Laurent Binet, “HHhH” (2010) (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) (read aloud by John Lee) – One thing about the Nazis, is most of them died like punks. Shooting themselves rather than facing justice, sniveling on their way to the gallows in Nuremberg or Jerusalem… Reinhard Heydrich, arguably the coldest, evilest, Nazi-est Nazi of the bunch, died ranting and raving in his hospital bed from a wound that shouldn’t have been fatal – the shitty sten gun they shot at him with didn’t work, he got horsehair upholstery lodged in himself from a mis-thrown grenade, it got infected because his doctors sucked. Fuck him.
Getting ahead of myself, here! This is a sort of meta-historical novel. French writer Laurent Binet talks about how he got fascinated with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, number two man in the SS, man who oversaw the planning of the Holocaust, overlord of what’s now Czechia when the Nazis seized it, one of the few Nazi leaders to even remotely resemble the “Blond Beast” Nietzschean ubermensch type. He got got by two soldiers, a Czech and a Slovak, dropped into the country by the British Special Operations Executive. After weeks on the lam, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were betrayed by a Czech resistance man, and hundreds of SS men tracked them down to a church basement. After a long siege where they shot several Nazis and refused to surrender, the two SOE men killed themselves. Among other acts of retaliation, the Nazis leveled the Czech town of Lidice and murdered all five hundred inhabitants.
It’s a great story! I think Slayer might have written a song about it… both heroic and grim. Binet does not tell it as a straightforward, historical-fiction style narrative, and talks a lot about how he learned about the lives of the people involved, how we would like to present them, how facts compel him to present them, books he read while writing this book, how he felt insecure about Jonathan Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” a novel of Nazism that won the Prix Goncourt while he was writing it (a novel in French written by an American, to boot!), etc etc.
Meta stuff can go either way. I could see how one might not like it in this story. But I actually think it worked pretty well. “Showing his work” enhanced my appreciation for the story and its details. World War Two is such well-trodden territory, with so many layers of mythology drawn over it, that it can be hard to know what to think of it. Among other things, I see a trend where the smarter, more independent writers and critics kind of steer away from it. I get the impulse, but I think it’s good to not disengage… or maybe the little kid who loved WWII stuff in me simply hasn’t shut up yet. In any event! I thought this was pretty fun. ****’
Jacob Bacharach, “The Bend of the World” (2014) (read aloud by the author) – This was a pretty entertaining, agreeable, somewhat forgettable humor novel. Jacob Bacharach is a weird twitter habitue and entertaining guest on lefty podcasts, or was back when I listened to those more. He’s one of those small/mid-size city dudes who is all in on his small/mid-size city, in his case, Pittsburg. The main character – I’m behind on reviews and forget his name, it doesn’t really matter – is a young corporate drone from a rich family who’s wasting his life on noncommittal relationships, jobs, and priorities in general.
He then has a weird year! He meets a disturbingly fascinating couple, a bold young man and a tragic alcoholic sexy artist lady, at a party, the same night he sees some UFOs! The main character has been on the fringe of conspiracy stuff for most of life due to his best friend, Johnny (yes, I did sometimes imagine him as Johnny from “The Room,” but the author reads this in his own, non-Wiseauesque voice so it didn’t happen too often). Johnny is a gay, drug-addicted conspiracy theorist, which, if I remember Bacharach’s podcast appearances, is not too dissimilar to Bacharach himself as a teenager/young man. Johnny believes Pittsburg is the center of a massive conspiracy involving Nazis, time-tunnels, summoning alternate dimensons, and bigfoots.
The main character doesn’t really believe in all this stuff and alternately humors Johnny and tries to save Johnny from himself, his drug problems and tendency to annoy powerful Pittsburgers. Meanwhile, the dude from the compelling couple gets a job at the main character’s pointless company and offers to make the main character a soulless corporate shark like himself. Is this company, and the weird guy in particular, part of a big conspiracy? Maybe THE big conspiracy? It’s hard to say. The main character interacts with the art world, his family, his hippy artsy girlfriend and more serious tragic drunk artist second love interest.
Bacharach evokes an agreeable atmosphere of confusion as to what, exactly, the big Nazi/time-traveller/Pittsburg/bigfoot conspiracy is, intermingling it with a lot of shit both weird and mundane, but this does have the effect (especially when combined with my review backlog) of making me forget whether the conspiracy WAS real or not, and what exactly it was. At some point, the main character and the drunk sexy artist have to strike out into Appalachian Pennsylvania to save Johnny from the main theorist of the big conspiracy, who turns out to have weird designs of his own. There’s showdowns at a big weird drug/orgone party in the woods, complete with possibly-drug-induced visions of beneficient Bigfoots. In the end, some people die, and the main character decides to ditch corporate whatever and become… a landlord?! Well… this might have been before Bacharach made his turn all the way left, he was right-libertarian leaning as a young drug-addled semi-ironic conspiracy theorist… but that’s a minor point. I was worried it was going to take the path of “guy meets a weird alpha man’s man who leads him to uncomfortable discoveries,” ala “Fight Club,” “The Red Pill,” and I feel a fair number of zeitgeisty works from the last thirty years or so. That doesn’t happen! Stuff does happen, but usually without much sense of stakes. That’s not the worst thing in the world. This was pretty fun, somewhat forgettable- some of the things that might have made it less forgettable might have made it less fun, if you get what I mean. ****
Catherine Liu, “Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class” (2021) – I considered not doing a review of this, because it really is a glorified pamphlet. In this, it’s a lot like its competitor in my “let’s read unusual right-wingers” election, Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, and the resemblances don’t stop there, as I’ll discuss below. Most of the books I chose to put into that arc in my readings on the right slot have some kind of resonance with one or another vaguely zeitgeisty ideological trend: Wang Huning and the geopolitical rise of China (alas, the English translation I found was so bad as to be unreadable), Kaczynski is considered required reading by many on the accelerationist right, George Schuyler and racial pessimism, Peter Thiel and his bought and paid for Senate candidates, David Mamet and Thad Russell represent different flavors on supposed tough guy independent thinkers who are also culture war pantswetters.
Liu, for her part, is probably the writer of the lot who can least be called a right-winger, as she identifies as a socialist and anti-capitalist (George Schuyler did, too, while writing “Black No More,” but eventually became a conservative and minor National Review hanger-on). But I think given what “professional managerial class” discourse has become, and how Liu herself has used it… I first became familiar with Liu via left-wing facebook, where she used to be quite an active commenter- enough that I remembered her, despite the fact we never friended or followed each other, and I can’t recall any interactions with her (she is not on facebook, my network of choice, anymore, it seems). You can probably tell what that means: Liu was memorable because she was… and here we run into a vocabulary problem. As someone who believes more or less any reigning in of bigoted language is an attempt by nefarious bourgeois actors to police the working class, Liu herself should be the last person to point to how problematic most words a white man could use to describe an Asian woman acting outre in public could be. But, A. Liu and other… upside-down-and-backwards culture warriors on the sort-of-left aren’t known for their consistency or high-mindedness, and B. I hold myself to certain standards because of how I want to live my life. So… I’ll just say Liu made an impression on me with the vociferousness, frequency, and unsolicitedness of her commentary, all over leftbook, on any issue pertaining to the problems of what used to be called “political correctness” and is now called “wokeness” or just “woke.”
So, I was intrigued, in a car-crash rubberneck kind of way, when I saw she was putting out a book on “the professional managerial class.” The “PMC” as it’s inevitably abbreviated online is the sort of bogey-figure for the anti-woke left, and at the same time the closest they get to a coherent concept beyond “PC sucks” (which is funny… the antics of enforcers of moral codes, including those around social justice, often do suck… why do you need a big theory for this?). The idea here is that a class of people defined by their role using educational credentials to manage systems of production and reproduction use various cultures mores – lead among them “PC,” “woke,” whatever – to maintain their class position, sabotage the actual solidarity-based politics that could upend the class system, and just generally suck pretty bad.
In the good old internet way, this is a massively expanded and bowdlerized version of a relatively nuanced and modest claim made by smart people a while ago. The idea of the professional managerial class began, back in the seventies, to explain the changing makeup and role of who exactly was running the capitalist machine. It’s pretty undeniable that credentialed professionals have been increasingly important to the management of capitalism (and have been since at least the late nineteenth century), and, as Ehrenreich was pondering when she modified some of the ideas of the Yugoslav socialist thinker Milovan Djilas, a fair number of members of the sixties New Left, like Ehrenreich, were now in that professional strata. What might it all mean? I’m pretty sure “diversity trainings are stopping the revolution from happening” isn’t what they had in mind, but here we are.
Most stereotypes have some basis in fact, and there are, indeed, some pretty annoying promoters of a sort of civic virtue based on rather stilted, corporate-friendly diversity-thought out there. Some of them wind up in notionally leftist organizations and cause cultural problems, though typically not the kind that the anti-woke people would think. Moreover, it’s definitely true that a lot of organized leftists in the US and Europe have been through a lot of education and carry with them the organizational styles and sometimes the priorities of their environments – suburb, school, office job – even when they’re away from those things, meant to be antagonistic towards them.
If Liu were a clever propagandist, she probably could have restricted her pamphlet to these problems. But as I remembered from her facebook comment tirades, she really does not know where to stop. She baldly and seemingly without irony or shame makes wildly inflated claims about the power and, especially, the unity of the PMC. Apart from the kind of analytical uselessness of any category that includes the head of HR at Facebook and a shift manager at Starbucks with 90K in student loans because both went to liberal arts college and think trans people are people, there’s also just sloppiness. Here, Liu’s work is similar to that of her friend Angela Nagle, the left’s favorite interpreter of the alt-right for about six months before people started noticing the slipshod quality of her work, capped by appearances on Tucker Carlson (Liu, of course, holds her up as a free speech martyr- I really don’t think Liu can help herself with some of this shit).
Both the slipshod quality of the work, and the flaws in the analysis, can be seen most clearly in Liu’s rigid determination to break down everything into a set of dyads: there’s the PMC, which endorses the politics of identity because they seek to divide others, and there’s the working class, which has a politics of solidarity to unite themselves (Liu makes fleeting allusion to their being an actual capitalist elite in actual control of the economy but they are quickly ushered back behind the curtain). These qualities hold true, everywhere and always, throughout space and time. Bring up class or money: good! Bring up race, gender, sexual orientation: bad! I’m aware that most people who complain about cancel culture or woke culture or whatever on the left usually at least grant that racism and other “identity-based oppressions” are an actual thing it’s ok to organize against, but Liu basically does not, not in this text. It’s honestly pretty wild.
It gets slipshod, too, not just in many many “citation needed” (and “I’ve read that book, the author isn’t saying what you’re saying they’re saying when you cite –their whole book– in a footnote instead of a page number”) moments, but in things that would probably have helped her argument. Perhaps the most baffling historical lacuna to me was her treatment of the Progressives. The Progressives of the early twentieth century were mostly lawyers, professors, social workers, and other… professional… managers… whose reforms had a lot to do with making American society more rational and easier to manage. Critics, supporters, and people neutral towards the Progressives all agree on this. If there was ever a professional managerial class hand on the American tiller, it was in the days of the Progressives… and they did enough weird, bad shit (along with the good they did- they were complicated) that they’re easy enough to make into bad guys, and to lump modern “progressives” in with them- conservatives do it all the time.
Nope! Liu passed that one up. She talks about the Progressives a few times in this short book, and always in the positive, because they mostly monkeyed around with the regulatory state. They didn’t make anyone attend sensitivity trainings! They didn’t really do much with, say, labor organizing, or even income or wealth redistribution, or any kind of politics that didn’t benefit their class specifically, but it really is “talks about money + not woke = good” as far as Liu’s concerned. It probably doesn’t help that one of the Progressive weak spots was race (including against Asians, and uhhh, we needn’t get too deep into the psychology here buttttt), so, you know, being against their racism means you’re doing identity politics, and hence not doing a solidarity. To quote a line flung at Liu’s supposed maitresse Ehrenreich, that would be doing a no-growth.
Liu made the interesting choice to divide up several of the chapters in this book into baffling pairs of good, non-PMC examples of something – childrearing, sexual mores – and bad, PMC versions. Doctor Spock (not the Star Trek guy, though some depictions of the PMC have a vaguely Vulcan cast), PMC individualist childcare, very bad; Donald Winnicot, says parents can be “good enough” unlike neurotic PMC parentic, good! Winnicot, of course, was by any standard just as much a member of the PMC as Spock or any other famous psychologist. Of course, so is Liu, professor of Media Studies at UC Irvine, as she admits. But PMC isn’t, after all, despite Liu’s professed hatred of cultural explanations (weird flex for Media Studies but about what one would expect from the worst field, don’t at me about Economics, Media Studies is much worse), an actual socioeconomic category as far as she’s concerned. It’s barely a political tendency. Honestly, it’s not even a set of cultural traits, not for all Liu’s trying, not in any coherent way. It’s a way to walk backwards into calling anyone who calls you on your shit a class enemy to be crushed.
There is a legend – a poorly-verified and likely apocryphal one – that during the bloody and protracted civil war in Algeria that roiled through the nineties, one Islamist militia became undone by what it had seen and done and decided to become Islamist Satanists, massacring villagers to the dark being they became convinced ruled the universe, spiting the god they once devoted themselves to and who led them to this pass. There’s a way that whatever you want to call it – the post-left, the anti-woke left, the dirtbag left (the last a little bit less so, as they at least seem to derive some joy from life, unlike the others) – reminds me of that story. Swap out the bloodbath of nineties Algeria for the mild and entirely voluntary unpleasantness of tens twitter, which is a pretty big swap I admit… what I mean is, getting so deep into a mucky conflict that you decide that your particular circumstances (which you did most of the work to put yourself into) are so important that they deserve to define the moral universe and can generate monocausal explanations, that become a kind of warped-mirror-image of the ideology that led you into the soup to begin with.
Look: I’ve known the sort of people this book, and the anti-woke left in general, lampoons (in the case of this book, ineffectively, missing a very very broad target some very stupid people have hit easily). I’ve known a number of expensively-credentialed, passive-aggressive people who do, indeed, use identity politics, less to divide on principle, and more as a cudgel to get their way in petty disputes. It sucks. But if you actually value solidarity, as Liu ritually intones she does, page after page, you wouldn’t let petty grievances with the Martin Princes of the academic left drive you into inane analysis and cooperation with the right. I think it’s pretty clear that for a little cluster of academics and social media gadflys, leftism was always a posture, associated with a kitschy caricature of working class life, than it was anything else. When that caricature became harder to retain – work at a Starbucks or a cleaning company or a call center or a nursing home and tell me they can’t handle knowing about trans people or the existence of racism – they flounced off. Numerous commentators who shared political or social media space with these people, mostly from the marginalized communities whose organizing the anti-woke left writes off, called that this would happen long ago. Extra half star for staying fully dedicated to the bit. *’
Naomi Alderman, “The Power” (2016) –A kind friend and patron of the art of literary criticism sent me this book in the mail, saying he had mixed feelings about it and wanting to know my takes!
Let me start by talking about some other books altogether. For a while there, it looked like journalistic accounts of fictional genre disasters might become a big thing, or maybe it only seemed that way to me after Max Brooks’ “World War Z” was all over the place in 2006 or so (it is a profoundly 2006 kind of book). “World War Z” is deeply silly, so I didn’t appreciate how well Brooks did with it until I read a book in the same vein about an AI/robot uprising which was extraordinarily bad. Apparently Brooks also did a bad job writing about a war between people and Sasquatches? Writing! It’s not easy, folks!
No less a figure than Barack Obama (who was big-upped but not by name in “World War Z” – like I said, big time 2006 vibes) named Naomi Alderman’s “The Power” one of his favorite books of the year when it came out. It’s a somewhat more high-concept deal than “World War Z” or the robot book- women develop the power to basically shoot lightning from their hands. It starts with teenage girls, but they can pass it on to other women, and soon enough, pretty much all women can zap people right up.
So… I get this would be a big deal, should it happen “in real life.” But like… people can already kill people, women very much included. Yes, it would be convenient to be able to kill people from a distance with something that is just in your body (though there’s all sorts of limits in terms of how much juice a given woman has, how well they can control it, etc). I mean, it would be weird if half of all people just had a gun on them at all times that they wouldn’t even have to conceal, or draw to use! It would be weirder still if this situation were in-born, and gendered.
But I’m not convinced such a situation would collapse society, which it does in “The Power.” But I’m more convinced that it would collapse society – among other things, societies are maybe more delicate than we thought when I was a kid – than I am that it would result in millennia of matriarchy, and that said matriarchy would be, more or less, opposite-day patriarchy, like a world Quinn and the gang might wind up in on “Sliders.” The framing story is an interaction between a lady editor (named Naomi Alderman) and a dude writer (named an anagram of Naomi Alderman) about the dude trying to write a historical novel of the rise of global matriarchy! So, they reconstituted our society not just down to having publishing houses like ours, but also, as the book progresses, women wipe out refugee camps for fun, wipe out depictions of men ala the Taliban, etc etc.
Look, two things: one, I don’t think future histories need to be credible or even believable to be good or fun. Two, I absolutely think women are capable of abusing power. But the way Alderman handles both the unspooling of this story and the story of women proving as beastly as men just seems kind of pro-forma, a going through of the motions. Like… wouldn’t they come up with more interesting ways of being fucked up and wrong? Different ones, anyway? Given that they’ve got superpowers and all, and the different socialization of women, that first few generations who get powers at least? Why just have them replicate what men do already?
The characters and the writing aren’t awful but aren’t enough to restore the interest lost by whiffing on the execution of the premise. To probably contextualize too much, this was written around the time Black Mirror made its comeback, going from charming and subversive-seeming indie favorite to big-market, overly-lugubrious butt of “what if your mum was an app??” jokes. That’s what “The Power” feels like, to me. **’
Ross Douthat, “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the American Ruling Class” (2005) – It’s too goddamned hot and I read this too long ago to do a deep dive on this. We all know what Ross Douthat does, if we’ve made the foolish life choice to know about the sort of people who opine in newspapers for a living. He’s an “intellectual conservative,” big time Catholic, hates Trump, chin-strokingly curious about social policy, etc etc blah blah blah.
He went to Harvard in the nineties and aughts and didn’t like it, or anyway didn’t find the disinterested aura of scholarship and bonhomie that he craved. Instead he found privileged kids who cared about maintaining their privilege and having some kicks with the years they were allowed them. No shit, Sherlock. Was this a surprise in 2005 (or 1905, for that matter)? They’re mostly liberals so uh, checkmate, egalitarians! His anecdotes are exercises in pointlessness, meandering yarns that he clearly thinks make solid points about things like meritocracy and race/gender relations and the like. They don’t, not on their own terms, and you really get the idea that they’re not especially thoroughgoing accounts either, for all their length (helps that this is memoirs, not history or journalism- we only get Ross’s word).
He’s not the worst prose stylist out there, but really all that means is he’s not screamingly painful to read throughout. He does get across the idea that life at Harvard manages to be neither elitist fun or egalitarian goodness but basically the worst of both worlds, and he’s almost admirable in the way he admits his adolescent self was still attracted to it, the insularity and the feeling of eliteness, but again, so what? Maybe this just seems pointless because the sort of conservative anti-elitism Douthat delicately pursued in some dumb Evelyn Waugh way got it’s money took by Trump, so this is at best a time capsule, and not a very informative one. My attitude towards this book now is somewhat worse than the star rating I wrote down. Who knows, who cares. **’
Maya Jasanoff, “Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World” (2011) (read by L.J. Ganser) – When I was a kid, the town historian (not an official position- he was just a local who cared about it enough, from back when it was a company town even) used to tell people “legends” about Tories fleeing town during the revolution burying a treasure somewhere. My aunt and uncle, when they bought their house in the eighties, even agreed they’d turn the treasure over to the seller if it was found on their land! Nobody ever found it or much proof it ever existed. Chances are the story was an effort by said town historian to make the town’s history sound a little more exciting, though, he was quite resistant to other interesting tories that cast the town in a bad light, like anything about how the Know Nothings and the Klan were quite popular in town in their day.
Anyway… I listened to this book of what became of the Tories! Nothing about a treasure in the area of the old hometown, alas. This is some classic 2010s global history. This was a mostly-admirable movement in historiography that took advantage of information access advances (and the kind of funding clever sparks can get to travel) to try to write histories of stories that took place in multiple parts of the globe. The Tory story is a pretty good candidate for this treatment, because Tories/Loyalists — Americans who supported the British during the American Revolution — wound up all over the place, and Maya Jasanoff traces the fate of various ends of the “Loyalist Diaspora” in a number of places.
Probably the best known Loyalist destination was Canada. For a long time, before they shifted gears to a national identity based in liberal multiculturalism, the Canadians (the Anglos, anyway) made a big deal out of being descended from the Loyalists, literally or figuratively. “Canadians are Americans who reject revolution,” as Northrop Frye put it. It is true that the Loyalists did a lot to anchor Canada as an Anglo settler colony, balancing the population away from the earlier French settlers. Many other Tories went “back” to Britain, though many of them had been born in America, as had generations of forebears. One group tried settling “East Florida” — basically, the northern part before it gets into the panhandle — and maybe starting their own country before the Brits and the Spanish pulled the plug on that. Some went to Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies, especially the many Loyalist slaveholders. As some have taken pains to point out on social media, the British recruited numerous escaped slaves (only from Patriot slaveowners though!) during the war, and some of those became Loyalist refugees who helped found the British West African colony of Sierra Leone.
Jasanoff does a good job of telling these stories and hitting notes about how different circumstances — most notably race and class — affected the fortunes of different parts of the Loyalist cohort, as did imperial rivalries. This is sort of the global history thing, especially as pitched to teachers teaching undergrads- compare and contrast, wring some thought out of the little tuition equivalents. Given that there were black, white, and Native American loyalists of a variety of social classes, this was a decent approach.
It does leave some areas underexplored, though, and both of these tie in to that era of global history’s major weakness, it’s a disinclination to ask political questions that can’t be answered by a trip to the archive. The first I thought of was British disloyalty to their Loyalists. Jasanoff points out how often the British screwed over this group of people that put a lot on the line for them. It took a lot for a few of them to get land grants in Canada, a place that had basically nothing but grantable land at the time. The British completely gave up on the East Florida project to placate Spain, not exactly the toughest out. They did nothing to help accommodate Loyalists going to Jamaica, who found themselves trying to buy into one of the most hostile and expensive places to buy land you could think of. I’m not about to shed tears for incommoded slavers, but the British were also utterly transactional with the ex-slaves who fought for them, allowing numerous of them to be captured back into slavery, and they abandoned their Native American allies, after letting them think that maybe the British would back them in keeping the Americans from pouring over the Appalachians, completely.
Jasanoff points to this… but doesn’t really interrogate it. The Loyalists kicked back, hard, enough to force concessions in a few places (mostly Canada, ironic given the tea-sipping more-royalist-than-the-king thing some Canadians used to affect). But it feels like getting more into how the British thought about it, beyond “bluff and unconcerned,” might have been beneficial. You figure a strategy had to go into it- and it continued, as every tool of the empire has found out, up to and including those other Loyalists, the ones the Brits keep around only to bully the (other) Irish.
There’s another little-considered dynamic that enters into this: something like seventy-five thousand people fled the new US after the Revolution. That’s a lot, when you consider that the population at the time was only around three million. A lot of the Loyalists fled from fierce and bloody partisan fighting, massacres and counter-massacres, torture, the works. That kind of thing isn’t new to me. But it is when it’s between people who didn’t really have much of a racial, ethnic, religious, class, or any other difference we’re used to seeing lend themselves to this sort of internecine violence. This was pretty much exclusively white English-speaking Protestants from America doing it to same. There’s some similarity to the US Civil War, in that regard, but at least that one involves high racial/class stakes, even if it didn’t really take on the character of a war between truly different systems of arranging affairs until after the Emancipation Proclamation.
What happened, less between the American and British armies (which fought reasonably cleanly and treated each other’s civilians well- very unusually well, for the British, or hell, compared to the American record with Native American civilians), than between Patriot and Loyalist civilians, seems an oddity, or maybe a sort of road not taken… a period when the possibilities seemed different and compelled people to take action that didn’t really correspond that much with what we today see as the usual lines. Jasanoff doesn’t explore this much, just providing some ghastly blow by blows to show why her Loyalist subjects wanted out so bad. I suppose, among other things, no one could have known that the US Constitution would take hold, the likes of Washington, Hamilton, and their allies in the American gentry would suppress any kind of mob-based funny business sooner rather than later. So people could have envisaged all kinds of apocalypses… still. Not trying to ding Jasanoff for not writing a different book. This is a pretty good one! ****
Gene Wolfe, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (1972) – I’m way, way behind on reviews. I finished this one a little while ago. By coincidence, I also listened to a podcast just now about how lousy overly-literal political metaphors in speculative fiction can be, and how good ones don’t belabor the point and get on with it. Well, this group of linked novellas, arguably the first major work of great scifi/fantasy “writer’s writer” Gene Wolfe, follows this post-dated advice. It’s less a metaphor for colonialism than a projection of a melange of colonial practices into humanity’s space-faring future. Those of you who have read Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” – which is an investment but well worth it – know that Wolfe makes intricate worlds with deep pasts, but does not dump them on the reader in inelegant chunks (like a certain book reviewer does in his bad attempts at fiction). His worlds unspool as his character discover them in the process of figuring out their own mysteries and living their lives.
I feel like I might be alone in this, but I enjoy the titular first story the best out of the three linked novellas. A man relates his boyhood on the colony world of Ste. Croix, one of a pair of inhabitable planets in a solar system settled by mostly-French colonists. At first grasp, the worlds of Ste. Croix and Ste. Anne resemble something like the Caribbean or Brazil, maybe with French-ruled Indochina mixed in. I don’t recall Wolfe specifically saying it was hot and humid on Ste. Croix but it feels that way anyway- a backwater, culturally static, strict hierarchies that let their hair down behind closed doors in various fucked up ways, a ruling class that prioritizes its control over the lower classes over its notional independence from outsiders.
The narrator is a child of this ruling class… sort of. I don’t want to spoil it, but it turns out that the planters, merchants, and bordello-keepers (guess which one the narrator is raised by!) of Ste. Croix take the whole “reproduction of the ruling class” thing literally… so a lot of his tale is basically him figuring out his strange origins, without much in the way of reference to outside standards of normality (i.e., ours) to act as a reference point. It takes some doing and Wolfe does it well. Among other things, he was an early linker of the possibilities of bio-tech and the creepy ethos of colonialism, a solid connection… you gotta figure a successful CSA would put a lot more chips on gene-editing than, say, spaceships…
All of the stories relate to the “extinct” “aborigines” of Ste. Anne and Ste. Croix. Legends describe them as shapeshifters. There’s even a theory that they killed the original French colonists and then just assumed their shapes! Who ever heard of such a thing? We get some interesting looks at what later generations of pedants would call “indigeneity” and the way the “gaze” of anthropologists, etc. reduce and make major mistakes about situations that colonizers have an investment in misunderstanding. There’s no big denouement- we never know for sure if the aborigines are still out there, let alone that they rebel against their human overlords, etc etc, like a simpler book might insist on. Instead it insists on lingering on how we know what we think we know about others, and what others see in us, and without the posturing and moralizing such questions usually come freighted with in contemporary speculative fiction. It’s hard to write much about it without giving too much away, and a lot of the fun is in Wolfe’s sublime prose and pacing, anyway. So go read it, if this sounds at all good to you. *****
Theda Skocpol, “States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China” (1979) – I have some weird background with this book. My first job out of grad school was for a nonprofit that the author started, dedicated to getting social scientists (like herself) to more effectively engage with the policy process. The nonprofit did what they do and my job, which involved trying to hammer into the heads of social scientists that they couldn’t just drop their papers into the laps of elected representatives and expect said politicians to act on the papers’ implications, ended after about ten months. Theda, as they called her in the office, didn’t do much with the day to day but it was understood she was the source of power. We were citizens of the Skocpolis. I only met her briefly. I sometimes wonder if our manager, knowing my socialist leanings and being a somewhat nervous type, thought it wouldn’t be a great idea, the grand old lady of liberal social science, used to decades of Harvard deference, and the red rando who didn’t always know or care about social pecking orders, being in too close proximity…
Anyway! Skocpol was not, in my very limited experience, the compulsive left-puncher that various others trying for influence in the Democratic Party (technically, the group was nonpartisan, but Republicans have their own ways of leveraging their, errrm, thinkers) often turn into. But in this, the monograph that made her reputation in that year of years 1979, she threw ‘bows left and right and mostly left in her effort to define revolution. What makes revolutions? Why do they happen when they do?
Skocpol, she informs us, is no “voluntarist.” It’s structural facets of historical-sociological situations that lead to revolutions! Funny- this is back before Marxists slid into their contemporary reputation as being arch-determinists. Skocpol dings Marxists for attributing too much to the will of revolutionaries, and also for reducing what makes revolution possible to class structure. Class is important! She demurs. But before we get to the “but,” she has to take down her old cohort, the modernization theorists who were well past their expiration date by the late seventies but holding on, as old academics too. You can’t explain revolutions as some automatic process that happens when institutions are insufficiently “modern” for conditions or don’t match public values, or personality types or whatever structural-functionalist voodoo the old modernization guys thought they could do.
“Bringing the state back in” – Skocpol started doing that in the late seventies, and History is such a slow academic field we were still acting like it was a big new deal when I was in grad school thirty years later! It’s actually state structures, and the international scenes in which they are situated, that are what people have been missing about revolutions. Especially Marxists, who “reductively” (shouldn’t “reducing” the chaos of circumstance and making a clear through line be a good thing? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?) dismiss the state as the “organizing committee of the ruling class.” Not so, Skocpol tells us! The state is autonomous! And we need to treat it as such not only to understand how revolutions arose in France, Russia, and China, but also the courses they took towards tyranny etc.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been on organizing committees. The idea that Marx was trying to say that states acting as organizing committees of a class means that their interest and actions could be reduced to what the class they represented wanted or what was best for that class or even just basic ideas of means-end rationality flies in the face of the nature of committees, organizing and otherwise. Yes, states don’t act straightforwardly in class interest, but they still act in class interest. It’s just that circumstances make things less than straightforward, much of the time.
So, it’s something of a straw-Marx and, to a lesser extent because some of them were class reductionists or whatever, straw-Marxists, that Skocpol beats on, here. To her credit, Skocpol does not ignore the class situation in her three case studies. She means it when she says class struggle is a part of these situations. But this book’s reputation rests on an analysis of state policies. The funny thing is… that seems more like a job for history, with its eyes for incident and contingency, than for sociology and political science, even historical sociology. The actions of the state actually seem more incidental than structural, down to some “autonomous” nature of the state that can be turned into a general category of analysis which we can “bring back in” anywhere. But this is social science, liberal social science at that, and ideal types are the name of the game.
Among other things, all three old regimes — the Bourbons, the Romanovs, and in their different ways the old Manchu regime and the Koumintang that followed them — Skocpol deals with had deeply stupid and fucked up priorities when it came to personnel decisions, budgeting, more or less every aspect of governance. Wouldn’t… that seem to imply there’s something about these states that got them to make bad, arguably suicidal, choices? Older “neutral” (read, revolution-skeptic) analysts of these things, from Carlyle on, had answers- the welter of incident and a vague pattern of decay, for the smarter ones, some conspiracy (usually led by, who else, the Jews) for the dumber, meaner, more activist ones. Skocpol punts to the nature of states, to protect and propagate themselves, but… for what? For whom? Might we suggest… a certain… class??
Anyway. This is far from the worst analysis (the non-academically-employed rando said to the two dozen randos who read him out of friendship about one of the most prominent social scientists of her time- and one who has done yeoman service holding back the tide of the quants, to boot, good on her). But the idea that this was, pardon the term, revolutionary social science thinking… well, in an academy where the Marxists themselves tend to be less revolutionary you’d like, maybe, but you know what they say about lands and blind people and one eyed people etc etc. ***
Jonathan Lethem, “The Fortress of Solitude” (2003) – I read this for my Birthday Lecture, which this year is going to be about the literature and generational identity of Generation X. I didn’t expect to like it. I had read one of Lethem’s other books, “Motherless Brooklyn,” and did not enjoy it. Moreover, research for birthday lectures is the reading category that, along with my readings on the right, most reliably fills the bottom rungs of my year’s reading in terms of quality. This year has been no exception- Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Jim Goad, other Gen X scribblers are all near the bottom of the list (I keep lists) and I expect a few more to join them. But “The Fortress of Solitude” turned out to be very good.
This is mainly the story of Dylan Ebdus, child of first-wave gentrifiers in a part of Brooklyn variously called Gowanus (after a smelly canal, pre-gentrification) or Boerum Hill (after an old Dutch patroon who barely touched this distinctly flat part of westernmost Long Island, after gentrification took). Lethem — and his fictional analog, Dylan — will also tell you that it’s the story of Dean Street, the block where his artist parents deposit themselves and their neurotic, diffident paleface only child. Fighting trainers tell you to look at a bewildering variety of body parts to figure out what your opponent will do next: I’ve heard center-of-chest, shoulders, hips, feet, hands, and eyes. Trusting what an author says about their own work reminds me of trying to figure out an opponent’s intentions by looking at their eyes: it can tell you something, but it’s also an obvious place to fake, and even when the other isn’t faking, there’s all kinds of cultural filters around what eyes are saying. All that is to say, “The Fortress of Solitude” is kind of about the street, but really about one kid’s interactions with it.
Dylan’s parents are a reclusive painter and a sort of general hippie gadabout lady type, the latter of whom runs away from home when Dylan is about ten, sending the occasional cryptic postcard. Gowanus is mostly black and Puerto Rican kids, not the poorest by any stretch, not quite rich or “respectable” enough to be middle class. There’s a weird old WASP-y lady who haunts the neighborhood, dreaming of rich whites “retaking” “Boerum Hill” (Lethem dramatizing the way real estate people – not necessarily revanchist biddies, but hey, it’s fiction – dug through archives for nicer-sounding names for the neighborhoods they were upselling), but it’s only well after her death that gentrification truly takes hold. So little Dylan plays stickball and whatnot, then becomes a mark for “yoking” – a sort of more-polite variant on mugging – by mostly black peers, along with another white nerd in the neighborhood.
Not the least of Lethem’s accomplishments here are looking at this racial dynamic without quailing, catastrophizing, excuse-making, or other obfuscations. Dylan isn’t an underdog hero, he doesn’t “have it coming,” he’s just a kid, who, like most kids, is trapped in dynamics he can’t control. He’s not in especially serious danger, and this form of bullying has a sort of resigned quality to it that other forms don’t; it sucks, but adolescence (and it’s on-ramp, and it’s off) usually does. Dylan’s best friend is black (and Dylan, who may be a nerd but isn’t completely stupid when it comes to social stuff, knows better than to name-check his black friend to his black yokers), Mingus Rude, son of a declining soul singer. The basis of their friendship are shared, private adventures- buying and reading comic books, getting into graffiti, etc. Together, they see a mythic city the others don’t, complete with comic book-style superheroes. They come to believe – Lethem tells us – that they get a ring from a homeless guy that lets them fly. This seems like the kind of thing that knocked them dead in 2003 but I’ve decided that it’s mostly just a mediocre metaphor. It’s not enough to ruin the book, by a long shot.
Others might disagree, but to me the central action in this long, sprawling novel is Dylan’s negotiation of, and eventually creation of, various worlds with other people, and the problems of living in multiple, sometimes intersecting, worlds. Dylan and Mingus (one thing I don’t love about this book is the names of characters) have their shared world. Dylan shares a world of boredom with another white nerd in the neighborhood, Arthur, and resents it when Arthur starts to move into the world with him and Mingus. Dylan has the hermetic world of his home with his Dad, who’s been shut up painting onto celluloid film for decades and doesn’t look likely to stop (he eventually starts painting covers for scifi novels he despises but which Dylan eats up- more worlds). Eventually, Dylan escapes Dean Street for a magnet arts high school in Manhattan, starts dabbling in nerdish, punk, and New Wave stuff with rich white kids, and plays a sort of cultural arbitrage between both. He winds up at a Bennington-manque, like Lethem did in real life (classmates with Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis!), which, even as he only stays there the one year or so, seals his transition away from Dean Street and into…
And here, there’s a lacuna, not the finely-detailed descriptions we got of Dylan’s youth (among other things, the book would be super-long if it kept up that level of detail). We see Dylan in then-contemporary early-aughts California. He’s a pedantic music scribbler, obsessed with black culture, up to having a black girlfriend who sees through his shit. He’s able to do this, but Mingus is in jail for a variety of mostly minor crimes. Lethem does not pretend that their worlds are equivalent, even if they grew up creating and sharing one together. Dylan did just as much stupid stuff as Mingus did, but could get out. Mingus did not have the same escape venues.
The ending has some hijinks involving the super-powers, but they’re also a clear way for the author to get Dylan to see things, and others to do things, that would be hard to narratively arrange otherwise, but wouldn’t be impossible… that’s a vague way of saying that it didn’t interfere too much with my enjoyment. Moreover, Dylan tells us the point, as he sees it, in the end- the world-creating possibilities of his time, the worlds that got created and destroyed, leaving only remains – music, art, feelings in people who have been passed by by time – behind. People often dislike that sort of point-making in novels, but I found it worked well. I’m not mentioning all kinds of stuff that happens here – bravura passages, changes of scenery (Vermont, mostly), some funny stuff about the scifi and art scenes through Dylan’s dad – because like I said, it’s a big long book with a lot going on. It’s seldom “cute” the way Lethem could be, especially in “Motherless Brooklyn.” It took itself seriously but not at all humorlessly. I was glad to be wrong about what I thought this would be. *****
J.W. Burrow, “A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past” (1981) – I have been imagining a book sequence for a while, about the history of political philosophy as related to visions of the nature of time and human history. As you imagine, such books tend to be chunky, in topic, tone, prose, and heft. It would start with Ernst Kantorowicz’s “The King’s Two Bodies” and J.G.A. Pocock’s “The Machiavellian Moment,” and end with Philip Mirowski’s “Machine Dreams.” I’ve been vexed by what the “middle ground” of this sequence would be. I would want something on the nineteenth century, especially nineteenth century liberalism.
“A Liberal Descent” might be the closest I’ve found so far (other than maybe Hayden White’s “Metahistory,” which is a little too historiographical for what I have in mind), even if it doesn’t quite nail it. More an intellectual history than a strict historiography, Burrow’s book asks how liberal British historians at the height of, well, liberalism, British power, and probably the British historical profession, squared a peculiar circle: the idea of a heritage of liberalism. That is to say, how did the likes of Thomas Macaulay and William Stubbs deal with the seeming paradox of a culture that they wanted to say was always progressive? If it was always progressive, where was it progressing to? Especially when you factor in their whiggish ideas of progress and liberty, that do not allow for the advisability of sudden, dramatic, painful change?
Burrow, a highly-respected British intellectual historian who never quite broke out like other prominent British historians of his time did (it wasn’t necessarily the most popular time for intellectual histories of Britain), does not allow this book to become ponderous and thesis-heavy. We get a lot about the way his four main subjects – super-popular chronicler of the pivotal late seventeenth century and parliamentarian Thomas Macaulay, deep researcher of the Saxon past William Stubbs, theorist of Anglo-Saxonist racialist “democracy” Edward Freeman, and polemical historian of the Tudor era James Froude – understood history in general, getting into their educations, influences, writing styles, source treatment, etc.
All of them stood before a challenge made by David Hume: that British liberty isn’t unique, that it has no real provenance (Hume claimed that the English under Henry VIII were as free as the subjects of the Grand Turk, a big diss at the time), that the Roundheads and early Whigs were delusional when they claimed “ancient constitutional freedoms” as the bases of such actions as starting a civil war, executing a king, and inviting a Dutch dude to start a whole new dynasty. Hume was feeling his oats as a big clever Enlightenment Scot, with some of the more innovative Scots social historians behind him, in a period (the late eighteenth century) not known for the glittering innovations of English historical writing. He was long dead by the Victorian period but our English Whig historians still had to reckon with him.
Whether or not they’d admit it openly, Macaulay and company paid Hume the compliment of admitting his basic thesis, that British liberalism’s institutional history cannot be cast back into the misty past without serious violence to historical continuity. Whatever Saxon Witenagemots or Runnymede confrontations you can point to, there A. were plenty of similar moments in other parts of Europe at roughly the same time, B. Many decades- or centuries- long gaps where proto-democratic/liberal institutions or movements failed to matter or even exist and C. many many instances of England being, if anything, more of a forerunner in terms of developing feudalism, royal prerogative, or anything else a Whig is supposed to have seen as the sort of thing they, and good Englishmen, oppose. The central, longstanding criticism of Whig history is that it reads the present into the future in a profoundly unsophisticated, teleological way. And while all of our Whig historians had their faults, and Macaulay in particular fell into the classical “Whig teleological history” stereotype, none of them failed to realize the problems involved.
I guess that’s the theme of the reading series I had in mind at the beginning of this review- the creation and playing-out of problem-spaces in highly politicized areas of thought around definitions of what the political is. The space of disputation in which the Whig historians of the Victorian period worked involved political stakes ranging from the big overarching questions of political philosophy to what amounts to family loyalty- many of the families sending kids to Oxbridge by this time still had some family tradition of alignment with the Cavaliers or the Roundheads of the English Civil War, for instance. It also entailed expanding access to and professionality in dealing with primary sources, as well as the professionalization of history and of academia in Britain in general, well after Germany started the process. The disputes took place while Britain was in the prime of its global power, but especially as the century progressed, the British elite began to feel less confident of the permanence of their place in the sun.
All in all it was a pretty interesting set of circumstances to write history in, and Burrow goes deep into the processes of our four historians (and others who were around at the time too). Probably the ones I’d be most interested in reading for myself would be Macaulay and Stubbs. Marx called Macaulay “a systematic falsifier,” and he sounds like he was a pompous boob, but his work was standard, once upon a time. He seems to just sort of elide the whole “British tradition of freedom not being that traditional, or even that British” thing with a sheer firehose of prose (you basically can’t get the full six-volume history anymore unless you want some real old volumes or print-on-demand). Stubbs elided the other way, immersing himself in deep Britishness, obscure old records and laws from the countryside- if the institutions did not have continuity, the land and its communities did, he thought he could prove. Freeman and Froude were less confident, less sanguine, trying weirder things – Freeman’s Saxon vs Norman raceplay, Froude’s Carlylean hero-worship – to square various circles as the late nineteenth century kept making things, well, rounder, I guess, in this metaphor.
All in all, it was very “my shit.” Burrow does not come to as stark, surprising, or wide-ranging conclusions as Kantorowicz, Pocock, or Mirowski (his work is also much shorter and more readable) so I’m not sure it’s exactly what I was looking for, but it is well worth a read if you’re interested in the history of how the elite of the nineteenth century (a lot of Americans read deeply in English history, too) understood themselves. *****