A few new economy boosters were able to pass themselves off as thinkers during the five years (1995–1999) we now think of as the “Nineties.” But Being Digital and Rational Exuberance and their genre-mates are now just historical curios. The bubble popped, and where are they?
The Intellectual Situation
The reading crisis, like the social security crisis, has become a con-game based on facts. The NEA announces there are fewer literary readers than two decades ago. Books continue to have more competition from non-book technologies. Will people still read in 2060? As with Social Security, there are variables one just doesn’t know how to project forward: fewer people read books but more want to write them, and more and more books are published.
“I never expected it,” says R., “but when my favorite uncle S. died he left me some money—well, lots of money. And yet it wasn’t enough to fund my own revolution the way I used to dream (Belize looked promising), and now I can hardly afford my Park Slope apartment.
Every culture produces its paradigmatic social situation, and the date is now ours. We, too, have been dating. In the little restaurants of downtown Manhattan we sit across from our dates, and over the course of a three-course meal make strange boasts (“I got a 1500 on my SATs—old style”), and genuine confessions (“My room is messy”), to set up boasts disguised as confessions (“I love sex! I can’t help it”).
Whether peak oil arrives in 2005 or 2010 or 2015, and whether the maximum level of production turns out to be 90 or 100 million barrels per day, will not matter much in the end. All economies run on energy, and since World War II the most important source of that energy has been petroleum.
Though there may not be a great writer left, literature still rules. Though it may be the age of the Xbox, reality TV, blogs, and Dan Brown, this is still the age of belief in literature—judging by the resilient power of utopias, the overwhelming wave of fictions, the grip of the same old storylines on our commodified lives, and the civilized consensus about the need and virtues of “culture.” People read less, but ideas once derived from books, and now turned into circulating rumors, are all they have.
The parallels between parenting and torture, unwittingly created by behavioral psychologists in both camps, suddenly intersect and cross over. We rebel at leaving our child to cry because something about it violates our humanity. We may want our child to get a head start on competition in the global economy or, quite simply, to fall asleep so we can catch up on sleep ourselves.
She spits into the bucket at her corner—”Don’t stand near the bucket!” someone says—raises a glove to dip Vaseline from the blob of it on top of the corner post, rubs the glove into her nose and cheeks, to help the other’s punches slide off. “Kitch-die-muh hsshoo?” “What?” I say, suddenly panicked. “Oh!” I lean over to tie her shoe.
And all of us lovers of music, with ears tuned precisely to a certain kind of sublimity in pop, are quick to detect pretension, overstatement, and cant about pop—in any attempt at a wider criticism—precisely because we feel the gap between the effectiveness of the music and the impotence and superfluity of analysis. This means we don’t know about our major art form what we ought to know.
In December 2004, I traveled on the road from Uzbekistan across the Oxus River on which the first Soviet convoys had rolled into Afghanistan twenty-five years before. Fearful of ambushes, the Soviets had mined the surrounding desert right up to the verges; and venturing out of the car for a pee I walked into a minefield—one of the many across Afghanistan that had killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people—and then had to learn, for some long minutes, how hard it is literally to retrace one’s steps.
And just as the benefits of status presume the irrelevance of material inequality, so do its injustices. When you think your real problem is not that people have more money than you but that the people who have more money condescend to you, your problem is status. And when the solution to your problem is (as Sennett recommends) “mutual respect across the boundaries of inequality” (i.e., no more condescending), you have the imaginative world of neoliberalism.
Much depends on the meaning of the word fashion. You wear this hat or belt as a costume, confident in the assumption that your actual class is clear, that you cannot be mistaken for a member of the lower class you ape.
Is it just that he might offend his Star Wars collaborators if he turned his back on blockbusters? Would it be irresponsible of him to go experimental—like the CEO of Ford saying he didn’t feel like making cars anymore and that everyone ought to ride a bike?
Fixated on negativity—tellingly, they note only the negative pieces, never the laudatory ones—the Editors accuse the books pages of the New Republic of “taking down” writers like Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and Don DeLillo. I detest that verb. For one thing, no review ever does “take down” a writer.
Fiction and Drama
Once there lived a father who couldn’t find his children. He went everywhere, asked everyone—had his little children come running in here? But whenever people responded with the simplest of questions—“What do they look like, what are their names, are they boys or girls?”—he didn’t know how to answer.
Small talk has an aspect of bravery when things are winding down. We came out of the mountains, down through the foothills, with Denver spreading at their base, and talked about little and then about nothing. And then the peaks or teepees, or perhaps they are notionally sails, of the new international airport rose up from the plains, we’d reached the place where the airport road bifurcates, and I bore right, toward terminal A, and Viv, as I said, was wiping her eyes.
Our cable-box dreams finally rested on one beautiful notion: the participatory broadcasting of real life. With such a ludicrous number of channels, companies would just have to give some of the dial over to the rest of us, the viewers—wouldn’t they? And we millions would flow into the vacuum of content. We’d manifest our nature on channels 401 to 499.
It is predictable enough that any popular social science book will inspire antipathy among academic social scientists—for being too simple, too fun, too easily understood. After all, what do university intellectuals offer the general public if not sweaty handfuls of painstakingly gathered arcana? And here is the successful crossover author just giving the stuff away between four-color covers!
The Rushdie novel appears in a convoy, behind barricades and police lines, with outriders and bodyguards, its image controlled by public relations handlers, its message broadcast over loudspeakers. Each new novel by Rushdie, no matter how significant or trivial as a literary object, brings with it other narratives: the fatwa imposed by the ayatollah; the cover photo of Rushdie with Bono; copies of The Satanic Verses being burned in nameless third-world countries; Rushdie threatening a New York journalist with a baseball bat.
Given that most critics are people who have devoted their careers to reading and rereading their favorite books—romantics who pursue the ideal in everything they read—finding Pushkin in Pelham and so on—there is something mysterious and even, as Kundera says, scandalous in Moretti’s willed and scientific choice to read what is formally interesting, with so little regard for what he likes.
Recall that the New Deal was “maternalist,” a set of institutional innovations designed to protect “traditional family life” (that artifact of political economy) from the remorseless logic of the market. Social norms and regulatory interventions were designed to stigmatize paid labor for women and to secure a “family wage” for male breadwinners. Sexist to the core, this regime at least maintained that there is more to life than “wholly materialist and secular goals,” as Mishra puts it.