Review – Voegelin, “The New Science of Politics”

Who is the beady-eyed philosopher king

Eric Voegelin, “The New Science of Politics” (1952) – When I was a teenager, I sometimes carpooled to school with a boy from the next town over. His father, a minister and learned man with a deep rumbling voice, found out I was interested in politics and asked me questions about it. One was “…do you seek to… immanentize the eschaton?” I did not know what “immanentize” or “eschaton” meant, and the dad informed me it meant something like bringing about the end of time and the kingdom of Heaven on earth. I don’t know what I told him. Eventually, through reading about the history of conservatism, I found out that that “immanentize the eschaton” line, usually preceded by the words “don’t” or “don’t try to,” was a minor slogan of the American conservative movement popularized by William Buckley and adapted from the works of German refugee scholar Eric Voegelin. It was a cutesy way of getting across the point that efforts to bring about utopia lead to worse situations than before (and therefore, don’t inconvenience the wealthy and powerful). Apparently, there were bumper stickers with the slogan on it.

Voegelin may have inspired a bumper sticker slogan but he fell into obscurity after his death in 1985, especially compared to similar figures like his fellow emigre Leo Strauss. Voegelin has a fervent but small cult following, a little think tank somewhere where foundation money keeps a few pedants going, but nothing like what the Straussians had in terms of access to power, or to go a bit further afield in the movement, the Objectivists or even anarcho-capitalists ala Rothbard. He hasn’t become a meme, either, like assorted right-leaning thinkers like Julius Evola or Emil Cioran, unless the boomer, pre-Internet version of a meme — recalled slogans from yesteryear imparted on a captive (but willing enough!) audience of teenagers — counts. 

This is too bad, because as far as I’m concerned, Voegelin had more on the ball than any of them, with the possible exception of Strauss- and unlike Strauss, Voegelin did not play. He laid his cards — his erudite, well-written (in a chunky, Teutonic way), deeply whack cards — on the table for all to see. It probably didn’t help his cult grow, compared to Strauss’s self-flattering mystery cult. But it made for an interesting read.

Voegelin was a totalitarianism theorist, but not like Arendt or any of the others I know. For one thing, he was stringent enough to attract gestapo attention even though he wasn’t a Jew or a leftist, which took some doing and promoted his move to the US. You can characterize Arendt and other totalitarianism thinkers by their philosophical reaches, their rummaging in the past for tools, metaphors, and explanatory schema (which all seems a little gratuitous to materialist me, but when done well makes for some toothsome reading). But I can’t think of any who reached as far back, with so rigorous a set of rummaging tactics, brushed up against and sometimes made good use of critical ideas we lose at our peril, and came back from this journey into the past with such a honkingly absurd but internally self-consistent set of schema as Voegelin does in “The New Science of Politics,” a set of lectures meant to be a prologue to the sprawling philosophical history of politics that he never finished.

It’s like this: forget power conflicts, or rather, forget their material dimensions, Voegelin tells us. All that does — Voegelin doesn’t say it but it’s what happens, in this and in idealist political thought more generally — is separate the wheat from the chaff, the rich powerful activist countries that matter and the rest who don’t (you gotta figure one of the reasons “traditionalists” — and Voegelin is related to big-T Traditionalism in some important ways — hate contemporary life is because a lot of rich countries can’t be bothered to play classical power politics anymore… though post-Ukraine invasion, who knows?). Politics is actually about representation. He doesn’t mean that as in “what should go along with taxation” or “brown faces in high places,” but an altogether more metaphysical representation, the instantiation of capital-T Truth, in some vaguely Platonist way, on earth. Representation, undertaken correctly, assures order, which in this sense basically means an alignment of the human and something like the divine. Voegelin doesn’t insist, explicitly, on a Catholic reading of the universe to agree with his system, but does see the Christian-classical synthesis of the high Middle Ages as the height of “philosophical anthropology,” the proper understanding of man in the cosmos. 

“Order” is an interesting and fraught problem. I organize- I know getting people to do stuff, even stuff they want to do, in an efficient manner, takes coordination. But even a relatively type-A type like me gets that some kind of order generates itself without some mandate from the nous if there’s enough earthly motivation. Why isn’t that good enough, at least as a basis upon which to improve? Especially for self-proclaimed “conservatives”? (It clearly is for many!)

For conservative politicians, “order” generally means keeping the poor and whoever the local downtrodden ethnicities are around in a subordinate place. Simple! It becomes complicated when someone tries to make a transcendent order of that, which right-leaning intellectuals seemingly can’t stop themselves from attempting. I run into this with the fashy teens I try to get information out of after they ineptly troll some of my goodreads reviews. No matter how much they claim to venerate the pre-modern past, they always punt to evo-psych explanations: “traditional” oppressive order is good because we evolved with it, it’s old (it’s usually not that old but w/e) so that proves it’s stability, and with the era of accelerating disaster in which we live… it runs into the usual problems even taking as read the anachronism and factual errors involved. If it’s so natural and self-evidently good, why do you need oppressive structures to instantiate and maintain it? And you get the usual answer- because Those People are evil and want to destroy it, and we all know who Those People turn out to be.

Well, if Voegelin was an anti-semite, it doesn’t turn up here, though he’s notably uninterested in Jewish concepts of the relationship between divine mandate and worldly order, to which I understand Jewish thinkers have given a lot of sophisticated thought. Voegelin makes throwaway references to Jewish and Islamic ideas of representation to prove his concept is global and perennial, but the big show goes from Athens to Augustus to Augustine to Aquinas. They didn’t get it right right away. That’s one of the interesting things about Voegelin- his Truth is transcendent, but the ways people interact with it change according to circumstance, and he understands some of those changes as valid, necessary even. Let’s not make too much of it — they’re necessary to unfold god’s plan or something — but still. You got to something like an ideal representation of a divine order that is the most important fact of the universe, a critical element of which was that unknowability-but-demand-making combo that makes monotheism so spicy, in the Middle Ages, where Emperor represented political order and Pope represented spiritual order. 

I didn’t agree with Voegelin by the point, maybe three fifths into the lectures, where he was making this point, but I was impressed with his erudition, his writing, and the sophisticated way he laid out the various elements of the system of order as he understood it. There were some farrago elements from the beginning, the nose-in-the-air way intellectuals of his kind, like his friend (and to my mind, substantial intellectual inferior) von Hayek, dismissed materialism based on straw-manning no one would accept for their own beliefs. More than — or along with being — a farrago, a dodge away from unacceptable ideas, it also got deeply derpy with Voegelin’s — and here, it’s good to GIS him, his beady eyes and big forehead behind his spectacles — insistence that all social science, including any history that partook of positivism, is wrong on its face because of its lack of “theory” i.e. value statements… but I’m used to that. And then came the turn. The turn wasn’t enough to ruin the experience of the book, not hardly. But it was enough to transform my enjoyment of it from intellectual appreciation to something like high camp.

It’s the gnostics, folks! It’s not the Jews, or whoever else, who brought the snake into the garden of the high Middle Ages, who play that role that all conservative world-building needs, but the ding-dang gnostics! Just when you thought it was safe, that pesky Joachim of Fiore has his vision and all of a sudden they’re immanentizing the eschaton all over the place! All modern political philosophy other than reactionary conservatism and, Voegelin grudgingly allows, some forms of very conservative classical liberalism, are just Gnosticism warmed over. Communism, socialism, most types of liberalism, fascism, nazism- all just Gnosticism, and all lead inevitably to totalitarianism, the erasure of all individuality and freedom in the great blaze of that immenatinized eschaton. 

You can see it coming, if you read the text. For someone breezing over hundreds of years of history in a set of lectures for an American collegiate audience, Voegelin writes carefully, but not ploddingly, covering his bases, when he talks about ancient and medieval philosophy. But things get awful hurried and poorly-documented when he gets to his gnostic conspiracy theory. He can’t help it (well, maybe he could, if he threw his thesis overboard). There aren’t a lot of actual records of what the gnostics — and contemporary scholars often hate the word, because it implies a much more unitary movement than what record there is would suggest — actually believed or did. Most of what we “know” about Gnosticism comes from the records of the inquisitors who hounded them to destruction and burned their texts. Poor Voegelin- at the time he was writing in the early fifties, archaeologists were just piecing together the Nag Hammadi archive, the major source of stuff actually written by gnostics — about fifty texts in all — that we have. Voegelin wasn’t in the archaeology mafia, and translations wouldn’t appear until the sixties. Another way Strauss was lucky- he stuck to canon. Voegelin was more adventurous and it cost him.

But he did it to himself. Stuck-up German that he was, he should’ve known better than to just sort of slide a few half-apocryphal historical guesswork suggestion gnostic transmission from their utter destruction before the Late Antique period was out and into the 1200s, when Joachim of Fiore was doing his thing, let alone to Voltaire, Marx, and Hitler, into such a key place in his edifice. Amateur hour! The stupid thing is, he probably could have had his cake if he didn’t insist on eating it. He could’ve said the Enlightenment thinkers walked backwards into Gnosticism, reconstructing the creed (or Voegelin’s version of it) out of their interests, desires, and found intellectual parts. I’ve seen other right-wing theoreticians of history, lesser lights than Voegelin but perhaps more savvy, do stuff like that. The gnostics make great villains. You can argue that the Church instantiated their version of who the gnostics were, complete with weird rituals and underground dwellings, quite deep into the western idea of villainy, nestled comfortably next to stereotypes about Jews. John Whitbourn, who I’ve owned an email to for about eighteen months, made good use of gnostic villains in his anarcho-Jacobite fantasy stories. They’re a chestnut, and it’s easy enough to grow their ideas out of whatever soil you want to use for planting- intellectual pride, depression, decadence, neuroticism, whatever.

But no, that won’t do, not for Voegelin. Because ideas matter, dammit! And not in some positivist, pragmatic sense, some John Dewey feel-goodery where you pick what ideas “work!” They matter because they’re metaphysical concepts that we need to instantiate on earth to keep the darkness at bay, to make the world make sense. It’s touching, really, that Voegelin would want to extend this metaphysicality to his enemies, who he also regards as intellectually inferior (well, until you realize there’s really only one solution for dealing with them…). But it leads him to some excruciating readings of history and theory. I’m a lumper, rather than a splitter, in history- I like bigger categories than some people find legitimate. But everything from this Joachim guy to Keynes being a gnostic… when we barely know what they actually believed… and that it’s an actual intellectual lineage, a conscious project, like Catholic scholasticism! And he means it! That’s too much, man. He just gets himself deeper in the mire the further he goes until he sounds like Glenn Beck with a thesaurus. 

It’s funny but it’s also sad, and gets crooked as you figure it would. Voegelin was giving these talks at the behest of some conservative foundation trying to bolster the Cold War on campuses. John Whitbourn, the anarcho-Jacobite Catholic fantasist, would probably agree with Voegelin’s condemnation of the Puritans as the first truly modern gnostic totalitarian movement. But Whitbourn had the balls to include all of Protestantism in the condemnation, Luther right next to Cotton Mather. If Puritanism was a rebellion against the divine settlement of Catholicism, it had a starting point: the Reformation, on which good Catholic traditionalist, but better Americanized Cold War conservative Voegelin, does not lay a glove, and doesn’t even mention. Shameful! If you’re going to go down this crazy road, go all the way! Similarly, at the very end, Voegelin cops out when granting that the American Revolution and even the English Civil War — where, mind you, the Puritans executed a sitting king! — were ok, for reasons too boring to get into but translate to “conservative cold warrior Americans sign my checks, and while they’re fine digging at Puritans — Mencken did that after all — they won’t tolerate smacking down the founding fathers or parliamentarian oligarchy.” Lame. 

Well, campy conspiracy and lame-puts towards the end and all, I got a lot more enjoyment out of this than any right-wing material I’ve read recently. I don’t plan on chasing down any more Voegelin, and certainly not his little cadre of sad followers trying to pipe up with their imitation of the master’s erudition in the sea of bullshit on the right-wing internet. But this one was definitely well worth reading, in many of the veins in which my readings on the right work. *****

Review – Voegelin, “The New Science of Politics”

Review – Miéville, “Embassytown”

Get a load of THESE

China Miéville, “Embassytown” (2011) – I’m probably going to do a video on this! With a special guest star, as part of a new thing I’m doing. But I still figured I’d give a review.

China Miéville seems like a pretty cool type, genuinely committed to both genre fiction and to revolutionary socialism. In “Embassytown,” he does more or less straight up scifi! Though of course, Miéville seems the type to dislike having the phrase “straight up” ascribed to his writings, and there’s more than a little horror in here as well. In humanity’s future amongst the far-flung stars, there’s a settlement called Embassytown! It’s a little human spot on a planet dominated by a species they call the Ariekei, or the Hosts. In classic Miéville style, the author enumerates their many gross-sounding features but does not give a clear picture of what they look like. Roughly deer-like moss-bugs with coral extrusions that hold their eyes, multiple pairs of wings that are actually ears and/or arms, two mouths, various slimes, you get the picture. The Ariekei and the humans live more or less peaceably, with the humans sticking to the town with its breathable air and trading stuff back and forth, mostly goods the Ariekei biologically engineer.

The Ariekei speak a language, or rather, Language. It has two important features: first, they talk it out of both mouths at the same time, with said mouths each making different noises to make one word, and second, they can’t lie. Speech is thought for them, and vice versa, and they can only think/speak stuff that actually is. They have no word for “that,” for instance, just ways to specify what thing they are talking about. This creates communications problems! They couldn’t communicate with humans at all until the human started breeding people as twins of such a high empathy that they basically think the same thoughts? Or something? And can speak sufficiently in tandem to speak Language. Then, the Ariekei can understand. These twin pairs are called Ambassadors, and they and their handlers more or less run the human show on Embassytown, though a vaguely Hanseatic-themed human confederation technically has it as a colony.

Woof! All this happened in the past of the novel. In the present day, Avice is a child of human settlers who grows up on Embassytown and goes on to become an “Immerser,” which is to say, she can navigate the eerie nether space that is Miéville’s way of getting around the light barrier. She comes back with a linguist husband named Scile (who she doesn’t sleep with?) who is intrigued, naturally, by Language. Avice is also a simile in Language. In order to do similes, the Ariekei need for the thing they’re invoking to actually happen. So, using a human intermediary, they draft the child Avice to do a thing. She didn’t like it, which probably has to do with why she went out to space. But she returns to Embassytown just in time for a power play- the metropole sends a new type of Ambassador. They’re not twins! Just two guys! But it turns out that their Language is such hot shit that the Ariekei get addicted to it! Fuck!

I’m being a little facetious in my descriptions, as I seemingly can’t help but be with Miéville’s flashily “subversive” cleverness, but it’s a cool idea and it works well. It also ends a long middle period where the book wanders a little, as Avice slowly describes herself getting enmeshed in weird power/Language politics, with Ariekei who try to learn to lie, with other simile-children, with her husband and his increasingly unfortunate ideas about it all. But shit kicks off once the Ariekei get a load of EzRa (the Ambassadors all have names that are names that are also combos of names or at least nicknames- CalVin, DalTon, MagDa, etc). They quickly need to hear EzRa (who I don’t imagine as my friend Ezra, he’s a lot cooler) to function. And then they build up tolerance. And then EzRa refuses to fully cooperate with the other humans, because they’re fucked up and like being, as Miéville puts it, a “god-drug.” Then the Ariekei technology, seemingly all congealed out of bio-soup similar to that which the Ariekei come, get addicted to EzRa, and build up tolerances, and stop functioning, etc.

Soon shit starts to be some weird space-alien-drug-language-zombie-apocalypse situation! It’s pretty cool. You can’t ding Miéville for invention. The day gets saved, sort of, by some inter-species communication and language stuff. I’m not going to get too much into it, both to avoid spoilers, and because I want to get into the questions I’ve got with my friend on video! Stay tuned! ****’

Review – Miéville, “Embassytown”

Review – Roanhorse, “Black Sun”

Rebecca Roanhorse, “Black Sun” (2020) (read by several actors) – I didn’t especially like this novel, one of the most hyped and praised fantasy works of the last few years, but more than even most books, it’s impossible to separate my reaction to it from broader context. “Black Sun,” like many speculative fiction novels in the last five to ten years, is meant to be a great victory for inclusion and new perspectives in its genre. Set in a secondary world based on Mesoamerican and Southwestern Native American history and mythology and written by a black woman who claims membership in one of the Navajo nations (according to Wikipedia, said nation disputes this claim), it promises a new departure in fantasy. No more “white farm boys going on quests,” as Roanhorse put it in one interview, no more whiteness-as-default. This was going to be something new.

Well… it isn’t. It just isn’t. It’s the same old fantasy crap with vaguely Mesoamerican trappings, and really, not that much of that. Special child of destiny, blah blah, Han Solo-style outcast rogue, etc etc, the world is on the precipice of dangerous transformation, yadda yadda yadda. And you know… that’s fine, I guess. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it. I like to paraphrase Adam Clayton Powell’s reaction to the Mafia hijacking of the illegal lottery in his district: “I am against the numbers in any form, but until the numbers aren’t played in Harlem, I want the black man to have the same chance to profit from it as the Italian,” or words to that effect. As long as anodyne same-same bullshit is what we’re doing, women, people of color, queer people, marginalized people of all kinds, deserve the same chance to write banal fantasy novels as anyone else, and throw in the same bowdlerized versions of what they think of as their culture as any white guy doing his Wagneresque nonsense.

But like… what a wasted opportunity! A Mesoamerican-based fantasy novel that actually tried something ambitious could kick ass! Hell, there probably are some… they’re probably out of print and don’t have social-media-active authors and/or fans to do shitty publishers’ promo departments’ work for them… but I do think it’s worth thinking about, with this explosion of interest in diverse representation in media, and at least some understanding of the histories and patterns of thought of historical cultures, why we get stuff like “Black Sun” instead of the more interesting works we should be able to expect.

Let’s start with what is missing in “Black Sun.” The plot is hackneyed and poorly-paced, the language dull, and the imagery not especially creative, but those problems are surmountable (though in descending order). What’s really missing is any sense of difference in the world. The characters act, talk, and think like genre stereotypes, though admittedly genre stereotypes of our time rather than the ones from days of yore by which we’re supposedly inundated. There is no indication that this culture, based, supposedly, on entirely different roots than European culture, produces different thought, or social structure, or really anything, even aesthetics. Roanhorse depicts the characters as dressing a bit different than standard Renn Faire garb, but you’d figure the one thing the author of this sort of work would nail down would be that the world would —look— different, and she doesn’t manage that. I thought the whole basis of this stuff was a sort of bourgeois liberal variety of ethnic essentialism, a kind of Twitter-bound Herder’s sense that every group has a unique way of thinking and seeing the world based on culture, environment, heredity, etc., but you don’t see any of that here, and you don’t see it in works that play similar roles but with different ethnicities represented, either- in or out of genre fiction. It’s maddening!

Some of the problems are not unique to the failures of the liberal representationalist model in genre fiction, but are broader problems, especially in SFF. There’s a lot of worldbuilding and it’s not done especially gracefully, and again, Roanhorse has the opportunity to make a world that seems really different — that has a different lived-in experience than however many Middle Earths and Westeroses — and whiffs it. The world isn’t the most laboriously built-out one you see these days, to Roanhorse’s credit, but it possesses the schematism that characterizes a lot of contemporary SFF worldbuilding. What I mean by that is you wind up in a world that may have secrets, but is otherwise ordered in rather rigid categories, worlds that could very easily be summed up in charts. You have these nations (that should be a worldbuilding gimme- it should not be new news to people who went through liberal education recently that the nation state should not be taken for granted!), you have these factions, these gods, and this type of person is characterized by X, Y, and Z, while the other type of person from whatever faction can be characterized by A, B, and C, on and on.

Tolkien’s worlds weren’t like that- Gygax, Arneson, et al had to do a lot of work to rationalize his world (and Moorcock’s, and Vance’s, and who knows how many others) into playable schema. To say there’s been a dialectic between games and SFF writing might have been accurate in their day- at this point, the overlap is nearly comprehensive and defines SFF writing more than it does games. This isn’t a problem in and of itself- some good fiction has been inspired by games. But it can be a problem when the schematic categories of gaming come to define, in an insufficient critical way, worldbuilding, and in some cases character work and other aspects of writing. It doesn’t help matters that some of the most successful franchises of all time are heavily schematic: Harry Potter and it’s houses, Game of Thrones and it’s factions, on and on. It doesn’t help that such categorizations loan themselves readily to the kind of fandom identifications that help drive sales (you have to figure the recent craze for astrology plays into this dynamic too- “I’m a Taurus Ravenclaw etc etc!”), – and to the sorts of stories — star cross’d love across the ill-delineated faction lines being most prominent — that people want to read (over and over again). I don’t know if whole online communities are going to start delineating themselves by Roanhorse’s four castes of the academy of the holy city or whatever just yet. I can’t say whether Roanhorse wanted that to happen when she wrote the book, or that it matters- because that’s the thing with tropes and cliches, it’s not some conspiracy. It’s just the path of least resistance.

It seems that a community of fiesty critics and writers have arisen that share some of my issues with contemporary SFF, and they have recently taken to describing the dominant strain in it these days as “squeecore.” These critics name the following as the traits of squeecore: a shallow emotional range that mostly does either maudlin or glib; heroes who feel like adolescents even when they aren’t; genre send-ups that were stale twenty years ago; aversion to the dark or strange; influences from anime and video games; humor “stuck in the aughts”; superficial dedication to diversity and other liberal values, generally affirmed by the triumph of the hero. The original promulgators of this critique were maddeningly unspecific about who they had in mind, and mostly only named big figures well outside of striking range (like Joss Whedon).

I think the concept is a valuable contribution to the critical discourse, but could use some work. There’s a certain “opposite day” tendency in the criticism that sees qualities lacking in squeecore — mainly darkness and sexiness — as the sine qua non of quality genre fiction and as lacking in the unfortunate SFF of today. I don’t think that’s quite right. Maybe it’s not the quality of darkness and sexiness they want, but you can’t say that “Black Sun” doesn’t do dark, or sex. It’s just anodyne, predictable, and even if the situations — the inevitable world-doom/structural oppression combo the heroes will fix however many bloated books in because hashtag-love-wins; the sexual politics ported in straight from contemporary Twitter — weren’t so hackneyed, the writing is not up to the task. Dark and sex won’t fix the problem, and really I think few aesthetic fixes will. But maybe I think that because my aesthetic sense is limited. My solutions are pretty limited, as well- learn more, I guess? Challenge yourself? A ruthless criticism of everything existing? Maybe that would help me critique contemporary literature more effectively but something tells me it is, to borrow a phrase from one of my critical masters, shooting nerf darts at a T-Rex.

Because why should Rebecca Roanhorse or her many, many readers care? Why should they challenge themselves? Why should they be more critical? They’d clearly rather not. It won’t win you any popularity contests- you’ll still deal with the same chuds who hate anything thoughtful, even anodyne liberalism and boring writing, plus all the anodyne liberals and boring writers will hate you, too. And it’s not like Roanhorse wrote a bad book, just a mediocre one. And the world’s burning and emerging fascism etc etc. I get that. I will say that I think many of the same faculties that could maybe get us out of the whole “burning world” business with something like civilization intact are the same that maybe might get us a better literature, genre and otherwise. Similarly, I think that a lack of imagination, of criticality, and of ability to take on a range of difficult emotions and ideas, and the complacent belief that because you’re not awful then you must be good enough, really isn’t helping, anywhere. **’

Review – Roanhorse, “Black Sun”

Review – Thompson, “Blood in the Water”

Heather Ann Thompson, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Aftermath” (2016) (read by Erin Burnett) – The Attica uprising is another one of those historical things I’ve known about and been interested in forever but can’t put my finger on when I learned about it. It might have been when, during an attempt at becoming a “film buff” in my late teens, I watched “Dog Day Afternoon” and got to the famous scene when Al Pacino riles the onlookers to his bank siege with a chant of “Attica! Attica!” and then I went and looked it up? It might also have been before that- it feels like it was always in the background, an artifact of a strange but not entirely disappeared time.

Seeing as the first group of people who got to tell a public story about Attica — the officialdom of the state of New York, led by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller — lied about the situation from stem to stern, historian Heather Ann Thompson had her work cut out for her in writing the first major academic history of the uprising and its aftermath. This is, in some respects, an old school social history, an excavation of the history of the downtrodden made possible by intensive spadework through old, and in this case long-suppressed, sources. Among other things, Thompson’s access to long-hidden or censored state records allows her to show that the state, from Rockefeller on down, purposefully lied about what happened at Attica for decades.

Attica Correctional Facility is way out in the depths of western New York. Life was bad there. The prisoners were mostly black and Puerto Rican from the city, while the officials and guards were almost all white and rural. More than the harshness of conditions — shitty food, overcrowded cells, hard labor (to the great profit of the State of New York) — there was an inconsistent, martinet quality to life at Attica that wore on the men. It was impossible to follow all of the many rules, seemingly inspired by encrusted layers of discredited penological theories. So the men were routinely given beatings or isolation by guards who made clear their racist contempt for their charges, generally for minor or even unavoidable infractions of petty rules. This has an echo in the petty stupid charges that landed a lot of young people in the hellhole of Attica in the first place- joyriding, minor theft, above all violation of parole, and something tells me parole violations were as impossible to avoid in the slums as infractions are in the prisons.

Thompson does not believe that prisoners planned the Attica Uprising, which began on September 9th 1971, ahead of time. Basically, a guard started beating a prisoner while lining a group of them up to go to a meal or exercise, I can’t remember which. The guards had already taken away a number of prisoners for severe beatings as retribution for complaining about conditions in the nights previous, and something snapped. The men attacked. They seized control of the central yard of the prison and several cell blocks. A guard would later die of injuries incurred during this initial attack. The prisoners took forty-two guards and prison officials hostage.

After an initial period of chaos, both sides of the conflict found leaders, or anyway, spokespeople. The prisoners established a rough sort of democracy, led by a council of respected men, many of them drawn from the radical milieu in the New York prison system: Black Panthers, Young Lords, various black Muslim groups, a few white radicals like “mad bomber” Sam Melville. As for the state, you could almost see it as this symbolic tableau- notionally “well-meaning” vaguely-liberal officials, like state prisons commissioner Russell Oswald, trying to manage the situation while a small army of frothing mad prison guards, state policemen, and sheriff’s deputies roiled in the background, demanding blood.

You can guess who won out in the end, both between the prisoners and the state and between the state officials who wanted, at least a little, to avoid a bloodbath and the reactionary mass of gun-thugs beneath them. For three days, the prisoners tried to negotiate with the state. The state sent observers, mostly journalists and politicians, to discuss matters and to report on conditions inside the yard. The observers got a mixed picture. Someone — Thompson isn’t clear on who, and doesn’t seem interested in finding out — killed three inmates during the time between the Attica rebels taking control of the yard and when law enforcement took it back. Moreover, the demands that the prisoners came up with included some that were basically politically impossible, like a plane to a “non-imperialist” country (one wonders how their lives would have gone had they somehow made it to Cuba or Algeria). But the observers were also surprised and heartened to find the prisoners on good order, taking care of each other and taking very good care of the hostages (indeed, showing more care than the state showed, either before — like when the rebels tried and failed to get the state to take a head injury of a guard seriously and he died — during or after the retaking). Most of the demands, as Commissioner Oswald readily admitted, were reasonable: better food, better pay for their labor, more education, not throwing any mail in Spanish in the trash, etc.

Any situation like this has numerous factors that go into its outcome, but I think we can say that the end was “overdetermined.” Thompson raises hopes — that at certain points communication really happens between the different sides, that this or that interlocutor will come and fix things — only to dash them against walls made of institutional indifference, miscommunication, and bad luck. Pretty much no one comes out looking good, even if the Attica rebels come out looking better than the picture of savage criminality the state would try to etch into history. It’s hard to do direct democracy, and the rebels made some mistakes with it, but given the strains… Black Panther leader Bobby Seale looks pretty bad, too, briefly coming in and harming negotiations by making miscommunications, refusing to clear them up, and then begging off by saying that his party wouldn’t authorize him to do anymore.

But no one looks worse than the New York State Police and the man who sicced them on Attica, Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller comes off as something like the deus absconditus of gnostic myth, the lousy god who set up bad situations and then disappears, aloof off in the celestial aether. His own people, like Commissioner Oswald, begged Rockefeller to come to Attica. No one thought he’d talk to the rebels directly, but at least they could have taken the negotiations more seriously. But Rockefeller refused, and left the worst possible people — State Police commanders and his personal fixers — making calls. Ultimately, Rockefeller had his eye on the White House and didn’t want to look “weak in crime” if he was going against his old foe, Tricky Dick.

Almost worse, to me, was Commissioner Oswald. I don’t expect any better from a Rockefeller, even if liberals long for the day of supposedly-sensible “Rockefeller Republicans.” But you can see in real time Oswald going from patronizing, but seemingly sincere, reformer to angry martinet, irked enough by the men he thought should be under his control displaying their agency past what Oswald thought the limits should be that he ultimately signed off on a massacre. Maybe he thought the cops and guards flocking to Attica to get their piece of prisoner flesh would off him if he held off much longer- certainly they were putting pressure on the situation. Rumors circulated that the rebels in the yard were setting up gallows and bombs, that they castrated guard hostages, on and on. All bullshit of course… and in the end, Oswald served his function, as he probably always would have.

The state, as Thompson told it, had effectively regained control of the yard just after a National Guard helicopter dumped something like CS gas all over the area. No one was resisting at that point, just blindly scrabbling around. The cops and guards who rushed in had no training for this situation and inappropriate equipment- shitty gas masks and goggles, shotguns loaded with buckshot, hunting rifles. Of course, the assumption behind that sort of thing is that the sort of “best practices” used by contemporary militarized and lawsuit-leery cops are what they’d want in any event. But the guards, state cops, and sheriff’s deputies who stormed Attica went in wanting to kill. They liked what buckshot did to the bodies of prisoners. That they — and they alone — killed nine hostages with their gunfire does not seem to have bothered them, at the time or after. They were too busy, first executing several prisoners, including leaders Sam Melville and 21-year-old Black Panther L.D. Barkley, as well as torturing the surviving rebels, and then beginning their campaign of lies and cover-ups. By the time it was all over, forty-three people were dead, thirty-nine of them killed by gunfire from the forces of the state. No hostages were killed or seriously harmed by their prisoner rebel captors.

Nelson Rockefeller went on a press conference and said the prisoners had cut throats of and castrated hostages. The state smeared its own employees, medical examiners, when these examiners pointed out that medically, this did not happen. But, in certain respects, it was an atrocity-coverup combo whose time had come. This was just as the conservative reaction to sixties/seventies militancy started gaining steam. It was probably also the moment in American history where sympathy for mostly black and brown prison rebels would have been highest — witness the multiethnic crowd who responded positively to Al Pacino’s “Attica!” chant — but that left was fragmenting under the pressure of state suppression and the challenges inherent to what they, we, do. The state’s story could become enough of an official story for the state’s purposes.

Like I said, Thompson does this book old-school social history style, so it’s granular and sticks close to evidence. This pays a lot of dividends in the first half of the book, which traces the roots and the story of the uprising. It begins to become a diminishing returns situation in the back half, which covers the efforts of Attica survivors — prisoners and hostages both — to get some justice. The fact that this took up half of the book kind of shows the problem. Thompson does a fine job illuminating the legal back and forth that dragged on into the first decade of the twenty-first century, but it simply isn’t as interesting as the uprising, and there’s less to learn for it. The state obstructs justice, realistically if not according to the letter of the law, when money and reputation are on the line- this could have been gotten across more briefly. I think it would have been interesting to have seen more about how the uprising influenced the broader movement for prisoners rights, and, god help me, the culture at large. Most of the time I root for social history over cultural history when they compete nowadays, but Thompson could have used a skosh of the cultural approach in this one. Still, this is a very good and exhaustive book on an event that still resonates today. ****’

Review – Thompson, “Blood in the Water”

Review – Lispector, Complete Stories

Clarice Lispector, “The Complete Stories” (2018) (translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson) – I think I get it. This isn’t really “for me.” Clarice Lispector is hot new shit in certain literary circles, despite (?) having been dead since 1977. Born into a Jewish family in the Ukraine, Lispector’s family made the smart move of getting the hell out of there before the wheels came completely off, and Clarice was raised a middle-class Brazilian. She became a literary success early on, and a social one too, moving in Brazilian high society and marrying a diplomat. The biographical details are mainly relevant insofar as they inform the glamour that has wrapped around Lispector’s name, first in her native Brazil, and then in anglophone literary circles as her work came to be translated. I’m trying to find a generous way to say it, but basically, I think there’s a lot of hype here. Divide Latin American literary hype — breathy, exotic, not your granddad’s dour (or sappy) northern hemisphere literature — by the sort of hype that surrounded the recently-deceased Joan Didion (harshly “literary,” and a beautiful elegant woman readers can project themselves on to) and you’re more or less there.

Well, I read Lispector’s short stories, supposedly her most accessible works- apparently she really gets into some modernist weeds in her novels. They weren’t bad, necessarily… or maybe they were and I’m just trying to be “nice.” They were mostly tales either of cities being weird and surreal, or women dealing with bad men, or both. The language is supposed to be “lush” but I can’t say I experienced it that way. The stories are more notable for what they lack- no moral or “point,” especially not a political one, and you have to imagine contemporary literary readers breathing a sigh of relief on that score. Not much in the way of character, often anonymous men and women described by surface characteristics and behaviors. You can’t really get avant garde points with a focus on character, anyway, or plot, which the stories don’t really have either.

What do they have? Well, a vague air of tropical decadence- cf my notes about “Latin American literary hype,” anglophone and Western European readers have been looking to Latin American writers for that at least since “The Boom” in the mid-twentieth century. It’s ushered great writers onto the global literary scene, this literary escapism. Who knows, maybe Lispector is one and I’m too much of a literal-minded lunkhead to enjoy! Kinda sucks that the best they can find to renew that source of interest in world letters has been dead longer than the people “discovering” her have been alive, but thems the breaks, I guess. I was never that much of a stickler for “show don’t tell” but Lispector does a lot of telling about people’s inner states. There isn’t much here that sustains my interest, I’ll admit.

Shot in the dark- as Dril put it, “this whole thing smacks of gender!” Not in the sense that Lispector’s work is where it is because she’s a woman or something stupid like that. I mean in the sense that many of these stories comment on gender relations in a groove well worn by millennial thought on the subject. The bad men with whom Lispector’s protagonists deal aren’t dissimulators or opportunists like many abusers. They advertise themselves as the nihilists they are, the protagonists find themselves irresistibly drawn into their orbit, and are usually changed in some way- and callooh, callay, a miracle! In the differently-moraled global south they don’t jump immediately to “the woman gets murdered” to send the point about bad men home. In fact, they seem empowered by the experience, to use a term Lispector would probably stick her arm in a bear trap rather than use. Not by sticking with the bad man, oh no. Just in general. They’re badder and vaguely witchier.

From the cheap seats of cis manhood, it appears the great comic theme of millennial women’s writing — and men, especially straight men, keep saying things but have less and less to say that transcends the level of overly-elaborated grunting, so most writing these days is done by women — is that you can be gay! The comedy of errors that is compulsory heterosexuality straightens, if you will, itself out and everyone can go off and be happy. The central tragic theme of millennial women’s writing is that most of the time, they either love, or have loved, or will love, a man or men, alas. Lispector stories show the shiftiness of loving men, but, like certain genres less of literature (though it’s there) and more of music and social media aesthetics, depicts a ability one might have to have one’s cake and eat it too by emerging from the tragedy of dealing with our dumb male asses stronger and more independent. Well! I’ve heard worse visions. ***

Review – Lispector, Complete Stories

Review – Bramen, “American Niceness”

Carrie Tirado Bramen, “American Niceness: A Cultural History” (2017) – Americans… mean, mean, mean, or… nice?! Well, opinions have differed! And in keeping the modalities of the “new” (well, “new” as in “closer to Foucault than Burckhardt,” not “new” as in… Olivia Rodrigo? She’s a new singer people like, right??) cultural history, historian Carrie Bramen does not come down on one side of the “are Americans nice?” question. That’s not the point. The point of this book is to interrogate how Americans have deployed the concept of “nice” over the course of the nineteenth century, the era in which that overused word took on something like it’s contemporary meaning.

It would also be easy enough to write a history of how niceness, the most banal of positive descriptors, had been used to paper over social conflicts. Arguably, that was a major thrust of bourgeois thought and activity, in the nineteenth century and continuing on to today- the idea that the problem isn’t who has power, but who is nice to whom (see arguments over “civility” in the last few years). There’s a material element to that, too; niceness culture grew more powerful as standards of living rose. “Nice” as in manners is one thing, “nice” as in “nice kitchens, bathrooms, indoor heating arrangements” actually does change lives. You can see why people could kind of drift into thinking that a system that produced all that had to be ok, if people would only behave in accordance with our newly-nice surroundings.

Well, now I’m reporting my own ideas and not Bramen’s. Bramen’s work on niceness is a little more abstract. She has chapters themed around a few contested ideas of niceness. Native Americans- cruel, or nice (see the concept of “Indian giving”)? The smile of the slave- proof of docility, and if so, what does docility mean? Or was it all a ruse to hide their potential for violence? Different people argued different things, mobilizing the tropes of niceness for their own ends. Some cultural historians really can’t get over the way tropes can mean different things to different people. Admittedly, so much cultural analysis is so thoroughly one-dimensional — this trope means this and only this — that you can see why they’d want to nail the point home.

Probably the most interesting throughline has to do with gender and the valuations given to different kinds of rhetoric. Niceness was and is a thoroughly feminized concept. Much of what we’re looking at in this book takes place before the great big gender freakout of the late nineteenth century, when men throughout the white world decided they’d been emasculated and needed to embrace the macho and eschew the ladylike. What we’re looking at is high nineteenth century “separate spheres” ideology. It wasn’t exactly “woke” but it wasn’t as deeply misogynistic as what came after. The sphere of women was, in many respects, understood as key to “civilization,” the source of both progress and power (whereas after the freakout, femininity came to be understood as corrosive to civilization). What you see in a lot of “American Niceness” is the application of niceness as a feminine, civilizing virtue to various groups and concepts, usually by women (Harriet Beecher Stowe is the closest to a main character in this book) but not always. Probably the most interesting chapter to me was the “nice Jesus,” and all the dimensions of that.

Bramen eventually gets into post-freakout territory with the effort to make America’s empire in the Philippines seem “nice,” which it did mainly through two classic American means: sending schoolteachers (a feminized profession) to fan out across the archipelago to teach American-style niceness, and the emphasis a lot of (generally male) American propagandists played on the ingenuousness and self-effacement of American imperialism as compared to the British or German models. Bramen talks some about the relationship between niceness and violence in America, the way that the former apologizes for and covers up the latter, but I think the conclusions she draws here are generally more tentative and not as strongly followed-up-on as other ideas she has. All in all, a decent showing and showcase for both the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary cultural history model. ****

Review – Bramen, “American Niceness”

Review – Coetzee, “Disgrace”

J.M. Coetzee, “Disgrace” (1999) – This is my first go at one of the living Anglo Nobel Prize winners in literature. Coetzee had moved to Australia by the time the Swedes bestowed the big medal on him, but lived most of his life in his native South Africa, and life in that country seems to be the subject of most of his literary work. A sensitive soul (you’d figure more writers would be, but they’re not), the contradictions and tensions of his homeland press themselves, along with other dilemmas that haunt writerly types, upon his consciousness and that’s how we get this novel.

The main character, David Lurie, is a mediocre man convinced that greatness, at least by association, is his due. A professor at a university in Cape Town, he lectures indifferent students, writes books about poetry which nobody reads, and carries on affairs. His inner space, as related by third person narration, is the endless self-justifying monologue of the overeducated, but not necessarily that bright, man with the usual banal urges for sex, power, and sexualized power. Most of this comes via bowdlerized applications of the ideas and life events of the romantic poets, especially Byron, to his own seedy situations. Eventually, he sleeps with one student too many, and gets the boot. Having no one else in his life, he heads to rural East Cape, where the adult daughter of one of his failed marriages lives on a small farm.

David loves his daughter, Lucy, but doesn’t understand her and is a little bored with her (not unlike how Byron grew bored of one of his own daughters, produced by one of his affairs, and packed her off to a nunnery to die of malaria). We only have David’s judgments to go on, but it seems she’s something of a hippie, a back to the land type, and I don’t know a lot about the course of the counterculture in South Africa. She grows flowers, goes to market, sells them. She partners with African farmers nearby and volunteers to raise and kennel dogs. Apparently roving stray dogs is, or was, a problem in East Cape?

It doesn’t seem too bad, but the air of dread Coetzee continuously conjures doesn’t allow for an idyll. A small gang attacks the farm, steals a bunch of stuff, and rapes Lucy. The attackers are black, and David is convinced that they had help from one of Lucy’s African neighbors. Lucy provides just enough assistance to authorities to make an insurance claim and then clams up, doesn’t make rape charges, doesn’t inform the police when one of the attackers shows up at her neighbor Petrus’s housewarming party. She has decided to blank the whole thing. She won’t change, she won’t move away to somewhere safer, and all of that means working hand in glove with neighbors who tacitly (perhaps actively) helped her rapists.

David decides this is her form of reparations, her way of adjusting to post-apartheid South Africa and expiating her guilt (this is before “privilege” talk became common). Lucy isn’t saying- she knows the old bastard won’t listen or get it anyway. David, with nothing else to do, winds up staying in the little town as well, strumming a toy banjo as he tries to summon up an aria for an opera about one of Byron’s lovers and helping an animal shelter dispose of dead dogs.

Bleak stuff! Some of the critical comments on the back talk about Coetzee “weaving light into the darkness” or words to that effect. I think they’re either wrong or just talking about the prose. Everything is pretty wretched. All the characters are tragic, not just in the debased sense of “quite sad” but in terms of existing in boxes of misery they helped create for themselves. This aspect is amplified by the ways in which David views things from a (self-serving version of) romantic ideology which, if it ever fit any time, does not fit nineteen-nineties South Africa. Even when he makes something like an understandable call it’s for dumb reasons that make you hate him again. When a commission at his university comes together to investigate his harassing a student (and maybe sweep it under the rug), he immediately admits to what he did and accepts the consequences… because of some nonsense about the priority of eros or whatever. Coetzee underscores the uselessness of everything that the academic/intellectual tradition brings to most situations.

Coetzee was vocally anti-apartheid, at least according to online sources, but not especially political- this scans, according to the bleak vision of life presented here. He’s gotten in some trouble with political figures in South Africa who like to paint him as an out-of-touch white man slandering post-apartheid black self-assertion as sexual violation. Well, white self-assertion in the person of David Lurie doesn’t look too great, either, and reaches well into sexual assault territory as well. I do think Coetzee chooses to twist knives sometimes (though, in keeping with highbrow literature, he doesn’t get especially graphic) to get his points across. It’s hard to say what would produce a better situation in his home country (Coetzee has said he moved to Australia in part because of the crime situation in South Africa) and it’s made harder by the way people, mostly on the right but in other political directions too, turn what happens there into a referendum on black-white racial politics more generally. One wants to rattle off the usual solutions, and they’d probably help more than most things. But “Disgrace” hits, at least in part, because of how unflinchingly it looks at the types of inhumanity that seem ineradicable, maybe inseparable from humanity itself. ****’

Review – Coetzee, “Disgrace”