In the early days of the inbox, it afforded the naive human organism a certain pleasure to receive an email. Ah, someone thinking of me . . . So a note or two of companionship whistled through the lonely day. Thanks to email, the residual eloquence of a moribund letter-writing culture received a rejuvenating jolt of immediacy. As late as the late ’90s and early ’00s, during the last days of dial-up, it still felt nice to send and receive the occasional squib, to play an epistolary game of catch with some friends.
The Intellectual Situation
Rudeness isn’t the real issue: it’s that we are building a new world, and consequences will follow. On a bus or a train, there is a competitive pressure not to be the only one without a friend to call when snow has caused delays. All of us deplore the yapping, and most of us join in. And the change reinforces truths we may have thought we already knew—but that, in fact, we never knew like this.
Lit-bloggers are the avant-garde of 21st-century publicity. They represent a perfection of the outsourcing ethos of contemporary capitalism. The savvy readers of our age are already suspicious of advertising from above, from the cartel of publishers, weekly book reviews, and entertainment-industry executives. So why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie cred?
The work machine is also a porn machine; the porn machine is also a work machine. Work enters everything. And therefore porn becomes, in its way, a revenge. In the midst of a productivity boost of the sort that comes along once in a century, workers are indulging, in record numbers, in the least productive human activity of all.
Maybe it’s time to reintroduce an old distinction between savagery and barbarism. In their loincloths and bowing to rain gods, savages were people without advanced technology. Barbarians, in contrast, were people with technology. Plenty of it. But they gained it without maintaining the values that created it. They sacked the cities, pillaged the countryside, moved onto the estates, and used the mosaic baths and the wine cellars as long as they could.
Often—I say often although I have only eaten on three or four occasions: a spider of my species is not a large creature, especially not during the first and likely the only year of his life, he doesn’t require too many victims—often after I have eaten and digested a victim, and after my consciousness has sluggishly revived and my mental and bodily quickness resumed, I become frantic with self-loathing and race back and forth across my web wondering what I might do by way of expiation or suicide.
There were two South Africas: white and black. Similarly, there was the public world and the private world, the open and the covert. And they were rigidly separate. . . . White South African bystanders were able to live with the brutality against blacks because it was being carried out in relative secret, in that “other world.” Everyone engaged in an “apartheid of the mind.”
That winter began my political education. It took the form of acronyms: JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front), JKSLF (Jammu and Kashmir Students Liberation Front), BSF (Border Security Force), CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force). To go with these I learned new phrases: frisking, crackdown, bunker, search, identity card, arrest, and torture.
This desideratum, that we hate ourselves for having sexual feelings, is itself soul-crushing. And the idea that porn is the root determinant of men’s sexuality, and that men’s sexuality is itself invariably and dangerously misogynistic, was hyperbolic and empirically untestable. Which may be why the culture so resoundingly rejected it.
But then when I come home to Milwaukee, I often have the privilege of driving my aunt’s Volvo, and I must admit that I want that privilege. I want the whole Volvo, but what I especially want—or perhaps this simply becomes my image of what it is that I want, of what is somehow at stake—are the stereo controls on the steering wheel. With them you can adjust the volume on the stereo, or even advance to another song on the CD, without even having to move your hands. Imagine: a life without wasted motion.
The connection between the quest for experience and the wish for anti-experience isn’t chronological. You don’t wake up the morning after some final orgy of experience and discover that you can’t stand any more. It seems to be, instead, arbitrary and eruptive. You reach points in life at which you can no longer live like other people, though you don’t want to die. Experience becomes piercing, grating, intrusive. It is no longer out of reach, an occasional throb in the dark.
There was a gap, but it was not technological. The problem was “humint,” in intelligence-community parlance—human intelligence. The CIA had no “assets” in the al Qaeda camps (no humint on the ground); when a Western intelligence agency did manage to infiltrate al Qaeda, they did not know what to do with the information (no humint at home base). And finally, this most of all, we couldn’t quite understand, on a human level, why someone would want to blow us up (no emotional humint, so to speak).
An agonistic, dissensual community whose members reject any kind of overarching ideology may be a lousy model for (what we usually think of as) a utopian social order. But for precisely that reason, it’s the only kind of intentional community that Hawthorne could have joined. In his preface to Blithedale, the novel’s author goes out of his way to salute “the most romantic episode of his own life.” The very next year, Hawthorne published a rewritten myth in Tanglewood Tales: “The Golden Fleece.”
Fiction and Drama
The airport is deserted at two in the morning, Pyongyang time. A tractor stands on the apron behind an unroofed, unpainted cargo container. It hisses into life as he passes into the custody of the ground guards. The turboprop, which has brought him all the way from Karachi, spins down its engine. He looks back at the aircraft. The red bulb mounted above the wing has been his companion through six hours of uneven sleep.
I killed a near-son today. Naturally I did not tell my lover about it. But when I was at the clinic his ex-girlfriend was there and she recognized me, and when that snitch got home she called my lover on the phone and told him what I’d done. She probably snuck it in as if she didn’t mean to let it slip. “Oh I saw Mona today at the clinic,” she would have said. “You knew she was there, right? We chatted a bit . . .” and so forth. We hadn’t even chatted a bit.
A spate of recent books and articles and counter-articles and letters about the articles has declared that American women are in crisis. They’ve been dropping out of prestigious jobs and taking on all the housework; the accomplished ones can’t get a date; and then there are the kids, those black holes of endless need. The authors accuse women of abandoning their children for work, abandoning public life for their children, acting too feminine or too feminist, confusing their sexuality with pornography, and generally failing to make their lives run smoothly.
Will the roads become obsolete overnight? Certainly not; we’ll always need a place to ride our bicycles. But the massive motorways will be the first to atrophy, and eventually the third of the nation used up by land cars can be reallocated to living.
The protagonists of Merrick’s collection are certainly not chick-lit material (they don’t do lunch, they’re not shoe fetishists, and their sex lives aren’t especially fantastic), but neither are they the young women we recognize or admire. Merrick seems strangely unprepared to acknowledge the existence of women like herself—the intellectually alive, productive female actor in the world is hardly to be found in This Is Not Chick Lit.
We chose n+1 as the working title of our journal. For us, it was a metaphor for the possibility of progress, the infinitely open set, at a time when Americans seemed to have lost faith in both progressive politics and the possibility of individual improvement, in literature and thought, without the aid of capitalism. Only then did we discover your journal. We attempted to come up with an alternative title, but nothing pleased us as much or suited us as well.