political economy and to problematize its still-unreflected attachments to the language of modern sovereignty. The resulting MMT-inspired approach to law and politics would neither subordinate jurisprudence to the problem of sovereignty nor pit universal beneficence against the evils of political and economic power. Instead, a Thomistic MMT would re-imagine the originary shape of law and turn the terms of political contestation irreversibly outside-in.
This essay is based on an oral presentation delivered at Law in Global Political Economy: Heterodoxy Now, a conference organized by the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard University, June 2–3, 2018.
Constantine P. Cavafy’s sexuality (1863-1933) was a paradox. While he composed daring homoerotic verse, he wrote very little about his own erotic life.
As a result, few traces of his homosexuality remain in the archive. Not a single letter addresses the topic in any detail, nor is there a journal or a diary devoted to it. Anyone interested in Cavafy’s life is left with the puzzling question: How could someone, who published path-breaking poetry about men loving men, have written so little about his own lovers?
Quite possibly Cavafy feared being ostracized from his social milieu. Alexandrians knew of his “anomaly” and accepted it as long as it led to no scandal. While they may have made passing references to this “perversion,” they did not write about it, preferring a conspiracy of evasion.
Therefore, little exists in the historical record about the poet’s intimate life. We know from hearsay that he had his first sexual experiences with a cousin in Istanbul between 1882 and 1885 and that he frequented the hamams (bath houses) in that city. But we have no eye-witness account and certainly nothing from Cavafy himself.
Of course, Cavafy might have written about his experiences with men in texts that had been expunged from the archive. His executors, Alekos and Rika Sengopoulos, had access to many boxes of his private notes, drafts, and belongings. Rika, who planned to write a biography of the poet, was the first to examine and organize this material. Did Rika and Alekos delete certain letters, comments, or other papers in their desire to present a more acceptable Cavafy?
Quite likely they removed their own letters to the poet from the archive. Although Constantine wrote to both of them when they visited Athens in 1928, none of their own responses to him survive, a remarkable occurrence for a man who kept receipts, lists of tasks and kitchen articles, train tickets, and drafts of letters.
In order to compensate for this hollowness of the archive, a biographer of Cavafy has to work like a novelist, conjecturing and recreating scenes, filling in the gaps. Of course, all biographies are imaginative reconstructions but even more so those that are marked by the deep absence of information.
As an example of this literary reconstruction in biographical writing, I would like to point to Cavafy’s friendship with the poet Napoleon Lapathiotis who was born in 1888 and who committed suicide in 1944. Did the two share a sexual relationship? While the historical record is inconclusive, I propose through a retelling of their story that we can imagine them to be in love.
Cavafy, then 54, met the 29-year-old Lapathiotis in 1917, a year before he had made the acquaintance of E. M. Foster. In his autobiography, Lapathiotis, who in his later life was open about his homosexuality, tells us that he had arrived in Alexandria as a second lieutenant to accompany his father, a general in the Greek army.
Like many visitors to Alexandria, Napoleon wanted to meet the then famous poet and asked a friend to arrange a visit. And Constantine himself, keen to spend time with young men, embraced the idea and prepared for it with anticipation. He lit, for instance, his artistically-made, “damask lamps” in the “oriental” siting room and strove for the right atmosphere of suggestion and artistic illusion. Charming and affable, he offered hors d’oeuvres and served special cognac in his prized red glasses. And Napoleon, so taken by the attention he received in the magical setting of poetry, promised to return.
But one day, promenading in his military uniform on the elegant Rue Rosette, the main corridor for European Alexandria, Napoleon felt someone’s approach. Turning around he saw Constantine with his round glasses and piercing eyes who chastised him for not having visited him as he had promised. Constantine then invited the young man to a patisserie and afterwards to his apartment. According to Napoleon, who would become an ardent supporter of the poet in Athens, the relationship remained amicable but they never saw each other again.
Constantine, however, saw the relationship differently as he reminded Napoleon in the fall of 1932 when he had arrived in Athens for a tracheotomy. Staying at the Hotel Cosmopolite before his operation, he received a visit from Napoleon and Marios Vaianos, then 26 and the most passionate disciple Cavafy had in Athens. Marios, who claimed that Napoleon had always referred to Constantine as his “teacher” and to himself as “pupil,” described the scene in his own memoirs.
As soon as he and Napoleon appeared at Constantine’s door, the poet embraced Napoleon warmly, in contrast to the frosty welcome he showed Marios a few days earlier. Constantine, overjoyed to see the now middle-aged Napoleon, exclaimed how “you were constantly in my mind and I tried to conjure you up alive, just like that time, whenever I came upon a poem of yours.” Pulling his visitor by the hand, he sat down at the foot of the bed and beckoned to Napoleon to join him. Constantine looked him straight in the eyes, “as if erotically,” while he placed “his left hand on his shoulders and with his right hand struck tenderly and playfully his two thighs, constantly and with warmth.” Napoleon, “pleased and satisfied,” looked occasionally up at Marios, perhaps out of embarrassment, but otherwise remained silent. Constantine in the meantime “continued his love in this manner” drawing his head ever closer to his guest.
Marios, for his part, feeling as if he had been an obstacle to some more intimate communication, escaped to the balcony. After sometime he returned to find that Napoleon, still looking “satisfied and happy,” had moved to a chair leaving Constantine still at the foot of the bed. But both continued to smile and stare into the eyes of the other “in unbroken exultation.” And then as if to break the spell, Constantine, indifferent to what his actions and words might be having on Marios, reminded Napoleon of the pleasant time they had spent together in Alexandria fifteen years earlier. “It was very lovely, when you came. Young, very young …. But now you are the same, Dorian Gray – and even more young … with your uniform, with your curiosity, and your frequent questions … Ah, how lovely it was and how you struggled to forget these things when you returned home.” He expressed the hope that Napoleon would revisit Alexandria so that they would go to the same gardens to “see what we like.”
Then something remarkable occurred. Leaning closer to his visitor, with his voice “dry and forbidding,” Constantine let out a pain through his “ailing throat” which he had until then suppressed. “I am very jealous, Napoleon, of your freedom, of the life you lead… It is as if you had your ideal Republic where you live and invite others for your company.” But “we can’t,” he emphasized with much anguish. Napoleon, made uncomfortable by this intense confession responded that “whoever wants can” achieve such freedom.
But Constantine affirmed that such conduct was impossible in Alexandria. “People there are very conservative. One surveils the other, through windows and through keyholes. Because of a few poems, they characterize me as unlawful and stigmatized.” Although he felt free to write “scandalous poems,” he could not lead Napoleon’s life in his city. He seemed defeated when he said these words. Sensing the poet’s fatigue, Napoleon gestured to Mario that they should go.
In the following days, Constantine underwent surgery, lost his voice, returned to Alexandria and died a couple of months later in April 1933. Napoleon’s return to Alexandria never materialized.
It is tempting to wonder if Constantine and Napoleon had an intimate relationship exactly as Marios’ description allows us to assume. If this was indeed the case, why did Napoleon himself not reveal this in his autobiography? Why did he not include the poem, “To the Artist from Tyre” with its subtitle “À la manière de… Kavafis” (1924) in his collected works of 1964? Was he not as in love with Constantine as Constantine himself seems to have been? Had he suppressed the affair after his return to Athens, as Constantine implied? Why were Constantine’s two letters to Napoleon in 1923 and 1925 so dry and professional in tone? (His correspondence was always cold, as many of his friends, including E. M. Forster, complained.) Finally, what were Vaianos’ intentions? Was he himself infatuated with Constantine? If so, was he jealous and hurt by Constantine’s apparent rejection of him?
We will never know. But this vignette comes as close as possible to offering us a picture of Constantine in love. Given the absences in the Cavafy archive, we have no choice but to fill in the gaps with our imagination, bringing together disparate stories and reading between the lines – in Cavafy’s words –“perfecting life, synthesizing impressions, blending the days.”
When the American photographer Berenice Abbott returned to New York in 1929 after nearly a decade away in Paris, she came back to a city transformed by a frenzy of epic construction projects. Contractors for the Chrysler were racing to lay three million bricks in less than two years in the hopes of becoming the tallest building in New York; by then, the Holland Tunnel had been open to traffic for nearly two years. Having spent her early career doing portraits in France, first for Man Ray and then on her own, Abbott felt inexorably drawn to the transformation of New York for her next subject.
In a 1935 application for a Guggenheim fellowship, Abbott wrote: “I am an American, who, after eight years of residence in Europe, came back to view America with new eyes. I have just realized America—its extraordinary potentialities, its size, its youth, its unlimited material for the photographic art, its state of flux particularly as applying to the city of New York.” That moment of transition, Abbott urged, had gone underappreciated by the artistic community: “I feel keenly the neglect of American material by American artists. . . America to be interpreted honestly must be approached with love void of sentimentality, and not solely with criticism and irony.” For someone coming back home after almost a decade away, Abbott’s insistence on a “love void of sentimentality” seems unusual, even at odds with the enthusiasm she feels for America’s unrealized artistic potential. What she longs for though is a middle ground, an artistic sincerity, located somewhere between patriotic nostalgia and highbrow irony.
Yet, what Abbott calls an honest artistic interpretation of our cities is difficult to achieve because by their nature cities are always in the act of aging, and confronting that decay triggers an understandably emotional desire to preserve. As I write, the hutong alleys of Beijing are disappearing; Gezi Park will soon be a faded memory in the history of Istanbul. In New York, historical commissions scramble to preserve both beauty and ugliness. Those prior layers are rarely fully removed; their half-sloughed skin remaining draped around the streets we pass by every day. We feel immense anxiety about the passing of our structures, sometimes rushing too quickly to restore. In 2011, architecture critic Sarah Goldhagen published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “Death by Nostalgia.” She argued that the sentimentalizing impulses of preservationists had sometimes prevented necessary urban development by turning historic architecture into tourist traps rather than authentically lived spaces. She proposed the use of European-style design review boards, which would permit New York City to evolve, even where that evolution meant the replacement of older structures.
Abbott’s documentary approach to her New York City, both curious and detached, tries to avoid urban nostalgia. A crucial part of that unsentimentality is paying careful attention to facts as they exist in the present. In Changing New York, the iconic photographic collection that resulted from Abbott’s decision to come home, each photograph is labeled meticulously with a time and location. This attentiveness to detail has made it easier for subsequent photographers like Douglas Levere to attempt to re-create Abbott’s work. For example, a photograph of a schooner named Theoline is presented as: “‘Theoline,’ Pier 11, East River, Manhattan; April 9, 1936. Fore, main, mizzen and spanker masts; flying, inner and under jib staysails and four lower and four topsails. . . [Theoline] makes trips from New York every three or four months, carrying whatever cargo it can get.” Captions such as these further amplify the clinical precision of her work.
That detached and analytical language spills over to buildings, whose former and current uses are noted, as well as to street peddlers, trinket shops and food vendors. Abbott’s crisp 1936 picture of a hot dog stand owner—taken in the middle of the Depression—is notable for the absence of any maudlin social commentary, especially in comparison to the work of her contemporaries, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Abbott is thus not a romantic poet gushing over Grecian ruins; nor is she a futurist frothing at the mouth about the salve of modernism. Rather, she seems to be sensitive to moments of disjointed transition, to the seams between one city and the next.
Of all the plates Abbott produced during this period, I always return to “Cliff and Ferry Street,” which was left out of the Changing New York edition published by E.P. Dutton. Shot in 1935 against a backdrop of glistening new skyscrapers, “Cliff and Ferry Street” looks south toward lower Manhattan and therefore toward industry, progress and wealth. In the distance stands the recently finished 50-story colossus of 60 Wall Tower. The vista closer to the viewer is less regal. On the right is the foreshortened facade of the Schieren Building, a leather belting factory that had been built in 1906 when this area of Manhattan was still called the “Leather Swamp.” In the lower left foreground stands the humble Mac-Lac Shellac shop, its large black sign acting as a counterweight to 111 John Street’s tiny white moniker.
The most striking element of the photograph, however, is the single horse drawing a cart in the foreground. The creature is the only living being within frame. Like Eugène Atget, whose work she deeply admired, Abbott was frequently drawn to compositions emptied of life. As Henry Allen noted in 1998, Abbott’s photos “show architecture with only the occasional human being as an accent point: cubist upthrusts of the skyscrapers massed around Wall Street, storefronts and piers that look wildly forgotten; a leafless and unpopulated city: l’esthetique du neutron bomb.” This emptiness makes the horse-cart that much more prominent and strange. Where and at what hour is this animal without a driver barreling down the road? Its defiant posture in the foreground has always made me feel, paradoxically, that instead of fleeing its own replacement by the automobile, it is almost pulling forward that gleaming city behind it. In this way, Abbott’s composition refuses to give into romantic clichés about the decline of the urban horse, nor is she advocating only for those skyscrapers on the horizon.
My grandfather, who ran a construction company in southern Turkey, had a similarly unsentimental attitude toward the inevitable fall of things and spaces into disuse. Everything in his house, which was kept in a pristine cleanness, needed to be useful in the present. When my grandmother was diagnosed with MS and eventually became unable to walk and then to fit into her clothes, he began to preemptively discard her possessions. I insisted on bringing back from Ankara to Connecticut—in a panic I am only now beginning to understand—her cashmere sweaters, none of which were my size.
I always thought my grandfather was too severe, but when my husband and I moved into our current one-bedroom apartment in New York and the amount of habitable space available became a real concern, we began our own struggle: what could we no longer bear to look at and what were we no longer conscious of not needing? We first rented a small storage unit in Queens. My grandmother’s clothes were donated. A first-generation iPhone, which my father had gifted me during his first visit to the United States, was boxed away. All the books that would not be of use for my dissertation were similarly dispatched into safekeeping. I have now devised a system in which instead of mining for sentences I underlined long ago, I pile up in the corner next to my desk only books borrowed from the library even when I know there is a copy waiting for me in storage. A sentimental attitude toward our old pencil marks inevitably slows us down.
Today, the intersection of Cliff and Ferry no longer exists. While the area of Cliff Street in the far distance is still around, Ferry Street was completely covered over in 1969 to make room for a middle-income co-op complex called Southbridge Towers. Yet, in a way, the city had moved on even in 1938, three years after Abbot shot "Cliff and Ferry," when Alexander Alland, a Russian émigré and photographer, set out to capture the same scene as Abbott's original. Like Abbott, he set up his camera just north of Cliff and Ferry. Facing south, he chose a less imposing, less vertical composition. Sixty Wall Tower was still looming in the distance, guarded by 111 John St. The Mac-Lac Shellac sign was still there. But the horse—that four legged strangeness—was no longer in the frame.
Image Captions in Order of Appearance:
1. Berenice Abbott. “Cliff and Ferry Street, Manhattan” (1935). The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.
2. McKnight Kauffer. “B.P. Ethyl Anti-Knock Controls Horse-Power” (1933). Photolithograph. © Simon Rendall.
3. Ayten Tartici. “Pulaski Bridge Facing South” (2017).
“A good writer must write in such a way that one infers from the text what he intended to express. That is not easy.” So declared Erich Auerbach in his “Epilegomena to Mimesis,” a short piece he wrote responding to some of his critics. He is not talking about Augustine, Dante, or Flaubert here. He is describing his own style—or rather, his own effort at creating a style that conveys what he wants to convey. As reader, Auerbach has what M.H. Abrams once called the prerequisite of all criticism: a keen eye for the obvious. But that eye isn’t enough—you also have to be able to communicate that obviousness, make it obvious in your writing, make someone else see how a chapter from To the Lighthouse makes sense. It is easy to forget: criticism is, first and foremost, writing.
Auerbach spent an enormous amount of time thinking about his own style. He worked very hard at making his writing convey what he intended—“the subtle flair for artistry and its techniques,” in Leo Spitzer’s words, that always characterized Auerbach’s writing. That subtle flair has sometimes worked against Auerbach: he is still occasionally described—very recently— as lacking theoretical sophistication. But his style was the result of a great deal of work. Two writers in particular stand out as models: Virgil and Dante. In an early essay, Auerbach remarks that what Dante learns from Virgil is “simplicity”—how to absorb thoughts into the “very substance of the poem”; in a late essay, he points to Virgil’s description of Camilla as a perfect example of classical poetry because it is a “quiet, self-contained, pure unreflecting epiphany.” Everything about Camilla is embodied in every word Virgil puts down about her. He makes Camilla obvious. Mimesis is, among other things, Auerbach’s effort at writing his own mix of classical formal perfection with a Christian stress on the everyday. The argument of his great book about style is contained in his own style, a style which strives for (even though it does not always achieve) simplicity, but which also wishes to be—this is the intention that I find Auerbach wishes to express—a quiet, self-contained, pure unreflecting epiphany of the everyday.
Here is a small example. Chapter Ten is among the less read chapters of Mimesis. Auerbach mostly discusses Antoine de la Sale, whose style is addicted to a medieval class pomp associated with legal writing and chivalry: most egregious, most honorable, most noble—today, you might think of a professor who keeps reminding you what schools she went to, what fellowships she won, what invited talks she gave. But la Sale is also obsessed with a stress on bodily sensations that he inherits from Christian writing, which always has a streak (it comes and goes over the years) of hatred of the flesh and the world. The result? The “highest respect for man’s class insignia” in la Sale is, writes Auerbach, coupled with “no respect whatever for man himself as soon as he is divested of them. Beneath them there is nothing but the flesh, which age and illness will ravage until death and putrefaction destroy it” (249-250). Out of this unpromising and dreary combination comes one of the most stunning moments in all of Auerbach’s book: his reading of Madame du Chastel.
The story la Sale tells is of Seigneur du Chastel, who commands the fortress at Brest, currently under siege by Edward the Black Prince. Chastel’s thirteen-year-old son is given as hostage while negotiations ensue. They go badly, Edward demands the fortress or he will execute the boy, and Chastel, alone with his wife at night, “breaks down and completely abandons himself to his despair” (233). He begs his wife to tell him what to do. Eventually she renounces the boy. You have to read the speech. I am intentionally not trying to do it justice here.
But, as one student remarked to me, Auerbach’s reading of the speech may be even more remarkable, and more moving. He has a keen eye for the obvious in the interactions of the couple. Madame “puts [her husband] under the necessity of as it were ordering her to express her views, which means that she reinstates him, albeit only outwardly, in his accustomed position of leadership and responsibility” (245). She plays the subordinate woman, which she is not at all, to make him back into a lord which he is not at the moment, having abandoned himself to his own grief. But the political situation demands he become an honorable lord again; the boy is lost no matter what, and Madame knows it and must convey this to her husband. “It is hard,” writes Auerbach, “to decide what is most praiseworthy in this speech, its self-effacement or its self-control, its goodness or its clarity” (245).
How does Auerbach convey that goodness and clarity, the self-effacement and self-control of Madame du Chastel?
Children, she says, are more the children of their mothers, who carried them and gave birth to them and suckled them, than of their fathers. Our son is more my son than yours; and yet I now renounce all my love of him as though I had never had him; I sacrifice my love for him; for we can have other children, but if your honor is lost, it cannot be recovered. (245)
The writing makes the reading. Auerbach switches from a third-person paraphrase to a first-person account. “She says” becomes “our son”; “my son”; “I now renounce all my love of him”; “we can have other children.” This change makes Madame’s speech come alive. It is no longer simply a strange, late-medieval moment. The son is your son, the life is your life, and the agony is your agony. This is not a past safely cordoned off in scholarly detachment—it lives and throbs in the present sentence. With that vivacity, Auerbach conveys something almost incredible that happens here. Madame du Chastel remains entirely within the stylistic tics of la Sale, and so does Auerbach. Madame never steps out of the role of obedient wife; she is in fact declaring a respect for honor, and a diminution of the flesh, so strong that she is willing to try to forget about her thirteen-year-old boy (whose brutal death la Sale narrates with pornographic precision). And yet, she sounds nothing like the tired class-language of la Sale. Her embrace of Christianity somehow sidesteps its hatred of the flesh and the world. Her speech is calculating and insidious, but with a quiet dignity that renounces worldly ambition as a dutiful Christian wife while also announcing in every syllable a love of her husband and the world. She is a pure epiphany. Unexpectedly, a world changes. There can be more children, and we are not too old.
It is not only a matter of the impressiveness of Madame du Chastel. Auerbach is making a theoretical argument with his style about what, exactly, historical criticism amounts to. His change of pronouns addresses the most difficult challenge of historical writing: describing how one thing turns into something else; stressing that the same thing will happen to you, that you too are a piece of history. Against both Christianity and the classical world of class pomp, Auerbach’s historicism insists that the world is not always the same thing, that it changes and develops in unpredictable and astonishing ways. Life changes: that is the constant argument of the German professor in Istanbul, writing as the catastrophe of the second world war unfolds around him. An impossible political situation will change, and “if we do not find pleasant things,” as Voltaire writes in Candide, “we will at least find new things.” A style dedicated to a particular world-view, to medieval honor and to Christian hatred of flesh, suddenly opens on to a different world when Madame du Chastel speaks. And when Auerbach changes pronouns, that difference redoubles out of the page. This shift has been carefully set up by Auerbach: the next chapter of Mimesis details Rabelais’ celebration of the body and his proliferation of possible worlds. With Madame du Chastel’s speech, or perhaps with Auerbach's change of pronouns, the Renaissance is born. The world that seemed unchanging, permanent, brutal, suddenly turns into something else; and that Renaissance happens as well in the pages of Mimesis. In Auerbach's book, life is reborn through style.
What could be more simple and more obvious, it seems, than the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the birth and rebirth of human life in history? The task of literary criticism must be to make such pure epiphanies as obvious as possible—to learn Auerbach’s art of simplicity.
The opening passage of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, when John relates his vision of "one like unto the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle," arrives at a startling figure for the power of the revealed word: "and he had in his right hand seven stars, and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword; and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead."
The same figure reappears several times in Revelation, in a symmetrical pattern: twice near the beginning, in the aforementioned passage and in 2:16, and twice near the end, in 19:15 and 19:21.
This curious figure is the first instance of literariness considered by Barbara K. Lewalski in her long and rich career as a literary scholar. A beloved mentor and colleague to me and many others, Lewalski passed away March 2, 2018. At the beginning of that career, in her first publication, she addresses the figure of the Christ with stars and sword in a brief article called "The Authorship of Ancient Bounds," which appeared in the journal Church History in 1953 and concerns the provenance of an unsigned Puritan tract of 1645. (The article is by Barbara Kiefer, who was not yet Barbara Kiefer Lewalski.) Kiefer considers several pieces of evidence for the ascription of the tract to the unorthodox divine Joshua Sprigg, but concludes with the use of the rhetorical figure from Revelation that also appears in both Ancient Bounds and another pamphlet known to be Sprigg's, an appeal to the judges of King Charles to show mercy. She discusses a figure that appears in three places, in Scripture as well as in two early modern works, and for the first time we see the outline of what will become her characteristic method of collating Biblical materials with seventeenth-century lyric, polemical, or philosophical writing to adduce a poetics they hold in common—what in the Preface to her second book, Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise (1973), she will call a Biblical poetics, or "the ways in which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant theory regarding the literary elements of Scripture (genre, figurative language, symbolic mode) affected contemporary English poetry and poetics, especially religious poetry" (vii).
"The Authorship of Ancient Bounds" is the work of an apprentice, framing and resolving one narrow question. But I would like to suggest that Kiefer is a little too interested in what she calls the "rather unusual figure" found in Revelation, especially in the setting of Church History, among articles on topics like "The Haddon-Osorio Controversy of 1563-83" or "Molanus, Lutheran Irenicist (1633-1722)." The topic of the article may be Sprigg's authorship of the tract, but its subject, which dawns only on the final page, is how a rhetorical figure moves from the Bible—where it is already unstable, appearing in slightly different contexts—into devotional and imaginative writing, and what it does there. I might even go so far as to suggest that a rather brittle and difficult figure is a kind of stand-in for the more developed instances of literariness that will preoccupy this critic in her next phase. The scale here is smaller, but the problems are already becoming evident.
From 1953 we go to 1966 and the publication of Milton's Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning and Art of Paradise Regained, Barbara Lewalski's first book. More than fifty years on, it is still the best thing ever written on Paradise Regained, but at this distance one is struck by how carefully Lewalski draws the horizons of her scholarship: that is, the sense of what this work is ultimately about. In a blog post called "Misplaced Horizons in Literary Studies," I have written about the drawing of horizons in criticism and the perspectives that contribute to them, and how (especially now, as our common enterprise seems less and less urgent to the rest of the academy, let alone the public) we have to see the making of a horizon as a statement of values: is the horizon the real world, or intellectual history, or the Bible and its influence, with literary texts inside that horizon as perspective? Or is literature itself the horizon, with all of these things inside it as perspective? It is the latter kind of project, I argue, that has met certain parochial customs and rewards of our discipline while pulling us away from the intellectual life of other disciplines—because historians, philosophers, social scientists, and others simply do not see literature as a valuable horizon in relation to the real world.
Milton's Brief Epic belongs to an unusually fertile moment for Renaissance literary studies, and I want to tarry for a moment over the question of why the criticism of that era has maintained its power all these years later. One could distinguish between the several areas within Renaissance literature that undergo a revival in the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-seventies; I think the conditions were different for, say, Spenser than for Donne and Milton, and even between Donne and Milton, in part because of when and how formalism arrived to each of these corpuses (Greene 118-20). For the scholars of seventeenth-century literature of Lewalski's generation who flourished in this era such as Rosalie Colie, Earl Miner, and Stanley Fish, there is a Janus-faced methodological orientation: that is, they mostly begin as historicists with a facility for formalism. The historicism of that era was a category that masked such sharply delineated approaches as the history of ideas, biography, and allegorical interpretation, while the contemporaneous formalism was the New Criticism. The methodological condition of Lewalski and her peers was a legacy of the recent history of Donne and Milton studies, where many interventions by Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, and others had fashioned a New Critical Donne but Milton came into this era still largely in the hands of traditional historicists, and any younger person in the field of seventeenth-century literature had to be able to engage with both kinds of approaches.
Milton's Brief Epic is about how a variety of models are absorbed into the container that is Paradise Regained, at once a satisfactory and an unsatisfactory example of a brief epic; and in this early phase of Lewalski's career, the horizon is not Milton or even Paradise Regained but genre: "Milton's tremendous creative energy," she writes, "modifies and transforms the genres he uses, making them adequate to sustain new demands, which his profound respect for order and discipline in art as in life preserves most of the formal traditions appropriate to each kind" (5).
What is a genre in this kind of criticism? It's important to recognize that for the early Lewalski, genres exist between literature and other kinds of writing, especially Biblical and speculative, and that instead of being closed boxes, they are open channels that shuttle between fields of discourse. The designation of genre as Lewalski's horizon here doesn't close the project to perspectives outside the work at hand or beyond literature. On the contrary: genre is how those perspectives get into the argument. This is a significantly more historical understanding of genre than the one received from the New Critics; and at the same time, it is a more dynamically literary understanding of genre than was available from the historical scholars of the preceding generations.
But while they all start from a more or less common position, these critics also wrestle openly in their work with the challenge of identifying the vivid conceptual term that enables them to move from one literary work to another, from literature to other kinds of writing, and from literature to history. What is needed is a term that draws a horizon, a term that is itself part of literature but puts literature into something larger. For the early Lewalski that term is first genre and then Biblical poetics; for Miner it is mode; for Colie it is first criticism (in her book on Andrew Marvell) and then kind; and for Fish it is reader, with consequences for the entire discipline of literary studies. The work of this generation survives because their terms get worked into the fabric of our recognition of the period; we come to feel that our understanding of the literature depends on having such terms available as perspectives to bump against a horizon. It's not that we now do criticism like that of Lewalski and her contemporaries, or even, oddly, that we obtained from them stable accounts of genres such as the religious or metaphysical lyric, rhetorical tropes such as the paradox, or symbolic processes such as allegory. If anything, these genres, tropes, and processes were left by them better defined but somehow also more open, more accessible to our investigations.
Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise—which opens what I consider Lewalski's middle or georgic phase, leading up to the epic of Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (1979)—is the pivotal point in the development I have been tracing, because here she broaches the concept of Biblical poetics as a guiding concept or a horizon. Suddenly the limitations of genre as a horizon are plain, and while that term continues to play an important role as a contributing perspective, from here on it is nearly always controlled by Lewalski's more powerful and original concepts of Biblical poetics and Protestant poetics that permit her to chart the flow of ideas and figures into and out of seventeenth-century literature.
Lewalski's later work, notably three more distinguished monographs, builds on this foundation, but the essential moment in her scholarship is the passage through the first three books to 1979. A year later, she left Brown University, where she had taught since 1956, for Harvard, and remained there until her retirement in 2015. I had the privilege of knowing her as my undergraduate teacher and adviser at Brown and then a few years later as my colleague at Harvard. For many of us, Barbara at Brown was her essential phase, in which her approach was still being formed in conversation with the aforementioned peers such as Miner, who became my Ph.D. adviser. By contrast, Barbara at Harvard in the 1980s and nineties was an eminence who embodied a settled method, a then somewhat old-fashioned historical scholarship that stood apart from the fashion for the New Historicism of the time. In the Brown years, moreover, she was younger (not yet fifty when I first knew her) and more informal, and her human existence took place in Providence, where she lived until the end of her life, as it never did in Cambridge. I can see Barbara in shabby Horace Mann House at Brown in about 1977, wearing casual clothes she would never appear in at Harvard, sitting at the head of the seminar table with one leg tucked under her and reciting in a brassy, colloquial tone: "Busy old fool, unruly sun / Why dost thou thus / Through windows and through curtains call on us?" As I told my students a few days after Barbara's passing, I'll always hear certain poems in her voice. Maybe our voices that survive resonantly in the memories of students are as powerful as those in our criticism; or maybe these voices are somehow the same. I believe Barbara found her voice in those early books and in the Brown era.
Three years ago I spent an afternoon with Barbara in her home on University Avenue in Providence, talking a little about the past but mostly about the future, especially politics. She and her delightful husband Ken Lewalski were Stevenson Democrats and shrewd observers of national politics across many eras. (A professor of history at Rhode Island College, Ken passed away in 2006.) I saw her again in January of 2017, in the audience for a panel of Ph.D. students at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia at 8:30 in the morning, but couldn’t catch her eye across the room and had to leave early. How many scholars of Barbara's distinction in their eighties, I thought then, would trouble themselves to attend such a session and pitch constructive questions at nervous graduate students? She always paid respect to the field by investing in its future.
When I delivered a version of the foregoing as a talk at a celebration of Barbara's career in 2011, she told us how her adviser, Ernest Sirluck at the University of Chicago, had encouraged her to publish the paper on Ancient Bounds. What Sirluck (and even Barbara herself) might have seen then as merely a study of attribution contained the rudiments of a method and a voice that was to figure in a Golden Age in criticism. My students often find their way to her books, and their students will continue to do so for as long as I can imagine.
Images Courtesy of the Archives of Brown University.
Colie, Rosalie L. "My ecchoing song": Andrew Marvell's Poetry of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
—. The Resources of Kind: Genre-Theory in the Renaissance. Ed. Barbara K. Lewalski. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin's, 1967.
Greene, Roland. "Close Reading Transformed: The New Criticism and the World." A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr., and the Arts of Interpretration. Ed. Nina Levine and David Lee Miller. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. 115-24.
Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer [as Barbara Kiefer]. "The Authorship of Ancient Bounds." Church History 22 (1953): 192-96.
—. Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
—. Milton's Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning, and Art of Paradise Regained. Providence: Brown University Press, 1966.
—. Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Miner, Earl. The Metaphysical Mode from Donne to Cowley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a decision to legalize the ban on five Muslim countries. This ruling prevents part of the Muslim population from entering the US on the pretext that they pose a potential security threat to our country. One wonders to what extent this assumption of a national security threat is reasonable and what body of evidence supports it. How many American citizens, separated from their families, will suffer from this ruling? How many more lives will be shattered? How many children will be separated from their parents?
To be sure, not all the justices agreed to uphold Trump’s travel ban. It was a close 5-4 vote. Of the four justices who voted against it, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented and compared the majority’s vote to Korematsu, the infamous Supreme Court case that upheld the internment of 100,000 Japanese in the 1940s. Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion in Trump v. Hawaii, was strongly supported by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Anthony Kennedy. All five of them dismissed a well-documented argument that the travel ban and its waiver program were unlawful. They argued instead that the ban is fair and a standard directive falling “squarely within the scope of Presidential authority” and that “the President has inherent [italics Justice Thomas’s] authority to exclude aliens from the country.” It was further concluded that “the plaintiffs cannot raise any other First Amendment claim, since the alleged religious discrimination in this case was directed at aliens abroad.” All evidence of anti-Muslim discrimination presented in the case was dismissed as “unpersuasive.”
A decision that will change the fate of millions of Muslims does not “conclude” that those Muslims are a potential threat to national security. But much like the trade war declared on Canada, this ruling creates a situation in which the tattered clothes of national security once again hid the vicious monstrosity of partisan politics. The organic, independent, and impartial body of the Supreme Court, the official guardian of the Constitution, has made a decision that embodies both the reality of the political moment and its illusion at the same time. The reality is that we are living in one of the most divisive times in recent political history. The illusion is that within this divisiveness, the law, in its most sublime embodiment has turned into the last straw, drowning citizens’ rights and denying families basic human rights to belong together. The ‘validity’ of this decision arises from the politics of ‘confirmation’ and partisan loyalties, telling the truth about the US today, that is, revealing that there is something deeply rotten in this interpretation of the law, which appears to be based on ideology, rather than on fact.
During his campaign, then-candidate Trump made the following promise to his base: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” The statement was immediately welcomed with enthusiastic applause from the audience. This statement remained on Trump’s campaign website until May 2017. It was taken down only after the President issued the first two executive orders.
The President also stated on Public TV that “Islam hates us” and reiterated that the United States is “having problems with Muslims coming into the country.” Shortly after being elected, Trump was asked whether circumstances in Europe had influenced his plans to “ban Muslim immigration,” to which he replied, “You know my plans. All along, I’ve been proven to be right.” One week after his inauguration, the President issued his promised ban. Rudi Giuliani, who at time was one of the President’s campaign advisers, stated in a TV interview that when the President “first announced it, he said, ‘Muslim ban.’ He called me up. He said, ‘Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally.’”
Unfortunately, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court refused to connect the dots and decided that there should be no connection between the rhetoric of campaign promises and the right of the President to exercise his authority. Justice Kennedy concurred in judgment and joined the Court’s opinion in upholding the ban in full. The irony is startling. In his decision to uphold the anti-Muslim ban, Justice Kennedy reminds Government officials that they are not free to disregard the Constitution. But the reality is that Justice Kennedy’s concurrence has authorized Government officials to disregard the articles of the very Constitution that it sets to uphold and protect. This is the worst form of ideology, no longer an ideology of confusing linguistic with natural reality, but rather an ideology that defaces the real and dissolves it into pragmatic legality. The Muslim ban, a postulate of bigotry, has now become the law of the land, a real executable force on Muslim Americans, who are now officially, legally, and irrefutably, second-class citizens in their own homeland.
How a Muslim ban that rocked the nation for over a year in its various iterations—a ban that epitomizes a promised anti-Muslim crusade— is not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is beyond comprehension. How Justice Kennedy overlooked the fact that banning Muslims (which has nothing to do with national security, is an exercise in racial superiority, and goes against the freedom of religion) is the latest failure the Supreme Court has penned indelibly onto the unforgiving walls of history.
If this ban does not violate the Establishment Clause which safeguards religious neutrality, why then wouldn’t the government apply the exemption and waiver system to Muslim applicants who satisfy the security and information terms stated in the Proclamation? The answer is unequivocally clear: the Proclamation is a “Muslim” ban, not a “national-security” ban. The poor Yemeni child with cerebral palsy who could not move or speak and whose doctors said she would not survive in Yemen must have been too dangerous for national security to be allowed entry into the US to receive treatment. She was told that “a waiver will not be granted in your case.” It was only after her case received embarrassing international highlighting that a waiver was finally granted.
An anxious world needs healing not lecturing or a scolding statement, and definitely not a hackneyed confirmation of the status quo. In the aftermath of Justice Kennedy’s concurrence, an anxious world has seen that despite its freedom and autonomy, the conservative judiciary is not immune to bias, especially against citizens who hold beliefs contrary to their own. For all these reasons, an anxious world has grown exponentially more anxious.
The terms and spirit of the First Amendment are clear. They almost remove any possibility for misinterpretation. I say “almost” because in language there is always a chance for a misreading. If this misreading comes from the justices of the Supreme Court who are confirmed and sworn to protect the Constitution, then American citizens have every reason to be concerned. Muslim American minorities have every reason to be alarmed because we connect the dots. We may disagree about the interpretation of a work of art, but not on the laws that safeguard human dignity and freedom. Justice Kennedy’s concurrence does not change our minds, nor does it whitewash the tremendous animosity toward Muslims under the current administration. The Supreme Court’s decision will hurt millions of Americans citizens. By upholding the Muslim ban, the conservative justices have abandoned their responsibility towards the Constitution. They were not asked to consider the authority of the President or the political discourses of the administration. They are not charged with looking for personal gain or with protecting their own political party. They are freed from any pressure whatsoever precisely in order to uphold the Constitution. They are free to be responsible and responsible to see that our dearly won freedom prevails, especially in the face of subversive politics determined to demonize minorities. That freedom is guaranteed by the very Constitution now betrayed with serious repercussions for Muslims and all our citizens.
Apolline Traoré’s 2017 film Borders unfolds across a sequence of rich and beautiful landscapes and cityscapes, following the journey of a group of four women from Dakar (Senegal) to Lagos (Nigeria), passing through Bamako (Mali), Cotonou (Benin), and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) along the way. The film, Traoré’s third feature, is an experience of motion, novelty, and adventure: each day of the trip and each arrival into a different city is indicated by intertitle text, and frequent shots of the moving bus or the urban approach coupled with a gorgeous soundtrack make the movie feel actually transporting. This is a remarkable re-framing of the road movie, with its masculine and US-centered baselines of open road, heroic exploit, and self-discovery. Here, instead, the journey leads the four women—Adjara, Emma, Sali, and Micha—through trials of extortion, harassment, and rape. They confront and reveal personal demons and family histories; they come to examine their motives for travel; they witness a bloody car accident; they spend a night sleeping on the roadside after a breakdown; they form unlikely friendships and alliances. That all of this action is centered almost exclusively on the four African women—different in personality, age, nationality, class, and cultural and religious backgrounds—is notable in itself, as is its direction by Traoré, who is from Burkina Faso and completed her film training in the US.
In other words, there’s plenty to say here about gender and genre. For example, the film works a strange tension between monotony and melodrama: the boredom inherent in a multi-day bus journey is largely not shown, and episodic adventures follow immediately one after the other, while the melodramatic tropes Traoré invokes are suspenseful and surprising, especially at the film’s end. Moreover: at a moment at which many popular US film directors are experimenting—with varying degrees of success—with gender-flipping films, it’s worth thinking about how this works in Borders both to illuminate the ways in which the experience of the border is inflected by gender (more on this) and to evoke a real and touching community of women. There’s a comic scene, for example, when the bus’s newest and most handsome passenger, a dapper middle-aged man, becomes purely the ridiculous subject who brings the women together as they realize that, napping, he’s the one whose flatulence has made the ride suddenly unbearable. When the bus stops for a break, and he approaches them, they respond with something along the lines of: after you’ve been stink-bombing us this whole time? Get out of here! Like many moments in the film, this one feels unexpected in the movies in general: a frank picture of sturdy intimacy between girlfriends carved out of an otherwise hostile and masculine environment.
There is also the movie’s specific cultural and geographical context. Traoré participates in and extends the rich legacy of Burkinabe cinema, for which the struggle against gender imbalance is ongoing (as it is elsewhere). The film premiered to great acclaim in 2017 at the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or FESPACO, which has been an institution of African cinema since 1969. In materials accompanying the film’s release and a recent screening in Paris, Traoré frames her intervention in terms of a specific geographical configuration: ECOWAS, or the Economic Community of West African States. Established in 1975 by the treaty of Lagos, this economic union was formed to promote trade and exchange—of goods, people, cultures—across its member states. According to Traoré, Borders is intended to show the persistence of what still hinders free motion across national boundaries: “the goal of this film,” Traoré writes,
is in part to raise awareness among our States about the problem of borders, and in part to show—through the commitment of these women, who are proof of real community in their daily struggles for their families—the type of community sought by ECOWAS and prescribed for our states. Above all, this film takes account of the permanent dangers present along the cross-border routes, which cause enormous suffering to populations.
In addition to this depiction of community and the obstacles to it, finally, Traoré charges her film with imparting practical knowledge to some of its spectators. “I decided to make this film,” she writes, “not only to show the struggles of African women but to demonstrate that things can change on a smaller scale.” Traoré is referring to the film’s almost pedagogical interest in the factual details of the rights of border-crossers, the frequent impingement on those rights by border-enforcers, and the kinds of resistance that succeed or fail. The director’s stated moral here is pragmatic: know your rights at the border, and know what kinds of action are available—and what kinds aren’t.
But Borders also opens onto different and broader questions about borders, and what borders are, and what they do. For me, one of the film’s most striking moments was a scene showing a particularly deserted border crossing. I remember it now as a still photograph: the bus has pulled off beside the road, the passengers are disembarked and lined up quietly behind a table in the dust beside the road. A single man sits behind the table. While other of the film’s borders are significantly more elaborate—fences, offices, waiting rooms, lines of soldiers, arms, noise, scuffles, chaos and commotion—this one very simply consists of a road, a table, a chair, a man, and a government stamp. The concept of “border” starts to look much starker: no visible boundary, no other physical impediment. While we are perhaps mostly used to thinking of borders as configurations of fences and walls, as what keeps people out, this scene reveals something about the essence of a border as a site of power over passage. An essential function of the border is to be permeable. It is this differential permeability that means that some people and goods get through and some don’t. Or, in the words of Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, in their 2013 book Border as Method, borders are also “instruments for managing, calibrating, and governing global passages of people, money, and things.” They continue: “borders are […] devices of inclusion that select and filter people and different forms of circulation in ways no less violent than those deployed in exclusionary measures.”
Now, in the summer of 2018—at least in US and European imaginaries—the question of borders seems largely centered on the construction or performance of violent and deadly exclusionary measures: detention facilities at the US-Mexico border, the erection and systematic eradication of migrant camps and communities in Europe, the refusal of aid or port to vessels crossing the Mediterranean, the genocidally disproportionate use of force by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian protestors at the Gaza border. This is not to draw attention away from any of these immediate crises. But what Traoré’s film reminds us is that the border itself, even devoid of its attendant apparatuses, is a problematic institution. A border is what the rich, white, and / or male move through at will, more easily than others; even in its most stripped-down form, a border exists for the exercise of power against those populations whose movements it controls. As Traoré shows, who crosses—and at what cost—depends on lines of race, class, and gender. For the women of the film, despite their community and commitment, and despite their courage and creativity in smuggling, bribing, scheming, hiding, and escaping, the border is a fundamentally hostile entity. Traoré’s film is a provocation to think both questions of “who gets in” and beyond those questions, since even a permeable border—or especially a permeable border—functions as a site of exploitation, profit, and struggle.
 Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
 Ibid., 7.
As a student of nationalism, I was excited to visit a country younger than my teenage daughter. And so, in May 2018 I found myself in Kosovo to deliver a series of lectures at the University of Pristina.
Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia on February 17, 2008 following a brutal war between 1998 and 1999. Thousands of Kosovar Albanians were forced to flee the ethnic cleansing pursued by Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosovic, and seek refuge in the rain-soaked camps along the border with Macedonia. Milosovic’s actions led to a NATO intervention in the late spring of 1998 that forced Serbia to withdraw its forces. I remember my feelings during this war, horrified by Milosovic’s violent directives but suspicious of NATO’s intentions at the same time.
With these memories vaguely in my mind, I had before me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — to discover a nation in the state of creation. How would it be to live in a country seeking the institutions of nationhood?
The taxi driver, however, was more interested in showing me the signs of modernity on the way from the airport: the large twenty-four-hour supermarket, opulent shopping centers, and the new KFC. He eagerness reminded me of my cousin, Yanni, who rushed to take me to the new Athens metro upon my arrival in Athens many years ago. Rather than visiting the Acropolis, I found myself sitting in the subway car with Yanni grinning at Greece’s modernity. And in my mind, I tried to create a new T-Shirt for sale in the Greek capital: “I came all the way to Athens but all I got was a subway ride.”
That was the message of the Kosovar taxi driver: You will feel at home in Kosovo because we are European. Societies, seeing themselves belated, sprint forward to adopt and then show off their newly developed western institutions.
It was in the National Museum that I got a taste of nationalism in action. History has shown that, after independence, a country seeks the cultural institutions of nationhood. In addition to forming an army, bureaucracy, education system, embassies abroad and so on, nations strive to develop a national literature, museums, and theaters to showcase their new national identity.
And so, visiting the National Museum after my last lecture, I was able to observe how this institution documented the history of Kosovo from prehistoric times to the present. I witnessed there what I had seen elsewhere: an attempt to provide a seamless history from antiquity to the present. Nations may be new but they claim an ancient pedigree, justifying their existence by weaving a story of continuity from an earlier time.
But it was on the second floor, devoted to the Kosovo War and independence from Serbia, that I faced the utter contemporaneity of Kosovar nationalism. For it’s not every day that the artefacts from a battle of independence are motorcycles, hand-grenades, police uniforms, and computers, rather than rifles, swords, pens, banners, and trumpets, as I had seen in countless other museums.
Most disturbing was the display of photographs by a Kosovar journalist who had documented his family’s violent deportation to Macedonia. Looking at the black-and-white images of refugees, corpses, and camps, I remembered my conversation earlier with Mirlind, the journalist who had invited me to Kosovo.
During the war he and his family had taken a bus voluntarily to Macedonia but were stopped by Serb irregular forces and made to go home. Mirlind wondered how his life would have changed, had those soldiers let them cross the border where they would have claimed political asylum and been allowed to live somewhere in western Europe — a heady thought for someone in his mid-twenties.
How did he feel now, I asked? What did it mean to him that his uncle was a soldier in the Kosovar Liberation Army? More importantly, how did he look at those Serbian soldiers that had prevented him from escaping the war?
I wanted to know how a person deals with trauma. Do they try to reconcile with their former oppressors or continue to punish them with loathing? Do they, in other words, go on hating hate?
I found myself posing these questions at lunch with three colleagues after my first lecture. Perhaps it was impertinent of me to ask, especially as I never had to face these issues. But I noticed the consternation on their faces, the pain perhaps of recalling sorrowful events. One colleague described how her hand had been broken during a demonstration many years earlier as a student. Others mentioned the steady disenchantment with the federalism in Yugoslavia. All three were grateful not to have lost any relatives in the war. As a guest, I became caught up with the contradictions of nationalism, paradoxes that I had otherwise only had to confront intellectually in my work.
These tensions became palpable the day earlier when Mirlind took us to the fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Gracanica, located in a Kosovar Serbian town 20 minutes outside of Pristina. Clearly there was nervousness when we arrived in one of the few Serbian enclaves left after independence. I felt this very anxiety two days later in the lovely city of Prizren, when we visited the Serbian church of St. George, the Great Martyr that had been set alight in 2004. Later in the day, when we stopped at the abandoned monastery of the Holy Archangels on the way to the Ottoman castle atop the hill, the guard had asked us if we were Orthodox. We were the only ones stopped of the hundreds of visitors climbing up to the castle.
Standing later on the walls of this castle and marveling at the view below of the Bistrica River, the stone bridges, the Sinan Pasha Mosque, all splendid in the afternoon sun, I wondered how people rebuild a society after war. How do Kosovar Serbs themselves feel now about living in an independent state they never sought, constituting a minority in one of the youngest countries in the world? Where is home? How many Serbs fled Kosovo after the war? What about the Kosovar Albanian woman Mirlind told me about, who still sets the table for her long-lost family? Does every nationalism lead to a dispossession?
Undoubtedly nationalism has its ugly side: Slobodan Milosovic’s ethnic cleansing, Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade, Victor Orban’s Islamophobia, Benjamin Netanyahu’s violence against Gazans, Nikolás Maduro’s destructive populism. When I hear the rants of these leaders about walls, enemies, criminals, foreigners, national carnage and national humiliation, I fear how their followers might respond.
At the same time, I realize it’s easy to criticize the abuses of nationalism if you already have a nation. But things look different to a Palestinian or a Kurd or even a Catalonian. Given the cultural and political oppression the Kosovar Albanians faced, how could they not seek their own nationhood. Nationalism, after all, offers safety and succor to the nation.
On the ruined walls of an old empire I felt the push and pull of the modern age, the tension between violence, repression, death, on the one hand, and peace, freedom, and hope, on the other.
We seem to need foundational narratives.
Big picture stories that make sense of history’s bacchanal march into the apocalypse.
Broad-stroke predictions about how artificial intelligence (AI) will shape the future of humanity made by those with power arising from knowledge, money, and/or social capital. Knowledge, as there still aren’t actually that many real-deal machine learning researchers in the world (despite the startling growth in paper submissions to conferences like NIPS), people who get excited by linear algebra in high-dimension spaces (the backbone of deep learning) or the patient cataloguing of assumptions required to justify a jump from observation to inference. Money, as income inequality is a very real thing (and a thing too complex to say anything meaningful about in this post). For our purposes, money is a rhetorical amplifier, be that from a naive fetishism of meritocracy, where we mistakenly align wealth with the ability to figure things out better than the rest of us, or cynical acceptance of the fact that rich people work in private organizations or public institutions with a scope that impacts a lot of people. Social capital, as our contemporary Delphic oracles spread wisdom through social networks, likes and retweets governing what we see and influencing how we see (if many people, in particular those we want to think like and be like we’ll want to like it too), our critical faculties on amphetamines as thoughtful consideration and deliberation means missing the boat, gut invective the only response fast enough to keep pace before the opportunity to get a few more followers passes us by, Delphi sprouting boredom like a 5 o’clock shadow, already on to the next big thing. Ironic that big picture narratives must be made so hastily in the rat race to win mindshare before another member of the Trump administration gets fired.
Most foundational narratives about the future of AI rest upon an implicit hierarchy of being that has been around for a long time. While proffered by futurists and atheists, the hierarchy dates back to the Great Chain of Being that medieval Christian theologists like Thomas Aquinas built to cut the physical and spiritual world into analytical pieces, applying Aristotelian scientific rigor to the spiritual topics.
The hierarchy provides a scale from inanimate matter to immaterial, pure intelligence. Rocks don’t get much love on the great chain of being, even if they carry the wisdom and resilience of millions of years of existence. They contain, in their sifting-shifting grain of sands, the secrets of fragility and the whispered traces of tectonic plates and sunken shores. Plants get a little more love than rocks, and apparently Venus fly traps (plants that resemble animals?) get more love than, say, yeast (if you’re a fellow member of the microbiome-issue club, you like me are in total awe of how yeast are opportunistic sons of bitches who sense the slightest shift in pH and invade vulnerable tissue with the collective force of stealth guerrilla warriors). Humans are hybrids, half animal, half rational spirit, our sordid materiality, our silly mortality, our mechanical bodies ever weighting us down and holding us back from our real potential as brains in vats or consciousnesses encoded to live forever in the flitting electrons of the digital universe. There are a shit ton of angels. Way more angel castes than people castes. It feels repugnant to demarcate people into classes, so why not project differences we live day in and day out in social interactions onto angels instead? And, in doing so, basically situate civilized aristocrats as closer to God than the lower and more animalistic members of the human race? And then God is the abstract patriarch on top of it all, the omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent patriarch who is also the seat of all our logical paradoxes, made of the same stuff as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, the guy who can be at once father and son, be the circle with the center everywhere and the circumference nowhere, the master narrator who says, don’t worry, I got this, sure that hurricane killed tons of people, sure it seems strange that you can just walk into a store around the corner and buy a gun and there are mass shootings all the time, but trust me, if you could see the big picture like I see the big picture, you’d get how this confusing pain will actually result in the greatest good to the most people.
I’m going to be sloppy here and not provide hyperlinks to specific podcasts or articles that endorse variations of this hierarchy of being: hopefully you’ve read a lot of these and will have sparks of recognition with my broad stroke picture painting. But what I see time and again are narratives that depict AI within a long history of evolution moving from unicellular prokaryotes to eukaryotes to slime to plants to animals to chimps to homo erectus to homo sapiens to transhuman superintelligence as our technology changes ever more quickly and we have a parallel data world where we leave traces of every activity in sensors and clicks and words and recordings and images. These big picture narratives focus on the pre-frontal cortex as the crowning achievement of evolution, man distinguished from everything else by his ability to reason, to plan, to overcome the rugged tug of instinct and delay gratification until the future, to make guesses about the probability that something might come to pass in the future and to act in alignment with those guesses to optimize rewards, often rewards focused on self gain and sometimes on good across a community (with variations). And the big thing in this moment of evolution with AI is that things are folding in on themselves, we no longer need to explicitly program tools to do things, we just store all of human history and knowledge on the internet and allow optimization machines to optimize, reconfiguring data into information and insight and action and getting feedback on these actions from the world according to the parameters and structure of some defined task. And some people (e.g., Gary Marcus or Judea Pearl) say no, no, these bottom up stats are not enough, we are forgetting what is actually the real hallmark of our pre-frontal cortex, our ability to infer causal relationships between phenomena A and phenomena B, and it is through this appreciation of explanation and cause that we can intervene and shape the world to our ends or even fix injustices, free ourselves from the messy social structures of the past and open up the ability to exercise normative agency together in the future (I’m actually in favor of this kind of thinking). So we evolve, evolve, make our evolution faster with our technology, cut our genes crisply and engineer ourselves to be smarter. And we transcend the limitations of bodies trapped in time, transcend death, become angel as our consciousness is stored in the quick complexity of hardware finally able to capture plastic parallel processes like brains. And inch one step further towards godliness, ascending the hierarchy of being. Freeing ourselves. Expanding. Conquering the march of history, conquering death with blood transfusions from beautiful boys, like vampires. Optimizing every single action to control our future fate, living our lives with the elegance of machines.
It’s an old story.
Many science fiction novels feel as epic as Disney movies because they adapt the narrative scaffold of traditional epics dating back to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. And one epic quite relevant for this type of big picture narrative about AI is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the epic to end all epics, the swan song that signaled the shift to the novel, the fusion of Genesis and Rome, an encyclopedia of seventeenth-century scientific thought and political critique as the British monarchy collapsed under the rushing sword of Oliver Cromwell.
Most relevant is how Milton depicts the fall of Eve.
Milton lays the groundwork for Eve’s fall in Book Five, when the archangel Raphael visits his friend Adam to tell him about the structure of the universe. Raphael has read his Aquinas: like proponents of superintelligence, he endorses the great chain of being. Here’s his response to Adam when the “Patriarch of mankind” offers the angel mere human food:O Adam, one Almightie is, from whom All things proceed, and up to him return, If not deprav’d from good, created all Such to perfection, one first matter all, Indu’d with various forms various degrees Of substance, and in things that live, of life; But more refin’d, more spiritous, and pure, As neerer to him plac’t or neerer tending Each in thir several active Sphears assignd, Till body up to spirit work, in bounds Proportiond to each kind. So from the root Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves More aerie, last the bright consummate floure Spirits odorous breathes: flours and thir fruit Mans nourishment, by gradual scale sublim’d To vital Spirits aspire, to animal, To intellectual, give both life and sense, Fansie and understanding, whence the Soule Reason receives, and reason is her being, Discursive, or Intuitive; discourse Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours, Differing but in degree, of kind the same.
Raphael basically charts the great chain of being in the passage. Angels think faster than people, they reason in intuitions while we have to break things down analytically to have any hope of communicating with one another and collaborating. Daniel Kahnemann’s partition between discursive and intuitive thought in Thinking, Fast and Slow had an analogue in the seventeenth century, where philosophers distinguished the slow, composite, discursive knowledge available in mathematical proofs from the fast, intuitive, social insights that enabled some to size up a room and be the wittiest guest at a cocktail party.
Raphael explains to Adam that, through patient, diligent reasoning and exploration, he and Eve will come to be more like angels, gradually scaling the hierarchy of being to ennoble themselves. But on the condition that they follow the one commandment never to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree, a rule that escapes reason, that is a dictum intended to remain unexplained, a test of obedience.
But Eve is more curious than that and Satan uses her curiosity to his advantage. In Book Nine, Milton fashions Satan in his trappings as snake as a master orator who preys upon Eve’s curiosity to persuade her to eat of the forbidden fruit. After failing to exploit her vanity, he changes strategies and exploits her desire for knowledge, basing his argument on an analogy up the great chain of being:O Sacred, Wise, and Wisdom-giving Plant, Mother of Science, Now I feel thy Power Within me cleere, not onely to discerne Things in thir Causes, but to trace the wayes Of highest Agents, deemd however wise. Queen of this Universe, doe not believe Those rigid threats of Death; ye shall not Die: How should ye? by the Fruit? it gives you Life To Knowledge? By the Threatner, look on mee, Mee who have touch’d and tasted, yet both live, And life more perfet have attaind then Fate Meant mee, by ventring higher then my Lot. That ye should be as Gods, since I as Man, Internal Man, is but proportion meet, I of brute human, yee of human Gods. So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off Human, to put on Gods, death to be wisht, Though threat’nd, which no worse then this can bring.
Satan exploits Eve’s mental model of the great chain of being to tempt her to eat the forbidden apple. Mere animals, snakes can’t talk. A talking snake, therefore, must have done something to cheat the great chain of being, to elevate itself to the status of man. So too, argues Satan, can Eve shortcut her growth from man to angel by eating the forbidden fruit. The fall of mankind rests upon our propensity to rely on analogy. May the defenders of causal inference rejoice.
The point is that we’ve had a complex relationship with our own rationality for a long time. That Judeo-Christian thought has a particular way of personifying the artifacts and precipitates of abstract thoughts into moral systems. That, since the scientific revolution, science and religion have split from one another but continue to cross paths, if only because they both rest, as Carlo Rovelli so beautifully expounds in his lyrical prose, on our wonder, on our drive to go beyond the immediately visible, on our desire to understand the world, on our need for connection, community, and love.
But do we want to limit our imaginations to such a stale hierarchy of being? Why not be bolder and more futuristic? Why not forget gods and angels and, instead, recognize these abstract precipitates as the byproducts of cognition? Why not open our imaginations to appreciate the radically different intelligence of plants and rocks, the mysterious capabilities of photosynthesis that can make matter from sun and water (WTF?!?), the communication that occurs in the deep roots of trees, the eyesight that octopuses have all down their arms, the silent and chameleon wisdom of the slit canyons in the southwest? Why not challenge ourselves to greater empathy, to the unique beauty available to beings who die, capsized by senescence and always inclining forward in time?
Why not free ourselves of the need for big picture narratives and celebrate the fact that the future is far more complex than we’ll ever be able to predict?
How can we do this morally? How can we abandon ourselves to what will come and retain responsibility? What might we build if we mimic animal superintelligence instead of getting stuck in history’s linear march of progress?
I believe there would be beauty. And wild inspiration.
 This note should have been after the first sentence, but I wanted to preserve the rhetorical force of the bare sentences. My friend Stephanie Schmidt, a professor at SUNY Buffalo, uses the concept of foundational narratives extensively in her work about colonialism. She focuses on how cultures subjugated to colonial power assimilate and subvert the narratives imposed upon them.
 Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by the always-inspiring Martin Snelgrove about how to design hardware to reduce energy when using trained algorithms to execute predictions in production machine learning. The basic operations undergirding machine learning are addition and multiplication: we’d assume multiplying takes more energy than adding, because multiplying is adding in sequence. But Martin showed how it all boils down to how far electrons need to travel. The broad-stroke narrative behind why GPUs are better for deep learning is that they shuffle electrons around criss-cross structures that look like matrices as opposed to putting them into the linear straight-jacket of the CPU. But the geometry can get more fine-grained and complex, as the 256×256 array in Google’s TPU shows. I’m keen to dig into the most elegant geometry for designing for Bayesian inference and sampling from posterior distributions.
 Technology culture loves to fetishize failure. Jeremy Epstein helped me realize that failure is only fun if it’s the mid point of a narrative that leads to a turn of events ending with triumphant success. This is complex. I believe in growth mindsets like Ray Dalio proposes in his Principles: there is real, transformative power in shifting how our minds interpret the discomfort that accompanies learning or stretching oneself to do something not yet mastered. I jump with joy at the opportunity to transform the paralyzing energy of anxiety into the empowering energy of growth, and believe its critical that more women adopt this mindset so they don’t hold themselves back from positions they don’t believe they are qualified for. Also, it makes total sense that we learn much, much more from failures than we do from successes, in science, where it’s important to falsify, as in any endeavor where we have motivation to change something and grow. I guess what’s important here is that we don’t reduce our empathy for the very real pain of being in the midst of failure, of not feeling like one doesn’t have what other have, of being outside the comfort of the bell curve, of the time it takes to outgrow the inheritance and pressure from the last generation and the celebrations of success. Worth exploring.
 One is from Tim Urban, as in this Google Talk about superintelligence. I really, really like Urban’s blog. His recent post about choosing a career is remarkably good and his Ted talk on procrastination is one of my favorite things on the internet. But his big picture narrative about AI irks me.
 Milton actually wrote a book about logic and was even a logic tutor. It’s at once incredibly boring and incredibly interesting stuff.
After spending a few days at Elsewhere, a museum set in a former thrift store in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was asked to select a single object from the teeming mountains of stuff. The idea was to hone in on something that moved me and write about why. I imagined I’d choose something more sophisticated, more abstract. A scrap of fabric or an unnamed, enigmatic form. An object that would prompt reflections on color, line, and light. And instead it’s this. A fucking chicken McNugget. With a face. To be more precise, a “McNugget buddy,” a plastic toy that was included in McDonald’s Happy Meals in 1988. This one is naked, his (her?) scuba mask, firefighter’s mask or gunslinger’s belt and lasso long lost to the ravages of time. But even McNude, the nugget captivated me. I spotted it peeping out from among piles of objects, beckoning me, calling forth the perverse innocence of a childhood in the 1980s, a time before I knew how little chicken was in those nuggets, before I knew that whatever meat was in there was processed in horrific conditions, washed with ammonia and plied with chemicals to give it its chicken-like appearance and flavor.
Photo George Scheer
Isn’t it strange to process a live animal into a nugget, something utterly inorganic, only to reanimate it for children as a sympathetic friend or action hero? Why anthropomorphize the nugget? Why turn it into “a buddy?” I guess it makes some kind of marketing sense, lodging the chicken nugget deep into the child’s psyche so that she craves the food, the toy, the food-toy as companion. The smiling McNugget stands courageously against the army of undesirable adult food: the menacing broccoli, the duplicitous bran muffin, the odiferous fish. With no eyelids to close or limbs that might allow him to run away, this plastic warrior is on constant watch. And of course there is also the logic of the set or series, motivating the consumer-child to collect each variation on the nugget theme. But this particular traveler is alone, washed up on Elsewhere’s shores like a relic of a fast-food obsessed people who perished from their bad habits before their successors could discover kale and quinoa.
My childhood featured plenty of Happy Meals and an impressive number of chicken nuggets. My mother didn’t cook. More to the point, she couldn’t. What she did do was perceive agency in all kinds of objects—her schizophrenia made her think the television could see her and that pillows contained listening devices. Medication meant that she suffered fewer delusions and psychotic breaks, but the illness nonetheless kept her from doing many things— driving and cooking among them. And so, during the week, my hard-working father came home from the office and piled his kids into the car to head out for Chinese food or pizza or cheese burgers and chicken nuggets. I haven’t eaten at a McDonald’s in at least two decades, but I can still remember the smell of the windowless, uncanny playscape at our local franchise—the smooth metallic floor of the Hamburgler house and the thin, matted green carpet that I suppose was meant to look like grass.
It seems cruel to me now, that while I was being encouraged to “use my imagination” and bring life to the dolls and toys and rocks and leaves of my childhood, my mother was being pathologized for doing the same. I can enumerate all the reasons why my acts of animation were different than my mother’s, but I also feel the distinction start to slip away. When I talked to my Happy Meal toys or my dolls, did I fully understand that they were only inert plastic? If not, how and when did I outgrow my magical thinking? We’re inundated with animate objects—from the McNugget buddy to Siri to self-driving cars —but expected to effortlessly police the line between projected agency and real consciousness. If all objects hold something back from us, if they retreat from our perception and withdraw from description, as scholars of object-oriented ontology have argued, then who are we to say what secrets the television or the pillow may hold? Or if we disavow such thinking, we might instead argue that the brain is itself an object and a dip or a spike in a neurochemical makes the television’s sight wholly real to the person who believes the screen watches her.
But wait. Schizophrenia is a violent, devastating illness. It imprisoned my mother—a talented, funny, beautiful woman—in her own mind for most of her life. There is a meaningful difference between a child’s imagination of a doll that lives, an academic’s speculation on how matter acts independent of human will, and a diseased mind that believes objects are alive and conspiring. And so, when scholars talk about agentic objects, I can’t help but resist. I understand that objects work upon us and that even at the molecular level, they’re doing things on their own. But before I concede that an object has agency, that “things can thing” in some mystical way, I’m stopped by the painful memory of just how damaging, how paralyzing a real belief in this idea can be. So while I am sympathetic to any kind of thinking that urges humans to be more caring or more ethical stewards of the objects and environment around them, it’s the care that interests me most. After all, the McNugget buddy never cared for me, but it did congeal my parents’ care and my own attempts at ordering the strange world around me within its plastic contours.
And somewhere, someone else cared enough about a mass-manufactured Happy Meal toy to set it down an unknown path that lead to Elsewhere. When I saw it, peeking out of the material swells rising on the shelves of the museum, I recognized it, I found it familiar. But it didn’t find me. It’s tempting to say that something intrinsic to the object caused me to write these reflections, to disclose this personal backstory that I’ve never shared in writing before. But I’d insist otherwise. It’s just a piece of plastic, what Roland Barthes called a “disgraced material.” If there’s something about this object that moved me, it’s the place where I found it and the knowledge that the care of unknown people had brought it to this place. Somewhere, Elsewhere, away from scholarly expectations and my anxieties about whether or not I can meet them, I was able to choose an object—even a tacky, embarrassing one—that makes meaning for me. But even if the McNugget Buddies had personalities, jobs, talents, and a penchant for rolling around naked in barbeque sauce, their revival depends on a place like Elsewhere and their agency on a person like me.
 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 194.
Since war broke out, our daily routine has changed drastically. My morning shower, for instance, was now reduced to pouring a few cups of water over myself. The first splash of the near-freezing water left me gasping in pain and trembling, even after I’d finished washing and left the bathroom. Each cup took a long time to collect from the low, dripping faucet in our garden. All the taps inside the house had gone dry.
Every morning, rain or shine, I ventured out into the cold, putting on as much clothing as I could and carrying empty plastic containers that I’d place alternately under the rusty faucet. As little as two or three liters was a treasure for me that I held up triumphantly and hurried to empty into a larger container in the kitchen, and went out again to accumulate more droplets, and so on. I still recall the panic I felt when the dripping ceased one day, and how I was so ecstatic to see it resume its extremely faint ooze that I jumped up in the air in celebration. I also remember the vicious allergy attacks that left me with itchy swollen eyes and a runny nose, and the painful headaches that ensued. I tried to distract myself by indulging in recollections of my decadent baths in the good old days; the way warm water sprang effortlessly from the showerhead to create rich foam and release soothing scented vapors in the air.
My sinful fantasies would often be interrupted by the noise from a passing horse-drawn cart that sold kerosene; I had to drop everything, run to wave it down, and negotiate with the driver for a lower price on his precious commodity. Or the persistent banging on our door by a visiting neighbor, who wanted to share his or her confusion and fear, as well as the latest news they’d heard on this or that radio station. The daylight hours passed very quickly. Before we knew it, night had fallen, signaling another period of air raids and missile attacks, whose intensity varied from one night to the next for reasons unbeknownst to anyone.
Our evening meal consisted of bread and whatever dairy products—mainly canned cheese—remained in our pantry. It was quite different from lunch, where we usually had chicken, cooked on the kerosene heater in our living room. After a week or so of power outages, the freezers were hardly cold and their stock of meat started changing taste, as did our bread. The shops had run out of proper flour and all bakeries were now selling weird-tasting and -smelling products. We still had to line up for hours in front of the neighborhood’s baker’s window to get only a few loaves. That was the point where we decided it was time to end our months-long boycott of all the food stolen from Kuwait that had taken over the Iraqi market shelves after the invasion. The price has been paid, we reasoned. Beggars, as the saying goes, can’t be choosers. Our only remaining choice was between life and death. It’s ironic that we ended up spreading our repulsive gray-brown bread—rumored to have sawdust in the dough—with Danish Lurpak butter and fancy European marmalades that were sold for only a fraction of their original price. We had our shame-dipped snacks while listening to the news updates on BBC, RMC, and VOA. After that, we’d retire to our presumably safe shelter, that is, my parents’ bedroom on the ground floor, unroll our mattresses and struggle to get some sleep despite being rattled by consecutive explosions that hardly eased off before the break of dawn.
I almost forgot that I was a university student, much less that I harbored any future plans or vocational ambitions. My only concern was to provide myself and my family with enough water and food to keep us going and withstand another day of this ruthless war. Every once in a while, we’d hear the popping noise of shooting, accompanied by loud wailing screams, announcing a fallen soldier’s arrival home. Neighbors rushed to support the bereaved family and offer their condolences. People were keen to show up at the three-day mourning session to discuss the rumors circulating about a coming overthrow of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq and its prospective ramifications on our lives and future. Some seemed optimistic and argued that it could bring our long-awaited freedom. The majority, including me, were apprehensive and decided to keep their vigil until the storm had passed.
Walking became my favorite pastime in those confusing times. As soon as I’d finished my daily chores, I was off to the streets to walk for long miles and scrutinize whichever grocery store I found for fresh vegetables or fruits, even if that entailed consuming an extra amount of the hard-earned water to wash them. We’d finished listening to the news bulletins on the radio one night, and were waiting for a round of concentrated shelling to end, when a thunderous roar shook the ground, and a massive flash turned the darkness into light. The communications center that was less than a kilometer away from us had been targeted. The window frames clattered and their taped-up glass cracked. We instinctively cowered and covered our heads with our arms, expecting the roof to come tumbling down at any given moment.
A profound silence prevailed after what seemed like forever. With blanched faces and shocked gazes, we rose up slowly, but our adrenaline-laden bodies kept shaking long after the danger had passed. What if the bomb had missed its target by only a few hundred meters? The next morning, I went upstairs to check and clean up the broken glass in my room. I looked through the window and noticed a disturbing vacuum in the skyline. The tall, steel-structured antenna tower had disappeared. I hurried outside and saw many flocking toward the location to inspect the damage. A hill of rubble, topped with a crushed tower was all that remained of the center, built a few years before by a foreign construction company. The air-raid siren that perched on the building and had hardly stopped howling since the beginning of the war—not this time, though!—was silenced forever. We had to seek out meat alternatives for protein. Eggs had become scarce due to the high demand. It was an exceptionally cold winter, and they needn’t be kept in the fridges, which we now used as storage cabinets, leaving their doors open to prevent mold.
One afternoon, while walking in our neighborhood, I stumbled upon a man selling his chickens’ eggs on the street. I unhesitatingly purchased all the remaining cartons without really thinking about how to transport such a valuable yet annoyingly fragile catch to our house, a few kilometers away. I only realized the bad situation I’d stupidly gotten myself into when the vendor stacked the cartons, one on top of the other, on my arms. I started walking cautiously and had to stop when passing drivers unrolled their windows to ask where I got the eggs from and how much I’d paid for them. I would have been happy to trade one of the cartons for a short drive, but was too embarrassed to suggest it. I gritted my teeth and kept walking until, finally, I got home with stiffened, nearly paralyzed arms. When my family helped me lay down my heavy load on our dining table I screamed in agony. Nonetheless, the smiles I saw on everybody’s faces made the excruciating trip worthwhile. I decided to reward myself for completing my impossible task with a comfortable night’s sleep in my bed, which I’d totally abandoned. My weeks of sleeping on the floor had taken their toll on my bones and joints. I threw myself on the fluffy surface and basked in its smoothness for a while and then covered my whole body with a warm duvet and a blanket. The slightly slower-than-usual pace of the evening shelling felt reassuring, and I fell asleep right away.
Abruptly awakened by a bad dream after just a few hours, I dragged myself into the bathroom to wet my face with some of the remaining water in the plastic bucket on the floor when the walls lit up and the earth shook under my feet. I held tight to the sides of the sink to avoid falling, and heard the noise of more windows breaking. They’d bombarded the nearby communications center for the second time. Once more, we had survived. I should have felt relieved, but I didn’t. What’s the point of targeting a destroyed building? I didn’t visit the hit site. What was there to see other than the same pile of debris? I made up my mind that I was going to sleep in my bed no matter what. Death does not discriminate and we cannot hide from it, I was now convinced. … My spirits plummeted visibly, which affected the duties I was expected to perform. I was exhausted and could barely muster enough energy to collect our daily water from the rusty dripping faucet in our garden. How long will this last?
A translated excerpt from Saddam and I, and the Stockholm Syndrome by Ali Shakir (Dar Elthaqafa Elgedeeda, 2018). The book tackles Saddam’s growing posthumous popularity among thousands of young Arabs and Iraqis, and is told in two parts: The first, a memoir of growing up in Ba’ath-ruled Baghdad and witnessing Hussein’s rise to power and its impact on people’s lives over nearly three decades of his reign. The second part begins with his controversial execution in 2006, and attempts to track the symptoms and roots of longing for the days of dictatorship; a phenomenon observed not only in Iraq but also in other Arab countries that were, and still are, subjected to the violent vicissitudes of what became known as the Arab Spring. The above translation first appeared in ArabLit on the 27th anniversary of the Gulf War.
Epicurus supposed that even in the midst of the void the atoms declined slightly from the straight line, and from this, he said, arose freedom.
-Pierre Bayle, quoted by Karl Marx
Money is no object.
In previous contributions to Arcade, I have drawn sharp distinctions between the heterodox school of economics known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the Marxist tradition that dominates the critical humanities. My intention was neither to flatly oppose MMT and Marxism, nor to wholly discount the latter’s impulses and insights. Rather, I sought to illuminate MMT’s expansive conception of money as a limitless public instrument and develop its transformative implications for contemporary thought and practice. In so doing, I criticized Marxism’s preoccupation with decentralized exchange relations for barring such possibilities from leftist critique and contestation.
Working out these claims, I set aside the complex entanglements that link MMT's and Marxism's histories and methods. In this essay, I explore some of these entanglements and lay bare the divergent ontological commitments that, on my analysis, fundamentally separate MMT’s critical project from the Marxist one.
Viewed from afar, MMT and Marxism appear opposed. Contemporary Marxists such as The New School's Anwar Shaikh reject MMT and, typically, MMT is disassociated from Marxism when presented to the public. In truth, however, MMT and Marxism share an entangled history that thwarts neat distinctions and oppositions.
For one, Karl Marx’s intervention stands at the origin of critical political economy. Protesting that the modern money systems that mainstream economics deem natural and self-correcting are in truth politically constructed and destabilizing, Marxism functions as a philosophical torchbearer for the heterodox post-Keynesian tradition from which MMT arises. What is more, post-Keynesianism itself comprises a kaleidoscopic conflagration of Keynesian and Marxist impulses, which cannot be sharply disarticulated.
In terms of direct influence, MMT owes many specific insights to the history of Marxist thought. MMT relies heavily on post-Keynesian theories of effective demand and stock-flow consistency, both of which are traceable to the second and third volumes of Marx’s Capital. Moreover, MMTers such as Bill Mitchell, Mathew Forstater, and Peter Cooper regularly draw upon Marxist concepts and arguments in their writings, paying express heed to Marxism’s ongoing relevance for MMT.
Meanwhile, post-Keynesian circuitist theory has increasingly prioritized state credit money in their analyses of the monetary circuit (M-C-M) outlined in the first volume of Capital. Especially interesting in this regard are European Marxist circuitists like Riccardo Bellofiore who overtly utilize MMT’s insights. Forging novel connections between Marxism, post-Keynesianism, and MMT, Bellofiore and his followers continue to uncover important genealogical and theoretical linkages among these projects.
One might say far more about the linkages and discordances that riddle heterodox economics. For the time being, however, I indicate the folly of treating MMT and Marxism as unrelated or categorically opposed. To do so is to overlook post-Keynesianism’s paramount role within the history of heterodox economics and to repress the contested field of inquiry to which both MMT and Marxism belong.
Still, when it comes to questions of social ontology, it becomes necessary to reckon with what genuinely distinguishes MMT from Marxism and thus what cuts through the genealogical entwinements sketched above. Generally speaking, scholarly and public debates skirt around MMT’s and Marxism’s competing ontological commitments. Instead, they argue over the technical operations of political economy and the political responses various crises necessitate. Upon closer inspection, however, it turns out that tacit ontological divisions structure such contests from start to finish.
Ontology is embarrassing. It is embarrassing because it announces plainly what is uncouth to admit in ordinary discourse. Yet it is especially embarrassing because it means exposing the unexamined desires that drive everyday discursive struggles. For these reasons, ontological claims are often met with skepticism, disavowal, or scorn.
Nonetheless, I wish to risk articulating outright the underlying rift that cleaves MMT and Marxism. Marxism attributes the greatest degree of being to immediate material relations, imagining monetary abstraction as a volatilization and estrangement of conscious local associations. By contrast, MMT hangs collective existence on a community's political center and maintains that money is an inexhaustible government instrument for socializing relations of production and distribution at a distance. Instead of condemning money for disrupting and evacuating otherwise self-subsistent local activities, MMT treats a people's remote obligations to a centralized polity as ontologically prior to any immediate association and sees monetary abstraction as a powerful public mechanism for variously coordinating and enlarging such obligations. Hence, while Marxism assumes that money is a private, alienating, and crisis-ridden exchange relationship that ought to be overcome, MMT holds money to be a boundless public utility that, though by no means untroubled, is well-equipped to actualize radical collectivist ends.
This ontological cleavage becomes clearest in the ways that Marxism and MMT explain employment and unemployment. For the Marxist, employment comes into being through private wage contracts between firms and workers. Unemployment is then understood principally as a negative relation, functioning as a constitutive excess that reciprocally shapes capitalist production and exchange from the outside. For the MMTer, however, unemployment is a positive relation that results from the tax obligation. As Rohan Grey and Raúl Carrillo describe it, "the state creates unemployment by imposing a non-reciprocal liability (i.e. a tax) that can only be satisfied by obtaining its tokens (i.e. tax credits)." No unemployed person sits outside this public obligation. And since government is both the source of money and the cause of unemployment, it alone is ultimately responsible for determining the employment level.
As I have already noted, some Marxists embrace MMT's grounding of money in centralized governance and a handful of MMTers work in a Marxist idiom. Yet beneath this exchange of ideas looms an irreconcilable split over political economy’s center of gravity. That is, despite their shared histories and convergences, Marxism and MMT offer two very different Gestalts of the macro-economic order.
Perhaps the best way to make sense these contrasting pictures is to take seriously the turn of phrase center of gravity. For all its dubiousness, Marxism has adopted a literal and curiously pious relation to physical gravitation. Strewn with gravitropic metaphors meant to exhibit the value-form’s concealed “laws of motion,” Marxist criticism tends to subordinate macro-economic reality to material gravity, whereby far-flung abstractions always come down to material interactions between particular individuals.
In The German Ideology, for instance, Marx repeatedly insists that critical political economy must attend to production's "earthly" bases. He ridicules German idealists for fleeing from social reality, arguing that they proceed as if material gravity were merely a superstition. And he characterizes communism as the impulse to gather abstractly dispersed social activities back to their immediate tellurian origins. “The reality that communism creates," Marx writes, "is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is nevertheless only the product of the preceding intercourse of individuals.”
To be sure, Marx's own critical methodology is comprised of abstract concepts and complex dialectical reasoning. Yet, for Marx, this abstractive method is no end in itself. It is, rather, a way to expose the terrestrial injustices precipitated by money's abstract movements. It also means to make way for a directly associated, free society that is liberated from monetary alienation and its diremptive phantoms.
Eschewing Marxism’s gravitropic metaphysics, MMT locates the center of macro-economic activity in an abstract legal rapport between the currency issuing center and the body politic that depends upon the currency to physically survive and thrive. On this model, the totality issues from money’s governing center and unfolds as an interlocking cascade of mediation that conditions economic life as a whole. “[T]he hierarchy of money can be thought of as a multitiered pyramid where the tiers represent promises with differing degrees of acceptability,” explains Stephanie Kelton (née Bell). “As the most acceptable money in the hierarchy, the state’s debts serve as both a means of payment and a medium of exchange in private transactions.” Despite its “ideal” status, money’s topological hierarchy is no second-order phenomenon, according to MMT. Money is not a mere “expression” or “representation” of aggregate private value creation, "ascend[ing] from earth to heaven," as Marx asserts in The German Ideology. Instead, MMT supposes that money’s featherweight fiscal center and macro-economic cascade together mobilize a shared material horizon of production and distribution.
There is no treatise on physical gravitation in the MMT corpus. The term “gravity” appears nowhere in MMT’s myriad publications, as far as I have seen. Yet a careful reading of MMT’s texts reveals a subtle inversion in the topological relationship between the ideal and the real that not-so-subtly downgrades gravity’s metaphysical import for critical political economy.
Like Marxism, MMT situates value in the construction and maintenance of a collective material reality. It accordingly rejects Neoclassical utility theory, which roots value in the play of individual preferences. Only, in contrast to Marxism, MMT contends that the production of value is conditioned by money’s abstract fiscal capacity and the hierarchy of mediation it supports. MMT hardly dismisses the pull of physical gravitation on human existence. Rather, it implicitly de-prioritizes gravity’s causality in political and economic processes, showing how the ideal conditions the real via money’s distributed pyramidal structure.
As a consequence of this inversion, MMT lends greater acuity to economic analysis. Still more important, it radically expands the political horizon concerning what is possible under a modern money economy. Indeed, by abandoning physical gravitation as the origin and telos of politics, MMT keys the struggle for political power to a commodious public abstraction, while refusing one-sided denunciations of money as some inevitable fall from grace.
Such ontological distinctions matter for critical work in the humanities. Humanists take pride in scrutinizing the terms and logics that make historical realities intelligible. Frequently, however, when humanists take on the history and potential futures of monetary relations, Marxism’s gravitropic materialism severely contracts the voluminous topology that MMT strives to hold open.
Take the recent work of David Harvey, “Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason,” a talk based on his forthcoming book of the same title. Harvey has made important contributions to the overlapping realms of humanities scholarship and social criticism, from his historical-geographical critiques of modernity to his widely-read examinations of postmodern ideology and neoliberal political economy. I have little doubt that Harvey has much to offer us in the future. What worries me about Harvey’s latest project, however, is that it doubles-down on the Marxist laws of motion. In so doing, it blocks the capacious macro-economic Gestalt that MMT makes perceptible, along with the radical political possibilities it makes immediately actionable.
Rather than affirming state spending as the macroeconomic backbone of production and distribution and a powerful weapon for political transformation, Harvey deems decentralized private exchange the threshold of value’s realization and public money as mere “anti-value” and “fictitious capital.” As a result, he imagines the contemporary money relation as an unruly global flux and renders government money just as reckless and ineffectual as private speculation.
Worst of all is the explicit metaphor that anchors Harvey’s forthcoming publication: the water cycle. Appealing to a punishingly gravitropic image, Harvey at once metaphorizes and diagrams the monetary circuit as a water cycle that is spiraling out of control. Drawing on G. W. F. Hegel’s terminology, he brands money’s endless unraveling a “bad infinity,” an infinite regress that leads nowhere but into further crisis. With this, Harvey surmises that our collective future becomes like so many underwater mortgages after the 2007-8 financial crash: foreclosed.
In a sense Harvey is correct: contemporary neoliberalism is grim. Seen through the eyes of MMT, however, the future hardly looks foreclosed. Private debt can become a “bad infinity.” But public money is the best kind of infinity and it constitutes the center around which this forsaken system turns.
Marxism is a rich, heterogeneous project that continues to bear fruit across disciplines. Yet I fear that, unless critical humanists begin to relinquish their own gravitropic attachments, and learn to perceive and think otherwise, Harvey’s bleak diagnosis will almost certainly turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
An earlier version first appeared on the site Radical Political Economy.
James Livingston has responded to my critique of his Aeon essay, “Fuck Work.” His response was published in the Spanish magazine Contexto y Acción. One can find an English translation here. What follows is my reply:
Livingston and I share many political aims. We each wish to reverse wealth polarization, to alleviate systemic poverty, and to enable diverse forms of human flourishing. The professor and I disagree, however, on the nature of contemporary economic reality. As a consequence, we propose very different political programs for realizing the sort of just and prosperous society we both desire.
In his rejoinder to my critique, Livingston proudly affirms his commitment to Liberalism and makes a Liberal understanding of political economy the basis of his proposed alternative to the neoliberal catastrophe. Deeming government an intrinsically authoritarian institution, he situates civil society as a realm of self-actualization and self-sufficiency. The problem, as he formulates it, is that while capitalist innovation has made it possible to increasingly automate production, the capitalist class has robbed us of our purchasing power and preserved a punishing wage relation. This prevents us from enjoying the fruits of automated labor. Livingston’s solution is to reject an outmoded Protestant work ethic; tax the unproductive corporate profits that fuel financial markets; and redistribute this money in the form of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). The result: each member of civil society will be liberated to associate, labor, or play as they please.
Like Livingston, the left has long flirted with Liberal dreams that autonomous and self-regulating associations might one day replace the difficulties of political governance. After the Great Recession, these dreams have returned. They imagine algorithms and robots to be politically neutral. They seek a life of shared luxury through automatically dispensed welfare payments. This sounds nice at first blush. However, such reveries are at best naive and, at worst, politically defeatist and self-destructive. Abandoned and abused by neoliberal governance, today’s pro-UBI left doubles down on neoliberalism’s do-it-yourself caretaking. It envisions delimited forms of monetary redistribution as the only means to repair the social order. Above all, it allows anti-authoritarianism to overshadow the charge of social provisioning.
Livingston’s articulation of this dream is especially fierce. As such, it crystallizes UBI’s central contradiction: Demanding a no-strings-attached welfare system, the left seeks to cut government out of social provisioning while at the same time relying on government for regular financial support. This position, which fails to rethink the structure of social participation as a whole, leaves disquieting political questions unanswered: How will we provide adequate human and material resources for our growing elderly populations? How can we meaningfully restructure social production to address climate change? How do we preserve a place for the arts outside of competitive MFA programs and speculative art markets?
Such questions are unforgivingly realistic, not pie-in-the-sky musings. And no amount of volunteerism, goodwill, or generous welfare payments can adequately meet these demands. Indeed, only government can afford to mobilize the persons and materials needed to answer such demands. And while algorithms and robots are powerful social instruments, we cannot rely on automation to overcome extant logics of discrimination and exclusion. To do so is to forget that social injustice is politically conditioned and that government alone holds the monetary capacity to transform economic life in its entirety.
This brings me to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Far from an “obscure intellectual trend,” MMT is a prominent heterodox school of political economy that emerged from post-Keynesian economics and has lately influenced the economic platforms of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Spain’s United Left. For MMT, money is not a private token that states amass and hemorrhage. Rather, it is a boundless government instrument that can easily serve the needs of the entire community. International monetary agreements such the Eurozone’s Maastricht Treaty may impose artificial limits on fiscal spending, but these are, MMT argues, political constraints. They are not economically inevitable and can immediately be dissolved. In truth, every sovereign polity can afford to take care of its people; most governments simply choose not to provide for everyone and feign that their hands are tied.
To be sure, Liberalism has debated the “designation and distribution of rival goods,” as Livingston explains. In doing so, however, it has overlooked how macroeconomic governance conditions the production of these goods in the first place. MMT, by contrast, stresses money’s creative role in enabling productive activity and places government's limitless spending powers at the heart of this process.
In lieu of Liberal “redistribution” via taxation, MMT calls for a politics of “predistribution.” Redistributive politics mitigate wealth disparity by purportedly transferring money from rich to poor. This is a false and deeply metaphysical gesture, however, since it mistakes the monetary relation for a finite resource instead of embracing government’s actual spending capacities. MMT’s predistributive politics, meanwhile, insist that government can never run out of money and that meaningful transformation requires intervening directly in the institutions and laws that structure economic activity. MMT does not imply a crude determinism in which government immediately commands production and distribution. Rather, it politicizes fiscal spending and the banking system, which together underwrite the supposedly autonomous civil society that Livingston celebrates.
MMT maintains, moreover, that because UBI is not sufficiently productive, it is a passive and ultimately inflationary means to remedy our social and environmental problems. It thus recommends a proactive and politicized commitment to public employment through a voluntary Job Guarantee. Federally funded yet operated by local governments and nonprofits, such a system would fund communal and ecological projects that the private sector refuses to pursue. It would stabilize prices by maintaining aggregate purchasing power and productive activity during market downturns. What is more, by eliminating forced unemployment, it would eradicate systemic poverty, increase labor’s bargaining power, and improve everyone’s working conditions. In this way, a Job Guarantee would function as a form of targeted universalism: In improving the lives of particular groups, such a program would transform the whole of economic life from the bottom up.
Unlike the Job Guarantee, UBI carries no obligation to create or maintain public infrastructures. It relinquishes capital-intensive projects to the private sector. It banks on the hope that meager increases in purchasing power will solve the systemic crises associated with un- and underemployment.
Let us, then, abandon UBI’s “end of work” hysteria and confront the problem of social provisioning head on. There is no escape from our broken reality. We do better to seize present power structures and transform collective participation, rather than to reduce politics to cartoonish oppositions between liberty and tyranny, leisure and toil. Technology is marvelous. It is no substitute, however, for governance. And while civil society may be a site of creativity and struggle, it has limited spending abilities and will always require external support.
It is essential, therefore, to construct an adequate welfare system. On this matter, Livingston and I agree. But Livingston’s retreat from governance strikes me as both juvenile and self-sabotaging. Such thinking distracts the left from advancing an effective political program and building the robust public sector we need.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s alarming election to the White House, historian James Livingston published an essay in Aeon magazine with the somewhat provocative title “Fuck Work.” The piece encapsulates the argument spelled out in Livingston’s latest book, No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
In both his book and the Aeon essay, Livingston sets out to address several overlapping crises: an alienating and now exhausted “work ethic” that crystallized during the Protestant Reformation; forty years of rampant underemployment, declining wages, and widening inequality; a corresponding surge in financial speculation and drop in productive investment and aggregate demand; and a post-2008 climate of cultural resentment and political polarization, which has fueled populist uprisings from Left to Right.
What the present catastrophe shows, according to Livingston’s diagnosis, is the ultimate failure of the marketplace to provision and distribute social labor. What’s worse, the future of work looks dismal. Citing the works of Silicon Valley cyber-utopians and orthodox economists at Oxford and M.I.T., Livingston insists that algorithms and robotization will reduce the workforce by half within twenty years and that this is unstoppable, like some perverse natural process. “The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum,” he concludes. “They look like the data on climate change—you can deny them if you like, but you’ll sound like a moron when you do.”
Livingston’s response to this “empirical,” “measurable,” and apparently undeniable doomsday scenario is to embrace the collapse of working life without regret. “Fuck work” is Livingston’s slogan for moving beyond the demise of work, transforming a negative condition into a positive sublation of collective life.
In concrete terms, this means implementing progressive taxation to capture corporate earnings, and then redistributing this money through a “Universal Basic Income,” what in his book is described as a “minimum annual income for every citizen.” Such a massive redistribution of funds would sever the historical relationship between work and wages, in Livingston’s view, freeing un- and underemployed persons to pursue various personal and communal ends. Such a transformation is imminently affordable, since there are plenty of corporate funds to seize and redirect to those in need. The deeper problem, as Livingston sees it, is a moral one. We must rebuff the punishing asceticism of the Protestant work ethic and, instead, reorganize the soul on more free and capacious bases.
Lest we get the wrong idea, Livingston maintains that social labor will not simply disappear in a world organized by a tax-funded Universal Basic Income. Rather, he envisions an increasingly automated future, where leisure is our primary preoccupation, social labor becomes entirely voluntary, and ongoing consumption props up aggregate demand. Eschewing utopian plans or prescriptions, he wonders,
What would society and civilisation be like if we didn’t have to ‘earn’ a living—if leisure was not our choice but our lot? Would we hang out at the local Starbucks, laptops open? Or volunteer to teach children in less-developed places, such as Mississippi? Or smoke weed and watch reality TV all day?
Enraged over the explosion of underpaid and precarious service work? Disaffected by soulless administration and info management positions? Indignant about the history of unfree labor that underwrites the history of the so-called “free market”? Want more free time? Not enough work to go around? Well, then, fuck work, declares Livingston. Say goodbye to the old liberal-democratic goal of full employment and bid good riddance to misery, servitude, and precarity.
“Fuck work” has struck a chord with a diverse crowd of readers. Since its release, the essay has garnered more than 350,000 clicks on the Aeon website. The Spanish publication Contexto y Acción has released a translation of the piece. And weeks later, Livingston’s rallying cry continues to resonate through social media networks. “Fuck Work” has been enthusiastically retweeted by everyone from Marxists and small “l” liberals to anarchists and tech gurus.
The trouble is that Livingston’s “Fuck Work” falls prey to an impoverished and, in a sense, classically Liberal social ontology, which reifies the neoliberal order it aims to transform. Disavowing modern humanity’s reliance on broadscale political governance and robust public infrastructures, this Liberal ontology predicates social life on immediate and seemingly “free” associations, while its critical preoccupation with tyranny and coercion eschews the charge of political interdependence and caretaking. Like so many Universal Basic Income supporters on the contemporary Left, Livingston doubles down on this contracted relationality. Far from a means to transcend neoliberal governance, Livingston’s triumphant negation of work only compounds neoliberalism’s two-faced retreat from collective governance and concomitant depoliticization of social production and distribution.
In a previous contribution to Arcade, I critiqued the Liberal conception of money upon which Marxists such as Livingston unquestionably rely. According to this conception, money is a private, finite and alienable quantum of value, which must be wrested from private coffers before it can be made to serve the public purpose. By contrast, Modern Monetary Theory contends that money is a boundless and fundamentally inalienable public utility. That utility is grounded in political governance. And government can always afford to support meaningful social production, regardless of its ability to capture taxes from the rich. The result: employment is always and everywhere a political decision, not merely a function of private enterprise, boom and bust cycles, and automation. There is therefore nothing inevitable about underemployment and the misery it induces. In no sense are we destined for a “jobless future.”
Thus upon encountering Aeon Magazine’s tagline for Livingston’s piece—“What if jobs are not the solution, but the problem?”—I immediately began wondering otherwise.
What if we rebuffed the white patriarchal jargon of full employment, which keeps millions of poor, women, and minorities underemployed and imprisoned? What if, in lieu of this liberal-democratic ruse, we made an all-inclusive and well-funded federal Job Guarantee the basis for a renewed leftist imaginary?
What if we stopped believing that capitalists and automation are responsible for determining how and when we labor together? What if we quit imagining that so-called “leisure” spontaneously organizes itself like the laissez-faire markets we elsewhere decry?
What if we created a public works system, which set a just and truly livable wage floor for the entire economy? What if we made it impossible for reprehensible employers like Walmart to exploit the underprivileged, while multiplying everyone’s bargaining powers? What if we used such a system to decrease the average work day, to demand that everyone has healthcare, and to increase the quality of social participation across public and private sectors? What if economic life was no longer grounded solely in the profit motive?
What if we cared for all of our children, sick, and growing elderly population? What if we halved teacher-student ratios across all grade levels? What if we built affordable homes for everyone? What if there was a community garden on every block? What if we made our cities energy efficient? What if we expanded public libraries? What if we socialized and remunerated historically unpaid care work? What if public art centers became standard features of neighborhoods? What if we paid young people to document the lives of retirees?
What if we guaranteed that Black lives really matter? What if, in addition to dismantling the prison industrial complex, we created a rich and welcoming world where everyone, citizen or not, has the right to participation and care?
What if private industry’s rejection of workers freed the public to organize social labor on capacious, diverse, and openly contested premises?
What if public works affirmed inclusion, collaboration, and difference? What if we acknowledged that the passions of working life are irreducible to a largely mythical Protestant work ethic? What if questioning the meaning and value of work become part of working life itself?
What if we predicated social critique on terms that are not defined by the neoliberal ideology that we wish to circumvent?
What if we radically affirmed our dependence on the public institutions that support us? What if we forced government to take responsibility for the system it already conditions?
What if we admitted that there are no limits to how we can care for one another and that, as a political community, we can always afford it?
Livingston’s argument cannot abide such questions. Hence the Left's reply to “fuck work” should be clear: fuck that.
"Capital" is not what capital is called, it is what its name is called.
Joan Robinson (1954)
The following represents an attempt to articulate a neochartalist philosophy of capitalism. The 9 theses collected here spring from the startling insight of the leading neochartalist school of political economy known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT): namely, that money is a boundless public monopoly that belongs to the people, rather than a finite form of private investment and speculation that owes its existence to capitalists. Or, as MMTer Stephanie Kelton will also put it, “Money does not grow on rich people.”
Political governance constitutes the center and unoutstrippable ground of economic life, argues MMT; and a currency-issuing government will never run out of a unit that it alone supplies. Public spending, therefore, can always be made to justly shape and include everyone in processes of social production. This will not cause inflationary price rises, insists MMT economists, so long as disbursements remain directed at real resources and productive capacities. What is required to immediately address systemic poverty and environmental degradation, MMT shows, is neither the restoration of tax-and-spend liberalism, nor the calamitous destruction of the value-form but, rather, collective will and the political capacity to produce money whence it always emanates: government balance sheets, which is also to say, thin air.
On this critic’s reading, MMT’s revelation not only transforms the central problem of political economy; it also radically reconfigures how we both imagine and answer the neoliberal catastrophe.
(1) Capitalism is the arbitrary law that no sovereign currency-issuing government should wield its boundless public purse to fully serve the peoples and environs money encompasses.
(2) Capitalism derives its contradictory laws of motion from the aforesaid arbitrary law.
(3) Capitalism’s subsidiary laws of motion engender a highly unstable and exploitative economic system.
(4) Capitalism is the false name given to the totality that modern money conditions.
(5) Capitalism’s namesake (the imagined “capitalist totality” and so-called "capitalist mode of production") reduces the whole of monetary relations to private capital relations.
(6) Capitalism’s naming (a nineteenth-century conceit) represses money’s publicness, infinitude, and answerability.
(7) Capitalism is neither the subject, nor the prime mover of modernity.
(8) Capitalism is a cataract in the eye of history.
(9) Capitalism does not exist.
The students were understandably terrified as they headed to their slaughter. With the aid of special goggles and gloves provided by the Stanford Lab, they had drunk from a virtual trough, had eaten virtual hay, and were now prodded to their virtual death. “I felt as if I was in the place of a cow,” confessed one participant.
Having read about this experiment in Jeremy Bailenson’s Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality is, How it Works, and What it Can Do, I felt a sense of déjà vu. For I had been discussing this type of perspective-taking with my freshman class in relation to Apuleius’ Latin novel, The Golden Ass.
A native of Madaura in North Africa (125-170CE), Apuleius asked readers to imagine themselves as a donkey instead of a cow. More than two thousand years ago he performed the same exercise Bailenson was conducting — getting people to put themselves in the hooves of an animal. He achieved a similar effect through the artifice of art rather than the gadgets of virtual reality; in other words, through stories, humor, and hyperbole.
Finding himself in an area of Greece known for magic and sorcery, the aristocrat Lucius takes up with Fotis, the servant of the witch, Pamphile. After he observes Pamphile turn herself into a bird, Lucius begs his lover for the magic potion. As soon as she offers it to him, he smears it on his body and begins to flap his arms, expecting to soar. But rather than sprouting wings and feathers, he grows hair, hooves and a long tail.
By accident Fotis had given him the wrong mix and our hero turns into an ass. Unfortunately for him, bandits then break into the house, seize Lucius, load him with their loot, and prod him to a cave. And Lucius, still retaining his consciousness as a man with considerable literary skills, begins to see what it’s like to lose his autonomy and be used as a beast of burden. He turns into a commodity, repeatedly bought and sold, with potential owners shoving their fingers into his mouth to check his state of health. “We bought him in a Cappadocian slave-market,” shouts out one auctioneer.
Lucius, of course, is treated just like any other animal but his emotions and brain interpret these actions as oppression and cruelty. His transformation into an ass becomes a parable of slavery which allows Apuleius to conduct a satire of Roman society.
At the same time, Apuleius demonstrates how a change of perspective can be transformational. Despite the degradation, exploitation, and torture Lucius endures, he is grateful to “his many adventures in ass-disguise” because they broadened his “experience.” He prizes his long ears with which he picks up fascinating stories. Lucius, the ass, sees himself as an Odysseus, “who had visited many cities and come to know many different peoples.” He believes, in other words, that his conversion gave him empathy, the capacity to understand other people. And we, as readers, acquire this same perspective by following his ass-odyssey.
This, of course, has always been one of the functions of literature. Story-telling enables listeners to live vicariously, through the fears, loves, anxieties, and promises of other people. Readers enter the minds of these individuals and follow their adventures, all the time knowing that this is an invented narrative.
Bailenson claims that virtual reality can surpass literature in creating life-like experiences. When the technology is perfected, virtual reality could become the “ultimate empathy machine,” allowing us to inhabit the body of another person, swim like a whale, walk like a cow, but also kill like a mass-murderer and torture like a sadist.
Avoiding the Internet boosterism of the previous decade, Bailenson acknowledges that virtual reality can be a tool both for social improvement and evil. While one person can augment her language skills by virtual reality, the other can become an accomplished murderer. Bailenson celebrates virtual reality’s capacity for enabling us to “fly to the moon like Superman,” while expressing disquiet about its potential for misuse. Despite these misgivings, he is optimistic about the power of Virtual Reality to enhance our aptitude for empathy and see the world through the eyes of a refugee or of a fish in a net.
If virtual reality can indeed foster interpersonal and international understanding, if it can allow us to appreciate the positions of other individuals or animals, it should be welcomed. But it won’t make us happy. We won’t be satisfied to float into endlessly life-like sensations because we require fabrication in our lives as much as authenticity.
For its part, virtual reality seeks the verisimilitude of the ancient painter Zeuxis who, upon unveiling his painting of a bunch of grapes, watched birds descend upon them. It tricks the mind into believing that the fabrication is totally real, seeking to erase the distance between the concept and the thing. It forgets, however, that we, as human beings, also need to hang on our walls paintings that we know are paintings, that is, representations of reality.
As much as we strive for a slice of life, we also seek the lies of fiction. We delight in the boundary between fantasy and actuality, needing the separation between the actual and the possible that virtual reality erases. What defines us as human beings is our pleasure in entering the imaginary worlds of Odysseus, Anna Karenina, or Harry Potter, and in juxtaposing their lives with our own.
The beauty of art is the frame, the boundary we fashion around the fabricated image that helps us better appreciate the real one. Jarod Lanier, a founder of virtual reality, understands this. It is when you remove the goggles of Virtual Reality, he says, that things make sense. “The most ordinary surface, cheap wood or plain dirt, is bejeweled in infinite detail for a short while.”
Lanier describes here defamiliarization, the capacity of literature to heighten experience, to make the stuff of life seem brighter, marvelous, and worth noting. Literature has always asked us to pause and take notice of the wonder of life. It makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar, providing a perch from which to observe, criticize, and change our lives.
Seen from this perspective the real danger of virtual reality lies less in unceasing addiction than in the obliteration of the boundary between fact and fiction. By destroying artifice, it may end up killing what makes us human.
While the sirens of virtual reality lure us into an infinitely expanding empiricism, our inner voices sing just as insistently that we need illusion.