After reading Lost Illusions all winter I hated the idea of youth and being young, so I turned to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim—a novel about a 25-year-old who seems to have no dreams left at all—as a corrective. Jim’s modest goals include convincing himself he’s happy in his job as a junior medieval history lecturer at a second-rate university, keeping to his daily ration of cigarettes, and surviving a “culture weekend” (recorders, madrigals, and stingy glasses of sherry) at his senior colleague’s house. But he really is lucky; his plans fail hopelessly in every respect. Two thirds of the way through the book, after Jim’s spent all his money at the pub and is smoking what are supposed to be next week’s cigarettes, another character gives him some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: “The years of illusions aren’t those of adolescence, as the grown-ups try to tell us; they’re the ones immediately after it, say the middle twenties, the false maturity if you like, when you first get thoroughly embroiled in things and lose your head. Your age, by the way, Jim.”
The completion in 2007 of one of the great and overdue English translation projects of our time—Joseph A. Buttigieg’s full (and excellent) translation of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks—went virtually unnoticed. You can still walk into any one of the handful of remaining lefty bookstores and find complete three volume sets of these tall, thick monuments to scholarship and the socialist imagination lying dormant, unbought, seemingly unsellable. And so I say to you now: Comrades, buy the complete Prison Notebooks! The Selections that have been the standard student (and even scholarly) reference for decades are great; but they don’t, as the Prison Notebooks do, give you the unwieldy and glorious sense of a mind at work—the greatest Marxist mind since Marx—under conditions of utmost stress. Besides the many incredible insights into democracy, parties, and the prospects for socialism in the West, there are scattered notes for a history of popular literature, studies of detective fiction, and perceptive comments on major figures like Dante and Benedetto Croce. And of course, “hegemony,” which has passed into casual use, turns out to be the slipperiest of terms. As Scritti Politti had it: “Hegemony! You are the fairest creature! . . . You can generate and dissipate/ but only very stupidly.”
Last weekend, on a long, slow bus ride from Boston to New York, I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and got to thinking about political action. How are you supposed to undermine prisons, anyway? Although the system is clearly racist, it is officially “color-blind”—the Supreme Court has made it more or less impossible to bring discrimination-based suits against prisons, cops, or courts. And although prisons draw most of their population from major cities, the prisons themselves are out in the middle of nowhere. Unless you have an innocent death row inmate or a Presidential candidate, it is difficult to lure journalists out to the countryside. So where are the pressure points? Who do you yell at? Whose office do you picket?
Alexander’s incredible book suggests an answer. People already dislike the police, but in the criminal justice system, no one is more powerful or more admired than the prosecutor, and in the last three decades no professional group has worked harder to destroy millions of American lives. Prosecutors decide whom to charge. They decide what the charges are. They ask for whatever sentence they like (and if the defendant is black or brown, they tend to like harsh sentences).
Best of all, though, is the fact that District Attorneys are easy to find—almost everyone has one—and every so often many of them have to run for re-election. In Brooklyn, where I live, Charles J. Hynes has been running the show since 1990. He works at 350 Jay St., just steps away from the N, R, 2, 3, A, C, and F trains. His office’s phone number is (718) 250-2000.
When you’re teaching, you don’t read. Or rather, you read as your students read: under compulsion. Before the semester started I was in a book group that was to discuss Democracy in America. We lasted a single session, partly because Tocqueville can be a pedantic chump but mostly because we resented the deadlines. Like mating in captivity, it can be hard to enjoy literature under orders. But in the words of the genius-turned-walrus Stephen Stills: “Love the one you’re with!” At the moment I’m with Henri Bergson, whose Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic is, like all theories of humor, incomplete, inadequate, and probably doomed. But at least he knows it! Unlike most other philosophers on the subject, from Plato onward, Bergson treats comedy not as a specimen to be pinned down and dissected, but as a living and (characteristically for him) vital thing. Also, the dude can write, which, after slogging through Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, is frankly a huge relief.
Reading Luke Harding’s book on Russia, Mafia State: How One Man Became the Enemy of Putin’s Russia by Fighting Courageously to Bring the Truth to the West and How He Suffered For It, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Written entirely in the present tense, the book describes Harding’s four years in Moscow as the correspondent for the Guardian. At some point very early on, he attracted the attention of the FSB, and for the next four years they proceeded to fuck with him. They broke into his apartment; they tapped his phone; they called him in for “conversations” to discuss his work; they even made not-so-veiled threats against him. Now, they never actually touched him, and when they broke into his apartment they mostly moved some furniture around, left a window open, et cetera. This is a pretty far distance from getting shot (among Western journalists, Paul Khlebnikov) or severely beaten and hospitalized (the Financial Times’s Robert Cottrell) or even, like the independent journalist John Helmer (quite recently), threatened by “private investigators” in the employ (as best anyone can tell) of Oleg Deripaska’s Rusal. If someone is going to threaten me in Russia, I would much, much rather it be the FSB, which in the end has to play by some kind of rules, than a private business entity, which does not.
Still, it’s unpleasant and unnerving, having people break into your place; the reason you may want to laugh is that Harding remains so incredibly clueless about the game he’s part of. He’s like the Western correspondent the FSB likes to imagine when it likes to imagine that what it’s doing by harassing Western correspondents is useful. For Harding, everything in Russia has gone wrong—the press, the provinces, the police. He blames everything in the world on Putin. The Politkovskaya murder, where all trails lead pretty unmistakably to Chechnya? Putin. The Markelov murder, carried out by neo-Nazis? Putin. The Litvinov murder in London? Well, that one I’ll give you, that was Putin. How about the rise in living standards, the bringing to heel of the oligarchs, the attempted halt in the disintegration of the country? No—that was not Putin. That was natural gas.
Look: Putin is a bad man. He is arrogant, vulgar, and violent. Instead of enacting genuine reforms (of the legal system, first and foremost), he has preferred to talk tough and become a kind of celebrity politician, winning vanity projects for Russia (like the 2014 Olympic Games) without changing the deep problems facing the country. He has enriched himself and his friends while in power, going back to the 1990s, thinking—as Dick Cheney said of the Bush tax cuts—that it was their “due.” He has made a mockery of the democratic aspirations of the Russian people. Most recently, he has made a mockery of his own face, with some bad plastic surgery. He should go.
But if you think the problem with Russia is Putin, then all you have to do is remove Putin. If instead you understand Putin as pretty much a loyal if slightly surly and occasionally barechested servant of the international project to extract Russian natural resources and distribute some of the rent to wealthy Russians (some of them, indeed, Putin’s friends) and more of it to wealthy non-Russians (the shareholders of such corporations as Mobil-Exxon, Chevron, et cetera), while the Russian population that dug the oil wells and built the oil rigs et cetera gets a few small crumbs, then you will have a slightly different and more accurate idea of what needs to happen to Russia, and for whose benefit, and whose side you should be on. As Stephen Holmes pointed out in his brilliant review of Harding’s book, the lie of the “managed democracy” moniker that Putin’s adviser Surkov came up with to describe Putinism was not, as most critics (including Harding) believe, the democracy, but rather the managed. Putin has always only pretended to be in charge. And gullible Western correspondents lapped it up. Harding and the FSB deserve each other.
Having said all that, maybe it’s unfair to blame Harding. I remember getting an email a few years ago from an editor asking if it was true that contemporary Russia was discriminating against Tolstoy. I was surprised. It was the first I’d heard of it. Then, looking it up, I found an article by Luke Harding. He had taken a trip to the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana and then filed an article claiming that he’d discovered some kind of anti-Tolstoy sentiment in Putin’s Russia. And first I thought, as usual: Oh, Luke. But then I thought: Is it possible that the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent is not allowed to take a trip up to Yasnaya Polyana unless he can suggest to his editors that there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot? Poor correspondents! Maybe it’s not their fault that they’re so in the tank. There’s a nice moment in Mafia State when Harding, brimming with indignation at the FSB, announces that the difference between Putin’s Russia and democratic England is not just a gap but, he says, a “chasm”—and then adduces as evidence outlandish claims by the Russians that the British had placed a fake rock on a Moscow street and were using it for spycraft. Harding find this ridiculous—and, reading this after the truth came out this fall (that, in fact, the Russians were telling the truth), one thinks: maybe that’s just what Harding’s paymasters in the West demanded of him. But then again, Harding wasn’t in the employ of MI6. He was the correspondent for the Guardian, for chrissake. No, I blame Harding. I blame Harding.
Frederick Exley can’t decide whether his Fan’s Notes is a memoir or novel, and perhaps this has something to do with his existence as a masochistic, alcoholic manic-depressive. Exley’s dream of literary fame moves further away from him with every pint, and he’s eventually sent to the hospital, where he must confront the fact that he is no genius but is indeed insane, perverted, and sick. Yet he also feels this sickness is the only true response to the drab Americana of the fifties. His guiding light through all of this tumult is the New York Giants and their star running back, Frank Gifford. It’s a beautiful book, and I like to think that Exley is a much more deprecating and eloquent Kerouac (mixed with some charismatic Nabokovian perversion). Where Kerouac found redemption in Gary Snyder, Exley has Gifford and the Giants.
Recent events have testified to something of a historic rapprochement between two of the louder, more self-proclaimed protagonists in the epic of human emancipation; something anticipated by David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology in 2004, where he writes that “Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy [while] [a]narchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.” A more accurate contrast might be between the socialist preference for description against the anarchist taste for prescription—which might also explain the corresponding sensitivities—but the larger point, that these two are not only no longer opposed but in fact entirely complementary, is well taken in the extreme. Perhaps there is some massive Marxist dictionary of best practices I am unaware of, or, conversely, a masterly anarchist study of finance capital that has managed to escape my attention, but I doubt it. Instead, as Graeber suggests by citing socialists as diverse as Meiksins Wood and Marcel Mauss, the difference is best conceived as analogous to that between affinity groups. Limpid and lively, this is the rare text that, owing to timeliness, readability, and economy, truly ought to be read by everyone.
This may look like a shameless shill, but cross my heart, the best thing I read this month was Paper Monument’s Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, which I had the pleasure to proofread. The joint effort of a hundred-odd contributors—including heavyweights John Baldessari, William Pope.L, and Chris Kraus—the book gives a surprisingly exhaustive account of what life in and around the MFA system has been like for the past thirty or so years, and in doing so offers, as if by accident, a legible map of that unfriendly terrain some have taken to calling “the art world.”
Each writer tackles the question at the heart of the book a little differently. Some actually give assignments: “Take an 18” x 24” paper and make a drawing using nothing but your car,” for example, or “Redesign the human genitals so that they may be more equitable,” or—now I’m paraphrasing—make a sculpture of an impossible shape that can hold four times your body weight using nothing but cardboard. Others offer advice in the form of anecdote (Do not forget that your students can Google your early work!). A few rail, quite sincerely, against the insidious nature of all assignments, taking the cryptic obstacle-courses that have become a staple of studio classes to blame for everything that’s weird, wrong, and homogenizing in arts education. In the end, the book does seem to be putting forward a forceful argument about all this. But it’s not a simple one: at the end of the day, the status of the “assignment” (is it good? bad? a necessary evil? the only way to “teach art”?) remains up in the air.
The most useful advice I found in Draw It pertained to critique etiquette, which, it turns out, transfers quite seamlessly to the life of a non-artist. I won’t spoil it for you, but there’s one particularly good strategy—a sort of performance ritual called “the slow dance”—that struck me as the most humane way to approach talking to people about their work.
As a final disclaimer, I’ll add that if you find typos in this book, it’s my fault.
Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism is a crucial read. The book’s central problematic is the increasingly unattainable fantasy of “the good life” and the attachments that tether us to it. Following Berardi and Agamben, Berlant argues that the conditions of economic, political, and affective precarity that structure late liberal and neoliberal regimes have led to a deadlock, in which our aspirations actually impede our ability to attain what we desire—be it romantic intimacy, political solidarity, or any variation on the social mobility of the American Dream. But this diagnosis isn’t all doom and gloom, and Berlant is no killjoy either. Razor-sharp readings of Colson Whitehead, William Gibson, and contemporary French cinema are forcefully sympathetic and forcefully political in the face of high stakes. In this moment, as Berlant makes clear, our hopes and dreams are on the line.
If you hate the term ’pataphysical (and let’s face it: who doesn’t?) then Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature may be for you. I’m about halfway through Levin Becker’s book, an investigation into the OuLiPo (“a sort of literary supper club”). Levin Becker’s writing fleshes out the personalities of the group’s members while staying true to its aims; his is “a small and casual affirmation of potential literature’s potential applicability to the real world.” It’s rather esoteric stuff, but if you have any interest in lipograms, “dictionary-based party tricks,” or an “interactive version of the grafted alexandrine,” you will find much to appreciate. At the end of the day, there is something to be said for a group of poets, performers, and mathematicians who gather for readings in front of a background designed with their own faces spiraled together. Or, more likely, we think along the lines Levin Becker conjures up when he hears he has been inducted into the OuLiPo: “Delight and terror.”
Once upon a time, I stopped writing poetry because of John Ashbery. I felt like I understood the individual genius and—after Whitman and Stevens—the historical necessity of Ashbery’s oddly selfless inwardness and wayward phenomenology, and felt too that he’d perfected the voice that was just about the only one a contemporary American poet could convincingly use, so what was I to do? Unfortunately, after a while I gave up on reading Ashbery too, somewhere around Can You Hear, Bird? Partly this was simple envy. I very much wished that I, too, could type out a few charming, pretty, and borderline nonsense lines, call it day, and nevertheless be the greatest living poet in the language. Yet I also felt that Ashbery had started phoning it in after Hotel Lautréamont. Was he still being faithful, in each poem, to the eccentric course of his thoughts, so that it was worth trying to follow his free associative logic, or—as more and more seemed the case—was he just boringly noodling with words? The latter answer was the one I was inclined to give. But lately, after spotting a copy of Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems in a used bookstore in Buenos Aires, I’ve been reading Ashbery’s more recent stuff again. The new selection can’t touch his first Selected Poems, which seems to me about the best poetry volume of the last fifty years. And I’m not totally convinced by the selection, either: for example, my beloved “The Archipelago” is missing, with the great passage beginning “Really, there are so many kinds of everything / it halts you when you think about it . . . .” But the act of winnowing by itself does a lot for Ashbery’s later work. Appearing in less profusion, the poems have the opportunity to assert their consequentiality, and a good number of them rise to the occasion. The result is that I once again feel like Ashbery has caught something about being alive and (a certain kind of) American right now better than anyone else: the lightness, the luxuriant pointlessless, the genial morbidity, the transience that is sometimes that of quasi-Buddhistic wisdom and at other times that of a bit of trash in the street . . . You know what I’m talking about? Maybe not. “But since I don’t understand myself, only segments/ of myself that misuderstand each other, there’s no/ reason for you to want to, no way you could// even if we both wanted it. Do those towers even exist?”
On a recent trip to Duke University, we were made aware of the Kenyan annual omnibus of creative writing, Kwani?. “Kenyon, like the liberal arts college in Ohio,” at least four writer friends said when I mentioned it on the phone. “No, Keen-ya, you know, the country in Africa that our president’s father was from. Forty-one million people, former British colony.” I didn’t mean to sound condescending, my vowel enunciation is genuinely bad, and then I overcompensate with facts. Still, there seemed something almost, dare we say, provincial that American’s default association remains the Kenyon Review, a once-great literary magazine, once edited by Southern Agrarian poet and critic John Crowe Ransom. Kwani?, which means “So What?,” not only takes self-conscious aim at the everyday obliviousness or condescending concern that afflicts white readers when it comes to matters African, but the magazine’s editors have also set themselves the more difficult task of renovating Kenyan Anglophone literature while writing about one of the world’s most complex countries. A sense of these high stakes is immediately evident in Billy Kahora’s 2005 profile of David Munyakei, a civil servant who tried to expose corruption at the Kenyan central bank and spent nearly twenty years on the run, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, until he achieved a stunningly empty form of vindication. To call this a Kenyan story, or an African story is like calling Les Misérables a French story or a European story, and yet the details matter, and Kahora has both the journalist’s doggedness and the novelist’s eye for arrangement, scene, and quotidian absurdity as he retraces Munyakei’s trail from Nairobi to coastal Dar-Es-Salaam to his refuge in his tribe’s ancestral highlands. As an outsider, I could wish for no better introduction to what it means or doesn’t mean to be Kenyan, all the more because the piece isn’t written for an outsider, certainly not a Westerner, dropping us, literally—the first scene is of our hero getting off a bus—into a world of at least four different languages, ways of reading subtle social signs, e.g. what light brown skin means in different parts of the country, a world with its own bureaucratic craziness and historical misdeeds, and then slowly unfolding them in a way that utterly rewards a non-native reader’s patience.
While not every piece in every issue is of the same quality, a magazine that can help give birth to a piece like Kahora’s is already an amazing national resource, and well worth the support and attention of readers in any multi-ethnic society, which is to say, all of us. Smartly designed in a self-conscious “Blaxploitation,” retro ’70s gonzo style, Kwani? is distributed in the US through Michigan State University Press, www.msupress.msu.edu.
I don’t ask for book recommendations. This has less to do with hiding embarrassing literary proclivities—syllabi safely dictate most of my habits anyway—than the fact that small talk and gchat bookend each day, academics and ex-boyfriends, respectively, a constant source of well-meaning suggestions. One develops a specific algorithm for sorting such material, depending on weather and temperament. My equation, as of late, since it’s dark and I don’t know many people, has but one variable: sex. I’ve found, in the art of casual recommendation, few reflexively refer to a work as having, “you know, really excellent sex.” It’s worth waiting for that line to drop, for the clause has yielded two great books for me: Eileen Myles’s Inferno—because you want an author that deftly manhandles verbs, and who better than a poet?—and The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark. The latter was brought to my attention abroad by a young, rather pompous professor of literature, who, smirking, distilled the text with a casual flick of the wrist: “A book of polite English people shocked to find they enjoy sex.” (That Jews and Catholics, not to mention virgins, make the best erotic subjects doesn’t hurt.) How often we are told to read for pleasure! Pity we so rarely take this advice literally!
German filmmaker, writer, and TV producer Alexander Kluge will celebrate his 80th birthday in 2012, and his seemingly endless intellectual energy shows no sign of abating. It’s a good enough occasion to go back to his lesser-known writings. Home to everything that’s weird and wonderful about the life of the mind, Berlin-based publisher Merve put together, more than ten years ago, a collection of Kluge’s interviews under the title Verdeckte Ermittlung, some of which were first featured in his various TV formats. It was with a constant sense of amazement that I read the transcript of his encounter with Detroit’s techno wizard and founding member of the Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills.
Kluge is clearly taken with the “proletarian subculture” that is at the heart of electronic dance music. It is also an object lesson in transnational history: the songs of the apostate Stockhausen disciples Kraftwerk made their way onto the playlist of Detroit radio DJ The Electrifying Mojo. Locals listened and were transfixed by what they heard. Machines made music. And the constant drive of the beat made you dance. But it was only with the Fall of the Wall that techno became a global phenomenon. Many of the key actors from the Detroit scene moved to Berlin, benefitting from vast disused factory buildings and feeding off a hungry public composed in equal parts of West German former punks and hipsters and East Berlin’s proletarian youth.
Esoteric debates took place. What was one to make of this purely technological music, with its distant echoes of military marches? Was techno a dehumanizing master from Germany, the ultimate expression of man’s alienation from his built environment, placing the collective once more above the individual? Others hailed the new sounds as a promise of liberation. The Detroit scene never really resonated with intellectual discourse in the US. Such is the plight of prophets in their own country. (Berlin-based DJs still attract larger crowds in the US than the actual founders.) In Germany, Rainald Goetz’s Rave ennobled electronic music by meticulously chronicling it as both an experience and a lifestyle. At the same time, he insisted on the radical discomfiture intellectuals feel when being confronted with something so entirely centered on the body. He derided attempts to link techno to the philosophy of Deleuze, even though the latter had given his approval, just before his death, for the title of his Mille Plateaux to be used by Achim Szepanski’s Frankfurt-based techno label.
Notwithstanding Goetz’s critique, the scene’s appropriation of Deleuze proved fertile both theoretically and politically. It anticipated the structural shortcomings of indie music—a genre long admitted into the cultural studies canon in the US—that became so painfully evident at the end of the millienium. The verse-chorus-verse structure plays on our desire for novelty, only the better to integrate it into a stable framework. Our memory of the preceding chorus effectively captures us. The chorus marks the moment tension is released, preventing the music from actually happening. With techno music, it’s exactly the opposite. The constant repetition of the same beat opens up unseen possibilities. Anything can happen, really, precisely because there’s no structural pressure except for the ever-recurring bass drum. Repetition also paves the way for the difference techno can make politically.
There are two kinds of artistic politics. Take the example of the poets Mallarmé and Stefan George. Both agreed on the societal calling of the artist. For George, however, it was the poet himself who channeled his vision of a new society into a form that was recognizable for his followers. He constitutes the essential link between an artistic vision and its promulgation, radicalizing the narcissistic conception of the genius inherited from the 19th century. For Mallarmé‘s artist to become politically effective, he needs to disappear. This self-effacement enables the message in a bottle that is a poem to arrive wherever it should, unobstructed by the burdensome presence of the artist. Initially, indie, punk, and hardcore never failed to express their disgust at superstardom. But nor did they change anything about the traditional stage set-up in which a crowd is meant to gaze at a performer. How can you oppose corporate excess when you swallow this deification of the individual whole? A lot of techno DJs choose the anonymity of a dark booth to drop their musical bombs. The dance floor is where subjectivity comes undone. Recently, much has been made in the US of horizontal organizing, leaderless movements, and the subversive force of anonymity. Techno could have been the soundtrack of Occupy. It didn’t happen. But it’s good to know that, whenever you want to catch a glimpse of the socialist future, you can just put these tunes on. Rave on, Alexander Kluge.