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re: F@ck Work?

January 19, 2017 - 11:31
Tags:  economics, Culture and social change, Black Lives Matter, justice, capitalism, Universal Basic Income, Jobs Guarantee

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

James Livingston has responded to my critique of his Aeon essay, “Fuck Work.” His response was published in the Spanish magazine Contexto y Accion. 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.

Motion Sickness

January 4, 2017 - 00:09
Tags:  Motion Sickness, Oceans, King Lear, Aeneid, Refugees, Seafarer, Chaucer

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Motion disorients bodies.


When they are moved, bodies seek stable refuge—whether the bodies in question comprise shipwrecked sailors, strife-torn nations, dislocated asylum-seekers, or even confused students. Poetry offers a partial, not always effective, response to motion sickness. In disorienting times and places, we imagine refuge—while not averting our eyes from roiling seas. Dislocation demands poetry.

In September 2016 I was walking back from the apocalyptic landscape of Dead Horse Bay in Queens after hearing Craig Dionne read to my grad class from his new book Posthuman Lear when, for some reason, we all started talking about seasickness. It’s a universal human response to the sea’s motion, I offered. Investigating the cultural and historical forms seasickness assumes might lead toward a shared language for responding to disorientation. One student replied that she’d seen a program that described the most common scientific hypothesis for motion sickness as the body’s defense mechanism against perceived neurotoxins. In this view, the conflict between a body’s felt motion and lack of physical control over that motion leads the brain erroneously to suspect the presence of neurotoxins, which can be cleared by vomiting.[1] Hence, seasickness. We walked back to the parking lot speculating about cultural motion sickness, a collective response to dislocation and change. What purgation does motion invite? What refuge waits on the far side of seasickness?

I’ll hazard some responses to these questions through brief engagement with three experimental revisions of classical maritime literature, the kinds of stories that speak to the human experience of unstable seas. These three trans-historical poems all respond to cultural motion sickness. They offer poetry’s comfort: not false stability but forms that can endure change.

I’ll start with the opening of David Hadbawnik’s great new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. I’ll float for a time with Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, a multi-media work that mashes up the Anglo-Saxon elegy “The Seafarer” with the story of the Left-to-Die boat of Algerian refugees, abandoned in the Mediterranean in 2011. Last I’ll explore Stephen Collis’s “The Lawyer’s Tale,” a revision of Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” that takes aim at the collectivizing violence of the pronoun “we” in an effort to uncover shared forms of complicity. These modern authors reanimate premodern texts to demonstrate how stories respond to unsettling movements. Motion sickness results from the conflict between a body’s need for refuge and the sea’s disorienting flux.




I love Homer more, see more of Ovid in Shakespeare, and probably judge Dante the greater artist, but let’s not kid ourselves: Virgil is the poet who built our world. Today’s global geopolitical order and its attendant conflicts spill out from Virgil’s epic of imperial conquest, consolidation, and sacrifice. The Aeneid tells the story of a sometimes reluctant imperator, one whose heart may remain in burning Troy or perhaps in a North African cave with Dido, Queen of Carthage, but who nonetheless does his job, sails for Italy, and founds Rome.

Poet and medievalist David Hadbawnik’s stripped-down translation of Virgil’s epic, the first six books of which appeared in print in 2015 and which I taught for two semesters in a row last year, unravels Virgil’s stateliness. This version of the imperial hero responds to being a sea-tossed refugee the way so many human bodies do, with fear and nausea:

Aeneas gets scared.

Limbs loosened in fear, he

groans, bends over and

pukes over the boat’s


The short staccato lines, chiseled out from the Latin poet’s rich hexameters, remake epic suffering as motion sickness. Hadbawnik’s modern vernacular retelling of the Rome-founding epic reminds us that Virgil tells a still-familiar story, in which war in the Middle East pushes refugees out onto the stormy Mediterranean in frail boats. Empires arise on the far shore, where the puke washes up.




Caroline Bergvall’a 2014 book Drift, recently praised by Marina Warner in TLS as the best book she read in 2016, yokes together an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem with a harrowing tale of modern refugees. In spring 2011, the Left-to-Die boat, though plainly visible to other boats and to NATO aircraft, drifted in the Mediterranean for fourteen days without food or water, resulting in the death of all but nine of the seventy-two mostly Algerian refugees on board. Bergvall engages this horrific tragedy to show the human cost of migration. In response, her poetry crafts a language of witness. “I can make my sorry tale right soggy truth,” Bergvall sings in the Seafarer’s voice.[3] In the Nordic context of the medieval poem, the drifting boat enters “hafville, sea wilderness, sea wildering” (153). It’s a painful place and a place we recognize:

Did not know where I was going hafville Had fear wildering hafville

For a minute there I lost myself Totally at sea lost myway tossed misted

lost myself in the fog hafville hafville my love

Major Tom hafville

Li Bai hafville

Rimbaud hafville

Shelley hafville

Amelia Aerhardt hafville… (42-43)

The list of loss continues as the poem memorializes drowning. In an extraordinary typographical experiment a few pages earlier (pp 36-42) the text visually fractures to display the human encounter with killing waters.

When I taught this poem last spring alongside Hadbawnik’s Aeneid, students fixated on the plight of the seventy-two passengers. As we spent time with Bergvall’s spare language and medieval source, we recognized her effort to make art respond to tragedy. The poet offers both drowning and singing. “To north oneself,” she writes, “To come into song” (156). The project requires intimacy: “Let me come in from the cold, cold way, Seafarer” (166). Her verse dwells in the hortatory imperative, insisting “Let the tides shake your life” (110). Being shaken can be upsetting.


“The Lawyer’s Tale”


The poet Stephen Collis’s contribution to the volume Refugee Tales in 2016 rewrites Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” as a lawyer’s brief that re-defines the porous borders of legal and literary language. He asks that Chaucer’s tale of forced migration unsettle us:

knowing the truth

one does not always

remain intact

            nor does the truth

always remain intact

and the borders

            are no longer

                        at the border[4]

Collis’s project echoes Bergvall’s mashup of medieval and modern sea-wilderings, but the lawyerly pose also produces analytical questions. Who is the “we” that watches suffering human bodies move? Might “we” be an “empty category” (110), a category we need to disavow (111), or a collective whose desire to form and re-form itself constitutes an act of collective violence through exclusion? Collis assumes an ecological perspective: “’We’ (things that are living) are all carbon-based beings, but ‘we’ (active and passive participants in waves of economic violence) don’t all do unto others as ‘we’ would accumulate various and unequal wealths and debts to ourselves” (115). The prosecutorial conclusion names us all complicit: “What if complicity is a form of relationship—of negative connection—the realization that we are all in (or near) the same drunken boat?” (118). We have options, Collis reminds us: “Gather at the stern. Organize the disembarkation into unkempt regions of permanent asylum” (118). It’s possible, perhaps, to respond to complicity with poetry.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

By way of conclusions, I offer three dramamine tablets. Human bodies need help enduring motion. Maybe these little pills can do the trick?

First pill: I’m the kind of person who goes through life constantly being reminded of moments from Moby-Dick. Right now I’m thinking of the coffin-turned-life-buoy that saves Ishmael from the whirlpool at the story’s end. The ship has gone down, Queequeg has drowned, and the last survivor drifts toward the vortex’s center. Just before he’s pulled under an object splashes into view, “rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost a whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.”[5]

Second pill: Poetry can be that coffin life-buoy, building communities and imagining refuge. Melville’s lone survivor knows what Hadbawnik and Virgil and Bergvall and Chaucer and Collis know too, that poetry wells up in fractured communities. Verses are edge-revealers and form-makers.

Last pill: I’m left feeling a little seasick, still. There’s a nausea that never goes away. Disorientation captures an inescapable component of being in the world, at least if we really look at the world we’re in. I cling to poems and sometimes to life-buoys. I practice swimming and drifting. I tell and listen to and teach stories about people who survive and people who don’t. And, whether I’m thinking about Aeneas or the Seafarer or Constance or about my own body, I’m struck by one truth about motion sickness:

We always feel a little better after we vomit.


[first presented at REFUGE: A GWMEMSI Symposium, 10/28/16, in Washington, DC]

[1] M. Treisman, “Motion Sickness: An evolutionary hypothesis,” Science 29 (1977) 493-95.

[2] Virgil, Aeneid, Books I-VI, David Hadbawnik, trans., Carrie Kaser, illus., Chris Piuma, for. (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2015) 15.

[3] Caroline Bergvall, Drift, (Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2014) 25. Further citations in the text.

[4] Stephen Collis, “The Lawyer’s Tale,”, Refugee Tales, David Herd and Anna Pincus, eds., (Manchester: Comma Press, 2016) 107-24.

[5] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, eds. (New York: Norton, 2002) 427.

F@ck Work?

December 22, 2016 - 15:19
Tags:  economics, Culture and social change, Black Lives Matter, justice, capitalism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

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 (The 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.

Rhyme at the End of Democracy: Leonard Cohen's Futures

December 20, 2016 - 14:27
Tags:  democracy, Leonard Cohen, lyric poetry, catastrophe, rhyme, rhyming

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II

A Democracy of Unrhymed Poetry

Walt Whitman never claimed that the use of rhyme in poetry was undemocratic, but he did claim that the democratic exercises of the citizenry were “unrhymed.” In the preface to Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman concludes a passage of praise for the common people by celebrating their power to appoint an executive: “the terrible significance of their elections—the President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry.” Understanding the plebeian multitude as a great poem in itself, Whitman argues: “the poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme.” Rhyme marshals, as a military regiments its soldiers into phalanxes. Poems, by contrast, assemble freely. Without stricture, the language of a democratic poem chooses the terms of its association. In 1856, Whitman composed a campaign-trail treatise entitled “The Eighteenth Presidency!: Voice of Walt Whitman to each Young Man in the Nation, North, South, East and West.” In it, he points out that the six million “mechanics, farmers, sailors, &c” so far outnumber bourgeois and slaveholding classes that they will inevitably stumble their way into the personnel of the government. Ideally, then, the office of the president involved its citizenry in lubricating the humdrum machinery of self-government. It did not condone the investiture of the State’s mystifying, king-making power.

We live now in powerfully un-Whitmanian times, when “the terrible significance of our elections” no longer strikes us as unrhymed poetry. “Drone more years!” said one of my friends in celebration of Obama’s 2012 victory. That kind of despair now looks like a golden pasture of optimism as the future sinks deeper into the undrained swamps of racial hatred, widening inequality, narcissistic self-interest, kleptocracy, unaccountable police violence, xenophobic revanche, environmental rapacity, and constitutional crisis. As the poet Jerome Rothenberg wrote in the late 1980s, “Today the cruel majority vote to enlarge the darkness.”[1] An austerity of democratic feeling attends the certain erosion of liberal democratic norms, and the uncertain outlook for federal republicanism itself. Futurity shrinks into feelings of fear and fatigue. Fatuousness rules over the present.

Where rhymeless discourses of free association do not safeguard democratic feeling, I doubt that the schematics of rhyme do much better. But, as linked structures of anticipation, few poets have considered the relation between rhyme and democracy with greater anti-Whitmanian insight than Leonard Cohen, who died not un-coincidentally on November 7, 2016. For the rare hour of the day in which there is little to do but to wait, here is a small tribute to his thinking on the matter.

A Democracy of Expectations

The revival of Leonard Cohen’s career from a Reagan-era slump owed at least in part to the inclusion of “Everybody Knows” on the soundtrack to the film Pump Up the Volume (1990), which described a rigged system to slumpy, slack, world-weary young suburbanites who found resources in Cohen’s music that their Boomer parents had not. Yet Cohen’s renewed success solidified with The Future (1992), an album that channeled the energies of a post-Cold War expansion of liberal democracy into a darkly optimistic vision of futurity pegged to the Clinton ascendancy. “Everybody Knows” reported that the fix was in as it ground all manner of anticipations to a halt, but every song on The Future (1992) elaborates some new structure of expectation. Here we find fidelity (“Always”) and erotic expectation (“Waiting for the Miracle”), messianic expectation (“The Future”) and redemptive expectation (“Anthem”). Above all, we find the kind of universalizing political expectation (“Democracy”) which stoked the 1990s dream of the end of history: “It’s coming from a hole in the air / From those nights in Tiananmen square.”

In those years, Cohen admitted in television interviews that he feared a rise of extremism, a growing feeling of dangerous hospitability to “the extremist position” which ends in his song’s decree “I’ve seen the future, brother: / It is murder.” Even so, democracy constituted for him a form of faith—the greatest of the faiths invented by the secularizing West. In this way, “regardless of how ironic we’ve trained ourselves to be about America,” he affirmed that “our blessings can be summoned for America; somehow we understand that it is there the great experiment is taking place.”[2]

As if directly redressing Whitman, Cohen’s “Democracy” opens with a snappy military snare drum rudiment, and from its first couplet it privileges the figure of rhyme as the very figure of democratic expectation. Although Cohen lushly textures the “Democracy” of the early 1990s with synths and back-up vocals, he enforces a stanzaic regimentation throughout the song’s six verses, which all follow the same rhyme scheme AABBACDEDD. The “D” rhymes repeat from stanza to stanza. Here’s the second verse:

It’s coming through a crack in the wall,
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming . . . to the U.S.A.

Here, in the mood of mock prophecy, Cohen threads together intoxicated reverie and religious orthodoxy, only to reject them in favor of vernacular soul lyrics, car commercials, and national Jeremiad. He builds this stanza on a flimsy architecture of monosyllabic end rhymes. In the second half of the stanza, the long a sound of U.S.A. (for America, but so much else), becomes an absorptive, compulsively expectant sound image that contains irony, sentiment, empathy, crass commercialism, and even trans-racial identification. Indeed, it is the same long a sound that rhymes internally through the line “the holy places where the races meet”). Cohen’s rhymes structure democracy not as a realized achievement but as a mode of expectation, not unlike a stray remark he made about it in an interview once: “I think, as Chesterton said about religion, that it’s a great idea—too bad nobody has tried it.”[3]

The poet-scholar Susan Stewart affirms that rhyme itself engenders structures of expectation and margins of creative freedom: “Artistic freedom reaches its apogee when intention approaches the rich cognitive moment on the brink of realized structure.”[4] She elaborates: “whatever freedom the will might possess is available at this point of possibility without resolution.” Rhyming joins other verbal practices that render most fully resonant this moment of cognitive brinksmanship. Stewart therefore critiques the free-versifiers of modernism, such as Richard Aldington, who made their poetic careers out of casting aspersions on rhyme as merely a “formal device and a kind of restraint.” For Stewart, rhyme never slips into schoolroom fetters. Rather, it stokes cognitive liberty: “Far from a constraint, rhyme endows us with certain freedoms--among them: the vernacular, including the locality of the poem itself, released from the standard; the monolingual in dialogue with the multilingual; sound opened up by vision, and sound released from meaning entirely; expectation released into surprise; and pattern drawn from the oblivion of time.”[5]

Although Cohen often marshalled rhyme in his songs, he loved to stage himself as a novice practitioner. In fact, the music video to “Democracy” opens with an image of Cohen in sunglasses while reading Random House’s Rhyming Dictionary, suggesting that the bright light of rhyme is not a matter of inspiration, but that it bounces indirectly to the senses through the act of reading. Cohen reverentially observes himself in this act of self-tutelage, just as Democracy comes “through a crack in the wall” on a “visionary flood of alcohol.”

The Future is full of cracks in walls—the Berlin Wall, most famously. These walls dramatize the seepage of democratic light into his songs. But “Democracy” largely draws its sense of America’s “range / and the machinery for change” (more long a) out of the Random House Rhyming Dictionary’s options for “U.S.A.”: gay, bay, day, pray, away, say, way, sway, array, decay, and two cross-lingual borrowings (Chevrolet and bouquet). Within this “machinery for change,” other internal rhymes work their ways in and out, but the song’s engine (the “battered heart / of Chevrolet”) relies on that foundational visit to the Rhyming Dictionary. Every repetition of the hook “Democracy is coming .... to the U.S.A.” splits the delivery with a long caesura, drawing out a moment of expectation that grows increasingly familiar with each return. This compulsive, paradoxical return to the scene of expectation thaws the frosty irony of the hook. “Democracy is coming” becomes the figure of “ironized conviction.” This is the structure of a deferred faith as it is summoned in prayer.

Unlike democracy, rhyme’s mode of expectation invites a belief in inevitable and rapid fulfillment. Rhyme unfulfilled precipitates apocalyptic feeling, as in Cohen’s “The Future,” where fratricide hangs in the balance of a half-rhyme: “I’ve seen the future brother: / It is murder.” When Cohen writes “things are going to slide in all directions,” he evokes a political structure of feeling as bleak as Yeats’s “the center cannot hold,” but for Cohen the decentering has to do specifically with the eschewing of rhyme or metrical regularity as the safeguard of expectation: “Won’t be nothing / Nothing you can measure anymore.”

By contrast, in “Democracy,” the insistence of rhyme—it’s ability to grow flowers in impoverished soil—is one of the few wards against the depredations of mass media or political apathy that the song otherwise describes as hopeless:

But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet

Of course, we don’t need rhyme. We need healthy institutions, norms, and rights. But perhaps rhyme is a training ground for the range of democratic feelings that can seep between fear, fatigue and fatuousness. As Cohen was recording The Future, he often drove the streets of Los Angeles with “Waiting for the Miracle” playing in his Honda. “I like to see,” he remarked in an interview on French television, “how the song stands up in the street. I like to drive with it on. And sometimes I come up beside people at a stop sign or a stoplight and I play it loud. I like to see if they turn and are interested in any way, you know? I like to hear it with traffic, with city noise.”[6] In 1993, television host Jools Holland asked Cohen if he was an “optimist.” He replied: “You know everybody’s kind of hanging on to their broken orange crate in the flood, and when you pass someone else, you know to declare yourself an optimist or a pessimist or pro-abortion or against abortion, or a conservative or a liberal, you know these descriptions are obsolete in the face of the catastrophe that everybody’s really dealing with.”[7] “Democracy” is a damaged float in the catastrophe, and to it clings a bit of broken expectation.


[1] Jerome Rothenberg, “Poem for the Cruel Majority,” A Paradise of Poets: New Poems and Translations (New York: New Directions, 1999): 16.

[2] Barbara Gowdy and Leonard Cohen, “TV Interview: November 19, 1992, OTV (Ontario, Canada),” in Jeff Burger, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014): 294.

[3] Ibid, 294

[4] Susan Steward, “Rhyme and Freedom,” in The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 30

[5] Ibid, 48.

[6] “Leonard Cohen: Exclusif,” (5 January, 1992):

[7] “Leonard Cohen,” Later with Jools Holland (1993):

What would William Morris do?

November 30, 2016 - 05:07
Tags:  Utopia/dystopia; Victorian studies; historicism; Marx; Political activism; socialism; fascism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

To understand politics, you must understand history. But how?

Napoleon crowning himself as Emperor

In our dire political moment, we scramble for action in the present, but we also search history for precedent and warning. It was both bitterly meaningful and completely random that November 9, the day after Trump’s election, also happened to be, in the French revolutionary calendar, the “eighteenth Brumaire,” the anniversary of the coup against the Directory that brought Napoleon to supreme power in 1799. When Marx wrote “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” in 1851-2, he mocked Louis Napoleon-Bonaparte’s imitation of his uncle in naming himself emperor and overthrowing the Second Republic. “All great world-historic facts and personages” repeat themselves, he asserted, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Sounds relevant, sort of! But what exactly is being repeated—is it the George W. Bush presidency or the advent of fascism? Both of those arguably started as farce, too.

Maybe history repeats itself as this kind of slowly-degrading reassemblage of basic component parts. William Morris, though, had a more hopeful view. His patient studies of British medieval history and craftwork, combined with an excited reading of Marxist revolutionary theory during the 1880s, convinced him that the utopian future could be a throwback to medieval village life, but free of all state and feudal power. In this future, which he envisions in his utopian novel News from Nowhere, the violent revolution of the 1950s has destroyed all Britain’s industries and building stock—and the workers, driven by a fierce hunger for freedom, return to a more natural life with an “intense and overweening love for the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells, such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves.” Morris loved art most of all, and despised modern civilization for its ugliness, hopelessness, and spiritual oppression.

Morris’s library: studying the past to imagine the future

Twentieth century communism did not turn out as he had envisioned it. But Morris, who died in 1896, was not entirely an idealist. He travelled the country lecturing to working men’s associations and trade unions, inspiring generations of British Labour Party activists, socialists, and artists, as well as today’s eco-critics. In an 1887 letter to his daughter Jane, he recounted how he spent Easter Monday marching with Newcastle colliers in “a wretched looking country enough,” eventually climbing on a wagon (“If yon man does na stand on the top we canna hear him!”) to speak to the assembled, “a big crowd of eager & serious persons.” His historicist vision was essentially optimistic, envisioning a re-vivification, a re-flowering, a return to a more meaningful way of life. History in his view can burst into the present in beautiful revolutionary form, pushing society into a better and more sustainable set of conditions. Morris did not live to see fascism, either, in which the past bursts into the present in much more Gothic fashion. In fascism, a toxic pastiche of ethnic domination and hyper-modern technology, the pre-modern past has persisted into the current day in the form of das Volk, the originary fantasy body of the nation-state. Its dream world is that of Inquisitions, of dungeons, of the castle with the demented patriarch imprisoning the fair maiden, and of dark political magic that leads to death. When you open your history book, be careful what you wish for.

I adore Morris’s gorgeous neo-medieval patterns, but as a stodgy liberal I probably lean more toward George Bernard Shaw’s solution to the class warfare of the 1880s and ’90s, which was the long, slow attempt to build a welfare state. As part of the Fabian Society, Shaw was also part of a socialist movement toward a better life for the working class, albeit one that renounced revolution in favor of endless policy pamphlets and insider lobbying. Shaw, like Morris, worked hard lecturing and helping hold together a fragile coalition, at one point being elected to office in the municipal position of vestryman for St. Pancras Borough Council. After a decade or two of this kind of thing, in an atmosphere of social conflict and strikes, and by assembling many different coalitions, England was able to build a Labour Party. Unlike Morris, Shaw lived well into the 20th century, and though he never renounced socialism he gradually became disillusioned with some of its Victorian hopes for progress.

The other thing people always say about history (supposedly this is a quote by George Santayana) is that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” But note: the quote does not say that if you do remember the past you are not doomed to repeat it. I would like to believe in a Victorian-style Whig theory of progress, in which bright hopes lead to useful struggle. But maybe we scholars in literary studies have been coasting on the assumption that “always historicizing,” a progressive project to break the spell of false naturalism that disguises power arrangements as “natural” and “common sense” by showing how things used to be different and therefore can be changed, is the only vibrant way that we can engage with the past. Just such a re-thinking has been happening in my little subfield of Victorian studies in the last year or so, inspired by the V21 manifesto with its call for a “strategic presentism.” In response to the manifesto, which set off a furious transatlantic debate, I think there has been a meta-historicist turn in Victorian studies. (Look here for debates from last fall’s V21 conference in Chicago.)

Strawberry Thief–or clever cherry-picking cultural historian

People in the 19th century certainly did about a million different other things with their fantasies of history, and maybe some of them deserve to be emulated as well as critiqued. I’m not saying we can cure history by fantasizing a neo-medieval utopia, but the attempt to cure history through archival work may also be partial. Literature itself, with its uncanny persistence, slides out of history even as you look at it, bearing seeds of both the past and the future within it. Sometimes a Broadway musical can create a community by making (a little bit) free with history as an act of testimony—and sometimes history takes a disorienting turn and becomes unprecedented and virtually un-narratable. Fantasy and history feed into each other, and we will need to study both to keep our bearings.

Black Coal - White Skin. Resisting Trumpism through Culture

November 22, 2016 - 12:40
Tags:  American election, Election 2016, Donald Trump, Resistance, culture, Left, Greece, economic determinism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

We all remember what we were doing on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 when the heavens opened, allowing wrath and fire to pour down on the earth. Beholding the fury, we were stunned, searching for words.

Those of us who work in the realm of culture are especially lost. What can we do? We who sing, teach, dance, write, act, paint, or take pictures feel that our professions are by definition useless. Our skills cannot change the risk faced now by immigrants, racial minorities, international students, women, and the environment.

But we can have an impact. The current crisis facing the United States has a cultural dimension. Thus people in the arts and humanities can explain this cultural aspect and articulate alternate ways of being American.

(By culture I mean both the arts, as in music, dance, or literature, and identity, as in American, black, or Latino identity).

In recent days, however, writers have underplayed the role played by culture in the election of Trump, highlighting instead the importance of economics only. Commentators point out that the disaffected of society, those pushed to the edge by the economic crisis and forgotten by the elites, came out in support of Trump.

In one respect, to those of us in the Left who have been speaking about inequality, the rise of this group of people is no surprise. Their grievances are completely justified. But are they the sole factors accounting for Trumpism? What of wealthy suburbanites, say, those in Delaware County, north of where I live in Columbus Ohio? Judging by their mansions, they are not part of the economically marginalized. And those in Trump’s rallies who shouted the notorious harangue “build that wall,” or the others who, since Obama’s election, have wanted to take their country back?

I am not saying anything profound by claiming that, in addition to the economy, the issues of racial, ethnic, and sexual identity have figured prominently in the election. Trump ruthlessly exploited a xenophobic, racist, and sexist discourse to terrify white people. He used one group against another, throwing immigrants and racial minorities against poor and rich whites.

This is not the first time in history that this has happened. But this is the first time that Americans have elected a demagogue.

I am not suggesting that all Trump supporters are racists and xenophobes. Neither am I claiming that they are naïve, having been duped by Trump to go against their economic interests and thus in need of our enlightenment.

I am arguing, however, that money is not the sole motivator in people’s decisions. People have in the past fought in pursuit of dignity and recognition, have struggled for liberation from oppression, and have acted out of fear, hatred, or compassion. Our motivations can't always be reduced to class interests. 

In this election, we have to see anxiety about the Other as another factor in addition to the economy: the fear of the first black president, the possibility that he would be followed by the first woman president, the dread of African Americans gaining power, and the panic over immigrants, especially Latinos and Muslims.

These specters visibly floated in Trump’s campaign. Therefore, to see his election as a function of a bad economy exclusively simplifies the situation as it also spares white America from having to look into the dark shadows of its own soul.

It is not the case that economic anxieties automatically lead to authoritarianism or fascism. Greece has had to endure eight years of depression-like austerity with 25 % unemployment and 50% youth unemployment. The country has been devastated, with large swaths of society reduced to poverty. I know people who have to choose between food and heat. The suicide rate is high; fear and hopelessness abound. And yet. Greeks have not succumbed to fascism. Although a minority has voted for Golden Dawn a neo-Nazi party, there is no mainstream Greek political figure resembling Trump. And the current party in power, Syriza, for all its faults and incompetence, has valiantly tried to deal with a refugee crisis far worse than Americans can imagine. Syriza came into power by promising to relieve the economic pressures of Greeks rather than by promising to throw refugees into the Aegean Sea. Its slogans were based on hope instead of fear.

Americans, by contrast, have elected a demagogue, potentially the most divisive president in history. So we have to examine how this darkness has descended upon the American heart. 

And so I come again to my question: What can we in the arts and humanities do? First of all, we can link with like-minded people everywhere who are protesting Trumpism: neighborhood activists, environmentalists, labor groups, religious organizations. Let us take to the streets and drown out the voices of fear and hate, especially on the day of the inauguration.

At the same time, we should recognize and harness our own considerable powers. Let me explain how powerful intellectuals and artists can be.

Intellectuals of 18th century Germany, for instance, locked out of the aristocratic courts, took over schools, universities, reading groups, coffee houses and collectively created something new and radical—German national identity. When politicians established Germany as a state in 1871 they adopted the idea of a nation created by intellectuals 100 years earlier.

During a military dictatorship of the 1980’s in Turkey, to turn to another example, intellectuals and artists, officially ostracized from the spaces of the state, appropriated advertising firms, publishing houses, galleries, and television and from these social sites actively resisted authoritarianism.

It is happening there again. In a recent visit to Çanakkale, an art organizer and social activist inspired me with her fearless commitment to freedom, truth, and artistic expression, a commitment that for her carries personal risks.

Let us be like her. The university, as the Right has always known, is one of the more progressive parts of society. Let us use this space to create new discussions and discourses about self and other, about the relationship between the foreign and the native, our duties to those who suffer, and the tensions between globalization and nationalism. Don’t forget: We will write the history of the era. 

Artists can use the arts to show alternative ways of being American, in defiance to Trumpism.  

Trumpism exploits the fears of white people while unleashing the destructive powers of coal, pulling us backwards. But it has also awakened a sleeping giant. Since the election, the most apolitical people have told me they want to protect our freedoms and the rights of the most vulnerable around us.

Let us use our talents for words and pictures to fight this new darkness. Let us forge a movement of heroic hearts.

The Jewish Exodus from Iraq Revisited

November 16, 2016 - 00:56
Tags:  Iraq, Baghdad, Iraqi Jews, Farhud, Israel, Shmuel Moreh, Elaph, Violette Shamash, Mira Rocca, Tony Rocca, Northwestern University Press, Free Press, Marina Benjamin, Eli Amir, Hillel Halkin, Halban Publishers

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

Who would have thought? At the age of ten, I took to the stage in my primary school in Baghdad to recite verses that called for an immediate liberation of Palestine’s land from the vicious Jewish occupation. My short poem was met with a roar of applause, I felt ecstatic. 

Thirty-six years after what I once considered a glorious moment in my life; my comprehension of the notion of animosity has noticeably changed, and here I am, writing about Jewish writers and the injustice done to their people.

But wait! Passports aside; the Jews I’m talking about are no less Iraqi than I am. They were born, grew up and studied in Baghdad just as I did, and we both migrated from Iraq—albeit in different times—when life there became unbearable for us and our families. My first encounter with the plight of the Iraqi Jews was in 2007 when Saudi-owned, London-based news website Elaph ran a series of essays by Shmuel Moreh—professor emeritus in the Department for Arabic Language and Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Reading the intimate recollection of stories on my laptop screen triggered memories of the beautiful villas I’d driven by on my way to the university. The British-colonial-style buildings, I was told, belonged to wealthy Jewish families, but were confiscated by the government after their owners had fled the country to Israel in the early 1950s. Tormented by the past, struggling to adjust to an ever-changing, ever-challenging present; the fresh immigrant that I was at the time could relate to the nostalgia in professor Moreh’s pieces, but found them unrealistically sterile for a man who’d been wronged and forced off the land of his ancestors. How could there not be even a hint of anger or blame? I couldn’t understand.

The stories, nonetheless, managed to pique my interest. I started looking for more information about what might have caused the mass migration of Jews from Mesopotamia; the land where they’d established their first diasporic community, following the Babylonian captivity. A guiding thread came unexpectedly from my mother, who turned out to have had a Jewish childhood friend named Evelyn. The two little girls bid tearful farewell at my grandmother’s while an angry mob screamed obscenities against “the filthy Jews” aloud in the street, my mother told me. I decided to include Evelyn’s story in my then unfinished book A Muslim on the Bridge and went on searching for other firsthand testimonials. I was visiting the Middle East in 2011, when—unexpectedly, again—Ghada, my Jordanian friend of Palestinian descent recommended Memories of Eden: A Journey through Jewish Baghdad (Northwestern University Press, 2010) a collection of letters, sent by Violette Shamash to her daughter, Mira, and journalist son-in-law Tony Rocca, who together edited the stories into an impressive memoir. I remember going through the pages and photographs as if I were watching a fascinating documentary. Shamash’s letters gave me an insight into what happened during the infamous Farhud—an unprecedented series of attacks against Baghdad’s Jewry, following a failed pro-Nazi coup in 1941. The indiscriminate rape, killing and pillage that went on for two consecutive days not only marked the end of a centuries-long honeymoon between the Muslims and Jews in Iraq, they are also thought to have resulted in the spread of Zionism amongst the young members of the community, the majority of which had so far opposed Jewish immigration to Palestine and refused to consider any country other than Iraq to be their eternal homeland.

I needed to learn more about the sudden shift in loyalties, how it started and evolved.

Upon browsing the library shelves in Auckland a few years ago; I found Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation (Free Press, 2006) by journalist Marina Benjamin who admits that she only became interested in the legacy of her forebears after giving birth to her first child. The riveting moment made her aware of the widening gap between her past and present, and set out on an ambitious mission to bridge it. With a British passport in hand, Marina arrived in Baghdad decades after the bitter departure of her mother and grandmother to trace whatever might have remained there of their history. Sadly, there wasn’t much, not even a marker to identify her grandfather’s grave. Benjamin didn’t return empty-handed from Baghdad, though. She visited the last standing synagogue, and—with understandable difficulty—managed to convince the few remaining Jews in the city to speak to her. Their accounts of the hardships that had befallen them and their families over the past decades and the miserable lives they were leading shed light on several corners of their people’s history and haunted me long after finishing the book.

Up until that point, I’d deliberately steered clear of novels. Facts were my main focus, and I was keen not to allow the allure of fictitious affairs to distract me from them. My inquisitive approach to the truth provided me with a considerable amount of information, but it also left me confused, feeling like a child surrounded by scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces, clueless as to how to assemble them into a complete picture. I thought it was probably time to turn to fiction for help. 

Having familiarized myself with events, places and key political players and atmosphere; I glided to a smooth landing on the epoch of The Dove Flyer by Eli Amir, translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin (Halban Publishers, 2010). The novel is set in 1950 Baghdad. Two years have passed since the declaration of the establishment of Israel in Palestine. An anti-Jewish sentiment is sweeping the city streets, and the consequences of the Farhud continue to snowball, causing a serious rift in the community. To his credit, Eli Amir casts no halo about any faction. Rather, he gives us a stark portrayal of the blustery political and social scene in an eloquent, epic-like monologue which extends across several pages: After surviving an attack by a furious crowd of fellow-Jews, Rabbi Bashi vents frustration over his ungrateful and impossible to please community, the Zionists, the Communists, the Muslims, Iraqi royals and politicians, even The Master of the Universe. The Dove Flyer not only stands out as a notable work of literature, but also and more importantly as a vivid historical document. It made me relive the intensity of the pressures and threats imposed on its characters, and realize that their exodus from Iraq was a desperate act of survival rather than a lack of patriotism, even treason—as described in our school history books.

“We’ve lived with the Jews longer than anyone can remember. Let no one touch them!” I quote Khayriiya from the novel—a simple Muslim woman, who comes to her longstanding neighbors’ rescue, positioning herself at their gate and yelling at the rioters—and wonder.

This article first appeared in Arabic Literature (In English). 

The Mask of Trumpery

November 8, 2016 - 12:21
Tags:  Shelley, Mask of Anarchy, Swellfoot the Tyrant, Hillary Clinton, Elections 2016, Donald Trump

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II ) 

Shelley, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

(with apologies to Shelley's Mask of Anarchy)


As I lay asleep in the North East

The polls plunged for the Hildebeest.

And desperation forth led me

To walk in the visions of Poesy.

I saw Murder in her slump –

He had a mask like Donald Trump –

Orange was his face, yet grim;

Twelve endorsers followed him:

All were greedy; well they might

Be in admirable plight,

For one by one, and two by two,

He tossed them tax rebates to chew

Which from his campaign plane he drew.


Next came Fraud, and he went on,

Like John Boehner’s latest con;

His big tears, for he wept well,

Turned to mill-stones as they fell.


And the little children, who

Round his feet played to and fro,

Thinking every tear a gem,

Had their brains knocked out by them.


Clothed with the Bible, as with light,

And the shadows of the night,

Like Rubio, next, Hypocrisy

On a crocodile rode by.


And many more Destructions played

In this ghastly masquerade,

All disguised, even to the eyes,

Like Congressmen in power ties.


Last came Anarchy: he rode

On a white horse, splashed with blood;

He was pale even to the lips,

Like Death in the Apocalypse.


And he wore a bright red cap;

On which was written total crap;

But underneath this mark I saw—

I am Fuhrer, God, and Law!


With a pace stately and fast,

Over all our land he passed,

Trampling to a mire of blood

The adoring multitude.


And a mighty troop around,

With their trampling shook the ground,

Waving each a racist shirt

Calling for a world of hurt.


And with glorious triumph, they

Kept immigrants away,

Drunk as with intoxication

Of the wine of desolation.


O'er fields and towns, from sea to sea,

Passed the Pageant swift and free,

Tearing up, and trampling down;

Till they came to Washington.


And each dweller, panic-stricken,

Felt his heart with terror sicken

Hearing the tempestuous cry

Of the triumph of Trumpery.


For with pomp to meet him came,

Clothed in arms like blood and flame,

The hired murderers, who did sing

`Thou art God, and Law, and King.


We have waited, weak and lone

For thy coming, Mighty One!

Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,

Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’


Lobbyists and press, a motley crowd,

To the earth their pale brows bowed;

Like a bad prayer not over loud,

Whispering— `Thou art Law and God.'—


Then all cried with one accord,

`Thou art King, and God, and Lord;

Trumpery, to thee we bow,

Be thy name made holy now!'


And Trumpery (no Skeleton),

Bowed and grinned to every one,

As well as if his bad election

Had cost ten trillions to the nation.


For all the Towers and Palaces

Of Donald Trump were rightly his;

His the sceptre, seal, and globe,

And the gold-inwoven robe.


So he sent his slaves before

To seize upon the Bank and Tower,

And was proceeding there and then

To meet his pensioned Congressmen,


When one fled past, a maniac maid,

And her name was Hope, she said:

But she looked more like Despair,

And she cried out in the air:


`My father Time is weak and gray

With waiting for a better day;

See how idiot-like he stands,

Fumbling with his palsied hands!


`He has had child after child,

And the dust of death is piled

Over every one but me—

Misery, oh, Misery!'


Then she stumbled in the street

Subject of tweet after tweet,

With coughs and an unfocussed eye

(Or so said Fraud and Trumpery).


And the polls plunged all the more

While all of us still keeping score,

Re-re-refresh 538,

Recording angel of the hate

(Our Metatron is now named Nate)


That bears every unfortunate

Whose stamina is not that great,

Or who've gained a lot of weight

Away to a horrendous fate,

While swellhead tyrant laughs with glee

At universal Trumpery.


The Peculiar Success of Cultural Studies 2.0

September 19, 2016 - 15:54
Tags:  cultural studies, Realpolitik, Moral panic, New Criticism, Gen X

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

The 1990s were a great age of theoretical experiment in American universities—in political theory, sexual theory, media and film theory. If you combined queer theory, postcolonial studies, and pop culture analysis with the lingering 1970s political energy around questions of feminism and African-American studies, you got the fizzy punch of “cultural studies”—a phrase first popularized by a conference at the University of Illinois in 1990, which led to this book. Cultural studies as a field didn’t exist when I entered grad school, but in 1999 I got my first postgraduate job in the field of “humanities and cultural studies.” Cultural studies seemed like the most useful intellectual catch-all ever: it was edgy, it was interdisciplinary, and it could critique absolutely anything, even the conditions of its own production in the university.

Death knell of cultural studies 1.0

However, in the early 2000s the luster of cultural studies dimmed. I have my own reading of this with which you will doubtless disagree—I think Ralph Nader killed it. It turned out that “real” politics still existed, and proliferating endless critique on the left felt a little beside the point in the face of the Realpolitik turn of 2000-3 (the dirty-tricks Bush victory, the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq War). Cultural studies had been very suspicious of the supposed “objectivity” of science, but once official Republican policy was to deny the scientific consensus around human-induced global climate change, it felt more … interesting … somehow, to back the scientists. By 2007 I was telling my grad students to avoid the phrase “transgression,” which sounded dated. Where’s the glory in simply “transgressing boundaries” if the welfare state is dramatically being dismantled, hurricanes are wrecking the South, and American foreign policy is going berserk? The movements that replaced cultural studies in the academy had a more sober, practical mood: book history, archival research, studies of realism in the novel, a tentative embrace of technology and medical history, and (at the crazy edge) interest in the dispersed and barely-perceptible agency of systems, animals, and geological fault lines. Journalists got bored and started looking for their cultural panics elsewhere.

I think it’s safe to say that cultural studies is back, but the new surge is not particularly being driven by the academics who invented it. It’s being revived by the young—while professors are gently steering them toward book history, they’re protesting dramatically about trans rights and racist police killings. Marxism was always a marginal player in cultural studies—since in general (don’t @ me) it prioritized economic issues over secondary contradictions like gender, race, or resource conservation. But after 2008 the left rediscovered Marx, and so the revival of identity politics feels, to my generation, like we’re going back to a battle we already fought, and maybe a diversion of important political energy.

Predictably the revival of cultural studies is being treated by the once-again-so-interested media as a university-based moral panic, with the same horror at “coddled” youth and their demands for a better and cooler society. But cultural studies is now everywhere outside the university—everywhere, in fact, where young people are writing about culture on the internet. Cultural studies escaped its original institutional framework and is now flourishing in the wild. When I teach Victorian pop culture now, I hardly have to bother doing the whole sexuality-race-gender-class analysis, because it seems so intuitively obvious to my Beyoncé-trained undergrads.

The dawn of cultural studies 2.0

We’re seeing a moment—like the spread of the New Criticism in the ’50s and ’60s—in which a movement originally developed in the ivory tower has trickled down to the high schools—and in this case, has been actively embraced by teens outside school hours. It’s odd to think that these two movements, which seem to have nothing else in common, should have been the ones to spread the most widely outside the university, but they do share one basic precondition. The New Criticism started as a rejection of historical criticism in the name of close reading the ironies and paradoxes of important, complex Romantic and modern poems; it spread because “close reading” can be done in any classroom without library research, and was suitable for the vast expansion of college education after WWII. Cultural studies 1.0 started off with nuanced readings of Benjamin and Foucault, but in fact you can also do it without expensive research and training—all you really need is the Bechdel test. It’s obvious, once you think about it, that girls should be able to kill vampires and bust ghosts, that black teens deserve second chances from the police like white teens, that Asian-American comedians should be on TV more, that lovers should love who they please. The new cultural studies combines the cheapness and accessibility of the New Criticism with the enthusiasm of internet fan culture and the urgency of the fight against political injustice.

Cultural studies has turned out to be, in retrospect, a weirdly thorough success that is influencing the creation and reception of culture everywhere in the world, especially outside the academy. One might even take the omnipresence of cultural studies 2.0 as a sign that research in the humanities, though obscure at the time, ended up having transformative cultural impact. My one grumpy Gen-X request is that, when they hit 30, today’s culture warriors get one of their girl superheroes to pass a law ensuring new mothers something like the paid leave they enjoy everywhere else in the Western world.

Teaching for Free Until the Air Runs Out

September 7, 2016 - 10:49
Tags:  Argentina, University of Buenos Aires, Free labor, Jerry Brignone, Teaching Greek, Humanities crisis, goal-oriented thinking

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

One of the first to enter the classroom, I sat next to a painted banner proclaiming free abortion. On the opposite wall huge posters called for social justice and Marxist revolution.

Watching me taking a picture of the banners, the woman next to me, a retired teacher, asked if this was my first time in Argentina. No, I said, it was my third but I was still amazed at the tolerance for political dissent. It seemed the whole building was covered in protest.

As we spoke, more students began to enter, taking almost every seat. Then the instructor arrived, Jerónimo “Jerry” Brignone, an author and director of plays and movies, translator, actor, and also professor of modern Greek. Jerry had invited me to do a series of presentations at the University of Buenos Aires and the Medical School (whose Dean makes it mandatory for advanced medical students to hear a lecture in the humanities every week). On that particular day I attended his first-year Greek class.

As Jerry began to distribute the introductory material, more students arrived and, finding no seats, left the room. I thought they would drop the class but they actually reappeared, carrying their own chairs. Within minutes every conceivable space had been filled. But still more students came. Where would they all fit, I thought? Undaunted, each recent arrival left the room and reentered, holding a chair.

Someone squeezed through with a portable microphone. But once Jerry began to recite a poem in Greek, he realized that it did not work so he turned it off. But more students appeared, looked around in dismay, departed and returned with a chair. Each new entry led to more creaks and scratches on the floor.

Why are they coming, I thought? Why don’t they switch to another class? Sensing my bewilderment, the retired teacher explained that this is what it meant to study in Argentina.

At one point students had to place their chairs in the hall and all around Jerry, leaving little air to breath. I began to perspire, wanting to escape, my sense of claustrophobia overcoming me.

Then as Jerry was outlining the phonetic system, a female student got up in the back and shouted something I couldn’t understand in the echo. What’s going on, I asked my neighbor? Was this a protest? Gradually there was mass movement backwards. “Please shove your chair back,” a long-haired student in front of me said. “We need to make room for everyone.” En masse we all slid about three feet back into I don’t know where. Everyone in the hall was now inside and the door was finally closed, 45 minutes into the class.

As I looked around, no one complained, rolled their eyes at the latecomers, or huffed in disgust. No expression of outrage, contempt, or misery. A female student with dark complexion and silver earrings smiled at me, shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, this is the way it is here.

And I thought about the class I was about to teach at Ohio State in a couple of days where I had two assistants, two screens, PowerPoint, a flawless PA system, and business-class seats with online access.

Jerry has no PowerPoint, no assistants, no visual aids, just his exuberant energy to teach the class for four hours straight each week. And the students sat enthralled. I looked often to see if people were checking their phones; everyone was paying attention or taking notes.

When the resources are so few, Jerry told me, you don’t need to motivate anyone. Students understand the value of what they are doing. He expected the students to learn the bulk of the information at home by themselves. There is only so much he could do with the large group of students. After all, 105 students in a Modern Greek class is extraordinary. At Ohio State we are grateful for 25.

Why are so many students taking Greek, I asked, especially under these conditions? While Jerry could not provide a complete answer, one factor is that people still believe in the humanities. (There were five bookstores within a five-minute walk from where I was staying.) Moreover, not speaking in an imperial medium like English, students are open to minor languages. There is also the commitment to intellectual inquiry for its own sake and less obsession with goal-oriented thinking.

Indeed, what makes the high enrollment even more striking is that the Modern Greek course does not count as a credit and is not part of an academic program. Students take Greek even if it offers no instrumental value. For me this was the most astonishing thing to learn, at a time of precipitous drops in humanities enrollments in North America.

But perhaps most astonishing was the fact that Jerry has been teaching this course for free since 2007. On top of that he has organized a series of lectures, “Cariátide,” since 1997 without any remuneration. From time to time he also offers courses on Greek literature and culture. And he has a popular radio program, Las palabras y las notas: pasiones líricas, léxicas, helénicas y otros dramas, (The Words and the Notes: Lyrical, Lexical, Hellenic Passions and other Tragedies) in which he invests many hours.

Those labors include not just preparing for interviews, but he also assembles operatic pieces, other types of music, literary and film quotations, all around the guest. When I appeared on August 20, 2016, he had created a whole program around boundaries and empathy, from the recent opera, "Brokeback Mountain,” to popular Greek music, to the Brazilian film, “Orfeu Negro,” to Mario Varga Llosa’s The War of the End of the World, to the New Orleans-based, indie band, “New Thousand.”

So why does he do this for free? Well, that’s a very north-American question.

Not independently wealthy, Jerry makes it to the end of the month through translating and private tutoring. He undertakes all this other work because it would not get done otherwise. This is his job, one that he just does not get paid for.

We should not see his “outreach” as volunteering in the Anglo-Saxon way, that is, having a full time job but doing good things on the side, such as helping in a soup-kitchen. Rather than “volunteering,” Jerry, and others like him, do unpaid work.

In a place of diminished resources, Jerry told me again, cultural work takes on a different meaning. In other words, not everything in life leads to money or practical purpose.

This very commitment to non-instrumental learning enveloped the class I was attending. The students who received no academic credit and the professor who got no pesos were united in the understanding that they were doing something very important—learning an insignificant language.

The Secret of Imperial Failure? The Case of Quina and Epistemic Tolerance

August 26, 2016 - 10:13

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III 

The Andean Wonder Drug centers on a mystery that has puzzled historians of Imperial Spain for generations. After having invested massively in botanical research over the course of the eighteenth century, the Bourbon crown had little to show in the way of concrete, positive economic results. The Andean Wonder Drug seeks to explain some of the causes of these failures by exploring one specific case: the crown’s involvement in the production and distribution of cinchona bark (quinine), one of the most important febrifuge drugs available in a world beseeched by contagious disease and malaria.

Mutis Expedition-1790s-Jardin Botanico de Madrid

Trade on cinchona bark had long been controlled by private interests. Merchants would advance markup commodities to local laborers who would, in turn, collect the bark from Andean forests to pay off their debts. The merchants would then bring the bark back to Spain or sell it to British and French smugglers in Portobello, Panama. The quality of the bark, however, varied wildly. Producers and merchants agreed that the quality of bark was highly uneven, depending on the species of the tree, the part of the tree exploited, and the regions from where the tree came.  Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a consensus emerged among apothecaries and physicians that the trees of Loja (in southern Ecuador) yielded the best bark. Unsurprisingly, most producers and merchants promptly and misleadingly claimed their bark to be from Loja. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the crown, set out to gain greater control over the production and distribution of the bark to guarantee a reliable, high quality supply for the crown to hand out as gifts of charity and patronage. Crawford explores several archives on both sides of the Atlantic to reconstruct how the crown sought to establish control over the production and distribution of the Andean wonder drug.

The crown first sent administrators in the 1750s to confirm that the bark was not tampered with by corrupt officials and merchants. Despite the best efforts of crown bureaucrats, however, royal apothecaries would complain that the quality of the bark kept changing with every shipment. In the 1770s the crown turned to the expertise of botanists on the assumption that the variability was caused by ignorance, not corruption as it had originally been thought.

Yet, even after botanists and naturalists took over, the crown kept on getting shipments of alleged unreliable quality. Science proved ineffectual to settle the issue of whose quina was best. The book offers a counter to the triumphant narrative of science and empire that dominates the historiography on the Enlightenment. In the case of quina, science did not solve anything, it actually compounded the problem. Crawford breaks sharply with the growing historiographical consensus that science was a handmaiden of empire.

Crawford offers a tantalizing and novel interpretation of the connections between bureaucracy and knowledge in the Spanish monarchy: the crown constantly reached out to all parties, who often held antithetical views, in order to adjudicate among them. This was part of the constitution of the empire itself. This procedure made empire long lasting but also ineffectual. The case of quina highlights the tensions of the system and the way science worked. Crawford reconstructs the views of all parties involved (local healers, collectors, merchants, administrators, apothecaries, physicians, botanists, and chemists). Various physicians and apothecaries got different results and promoted different types of bark as a result; different corregidores, visitadores and viceroys put forth contrasting policy solutions that favored either the crown or local merchant interests; botanists classified the plant in many different ways, favoring rival merchant groups in different regions of the Americas.  Crawford’s illuminating analysis shows that science and knowledge never worked as an outside, adjudicating arbiter. In the global Spanish Monarchy, science tended not to develop within academies, museums, and salons (although there were plenty of those too), but as part of the bureaucratic contest. The record of science and knowledge in the Spanish monarchy has remained invisible because it lies buried in hundreds of thousands of unpublished mundane bureaucratic records, accumulating dust in archives.

The Andean Wonder Drug boldly challenges historiographical consensus. The book offers an alternative to the facile narrative connecting science to empire. It shows that an empire that invested inordinate amounts of resources in botanical expeditions and clinical trials was not necessarily more effective at increasing agricultural productivity. Unlike “scientists” in the British and Dutch Empires, who came to be seen as ideologically detached from the social and political contexts in which their practices were embedded, “scientists” in the Spanish Empire did not enjoy any greater cultural epistemic authority than did other social actors. Bark collectors, local healers, merchants, and bureaucrats wielded as much epistemic power as did leading court physicians, metropolitan naturalists, and worldly chemists. In fact, Crawford’s book shows that the Enlightenment scientists became bark collectors, merchants, bureaucrats, and policy advisors themselves. By untangling the “epistemic culture” of the early modern Spanish global monarchy, Crawford offers a sweeping counter narrative to any simplified account of the rise of scientific modernity as a tool of empire. Crawford shatters the Spanish Black Legend. The Andean Wonder Drug fully brings to light a Spanish Empire that was constitutionally far more tolerant of epistemic diversity than, say, the British, largely because the former never developed the simple-minded discourse of scientific “objectivity” as modernity that the latter did. There were many other ways of living the Enlightenment than those the historiography narrowly peddles.

Matthew James Crawford. The Andean Wonder Drug. Cinchona Bark and Imperial Science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630–1800. xi + 284 pp., illus., tbls., bibl., index. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. $45 (cloth).

Elena Ferrante's Run-ons

August 10, 2016 - 15:55
Tags:  Ferrante, Rancière, contemporary novels, aesthetic theory

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

Like very many people, I have become a huge fan of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s novels.  Ferrante, in case you haven’t heard, has become an international phenomenon.  She has acquired a certain notoriety not only because her writing is very intense, but also because no one outside a small handful of people has any idea who she is, or if she is a she.  Her novels, whether in Italian or in English, are irresistible—less like sugar is irresistible, and more like pain is irresistible.  What about these novels is irresistible is not so simple to say.  Journalistic responses have tended to focus on something like the powerful reality of the characters and the impossibility of not identifying with them: “Elena is not destroyed” when she discovers her lover cheating on her, declares Roger Cohen, apparently with some relief, in The New York Review of Books.  There has not been, though, much consideration about how exactly Ferrante’s writing makes those characters and their lives seem powerful. “Speed is one of the defining qualities of reading Ferrante,” observes Joanna Biggs in The London Review of Books, but without locating the accelerator.  James Wood, whose New Yorker article spawned much of the Ferrante cult in the English-speaking world, is onto something when he notices, of the main character in I giorni dell’abandono that there “is a foul brilliance in how Ferrante sticks with the logic of Olga’s illogic.”  

But how does Ferrante stick to illogical logic?  How does her style create the irresistible?  Here is a working hypothesis: Ferrante’s signature tic is the run-on sentence, a style more obvious in English translation than in Italian, run-ons are grammatically suspicious in English but normal in Italian.  But even in Italian, Ferrante’s habit of running independent clauses together is distinctive.  Here is a small example taken from the first page I flip to, from the last of the Neapolitan novels, Storia della bambina perduta: “Ma non mi convinceva, non gli credevo, esprimeva pareri entusiastici sul lavoro di troppe donne” (219). “But he didn’t convince me, I didn’t believe him, he expressed enthusiastic opinions about the work of too many women” (Ann Goldstein’s translation, which I’m quoting throughout).  Ferrante deploys the run-on to create a momentum that is headlong and occasionally breathless but still intimate—here you are, inside the operation of Elena’s head, everything she thinks coming out in the order it occurs to her, she is a subtle thinker because she sees that someone praising the work of too many women, paradoxically, does not take women seriously, maybe even denigrates them, and suddenly there is not only personal introspection but also a history, a storia.  

And as a storia, the momentum is also manipulative.  At least, it is the effect of a stylistic technique: this sentence is not Elena Greco speaking in a rush, slightly out of control, a real person thinking through something logically illogically.  This is Elena Greco, or Elena Ferrante (who is the narrator here?), retrospectively recounting events and recreating the rush of the moment as part of her affectionate and yet also vindictive urge to represent Lila (the novels begin with Lila’s disappearance).  Even as you are caught up in the momentum of Elena’s thoughts, you are also aware—this is one of the real pleasures of the books—that Elena the narrator is, usually, making fun of the naiveté or stupidity of Elena the character, or the silly slogan’s of an era (“we used such language” is a common refrain), or the ridiculous historical narratives that people regularly trot out.  Ferrante, or Elena, pities, savors, or demolishes the intensity of the reactions by situating them in a much broader history.  The four so-called Neapolitan novels depict an intense relationship between two women, but they also create an arc that amounts to a history of postwar Italy. The coordination of interior life and social life has been one of the oldest problems of the genre of the novel, and the run-on sentence is Ferrante’s technique for reworking it.  “But he didn’t convince me, I didn’t believe him, he expressed enthusiastic opinions about the work of too many women”: the sentence registers Elena’s agitation, declares her growing suspicion of her lover Nino, displays her intelligence, catches both those reactions as part of a broader history from the emergence of feminism in Italy in the 1970s and its awkward, intimate relation with political shifts from Marxism to Socialism to Camorrists to the digital world, and so on.  The retrospective narration performs a structural function throughout, though it never becomes entirely dominant because the run-on sentences won’t let it: the speed of the novels is an urge to know what will happen, the building of a forward historical and narrative momentum, but also an urge to watch an argument, already worked out, unfold.  Elena’s relation to Nino, for instance, is not simply a personal train wreck that readers can or can’t identify with.  The two characters are also—I’m not quite sure what else to call them—allegorical figures, alternately manifesting the relations between men and women, feminism and government, literature and politics, art and life: two abstract entities entangled in a perennial, but also curiously specific, battle.  

Elena and Lila, the two brilliant friends, have a very intense relationship, but they also figure the difficulties of mimesis itself: Lila lives, Elena writes, presentation and representation, manifesting life in prose, worrying about whether one is eclipsing the other as writers have been doing since Plato and Aristotle.  Because of the run-on sentences, because of the constant forward motion of the writing, Ferrante’s allegorical gestures never resolve into a simple message or political position or historical signifier, or a tedious novel about novels.  Nor do they have a lot of faith in “reality” as a stable referent (the scene of the Naples earthquake is especially interesting in this respect).  Ferrante’s run-on is not like a long Henry James sentence, which declares long before you get to the end of it that there is a brilliantly worked-out logic that you’d better slow down and grasp, and that what you will grasp at that moment is reality itself.  Still, one thing that people including me like about the novels is that they somehow feel real.  In Ferrante, you usually have very little idea what the apartments look like (rich with a view; poor with no bathroom), and very little idea what Elena and Lila look like (blond and plump; brunette and skinny).  Elena periodically stresses she wants to look pretty, or changes her makeup to something more bourgeois, or mentions the model of a car or the location of a beach house, but that is about it.  I think that the realism of the novel comes not from Flabuert-like detail but from the ability of a sentence to coordinate detail and history without quite resolving into either.  So (an example Woods also points to) when the guests at Lina’s wedding realize “the wine wasn’t the same quality for all the tables,” Elena-the-character realizes in a flash that the “plebs were us.”  But the speed of the narrative prevents this observation from turning into unfurled Marxist theory or interiority figured through enology.  Ferrante’s run-on sentences are the mechanism for producing this reality effect.  They deny, at the micro-level, any logical cohesion or narrative arc or life story, even as they are part of a retrospective narration whose end is never really in doubt.  Elena, unsurprisingly, is not destroyed.  

It sometimes seems as if she wishes she had been, though.  The denial of logical cohesion, and the denial of historical narrative, often takes the form in Ferrante’s writing of a denunciation of art itself.  There is throughout her novels a furious disavowal of “literature” as just “stories,” an anger and disgust that regularly nearly collapses into despair.   Here is the last sentences of the last novel.  “A differenza che nei racconti, la vita vera, quando è passata, si sporge non sulla chiarezza ma sull’oscurità.  Ho pensato: ora che Lila si è fatta vedere così nitidamente, devo rassegnarmi a non vederla più” (451).  “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.  I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.”  Real life has no clear trajectory or boundaries, and the great weakness of stories is their urge toward making clear and sharp what is not.  “Devo rassegnarmi” means, among other things, I must resign myself to the impossibility of literary presentation, the impossibility of manifesting a life in such a way that is not clarifying and simplifying: a journey to personal development, the unfolding of a thesis, some other stupid cliché.  My novel, declares Ferrante, is at some level, as all literature is, a futile, misleading, failure.  I do not think she is kidding. 

But the obligation to resignation only happens in a non run-on sentence (“Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity”).  Grammatical perfection, so to speak, is the source of the despair.  The last lines offer the moral the run-ons deny.  There is no doubt about subject, verb, and object, and the result is a mini dissertation about the meaning of history in our time, a summing up of what Ferrante’s vision of an epic sweep through modern Italy amounts to: history no longer progresses, the idea of modernity as progress is foolish, the stories we have been telling ourselves are absurd, literature itself is absurd.  The vitality of Lila and Elena and everything they embody, plainly seen for a moment, will not be seen again.  You are closer to real life when you tend to obscurity, when, you are, quite literally, not in art or representation of any sort.  All of which means: the final sentences, neatly grammatical, do the opposite of what they say.  They clarify, and lose the life they say will be lost.  They lose it by saying it will be lost. 

Ferrante’s run-on sentences, on the other hand, do not manifest a thesis even as they constantly invoke one.  They do not tend toward simple obscurity either—obscurity too is a thesis, as the final sentences clarify.  Her run-on sentences do not offer a mini-narrative of historical progress, or a journey of personal development.  Theirs is no allegorical formulation to be decisively deciphered.  Instead, they offer a sense of going somewhere, of life being lived, happening and continuing to happen.  History has not stopped in run-on sentences, they do not offer congratulations on the knowing rejection of past simplicities, they keep going, you don’t know where.  Ferrante’s run-ons manifest life in on-going motion. 

The run-on sentence offers a glimpse of how, or why, Ferrante is what everyone says she is: a great novelist.  The compulsive attraction of these novels—I realize I am putting this too abstractly—lies in their ability to fashion a sense of a life with a future by rejecting, at a grammatical and formal level, two broad, contemporary dispositions at the same time: 1) old and current progressive historical narratives as silly stories (the Bildungsroman, feminist empowerment, the triumph of the proletariat, the management of liberal technocrats, the emancipatory digitization of life, and so on); but also 2) a pervasive, often theological resignation in contemporary life that “this is the way things are,” the bare life of a world catastrophe grounded in economic, ethnic, biological, environmental, racial, sexual, perhaps even national ontologies that we can do nothing about and that will never, ever change (Naples is often invoked as the allegorical representation of all these things).  These two dispositions can be linked together—Jacques Rancière connects them when he argues that the “ethical turn” in art, and the war on terror in politics, both depend upon a “certain theology of time, the idea of modernity as a time destined to carry out an internal necessity, once glorious, now disastrous” (201).  “The modernist rigour of an Adorno,” writes Rancière, “wanting to expurgate the emancipatory potential of art of any form of compromise with cultural commerce and aestheticized life, becomes the reduction of art to the ethical witnessing of unrepresentable catastrophe” (201).  Ferrante’s run-on sentences, it seems to me, are responses to these political and artistic stakes.  No other writer I can think of at the moment offers such a compelling grasp of, and maybe escape from, these two dominant trends, no other writer I can think of shows as effectively what misleading stories “progress” or “catastrophe” are (are they even different stories?).  Run-on sentences generate a future, but they do not do so with an “internal necessity” that then goes wrong.  "Storia" means both history and narration.  But it is not the word she uses in the second-to-last sentence, which is “racconti—“accounts” or “tellings.”  Ferrante’s run-on sentence avoids accounts by telling stories and histories that actually are going somewhere.  Storia is the word Ferrante returns to for as the title for all the sections of the Neapolitan novels.  The momentum is irresistible.

Kurt Wallander and the Case of the Text-Encoding Gremlins

August 3, 2016 - 14:34
Tags:  noir, Sweden, translation, digital humanities, globalization, world literature

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II 

I recently picked up the first of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels, Faceless Killers. I loved the Kenneth Branagh TV adaptations of these mysteries but had been saving up the pleasure of the novels themselves. I have the special talent of forgetting the resolution of pretty much any mystery I read, so I have no trouble enjoying the suspense a second time around. What I do not enjoy, however, is reading an excellent novel in a poor text.

Here is a sample passage, from Wallander’s first encounter with the prosecutor he falls for, Anette Brolin:

She shook off the question brusquely. “I don’t really know yet. Stockholmers no doubt have a hard time getting used to the leisurely pace of SkŒne.”

He could see that despite her youth she did have professional experience.

“We have to take a look at Lšvgren’s bank statements,” he said.

Henning Mankell, Faceless Killers, trans. Steven T. Murray (New York: New Press, 1991, rpt. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard/Vintage/Random House, 2003), 89.

I’ve given extra publication information to be clearer about just which text I’m discussing. Needless to say, the “leisurely,” somewhat provincial region in which the novel is set is not called “SkŒne” but Skåne; the victim of the crime, a salt-of-the-earth farmer (with a secret—of course), does not have the impossible name “Lšvgren” but “Lövgren.” These typographical aberrations take on a particular irony in a novel whose central theme is the unease with which Sweden welcomes migrants in the immediate post-Cold-War era. The farmer from Skåne is meant, I think, to seem at first like an ur-Scandinavian victim, and the major plot revolves around the possibility that “foreigners”—perhaps inhabitants of a nearby refugee camp—are responsible. Characters keep remarking on the threatening novelty of this outburst of extreme violence in the countryside.

Of course things turn out to be more complicated than that. Furthermore, Mankell carefully balances the moral ledger by introducing a secondary crime, the cold-blooded murder of a Somali refugee by racist nationalists. The typographical aberration reappears, all too appropriately, at the climax of this secondary investigation. I am about to quote from late in the novel, but it seems silly to say “spoiler alert.” Mankell does not do much to offer you suspects ahead of the fact. Since I am terrible at picking up clues I may have missed something, but I am also fairly sure he is uninterested in the game of giving you material to figure out the mystery before Wallander does. All the real interest comes from Wallander’s experience of the investigation. One’s own pleasure in following the experience is rather interrupted when one sees lines like this on the page:

According to the officer, the flat was occupied by a man named Valfrid Stršm. He wasn’t listed in any police files…

The door was opened by a woman wearing a dressing gown. Wallander recognised her. It was the same woman who had been asleep in the double bed. He hid his revolver behind his back.

“We’re with the police,” he said. “We’re looking for your husband, Valfrid Stršm.” (203)

For just a moment I wondered whether this was the twist: the sinister neo-Nazi was himself a “foreigner,” some kind of south Slav (Croatian? Slovak?) with a vocalic r in his name. But no: on the next page things are as we expect, and the villain is referred to as “Valfrid Ström” (231), another countryside name.

These are text encoding errors. After some detective work (see below for the R code), I am fairly certain that at some point in the preparation of this edition, a text prepared on a Macintosh was then edited or typeset on a Windows PC. In particular, the errors are all consistent with text encoded in “Mac-Roman” being reinterpreted as “Windows-1252.” The former was the default text encoding on Macs before the introduction of MacOS X, and a natural for anyone who works with European languages; I remember the fun of being able to produce lots of letters with diacritical marks on our family’s first Mac in the early 1990s. The latter was and in some cases remains the default text-encoding on Windows. Most computer users are familiar with these errors. Computers store all their data as numbers, which means the computer has to pick a scheme for mapping numbers to letters when it represents text. Glitches arise when the computer picks the wrong “encoding” scheme. If the original scheme represented <ö> using the number 154, but the new scheme uses 154 to represent <š>, then <Ström> will become <Stršm>. Glitches are more common with glyphs beyond the unaccented Latin alphabet: in the Anglocentric world of computation, most encoding schemes agree about encoding the unaccented alphabet, and variation begins where English ends. (This situation has greatly improved with the spread of Unicode, but the underlying problem is fundamental. The popularity of emoji is creating new versions of it.)

In the Vintage Faceless Killers, the errors have a curious distribution: they are not consistent throughout the book (that really would have ruined the whole text), but when they appear they are uniform across the whole page. This suggests to me that the errors arose at the typesetting stage: was the encoding glitch noticed and then fixed page-by-page, but with some pages accidentally skipped? But why wouldn’t a document-wide search and replace do the job? The translator couldn’t possibly let such things go by, and I can’t imagine any copyeditor missing these, regardless of their knowledge of Swedish. (I know about three words of Swedish, but it’s easy to guess which of “Skåne” and “SkŒne” is the correct form.)

Or was there a copyeditor at all? Not that one expects copyediting in a $15 Vintage trade paperback, of course, or for that matter in a reprint of a title first issued by the New Press, founded by André Schiffrin to save publishing from rampant commercialism.1 Sarcasms aside, the glitched text makes a notable contrast to the intention of authoritativeness conveyed by the format and price: this “Vintage Crime/Black Lizard” title is in the same size as the many modern-classic type books published under Vintage, with a parallel cover design to that of my Vintage edition of The Sound and the Fury. Some light on the situation is thrown by an interesting 2009 blog post in which Steven T. Murray, the credited translator, discusses his process (which turns out to be a collaboration between Murray and his wife Tiina Nunally):

We are proud that our translations at Fjord Press were remarkably error-free, compared to most books today, now that publishers are cutting back on copy editing, or eliminating that step altogether….

While each of the 3 Mankell novels I did was supposed to be due in 3 months, I recall that we cranked out one of them—I don’t recall which—in about 4 weeks because the “advance” was 2 months late! That’s the publishing business for you.

Murray, Nuts and Bolts of Translation (1).

It is not difficult to imagine errors like those in Faceless Killers appearing in a rapid and curtailed production process like that alluded to here. I underline once more that it is very difficult to believe the text-encoding errors would have escaped the notice of the translators, and easy to envision the text being corrupted after the novel was out of their hands. If I had to guess, I might even say that it hints that the final production of this novel might, like so much of the production chain of contemporary publishing, have been carried out in the global South, perhaps by workers who read neither English nor Swedish.

It is sometimes said about popular genre fictions like Faceless Killers that though they may be translated and circulated widely, they do not qualify for consideration as an authentic world literature. In the last chapter of his Ecology of World Literature, Alex Beecroft, drawing on Vittorio Coletti’s arguments, takes this position:

Successful international crime novels use their cities (whether New York or Stockholm) merely as noir-ish backdrops, rarely engaging with their immediate political or cultural contexts in the ways that national-era detective fiction, from Agatha Christie to Georges Simenon to Dashiell Hammet [sic], manage to do. The contemporary crime novel…is a commodity packaged for export, nearly mass-produced and indistinguishable from its counterparts produced in other nations.

Beecroft, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day (London: Verso, 2015), 282–83.

It strikes me that this highbrow dismissal of mass-produced fiction was also visited on Christie and Simenon, two of the most astonishingly prolific writers of the last century, in their own time. I also find it hard to moralize the distinction between commodities for domestic circulation and commodities packaged for export; surely every book in the global literary system is a commodity exchanged in some market or other, and there is nothing inherently superior about producing for a domestic market. Nor will it really work to deduce the political and cultural “engagement” of any text from its setting and themes; for a maximally prestigious counterexample, think of Beckett, with his contextless, pretranslated texts.

I am taking advantage of the text-encoding glitch to suggest that we can formulate a broader inquiry into globalized communications circuits that is not restricted to prestige texts a priori. (Such an inquiry would, I think, actually fit well with the broader arguments of Beecroft’s book, which shows how much can be gained from taking the comparative view of circulation as well as textual themes and forms.) In any case, one could hardly ask for a more particularized setting than the Skåne of Faceless Killers—my book includes a map of the peninsula, with all the places mentioned in the novel marked—or a more pressing political theme than its question of refugees and migrants. But the text-encoding errors in my Vintage paperback have something to say about the particular way one commercial channel for transnational genre fiction transmits such material. They testify to speedup and globalization, not at the point of authorship, but in the channels of book production. Like all glitches, they alert us to the functioning of a particular technological pipeline as well as the customs that govern its use. They indicate a familiar American indifference to other languages even in the exceptional context (for the Anglosphere) of a commercially successful translated book. But if “SkŒne” is a little obscŒne, that phenomenon is by no means limited to commercial genre fictions, any more than encoding problems created by shifting from Macs to Windows are.

Appendix: Forensic method

The substitutions noted above were <š> for <ö> and <Œ> for <å>. Elsewhere I also noticed <Š> for <ä> (“NŠslund,” 250). So we wish to find a pair of text encodings E1, E2 such that encoding <öåä> as E1 and then decoding the result as E2 yields <šŒŠ>. The stringi package makes a brute-force search of possibilities easy to implement in R.

knitr::opts_chunk$set(cache=T, autodep=T) library(stringi) library(dplyr) library(purrr)

First we need a function for the encode-decode. We start with the input, and we examine the output, in R’s native UTF-8 encoding.

mangle <- function (x, from, to) tryCatch({ bytes <- stri_encode(x, to=from, to_raw=T)[[1]] stri_encode(bytes, from=to) }, error=function (e) NA, warning=function (w) NA )

The tryCatch is necessary because stri_encode gives a warning if we try to convert a raw value that is not actually part of the target encoding; other glitches are also possible, all of which we’ll ignore.

Now given a pair of encodings, this is the test to see whether they are the culprit in Faceless Killers:

guilty <- function (x, y) mangle("öåä", x, y) == "šŒŠ"

A list of all available encodings known to stringi is found with

encs <- stri_enc_list(simplify=T)

The rest is brute force (a minute or two to try the million or so possibilities):

culprits <- expand.grid(from=encs, to=encs, stringsAsFactors=F) %>% filter(map2_lgl(from, to, guilty))

(map2_lgl vectorizes guilty over its two arguments.) Though this yields 120 pairs of encoding names, they all turn out to be synonyms or near-synonyms (i.e. largely overlapping encoding schemes) for "macroman" and "cp1252", the 1990s-era Mac and Windows default sets, respectively, which we can see by using stri_enc_info:

culprits %>% mutate(from=map(from, stri_enc_info), to=map(to, stri_enc_info)) %>% mutate(from=map_chr(from, "Name.friendly"), to=map_chr(to, "Name.friendly")) %>% distinct() %>% knitr::kable(format="html")from to macintosh windows-1252 x-mac-turkish windows-1252 macintosh windows-1254 x-mac-turkish windows-1254 macintosh ibm-1252_P100-2000 x-mac-turkish ibm-1252_P100-2000 macintosh ibm-1254_P100-1995 x-mac-turkish ibm-1254_P100-1995

Now that I’ve solved this mystery, I can finally get some rest.

Cross-posted on

  • 1. I haven’t consulted the New Press edition to check whether the texts are the same (I suspect they are). Strangely, the text follows British spelling conventions (e.g. “recognised” in the passage on 203), but I can’t guess why, since the translator is American and the first English-language edition appears to be the New Press (New York), judging by WorldCat listings, with the Harvill (London) edition following later.

Abigail Fisher Isn't an Asian American

July 14, 2016 - 09:12
Tags:  abigail fisher, affirmative action, bakke, diversity, edward blum, hopwood, model minority, samuel alito

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito begins his dissenting opinion to Fisher v. University of Texas by pronouncing that “Something strange has happened since our prior decision on this case.” He wonders how the University of Texas (UT) could emerge victorious from its contest with Abigail Fisher over the constitutionality of its race-conscious admissions policy without addressing “the important issues in the case” raised by the Court three years ago (Fisher II 28). Then and now, UT did not meet Justice Alito’s strict scrutiny when explaining why affirmative action is a compelling interest for the government—the only reason allowed under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause for the state to make decisions based on the race and ethnicity of an individual. This time around, however, Justice Alito has a new reason to be skeptical.

Justice Alito devotes significant attention to his point that UT invalidates its compelling interest claim by discriminating against Asian Americans. “How can a diverse student body contribute to the greater good,” he seems to ask, “when Asian American diversity doesn’t count?” This would be a fair question if not for copious evidence refuting the notion that affirmative action discriminates against Asian Americans (see the amici submitted on behalf of UT representing over one-hundred Asian American organizations, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice). In this blog I want to draw attention to another, rather obvious flaw in Justice Alito’s thinking. Abigail Fisher isn’t an Asian American.

Of course, Justice Alito never said that Abigail Fisher is an Asian American. But he also never said that she is white. The landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) references white racial identity ninety times. Similarly, the rulings from Hopwood v. Texas (1996) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) recognize white identity as well as the whiteness of their petitioners as salient information. Justice Alito mentions white people only ten times in his fifty-one page dissent, and not once does he use the word in reference to Fisher herself. Yet the words “Asian American” appear sixty-two times in his dissent. If not for the ubiquity of Abigail Fisher’s image in the media today, one might think that Justice Alito were examining the petition of a person like me—a Chinese American.

Taking his cue from anti-affirmative action groups such as The Asian American Legal Foundation and The 80-20 National Asian-American Educational Foundation, but also formulating his own unique rationale, Justice Alito wastes little time before censuring UT for failing to explain “why the underrepresentation of Asian-American students in many classes justifies its plan, which discriminates against those students” (Fisher II 26). UT discriminates against Asian Americans, he argues, despite their being more racially-isolated and lonely than “Hispanics.” He is offended even by UT’s use of the term Asian American because it collapses the “backgrounds . . . ideas and experiences” of people belonging to various Asian ethnic groups (Fisher II 50-51). In short, UT doesn’t care about Asian American people, Justice Alito implies.

This approach is strange. Why lay out the putative disadvantage of being Asian American when your petitioner is a white woman? Why not explain how UT discriminates against white people?

One reason is that opponents of affirmative action do not have to make that argument in order to win. Since Bakke, the compelling interest of affirmative action is not remediating the effects of institutional racism but cultivating a thing called diversity. Affirmative action is constitutional or unconstitutional depending on whether you can prove that diverse classrooms improve learning and therefore society—not whether you can prove that white people have a leg up on black, Latinx, or Native American people when it comes to getting a good education and making a good living. Thus the responsibility of being truly race conscious falls not on the state but on vulnerable students of color, who are expected to educate their white peers in order to justify their own place at the table. It is an unjust burden, and diversity may kill affirmative action still.

But another reason to go on about Asian Americans is to sidestep a sustained consideration of white people as a racial group. Justice Alito’s dissent deliberately avoids this conversation and, therefore, all of the reasoned debate it would engender. Whence the amici from pro-white organizations or the citation of research on white victimhood? When the social position of white people is not up for critique, the racial status quo is maintained. The most powerful white supremacy is that which improves social outcomes for white people without involving them as white people in the struggle. Justice Alito’s dissent now enters the record as an authoritative framing of the meaning of Asian American identity.

We should understand this representation of Asian Americans as indicative of how the system of racism evolves in order to maintain itself. Specifically, Asian Americans have become a proxy group for white Americans. According to Justice Alito,

The majority’s assertion that UT’s race-based policy does not discriminate against Asian-American students . . . defies the laws of mathematics. UT’s program is clearly designed to increase the number of African-American and Hispanic students by giving them an admissions boost vis-à-vis other applicants. . . . Given a “limited number of spaces,” . . . providing a boost to African-Americans and Hispanics inevitably harms students who do not receive the same boost by decreasing their odds of admission. (Fisher II 46-7)

Justice Alito stashes white racial identity behind terms such as “other applicants” and “students who do not receive the same boost.” Ironically, he later faults the majority on the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit for acting “almost as if Asian-American students do not exist,” their “willful blindness to Asian-American students” a “shameless” omission intended to maintain “the neat story the Fifth Circuit wanted to tell” (Fisher II 47-8). The “neat story” of white supremacy upheld by Justice Alito here is that white people do not have a race.

Justice Alito implies that the “limited number of spaces” at UT are fought over by students of color alone. But white students also vie for these spaces, and they capture more than their share of them. For the Class of 2008, which Abigail Fisher had applied to, white students claimed 790 of 1,208 seats (65%) through the holistic selection process that considers race (Supp. App. 157a). This share exceeds the share of white students (48%) yielded by the “race-neutral” Top Ten Percent Plan. Thus, white students are overrepresented in UT’s race-conscious yield—in every year from 2005 to 2008, post-Grutter—a fact that refutes the claim that “African-Americans and Hispanics” receive a racial “boost.” In fact, the numbers suggest that Justice Alito has it backward: there is something about white racial identity that inequitably generates the “plus factors” privileged by the holistic selection process.

Here it’s not necessary to review all of the social advantages correlated with whiteness that would light up a college application. My main point is not to make whiteness more visible; it is to show how whiteness has enlisted Asian American identity to make itself less visible. Most would agree that it is less controversial for a white jurist to defend Asian Americans against oppression than it is for him to champion the rights of white people. (Accordingly, in recent years, only the opinions of Justice Clarence Thomas have regularly and unequivocally stated that affirmative action discriminates against white people.) The oppressed Asian American college student is only this year’s version of the model minority stereotype that stands in for virtuous whiteness while standing apart from deficient blackness.

And yet I believe that the long-familiar stereotype of the Asian American as the “honorary white” is making room for something new and insidious. We are witnessing racism adapt to the present political landscape through the representation of white people as “honorary Asian Americans” when doing so suits white interests. As I have stated before, whiteness will appropriate what it finds lacking in itself. Here I’m not talking about Scarlett Johansson and the cultural appropriation of Asianness, which is an important, related issue, but the appropriation of a juridical identity. What Asian American students have that white students do not have is legal standing that does not expose whiteness to scrutiny in affirmative action challenges.

This is the thinking of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which, in 2014, brought suit against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Founded by Edward Blum, who orchestrated Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit and others targeting Civil Rights gains, SFFA appears to be seeking an Asian American face for its lawsuits. Having waited for guidance from the Fisher ruling, SFFA and Harvard are now set to proceed with this new challenge to affirmative action. These lawsuits may yet find themselves before the Supreme Court because the “sui generis” nature of UT’s admissions process—a Frankenstein’s monster of race-conscious and race-neutral policies—may not offer guidance for a review of Harvard’s and UNC’s more straightforward affirmative action policies. Still, Justice Alito’s dissent—especially his newfound interest in Asian Americans—now seems to be more strategic than “passionate, scattershot, and often barely coherent.” Time will tell.

In 1987, I started my first year as an undergraduate at UT. This was before the advent of the Top Ten Percent Plan, so I don’t know how much my being Chinese American mattered to UT. But I do know that in those days I didn’t want my race to matter to anyone. It was much easier and comfortable to think about myself in a race-neutral way—as an individual. This was my mindset as I was walking through the West Mall one afternoon, when someone pushed a piece of paper into my chest. It was a flyer inviting me to an Asian American student organization meeting. I can still recall the twinge of resentment I felt toward the Asian person with the flyers. She had judged me by my race alone. I saw Asian American identity then in the same way that Justice Alito does now, as a burden to individuality. If you’re lucky, like me, you stop thinking this way, eventually learning that you don't become an Asian American all by yourself. You don't become any race all by yourself. I hope the next Abigail Fisher knows that.

Love, MacGuffins, and death

July 5, 2016 - 10:10
Tags:  Hitchcock, MacGuffins, film noir, Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flicker ( I, II )

I was just thinking about the interesting and counterintuitive use of MacGuffins in film noir.

A little background.  Hitchcock—and most suspense writers—use MacGuffins to retard the love story.  A MacGuffin pulls a narrative down a track criss-crossing the love story that will make the movie end happily.  We want the happy ending, but not too soon—we want (as George Ainslie says in his great essay on "Money as MacGuffin") to build up an appetite for it not ruined by being satisfied too soon.  That's why we go to the movies instead of just day-dreaming all the time: we can have anything we want in our day-dreaming restaurant, and so we never end up really wanting anything.  But movies—even romantic comedies—delay the happy ending and make it all the more rewarding by doing so.  Still, as Ainslie says, it's not just a question of waiting for the happy ending: it's seeing it blocked, and often more and more blocked as the tell-tale compression of minutes that remain (to allude to Northanger Abbey) seems to make the happy ending less and less likely, more and more a mere daydream.  That's how climaxes work: there's no way out! Ginger Rogers has actually married Bedini.  Almost as bad as when Ingrid Bergman actually marries Alex Sebastian. (I am using stars' names and character names advisedly: part of the point is the star we want to see in a happy ending in this movie marries: some other character, and not the other star.)

So because we don't control the fiction, we worry that we won't get the reward the desire (or "literary need," as I've been calling it in earlier posts) for which has been building and building.  Okay—that's one way of describing the most basic plot: want something and wait for it.  But what's great about Hitchcock, and Hitchcockian plots in general, is the way he counterpoints that desire with another one: the desire to know the significance of the MacGuffin.

It's not that the MacGuffin is just an objective the hunt for which brings the lovers together.  That's a pretty standard plot too, and it makes sense and it works.  But in Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is always a puzzle.  "What are the 39 Steps?"  Why does the Lady Vanish—what could her significance possibly be?  What is it that James Mason is trying to sneak out of the country? What's in the wine bottles that makes them so significant? Of course we sometimes know what the objective (really) is in Hitchcock, but his movies seem deepest when we don't.

So this makes possible the interplay of two stories: one about love, the other about knowledge. (Vertigo telescopes them together in interesting ways.) The love story can end at any time if the lovers just walk away, which is just what the male characters keep urging: Carey Grant to Ingrid Bergman, and to Eva-Marie Saint, Robert Donat to Madeline Carroll.  (Occasionally, and interestingly, it will go the other way, especially if the male star is Jimmy Stewart, doggedly ignoring the good advice of Kim Novak or Grace Kelly: but then she gets into it.)  So we could get the reward of the love story with a happy ending if we gave up on the knowledge.

But we also want to know, so that we find ourselves torn between two conflicting preferences.  Go away or search the wine cellar?  Figure out what James Mason is up to, or check in to a lodge at Mt. Rushmore?  And the audience always chooses knowledge, deferring and risking the love story in order to try to have it all.  It's important that the knowledge is never worth it—it's a gap more interesting than its solution. (How couldn't it be? Narratives about the search are always more interesting in their middles than in their endings.  Mistah Kurtz, he boring (even when played by Marlon Brando); Alaska, she dead (spoiler, sorry!).

So the end of a Hitchcock movie gives you a quick—a very quick—revelation of what the MacGuffin really was. Our thirst for knowledge is slaked, and because that slaking can't be of the order of the desire it satisfies, the solution would be (often is) a disappointment if there weren't something else converging with that conclusion: the consummation of the love story. So the MacGuffin is the mechanical white rabbit (or undetached rabbit's foot, as in the Quinean Mission Impossible III) that leads us down its own track or rabbit hole to the deferred and longed-for conclusion.

So back to noir, and the femme fatale.  The genius of movies (and sometimes novels) like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past is that the MacGuffin's formal status as MacGuffin is part of the plot, that is part of what the noir (anti)hero is doing.  Spade or Jeff Bailey are not, or not fundamentally, in love with the femmes fatales (disclaimer: yeah sorry, the movies are sexist, it's the formal structure I'm interested in).  They both know, and know from the start of the main action, not to trust the women they are teamed up with.  And they're barely interested in the MacGuffins, the "dingus" as Spade calls it, at all.  Rather they want to understand the crimes that have organized themselves around the MacGuffins.  It's still a question of knowledge.  Spade knows who done it from the start (as we find out at the end), but not why.  So the forties noirs use what might be called fake MacGuffins, objects the detectives are not really interested in, even in the fictional world, and fake love stories, stories for which the detectives have no ambition or dersire for a happy ending, in order to find out the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins, the truth.

That means, of course, that noirs are about truth rather than erotic satisfaction.  But the truth is about human character, not the value or history of the dingus (even if it's worth as much as Dr. Evil's "ONE MILLION DOLLARS!").  The noir detective uses the MacGuffin to find out the truth about human motivation.  That truth is not erotic, and so the MacGuffin in noir doesn't lead us circuitously to erotic satisfaction: the detective uses the MacGuffin as a decoy that seems to map out that circuitous route, in order instead to undermine the erotic interest in favor of the truth.  In Hitchcock the search for truth is a well-paced route to love.  In noir the detective controls the pacing of the falsified love story through the MacGuffin in order to find the route to the truth.

Contemporary Iraqi Architects

June 20, 2016 - 00:18
Tags:  Contemporary architecture, Iraqi architects, Baghdad, Hassan Fathy, Rifat Chadirji, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gio Ponti, Walter Gropius, Mohamed Makiya, Bauhaus, Saddam Hussein

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flicker ( I )

An Iraqi Architect on Hold? Get in Line! Salt-and-pepper haired in a black turtleneck with a refined taste in the arts, literature, wine, and minimalist Japanese cuisine; architects are perennial emblems of human perfection. And when they die, their souls only leave their bodies to inhabit the buildings they’d designed, looking down at their visitors and admirers in a godly manner.

It was quite difficult for the child that I was in 1970s Baghdad not to fall under the spell of the sophisticated clan. Obsessed with drawing and creating designs with my LEGO sets, along with an insatiable hunger for reading and listening to music—I never managed to cultivate a taste for Japanese food, though, and still prefer more elaborate Mediterranean dishes; I thought I had what it took to be part of the coterie. My time at the university was a bliss—well, except for the looming fear of getting conscripted and dying on the battlefield during successive wars. I enjoyed working on my design projects and loved being lectured on the history and theory of art and architecture. Impressed with the work of prominent Arab architects like Egyptian Hassan Fathy, best known for his Architecture for the Poor and the villages he designed using traditional techniques and building materials, and Iraqi Rifat Chadirji, whose designs eloquently merged modernity and local traditions; I was convinced that architects were capable of creating social and political, as well as aesthetic change in their own communities and the world at large.

Chadirji, however, is not only an architect; he’s also an author, theorist and a key player in the 1950s Baghdad’s throbbing cultural scene. It’s probably hard to imagine now, but the city was the hub of modern Arab arts and literary movements during that era. Young Iraqi alumni of prestigious European and American universities had returned to their country of origin, pulsing with potential and new ideas they aspired to marry to their rich heritage. Oil, on the other hand, had brought an economic boom to Iraq, and Baghdad—once regarded as the intellectual center of the ancient world—seemed to be witnessing a second renaissance. Alongside its centuries-old landmarks, traditional houses with their wooden latticework and stained glass balconies, and colonial-style villas from bygone British mandate period; the city hosted the modern work of Iraqi architects like Mohamed Makiya, Kahtan Awni, as well as some of the world’s most renowned architects such as French Le Corbusier, German Walter Gropius, Italian Gio Ponti—Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a grand cultural center, including an opera house on an island on the outskirts of Baghdad, but the project got cancelled due to political unrest after the coup which had put an end to the rule of the monarchy in 1958.

I used to walk and drive by those monuments, marveling at the mosaic of their different schools of design, and longing for the day I too would be able to contribute to the architectural scene in the city of my birth. Little did I know that Iraq was on the verge of falling into a downward spiral of instability and turmoil. As a result of Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 and the global war and sanctions that followed; the Iraqi dinar, which was equal to more than three US dollars became worth less than a tenth of a cent. Ten years after my graduation, the open-minded intellectuals of the 1950s, 60s and 70s had either vanished into worldwide diaspora, or were crushed under the heavy weight of corruption and poverty inside. Building new houses became an expensive luxury only the president’s tribe and accomplices could afford. The nouveaux riches made massive fortunes through exploiting the UN’s multibillion Oil-for-Food program—originally planned to provide humanitarian relief to millions of starving Iraqis. Saddam used the pouring money to build himself dozens of lavish palaces around the country, whose scales, designs and finishing all reflected his dictatorial ostentatious taste. His entourage followed suit and the neighborhoods of the capital were swamped by mansions that screamed vulgarity and tainted money.

Inspired by the Bauhaus, my friend and I decided to pursue our passion for the other forms of art instead. We launched a small gallery, where we exhibited our work along with other young artists, whose designs, we thought, possessed sufficient aesthetic merit. The project wasn’t a huge success, but it managed to earn itself a decent reputation and kept us going until the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The security situation deteriorated rapidly we had no other choice but to shut down and leave. I arrived in New Zealand in 2008, and have been dedicating my time to writing since.

Over the past few years, I have met and become friends with a number of architects inside and outside of New Zealand. Strangely enough, despite our different backgrounds, we all seem to harbor similar feelings of disorientation. Even those of us who are still practicing and making designs for office, residential buildings or shopping centers are not quite content with their work although it pays off financially. They often complain of being pressured to succumb to strict form and function standards dictated by global investors, which only leave little margin for creativity. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the growing demand for designs that are eccentric and shocking, especially from thriving economies and capital-abundant countries like the Arab Gulf states and China. Between catering to the fetishes of the super-rich, and meeting very basic physical needs; architecture, as a means of improving the lives of the commoners; one which is neither too arrogant to listen and understand people’s feelings, nor is too submissive to suggest change; with some exceptions, such architecture—in the eyes of many architects of my generation—is suffering a rift between theory and practice. We do need to keep in mind, though, that transitions had occurred before and not infrequently throughout the profession’s extended history—to give but one example, the Industrial Revolution and its impact on design and building techniques.

Hopefully, architecture will be able to pull itself together again and overcome the current confusion. It would be an understatement, though, to say that the discipline is confined to construction because architecture is much bigger. Through painting, and now writing; I’ve been able to engage in architectural thinking, apply and experiment with the principles and elements of design, and, I dare say, touch other people’s lives much more than I could have in my few built projects in Baghdad. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks this way. An increasing number of colleagues are taking the detour, turning into writers, fashion designers, film directors, music composers, etc. and are making vital contributions to contemporary arts. So the next time you read an inspiring book, listen to an enchanting melody on the radio or even pass by a well-structured piece of clothing in some boutique window, do not be surprised if it turns out to be the work of another “architect on hold!"

This article first appeared in e-architect (UK) 

Four Days in Byzantium: A Pilgrimage to Mount Athos

June 6, 2016 - 21:43
Tags:  Monastic life, Mount Athos, Byzantium, Orthodoxy, Secularism, nature, religion, pilgrimages

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flicker ( I )

When we travel we often yearn for the end of the road, the border between modern life and a time untouched by progress. My son Adrian and I had the opportunity to return to the past when we arrived in May at Mount Athos, a semi-autonomous, monastic peninsula in northern Greece.

Monks began to set up monasteries there in medieval times, having established the first, the Great Lavra, in 963. Today there are 20 monasteries.

I always wanted to come to Athos for its undeveloped beauty, its Byzantine art and architecture, and the overall monastic experience. After obtaining a permit, I contacted three monasteries to stay overnight. Mount Athos is open only to men, who are entitled to stay three nights.

On the ferry from Ouranoupolis (the city of heaven) I could see that most of the passengers were Greek, though 40% were Russian. (Rasputin was a famous Russian pilgrim and President Putin was scheduled to come on May 28 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Russian monastery of Panteleimon.)

During our four days on Athos we met men from Syria, Lebanon, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Serbia, Germany, and Poland. Some were frequent visitors. Reinhardt, a German in his late sixties, was baptized on Mount Athos as Gregory and has been coming twice a year for 30 years. Imad from Lebanon brought a group of men each May and October.

There are monasteries along the coast and within the interior. In the past people walked from one to another, though there are now roads where you can see buses and taxis driven by monks with long beards and black vestments.

The bus having left us on the cross of the road, we trekked down a forested path to the Monastery of Stavronikita, dating from the10th century. Past the trees we made out a whimsical structure with a tower, domes, and high walls, vegetable gardens, pools with water lilies, lemon groves, and olive orchards, all next to the sea. We lingered under a trellis of wisteria, wondering if this was all real.

Later in the reception room we introduced ourselves to a young monk who showed us to our room overlooking the central courtyard. From my bed, I could see the domes of the chapel, the slate roof of other structures—all sorts of curvilinear patterns.

Evening service was at six followed by dinner at 7:30 served in the refectory, which, because Stavronikita has no electricity, was lit only by candles. As we processed into the hall, we saw two long rows of tables with benches on each side. On the tables the monks had arranged for each guest a pewter bowl with potato stew, a plate of a salad, sliced bread, a boiled egg and an apple.

Almost everything eaten in Athos is grown on the grounds or foraged in the surrounding hills. Monks don’t consume meat and on fasting days (Wednesdays and Fridays, Lent, and before some other feast days) they follow a vegan diet and have only one meal.

As soon as we began our meal, a monk began to read a sermon. Adrian and I looked at each other nervously. No talking was permitted. After twenty minutes the monks rose, collectively pushed the bench below the table and marched out and we were instructed to follow suit.

After dinner we explored the grounds and returned to the reception room where another monk served coffee. I had so many questions. When did he come here? “I was born in Stavronikita,” he answered. I was struck by this. To say you are born in Stavronikita means you renounce your previous life, your family, and education. He did not want to talk about his previous life. Did he ever leave Athos? “No,” was his response. “Why would I ever leave?” And I, as a father of two sons, felt the tightening of my stomach at the thought of losing them to monasticism. I could not get myself to ask him why he chose the monastic life but promised to see him at the matins service, which started at 3:00 am and lasted four hours.

Although I heard the bells ringing, my jet-lag and lack of sleep for days kept me from my promise. As no breakfast was served, we made our way along the sea-path to Iviron, the biggest monastery we visited.

Built by Georgian monks in 980, it seemed like something out of Shangri-la, a castle-like structure with living quarters perched high on walls, painted in red, white, and ochre, and laced with balconies. Unlike Stavronikita, which could only accommodate about 20 pilgrims, this one could take close to 100. 

I wanted to go to the service in the morning. So hearing the bells, I got dressed and strode through the dark courtyard illuminated by the full moon. I made out the shadows of black vestments moving toward the church. To my right I picked up the sweetness of the jasmine bush.

As much as I tried, however, I could not stand for the whole service. The hiking from the previous day made my thighs and lower back ache. I had to take a break so I stepped out to stroll a bit in the courtyard. With the big, metal gates shut, I walked rounds of the church, hearing the chanting, and trying to locate the various trees by their scents. I returned and stayed to the end after which we had breakfast: slices of bread, sage tea, and olives.

By ten we took a bus to our original port of entry and then hiked to Simonos Petra (thirteenth century). I had eagerly anticipated our visit here. For three days pilgrims expressed surprise that we had gotten rooms there for it had the reputation of being a most difficult place to get into. And I could see why. Simonos Petra is pure sublimity, a synthesis of nature, human architecture, light and sea, a place where thought turns to air. 

You have to imagine a ravine between two mountains and a huge rock in front, out of which rises Simonos Petra, like earth’s present to the heavens. And when you sit in the terrace of the guest house, you look at the cliff before you, covered with trees and wild flowers, and hear the water fall. In front is the monastery and beyond the sea. Standing next to me on the balcony, a Polish archaeology student told me, “you have to ask who could have created such an ethereal place if not God.”

I wanted to talk with the monks but I realized that on the whole they only exchanged greetings with us. For various reasons, they kept to their tasks and study. It is their right. We were the ones who descended on their life. They provided hospitality, washed our dishes, cleaned the toilets, and asked nothing in return. They have also collectively guarded some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world. And they have preserved for posterity a whole peninsula from the ravages of development. Thanks to them Trip Advisor will never create a list of the top Athos monasteries to visit. And none of the refectories will be turned into luxury boutique hotels. Mount Athos has essentially been a protected park for over 1000 years, a Yosemite ahead of its time.

This is a major reason men visit the place. Over and over again they told me they longed for peace and serenity—to be delivered from cares and anxieties of life. Indeed, when in Stavronikita I asked a monk what he thought pilgrims would gain on Athos, his answer was quick: tranquility. And I who toiled though worries, fears, preoccupations, longed for heavenly calm.

But in the course of my four days I came to discover how unreachable this goal was. My feeling of transcendence was tempered by one of claustrophobia. I feared that the boat to Ouranopolis would leave me stranded in paradise, away from my family, my work, and my communication with the world.

The monks have achieved serenity by submission to a prescribed rhythm. For a millennium they have prayed and followed the same rituals, displaying the conviction of people who had spoken with the Absolute. Their granite certainty contrasted with the shakiness of my faith, which in comparison seemed like a jigsaw puzzle of doubt.

This was made apparent again in our final supper. The walls and ceiling of the refectory at Simonos Petra were covered in Byzantine frescoes, resplendent in the afternoon light. As I sat, enjoying what was the best meal on Athos, I prayed for the sermon to last an hour so that I could savor the wild bitterness of the greens the monks had foraged, the olive oil they had pressed, the garlic and lemon sauce on the potatoes. I wished to behold the divine and mystical images, to chat with my neighbors about what they were feeling. But this was not possible. In 20 minutes the sermon ended and we were instructed to march out.

I wanted aesthetic pleasure for its own sake, yearning for joy here and now, fraternity with my fellow pilgrims. But for the monks what was important was the preparation for the next life.

I was determined, however, to make it through the entire service the next morning. I got up, climbed up the steps to the church and leaned against the wall of the vestibule. A monk, much older than me, stood the entire time. I tried tensing and relaxing my thighs and calves, curling my toes into my shoes, leaning to the side of each foot. And I let myself to be transported by the chanting, the most airy and uplifting I have ever heard. Behind me the light began to enter from the window, illuminating the church.

At the end of the service, after the monks left with their stern but beatific expressions, I stepped out to the terrace, hundreds of feet from the sea. At the distance the sun shimmered, calming the waves of the Aegean. The morning was all aglow. Was I beholding a revelation?

Shakara Baby-chicks and Locomotive Tales: Fiston Mwanza Mujila's Tram 83

May 23, 2016 - 10:10
Tags:  jazz, literature, new African writing

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flicker ( I )

* If bliss had a name, it would be called Tram 83

Fiston Mwanza Mujila was announced winner of the 2015 Etisalat Literature Prize at a grand ceremony in Lagos on March 19, 2016. As Chair of the Jury panel, which also included writers Molara Wood and Zukiswa Wanner, I was proud to make the announcement at the ceremony and to bask vicariously in the glow that surrounded him. The Jury recognized the book for its great humour, its experimental narrative style, its adroit characterization, and for the subtlety of its reflections on the state of African politics today. What I propose to do now is to set this startling first novel in the context of African and world literature.

The novel revolves around the fraught relationship between Requiem, an all-round hustler with a predilection for the oracular, and Lucien, a down-and-out historian and writer struggling to find his métier. Lucien is dependent on the largesse and support of his erstwhile friend and now reluctant benefactor. The story of the two friends is interwoven between two settings, one more prominently situated in the foreground and repeatedly returned to as the privileged confluence for all the major characters—the Tram 83 of the title—and the other the political and social setting of the City-State. The City-State is a misshapen republic that has broken away from the the equally allegorically named Back-Country. Both are barely concealed references to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the City-State being the province of Katanga famous for its rich deposits of minerals including diamonds and cobalt, and the Back-Country being the rest of the DRC. The designation of the City-State is highly suggestive, as it points to the fact that it is neither a fully-fledged city nor is it an operational nation-state. Rather, its in-between status allows Mujila to paint an unsettling picture of brutal political self-interest placed at the mercy of a marauding capitalism. Capitalism in the novel is firmly tied to resource extraction and is depicted in the novel by the many international tourists that mill about the place and always end up at the Tram. The name tourist is itself an ironical play on a commonly used designation of leisure and discovery, for the many transnational tourists of Tram 83 are no sightseers but rather intent on expropriating heterogenite, the word coined in the novel as a stand-in for the numerous minerals that the province has been known for in the course of its turbulent history. As we are told: “The region was so rich in deposits that a legend had grown up – and it happens to be true – recounting how the inhabitants of the City-State dug up their gardens, their houses, their living room, their bathrooms, their bedrooms, and even the cemetery.  Yes, in the cemetery funerals would sometimes turn festive following chance discovery of a high-grade stone” (116). 1885 is frequently referred to in the novel as the year in which the tourists began to arrive in this veritable El Dorado, but those familiar with the history of the region will recognize it as a signal of the start of Belgium’s colonial rapine of the Congo following the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, when thirteen European countries and the United States met to settle the rules for Africa’s colonization. The precarious political status of the City-State in relation to the Back-Country also means that as their self-appointed messiah, the City-State’s Dissident General is emboldened to pass numerous edicts aiming to fortify its political independence and, more pointedly, to generate wealth for lining up his own pockets. The citizens of the City-State, the tourists, and everyone else are in permanent thrall to his every whim and caprice.

The foreground and background settings of the Tram and the City-State provide two different yet interlinked dimensions for interpreting the novel. The fact that the City-State spells political oppression, obscene consumption, the free-reign of greedy transnational capitalist interests, and decrepit social conditions for the many encourages that we read the novel at least in part as a political allegory reminiscent of some of the work of Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua Achebe,  Wole Soyinka, Sony Labou Tansi, and Ngugi wa Thiongo, among the many other African writers that have turned to the subject of politics in Africa. As setting the Tram on the other hand is a cross between a nightclub, a circus, and a theater of dreams. As we are pointedly told on the very first page, “indeed, an air of connivance hung ever about the place”. This air of connivance turns out not to be an idle metaphor, for whenever we are ushered into Tram 83 we eavesdrop on various deals-in-the-making, some with potentially sinister consequences, as we later come to find out. The various deals include the Belgian tourist Malingeau’s proposition to Lucien for him to scale down the number of characters in his working play so he can get him published, Requiem’s incessant interventions to either prevent the book deal from happening, or if it does, for him to exclusively profit from it, or, as we see repeatedly throughout the novel, the baby-chicks’, single mamas’ and busgirls’ attempts at attracting the club’s male clients. As we shall see in a moment, the female sex workers’ repeated attempts at getting the attention of clients in Tram 83 and the “psalms” that they reel out as part of their seductive repertoires provide re-iterated refrains that establish an unusual rhythmic quality to the narrative.

There are many ways in which Tram 83 is likely to be read, but I want to surmise that all of them will have to involve some reference to music. Jazz and other kinds of music infuse the nightclub without fail. Each time we are ushered into it we have the benefit of a band playing and are given elaborate descriptions of the provenance of the bandsmen (they come from various parts of the world, including South America), the sources of their music (a medley of jazz, salsa, Zairean-infused rumba, and several other music types), their playing styles (good, bad, and plain mournful), and even of the clothes they wear. We are also regularly shown the club audience’s responses to the various bands, ranging from indifference through excited approbation to menacing hostility.  But the musicality that we see at the level of content is also superbly augmented by rhythms at the level of narration and it is here that the experimental innovativeness of Mujila’s narrative style is likely to be recognized. The rhythmic character of the narration is systematically structured around a series of repeated sentences, phrases, and sequences in a sometimes harmonious but often dissonant distributional matrix.  These provide the novel not only with the air of an improvisational jazz symphony, but, perhaps even more importantly, lend it a dramatic character, as if it was written to be visualized rather than just read, or for stage and screen, rather than just for the inert pages of the book we hold in our hands. There is something even danceable about it.

By far the most reiterated sentences in the novel are “Do you have the time”, and different variants of “Foreplay is like democracy. . .” The innocuous request for the time turns out to be the first gambit in a sex worker’s arsenal of approaches to a potential client. We first hear it uttered by a baby-chick keen on hooking up with Requiem at the train station where he is waiting for Lucien’s arrival at the start of the novel. Significantly “Do you have the time”, “Foreplay is like democracy. . .” and various other sentences and sentence fragments are subsequently repeated not only from the mouths of identifiable sex workers at the nightclub and elsewhere, but also in the form of disembodied interruptions that float in and out of the narrative at random as if unmoored and out of nowhere. At a question-and-answer session after a reading in Lagos a couple of days before the awards ceremony Mujila explained that what he sought to achieve with these floating sentences was the sense that can be found in all big cities, where conversations between people are constantly interrupted by random noises, sounds, and speech fragments from the wider urban surroundings. The challenge, he pointed out, was how to pay attention to these. Thus we see that when the questions and fragmentary statements float into the narrative of Tram 83 they do not constitute ordinary interruptions. Rather, the reiterated sentences from the sex workers become not the mere projections from a background onto the scenes of address (be this a dialogue between two characters or a segment of contextualization or description lying strictly between the third-person narrator and the reader), but rather serve to redefine the very grounds upon which the scenes of address gain shape in the primary instance. They are shakara girls, in the terms that Fela Ransome-Kuti made famous in his song “Shakara Olu Oje”, which itself became an ubiquitous urban anthem in many parts of Africa in the 1970s and 80s. While the reiterated questions, statements, and fragments enact the performative incremental repetitions most commonly found in poetry, they must ultimately be understood as establishing a dialectical relationship between the concerns for female survival that they express and the cynical masculine discourses, profit and competition that occupy the diegetic foreground at all times. Thus the reiterated statements are not to be parenthesized as we read but must be accounted for as a form of the strategic obliteration of background, for the women in the novel are to be taken as seriously as the men, even if on first viewing they seem to deliver nothing but the guarantee of hedonistic largesse and munificence.

There are two other reiterated elements that also contribute to the rhythmic sense of the narration. One is to be found in the subtle relationship established in the novel between ensembles and solos, or in another register, a chorus function and that of individual performativity. This particular feature is itself amenable to a musical interpretation, such as in examples of scene-setting at the beginning of a chapter 14:

Tram 83, interior.

In the background, a saxophonist performing a solo.

Center-forward, the young ladies of Avingon in their vestal robes eyeing up all the masculine clients.

Left-back, the Chinese tourists.

Front door, the busgirl with fat lips and her colonial-infantry patter (85).

Or, in a more pointedly operatic mode, the reaction (predominantly skeptical) to Malingeau’ first introduction of Lucien to the regulars of the Tram as a historian:

“Dear friends, you’re not going to believe me: this man you see is a historian!”

General hilarity.

The whole Tram as one:

“Didn’t you give a shit, or what!”

Then as a scattered choir:

“And you earn a living doing history?”

“Look what can happen by dint of imitating the tourists!”

“You study girls too, or just history?”

“You’re an embarrassment to us, with your wallowing in art history!”

“I’ll throw myself onto the tracks if dad insists I study history and stuff,” exclaimed a kid, barely ten years old, who was with his father.

. . .

“You can’t do anything about a passion. But I’m not just a historian.  I’m also a writer.”

A guy at a neighbouring table butted in:

“Writer or historian, same difference.”

“I’m in writing,” he insisted.

“Writing. Writing. Writing.

His interlocutor pronounced this word in a guttural voice.  He remained circumspect, as if victim of an apparition.  Lucien remained on his guard, for fear of being made a fool of a second time.

“I’m a write but. . .” (42; 43).

And, about twenty pages later, a reprise, but this time as Lucien attempts a public reading of his manuscript, suggestively titled, by the way—The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years:

He extracted his texts from a portfolio. He took a serious stance. He opened the ball after having requested a minute’s silence in memory of the victims [of a recent mine cave-in]. He was trembling like a dead leaf. He emphasized the words, raised his voice. He hadn’t counted on the audience trying to trip him up.  One minute too many, one sentence out of place, and he’d find out what they were made of. Which wasn’t long in happening, as the imprecations began to rend the heavens.

The whole Tram, as one:

“Get off, Lucien!”

Then as a scattered choir:

“Don’t you preach at us!”

“You’re hot, I want you!”


“Show-off!” (61)

One can almost hear the dissonant acapella captured in these scenes. The entire novel can be read along the lines of an opera or a ballet, for almost all the conversations that take place are set against the distribution of characters within the scenes in a variety of clusters that establish different relations of proximity and distance to the events that unfold. Mujila’s consistent infusion of music into his narrative calls to mind most strongly Wole Soyinka’s own deployment of drumming throughout the action of Death and the King’s Horseman. Soyinka’s play has a highly elaborate sonic and poetic dimension that is easy to miss when reading it merely as a play text.  But whereas Soyinka’s sonic infusions provide a means of modulating the action of his play, in the case of Tram 83 the musical dimension is a means of suggesting an orchestration, as if Mujila is the conductor of the improvisational jazz symphony I mentioned earlier. This dimension of orchestration (and not just the presence of music at the level of content) seems to me to be distinctive in African if not world literature.

The third and final reiterated feature of the novel I would like to highlight is the device of lengthy itemization that punctuates the narrative at irregular intervals. The list of the variety of people that come to the Tram early on in the novel provides a good instance, but is by no means the only one. To gauge its effect, we are obliged to quote the passage in full:

Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot-shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual laborers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organized fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilization and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers’ widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels and dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and porters and bric-a-brac traders and mining prospectors short of liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and colonial infantrymen and baruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bankers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard’s crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen proclaiming themselves “masters of the world” and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small-scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants and all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap (7-8).

To catch the effectiveness of this list one must read it out loud without pausing even to laugh at its patent absurdism. At the Lagos reading already referred to Mujila did a duet on the passage at the end of chapter 28 in which the word “mourning” is repeated ninety times without a break. Lucien has been trying to “fashion a language to say love with the five words he had left (history, tonsillitis, truce, shame, and weld)”, while the Train Diva “unreeled a song, long and mournful. . . ” While the translator read the lines out in a measured monotone, Mujila joined him but inflected his with variations of nervous giggles, tearful falsettos, with a regular return to his own version of a monotone. The suggestion was that the Train Diva’s singing was a way of battling the threat of nervous breakdown. This gives us a clue as to how to read the various lists we find in the novel, all of which without fail are the haphazard assemblages of variant entities (inadvertent musicians, lovers of romance novels Siamese twins, and pizza delivery guys). The haphazard assemblages encapsulated in the lengthy lists are also the sign of a quest for community coupled to its automatic negation, a quest firmly tied to its very conditions of impossibility. The reason for this intractable coupling is fairly straightforward, namely, that in the Hobbesian universe of the City-State everything is exclusively reduced to the two primary impulses of sex and money, money and sex, or sex-as-money-as-money-as-sex. 

Even though everything in the City-State points to political corruption, the decrepitude of the social environment (blackouts are a commonplace in the novel) and the social hierarchies generated by relentless pursuit of the famed heterogenite, the characters in Tram 83 are far from sad or miserable. They are most definitely not defeated. This provides a stark contrast to any other African work that depicts a similar set of dastardly conditions. Take for example Alain Mabanckou’s extraordinarily hilarious Broken Glass, which we might note to be one of the direct inspirations for Tram 83. Mabanckou pens the Preface to Mujila’s novel and has high praise for it. Broken Glass turns on the eponymous hero’s valiant attempt to write down the history of Credit Gone West, the drinking bar of which he is the constant and invariant occupant. The conceit of Broken Glass is to be understood as that of the omnibus narrative, the most famous example of which is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For Chaucer’s Tales it is the lengthy pilgrimage embarked upon by the pilgrims that set out together from the Tabard inn that allows him to put on display a colorful array of characters and their stories that encapsulate the social milieu of fourteenth century England. Mabanckou’s novel does achieves a similar objective, with the various characters that come to drink in Credit Gone West keen to have their personal narratives written down by Broken Glass representing different levels of Congolese society. They also tell their stories against the background of a chaotic political order in Congo (Brazzaville) references to which are amply provided in the first chapter of the novel. And yet even though Mabanckou’s novel is also hilarious it could not be more different than Tram 83. In Broken Glass the characters that plead to have their stories written down—such as the Pampers Guy and the Printer—are all marked by defeat, and even Broken Glass himself is later shown to have been afflicted by delusions of grandeur that wrecked his marriage and lost him his job as a math teacher. What is more, Mabanckou’s novel is scatological in the tradition that we find exemplified by Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, Yambo Ouloguem’s Bound to Violence, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, and Calixthe Beyala’s The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me, among others. Like these other works of African literature Mabanckou’s novel there littered with references to blood, shit and puking everywhere. In one memorable scene a lengthy pissing competition is staged between the irrepressible Cassimir High-Life, who just happens to be passing through town and drops in for a drink, and the irrepressibly formidable Robinnette right behind Credit Gone West.  Broken Glass’s inherently picaresque structure, from which derives its essential mode of social critique, is also reminiscent of Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s The Fortunes of Wangrin, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and to a certain degree even Ben Okri’s The Famished RoadTram 83 is different from all these because despite the fact that there is much in their social surroundings that should make them miserable the characters in the novel are exuberant rather than defeated. They want to live. Period.

This desire to live, rather than merely to exist, may also serve to explain what is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the novel, namely, the representation of women. In Tram 83 we find a gallery of female characters, all of whose roles are tied to sex work: the aforementioned baby-chicks, single mamas, and busgirls, and all whom, while categorized according to their ages and the youthfulness of their bodies, share the common pursuit of sex-for-money. And yet what might appear on first reading as a wet dream for men turns out on closer inspection to be something quite different. For, as we are told, the women manage “the whole shebang, from Genesis to the Letter to the Corinthians: ‘Put your leg like this, place your right hand on my belly, ride me like I were your horse, stroke my curves, back forward, back forward slowly, stop, now start stroking my hair. . .’” (31). In other words, they regulate the manner in which they are to be dealt with. Far from being victims of male desire, they express a vitality that can even outstrip the desires of the men. Everyone knows exactly what they are getting when they agree to enter into a sexual relationship. The operative word is agreement, for Mujila’s novel sex is completely disambiguated. It becomes first and last a transaction, in which the women have utter control on how it is going to be conducted. More importantly, the designs of the various sex workers we find in the novel provides the most trenchant critique of the atrophying of the socio-economic relations that the ruthless system of extraction that rules the City-State has come to produce. As the epigraph to the novel states baldly: “You will eat by the sweat of your breasts.” The switch from “brow” to “breasts” is a mark of the atrophying of the labor relation, where men and women are obliged to survive strictly from the sweat of their labor. Indeed, the epigraph speaks directly to the inversion of the words of the Psalmist: “When you shall eat of the fruit of your hands, You will be happy, and it will be well with you” (Psalm 128:2, New American Standard Bible), literally suggesting that in the environment of wanton extraction that dominates the novel, a woman must control her only means of production. This does not mean that there is no cost, but the cost of illness and sexually-transmitted diseases is equally borne by both men and women. In the universe of corruption that is the City-State, no one is spared.

The labor of women’s breasts also gives us a way to understand the novel’s overall critique of Lucien’s intellectualism. As we have already noted, his public reading at the Tram does not go too well. In fact, a young man in the audience “sweetly left his seat, stepped up on the stage, and let fly with a left uppercut. An unusually violent punch. . .” This was to “learn you to respect guys who have really experienced life” (63). This violent reaction to the struggling historian, writer, and abiding intellectual seems peculiarly excessive and out-of-place, especially given that not only is Lucien trying to write what amounts to a revolutionary play, with a cast of characters that includes Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, and Chairman Mao among various others, he also presents no competition whatsoever for the tourists with respect to the various sex-workers and the satiation of their desires. Lucien shows absolutely no interest in any of them, repeatedly invoking his continuing commitment to his wife Jacqueline as a way of warding off the many baby-chicks that desire him for their own. It is only much later, when he is mysteriously rescued from the police cell by Émillienne and goes to her brothel to visit her that we come to question his apparent purity. Despite Émillienne’s gentle ministrations of love for him, that come across as utterly genuine, he rudely snubs her and condemns as reprehensible and debased the brothel work on which her wealth is based. It is then that we sense how blind he is to the conditions that enable him to be an intellectual in the first place. For Lucien’s failure is a failure of self-critique. True, he is a keen observer of the contradictions that unfold around him, which he scribbles feverishly into his notebook. And true, he seems so incorruptible as to actually prefer to remain in police custody rather than descend to the level of giving a bribe to the police chief that interrogates. But one thing he does not do is to question the material grounds of the freedom to be an intellectual.  Throughout the novel Lucien is the beneficiary of the reluctant support of Requiem, his erstwhile best friend from university but now a blatant frenemy intent on destroying him by any means possible. Requiem provides Lucien with food and shelter and brings him newspapers everyday while also directing a series of humiliations at him. We are made to believe that this fraught relationship is due to the fact that Lucien took Requiem’s wife Jacqueline when he had been given up for dead after going to fight in the army and not being heard of for several years. But it turns out that their enmity is due to something more profound. Requiem is a lapsed Marxist while Lucien has managed to retain their once shared idealism. But Lucien retains his idealism only at the cost of not examining the compromised grounds on which he is able to remain an intellectual in the first place. In other words, he is like the idealist told of in the apocryphal story attributed to Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the whole world,” says the idealist. To which the sceptic replies, “There is no such place, for to move the world you will have to stand on it.” Thus Lucien’s lapse is in imagining that he can retain the authenticity of an intellectual whilst depending for his survival on the generosity of others who have had to make their peace with the corrupt conditions and survive from it. This is what explains his condemnation at the hands of Requiem and the other characters in the Tram. It is perhaps the most important lesson for all intellectuals working in and out of Africa today. How do we launch the revolution when we ourselves are so badly compromised?

* Tram 83 was superbly translated from the French by Roland Glasser, with a Foreward by Alain Mabanckou and published by Deep Vellum Publishing in 2014.

How Christian was Iberia in the Middle Ages?

May 9, 2016 - 05:50
Tags:  Medieval Studies, Iberian Peninsula, Spain, Paganism, Christianity, history, cultural studies

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flicker ( I, II )

How Christian, or how Pagan, was the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages? And how do we go about answering this question? To do so we need both to define terms and to identify the evidence. By how Christian I mean to what extent did its inhabitants practice Christianity? By how Pagan I mean to what extent did its inhabitants practice pre-Christian cults? The two, as we will see, are not mutually exclusive, and the evidence ranges from plastic arts such as Romanesque buildings, to literary forms such as epic, ballad, and chronicle, to modern popular festivals in which clearly pagan practices and figures persist.

In the North of the Iberian Peninsula, Celtic cults persisted well into the twentieth century as folk practices, and in some cases were Christianized. In the south and the Mediterranean coast, Roman cults were transformed into those of the Saints and the Virgin. All over the peninsula, the Church raised churches and hermitages at traditional cultic sites such as springs, rivers, and cliffs where locals paid tribute to pagan gods. Celebrations of solstices and other events marking the agricultural cycle were likewise covered with a veneer of Christian doctrine, but were essentially pagan in substance and symbology.

The scholarly narrative of the Christianization of Iberia tends to assume that once Iberian monarchs became Christian, paganism was relegated to mountain villages and the high pastures. The further you get from the towns, the less Christianized people were. However, this narrative is based largely on Christian sources, which stands to reason: if the institutions producing durable art and letters are Christian, they are not likely to be openly promoting pagan values. If we take Christian literature as the sole measure of the impact and saturation of Christian cultic practice, we are looking at a badly skewed sample. 

However, even Christian cultural practice belies a lingering paganism in the Peninsula well after we assume the total defeat of organized pagan religion under Christianity: you just have to know where to look. Eleventh-century Romanesque art, much of it in churches, bears ample evidence of pagan traditions.

Castilian epic poetry likewise preserves features of pre-Christian mythologies. Hagiographies and other representations of Christian Saints preserve characteristics, narrative features, and reminiscences of pre-Christian cultic practices. Popular pagan celebrations and beliefs related to the agricultural cycle are alive and well both in popular festivals and in medieval ballads sung at the festivals. Even the modern oral traditions of parts of Spain preserve folk mythologies that are at best uneasy companions to Christian doctrine. Fairies come out during summer solstice; white stags herald the appearance of fertility goddesses, and the Celtic rain god controls the weather.

Pagan traditions, symbology, and iconography are represented in the Church art of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Amidst the secondary ornamentation in a number of Iberian Romanesque churches one can find representations of local mythological traditions, usually dismissed by art historians as fanciful or grotesque figures. Whole series of figures tucked away in corbel tables behind the central nave of churches, hidden under the lids of misericords, or in otherwise marginal positions in ornamental programs of churches and monasteries reveal nods to local mythological traditions that have almost entirely gone unnoticed by art historians, but that ethnographers recognize instantly as figures from local mythologies.

Many of these traditions, medieval and modern, are syncretistic: Celtic and Roman gods are refashioned as saints. Others are agonistic: saints and priests do battle with the old gods or spirits in a kind of popular mythomachia; the parish priest defeats the local dragon.

The burning question is how to interpret this evidence: on the one hand, the transformation of a pagan God into a Christian saint is normally not taken as evidence of a persistent pagan cult. However, a syncretistic approach allows for the possibility of elements of more than one cult to co-exist and for both to be meaningful. Scholars have long studied and celebrated the resilience of African and Indigenous cults to survive syncretistically in an officially Christian context in the New World. We might likewise re-evaluate the evidence of pre-Christian cultic practices in Christian Europe with an eye toward assessing how popular religious practice and Christian art in medieval Iberia transmitted and transformed pre-Christian traditions.

Religions cross over, assimilate, and blend, and Christianity should not be considered different in this aspect. When Roman religion came to the Celts and the Germanic peoples, their gods assimilated to the Roman Gods. When Christianity overtook the Roman Gods, or their Roman-Celtic amalgams, a similar process obtained; in the loosely translated words of Pierre Saintyves, “these gods were often transformed and Christianized, topped with a golden halo and placed in a Christian heaven, where they might enjoy the glories and triumphs of the new Olympus.”[1]  In this process, Christian places of worship ended up with the same images, statues, and legends as the old temples, and the that the masses might confuse the Saints with the old Gods is understandable (Saintyves 11).

Richard Fletcher has written on the persistence of paganism in the countryside of Western Latin Christendom. He reminds us that country folk are “notoriously conservative” and that the cultures they developed over centuries “for managing their visible and invisible environments, were not going to yield easily, perhaps were not going to yield at all, to ecclesiastical injunction” (Fletcher 54).

How to deal with the stiff-necked peasants? Work with them. Pagan-Christian syncretism was likely equal parts hegemony from above and resistance from below. Pierre Saintyves pointed out as early as 1907 that priests found it more convenient or expedient to allow the people to persist in their popular practices, provided they subordinated these to the Christian cult. I am suggesting that the Church partnered with the rustic pagans in order to maintain hegemony. There is, in my opinion no other way to explain some of the Iberian evidence upon which I am about to touch.

None other than Saint Jerome makes the same argument. After the Council of Elvira in 300 banned the pagan practices associated with All Souls’ Day such as burning candles in cemeteries to honor the dead, many churchmen worked to enforce the ban and wean the people off of their traditions. Baronius argued that burning candles would upset the souls of the dead. Jerome is more pragmatic. He argued that provided they burned candles to honor the Saints instead of their dead relatives or local gods, there was no reason not to accept the practice (Saintyves 89).

Other forms of syncretism are more convoluted. One explanation for many saints’ miracles, according to Pierre Saintyves, is the literal interpretation of symbolic imagery. For example, there are a number of saints that are said to have picked up their decapitated heads before ascending to heaven. This is a symbol of preparing to meet your Lord, just as a wounded warrior would present himself before his lord after battle for formal review before mustering out. Here a rhetorical figure is interpreted as a physical miracle. Another example, also from Saintyves, is the saint fighting the dragon, meant to be taken as a symbol for evil, but interpreted as a literal, physical beast (Saintyves 124). One wonders if Christian preachers and writers purposefully used these images because they had value in pre-Christian traditions of the proselytes, but then backfired. For example, if in preaching about a saint, one describes him as defeating all evil, here personified as a dragon. The audience might then rely on their own traditions and imagine this saint defeating the local dragon that in turn symbolizes (in a less abstract way) the vicissitudes of nature. This is borne out in modern ethnography in which informants report (as late as the twentieth century) that local priests defeated the dragon that had been harassing the village for centuries. The converse is also sometimes true: Charles Plummer, in his study of Irish Saints’ lives, noted that epithets of Celtic gods that were meant to be taken literally were often interpreted as metaphoric in Christian sources. By this logic, a Celtic sun god who is described as having a face “as brilliant as the sun at midday” becomes a Saint whose beatific face radiates only metaphorically (Plummer cxl). All of this evidence points up a long, slow syncretic process that begins with the arrival of Christianity to the Peninsula, but that is still in play. Pagan cultic practices, now classified as superstition or local tradition, persist, sometimes aided and abetted by Christianity, other times in despite it.

Works Cited

Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. Print.

Plummer, Charles. Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910. Print.

Saintyves, P. Les saints successeurs des dieux. Paris: E. Nourry, 1907. Print. Essais de mythologie chrétienne.

This is the text of a position paper given at a roundtable titled "How Monotheistic was the Mediterranean?" moderated by Prof. Sergio La Porta (CSU Fresno) and including Profs. Fred Astren, Samuel Cohen, and Roberta Ervine (Nersess Armenian Seminary), during the Spring 2016 Mediterranean Seminar Workshop at CSU Fresno. Many thanks to Mediterranean Seminar co-directors, Profs. Sharon Kinoshita (UC Santa Cruz) and Brian Catlos (U Colorado) and to conference organizer, Prof. Sergio La Porta.

[1] “ces dieux souvent déjà maquillés et affreusement défigurés furent christianisés, coiffés d'une aureole d'or et placés au ciel chrétien pour y jouir des gloires et des triomphes du nouvel olympe” (Saintyves 11).

An Author of Our American Times

May 2, 2016 - 23:51
Tags:  literary marketplace, Social Media, Creative Writing, performance, TED, authorship

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

Shortly after its release a few years ago, a British literary agent stumbled upon my first book by coincidence and sent me an email, offering to represent me. Having had considerable scars on my then thin writer’s skin from previous dealings with press editors, agents and publishers; I decided to jump at the chance and replied, accepting the agent’s proposal and answering a question she’d included at the bottom about my social media activity and the number of followers I had on Facebook and Twitter. I did have a Facebook account, I wrote, but only used it for searching purposes. As for the other networks; I didn’t exist and wasn’t much interested in the prospect. I never heard back from her.

To revive friendships from bygone school and university years and get swamped with family photos and cheesy quotes would literally bore me to death. Facebook was—and still is—out of the question for me. Exploring the hitherto terra incognita of Twitter, on the other hand, didn’t seem so obnoxious, so I decided to give it a shot. My timeline was immediately packed with posts about the writers I’d followed: their latest interviews, dozens of retweeted citations along with photos of readers holding their books in their hands or next to their thrilled faces. Naïve hopes of having a decent exchange with my favorite authors crashed, there was hardly anything to exchange. Favorite (like) or retweet! That’s that… The British agent, it dawned on me, wanted to know my value in the stock market of social media. Obviously, I was worthless.

Putting up with the hectic world of social media is not the sole challenge contemporary authors are facing. We are expected—thanks to sweeping American values like speaking out, standing out, and everything out—to master performance art and entertain an audience not only through our written work, but also by means of public talks and appearances. Over the past few years, I have received several links to TEDx talks by writers of different genres and nationalities. Many of the videos, I must say, were interesting; well balanced meals of humor and slight sadness, always ending on an optimistic note to attract customers to buy the displayed product aka the author’s persona, brand, image, etc. The shows often left me thinking: Had the ritual prevailed a century ago, reclusive writers the likes of French Marcel Proust would have definitely been deemed too depressing, and thus unsellable.

Some authors, however, proved to be extremely charming on stage and their careers shifted to motivational speaking. And writing, on the side. They sell their books (CDs and DVDs) at the venues the way pop stars sell t-shirts and caps on concert nights. After her TEDx talk went viral, Palestinian writer Suad Amiry decided to pursue a long curbed passion for acting and appeared in a film or two. I think that’s wonderful, although not all writers are equally gifted. For those of us who lack stage facility but still have to follow market rules or risk being abandoned, the problem can be overcome by yet another American invention: Toastmasters Clubs, where people from all walks of life receive systematic training for building public speaking muscles—and nerves. How cool is that?

Now don’t get me wrong! I’m not averse to verbal communication between writers and readers—unless pretentious, of course—and have myself addressed several gatherings. Surprisingly, and despite the fact that I don’t do mirror rehearsals beforehand, my talks have so far gone perfectly well. I don’t mind them, but do I enjoy doing it time and again? The answer is No. Having practiced architectural design and painting prior to writing, it often puzzles me how many people in the publishing arena are convinced that books cannot speak for themselves the way paintings, buildings, even musical pieces can.

It would be naïve, though, to overlook the looming threat to the industry—yes, I’m aware that it is, at the end of the day, an industry. Many stores have been shutting down, while the remaining ones are selling electronic devices, stationary, toys, and books—only enough shelves to keep the title. Creative survival skills are unquestionably overdue, but it’s unfair to hold writers responsible for the current depressed market and expect them to be capable of fixing everything on their own. We don’t have a magic wand.

If I were to maintain an active presence on social media, spend my nights on Twitter—given the time difference between New Zealand and the rest of the world—trying to impress prospective readers at prime sharing time, if I were to show up on every event, introducing myself to strangers, showering them with my carefully designed business cards and engaging in shallow discussions, at the end of which I would shamelessly ask people to “like” me on Facebook, rate my books on Goodreads or write flattering reviews on Amazon; if I were to consume myself in the aforementioned endeavors to publicize my name and image, what will there remain of my energy, let alone creativity to invest in writing? Most importantly, if I were to become a pragmatic salesman, would I still be able to recognize the honest author I aspired to be when I started writing?