The University in Runes: Decoding the Privatized Campus

Approaching the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia one has a sense of leaving the city behind. The long, winding University Boulevard passes through a golf course and stretches of forest before skirting a clear cut in the woods. Over this field of scarred earth the first campus buildings come into view. A satellite city emerges from the trees, announced by a cluster of shops: a low-slung strip mall; a pizza joint; a liquor store; photocopies. It isn’t until you pass the large sign for UBC, however, that you will run a genuine gauntlet of commerce: each side of the thoroughfare is lined with businesses that cater to students’ needs and their appetite for amusement. The blurring of lines between a customer’s real necessities and passing whims is, of course, a rich seam of profit in consumer economies. Here, that blurring of boundaries – call it ‘confusion’ – goes a great deal further, rendering indistinct the line between education and entertainment, reflection and distraction. For the gauntlet of commerce at the end of University Boulevard is on the academic campus itself.

During the past decade this area has been a perennial construction site. It is now nearing completion. As students returned to UBC this term they were greeted with a wholly revamped gateway to campus whose array of shops, cafés, restaurants, bars, mini-markets and rental apartments serve as a kind of open-air advertisement, a life-size scale model for the school’s makeover as a privatized neoliberal university. We might say that in raising this infrastructure, the university has engineered a new student body; as they enter this fully commodified space, students are hailed on all sides as customers.

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In this glossy image of higher education one piece of the picture is still missing. A large empty lot stands at the head of the gleaming processional thoroughfare. The vacant space was formerly occupied by an imposing concrete structure, the Brutalist-style General Administration Building. Even empty the space is rich in significance, for the demolition of the General Administration Building signals a larger shift in socio-economic values as inscribed in social space. Brutalism’s midcentury aesthetic of massive, enduring structures reflects that period’s broad investment in education, social welfare and progressive values. In contrast, privatization goes hand-in-hand with the provisionality of the built environment. This newer trend corresponds to architecture’s changing role in a more rapacious economic context: the solid, futuristic security of a Brutalist building is replaced by a World’s Fair aesthetic that cheerfully announces its evanescence. New campus buildings reflect the chaos and precarity imposed on the current generation of students by an all-pervading market ethos.

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As if to illustrate this reigning ethos of impermanence, the empty lot where the General Administration Building was turned to rubble is now a stocking area for concrete blocks, a signature design element of the walkways newly installed throughout the UBC campus. Massive as they are, the concrete pavers evoke the solidity of Brutalism’s reinforced concrete while still suggesting the dignity of granite: ersatz cobblestones. It should be pointed out, however, that fake stone is antithetical to the Brutalist aesthetic, which emphasizes the frank, unadorned – one might say ‘honest’ – materiality of exposed concrete. Moreover, since they are installed mortarless on a bed of sand, the new concrete pavers are easily dismantled – a clear asset in a time of constant change. As such, the pavers illustrate a contradiction between the place-bound University and the school’s more abstract function as a conduit for transnational finance. While the university requires the former, it puts up little resistance to the latter; anything too solid is an objection to the flow of capital. And here, in the tension between forces in conflict – the local and the global, community and separation, materiality and fungibility – there still exist tactical chances for resistance and critique. As the student protesters put it in ’68, “under the paving stones, the beach.”

University administrators have slogans of their own. The contradiction between placeless abstraction and site specificity is nicely, if inadvertently, captured by UBC’s new motto, developed at the height of the school’s latest construction boom: “A Place of Mind.” Brainchild of an advertising agency, the motto is no less eloquent for being hopelessly vague. You puzzle at the words, straining for meaning, and invariably give up. “Mind” seems to reach higher than mere ‘learning’ or ‘education,’ but as the word gains loftiness it loses purpose. Indeed, the vocable seems less abstract than evasive; and where purpose is lacking elusiveness works best.

In his prescient study of corporatized education The University in Ruins (1996), Bill Readings demonstrated that hollow bureaucratese is characteristic of neoliberal higher education.* This bears remembering: it took a specialist in literary analysis to decipher the political and economic significance of the emerging language of education branding. The author devotes a good part of his critique to the market logic behind the term “excellence,” a word increasingly used at the time by university administrators and which is now well entrenched in the branding of higher education. For Readings, “excellence” was a term almost devoid of meaning whose vacuousness served the interests of corporatized universities hollowed out by budget cuts, unmoored from social responsibility and increasingly devoted to profitable entrepreneurship.

In the spirit of Readings’ critique, this essay examines the sales and branding language of UBC, a vanguard in privatized, entrepreneurial education. In so doing, we expose the market logic hidden in the transformation of campus space. To invoke ‘runes,’ then, is to credit Readings’ sober analysis while extending semantic inquiry into the analysis of the built environment. The runes of the university speak volumes, allowing us to glimpse under the dreamscapes of the commodified campus the wreckage of public higher education.

*

One of the broad objectives of free-market fundamentalism is to make capitalism appear “inevitable” while casting alternatives as “impossible.” As we stand at the head of University Boulevard, we might consider its commercial gauntlet as the spatial inscription of this economic logic. Brands, logos, franchises and rental spaces emphatically declaim the privatization of the commons. Indeed, the distinction between public and private is preempted; every consumer ‘choice’ along University Boulevard enacts a foregone decision to enter the marketplace.

It might seem churlish to fault the consumer options arrayed on University Boulevard, were it not that this foregone decision now shapes every aspect of higher education. The rising cost of learning imposes on students the vital need to quickly secure gainful employment, and for students burdened with debt, this purpose is hardly ‘chosen,’ as one might like to believe, but instead conditions their every option and forecloses unprofitable alternatives as irrational or even dangerous to life chances. Reflex judgments place an embargo on thought; as one undergraduate bitterly observes, to “explore opportunities” is now the sole privilege of the rich. An authoritarian logic thus undergirds every ‘choice’ made in one’s curriculum and ‘free time’; we can say that the university trains students before it educates them.** In this context, it is virtually an act of insurrection to appeal to education’s democratic purpose, or what Adorno succinctly calls “the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves.”***

To clear-eyed critics of neoliberalism’s cost-benefit ledgers, the late-capitalist marketplace is a world in which “decisions escape rational scrutiny.” How to square such an ethos of frivolity with the university’s public mission? One need hardly subscribe to a joyless vision of a wholly logical social order to point out that a fundamental conflict obtains between irrational decision-making and the university’s ethos of informed deliberation. On a larger scale, frivolity reinforces consumerism’s “individuation of responsibility,” and by encouraging consumer behavior the marketized university undermines the collective action needed to address the challenges today’s students are bound to face in an overheated, conflict-riven world.

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University Boulevard terminates at an open pedestrian plaza recently revamped for UBC’s centennial anniversary. An elaborate water feature leads up to the Main Mall. To the left is the university bookstore, sporting a new facelift. To the right are two new buildings, the posh Alumni Centre and directly adjacent, the vast Student Union building, the latter with an enormous porte cochère suggestive of a grand hotel entrance. These architectural features are already prompting social behavior to match. On a recent day, a stretch limousine pulled into the drive, and a young couple in wedding dress piled out. Three valets in red vests stood at the ready, servicing a steady fleet of Mercedes and Land Rovers. A reception was under way in the lobby of the Alumni Center, where a self-playing grand piano entertained the milling guests.

We have arrived at Money Square.

Money Square, in students’ shorthand, was officially named to honor Money and Raymond M.C. Lee, who made a large contribution to UBC’s latest fundraising and alumni outreach campaign. Philanthropic couples are often identified with the husband’s name first; here, Money takes prime position. The loaded word and its bold placement are so blunt and seemingly guileless as to exasperate critique; it is as if by flaunting the word its meaning could be annulled. But such an evacuation of meaning is, of course, the special talent of advertising. The commodity fetish speaks in runes; as one stands in Money Square, at the very heart of the UBC campus, one is conscripted by winking ad men into the marketplace of ideas.

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The square’s name is certainly apt, as the legacy of the recent fundraising campaign is the consecration of private finance in UBC’s future planning. A group of translucent pillars bear the names of donors to a recent campaign with the unlikely moniker “Make an Evolution.” Opaque in meaning, grammatically questionable, the phrase slyly tilts toward counterrevolt; to scan the donors’ names is to incline the soul. One notices familiar giants of industry: Boeing, Google, Coke, Mozilla. Resource and Energy companies are predominant, and there are lots of mining and minerals companies: BCGold Corp; New Gold Inc; Radius Gold; Taku Gold. There is an Angkor Gold Corp, an Independence Gold Corp and a Western Copper and Gold Corporation; a Kirkland Lake Gold, a Kinross Gold Corporation and a Kaminak Gold Corporation. Inevitably, there is a Klondike Gold Corporation; improbably, an Iamgold Corporation. How to make sense of this grab bag of miscellany, this citizen dissembly? Alphabetically, of course; in the absence of social purpose the arbitrary reigns. The brash incoherence of Money Square symbolizes the school’s capture by market forces and a failure on the part of faculty and administrators to save it from privatization.

The market rewards obedience by favoring those who condone the disproportion of wealth. The donor’s monument has implanted this morality of profitable subservience at the heart of the university campus. Dubious in itself within a context of research and critical inquiry, the moral norm of obedience implies more today, however, than a mere aspiration to increase one’s spending power by submitting to a job. In an economic context of ever-growing inequality, disparities of wealth spell widely divergent life chances between those the market values and those it devalues, dispossesses or expels. Complicity in this widening “distribution of pain” implies one’s participation in neoliberalism’s reigning logic, the extraction of profit from the privatization of social wealth. Public institutions like UBC are prime targets of such profit extraction. Given this economic context, the donors’ monument is deeply ironic, to say the least. One might always choose to see the monument as UBC’s grateful nod to philanthropists in trying economic times. But this begs the question. Why celebrate private finance, when a memorial to public support would be more appropriate?

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Across Money Plaza stands the UBC Bookstore, whose striking Brutalist entryway was recently demolished and replaced with an airy glass box. This new design is inarguably more practical for displaying the bookstore’s goods. What kind of goods? If spatial precedence signifies priority, the entryway announces the store’s main intent. On a recent day in 2019, we counted 861 individual items sporting the university’s brand and a grand total of 28 books: a ratio, in other words, of thirty to one.

 

Equally important as this marketing of branded merchandise is the bookstore’s role as visual element in an overall picture. And as with the General Administration Building, this image of the neoliberal University is not merely incompatible with the aesthetics of late Twentieth-Century Brutalism; it demands the ephemeralization of the built environment. If one looks closely, however, one can detect a load-bearing concrete beam at the far end of the bookstore’s glass box entryway; tellingly, it has been faced with gypsum drywall, as if the mere glimpse of a Brutalist design feature were an ocular offense.

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A picture, the saying goes, is one thousand times more valuable than a given word. Grim calculus, discouraging to the bookish. The technocrats who renovated the UBC Bookstore used a similar evaluative measurement in designing the building’s picture windows, where hundreds of disjointed words are etched into the glass. The alphabetical jumble of words implicitly devalues their meaning, as each verbal unit is reduced to a mere pixel in an overall image of language. Moreover, the design premise is mirrored across the plaza, where white stripes are etched in the glass of the Alumni Centre, subtly reinforcing an equivalence between words and meaningless graphic lines. A larger design conceit underscores this divestment from meaning: on selected panes of the bookstore, the word-pixels serve as the graphic background for the university’s initials in large capital letters. Language in this way conveys nothing, and so serves the university’s brand.

The architects, however, claim a loftier inspiration for their design: the words on glass are arranged in specific permutations they credit to the postmodern novelist Italo Calvino. The design’s general effect, though, is a garbling of meaning, an incoherent screen of language, and in this way the technocrats have subtly promoted the administrative logic of obfuscation. Were this their conscious intent, the designers might have done better by citing Calvino’s countryman, Filippo Marinetti, whose sound-poem Zang Tumb Tuuum divorced words from meaning in the service of aesthetic fascism. A missed opportunity; Zang Tumb Tuuum might have served to garble UBC’s civic and democratic motto, the ingenuous phrase “it’s yours” in Latin: Tuum est.

Regents and administrators seldom speak openly of their intent to privatize higher education and deliver it over to the market, so when hired contractors opine about the university’s reasons for being, it’s worth attending to what they say. This is all the more the case when those contractors are Vancouver architects, whose general purpose is to deliver luxury products to the global elite and promote the upward concentration of landed wealth. The project description is posted next to a wall of books in box frames, splayed like butterflies. It seems appropriate that the books can no longer be read, that they are now in a sense dead. One thinks of Nabokov, that maniacal lepidopterist, who describes “the satisfying crackle” of his pin penetrating a butterfly and “the subsiding spasms of its body.”*

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But the designers have a clean conscience. Their breezy explanation of the project is a marvel of inanity. “Reading is, of course, an enjoyable past-time [sic] to many, and writing is an art to be celebrated,” the authors observe. Lame as this may be, they press on: “However, we are struck with the idea of dismantling great pieces of work.” Why, one wonders. Also: what motivates that ominous “however”? A lot hinges on the word, though its warrant is unclear. Perhaps they meant to say ‘regardless,’ since their reference to literacy’s obvious merits (“of course”!) seems not only inane but dismissive. Indeed, one suspects that “dismantling” is actually its own self-justification, and that the designers, maybe dimly grasping their role in the neoliberal university’s larger purpose, have provided an illustration of the entrepreneurial logic of disruption. Applied to books and the words they contain, disruption, it seems, calls for a sabotage of the very idea of communicative language; as the designers sagely observe, “All writing is but a collection of words.”

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All writing is but a collection of words. This sweeping demotion of verbal communication is technocratic at heart; the “idea” that “struck” the designers is Calvino’s premise of a computer sorting texts according to their most frequently-used words. One might call this is a ‘democratic’ approach to language, the eminently civic value of popularity helpfully delivered by a benevolent and impartial machine: an electoral politics of reading, if you will. But as in neoliberal governance, and in modern liberalism more generally, a leveling force underlies the consecration of the atomized individual. This force, nominally equalizing, is amoral and, at the limit, sociopathic to the extent that it replaces qualitative values with the merely quantitative.

It seems no accident, then, that the bookstore’s designers approached their project in a canvassing mode. “We wanted to engage the community in the new Bookstore’s development,” they explain, “by surveying individuals from around the UBC campus,” and they specify that this sample of the “community” included “professors, students, administrators and tourists.” Let’s put aside for a moment the ingenuous conflation of professors and students with administrators. Even more troubling is the inclusion of tourists in this definition of the university “community,” a claim that bears the unmistakable stamp of neoliberalism. By favoring the global flow of capital over local constraints, deregulation in the current era of predatory finance leads quite naturally to the destruction of local communities and values. To include tourists among the university’s members reflects the same logic by which Airbnb fosters the experience of ‘community’: plowing deep into local space, the rental platform allows outsiders to claim residency, all the while displacing local inhabitants. A moral norm follows, as surely as a coffle: where everyone has a right to belong, all are reduced to mere visitors.

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As dusk falls on Money Square, the pillars of the donors’ monument glow from within, pulsing in shades of blue as the color swells, fades and moves like a shadow from post to post. At first glance the patterns and pulsing rhythms appear random. In fact they are generated by motion sensors trained on passersby. The result is a monument that is subtly authoritarian, for in their dubious bid to create an ‘interactive’ and ‘participatory’ monument, the designers have made honoring the donors an involuntary necessity of every passing student. The monument is ‘interactive,’ then, mainly in the sense that it defeats one’s inattention. In a similar way, a student or professor could be said to ‘interact’ with the distracting roar of rich UBC students’ luxury sports cars, increasingly common on the neoliberal campus.

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The cold drives us into the Alumni Centre, proud home of entrepreneurship@ubc. In the lobby, an imposing wall of black steel is inscribed with biographical highlights from the life of the building’s namesake, Robert H. Lee. Former real estate developer become university power broker, Lee’s proudest achievement, the bio pointedly informs us, is his creation of the UBC Properties Trust, “the first in North America to sell market housing on a university campus.” This developer’s feat would presumably illustrate, in Lee’s inspiring words, “the importance of giving back to the community.”

The bio specifically mentions that the university sells buildings on leased land only — a qualification subtly indicative of a qualm, perhaps. And the developer become chancellor might well be cheered for selling only the structures and not the land they stand on. In this way, UBC has avoided the sad fate of some Vancouver public schools which, forced by tax cuts to sell their land, have lately had to rent back the properties their buildings occupy. But this distinction misses the larger point: that turning the university over to the market destabilizes the school in ways more fundamental than the loss of land. The financialization of the school renders it fundamentally exposed to the whims of the market and shackles it to the financial imperative of short-term profit.

Moreover, the sale of buildings to private owners has effects that exacerbate privatizing trends and promote values that are at odds with the public university. Just who exactly are those wealthy strangers walking their dogs on the campus, or jogging in the early hours? On any given day a drive down Chancellor Drive is a tour of active real estate listings for a speculative market in luxury homes: condos with ocean views, the blinds always drawn; apartments that turn over at an alarming rate; tank-like black SUVs, eerily dark “zombie” homes….

A fireplace glows in the lobby’s seating area. Gilded books decorate the surrounding shelves, stacked like gold bricks in some lucky patron’s vault. The effect is perplexing: if the decorative premise is meant to honor the books’ value, they have nonetheless been subtracted from any possible use — an insistent theme, apparently, in this part of campus. We’re tempted to say that gilded, unreadable books illustrate a socio-economic contradiction between the university’s historical purpose and the commodification of knowledge. A designer, though, might say “they look nice.”

 

Oddly, Dean Koontz is well represented here. An author known for lurid mass-market paperbacks, here in UBC’s Alumni Centre he has ascended to the realm of venerable tomes with gilt edging. We note a copy of the book Champion, by Fabio (yes, that Fabio), and a Reader’s Digest Select Edition, which omnibus volume includes Bad Blood by Linda Fairstein, The Long Walk Home by Will North, The Blue Zone by Andrew Gross, and Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas — titles you won’t find among the UBC library’s holdings.

 

As in a dream, objects here take on strange and disturbing meanings. As in a nightmare, we can’t help but take them personal. We note a copy of the Koontz novel Relentless, whose plot involves the mortal combat between a “successful” author and a “sociopathic” literary critic. The critic with a “poison pen” is bent on destruction: “he’ll destroy you, your family, and everything you hold dear,” says the book’s blurb. Could this be a shot across the bow to the humanities, those meddlesome critics? Or, more likely — but which is worse? — might there be no intent here, just the random meaninglessness of edutainment?

The intellectually edifying Relentless is accompanied by The One Minute Sales Person, with the subtitle: The Quickest Way to Sell People on Yourself, Your Services, Products, or Ideas, by Spencer Johnson, M.D. We’re brought up short for a moment by the phrase “sell people,” but Dr. Johnson nudges us on: “We are all salesmen,” he helpfully observes, “from the president of the United States to ourselves.” Penned apparently in 1984, the dictum has proved its worth.

A tinkling, meanwhile, echoes in the reception lobby, where a grand piano plays itself. A vaguely disturbing sight: the keys are depressed in shifting patterns by some invisible force to some inscrutable end. Abstracted students are sunk in plush chairs nearby. We listen to the music for a moment, then, like a person losing interest in someone speaking to them, fall to merely hearing it. There may be something beneath this level of inattention. The sounds join the murmur of voices from the cafe next door. We notice that a motto is engraved into a gold plate mounted on the piano. Reckless, we seek some meaning in it. “Where words fail, music speaks,” it declares. Who would argue? Music is fine. But we’re jolted by the idea of the university as a place where words fail.

These runes rattle in the skull as we exit the building. It’s almost a relief to return to the jackhammers and brick and mortar saws outside. The last pavers are being installed around the floor-to-ceiling shop windows of the new market rental complex at the end of University Boulevard.

 


*See Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

**Theodor Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” in The Culture Industry (London: Routledge, 1991), 106.

***On “authoritarian” logic in this context, see Melinda Cooper, “All in the Family Debt: How Neoliberals and Conservatives Came Together to Undo the Welfare State,” Boston Review, May 31, 2017 (link).

 

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Iceberg aesthetics

In Death in the Afternoon, his book on Spanish bullfighting, Ernest Hemingway famously compared his laconic writing to an iceberg. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about,” Hemingway says, “he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” True to this understated style, Hemingway delivers his iceberg metaphor with no transition or embellishment: “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg,” he says, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”*

Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” subsequently became a shorthand definition of the author’s narrative technique, and by extension the work of others, like Raymond Carver, who aim for similar spare allusiveness. Among such minimalist writers, Hemingway’s writing is distinctive, though, for its characteristic tension between persistent omission and equally insistent repetition, as seen in the “iceberg” quote itself, which uses several words two times or more. On a broader thematic level this pattern of repetition and absence, a kind of terse circumlocution, corresponds to the way the author’s major themes and obsessions seem to be not merely understated but suspiciously hidden or, indeed, repressed, which has created a minor industry, in Hemingway scholarship, of literary-psychological exegesis.

There are other puzzling things in Hemingway’s work that cannot, however, be readily attributed to an author’s more-or-less willful omissions or latent psycho-sexual dynamics. As if emerging from below the text’s surface, such meanings testify instead to the force of history exerting a kind of retroactive significance on the cultural artifact. To pursue these historical meanings is perhaps to widen the ambit of “paranoia-criticism” and expose secrets that exceed the author’s intent, unconscious or otherwise. Primary among these historical meanings is the mounting threat of climate change, that belated aftereffect of modernity — and modernism –, whose evidence today is making us confront, like traumatized subjects, the distant source of our ills. And here of course Hemingway’s iceberg becomes newly suggestive.

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“Iceberg” is a word likely borrowed from the Dutch ijsberg, meaning “ice mountain.” The semantic resonance of the word, with all that it implies of cold enormity and weirdly joined contraries — stillness and motion, solidity and transience — no doubt explains its lasting attachment to Hemingway’s macho persona and pithy style. The specific metaphorical sense Hemingway evokes of a hidden bulk of meaning — his submerged seven-eighths — appears shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out. In this way, death, disaster and the unconscious are packed into a modern cultural password already fully formed in 1916, the year Hemingway published his first piece of writing. As the OED puts it, citing a contemporary source, “reason in men is only the very tip of their iceberg of mental life.”

Iceberg suspected of sinking the Titanic (Wikimedia)

These fatal themes are condensed in the image of the African volcano that dominates one of Hemingway’s best-known and most accomplished pieces of fiction, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The eponymous mountain plays an unmistakably symbolic role in the short story, but in a more subtle way the tapering white summit above the volcano’s massive bulk also evokes the proverbial iceberg’s tip. With its ecologically isolated biomes rising far above the savannah, the “inselberg” of Kilimanjaro is topped not only by snow but secular glaciers. Moreover, as a dormant volcano, Kilimanjaro embodies the threat of a moving mountain, recalling in this way the “dignity of movement” Hemingway singles out as an iceberg’s main attribute. Finally, that movement is linked to the possibility of heat and thus melting — just as an iceberg in motion heads invariably toward obliteration.

Despite these suggestions of transience and movement, the volcano’s snow-tipped summit in Hemingway’s story is paired to themes of timelessness — albeit a timelessness beyond life. But this tension between eternity and finality reflects the story’s conflicted crux: the ambiguous death-in-life of literary posterity desired by Hemingway’s fictional alter-ego Harry. Confined to camp with a life-threatening infection, Harry, a washed-up writer on safari, is tormented above all by the thought of the works he may never write should he die. Harry’s frustrated ambition is conveyed in the story’s epigraph that speaks of a leopard found frozen at the mountain’s summit, emblem of fateful striving and incorruptible death. The story’s conclusion makes this connection abundantly clear, as the last thoughts of a dying Harry transport him to the shining, frozen mountaintop: “there was where he was going.”

 

It is an irony Hemingway could hardly have anticipated — or even indeed imagined — that his most striking emblems of the aesthetic ideal, combining timeless permanence with cold, compact solidity, are symbols now of evanescence and threatening change. Thanks to significant media coverage, notably Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, it is well known today that the glaciers of Kilimanjaro are melting and expected to fully disappear in the near future. Likewise, polar icebergs are no longer Hemingway’s dignified emissaries of eternally frozen wastelands but alarming signs of ecological collapse.

It might seem anachronistic, then, in the light of Hemingway’s necessarily restricted viewpoint, his distance from our disasters, to read future threats in texts of his that could not possibly anticipate them. And yet, in writings from the period of “Snows,” Hemingway explicitly seeks a temporal viewpoint that extends both into the prehistoric past, a time “before man,” as he puts it, and into an apparently posthuman future, after “all the systems of governments” are gone, an entropic vision that verges on the ecological.*** In this light we could argue that critical anachronism is no error of interpretation or paranoid fabulation but inheres to our subject itself. Human and geological tempos collide; as Andreas Malm neatly puts it, “climate change is a messy mix-up of time scales.”****

This “mix-up” of time, pace and chronology is precisely one of the signal achievements of “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and the key to its enduring success. Although Hemingway staked his reputation on his novels, his short stories better reflect his innovative style. “Snows” perhaps demonstrates this best of all. The theme of the story — the writer’s regret at all he has not written — epitomizes the conflict between Hemingway’s two main genres: if the novel remains Hemingway’s failed achievement, his short stories overcome that deficit, but only by making their unwriting — the bulk of the iceberg — their secret force and suggestiveness.

The compact coldness of Hemingway’s strongest writing is vividly conveyed in the almost telegraphic cursive passages in “Snows” where Harry’s racing memories revisit “the things he had saved to write” (42). Major episodes of Hemingway’s own life are compressed here as if preserved in ice, and with them, large swathes of history too, from the Paris Commune through WWI and including even the heroic legacy of polar exploration — the latter strikingly condensed in the single evocative surname of Nansen. Snow in these passages is palpably insistent and dazzling, “so bright it hurt your eyes,” Hemingway says, and accordingly, the word’s strobing flashes cast an intermittent blackness:

That was one of the things he had saved to write, with, in the morning at breakfast, looking out the window and seeing snow on the mountains in Bulgaria and Nansen’s Secretary asking the old man if it were snow and the old man looking at it and saying, No, that’s not snow. It’s too early for snow. And the Secretary repeating to the other girls, No you see. It’s not snow and them all saying, It’s not snow we were mistaken. But it was the snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter.

The great scientist, inventor and sportsman Fridtjof Nansen, record-setting explorer of the North Pole and first to cross the Greenland ice-cap, appears here in his humanitarian role after WWI as advocate and defender of refugees and displaced persons. In referring to Nansen as the “old man” not only once but twice, and casting him, quite improbably, as unable to judge the threat of snowy weather, Hemingway compacts into the vignette the enigma of his rivalrous toxic masculinity and his near-inexplicable self-destructiveness. This simmering violence adds to the retrospective resonance of the passage, as it is more than a little uncanny to see Hemingway’s iceberg prose combine the eminent incarnation of polar discovery with numberless “populations” of refugees. But the uncanny is always untimely. In Hemingway’s displaced persons we recognize the forerunners of today’s homeless and precarious populations, and the first waves of climate refugees, the lead characters of our apocalyptic future on a warming planet. Reading Hemingway, we too are displaced persons, unsettled and disoriented, scanning backward in his texts the tight-closed germs of today’s growing calamities.

***

In a often-quoted passage from “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin makes the striking claim that “the storyteller … has borrowed his authority from death.” This borrowed authority seems amply displayed in Hemingway’s imagined death on safari. Less cited is the next sentence of Benjamin’s: “In other words,” the critic says, “it is natural history to which his stories refer back.” Benjamin argues that the distinctive temporality of prose narratives — especially those with a link to oral traditions — is tied to rhythms that are longer, deeper, and therefore disjunct with mere life-stories. As an example, Benjamin recounts a tale in which a groom dies in the mines on the eve of his wedding, but whose body is kept intact over the years in a mineral solution until the day his bride, an old woman now, witnesses the exhumation of her handsome young suitor.

Southern glacier and ice field, Mt. Kilimanjaro

Benjamin’s illustration of “natural history” might strike today’s reader as strangely familiar, as similar anecdotes have been cropping up in recent news. But unlike in the German fable these incidents are not so much wondrous as alarming. In melting glaciers around the world, from Everest to the Alps, the near-magical preservation and re-emergence of bodies frozen in the ice has become a gruesome warning signal of climate change. In 1991 the naturally-mummified body of Ötsi, the 5,000 year-old Iceman, emerged from a glacier in the Tyrolean Alps; In 1999, the “remarkably well preserved body” of George Mallory was found near the summit of Everest. And in 2013, a pair of Austrian soldiers from WWI were found on Presena glacier. Casualties of the alpine conflict between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the soldiers were contemporaries of Hemingway, who served as an ambulance-driver with the Italians during the “White War.”

According to The Telegraph, the discovery of the soldiers proves that history “lives on, thanks to the preserving properties of ice.” In her 2018 book The Library of Ice, Nancy Campbell views this episode of historical recovery somewhat differently, connecting it to Hemingway’s formative war experience as related in A Farewell to Arms. For Campbell, the preserving qualities of ice are more ambiguous and shifting in the era of climate change; like the art of Giacometti that “reduced his models to their sparest elements,” Hemingway’s iceberg aesthetics may only leave us with perishable, mangled fragments of history, “disordered bodies merged now in a single mass.”***** Here Benjamin’s “natural history” is turned against us, no longer the “sanction,” like death, of reliable cycles of time. Likewise it defies our inherited tales of life, survival and posterity, disgorging the past into a dubious future. We might imagine Hemingway’s alter-ego Harry, would-be figure of timeless literary posterity, as similar: an untimely corpse released to the corrupting elements by Kilimanjaro’s Furtwängler glacier.

Obsolescent as they may be, tales of “natural history” such as Benjamin describes continue to have a dangerous hold on us. Dangerous because the narrative habits that sustain our redemptive notions of enduring memory and cyclical or progressive time may be fundamentally at odds with the terminal conditions we confront in climate change. One therefore reads with despairing amazement the words of the doyen of landscape theory, geographer Denis Cosgrove, who, in a magisterial account of the idea of the “symbolic landscape” in contemporary critical thought, summarily discounts the pertinence of environmentalism to our knowledge of man’s relationship to nature. Cosgrove scoffingly asserts that “Any sensitivity to the history of landscape and its representations in the Western tradition forces the recognition that human history is one of constant environmental modification, manipulation, destruction and creation, both imaginative and material.”******

Apparently, knowledge of the past imposes on us, “even today,” as Cosgrove notably insists, an implacable historical pattern with which to understand the present. This is conservatism as antiphrasis and history as alibi, and both are enabled by implicit narrative assumptions. Those structuring assumptions are continuity (“constant environmental modification”) and cyclical order (“destruction and creation”), where that last word, in a surreptitiously redemptive move, overtakes and supplants the negating force of the former. It seems especially fitting, then, that in Cosgrove’s fable of natural history the time-honored belief in such a cyclical and constant “process” is one that, like Benjamin’s sleeping suitor, is, as the geographer puts it, “deposited deep in myth and memory.” These words, it must be noted, were written a full eight years after the IPCC’s First Assessment Report warned that recent temperature anomalies had not been seen on Earth in 10,000 years.

Climate change has prompted a recent vogue in scholarship showing the influence of weather and climate on various events in history. In a brisk challenge to such studies, Andreas Malm argues that the point is not to look for the role of climate in history, but instead to consider the role played by history in transforming the climate. It might be said that our reassessment of Hemingway shares more with the former, and that we have done little more than shown how the Holocene left its mark on one man’s writing life. If so, we will be in good company; future readers will do the same, no doubt, distracted by the muted yet insistent hints of enviably mild weather wafting from between the lines of virtually any text penned in the past. Those readers will not be kind to Hemingway’s archetypical heroes roaming foreign wilds to claim big game for sport.

And yet Hemingway’s tragic vision highlights temporal conundrums that climate change has only exacerbated. How can one grasp finality within the relentless ongoingness of the present? How can one reconcile the brief span of one’s life to a broader responsibility on geological time scales? The author’s narrative evocations of snow and ice point to dilemmas that go well beyond his ordinary themes of heroism and adventure. If these are ‘existential’ questions, our human sense of lived time may be sadly mismatched with climate end-times. In this way we are all like the people living next to one of the world’s fastest-melting glaciers: as the Guardian reports, “locals cannot believe it will die because their own existence is intertwined with it.”

****

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was inspired by the author’s safari in Kenya and Tanzania in 1933. In his autobiographical account of the trip, Green Hills of Africa (1934), a striking passage embroiders on another image of enduring nature. Like the iceberg in Death in the Afternoon and the snow-topped summit in “Snows,” the suggestiveness of this figure has only increased with time. Anticipating the themes of Hemingway’s famous later works, including The Old Man and the Sea, it also echoes the writerly metacommentary of Death in the Afternoon, and as if to underscore its latent importance, it is found at the dead center of the safari, like the motionless eye of a spinning ocean gyre.

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know, truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing — the stream.

The passage mimes its subject in the run-on flow of phrasing, while the description of random offal contrasts with what Hemingway calls the “permanent” and “lasting” force of the natural ocean stream. The passage certainly does not count among Hemingway’s finest. Its chief interest lies in its failures. Notably, Hemingway cannot help frame his evocation of entropy and loss with an image of eternity. The Shakespearean resonance of Hemingway’s “four or five fathoms” surely calls up The Tempest’s magical premise of “sea-change,” in which an apparent calamity at sea gives way to a message of transformation and enduring life. In spite of its grim disenchantment, then, the passage offers a redemptive message that owes something to the deep pull of metaphysics. But we might also attribute that conservative force to the Holocene, whose moderating climate allowed Hemingway to see nature as a circular force of recurrence and regeneration.

Needless to say, Hemingway’s claim that pollution amounts to nothing in the larger scheme of things has been proven sadly mistaken. Far from being an indomitable force of perpetual recurrence, a Gulf Stream warmed by greenhouse gases is contributing to rapid glacial melt in the Arctic. Icebergs are calving at unprecedented rates, and recent studies have suggested that the rate of melting in the Arctic may be 10 to 100 times faster than previously thought. This year saw a record-breaking hurricane Dorian, swollen in size by a sluggish, overheated Gulf Stream. And the slowing Stream threatens the North Atlantic’s entire circulatory system as melting Arctic freshwater pours into its path; some forecasts anticipate the Stream halting in the near future.

This month a memorial plaque was mounted at Ok, a volcano in Iceland, at the upper bend of the Gulf Stream. The glacier was recently declared dead. In highlighting the challenge of putting into words a eulogy for a glacier, a supposed “symbol of eternity,” the author of the memorial text notably faults literature for providing him poor counsel. Nor does any broader narrative notion of drama provide any help. “A dying glacier is not a dramatic event,” the author points out. With natural history turned on its head, the storyteller is at a loss for story.

 


*Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (New York: Scribner, 1999 [1932]), 153-4.

**Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987), 56.

***Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), 150, 149.

****Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso, 2016), 8.

*****Nancy Campbell, The Library of Ice: Readings From a Cold Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

******Denis E. Cosgrove, “Introduction to Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape” in DeLue and Elkins, Landscape Theory (New York: Routledge, 2008), 37.

 

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Reclaiming the “narrative”

In the wake of the Mueller report on the Trump-Russia investigation, the White House and its allies were quick to strike out against the liberal and mainstream media for their coverage of the two-year inquiry.  The scrolling news ticker on Fox News mocked the liberal media’s “collusion narrative” and an op-ed in USA Today gloated that “the drummed-up narrative of collusion has now imploded.” The president must have especially relished the blaring headline on the The Hill’s front page, which read “Treason Narrative Collapses.” His fortunes reversed, Trump lost no time in flinging that charge of treason back on the liberal press. It seemed the president had taken control of the “narrative.”

Except, of course, he hadn’t. Neither, certainly, did the Democratic camp, despite some professions of hope; on the day Attorney General William Barr released his summary report, Politico’s Bill Sher still saw a tactical opportunity in “the narrative that Trump is a threat.” A week later, that opportunity seemed to be shrinking; critics of the president were concerned that the White House’s version of events – the “first narrative” – would be hard to dislodge, even if damaging findings against the president were revealed in the pending full report. As the New York Times put it, “because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.” On the eve of the full (redacted) report’s release on April 18th, Democrats accused Barr of continuing to harden those views. As Jerold Nadler put it, Barr was still “trying to bake in the narrative about the report to the benefit of the White House.”

Whatever the outcome, there will be no winner in this contest of so-called narratives, since the word, in its current usage, bears almost no relationship to its actual meaning. And narrative, actually, may have something useful to offer to politics and journalism at the present conjuncture.

In his influential essay “Permission to Narrate,” Edward Said provides an eloquent defense of narrative as a means of political self-determination. Said argues that narrative’s story-based ordering of lived experience can foster a meaningful collective vision of identity by combining historical memory with a purpose-driven orientation to the future.* However, for that same reason, he points out, narratives are often the object of competing forces that promote or suppress them. Occupied Palestine is Said’s case in point; the scholar views Israel’s persistent negation of the history of the Palestinians as a refusal to see their experience as narratively legitimate.

This focus on narrative lends a particular acuity to Said’s critique of press coverage. Writing on reports of Israeli war crimes that went largely unreported, Said says that “the findings are horrifying – and almost as much because they are forgotten or routinely denied in press reports as because they occurred.” The scholar’s claim seems almost shocking in itself, as he virtually equates tragic death and destruction on a massive scale with the “horror” of some missing lines of teletype. Far from being hyperbole or a mere argumentative ploy, Said’s rhetorical gesture shows to what extent he views narrative as being materially bound up with the forces that can authorize existence. Facts require narrative; absent a legitimating account of one’s history and purpose, even a favorable rendering of the facts can undermine the rightful claim that narrative authority confers on history and human agency (265). Narrative, then, provides an organizing and justifying rationale for one’s continuing right to exist, and it does so not only through the force of a unifying story but also by encompassing the full complexity of lived experience, including such things as “absences and gaps” (256) and an “overwhelming mess” of anecdotes, evidence and vignettes (257), even aspects of life and experience that are “prenarrative” and “antinarrative” (256).

Said’s much-missed scholarly voice combined a patient dedication to literary analysis with the restless urgency of political advocacy. His vision of narrative is very remote, to say the least, from its usage in contemporary mediaspeak, where the word’s meaning has shriveled into a synonym for “messaging,” “spin” and “disinformation.” As a result of this semantic demotion, we risk losing critical traction on terrain where narrative study and a sense of narrative’s political value – call it literacy – can help to advance progressive causes.

Should anyone doubt the continuing relevance of Said’s analysis in “Permission to Narrate,” the fallout from the release of the Mueller report’s main findings on March 25th provided sobering proof. On the very day that the White House asserted control of the Trump-Russia “narrative,” the president signed an order recognizing Israel’s claim on the Golan Heights; meanwhile, Israel launched an air campaign in the Gaza Strip. Reporting from Jerusalem, The Guardian’s Oliver Holmes says that “the fight over the narrative” routinely makes PR in Israel more important than information. “Unlike anywhere I’ve ever reported,” he says, “the focus here is not on what happens, but how that story is told.” Clearly, Said’s analysis remains pertinent, though the recent demotion of the term “narrative” adds a new and troubling dimension to his critique of the press. If Said could call media coverage “horrifying” for its denial of specific cases of injustice, the negation of narrative extends the range of that horror potentially very far indeed. By demoting the meaning of narrative, the chorus of voices in today’s media participates in a broader silencing which, by deligitimizing the activity of storytelling, denies us a fundamental means of human agency and political self-determination.

In other words, this is no quarrel about diction. It is not only that “narrative,” in the current vernacular, is fundamentally simplistic; one could make the claim about almost any vocable spit out by the corporate media. The more concerning problem is that the word’s connotations today are virtually always negative. To speak of a “false narrative” is to waste an adjective. In the current mediascape, “narratives” are understood to be manipulative, and willfully so; one’s own narratives are embraced with the cynicism of an ad man, while rival narratives are flatly refused. This crippled usage, unfortunately, is endemic on both the left and right. Well before the collusion theory was debunked, Robert Reich parsed the “underlying message” of the president’s attacks on the media as a “narrative” that Trump’s critics are enemies “conspiring” to undermine the presidency. “It’s a narrative,” the professor darkly warns us, “that’s showing up increasingly on right-wing websites.” In this usage, the term “narrative” is quite literally equivalent to the idea of conspiratorial propaganda, and is therefore identical to the crude way the term is wielded on the Republican side.

Reich, the would-be liberal thought leader, is thus wrong on two counts: both in his vulgar usage of the term and in his dismissal of a liberal conspiracy, which was unmasked to such disastrous effect on March 25. On that fateful day, Glenn Greenwald gave a merciless critique of Trump-Russia conspiracy talk, which devoured the liberal airwaves for two years and whose failure has now reset the white nationalist agenda. Greenwald’s scathing intervention was exemplary also in that he specifically castigated the liberal media for its poor narrative imagination: in his assessment, the treason story peddled on such platforms as MSNBC amounted to narrative’s crudest form of plot: a story, Greenwald said, worthy of a novel by Tom Clancy.

Here, as elsewhere, Republicans have managed to yank progressives rightward — the dominant trend in US politics over the past 40 years. It is not only in policy, however, but in the entire discursive imagination that leftists and progressives have yielded terrain to the fascists. This is what makes professor Reich’s critique of a video from the National Rifle Association so tragic, as it tacitly reinforces the cynical equation of narrative discourse with sheer artifice and deceit. Beneath the disagreement, in other words, lies a common accord. And yet the stakes of the argument could hardly be higher; the video Reich refers to was, at the time of the writing, one of the starkest expressions of American fascism to have been publicly voiced by an established, if utterly hateful, political lobbying organization. In the video, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch rails with quite terrifying menace at a left-wing cabal that, as she says, “use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.”

It might be argued that this use of the term “narrative” doesn’t reflect any fundamental change in the idea in its proper sense. However, like the demotion of “myth” in the positivist, rationalistic 19th century, the contemporary usage of “narrative” surely reflects a shift in storytelling’s cultural value and discursive authority. As scientific “techno-hype” and market logics undermine all sense of human purpose a lived experience of time and finitude escapes us, Donna Jones argues. “We have no meaningful narrative of our lives,” asserts Jones.** True to this zeitgeist, even nominally positive attitudes to narrative are markedly inflected toward instrumental notions of its purpose. In an article last week in the Hill Times, for instance, Lisa Van Dusen bemoans the decline of narrative in the current political climate of weaponized and “engineered” stories. Unfortunately, the journalist’s own idea of narrative is tragically reductive. In Van Dusen’s account, narrative should not only be more truthful and honest than the stories currently peddled in politics, it should aspire to a fully scientific standard of veracity; to reclaim narrative, she says, is to reassert control over “empirical” information and factual data. This eminently practical vision yields a succinct definition for our age: narrative, the journalist says, consists of “chronological facts and the biographical colour or other content connecting them.” If “biographical colour” seems a concession, however halfhearted, to narrative art, it also betrays the journalist’s instrumental notion of liberal inclusivity, coming as it does right after the author’s avowed admiration for the “triumph” of Obama’s campaign story. The slip is telling; in liberal narratives as in liberal society, “color or content” are additive, not transformative.

The point, however, is that narratives are constructive and transformative versions of reality; not because they are by nature artificial, and thus false, but because they create worlds of meaning. So nothing could be more erroneous than to claim, as the journalist does, that narratives convey “chronological facts.” Narratives are time-based, but they are anything but chronological; they portray time to the extent that it is meaningful – constructed in memory and anticipation, and with all the “absences and gaps” Said takes care to mention, without which there would be no pacing, plot or suspense, but also no rhythm or heartbeat. Neither would there be history, understood as a discursive construction of the time we share, always partial and limited, true, but without thereby being necessarily false or partisan.

These distinctions are obviously lost in the rush to promote or demolish so-called “narratives.” And if liberals, progressives and fascists are equally at fault in this problematic state of things, the fascists arguably have an advantage in the contest. Progressives and liberals will not win many battles in defending the naked truth or howling at “alternative facts.” Neither will they inspire the public by asking us to cope with fateful neoliberal inevitabilities – a chronological, managerial vision of disenchanted progress. Narrative is the original alternative to facts; it allows for a creative, transformative engagement with material reality, without thereby undermining all truth claims or yielding to cynical fabrication. The fascists may be liars, but in their euphoric delusions, willful fabrications and vicious conspiracy theories one can detect something that falls well short of narrative, but which shares something with all creative efforts to construct a world of meaning.

“Politics is numerous,” says Partha Chatterjee.*** Sadly, in its partisan acceptation “narrative” cannot seem to embrace a political multitude. A lonely exception is Naomi Klein, who sees narrative as the key to a mass movement on a global scale. “The urgency of the climate crisis,” Klein says, “could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would weave … a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system.” **** A livable world, in Klein’s account, is a meaningful one, and its unifying “coherence” is at once political and narrative. That is a story worth sharing.


* Edward Said, “Permission to Narrate,” in The Edward Said Reader (New York: Knopf, 2007).

** Donna V. Jones, “Inheritance and Finitude: Toward a Literary Phenomenology of Time,” (ELH, Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2018), 301.

*** Partha Chatterjee, Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), x.

**** Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 8.

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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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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction

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.

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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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