Backtalk (on George Saunders)

The Frankenstein monster spoke French. Despite what we may have read in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature did not begin his famous diatribe by saying “All men hate the wretched,” and asking the doctor “have I not suffered enough?”* Instead, he would have said something to the effect of “Tous les hommes haïssent les misérables” and “n’ai-je pas assez souffert?” Likewise, the creature never declared that “mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery,” but more likely said “Mon sort ne sera pas celui de asservissement misérable.” As for the threats he made against the doctor and his loved ones (“I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear”), he probably said something like: “Je me vengerai du tort qu’on m’a fait; si je ne puis inspirer l’amour, je provoquerai l’effroi.” And the creature’s most ominous warning must have been: “Je serai avec vous votre nuit de noces.”

This linguistic premise is of course built into the novel’s basic plot; the doctor hails from a French-speaking Swiss family, and in his choice of tongue the monster takes after his creator. But Shelley’s narrative gambit requires that the reader imagine everything the creature says as voiced otherwise than we see on the page. Moreover, we can suppose that the creature’s verbal mannerisms must have been quite different, too, as his speech is reported second hand by Frankenstein, his nemesis, and relayed third-hand by the doctor’s friend, captain Walton. Like his anatomy, then, the creature’s words in Frankenstein are fundamentally and irretrievably deformed.

Even putting aside the doctor’s unarguable malice toward his creature, the text’s infidelity to the monster’s words leads to an ethical conundrum. A sympathetic reader may claim to understand the monster’s motives, but we cannot claim to ever “hear” him. And a sympathetic ear is precisely what the monster requests of us. “I intreat you to hear me” (145), he says. “Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me” (146). The creature insists on this listening no less than six times. “Listen to me, Frankenstein,” he implores the doctor. And as if turning aside to the reader, he drops the surname to repeat, “listen to me.”

Ecoutez-moi, Frankenstein. Ecoutez-moi.

We have to suspend our disbelief to accept Shelley’s fictional premise that a creature only one year old could speak such eloquent lines. The author goes to some lengths to render this idea plausible and makes the monster’s awakening to conscience an allegory of enlightenment reason and the romantic imagination. A blank slate of confused sensory impressions, the newly-created monster stumbles upon a humble cottage in the German countryside and takes refuge in its adjoining “kennel,” as he calls it (mon chenil(?)). From his hiding-place he is able to observe the cottagers through a chink in a boarded-up window, eventually learning to speak good French, for, as it happens, the residents are exiled Parisians of high breeding who have fallen on dark times. He listens and watches closely as the young man in the family reads historical tomes aloud to his lover and in this way he learns to read books himself, including, not so shabby, Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Fox 8 cover (detail). Illustration by Chelsea Cardinal

This educational premise of Shelley’s is taken up by George Saunders in his short story “Fox 8,” which was recently republished as a hardbound volume with illustrations. The fox who narrates the story is an inquisitive dreamer who one day hears “the most amazing sound” coming through a window, and he is inspired to learn human speech by returning to the house every night and listening in on the bedtime stories a mother reads to her children.** Soon enough our protagonist is disconcerted to learn that foxes are maligned in human stories — a bitter discovery that presages many disappointments to come. Like Frankenstein, Saunders’ tale is the righteous vindication of a hunted, misunderstood outcast and an indictment of humanity’s reckless domination of nature. Appearing as it did at the end of 2018, Fox 8 is a fitting addition to the year’s bicentennial celebrations of Shelley’s novel; Frankenstein was released on January 1, 1818. Why, then, has no-one noticed the parallels?

The oversight is striking given that Fox 8 deftly targets the ethical conundrum of Frankenstein‘s linguistic infidelity, its implicit silencing of the monster’s own speech. Saunders, in contrast to Shelley, turns the distinctive inarticulateness of his narrator into a major premise of the tale. Whereas in Frankenstein we can only imagine and fatally misrepresent the words of the creature, Saunders foregrounds his creature’s own words and in so doing makes the experience of reading into a strangely pleasurable challenge. Like Fox 8 himself, the reader must learn to speak a new language.

One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music! I listened to those music werds until the sun went down, when all of a suden I woslike: Fox 8, crazy nut, when sun goes down, werld goes dark, skedaddle home, or else there can be danjer!

Fox 8 at his “Story window.” Illustration by C. Cardinal

This apparent demotion of English is deceptively simple. Fox 8’s misfirings hit surprising targets (“I herd”; “They sounded grate!”) and his solecisms (“woslike”) seem perfectly warranted by the idiomatic speech they adopt as their own. Even the limping grammar, closely based as well on current vernacular, is highly suggestive (“what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice”): doesn’t the phrase is, was condense the essential gambit of narrative art, the storyteller’s near-magical wielding of narrative presents and present pasts? It seems not so farfetched to make this claim, as Saunders’ tale plumbs the primordial source of “storys” and enchants us like the children Fox 8 eavesdrops on from outside the window (4).

This is very much a story about storytelling; Fox 8’s innocent sincerity allows Saunders to foreground narration and metafiction, as when the protagonist charmingly but clumsily refers to conventions of suspense, to a venerable quote from Dickens, or chides other “buks” for being “fawlse” in various ways. Most importantly, Fox 8 learns that narrative is a way of teaching empathy: he finds out early on that Storys and luv always go together (4). For this reason, too, “a gud riter will make the reeder feel as bad as the Yuman does in there Story” (12), a bid for righteous sympathy that takes on Byronic dimensions, as when Fox 8 says, “I woslike: Why did the Curator do it so rong, making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?” (37-8). Surely not a rhetorical question?

Saunders is hardly the first to raise lofty existential questions in childlike narrative. But the writer’s unique gifts can be seen in Fox 8‘s sudden shifts of affect and the subtle turns and shadings of empathetic feeling. This is a signature of Saunders’ work — its specific “curativity,” as Fox 8 might say. But the distinct aesthetic challenge and unlikely triumph of this little book lies in the jarring and disorienting way that Saunders can make silliness convey heartbreak and tragedy. Against all odds Fox 8’s goofy malapropisms and zany daydreams rise to the level of the Frankenstein monster’s stentorian flak. But that impressive monologue was badly deformed, we’re guessing, by Shelley’s romantic English. Saunders, in contrast, shows us that we can hear and empathize with people and other beings who do not speak like us, who we perhaps can’t understand at all. But we fail to do so, why? Fox 8 would like to know.

In Frankenstein, the monster’s first words to the scornful doctor are sulky and resentful: “I expected this reception” (“Je m’attendais à cet accueil”). Fox 8, only somewhat more hopeful, concludes his letter to us “Yumans” with a challenging offer: “I awate your answer.”


*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 145.

**George Saunders, Fox 8 (New York: Random House, 2018), 3.

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On Resigning from Power

On December 2, Emmanuel Macron returned to Paris from the G20 summit and looked down from the Arc de Triomphe on a city ravaged by riots. The night before, gilets jaunes protesters had ransacked the Champs-Elysées and tagged the base of the triumphal monument with slogans, including a now-familiar call for the president’s resignation: “Macron Démission.” What began in November as a protest movement against an unpopular fuel tax has now increasingly targeted Macron in person. The gilets jaunes’ demand that the president resign offers Macron an exceptional political opportunity, were he to recognize it and claim the strategic advantage.

France Protests

Place de l’Étoile, December 2, 2018 (Thibault Camus/AP/SIPA)

As the gilets jaunes movement has grown and spread, the protesters’ grievances have also broadened; the fuel tax now appears to be merely the precipitating factor of a general revolt against Macron’s neoliberal policies and an economic order that favors the wealthy. But the most interesting political question raised by the protest movement lies precisely in the original controversy over fuel prices and the gilets jaunes’ claim that the government’s ecological carbon tax was to blame for high fuel prices. As it turns out, that belief was largely mistaken, since the tax increase accounted for only a fraction of fuel’s rising cost, as Le Monde’fact-checkers have pointed out. And while the protesters’ broader grievances are surely legitimate, the violent revolt against a relatively modest carbon tax is ominous, to say the least. The events in Paris — an “insurrection” and “revolution” in the words of Mélenchon — raise the alarming prospect of popular resistance to future climate change legislation. The dangers are hard to overestimate; during the coming years the world’s transition to low-carbon energy will likely demand unprecedented sacrifices on the part of people accustomed to the comforts and conveniences of consumer-based economies and the supposedly cheap fossil fuels that prop them up. No doubt the burden of those sacrifices should not fall on the poorest. But in demanding cheap fuel, the gilets jaunes are inadvertently denying its catastrophic cost. In this sense, the car-drivers’ protests run fully counter to the progressive agenda on climate change.*

Climate change is nothing less than the high price of supposedly cheap fuel finally coming due. More broadly, the shattered illusion of “cheap” goods has now wholly discredited the cost/benefit ledger of fossil capitalism. As it happens, Macron’s fateful December 2 was also the opening day of the annual UN Climate Change Conference. A mere three years after the much-vaunted 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, the landmark Paris Agreement now appears hopelessly weak; as the IPCC recently warned, the Agreement’s aspirational 2 degree limit on global warming is far too modest to avert climate disaster. That gross failure of world governance is now in repeat mode: on the eve of this week’s Climate Change Conference, the science editor for the Observer grimly warned that “Climate catastrophe is now looking inevitable.” Recent events in Paris give us a sense of the social calamities that may accompany such ecological disruption. An ominous symbol emerges, pregnant with “condensed” meanings, as the psychoanalysts say: “Paris” is shorthand for a disaster we have unleashed on the future.

As Macron looked down from the Arc de Triomphe, was it a future of social unrest in an overheated world he glimpsed in the wreckage on the Champs Elysées? And as he considered his role in the green movement, might he have envisaged for a moment the opportunity to resign with honor?


It seems that only fiction is up to the task of imagining the challenge that confronts us today: the surrender of capitalism and the resignation of the powerful in the face of ecological necessity. But since it may be too late now to avert a disorderly outcome, standing down from power might also entail a ‘resignation’ to the inevitable and an avowal of hopelessness. This double resignation would require the invention of a political rhetoric that exists only in literature.

A short story of Mark Strand’s imagines just such a scenario. First published in 1979, “The President’s Resignation” is in many ways an absurd send-up of political discourse, though the tone of goofiness only underscores the story’s challenge to its readers, programmed as they are to understand politics in terms of human “reality.” Read in the present context, the story seems uncannily prescient, as Strand’s hapless head of state has sacrificed all his power and authority to the apparently pointless task of observing the weather: “His critics,” Strand says, “accused him of spending too much energy on such exercises.”** The story consists essentially of the president’s farewell speech, interspersed with applause.

Who can forget my proposals, petitions uttered on behalf of those who labored in the great cause of weather–measuring wind, predicting rain, giving themselves to whole generations of days–whose attention was ever riveted to the invisible wheel that turns the stars and to the stars themselves? How like poetry, said my enemies. They were right. For it was my wish to make nothing happen. Thank heaven it has been so, for my words would easily have been wasted along with the works they might have engendered. I have always spoken for what does not change, for what resists action, for the stillness at the center of man (32-3).

If the outgoing president had a mission, it was to advocate for “what does not change,” he says (33). And since weather is by definition changeable, the head of state’s focus on “what does not change” is a strong clue that “The President’s Resignation” implicitly aims beyond mere weather to address the preeminent political challenge of our time. This makes Strand’s story an invaluable document for the fight against global warming. Indeed, a close look at the story reveals that behind the president’s seemingly idle preoccupations about the weather is nothing other than the looming question of climate and its transformations over the course of human history. We learn, for instance, that the president’s focus on the history of climate was especially controversial: critics of the president “were especially severe,” the author says, “about his wasting public funds on a National Museum of Weather, in whose rooms one could experience the climate of any day anywhere in the history of man.” This enterprise might seem eminently pedagogical, and one imagines in retrospect (forty years after “The President’s Resignation”) what public education on the prehistory of the Anthropocene might have done to avert worsening climate change — to say nothing of the president’s much-maligned “‘gas crusade'” (31). But far from serving as a model for action, or even for that matter much activity of the mind, “The President’s Resignation” stands as a model of righteous inaction in an age of frenetic busyness. Strand’s nameless president is a latter-day Bartleby; like Melville’s do-nothing government functionary, he ‘preferred not to’ assume his office for a month and a half, a space of idle time that became fifty-one national holidays, or as he puts it, “the glorious fifty-one that now belong to the annals of meditation.”

“How like poetry.” The author slyly gestures to his own work as poet here, and even anticipates his later stint in the corridors of power (Strand was named US Poet Laureate in 1990). But we would be mistaken to understand the reference to the president’s “enemies” as indicating political rivals in an opposing party — or even a rioting populace. The president’s rivals should be understood instead as anyone with a practical mindset, who understand words only as prose and mistake fiction for mere “stories” — those, indeed, who have the sorry ambition to do anything at all. Accordingly, the president concludes his resignation speech with the calmly insurrectionary warning to anyone with a job or career: “weather shall always exceed the office of our calling” (35).

* *

Is this a viable political option today? Can the challenge of climate change be met in the mode of poetic idleness? And is it feasible to imagine a similar resignation of our would-be overlords, including the much-criticized Emmanuel Macron? It may well be, I am suggesting, that only an inspiring abdication from power can move the public to abandon hope in a capitalist future. At the end of his twenty-year, nine-volume inquiry into politics and biopower in the post-Holocaust era, Giorgio Agamben concludes in nearly the same tone as Mark Strand’s outgoing president, who strove to “make nothing happen.” This is perhaps not surprising; Agamben, after all, is a great admirer of Melville’s Bartleby. Fittingly, the words are found on the final page of Agamben’s concluding book. And although this may not be the last thing Agamben ever writes, we might well imagine the philosopher as signing off for good, that is to say resigning, with these closing words on the secret power of idleness:

The properly human life is the one that, by rendering inoperative the specific works and functions of the living being, causes them to idle, so to speak, and in this way opens them into possibility,” says Agamben. “Contemplation and inoperativity […], in liberating living human beings from every biological and social destiny and every predetermined task, render them available for that peculiar absence of work we are accustomed to calling ‘politics.’***

Or, as Strand’s resigning president artfully puts it, “Thank you and goodbye” (35).

*The gilets jaunes protests are commonly referred to as the largest French street protests since May ’68. It is worth keeping in mind that the May insurrection fell apart once the government reprovisioned the gas pumps, as Cornelius Castoriadis points out. In this account, the counterrevolution was not only a victory of the forces of order but was the political consecration of carbon-based individualism: “Order was finally reestablished when the average Frenchman was once again able to drive in his car, with his family to his favorite picnic spot.” Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Movements of the Sixties,” in The World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, David Ames Curtis, ed. and trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 49.

** Mark Strand, Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 31.

*** Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, Adam Kotsko, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 278.

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The Strange Non-Death of a Supreme Court Nomination

The night of October 5th was a vigil of sorts as the US awaited word of Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The week had witnessed unusually hectic dramas of participatory democracy, wild fits of hope, anger and fear, though all were shadowed by a grim sense of the inevitable. And after all the restlessness, the Senate’s vote on Saturday seemed the confirmation of a foregone conclusion. A formality, we might call this last stage in the process, if, by the word we meant to evoke a doctor short of beds in a terminal ward, urging his patient to “get on with the formality.”

If something died that night, it was anything – everything – but Brett Kavanaugh’s candidacy. And yet, in his construal of things, he had suffered grievous harm. Perhaps the most interesting moment in Kavanaugh’s statement at the sexual assault hearing was the claim that his reputation had been “totally and permanently destroyed.” The assertion was somewhat paradoxical, as his spluttering verbal rampage proved to the incredulous that a surplus demolition was indeed possible. Autopsies of the event have rightly underscored the shocking way the man’s boorish, ill-tempered and overtly partisan outbursts were quickly framed as suitable for a Supreme Court justice. And as the man’s image descended to new lows with more allegations of misconduct over the following week, commentators marvelled that his reputation, totally destroyed, then destroyed some more, had not finally collapsed. But this is perhaps to miss the point.


Black drapery on Justice Scalia’s empty seat, Feb. 2016 (AP/J.Scott Applewhite)

In his 2011 book The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Colin Crouch tackles the reigning conundrum of our times: how can it be that, after its near-collapse 2008, the finance-based economy neither died nor even underwent significant reforms? The simple answer, of course, is that the banks were “too big to fail” and that government bailouts were, as a result, an unarguable necessity. But in requiring public funds to repair the damage they had wrought, the banks had contravened a cardinal rule of neoliberal economics, whose ideology is based on the premise of a naturally wise, self-managing independent market and its luckless corollary, a downsized, tax-starved, near-irrelevant government. In short, neoliberalism suffered a fatal blow in 2008, and yet it still persists today, as if surviving its own death.

There is every reason to believe that economic “theories” are just mathematical rationalizations of interested parties. One might, then, chalk up the peculiar “non-death” of neoliberalism to cynical opportunists somewhat inconvenienced by a flaw in their cover story. But the fact remains that banks in the wake of the 2008 crisis were fully exposed to the public as incompetent, sociopathic, devious, manipulative, predatory and cruel. To borrow a winning phrase, their reputations were “totally destroyed.” In spite of this hit to their collective image, the financiers were, and continue to be, richly rewarded.

Surviving his destroyed reputation, Kavanaugh is akin to the big bankers in more than one way. His victory in spite of his disgrace signals to an outraged public that there are inevitabilities democracy is powerless to stop. His snarling, righteous impunity signals the ascendency of an amoral ruling class, the embodiment, like Trump, of an amoral marketplace unmoored from regulations and careless of social norms and values when not actively promoting their decline.

It is often pointed out that Kavanaugh may occupy his bench for a generation – twenty-five years or more. Pause a moment to consider that twenty-five years is not only a long time, it takes us into a probably quite different time. If the past zombie years are any indication, that time will be one of vast inequalities, poor if not absent social services and potentially drastic insecurity caused by ecological collapse and climate mayhem. Social disorder is likely to breed resistance, and laws will be needed to prop up an unjust, discredited system. Here Kavanaugh’s own personal descredit will hardly be a disadvantage. Quite the contrary; Kavanaugh, with his mortally-damaged reputation, is ideally positioned to preside over laws and a justice system that will demand our fear and obedience, but require no credence or respect.

The triumph of Brett Kavanaugh is a clear victory of misogyny and white nativism. On a broader level, however, it is a victory of amorality. David Sirota is right to emphasize how the class of people Kavanaugh represents enjoy legal “immunity.” Standing above and outside the reach of the law, the realm of immunity serves as a shining example of desirable privilege for the aspiring few. But as an expression of the neoliberal market, amorality has an even broader and more corrosive reach. It undercuts in a fundamental way the normative standards of community. Indeed, it revels in the destruction of social bonds. This marketplace ideology now has its figurehead in the Supreme Court.

See Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2011).



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“Ostranenie” in Mexico

In a news article on the election of López Obrador as president, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips describes scenes of joy and celebration in Mexico City. The festival atmosphere in the city center seemed to turn Amlo’s message of hope into an immediate political reality. But the political changes promised by the president-elect appear to be both more subtle and far-reaching. A close look at the journalist’s account of the evening suggests that the events of July 1 are bringing about a profound shift in human consciousness that portends a truly revolutionary movement on a global scale.

I still can’t believe it,” said Victor Gómez, one of thousands of Andrés Manuel López Obrador supporters who had descended on downtown Mexico City on Sunday night to toast their leader’s historic election victory. Gómez, a 47-year-old artist, had brought a date to the fast-growing fiesta on the Paseo de la Reforma, a wide avenue running through the Mexican capital: a papier-maché sculpture portraying the leftist president-elect as a caped superhero. (The Guardian, July 2, 2018)

By calling the Paseo de la Reforma “a wide avenue,” Phillips performs a subtle grammatical alteration of the described scene. The effect lies in his judicious use of an indefinite, rather than definite article. The word’s implications may well pass unnoticed by the average reader, as it appears in a seemingly innocuous and even superfluous phrase. But this sly deceptiveness suggests the word’s strategic role in a broader revolutionary movement of consciousness transformation, whereby the familiar is rendered strange, a process the Russian Formalists named ostranenie.

The Guardian’s Mexico City correspondent implies that the Paseo de la Reforma is not the one we are all familiar with, the avenue that runs through beloved Chapultepec Park, past the city zoo and the illustrious National Anthropology Museum; instead, as “a wide avenue,” it seems located in a different, somewhat unfamiliar place. In the same way, a person in a strange country may cross “a wide river” without knowing its name; an amnesiac might see “a large house” without realizing it’s the one he lives in; an idiot might look at the sun and not know it’s the same one as yesterday. But Phillips suggests that nothing is in fact the same as yesterday, before Amlo’s election; if the Paseo has now become “a wide avenue,” is not the Pacific ocean “a pacific ocean,” the sky “a sky,” and my husband “a man sitting at a table across from me”?

Accordingly, one is provoked, perhaps unconsciously, to imagine that these revolutionary celebrations are not happening, as Phillips says, in “the Mexican capital,” but some other capital also named Mexico City. Likewise, Amlo may not be “the leftist president-elect,” either, but just one such president among many. Of course, we should understand this apparent demotion as being part of a rigorous system of democratization that places Amlo on the same level as Gómez, “a 47-year-old artist” and even his date, “a papier-maché sculpture.” But the indefinite “a” also has a generalizing function, whereby the celebrations can no longer be thought of as local, specific, as if fatally bound to their particular place and time, but potentially everywhere and duplicatable.

This generalizing process, whereby the specificity of “the” becomes the duplicability of “a” is nothing less than the liberatory process of Formalist estrangement extended to its necessary global scale. In one of his late interviews Michel Foucault seemed to suggest as much. “The relationship between Russian Formalism and the Russian revolution should definitely be investigated precisely anew,” Foucault said.* But perhaps we should think of this estrangement not so much as an aesthetic intervention, such as the Formalists advocated, or even a surrealist subversion (like Gómez’s papier-maché president), but instead as a kind of delusion-producing infection, whereby all definites become indefinites, and all of social existence, rid of its uniqueness, thereby escapes all appropriation as well. In this way, reality, become the good of all, could also lose its ability to harm. One might then refer to “a city called New York” and “a president of the United States” residing in “a Trump Tower” – a building not located on Broadway, as we normally expect, but on “a wide avenue” like the Paseo de la Reforma.

Revolutions need the mass popular movements that only cities can breed. But liberation requires the everyday practices of space that can bring about what Henri Lefebvre called “the right to the city.” In Amulet, Roberto Bolaño has his heroine recount her life from the perspective of the roiling politics of 1968, a year of demonstrations and massacres in Mexico City. For Auxilio as for Bolaño, the right to the city is a labor of poetry, radical ostranenie and literally unearthly beauty:

“Off I went staggering through the streets of Mexico City,” says Auxilio, “… and although I was picking my way through craters illuminated by hundreds of moons, they were not the craters of planet Earth but those of Mexico.”**

*Michel Foucault, “How Much Does it Cost for Reason to Tell the Truth?” in Foucault Live (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), 234.

**Roberto Bolaño, Amulet, trans. Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2006), 65.




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Scene(s) of the Crime

Walter Benjamin memorably observed that Eugène Atget photographed Paris like the scene of a crime.* Atget’s subject-matter was the Paris of the Third Republic, which built much of the city that tourists admire today. But as Benjamin knew, the Third Republic rose from the ashes of a short-lived workers’ utopia, and by continuing the modernization projects of the reactionary Second Empire, the Republic inscribed lasting changes on the French capital’s spatial order and demographics. Atget, nostalgic at heart, trained his lens on a disappearing world: small shops, humble dwellings and narrow medieval streets, the traditional haunts of Paris’ popular classes. In Atget’s photos, these cityscapes are completely deserted, as if the residents had vanished into thin air.

Perhaps all urban photographers are fated to document flux and transformation, even when, like Atget, their artistic mission is to remember and preserve. This irony is especially sharp in the case of Vancouver, where globalization and property speculators have recently upedended the city. A frenzy of home demolitions and large-scale construction projects has created an urban landscape of staggering inequalities: on the one hand, a rentier class of ultra-rich migrants, money-launderers, and property developers, as well as residents and petty landlords who reap unearned income from their spiking real estate values; and on the other, a downwardly-mobile working population displaced, evicted, heavily endebted, and generally downsized by runaway speculation. In such a context any photograph soon turns historical artifact.

A recent exhibition in Vancouver encapsulates these glaring contradictions by pressing art into the service of an oligarch’s vision of urban redevelopment. Titled “Fight for Beauty,” the exhibition claims to promote the arts in civic life, but serves essentially as an advertisement for Westbank, the powerful Vancouver property developer that mounted the show. In spite of withering reviews in the local press, Westbank extended the exhibition and launched a second blitz of self-promoting ads, underscoring in this way the belligerent thrust of the show’s central theme: “the fights that build cities and culture.”

The first exhibit in “Fight for Beauty” is a small color photograph by Fred Herzog, the well-known chronicler of Vancouver’s street life. Herzog’s modernist composition captures the stark symmetry of a dock’s buildings extending into the bay at sunrise, while the Marine Building’s ziggurat looms above, half obscured by haze. Herzog’s photos are typically bustling with activity; here, the image shows no human life. Empty as an Atget cityscape, the photo captures the scene of a crime.


Elysium? (Fred Herzog, CPR Pier & Marine Building, 1953)

As narrated by Westbank’s founder, Ian Gillespie, Herzog’s photo portrays Vancouver’s Coal Harbor “before the very idea of the neighborhood had been formed.” The claim is peculiar, as it projects into the image a retroactive meaning, as if the developer’s as-yet unborn plans for Coal Harbor lay like a germ in the photo. Strangely, too, the developer’s “idea” of the neighborhood – an ultra-wealthy enclave with luxury hotels – erases the neighborhood’s prior existence, as if rebranding it could abolish the history that stubbornly clings to its name. For the developer, it seems, history presses forward like a force of nature, always benificent, turning coal into diamonds, and helpfully building interest on his investments. We learn from Gillespie that Herzog’s photo is from his own personal collection, and that it was shot on Herzog’s very first roll of film. This valuable rarity is perhaps the only thing the photograph shares with the rest of the exhibition.

Ballet; jewelry; couture fashion; a custom-made Fazioli grand piano: “beauty,” in Westbank’s curatorial vision, is unmistakeably construed as an accessory to wealth. Likewise, the developer’s contribution to urban design is a portfolio of ultra-luxury buildings, including the Shangri-La, “Where the living is easy,” a high-rise hotel and condominium tower planted amidst of a fresh crop of global luxury retail stores and across the street from Vancouver’s gleaming new Trump Tower.

Like these business ventures, Westbank’s notion of “beauty” has a strategic, rather than aesthetic function; it gives cover to class violence and dispossession by elevating the worthy intangibles of value over the mere vulgarity of price. In so doing, though, the company only reinforces its tacit identification with people for whom money is no object. Accordingly, the show’s brochure asks, “Since when have we learned the price of everything yet know the value of nothing?” – a question that somehow manages to be not only inane, but also wounded, plaintive and even vaguely threatening. For all that, however, the query is not entirely a non-sequitur, as it betrays the anger of threatened privilege stirred to righteous self-defense. And as an expression of defensiveness, the timing of “Fight for Beauty” seems no coincidence. The show, after all, was mounted at a time of vocal, organized, and occasionally successful protests against rising rents, displacements and evictions and after a slew of bad press prompted a tightening of regulations for Vancouver’s corruption-riddled real estate industry. “Fight for Beauty” also happens to close two days after the February 2 deadline for property owners to file Empty Home Tax declarations. Recent figures show that in a city with a less than 1% rental vacancy rate, as many as 1,000 houses are demolished every year, and upward of 25,000 homes in the city are currently empty or only temporarily occupied.

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Sociopath: Westbank’s “Vancouver House” project

Westbank’s “Fight for Beauty” may tell us nothing about art, but it speaks volumes about the world-view of plutocrats who, in Chrystia Freeland’s description, see themselves as “the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition” and constitute “a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen.”** The last point clarifies the yawning gap between Westbank and the local arts community, who countered the developer’s notion of civic beauty by pointing out that rising rents are displacing local working artists from the city. It also explains the tone of open contempt with which Gillespie refers to neighborhood anti-gentrification protests. Speaking, for instance, of development plans for the West End’s Lauren building, billed as “a luxury rental like no other in the neighborhood,” Gillespie heaps scorn on “the opposition,” a group of protesters he characterizes as “small, vocal, and sometimes violent,” underscoring the last word with a tone of lofty surprise and injury.

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Be afraid: Westbank scale model

Gillespie counts as a significant victory in his “fight for beauty” the public sculpture commissioned for the Lauren, titled “Triumph of the Technocrat.” Constructed out of reclaimed materials, the sculpture is, in Gillespie’s account, a “self-reflective critique of its own development and process of creation” — from which we can glean that the artist put some thought into it. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the developer’s words as mere verbiage, as they disclose hidden meanings in his account of the sculpture’s broader significance to “the surrounding community,” as he puts it. For Gillespie, the sculpture represents “the unseen mechanical process of development and land speculation impacting the surrounding community, drawing parallels between the role and complicity of all players in the development process.”

An oligarch’s entire social theory is sketched out here. If, on the one hand, the developer concedes that land speculation impacts the surrounding community, with all that the word “impact” implies of a violent strike, on the other, he seems to fold that community — including, presumably, protesters and activists — back into the process of development itself as complicit players. There is, apparently, something more encompassing than the “surrounding” community, something that surrounds and contains them in turn. That thing, of course, is Vancouver itself, a city run by billionaire developers and fueled by unregulated foreign capital. To live in the city is therefore to be complicit with its unchecked, runaway development, whether you agree with it or not.

Surprisingly enough, the oligarch’s social theory of general complicity lends support to Walter Benjamin, who suggested that all who participate in the city of crime are “culprits.” The claim comes in the specific passage where Benjamin speaks of Atget.

It is no accident that Atget’s photographs have been likened to those of a crime scene. But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit? Isn’t it the task of the photographer … to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures? (“Little History of Photography,” 527).

Benjamin and the developer are only superficially in agreement, of course, as the former intends to prod the conscience of guilty citizens and prompt them to assume their political responsibilities. Gillespie, in contrast, sees all citizens as already inevitably subsumed in an unstoppable force of development, each of them contributing, in their own small way, to the accumulated wealth at the top of Herzog’s distant misty pyramid in the sky.

Gillespie has brashly adopted the term Gesamtkunstwerk as his company’s building ethos, despite the term’s socially-conscious significance in the German Bauhaus. And yet the word is somewhat appropriate to Westbank if translated as “all-embracing art,” for as the developer’s social theory suggests, plutocratic architecture can encompass all of social reality. It may appear contradictory that this architectural totality results in the plutocrats’ increasing distance from us, like the orbiting residents of happy Elysium. But the purpose of Westbank’s Gesamkunstwerk is not, of course, to house everyone — far from it — but instead to include us all in the economic logic that promotes and rewards spiraling inequality.

Public art itself, in Gillespie’s mind, is therefore the materialization of an all-embracing “complicity” that absorbs rival parties within the ineluctable process of gentrification. This can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in his account of Stan Douglas’ famous photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971. The monumental image, a major work of the Vancouver School, portrays the Gastown Riots, during which police brutally attacked and arrested protesting hippies. The composite photograph hangs in the atrium of Westbank’s Woodward’s building, at the very site of the riots themselves.


Stan Douglas, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971

Completed in 2009, the Woodward’s building was and remains controversial for initiating gentrification in Gastown and the neighboring Downtown Eastside. For Gillespie, though, Stan Douglas’ photo signifies all of the history of the period, from 1971 to the present, indiscriminately. Speaking of the Woodward’s redevelopment project, Gillespie says that Abbott & Cordova “perfectly represents what this project has been all along: a fight in 1971, and a fight all the way to 2009.” Although he refers to the riots as “a pivotal moment,” that moment is construed not as belonging to its own time and context, and with its own political aims, but instead as simply “defining Gastown’s current character,” as if it led ineluctably to the gentrified present. Westbank’s version of Gesamtkunstwerk  performs here its remorselessly totalizing logic: embracing all, yet excluding most everyone, evicting them even from history. We should imagine Douglas’ photograph vacated, empty and desolate, as haunting as an image by Atget.

“Fight for Beauty” closes this weekend.

*Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings: 1931-1934, 527.

**Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (London: Penguin, 2012), 5.


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200 Years of Frankenstein

She was born in 1797, toward the end of the Little Ice Age. Wolves had been extirpated from the country, but not so long ago that one could forget. Now man’s only predator in the British Isles was a mental throwback. Does the shadow of extinction fall on the children of perpetrators? What strange gap is left in the mind of men suddenly raised from the humble status of prey?

In the winter of her sixteenth year, the river Thames froze in London for the last time. The final “Frost Fair,” a tradition dating back centuries, was held February 1814 on the river’s hard surface.

The following year, a volcano in present-day Indonesia erupted. It was the most powerful and destructive event of its kind in recorded history. Fallout caused a “volcanic winter” across the Northern Hemisphere. In 1816 – “the year without a summer” – she was in Switzerland, where she began writing her first novel, Frankenstein, published 200 years ago today — on January 1st, 1818.

During her adult years the global climate gradually warmed. Glaciers stopped advancing. But it wasn’t until the year of her death, 1851, that they began their retreat.


Frankenstein is a work deeply embedded not only in history but in the climate and geology of its era. The novel’s dramatic opening and conclusion, and, notably, the entire personal account of the “monster” himself, take place in frozen locales. These settings of ice and snow are more than themes and symbols; they constitute the scientific matter of the novel, as much, if not more than, the story’s overt topics of chemistry, biology and physical reanimation. And as with those topics, Shelley’s fantastic imaginings of the Earth’s frozen latitudes are proving remarkable prescient.

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The novel’s opening pages relate Captain Walton’s passionate wish to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole. In the Captain’s first letter to his sister, his excitement leads him to describe the Arctic’s frozen wastes as a place of sunshine, beauty and delight. He goes so far as to say that in the North Pole of his imagination, “snow and frost are banished” – as if the curiosity he calls “fervent” and “ardent” were literally a heat-producing force of transformation.*

One measure of a classic text is that it discloses new meanings to different eras. Walton’s aim of “discovering a passage near the pole” may sound strangely familiar to a reader today. In the summer of 2016, the first luxury cruise liner traversed the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route that had long been impassible, and, as recently as a decade ago, navigable only by icebreakers. Likewise for Russia’s northern sea route; last summer, a tanker made the first transit from Europe to Asia via the Arctic Ocean.

Climate change, in other words, is turning Walton’s fervid dreams of an overheated Arctic into reality. Ironically, global warming is occurring fastest in the polar regions; scientists now expect the North Pole to be ice-free within a few decades. Shelley could hardly have anticipated these outcomes, though the connection she makes is far from coincidental. Captain Walton’s adventurous spirit is no doubt symbolic of a Goethian Romantic ziel, but the man also embodies the period’s abrupt leap forward in science and the technologies of transportation. As such, Walton and his scientific ambitions personify a force whose environmental costs are now coming due. That earth-altering force is the European Industrial Revolution, whose opening act, variously dated from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, overlapped with the end of the most recent ice age.


Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice (1823–1824)

Shelley clearly dramatizes the destructive force of Frankenstein’s scientific work in the young doctor’s blind ambition, his reckless experimentation, his familial neglect, and his heedless irresponsibility to the creature of his making. What was merely allegorical in Shelley’s time has now become our sorry reality, however. Examples of Frankensteinian science abound; to cite only one recent instance, an investigative article by Reuters exposes the “horror movie” character of the commercial trade in body parts. But the everyday banalization of Shelley’s horror theme should not obscure the contemporary relevance of her cautionary tale, whose moral implications can be seen most clearly in the man-made predicament of climate change: a crime against nature that may warrant the name of “sin”; the unleashing of an unstoppable destructive agency in inhuman form; and, in what the World Economic Forum blithely calls the “upside” of catastrophe, a melted North Pole that will yield new profits for commercial transport.

Captain Walton sees in Victor Frankenstein a kindred spirit, and Shelley reinforces the symmetry of their burning passions when, at the end of the novel, Victor relates the “fervour” of his pursuit as the “monster” leads him northward and into the Arctic.

I resolved not to fail in my purpose,” says Victor, “and calling on heaven to support me, I continued with unabated fervour to traverse immense deserts, until the ocean appeared at a distance.… Covered with ice, it was only to be distinguished from land by its superior wildness and ruggedness.

As Victor considers the rigors of an arctic journey, he becomes a man entirely consumed by destructive rage. “At the idea that the fiend should live and be triumphant,” Victor says, “my rage and vengeance returned, and like a mighty tide, overwhelmed every other feeling.” As with Walton, Shelley insists on the burning force that drives Victor on.

I have endured misery which nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within my heart could have enabled me to support. Immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the ground sea, which threatened my destruction. But again the frost came and made the paths of the sea secure.


Caspar David Friedrich, study for The Sea of Ice (1821)


Frankenstein’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, links Victor to the Greek deity who created man and stole fire to give it to humanity. In light of this fiery theme, it is significant that Victor’s voyage ends with the break-up of the sea ice, as if, like Walton, his burning passion can melt the frozen landscape. Accordingly, Victor’s last vision of the Arctic is not one of frozen desolation but of water and melting ice. The doctor ends his journey north on a drifting ice floe, like a stranded polar bear — a ubiquitous metonym in the press and social media for the polar environmental crisis. If, then, the last words of Victor’s narrative might seem overwrought today in their romantic excess, one might instead imagine them as capturing the desperate anguish of an apex predator threatened with extinction. Shelley’s “fervid” rhetoric points ahead to dangers beyond man, beyond language, and thus beyond all hyperbole:

A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished; in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice that was continually lessening and thus preparing for me a hideous death.

*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818).


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American Carnage

I’m so ambitious / I’m looking back

— David Byrne, “The Book I Read”

Right-wing minds betray a constant paradox: their passion for the market is matched only by their nostalgia for the very world that capital destroys. In Donald Trump this contradiction is pushed to an extreme. Economic damage calls for more destruction; suffering warrants further punishment. The dark vision of “American carnage” on Trump’s inauguration day was quickly followed by a rollback of regulations that are bound to hit Main Street with especially nasty force.

The contradiction between backward-looking conservatism and headlong development has now arguably reached its terminal impasse. By favoring tax cuts and big business over climate protection the Trump administration has put the lie to right-wing calls to return to an earlier time, to rebuild the economy, to make America a great white ethno-state againThis is because the denial of climate change winds a clock that can’t be turned back. History, known for its fits, starts and reversals, now runs on fast-forward only. For climate scientists, the watchword of this awful predicament is irreversibility.

Life will get worse and there’s no going back: if this stark message has failed so far to rule our days, it’s because we’re used to coping with the rising costs of progress. The tax cuts passed by the Senate today will surely increase those familiar hardships. The difference now is that our collective delusions of profit and security are troubled by our fast-widening distance from the homeostatic past. In this way, we’re like the characters in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: looking back with regret at the world we’ve left behind, unwilling to face the future — and unaware that we’re already dead.


Lincoln in the Bardo is a treatise on irreversibility. The novel is anchored in a painful, lovestruck sense of irremediable loss. Like all great works of art, the book feels not only important but necessary. One might say timely, but it’s not clear what the word means to the untimely present. In Bardo’s Lincoln, Saunders gives us a head of state whose soulful anxiousness at the start of the Civil War is strangely suited to the man’s crushing historical responsibility. This topic can’t fail to move today’s readers with renewed wonder and horror at what we’ve suddenly lost over the past year. We face crises much greater than Lincoln’s, but we do so at a time when willful malice occupies the White House, language and truth are martyrized daily, and a government of vandals lays us open to disasters without end.

Obviously these problems have been a long time coming, but a cynical view of the past may underestimate the moral value of stubborn, agonized and desperate nostalgia, the reigning condition of Saunders’ main characters. Bevins, a young gay man thwarted in love, is in thrall to vivid yet chaotic images of earthly beauty — a stammering, captive Whitman. His regular companion, Vollman, knew a single night of perfect bliss before losing his wife and home. As they understand it (poorly), Bevins and Vollman succumbed to the same ailment and were confined to “sick boxes,” they say. At night, though, they can climb out of the “boxes” to share their grief and perplexity with the other captive residents of Oak Hill cemetery in Washington, DC.

Like these characters, Lincoln is unable to give up what he has recently lost. The night after the funeral of his young son, the president can’t help returning to the cemetery, where his desperate love drives him to remove Willie from the crypt to hold his body again. To the watchful ghosts Bevins, Vollman and others, this remarkable act of devotion — a “miracle” in their eyes — suggests that they, too, are perhaps not unloved, that they may not be unwelcome after all in “that previous place,” as they confusedly call the world of the living. Amazing also to the ghosts, Lincoln stays late into the night at the cemetery, and during a second visit to his son’s crypt, the distinguished revenant’s mind Version 2is host to many curious phantoms, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. Lincoln becomes legion, and on his way home, one of the ghosts, a black man, rides with the head of state into the dark and uncertain future.

The theme of metempsychosis allows Saunders to display his marvelous gifts of empathetic character portrayal, familiar to readers of his short stories. In this novel, Saunders’ first, the writer’s empathy takes literal form in the ghosts’ visitations of Lincoln’s mind and each others’ troubled spirits. The ghosts know each other’s life stories verbatim and often complete each other’s sentences, having heard everyone’s litanies of desire and regret thousands of times. This makes their condition tiresome, but the ghosts are fiercely proud of their persistence; they’re determined not to abandon the world they remember, and they even deny they are dead.  When a newly-buried civil war soldier emerges from the grave and opts for the afterlife, the ghosts furiously desecrate the “sick-mound” he has left behind. Vollman, observing the scene, explains with scrupulous care that they do this “not out of meanness, for there is no meanness in them; but rather from excess of feeling.”*

The episode suggests an allegory of historical remembrance, albeit one almost saintly in its forgiving empathy. We see an equally suggestive “excess of feeling” in the gruesome image of a soldier on the battlefield who has quite literally spilled his guts. Saunders yields the pen to historical testimony, and cites directly:

I had never seen a dead person before. Now I saw my fill. One poor lad had frozen solid in the posture of looking down aghast at his wound, eyes open. Some of his insides had spilled out and made, there on his side, under a thin coat of ice, a blur of purple and red. At home on my dressing table was a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and this fellow looked like that, only his bulge of red and purple was lower and larger and off to one side and him gazing at it in horror (153).

The “thin coat of ice” covering the ghastly wound of the soldier echoes the “placental sheen” that begins to cover Willie’s ghost, threatening to trap the boy’s spirit forever in the cemetery. Bevins and Vollman make it possible for Willie to finally pass on to the afterlife, and Willie, in turn, disabuses them of their delusion of returning to the world of the living, having learned from his father that they are all, in fact, dead. Saunders’ vision of American carnage ultimately leads to redemption and renewal.


We might fault Saunders’s novel for offering a moral that, despite its Buddhist echoes, reinforces familiar Christian motifs of purgatory and salvation (“Bardo” is a Tibetan term for the liminal state between death and rebirth). More generously, we could say the book is conflicted on this score. When Vollman complains that “the architect of this place” has judged that a child’s wish to to stay in the cemetery is “a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment,” it is as much the author as the “architect” who can be faulted for the injustice. For it remains unclear why, in this fictional moral universe, it is wrong for the adults “to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here,” as Vollman, Bevins and others do. Saunders puts a thumb on the scales by making many of the ghosts’ characters flawed in some way, but this only exacerbates the moral conundrum. The case of Elson Farwell, a former slave, is instructive. Buried among the poor and criminal class in a common “sick-pit,” Farwell holds fast to the desire to go back and massacre every member of the family that owned and abused him, wife, children and baby included — a wish that should hardly be the cause of a reader’s reproof. It might instead serve as a model of moral justice.

Elson’s apparent “sin” is as fictional and deluded as the idea of his “sickness.” Likewise, by holding to what remains irreparable in history, Black justice may not turn back the hours, but it often faces counterclockwise. So too do socialism and ecological justice, which look back today at our lost best chances; for ten years now it has been “too late” to stop a warming world. At a time when the current president sows discord and makes good on his vision of “American carnage,” we can glean a different lesson from the ghosts’ insistence on returning to the past. To stop time in order to “reverse it,” as Bevins says, may not be to indulge in conservative bad faith or deluded nostalgia. Instead, it would be to commit ourselves to the impossible and to acknowledge what is truly hopeless in our present state.

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Postscript: On December 20, the U.S. Congress passed the Trump tax reform bill. It was disturbingly warm in D.C.; people were lunching outdoors in Georgetown. The mild weather highlighted the bill’s lurking threats: under cover of a gift to all, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was poised to supercharge economic inequality, and, by burdening the state with a huge deficit, virtually guaranteed draconian cuts to future social services. The tax bill’s biggest losers, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, were thus assured further suffering in the coming years. But a government downsized by revenue cuts also guaranteed worsening life prospects for all social classes: the state, crippled in its regulatory functions, would be unable to rein in end-game capitalism and accelerating climate change. It was easy to imagine these social, economic and climatic conditions prompting the civil conflicts presaged by Omar El Akkad’s novel American War.**

I chose to mark December 20 with a visit to Oak Hill Cemetery. It felt like a spring day — a spring without birds, flowers, or the slightest hint of color. On North Hill, a child lay under a stone slab, featureless. Nothing moved. The place was empty. In the tepid hush it seemed like time was set on pause.

* George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 140.

** Omar El Akkad, American War (New York: Knopf, 2017).


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