Review- Schulman, “The Gentrification of the Mind”

Sarah Schulman, “The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination” (2012) – This is a short, hard to classify book from an odd transitional era. Published in 2012, Schulman seems to have written the book mostly in 2008 and 2009, which I think we can call transitional years. Schulman writes in a number of disciplines: she is a novelist, a playwright, a historian, an intellectual of a kind you don’t get often these days, complete with serious political commitments. She was a member of ACT-UP (her latest book is a massive history of the iconic AIDS group) and is an organizer in the lesbian community.

I wonder why she isn’t more prominent than she is, given the breadth of her talents, and the high degree of insight and fine writing — conversational but precise, never patronizing — she must have if this work is any representation. Arguably, “The Gentrification of the Mind” is about why she isn’t better known, why less talented people are elevated in the cultural sphere, though she never puts it that way. She juxtaposes two phenomena: the mass death of gay people due to the AIDS crisis at the end of the twentieth century, and the gentrification of many cities, here understood as pricing out poor inhabitants of cities, and their cultures, to make room for rich people and a homogenized way of life.

Schulman acknowledges she isn’t a social scientist. She’s something else: a witness. She came up in pre-gentrification New York, in its art scenes and its struggles. She literally held the hands of dying young gay men, abandoned by their society and often by their families, only to see their apartments rented out for quadruple their value, to see whole neighborhoods — much of residential Manhattan — go from working class, poor, diverse places to bywords for anodyne luxury living.

Along with this gentrification of space, Schulman argues, comes the titular gentrification of thought. She sees the gay community as having traded its radicalism — the thing that kept it alive during the AIDS plague — for assimilation (there’s some brilliant and cutting depictions of Andrew Sullivan as the poster child of this process- I would’ve loved to have seen Schulman go after him in that interview they did in 1997). The idea that gay life represents an alternative to the values and ways of organizing life that compulsory heterosexuality seemed to have been lost in 2008, when the battle of the moment was the right for gay people to take part in the ur-heterosexual institution, marriage. This idea, that we can live differently from the way that’s sold to us, isn’t just a matter of sexual politics, though Schulman unabashedly depicts queer life as the flagship of the fleet of avant garde culture.

The irony here is that commentators often make an implicit or explicit link between gentrification and gay people- like the old real estate industry saw of “follow the fairies” for soon-to-be-valuable urban properties. It’s true that gay men (usually white, generally rich) often do get in on the ground floor of “up and coming” urban neighborhoods and aren’t always good neighbors to poorer, browner inhabitants. But that’s a symptom, not the disease- Schulman’s enough of a red to know that there’s too much money (assisted by too much government policy) to make gentrification purely a matter of culture. In many respects, the whole point of this process is plucking out a few gay people — your Andrew Sullivans, not long after the monoculture would prop up Ellen Degeneres as the acceptable lesbian — as props for its supremacy. What Schulman fought for was gay power, to save their own lives, for the community to determine its own fate and make a new world in the process, and that isn’t happening.

This is a passionate book, sad, angry, but hopeful, in that way of old militants who have taken a lot of knocks but keep fighting. It’s shot through with reminisces of her city, which could go wrong, bad wrong, the way people fetishize urban grime sometimes, but that’s not what she’s doing, and if she was, she earned it, she lived it. It’s not just bodegas and “feel” (though both enter into matters), it’s a matter of the availability of urban space for people without a ton of money. When that’s not available, art scenes become what they are now- playgrounds for the rich and fatuous. It needs to be cheap, and it needs to urban, to get any kind of real art scene- people need to be able to take risks, around other people doing the same. Between crippling rents (and tuitions, increasingly necessary to break into art, another stupid “innovation”), spiraling inequality, and the massive policing that comes with it, it’s just not there anymore. You don’t need to be a nostalgist to see that.

All this and more in fewer than two hundred pages! This made me think, a lot. Here’s two lines of thought I had. I’m heterosexual and it’s not my business how the gay community defines myself. As it happens, I think at the very least positing an alternative to family life as understood by mainstream culture is a good idea and worth doing (if nothing else, a lot of American-style “family values” material accoutrements — single family homes full of plastic crap with a lawn and multiple cars out front — are helping to cook the planet). But I’ve known enough gay men to know that many of them aren’t necessarily interested in all that. They’re not necessarily apolitical — they will fight for themselves, and their communities — but they don’t understand themselves as conscripted into a battle against fairly fundamental (-seeming?) social structures by virtue of their sexuality. Should they? Schulman might suggest they should. Well, that’s her business, I suppose, and theirs, not this hetero’s.

Second line of thought: a lot of my early leftist education came from reading The Baffler and other irreverent cultural critics of their sort. They injected materialism (and wit) into debates often sorely lacking it. Tom Frank and those (mostly) guys were deeply skeptical of the concept of subcultural resistance, the idea that the power of capitalism and other hegemonic forces could be meaningfully subverted by oppositional cultural practices. As an angry young nerd who always felt ill at ease with the subcultural identities I saw around me (including nerd identity), I ate that up. It’s funny- I don’t think Frank or any of the Baffler crew or the early Jacobin people or whoever I was reading at the time ever really got into the sexual politics of the thing. I’m sure if you asked them, they’d say they favor gay rights, as understood by gay people, and mean it. But they completely ignored the idea of a subculture challenging basic structures of our society in favor of mocking the spectacle of (generally, post-height-of-the-US-AIDS-crisis) absurd Burning-Man-esque cultural posturing by the comfortable.

I think Frank, if he was feeling frisky, would say he ignored the potential of pre-AIDS gay subculture because it failed, and would have failed, AIDS or no AIDS. Maybe I’m being uncharitable to the old guy. I figure Schulman would say because of AIDS, and the great taking of space (physical and cultural) from the commons that real oppositional culture once held, that we will never know what could have been possible had AIDS and gentrification not come around. Who knows? There’s an alternate history for you, but the “point of departure” — our government giving a shit about gay people and public health — is something of a lift, alas.

Anyway- this guy who uses “urban space” mostly to sit at pubs, drink beer, and read books (and not that many of them “experimental,” though I’ll look up some of the neglected works Schulman champions here), who avoids the theater, and who would love to save a baby seal in front of Christina Hendricks, picks up what Schulman’s putting down. If nothing else, the culture, especially literary culture, that we’ve got is so damned tired (and complicit) that it’s hard for me not to connect with a historical theory of why that might be. It does seem like a real oppositional politics — as material as it is cultural, fiercely both in the teeth of some vulgar materialist grumbling — is coming about, including challenging not just family structure but our ideas of gender, too. We probably haven’t ended the Great Gentrification, like Schulman maybe thought we did in the shadow of the 2008 recession, but we’re working on it. I plan on reading more Schulman! She bids fair to be one of the greats of our time. *****

Review- Schulman, “The Gentrification of the Mind”

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