Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: education (page 3 of 4)

Finnegans Wake and Little, Big

I purposefully read Beckett’s Watt after Proust to clear away ideological detritus. After Finnegans Wake, I didn’t sense any particular residue, so I chose to reread John Crowley’s brilliant and unique Little, Big, not realizing that its approach is in some ways opposite that of the Wake.

The two books don’t seem to have any special relation, and I don’t know anyone that’s claimed a place for Joyce as one of Crowley’s major antecedents. (I see more of James Branch Cabell and Charles Kingsley than Joyce, for example.) But with the Wake floating in my mind, there was one polar difference that weighed on me the entire time I was reading Little, Big, which I’d loosely put as gnosticism vs. physicalism.

Now, I’m a bit biased here because my Wake teacher is an avowed enemy of gnostics (his criticism in a nutshell: “They just make shit up!”) and so had something of a vested interest in reading an anti-gnosticism into Finnegans Wake, but even on the surface level, the Wake is a very physical and visceral book. It’s most obviously present in Joyce’s obsessive scatology and descriptions of near-every bodily functions, which eventually make the book clinical enough that all disgust and fetishism fall away, and you might as well be reading about the sexual proclivities of moths. But as I said last time, Joyce isn’t one to deal in ephemeralities: there is little theology or eschatology in the Wake. When religion is invoked, it’s often with direct relation to the physical or the historical.

Little, Big (and for that matter, much of Crowley’s work) not only sets itself to discussing the reality behind the appearance, but does so in a rather gnostic matter. The subsequent Aegypt books make this connection explicit, but it’s certainly there in Little, Big, in which a set of the privileged are allowed mysterious, ineffable access to a world within a world that exists consubstantially with ours.

One look at Finnegans Wake and it seems like mysticism. But Joyce is almost devoutly quotidian: the things he repeatedly, obscurely analogizes are the very basics of the world and more importantly, the known: male, female, parents, children, birth, death, day, night, sex, education, work, play. The most realistic scene (in
III.4) appears to concern a pub-owner and his family, and the
situation as far as I can discern it is hardly anything more unusual than Leopold Bloom’s in Ulysses. If anything, it’s more normal, as there’s far less information given to make these people unique. The pub-owner, named Porter, is a Protestant Irishman and well-respected citizen leeading an typical middle-class life. Joyce loads the scene up with the usual allusions and such, and I take from it that this scene is to be put on an equal footing with all the complications and mysteries have gone before. The message: This is it. This is the world for all to see and all that anyone can see.

It’s hardly so clear-cut, of course, and the heavy use of the Egyptian Book of the Dead are one of the most prominent mythologies that seem to negate Joyce’s physicalism. But as I read it, these mythologies chiefly analogize the physical, monistic reality around us, rather than alluding to some Other realm, just as Bloom’s hallucinations in Nighttown explore his brutal reality. You’re welcome to disagree, but the sense I get is that language and the physical are the two realms at work, and Joyce’s problem isn’t the lack of correlation between one and the other, but the overlapping and overloaded correlation between the two.

Little, Big, on the other hand, purposefully portrays the world-as-we-know-it through a gauzy haze, abstracting New York as “the City” and only vaguely referencing massive events of upheaval in this world, as though to emphasize that the characters are already in process of leaving this world and entering another. Little, Big repeatedly invokes the unexplainable and mysterious motivations in showing the encroaching Otherness in the familiar world. The basic illusoriness of the physical is even more present in Engine Summer, and I think that Crowley enjoys using the concept to show how stories and conceptions of the world trump any certainty about the world itself, using fairy tales as one of his key metaphors. And ultimately, I think Joyce prefers to use the tales to serve the world, rather than the other way around.

Supposedly the hyper-obscure debate between Bishop Berkeley (note the “Ding hvad in idself” reference to Ding an sich) and Saint Patrick near the very end of Finnegans Wake describes the triumph of materialism over Platonic-styled idealism, but I won’t pretend to have much idea of what it means. But consider Giordano Bruno, who figures heavily in both Crowley and Joyce’s worlds. For Crowley, it’s the gnostic/hermetic tradition that Bruno embodies, with his memory arts and mystical reality therein. At least to my eye, Joyce doesn’t reference those aspects often, at least nowhere near as much as the near-constant references strewn about to Bruno’s cosmology and the physical, natural homogeneity of the universe. (Bruno was quite creative and disparate in his philosophies and heresies!) I think he was quite happy having his hands full with the world as we know it.

I don’t really have a preference for one approach over the other, but amazing how Joyce made me forget about non-monistic accounts of reality. Amazing Joyce’s utter presence in this world.

[Thanks to those who responded. I will address your comments soon!]

A Note on Hierarchy

What sticks with me most from Paradise Now is the image of the slick, assured Jamal, dressed in a tweed jacket and casually assuring his two suicide bombers of the heaven that awaits them and the nobility of their actions. His first action in the film is to tell Said that he has been chosen; later on, after Said has gone missing, he speaks of nothing but the problem Said has caused, portraying him only in terms of his utility to the militant organization. Leaving aside all the politics of the film (nothing I say below should be taken as any political or moral statement of my own), Abu-Assad’s presentation of Jamal is not sympathetic and constitutes one of the more unambiguous criticisms of the militant movement in the film.

Contrast Jamal to the militant leaders in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, who are as involved and at risk as any of their lieutenants. The Algerian militants lead by example, underscored in how the film shows their rise from the absolute bottom of society, while the leaders in Paradise Now are secretive, smooth, and manipulative. Said and Khaled, the two bombers, are mostly pushed around by forces that they hardly understand.

It’s not just that Jamal is manipulative, but that he represents “the management.” The exploitation and dehumanization of the peons of an organization by its management is such a seemingly universal situation that it makes the members of the militant organizations understandable–no longer the inhuman “other” that the viewer is a tourist amongst–and this is a significant achievement. The Battle of Algiers is far better as propaganda, but its realism only goes as far as the historical level; its characters are hollow in comparison. It is the greater film, but it does not provoke the shock of recognition that Paradise Now does.

Likewise even with Al Qaeda, where the Los Angeles Times underscores the obvious in describing nepotism, micromanagement, and rhetorical hot air:

Yet Mohammed describes a terrorist outfit fraught with the same conflicts and petty animosities that plague many American corporations. Mohammed describes himself in particular as having to fend off a chairman of the board who insists on micromanaging despite not knowing what he was doing.

Had Mohammed not insisted on such security measures, he suggested, Bin Laden might have endangered the whole mission. That’s because Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi multimillionaire with a huge trust fund, apparently had a knack for forcing Mohammed to take operatives who couldn’t follow directions or keep their mouths shut.

These are patterns that I have seen in every hierarchy I’ve been a part of, from academia to corporations to newspapers to the arts. The most comprehensive portrayal I’ve seen remains The Wire, where the bureaucratic and organizational details of both police department and drug dealer alike ring eerily true: empty suits at the top, political exploiters in the middle, manipulated peons (or frustrated rebels) at the bottom.

Many terrorist leaders have had western educations, so I hesitate to say that the microstructures of these hierarchies are universal, but there is still something uncanny about how the patterns of exploitation and mismanagement repeat themselves with such regularity across diverse situations. I’ll have more to say after I read Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.

J.M. Coetzee: Slow Man

The collective aggrievement from critics that greeted Elizabeth Costello’s appearance in Slow Man was the sigh of the Nobel prize winner again not doing what he was supposed to do. Instead of writing another Disgrace, he brings back the consternating title character of his last book, this time in a metafictional conceit, as she proclaims herself the author of Slow Man.

I argued before that the critics mostly got Elizabeth Costello wrong, particularly in identifying Costello with Coetzee. Here again the reviews make a mishmash of this superficially simple book. John Lanchester makes the huge mistake of saying that the titular slow man, Paul Rayment, “will not act. He refuses to animate the narrative he is in.” A read of the book reveals this to be false: Rayment actually traces a traditional narrative arc through the book. After losing his leg in a bicycle accient, he entangles himself in the life his at-home nurse Marijana because he is attracted to her, and eventually comes to fund the education of her son, though not without some conflict with her husband. His actions with Marijana are impetuous and embarrassing, but the ultimate end is a happy one, perhaps the happiest ending Coetzee has ever committed to paper. The injury serves a higher purpose.

There is a post-colonial aspect to the narrative of a relatively poor Croatian immigrant acting as a nurse to an injured, privileged white man. The main difficulties in the narrative arise from the white man’s burden tactics Paul adopts to get closer to Marijana, and Marijana’s discomfort with them. Through seeing her son as a person, not a means to an end, Paul grows out of this type of relation, but the connections with earlier Coetzee works, particularly Foe and Disgrace, are inarguably present, if not blatant. Pankaj Mishra teases out some of these connections in his review, but falls short of fitting the pieces together.

But this time the postcolonial theorizing is fake, or at least highly artificial. For the first seventy pages, before Costello shows up, it is all in Paul’s mind. He has an accident, and he feels a bit of attraction to Marijana, but he doesn’t do anything about it. Every action he takes that moves the actual plot along is contrived or advocated by Costello. She arranges an affair that spurs Paul to make a move on Marijana, then either berates or flatters him into keeping it up despite Marijana’s clear disapproval. Without Costello’s intervention, it is clear, Paul would quite sensibly have never acted on his feelings for Marijana, and the story–the meat of the book–would not have taken place. Likewise, Costello provides Paul with impeccable facts about Marijana and her family that he could not otherwise find out and verify.

Costello’s presence illuminates exactly how unlikely Paul’s actions are and how contrived the circumstances must be for them to come about. Costello browbeats him: “Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?” And he does. But Costello’s aims are hardly virtuous. She is not as irritating as she was in Elizabeth Costello, but her irrationality and wildly inflated sense of herself are still plenty obnoxious. We are given some excerpts from her fiction this time, and they are not good:

It is old plasticine, from the last Christmas stocking. The pristine cakes of brick red, leaf green, sky blue have bled into each other by now and become a leaden purple. Why, he wonders–why does the bright grow dull and the dull never bright? What would it need to make the purple fade away and the red and blue and green emerge again, like chicks from a shell?

[This raises the point that Costello is not likely to be the author of the pristine, controlled prose of Slow Man.]

Costello is ultimately in search of a story and the machinations she sets in motion are necessary to obtain it. People have focused on the tricky relationship between Costello and her characters, but Coetzee is more significantly focused on the relationship between author and reader. To what extent, he asks, does the effectiveness of fiction rely on these sorts of manipulations remaining hidden from the reader? Slow Man attempts to show a novel from the side of creation rather from the side of consumption, and the subject of the novel–this postcolonial narrative–self-destructs as a result of the exposure. It specifically damages the very symbolism and allegorical resonances that underpinned Disgrace and Foe, because Paul’s reticence is forever separating him (in the Heideggerian sense of alienation) from being thrown into the narrative role that he does eventually play. Costello’s presence amplifies this dissonance beyond all else.

I believe that Slow Man is more than anything a critique of Disgrace and his other past works, a way of Coetzee undermining his past techniques and renouncing the artificial narrativity that Galen Strawson has so pungently described. Costello is not a surrogate for Coetzee, but rather an incarnation of any writer’s will and the desire to shape reality into pleasing novelistic shapes through unpleasant means. I had issues with Disgrace because I believed that the character’s acts and destinies were overdetermined by the historical context Coetzee was trying to convey. (James Wood makes similar points.) Slow Man appears to be Coetzee’s confession. Always very self-aware, Coetzee seems to have abandoned the neat psychological and sociopolitical structures of authors like Alberto Moravia and turned not against their methods, but against their certainty.

Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul, cont.

(Please see Part 1.)

A third disanalogy between Wittgensteinian and everyday criteria indicates that, and why, although Wittgenstein’s immediate audience was the empiricist tradition of philosophy, his views are going, or ought, to offend an empiricist sensibility at every point — which is only to say that this conflict is an intimate one. Go back to the first element of my lay-out, the one I label “Source of Authority”. There one finds “American officials”, “I”, “Africans”, “Anna Freud”, “Shanley”…Wittgenstein’s source of authority never varies in this way. It is, for him, always we who “establish” the criteria under investigation. The criteria Wittgenstein appeals to–those which are, for him, the data of philosophy–are always “ours”, the “group” which forms his “authority” is always, apparently, the human group as such, the human being generally. When I voice them, I do so, or take myself to do so, as a member of that group, a representative human.

Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (18)

This quote illuminates some of the problems that Bourbon faces in separating the human from the non-human (e.g., machines). When Wittgenstein uses “we” to generalize over a metaphysically strict notion of people using language (which seems to me a more precise term than “human”), the criteria used are de facto implied by the usage of the words themselves. A word means by virtue of its use, and authority stems from use rather than, for example, a particular set of sense data.

Bourbon does not quite have that avenue open to him, since he is interested in a criteria of being human. What for Wittgenstein was an effect of usage is here inverted, as language takes on a role in elucidating what it is to be human. If the book is to answer this question, he has to engage in debates such as, “Women, narratives, poems, and the like can be understood (1) as expressive of human beings or (2) as analogically like human beings” (170). To do so he cannot rely on language use alone, but on language’s interaction with certain types of ontology (say, “what it is to be human”). This, I think, is the most radical move made in the book. Not coincidentally, there is a tension between the “we” and the “I” in the book–both are used liberally–that implies a more voluntary notion of humanity than the version that Wittgenstein mandated. But for all that, it sometimes is straightforardly ontological:

Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

The challenge is set here: to find a version of humanness that has in its very ontology a relation that is illuminated by our relationship to the non-propositional language in fiction.

To this end, the book alternates between passages in high analytic philosophy style (especially Davidson) and much more freewheeling reveries that owe a little to Heidegger and Levinas, but not that much. Sellars is one philosopher who I’m pretty weak on, but from what I can gather, Bourbon draws on his response to Quine in some of the more technical passages. There could be a little John McDowell in there as well, but I’m really not qualified to tell. While Bourbon is concerned with literature, philosophy and more importantly, philosophical forms of argument, take precedence over literary theory and its forms. Apart from a short passage criticizing Helen Vendler and John Ashbery of “philosophical infelicities” (for taking a facile view of meaning in literature), there is little attempt to engage with literary analysis.

The early part of the book attempts to clear some territory, using analytic-styled arguments to push literature out of the realm of philosophy by claiming that fictional sentences are non-propositional. I.e., they do not contain truth values, and therefore do not actually reflect any correspondence to reality. As such, they are nonsense. Here he dispenses with much literary analysis, saying that poems are “provided with content by conceptual means: unjustified conceptual means” (10). Further:

If it [a poem] is going to be valuable as a means of reflecting upon ourselves, then it cannot be because it offers us theories, or places to test our theories. What kind of test would that be since our interpretations can rig the results? (11)

In other words, since whatever correspondence is mandated by an act of interpretation, the meaning of a fictional text is imposed on it, rather than contained in it. Rather (and the significance of this will be clear later), “their value will come out of nonsense.”

He then dispatches the versions of humanity offered by Keats and Henry Adams. Keats in his view sees humanity as an unnatural (or non-natural) phenomenon, capable of motivation in contrast to the non-intentionality of nature. This, he says, is insufficient; it is a definition by contrast and negation. The gloomier Adams offers an inversion of Keats’s bright view, portraying humanity as a meaningless “dynamo” of fireworks and little else in this wonderful passage from “Vis Nova”, near the end of The Education:

Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself for himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formulas failed. There, whether finished or not, education stopped. The formula, once made, could be but verified.

The effort must begin at once, for time pressed. The old formulas had failed, and a new one had to be made, but, after all, the object was not extravagant or eccentric. One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it. Among indefinite possible orbits, one sought the orbit which would best satisfy the observed movement of the runaway star Groombridge, 1838, commonly called Henry Adams.

(Also see Ray Davis’s quotation of Adams for similarly grim times.)

Bourbon rejects this too as ultimately nihilistic and begging the question of the initial axiom, which I will quote a third time:

Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

Ergo, humanity is not merely a dynamo. Poised between the pre-modern conception of the soul and the existing deterministic, mechanistic view, Bourbon proceeds to nonsense, as embodied by the non-propositional sentences of fiction. His primary exemplar is Finnegans Wake.

Now, to claim Finnegans Wake as a representative of literature is disingenuous, since it is one of the most marginal and extreme works of fiction ever. But I don’t believe Bourbon is doing that; rather, he identifies FW as portraying the aspects he’s interested in in their rawest form, devoid of the facile interpretations that can be placed on the “plots” and “characters” of most books. Without these misleading interpretive constructs, we can get down to business.

For example, the “characters” in FW are not characters at all, but arrangements of assorted things and people that are designated by sigla and/or initials like HCE and ALP. HCE, standing for “here comes everybody”, “Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker,” etc. Such a thing resists one particular sense; “We have to learn to recognize HCE, but we also have to learn what it is we are identifying” (175). But from the argument that fictional sentences lack sense and are non-propositional, this seems an impossible feat. Thus:

FW would seem to exemplify all these ways of falling into confusion,
all of the ways words, sentences, and persons slip into obscurity. (175)

It is here, I think, that Bourbon sees the commonality with Wittgenstein, who in his later work explicated “language games” as holistic systems of linguistic practice; i.e., that words themselves lack a definite representative meaning, but rather gain what sense they have through their use between people. But what sort of language game is being played in fiction, where the use is explicitly nonsensical (so Bourbon says), and the activity is taking place not between two people but between a set text and a reader? Wittgenstein (in the view of David Pears, at least) mandated that a language be used between two people before it can properly be called a language; a language invented and used by one person who had never met anyone else would not properly be a language at all. That is not what the Wake deals in, but neither is it quite normal communication either. It is in this space between Wittgenstein’s idea of a language game and a solipsistic non-language that Bourbon fills in his idea of the human.

To be continued…

Thomas Frank: What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Is there anything left to say about this book? Maybe not, but I wanted to try to provide some context for the book, both in Frank’s own background and his historical precedents.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? is less a study than a memoir and a polemic smashed together. It’s not just a memoir the middle chapter, where he describes how he was a strident, Randian Republican as a teenager who turned into a liberal in college, but throughout the book. The first big tipoff comes early on, when he salutes the amazing Embarrassment for no real reason other than that they were from Kansas, then quotes “Sex Drive” (I think I would have picked “Wellsville”). They deserve every word of praise, but they don’t fit with the book: the Embarrassment were one hell of an anomaly. But Frank quotes them because he loves them, and the book is a disguised memoir of his childhood and adolescence. It’s not a polemic, it’s a travelogue.

And it works better as one, because when he’s dissecting the Great Plains, he overstates his case. Much of the evidence given is in the form of people he’s run into in his life, people he interviews on the street. I have no question they’re as bad as he paints them, but he paints in very broad strokes. He identifies large, abstract trends, such as white male resentment against minorities, and uses them to characterize Kansas and environs in toto.

Frank goes out of his way to paint Kansans as non-racists and non-fundamentalists. I believe him on this point, since Brown v. Board was provoked in Kansas precisely because the schools were “separate but equal.” Frank then argues for a chiefly economic (but also social) form of resentment that keeps Republicans in power.

That was what Frank’s childhood told him. Frank was raised a Republican of the libertarian Ayn Randian sort, but not as a social conservative or as a Christian. And this informs his take on so-called red America: Republicans are campaigning economically, not socially. So most of his arguments rely on Republicans’ anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-welfare state strategies.

The problem is that he paints this argument as exclusive and total. Frank does not talk about the South, and the economic view is clearly not true in the South. The South is deeply Republican at this point, but it is not reflective of any shift of views on Southerners part; in 1994, Southerners finally got over their resentment of the Republicans enough to realize that the ultra-conservative Democrats they had been electing had not been doing them any good.

Yet further west, things are less clear. Frank explains away the election of Kansas’s Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius as a trivial side effect of a fight between two sects of Republicans, moderate and ultra-conservative. Fine, but why has Montana been trending Democratic lately?

The answer is pluralism. The Republicans do not use anything close to a unified, monolithic strategy. They have built a tenuous coalition of voters by appealing to every voter they can scrape up in whatever way they can, which is why Bush could not have managed more than a narrow victory. American conservatism, as it stands today, is such a weird amalgam (compare it to Israel, England, etc.) that it seems unlikely to be an endemic phenomenon. It’s arisen through careful planning, and does not exist as a monolithically native sensibility. That’s why a uniting figure like Bush or Reagan is so important.

But in the face of a Bush win and a poisoned administration doing a power-grab, it’s tempting to see the end of the nation at hand, driven by 50% of the populace. None of the trends Frank mentions explains anywhere close to 50% of the nation. Each of them, from anti-regulatory capitalists to religious fundamentalists to angry white men, make up a 5-10% segment of the population amidst the great unwashed masses.

People like Paul Weyrich and Donald Wildmon have made careers out of blowing up these conservative population to appear larger than they really are, from the original “Emerging Republican Majority” to the “moral majority” onwards. And they have tricks up their sleeves to convince the media and other suckers that they wield great power, like mailing many identical copies of decency complaints to the FCC. I worry that Frank may help their cause by painting Kansas as having a single sensibility that is hostile to the better instincts of people. And he drastically undersells the more situational aspects of the last election, described expertly by Mark Danner in How Bush Really Won:

The fact was that though President Bush was personally popular, many of his major policies were not. The problem for the Bush campaign was how to turn attention away from policies voters didn’t like–particularly the President’s decisions on Iraq and his conduct of the war there–toward policies they approved of&#x97particularly his conduct of “the war on terror” (into which Iraq would be “folded”)&#x97and toward his personal qualities.

None of this is to say that Frank isn’t right about how Kansas and other states have gradually shifted from economic populism to libertarian corporatism in response to right-wing agitprop. But that’s not Frank’s ultimate message, though. He has an agenda to push: he wants the Democrats to embrace class warfare and become anti-corporate.

Yet to advocate an anti-corporate policy as a political platform based on these observations seems unjustified, simplistic, and insufficient. Frank constructs a narrative that appeals to the compelling and partially accurate prejudices of his target readership–the liberal intelligentsia–but just like those who trumpeted the narrative “moral values” as the deciding factor in the election, Frank exaggerates. The weakness in this approach becomes apparent when Frank goes after Ann Coulter. Now, Ann Coulter is truly horrible, but her constituency is not large enough for her to be an exemplar of a trend. She is more a product of the right-wing think tank machine, designed to put guests on political talk shows, than she is a popular phenomenon (as Rush Limbaugh distressingly is). But because her views are insane and frightening even by Limbaugh’s standards, Frank can alienate readers further from Kansans by quoting her.

Frank’s aggressive tactics become most clear at the very end of the book, where Frank turns prophet of doom:

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world–for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness–blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge…Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

As a social system, the backlash works The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one.

It was the corporations the whole time! Note how government falls out of the equation, reduced the role of a puppet of the big corporations’ huge plot to advance capitalism and screw the proletariat. And it is mass culture that is the culprit.

The chief antecedent for this mode of thinking is Thorstein Veblen, who attacked the products of luxury culture and its consumers in The Theory of the Leisure Class and coined the term “conspicuous consumption” for the demonstrative decadence of these people. Veblen’s dour, astringent philosophy left hardly anything untouched: one would have to be an ascetic to avoid the pollution of the culture industry. (In this, he also anticipated the sociological work of Erving Goffman, who paints society as a system in which we have no choice but to take on socially constricted, prescribed roles.) With Veblen, and with Frank, the economic origin and intent of a product is the indicator of its moral worth.

The journal Frank edits, The Baffler, I read in college. I haven’t read it for years, but a look at the contents doesn’t reveal much change. It focused nearly exclusively on cultural capitalism. It excoriated every cultural movement that came down the line (Edge City, Donna Tartt, Wired, etc) as a meaningless product of consumerist culture. That which was acceptable–Steve Albini, John Cassavetes, Weldon Kees– were those that were aggressively, polemically independent, but also curiously middlebrow, as though intellectual pursuit for its own sake was not valid, only that which served the greater struggle against corporatism.

I used to find these views terribly compelling, and I’m not sorry they’re out there. But people looking for a book on “Red America” get something quite different with Frank’s book: an emotional travelogue through his childhood and adolescence that ends with the angry cry of a detractor to tear it all down. I don’t think it’s a useful approach; cultural crap tailored to the lowest common denominator has always existed and will always exist, and the liberal struggle can accommodate it. And I no longer wish to sign on with cultural critics that seem eager to shred all that is corporate, because I’ll go down with it. To quote the Embarrassment:

A self-proclaimed master for my education You said it was for my own good Then lit up the matches I gave you And aimed at the ground where I stood

I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy. I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy.

The Embarrassment, “Careen”

Just kidding, Dr. Frank, but the Embarrassment were a great band.

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