Archive

Benjamin Kunkel

8 November 2013

Society is distinct from the economy in that no direct monetary rewards flow from participation. Being popular may help you make money, and having money may in turn make you popular, but no one is paid a fee for his personal popularity, nor can I pay people to like me. The autonomy of society is limited but nevertheless real. More…

22 April 2013

My days are probably least different from yours on occasions of special public horror: another gun massacre, a bombing on American soil, the deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant. And like nearly everyone else I was angry and upset all last week, if not always for universal reasons. On Monday morning I read testimony in the Times from one of the hunger strikers indefinitely detained, so far without trial, at Guantanamo Bay, about his painful force-feeding. More…

10 September 2012

According to Adorno, in psychoanalysis only the exaggerations are true. If you wished to characterize the Democrats and the Republicans in terms of true exaggerations, you might say that the Republicans have become the Party of Psychosis while the Democrats have become the Party of Neurosis. More…

Originally published in Issue 15: Amnesty

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18 July 2012

And all of us know perfectly well that our fossil-fueled civilization isn’t built to last; we also know that we need to effect a deliberate and graceful transition to another energy regime or suffer a chaotic and violent interregnum. The ignorant as well as the informed know this. You could write a Walt Whitman-style poem about this obvious thing that everybody knows. More…

19 December 2011

It’s been said many times that Hitchens tended to “personalize” politics, to think in terms of character and friendship rather than structure and movements. That seems true, but also incomplete. My sense of him as a writer was that, like a poet, he loved certain rhetorical and musical effects much more than others, and he wanted from his journalistic occasions above all opportunities to produce those cherished effects. More…

7 November 2011

Unable to imagine the past except in the form of costume dramas or to think of the future except in terms of far-off collapse, our era has suffered from a blocked political imagination. For twenty years we flattered or rued our condition as the end of history. But present-day civilization reflects arrangements exceptional in human history—and perhaps equally fragile. More…

31 October 2011

“Who are they and what are their demands?” everyone immediately demanded to know. The puzzlement showed how the movement that began on September 17 as Occupy Wall Street differs from the great social movements of the past fifty years. It’s another thing entirely to redefine the American populace at large as an excluded group, cast out from the democracy and prosperity that supposedly form the national birthright. More…

27 April 2011

For every new generation, the corpus of literature seems already to have formed itself in such a way as to exclude the kind of voice in which you could actually write. Wallace proved that for us too there was a way to write without falsifying, through your diction, your sense of the world. Though this alone couldn’t make our writing any good, it held out the chance. More…

For half a millennium, across continents and civilizations, the human readership did almost nothing but grow and consolidate itself. Constantly more people in more and more places could read, and could read more books more cheaply, with increasing ease. And not only were they able to do this, but they chose to. More…

27 October 2010

Today, amid Argentina’s longest sustained period of free elections, it’s the half century from 1930 to 1983 that increasingly looks like the parenthesis, though a very long and ultimately grisly one. The consolidation of civil freedom and popular rule is probably the development that more than any other lies behind the overwhelming judgment of Argentinesthat the country is a better place at 200 than at 100. More…

23 August 2010

The Headless Woman does fuse the schematic and the intricate. But once you’ve granted Martel her brilliantly established premise and her fastidious approach, both the crude social schema and the delicate filigree of private relationships come to seem like features of the observable, inevitable world rather than impositions by the director. More…

Before venturing any trendspotting comments about American literature of the past decade, it’s probably worth scanning the ground hovering behind any exciting new figures stamped on the air—in other words, to observe again that novel-writing as an artistic practice has changed more slowly than almost any other. More…

18 June 2010

The death of José Saramago at 87 brings to an end the career not only of arguably the greatest novelist of the last quarter century, but of a great political novelist. It was often noted that Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist party in 1968 and never resigned his membership, but most critics didn’t know how to square Saramago’s Marxism with his fiction. More…

4 June 2010

Of all classic capitalist problems—income inequality, imperialism, the class character of the state—mass unemployment has probably been the one to trouble living Americans least. From the establishment of FDR’s war economy through the end of the so-called golden age of capitalism in the early 1970s, the US matched other major economies in functioning at close to full employment. More…

Originally published in Issue 9: Bad Money

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22 April 2010

Harold strung half a dozen faces into a unity: it was Failure, then, who had given Harold directions one night and whom Harold had also seen standing in a subway car, and seated at a table at El Famous Burrito; Failure who’d peered slyly at him from the steps of the public library, and had looked at him with ugly frankness from the other side of a bagel cart. More…

7 December 2009

The texture of the glacial wall, from a distance, like a block of hard cheese, though the ice is unearthly blue, color somehow of the afterlife; a stranded iceberg in the middle of the bay with a look of dark blue molten glass. And now the glacier calves! Ice shears off in a great sudden flake and explodes into the water below with a colossal sound of detonation. More…

17 August 2009

Lately I’ve read, as you probably did too, about the profits gained by Wall Street firms through “flash trades” executed on the basis of information received thirty milliseconds before being shown to traders generally. Something I did not learn from the newspaper was that the Marxist political scientist Giovanni Arrighi had died, on June 18 of this year. More…

31 May 2009

The pages in Proust’s long novel describing a first-ever telephone call are often admired for their rare sensitivity to the experience of a new technology. It has no equivalent in any contemporary fiction I know when it comes to an account of a first email read, or first social networking profile posted. More…

8 April 2009

One of this novel’s minor but telling peculiarities is the narrator’s extreme reluctance to resort to proper names, and to describe the book in its own preferred style would be to avoid for as long as possible any mention of the author’s name or the title of his book. More…

18 March 2008

There are people whom capitalism pretends to cherish by never letting them rest; others that capitalism has no use for at all; and the narrow, specialized labors of both groups are pressed into the service of heaping up goods for those who can hardly enjoy them—an arrangement the price of which is global warming. The common term for this collective situation is “freedom.” More…

Originally published in Issue 6: Mainstream

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4 August 2006

I don’t like being a spider. Except for rash moments when my web’s been struck and I scramble automatically after my prey, hissing and excited, my venom up and my jaws parted wide—perhaps I’m even smiling—I don’t like being a spider at all, generally I experience the same contempt for spiders as do the other creatures of this terrible world. More…

27 June 2006

Barbara and I talked on the phone maybe a dozen times and saw each other half that often; I can’t claim I knew her well. And yet if the first thing you wonder about most powerful and impressive people is what they are really, truly like, this was not the case with Barbara Epstein. More…

14 February 2005

The bad effects of the two-party system, if anyone doubted these, are now undeniable. Since four years ago, and for who knows how many years to come, a large minority of voters is utterly without power at the federal level. The tyranny of the majority is the law of the land, and the scandal is as plain as your face. More…

Originally published in Issue 2: Happiness

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14 February 2005

Why, after all, must Coetzee be such a gloom-monger? For if he desires to draw attention to suffering, doesn’t the apprehension of such become the more acute when full allowance is made for the possibility of happiness? Or might it be that John Maxwell Coetzee, like so many men, is simply afraid of life? More…

Originally published in Issue 2: Happiness

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6 January 2005

Susan Sontag was the first living intellectual who mattered to me. I discovered Against Interpretation early on in college, and its title essay at once confirmed and cast doubt upon what I sensed was my vocation. More…

23 November 2004

I am not a Democratic strategist; it seems no one is. But since the defeat one of the commonest proposed remedies to our situation has been to show our opponents more respect. The trouble with Democratic voters and candidates, it is alleged, is our elitism: snug in our cosmopolitan ghettoes, speaking in full paragraphs, fondling old snapshots of France… More…