For three years since the bailout of the banks—with each year’s news of record profits and bonuses; with the failed re-regulation in Dodd-Frank; with the revelations of the Fed’s hiding other bailout lending programs; with the spectacle of politicians taking banking and lobbying jobs before and after serving the public; with the banks’ donations to campaigns; with each instance of Obama’s economic continuity with Bush and Clinton—it crossed our mind, Why doesn’t somebody just go and stand on Wall Street? Until someone from the press asks, “Why are you standing here?”
The Intellectual Situation
A few amazing months after September 17, We are the 99 percent still doesn’t come close to being true, even as the movement has spread across the country to one city after another, from college campuses to a hamlet in Oregon to a lone woman holding a cardboard sign in the Alaskan tundra, not to mention fraternal outbreaks in Asia, Europe, Oceania, and South America. And yet the scope of the claim—99 percent!—indicates the immense promise of the movement: nothing less than to build a left populism capable of rescuing the country in the name of the people by and for whom it’s allegedly governed.
In December, we meet with friends in Union Square to get on the L train for the Occupy Our Homes initiative in East New York. We’re going to join a march in the neighborhood, culminating in a party for a homeless family now occupying a Bank of America–owned foreclosed property that has stood empty for three years.
From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole. What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated,and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Fiction and Drama
Oh, it’s like how it almost makes you glad to’ve had the nightmare, now that you’re awake and safe, you know? And God, it has been such a, literally, such a stupid . . . I mean, where’s the dignity—terrorized is probably too strong a word—but where’s the dignity in being literally annoyed to death by. . . ?
Computers are near-omnipotent cauldrons of processing power, but they’re also stupid. They are the undisputed chess champions of the world, but they can’t understand a simple English conversation. IBM’s Watson supercomputer defeated two top Jeopardy! players last year, but for the clue “What grasshoppers eat,” Watson answered: “Kosher.” For all the data he could access within a fraction of a second—one of the greatest corpuses ever assembled—Watson looked awfully dumb.
So I began to go to literary readings (mostly poetry) and write them up. I adopted the thinking of the paper pretty quickly; in truth I was close to it already. The idea was to evaluate poets not according to one’s vague and subjective emotions, but to the context from which they’d emerged; to insist on the author’s right to innovate; and to criticize everything traditional and passé. Innovation was the key. If Kuzmin saw even the slightest inkling of it in a poet, he drew him in, either by publishing him in his annual literary anthology, Vavilon, or by encouraging him in some other way—basically, one way or another, he kept an eye on him.
In the early ’70s, 1973 to be exact, when my mother was 13 years old, she enrolled at the Carcross Community School, an alternative boarding school up north in the Yukon Territory. Despite its location and near-total isolation, the community was part of a radical education movement sweeping North America. Like hundreds of other free schools across the continent, Carcross emphasized unmediated experience above instruction and authority.
As the meeting was nearing its end, John Bender asked the hard question that was hanging in the air: Striking as these results were, did we think they had produced new knowledge? The answer, of course, was no: Docuscope had corroborated what literary scholars already knew —or at least were convinced of—that certain texts belonged to the same class. No new knowledge there.
I had a period when my career started taking off and I started to get better opportunities. Freaks and Geeks had ended. I was struggling, and then I auditioned for James Dean and got cast as James Dean. I auditioned with Robert De Niro and got cast in City by the Sea. I auditioned for Spider-Man. I didn’t get Spider-Man but I got the friend role, not a role that I had been dying to do, but in one of the biggest movies of all time. So I had a role in the James Dean movie that was very satisfying to an actor, a role with De Niro who was one of my heroes, and a commercial movie. All three came out around the same time. After that, people were offering me movies. I had choices. That was a scary moment, because up until then, you just take what’s given to you. You’re happy if you get a job, and you’re really happy if it’s a good job.
Female experience constituted art up until the point it ceased to be identical with male experience. (Flaubert to Colet: “You are a poet shackled to a woman!”) And so to live one’s life as a woman was at odds with living one’s life as if it were a work of art—not just because certain elements particular to female existence tended not to make their way into most novels but because most novels, if they were good, refused to acknowledge that the world maintained such crucial distinctions. There should always and only be the human—and we all wanted to be human.
On the evening of an auction, Town Cars begin to pull up to Sotheby’s a little before 6 PM. Diamonds twinkle amid ermine, and accents are unidentifiable. Registered bidders check in, receive their numbered paddles, and mill around the front of the room, where property from the sale is displayed. Then they take their seats, waving to one another across the center aisle. Slowly, the room behind the chairs fills too, with registered bidders not quick or important enough to obtain a seat, but also with young gallerists, curious dad-types in sensible shoes, reporters, and Sotheby’s employees. Actual artists are conspicuously absent.
Greif manages to identify “four central doctrines” in Cavell’s work—and even to convey much of the confessional spirit of Cavell’s style—without reproducing his notorious technical difficulties. But if Cavell just wanted to say that, then why didn’t he write as accessibly as Greif—and why not for n+1 (or at least, say, the New York Review of Books)? Which raises a further question: does Cavell’s literary difficulty simply complicate his status as an “educator,” or does it compromise it?