Sunday, October 31, 2021

The end of literature, part four

This tweet has been seen thousands of times since it was posted on the 82nd anniversary of Britain and France declaring war on Germany. Not that the coincidence means much. At least, no more than what the general population, interest and powerful mean here, or indeed what poetry means. As the hundreds of responses attest, they are generalities enabling a culture to oversee the remnants of what escapes it; that which it either reveres, ignores or dismisses, with an equal lack of consequence. One response is from the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine where Danielle Rose is Poetry Editor. Or was. 

If Paul Celan saw no difference between a poem and a handshake, this is the sucker punch.  

Celebrate, community, passion, vision: words desiccated by a thousand corporate press releases. The magazine's website even refers to world-class volunteers. Words and phrases like this became so notorious under the New Labour administration that robust is now included under W in the UK's Civil Service style guide of words to avoid.

But why should I lump an arts magazine in with neoliberal technocrats? Isn't this an admirable project to spread the value of art as far as possible in society? Well, yes, it is, on first glance. 

Catherine Liu writes about another project admirable on first glance. After Barack Obama became US president, To Kill a Mockingbird returned to the school curriculum. Here is the definition of literature we can accept as having genuine power, as it teaches readers "a critical lesson about literature and empathy". Obama was keen for the return because, he said, reading allowed him to put himself in "someone else’s shoes" and as such was paraphrasing the novel's hero Atticus Finch who despite the anger and hatred directed at him defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The novel has become a document of the postwar progression towards a fairer society culminating in the election of a black man as president. The New York Times' chief book reviewer even called Obama the reader-in-chief: "He was liberalism’s dream come true", Liu writes, with the return of To Kill a Mockingbird to the curriculum emblematic of a return to progress: "Atticus was not just genteel and antiracist but he was the most virtuous member of his community...the ethical center of a barbaric and racist world." And so Obama. 

Except, Liu observes, there was no "massive reinvestment in public schools and public universities" to match that of the past because the Obama administration "wanted to revive the early 1960s era of high liberalism, but in style only". And style, like Barren Magazine's managerial vocabulary, is everything. During Obama's presidency, he deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president before him, dropped over 100,000 bombs on eight different countries, including white phosphorus and depleted uranium, ramped up drone executions and the persecution of whistleblowers, bailed out Wall Street while thousands of his supporters lost their homes, overthrew the elected goverment of Honduras, put white helmets on the terrorists destroying Syria, and continued military and financial backing of the apartheid state to the south. So while he outdid the crimes and brutal policies of his graceless Republican predecessor, his elegance and literary sensitivity enabled liberals to see only a reflection of their admirable intentions, just as the female secretary of state reflected their proud feminist principles despite her decisive role in the Honduran coup, as called out by indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated soon after.

So, while there was the impression that the value of art was being used to uplift society, Liu says Harper Lee's novel fits in perfectly with the superficial stylings of liberalism as it "is filled with hatred of the angry, defiant, pleasure-seeking poor white people represented by the awful Ewells", promoting "the idea of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor". Obama's educational reform in which literature played its part was instead "a euphemism for an ongoing war against unionized workers and the lower ranks of white-collar professionals."

With more than half of American children having experienced public assistance at some point or another in their short lives, it seems sadistic to make them read a novel about a noble, virtuous lawyer and the evil public assistance–abusing poor people trying to kill his family. If poor ninth graders pay attention in their language arts classes, they must feel humiliated by their family’s willingness to take what the worthy poor of Harper Lee’s novel refuse.
The perception of this administration's virtue is a classic case of vertical solidarity: a black man and a woman in positions of power received PMC backing because they were examples of enormous social progress that also enables them to unsee the profound suffering caused by their policies, or, no better, to blame the victims. Liu notes a truth obvious to everyone outside the liberal bubble that the electorate's subsequent disillusionment with Mr Hopey-Changey "hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism" soon exploited by Donald Trump and, in the UK fed up with the neoliberal consensus, the campaign to leave the EU.

The connection between this and the question of whether poetry has any power is that the literary arm of the PMC has slowly taken over online literary coverage to instrumentalise it for professional and virtuous purposes. Hence the title of Catherline Liu's book:

The PMC as a proxy for today’s ruling class is shameless about hoarding all forms of secularized virtue: whenever it addresses a political and economic crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays, focusing its efforts on individual acts of “giving back” or reified forms of self-transformation. It finds in its particular tastes and cultural proclivities the justification for its unshakable sense of superiority to ordinary working-class people. If its politics amount to little more than virtue signaling, it loves nothing more than moral panics to incite its members to ever more pointless forms of pseudo-politics and hypervigilance.

This might be the job description of the editor of the Guardian's book pages, whose agenda, summed up by the final sentence, influences so many as they search for authority in an otherwise marginal medium (a white male announced not long ago that for the next twelve months he would "read only books by women of color". Catherine Liu again: 'Liberal members of the credentialed classes love to use the word empower when they talk about "people," but the use of that verb objectifies the recipients of their help while implying that the people have no access to power without them.')

I've written before about the takeover but have hesitated to approach the subject again partly because it is a game lost in advance in a culture that is passionate about celebrating a diversity of voices guiding readers toward the rhetoric of humanism in which literature is vehicle for all the hyphenated selves: definition, expression, assertion; ideal for a form in search of a certain kind of power or a mirror, mirror on the wall

 

The other reason for hesitation is because it appears to be impossible to discuss the alternative. In an essay on the rise of paperback culture in the 1960s, Maurice Blanchot notes that a culture always requires a limit leaving "an outside in relation to which and in opposition to which we come together and take refuge in our apparently limitless freedom". He summarises the outside as that which is resistant to universal comprehensible, something "we reject without knowing it" but whose exclusion is necessary for assimilation to take place, enabling communal self-congratulation on an historic victory over elitism. The emergence of affordable paperbacks enabled the circulation of all kinds of ideas new and old. On first glance, this also appears to be a progressive move, but, as Will Large explains in more detail, it might not be so straightforward: 

Today we feel that we can comprehend, debate and discuss everything. There is nothing that we could not publish, no idea that cannot be explained and made digestible to the public, from quantum mechanics to the late thought of Heidegger. Have we not thought more than ever before? Is not our culture a great thinking engine, and are not our heads simply bursting with ideas? But the more we know, the more everything has become ‘clearly and accessibly written’, the less what really matters is thought. For everything that is difficult has to be stripped out by necessity. ‘Difficult’ here does not just mean complicated, so that all the mathematical equations have to be taken out of the introductions to modern physics, but what cannot be thought, or what is not allowed to be thought. This is not a question of censorship, for there is no censorship on the great conveyor belt of books, but something much worse. The more we understand the less we understand what cannot be understood.

Culture is thereby a "powerful collective machinery that silently and imperceptively, day and night, pursues its task" of assimilation, even of the most unlikely work. Blanchot's topical example is the "happy surprise" of the top literary commentators when they reviewed a translation of a book by Trotsky. They discovered not a dangerous revolutionary but a "true man of letters" like themselves and whose statement that "everything is permitted in art" could be used against the "communist exigency", which, Blanchot notes, thereby reduces the meaning of such freedom to nothing. A work's power becomes indistinguishable from the building blocks of genre fiction.

In recent years, the sense of what not being able to understand what cannot be understood has preoccupied my experience of reading and so the focus of posts such as A walk in the park and The withdrawal of the novel. It might be conveniently called the outside, but this is a miserable cliché and better defined by Joseph Kuzma in his summary of Blanchot's characterisation of the Freudian unconscious "as a radical exteriority":

something that is not only indeterminate and unknowable, but that pulls man outside himself, outside everything he believes himself to be, outside everything that would comprise for him a center point...an irreducible otherness that precedes any installation of identity – an obscurity more ancient than even the most primitive form of consciousness...an outside that is neither another world nor a hidden world. 

While we may recoil from such hyperbole as it is a long way from the everyday experience of reading, it does suggest that the literary pages' fixation on the social identity of an author and how a work tackles current affairs in its subject matter is a sublimated accommodation of the pull of the outside, with the subsequent proliferation of virtuous reading plans proving them right. The blurb for a forthcoming book expresses this reserve in terms of assimilating world events:

Durs Grünbein argues that we are faced with the powerlessness of writing and the realization, valid to this day, that comes from confronting history. As he muses, “There is something beyond literature that questions all writing.” 

For Blanchot, that something beyond is literature itself: a work's "irreducible distance" is that which the culture of assimilation can grasp "only as a lack – a lack in ourselves, a lack in the work, and a void of language". We can see this in the anxious and patronising jurisdiction provoked by Danielle Rose's tweet. Blanchot suggests an alternative follows from Trotsky's claim that "the new art will be an atheistic art" but in which the God under whose protected we remain is Humanism. He wonders "(by which improbably heresy?)" we may leave "the enchanted knowledge of culture". Perhaps the parentheses around the question as much as the question itself is where Blanchot opens a space for us to continue.

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