Review – Smallwood, “The Life of the Mind”

Christine Smallwood, “The Life of the Mind” (2021) (read aloud by Allyson Ryan) – Here’s what I can say for this book: I do not think Christine Smallwood is actively lying to us. This is a marked distinction from her cohort of literary fiction writers. I’m not sure if I’d say that Jonathan Franzen, Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, Bret Easton Ellis, Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, the rest of the grubby crew and, hovering above them all, the ghost of David Foster Wallace, necessarily lie more habitually than literary fiction writers of old. Their lies are more boring than any other cohort that comes to mind, I’d stake that claim. Their capacity to tell the truth, even by accident, to comprehend anything outside the very small worlds that they have collaborated in constructing, is probably less than that of any other generation of prominent writers, probably since the Enlightenment period, if not before. And this despite (because of?? the hacks would ask with an arched eyebrow, because they’re stupid) their unprecedented access to the world, it’s people, it’s learning, through travel, information/communication technology, etc. 

So… Smallwood is ahead of the game, here. Whether or not the experience of her narrator, who like Smallwood herself is an English PhD in contemporary New York, trying to make a living as an adjunct professor, reflects Smallwood’s own material circumstances isn’t really the point. Whether she knows adjunct hell personally or not, Smallwood can get the experience across honestly. Constant, niggling insecurity and doubt, watching friends move on with their life while you’re still scraping a living, the knowledge that luck and independently acquired wealth are the main tickets to success, even more than schmoozing or playing the game or whatever, the knowledge that you’re barely a deckhand on a sinking ship, a garnish that our system allows to exist — or not — mostly because there has always been humanities instructors… yeah. She’s not lying about that. This is not a dishonest book. That’s something, all things considered.

But it’s not a good book, either. Some of you may be familiar with my Hook test: does a contemporary work “exploring” identity and authenticity say anything that mediocre nineties jam band Blues Traveler did not say – in under three minutes! – in their hit 1994 ditty “Hook”? Well, “The Life of the Mind” I think does pass the Hook test- it gets across that the titular type of life is, at this point, not a life fit for a cur dog. Blues Traveler, being in the nineties, was reasonably sanguine about the material circumstances in which people compelled to sell their authenticity would live, but Smallwood doesn’t have that going for her. And authenticity is fairly low down on her list of problems, compared to career stagnation, depression, impending climate catastrophe, etc. So she passes the Hook test. Hooray!

She doesn’t pass the “why isn’t this an essay?” test, or the “why is this a book at all?” test. It’s boring. The closest thing to interest we get are the variety of ways Smallwood finds to describe her heroine’s gynecological problems after a miscarriage that she keeps a secret from everyone. She can’t produce life in much the same way she can’t produce thought, can’t get students to meaningfully engage with literature, can’t have real relationships! Get it?! Again- not offensively stupid, like a lot of what you get in contemporary literature, not a contemptible, transparent lie, but… I get that boredom is part of reality- believe me, I lived low-level academic life, I get that. I get that it deserves to be depicted in literature. I think there’s been some decent examples, even. Charles Portis gets boring across in a way that is not boring itself, for example. Prison literature often does, too. Among other things, Smallwood does not write in interesting English prose. She doesn’t write as catastrophically badly as a Sheila Heti, but in a way that just makes the experience duller than if she did. 

Let’s put this in the context of two things I’ve heard about literature. One is a common lament from people who bemoan its current state (does anyone really think we’re in a good place right now, in terms of literature? I have a friend who tells me they disagree, when I bemoan it in a group chat we’re in, but who has never once elaborated and doesn’t seem likely to). It’s an equation between boredom, dishonesty, and privilege. Our literature is boring, cheaply derivative, dishonest, and irrelevant because it’s written by people with immense amounts of privilege. Even the writers who come from marginalized backgrounds still, usually, have the privilege of wealth, or education, or connections, or failing that just plain good luck- they have the privilege of getting published, getting paid to do this stuff at all. The idea here is usually that if contemporary writers were a little more “real” – if they weren’t gilded brats gazing determinedly into their own navels, and if they didn’t write about same – then literature today would not be as bad at it is. 

But the thing is- this isn’t dishonest, or entirely irrelevant. It’s just boring and doesn’t say anything especially original about its subject, and doesn’t do anything else interesting, like have a good plot or subplot, or do anything unusual or notable with language, either. In some ways, that’s even appropriate to its topic- humanities academia generally doesn’t reward or encourage originality or anything that might fascinate, either, on its low levels, though it dangles the idea you might get to do something like that, eventually, if you burn a few decades and get tenure (the most boring Black strategy in Magic: the Gathering ever conceived?). That doesn’t make it any better to read. It turns out that being real, and considering the lived reality of people who have to work for a living, is not some royal road to quality literature! 

Here’s the other thing said, specifically said by my dad, a number of years ago, when he read “Blood Meridian.” He didn’t like it – Dad is a pacifist who avoids movies where the dog might die, so the bloodiness of McCarthy’s masterpiece wasn’t for him, and he was never a Faulkner guy and whatever else he was doing McCarthy was doing Faulkner there – but he was intrigued by it. He said something like, by borrowing from such sepulchers of our language as Faulkner, Shakespeare, and especially the King James Bible, McCarthy was trying to say that even this, this violence and depravity, deserves a cathedral of words. I’m not sure that’s what McCarthy was going for- I’m not sure McCarthy is sure, my theory has always been he lucked into “Blood Meridian” and never accomplished anything remotely like it before or since. But I’ve often thought about this concept. 

It’s a bit too much to say that Smallwood constructed a word-cathedral for adjunct life. You could say that makes sense- even if we think every experience deserves some sort of word-construction, adjunct life is low church, it deserves a chapel, at best, and even if you don’t like that ecclesiastical metaphor, adjunct life is surely smaller than the conquest of the American West. So- is this an appropriate word-chapel for the life of an adjunct in the early twenty-first century? Maybe! Maybe it is. Does that mean I have to like it? Or honor it? Like Dad gave some honor to Charlie “Cormac” McCarthy of Providence, Rhode Island for his giant gnostic punctuation-lite cowboy epic? 

The hell if I know. Maybe I should! Maybe I’m just too close. Maybe those of you who did not make the curious life decision to subject your one and only youth to the rule of graduate-level education in the humanities will find “The Life of the Mind” to be new news. But I don’t think that’s it. At a certain point, and maybe I’m old-fashioned or small-minded or a bad reader or whatever, but I think something has to sustain the reader’s interest. People across the critical spectrum try to isolate that “something” – there’s been a “plot versus vibes” debate in some areas of critical social media that, even at my remote distance, makes me want to get a lobotomy – but I don’t think it’s a simple variable. And whatever it is, I don’t think it’s here. Sorry for my vagueness. Sometimes, the closest you can come to describing a vague, poorly-illuminated object is to describe what it isn’t, it’s negative, the hole it leaves in the picture, and that’s all I got for you today. Your mileage may vary. **’

Review – Smallwood, “The Life of the Mind”

Review – Leonard, “Get Shorty”

My adulthood was not like this, it turned out

Elmore Leonard, “Get Shorty” (1990) – I remember seeing ads for the movie adaptation of this as a child! “This is what a certain kind of grown up is like,” I thought, looking at the posters with John Travolta and company in their matching black clothes, sunglasses, and cool expressions. “This is what I have to look forward to,” I thought with a certain ambivalence. I have not seen the movie.

They say Elmore Leonard is a master of tight plot. Split the difference- there is a pretty neat pinballing character to the action in the two books of his I’ve read so far, as the action sets various colorful shady characters in motion, colliding them against each other and a variety of plot elements. To me, a lot of Elmore’s strength (again, in two novels, this one and “Maximum Bob,” out of his massive oeuvre) is in the moments where his characters breathe, chat, establish themselves. I think he’s a better master of scene-setting and characterization than of plot. In fact, I think sometimes his passion for the one detracts some from the other. The plots may be tight, but the pacing generally strikes me as somewhat “off.” 

Anyway! Chili Palmer is a loan shark out of Miami. He goes to Las Vegas and then LA to chase down a debt. It’s a funny kind of debt, because the guy who accrued it faked his death, with the help of the crash of an airplane into the Everglades- he was supposed to be on it. He stays underground, gets his wife to get the settlement money, then runs off to nurse his gambling problem and delusions of grandeur. Chili goes out after him- not only can he get his relatively small debt back, but he can get some of that settlement money. Chili’s an entrepreneurial type, so while he’s not quite nailing his mark in Vegas, a casino owner contracts him to collect a debt from a b-movie director in LA. And from there, Chili gets into some shenanigans involving the director, the director’s attempts to break through to respectable filmmaking via a good script, some drug dealers who had been funding the director who now want in on the script, a thespian they’re trying to get to act in it, some horniness for a scream queen, an old mob rival of Chili’s coming to town, etc. 

Lots of ingredients in the stew! It comes out pretty well, but one weird thing with Leonard – or, again, the two I’ve read of him so far, both from the same era of his long career – is that it never feels that tense. Sometimes that’s a good thing- that sort of “lived in” quality to the books I mentioned. Chili, especially, likes to wax expansive. Sure, he’s a loan shark, but he’s not an animal. Mostly he makes his way with confidence and a refusal to take bullshit, and he helps people get credit who couldn’t otherwise! An interesting look at the era immediately before decades of cheap money and the expansion of credit card usage. Also, it’s always interesting to see the ways in which given eras depict criminals as heroes. The sixties and seventies went in for criminals who really were at odds with social norms, like Bonnie and Clyde just spraying bullets everywhere and crowds of arthouse viewers applauding every shot. By the nineties, you have the idea of the good criminal as, essentially, a better upholder of social codes – not necessarily the social codes most people live by, but some kind of code – than hypocritical straight society. Chili Palmer is that kind of guy. His main criminal rivals are a little less honorable but not awful, and his criminal foils are the two kinds of bad criminals, as far as crime writing then (and, basically, now) are concerned- psychos and phonies. 

Truth be told, I was more invested in thinking about how Leonard thought about character, place, crime, etc than I was in the plot. This is often the case for me and crime writing, but the gap is usually a little smaller. Still and all, this was a pretty enjoyable book. I’m still waiting for Leonard to really rock me with one of his books, but I don’t mind going through them until that happens. ****

Review – Leonard, “Get Shorty”

Review – Vachss, “Strega”

Andrew Vachss, “Strega” (1987) (read aloud by Phil Gigante) – Andrew Vachss died last November. He was a weird, interesting guy. In some ways he had a personal story more interesting than the stories in the two novels of his I’ve so far read. He worked as a community organizer with Saul Alinsky, then went out to Biafra to try to deliver relief to the rebels that the Nigerian government was then starving out. Some point after that, he made child protection his great cause- he ran a facility for juvenile offenders (no abolitionist, he), eventually becoming a lawyer who only took on cases for children, and wrote numerous novels, including the best-selling Burke series. He swanned around with an eyepatch like Moshe Dayan, and was given to proclamations like “I only have one god: revenge.” He was obsessed with karate and menacing dogs. As my friend and podcast cohost pointed out, there’s more than a little of what would go into QAnon here… but as listening to this book helped bring home for me, it’s a flipped QAnon, not quite a left-wing QAnon (as I know some very online leftists seem to pine for, a way to “get the shit-munchers on side), but a worldview based on the centrality of evil, represented by the sexual exploitation of children, with many of the valuations of QAnon reversed.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. This is the second installment in Vachss’ flagship series depicting the deeds of unlicensed private eye/child avenger Burke. Burke and his chosen family of renegades work the streets of pre-Giuliani period New York, doing scams and stick-ups targeted at other low-lives and “freaks.” While Burke has contempt for the milieu in which he works, he has even more for the square world, which threw him into the maw of the system as a baby and made him, and most other “freaks,” what they are- all while piously denying the impulses that drive squares to take part in the freak world’s illicit pleasures. . Burke’s crew includes a homeless guy, a deaf-mute Mongolian martial arts master, a reclusive Zionist genius junk-tinkerer, and what is, for the time and the genre, a really sensitively-portrayed trans woman. Burke doesn’t mess up the she/her pronouns of his friend Michelle, who specializes in surveillance, sleight of hand, and taking care of kids! What’s your excuse? That alone inverts a major contemporary reactionary value, hatred of anyone who challenges gender norms. If a QAnoner might be along for the ride of violently punishing “freaks,” they’ll be outright shoved out of Vachss’ moving car by his violent disregard for the sentimental version of suburban normalcy at the heart of their worldview. 

Alas, as yet, the actual stories Vachss tells are generally less interesting than the world he builds. Burke gets contacted by a Mafia don he knew in jail to help the don’s niece, a femme fatale who wants to find a dirty picture of a friend’s kid getting sexually assaulted by an adult. There’s a lot of child psychology here, and I don’t really know anything about that- would it make sense that a kid would feel better about getting molested if a grown-up tore up a picture of the child’s abuse in front of him? That’s the kind of question you have to think about, reading a Burke story. Burke doesn’t really want to take the case, despite his feelings about protecting kids. He doesn’t want to get in hock to the Mafia (he occasionally rips off their couriers with his friends for quick cash), the femme fatale gets on his nerves, and it seems like an impossible case, finding one picture (likely reproduced!) in an ocean of filth. But they get to him, so he and the team get to work. He works various underworld connections, with varying degrees of success. His best lead is with a prison gang clearly meant to be the Aryan Brotherhood, but not given that name, which allows flashbacks to the time Burke and other characters have spent on jail, and the indulgence of that peculiar queasy fascination people have with white gangs. 

It’s not terrible and it’s plotted a lot better than the first installment. But Vachss still spends way more time on the details of Burke’s lifestyle — the minor schemes he does to make money outside of “the system,” his various personal security measures, stuff he does to avoid search and seizure issues, etc. — than I found interesting. Crime stories like this, with little in the way of “whodunnit” mystery, rely on conjuring a world defined in part by the interesting techniques of people from the other side of the legal divide from the standard square reader. Think heist movies- they can be fantastic (the Oceans movies) or (pseudo)realistic, like Michael Mann’s crime dramas, but they always focus on the ways and means. But Vachss does too much of it, too unrelated to the story, and it’s usually too low stakes. Similarly, many of his characters are such ludicrous stereotypes that the emotional weight they are meant to carry falters. This is especially true of Max, the deaf-mute borderline superhuman karate master, and the femme fatale. You see the big reveal about her miles away, and while her relationship with Burke is grimy and scummy in a way that does help drive the plot (and guarantees she goes away in time for a new girl in the next installment, ala Bond), it’s also hard to wring that much of it at this late date. Still- there’s enough here to sustain some interest. ***’

Review – Vachss, “Strega”

Review – Gottfried, “After Liberalism”

Paul Gottfried, “After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State” (2001) – I am, once again, behind on reviews. I finished this a while ago. Paul Gottfried got my attention, and that of other antifascists, when journalists pointed to him as a substantial influence on Richard Spencer and the altright, including, possibly, coming up with the term “alternative right,” as in alternative to the neoconservative ascendancy that was just about to reach its peak around the time this book came out. It’s murky, how much Gottfried actually knew Spencer, but they traveled in similar paleoconservative circles before Spencer became briefly prominent. Gottfried has gone on record abjuring the altright, saying their project is not his.

Unlike most of these distancing maneuvers, this one comes off as reasonably legitimate. There are two main reasons for this. One is that Paul Gottfried is a Jew. There’s no shortage of right-wing Jews out there, and I’ll talk about the antisemitic cast of Gottfried’s main argument, but I don’t think Gottfried is the particular kind of craven that would cause a Jew to make common cause with Nazis, and he’s not the sort of Jew Nazis would necessarily let in (Spencer might, but he’s a fancylad with a following he can count on the fingers of his hands, at this point). The other, more substantive, reason is that Gottfried seems to come from the branch of paleoconservative that is deeply and sincerely opposed to the sort of mass political mobilization and rapid sweeping political changes that help distinguish fascism from more normative conservatism. 

Among other things, Gottfried sticks to something more closely resembling the historical and the empirical in this book than is common on the contemporary right (or, for that matter, among ideologues across the spectrum). As far as Gottfried is concerned, by the turn of the twenty-first century, the verdict was in, and the more pessimistic predictions of the founding fathers and assorted classical liberal figures were correct: let the mass of people participate in politics, and they will just vote rich people’s money into their pockets. Race enters into it less than one might think, except as something to potentially break the spell of welfarist lassitude- more anon. This is just democracy, Gottfried sighs, it’s the role of the statesman to see his way forward despite it. 

So, unlike fascists, Gottfried doesn’t really believe in the volk. There’s a little bit of that thing you see in right-wing writers ranging from Nock to Kirk to Rothbard, a certain nostalgia for simple folk and their (supposedly) unquestioned hierarchy, but like those three, that nostalgia is also a nostalgia for the (again, supposed) quietude of that past. But at the same time, Gottfried speaks well of populism. This is where Gottfried does, in fact, link up with fascism, and why Spencer et al would have found his work useful to them. 

What’s his motivation, you might wonder- if the volk aren’t noble, and in any event the damage is done, what is Gottfried bothering with? It’s because he hates the managerial elite who supposedly brought this state of affairs about. He spends almost half of the book trying to definitively delink the liberalism of most twentieth century figures from “classical liberalism,” and I tend to think that he did this less because it mattered so much — he resignedly calls the likes of John Dewey, Herbert Croly et al “liberals” in spite of all — but because it lets him obsessively pore over the rhetoric of the progressive movement, the new dealers, the great society types, and social liberals of his own time, and the awfulness and strangeness of their creed(s). The managerial elite overthrew the old capitalist elite, and with it the latter’s (notionally) purer liberalism. They bribe the volk with welfare and sap their values and vitality, in the name of their odd cosmopolitan value set, somewhere between antinomianism and Gnosticism. We know this story. 

What little hope Gottfried sees — and where he links up with fascism, where he really did influence or at least prefigure how the altright and numerous other far right formations today understand and pursue their project — is in hitting the managerial class where it is, supposedly, weak: culture. The cultural rules of the managerial elite become more important and more flagrantly arbitrary as their power grows, Gottfried argues. The real nature, the kind of Fabian/gnostic elitism of our educated credentialed elites, comes to the fore, and as Pat Buchanan showed, you could rally the good salt of the earth folks to object to…

The funny part is, the thing that impelled Gottfried to write this was the defeat of Bob Dole at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1996. Talk about distinctions with little difference! I guess Clinton was “more PMC,” to be reductive, a baby boomer, a philanderer, an erstwhile protester with an ambitious wife. What were the good right-populist folk supposed to be objecting to, then? What were the secretly radical managerial elite foisting on them? Meaningful advances even in bourgeois assimilationist gay rights, like marriage equality, were years away from being on the table, and the black freedom movement was an increasingly bitter (and bowdlerized) memory. The late nineties were not a time for the coddling of criminals, so we don’t get the kind of panic around that reactionaries made use of before and after. Gottfried grumbles some about how “government” never shrinks, employs too many people even as Clinton is gutting social services, but you can tell his heart is barely in it, compared to undoing the social and cultural power of the managerial elite.

No, it’s the usual peccadilloes that make it impossible to fully respect paleocons, even when they make a positive contrast with neocons in some areas. Gottfried is offended by the idea of civil rights, and raises the specter of hate crime laws. Beyond being wrong (and wrong-headed- “law and order” types should beg for hate crime legislation, especially if they’re also traditionalist conservatives ie people who want to legislate affect and feeling, but we know why they don’t), it’s honestly just kind of lame. What kind of pathos are we expected to take from business owners no longer being able to legally visit police and/or personal and/or mob violence on customers for being the wrong race? Why is that a “freedom” we should give a damn about, even in the most abstract way? 

Well, bigotry is certainly a part of it. I don’t know how personally bigoted Gottfried was or is (I believe he is still among the living). He doesn’t go on as much about the behavior of black people, sexual minorities, immigrants etc as you might expect. Bigotry, and the enforcement of a world defined by personal and sectarian ascriptions, was part of the power displaced by the professional managerial elite that serves as Gottfried’s great bugbear. The lord of the manor, or the planter, or the ward heeler, or whoever, should be allowed to enforce his bigotries and make use of the bigotries of his underlings to enforce his rule. Take that off the table, and you get the rationalism of the H.R. manager (which most often serves to sweep subtler, but ubiquitous and powerful, bigotries under the rug). The way to break the power of these managers is to mobilize these bigotries — often channeled against the openings that liberal managerial hypocrisy leaves wide open and unguarded — which are held to be the true feelings of “the people.” People power, if you will.

And this is where the antisemitism that Gottfried doesn’t deploy, but which is endemic to the far right and which his epigone Spencer has put so many chips on, comes in. You need to have a super-group to explain why the “naturally” superior, however defined — the aryans, the aristocracy, the landowner/industrialist/capitalist elite that the likes of Gottfried and Nock seemed to prefer — ever lost power. For most of them, it can’t be the real agency of the subordinate classes, otherwise they’d have to admit that the subordinate are powerful, capable of making their own decisions, and therefore do not deserve to be subordinate. There has to be some counter-elite. Because they are, in some sense, white, and because of longstanding prejudices and myths, Jews fit that role almost uniquely. Eric Voegelin, and a small school that follows him, puts Gnosticism in that same role. Gottfried comes close to that, not exactly summoning Basilides the False but basically making contemporary liberalism a sort of semi-esoteric cult, working in secret. But that’s usually several degrees too complex for people, especially because even a madman like Voegelin couldn’t bring himself to say that progressives were literally gnostics, with a lineage going back all the way. So, Jews it is, and even if it starts out targeting someone else, the Jews invariably get dragged in.

The version of this Trump, numerous right-populists the world over, and the altright has been pursuing is generally less well thought out than Gottfried’s version. You have to figure the old fucker probably furrowed a brow to see that one of the earlier instantiations of this dynamic involved a fight about video games and how many boyfriends a lady game designer had or did not have. But for all Gottfried’s erudition and delves into the history of liberal ideology, the whole edifice was always in the service of things just as stupid and small — petty bigotry, the personal domination of small-scale tyrants, silly grudges, pedantic rules-lawyering, the martinet’s dread of liberation — as “ethics in video game journalism.” As above, so below, or something. ***’

Review – Gottfried, “After Liberalism”

Review – Schulman, “Let the Record Show”

Sarah Schulman, “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993” (2021) (read aloud by Rosalyn Coleman Williams) – Behind on reviews again! What to say about this? I haven’t read any of her novels, but it looks like Sarah Schulman leads the pack in terms of being a bona fide person of letters, a novelist, playwright, political organizing strategy writer, and historian. She writes the history of ACT UP New York as a participant, just one of numerous interesting things she’s done in her life. She’s no navel-gazer (not to say she doesn’t write about herself and her life sometimes), no ponderer of boredom and fecklessness like a lot of our writers, and she isn’t the (supposed) opposite side of the coin, either, a reductive popularizer. She just writes, clearly and forcefully, about what matters to her.

ACT UP is legendary in contemporary leftist organizing circles, and a fair few practices pioneered in the organization remain with us today. Especially coming when it did, when it looked like not only was militant organizing dead, but unmourned, it’s like this wild bolt from the blue. It wasn’t that, of course, as Schulman shows. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power- it’s something of a backronym, apparently) was the product not just of spontaneous rage and grief but of seeds planted by generations of patient organizing in the feminist, pro-choice, and gay rights movements. Older organizers, who thought they had been bypassed by the Reaganite quietist zeitgeist, and completely new participants radicalized by the crisis, combined to make ACT UP what it was.

ACT UP leveraged what it had — angry, dedicated people willing to try anything — against some of the biggest targets conceivable: the federal government, the Catholic Church, the pharmaceutical giants. They did this by throwing themselves bodily against these institutions through nonviolent direct action. The phrase “street theater” makes people — I’m one of them — roll their eyes these days. But despite the theatricality of ACT UP direct actions (and let’s face it, the people who might make us derisive towards street theater are neither good at theater or at home on streets, any street, unlike the ACT UP people), there was always a direct goal, even if there was also an eye cast towards media attention- the disruption of business as usual. If our worlds end, then your world doesn’t get to go on business as usual, either. 

They didn’t do direct actions — not just protests, but disruptions, occupations, die-ins, etc — just to make statements, or against just anyone. ACT UP calculated for strategic effect. Much of the book is taken up with ACT UP’s most concrete achievements, largely accomplished through direct action targeted at the Food and Drug Administration, and at the pharmaceutical companies. They essentially forced those groups to take treating AIDS as a serious matter and an urgent one. They got testing protocols changed so doctors weren’t giving placebos to people dying of AIDS and desperate for any kind of treatment, even experimental ones. They forced the medical profession to take AIDS in women seriously enough to expand the definition to include them- for years of the AIDS crisis, women with AIDS were brushed off basically as incidental, which is wild to me. Along with these groups, ACT UP targeted politicians and institutions who instantiated homophobia and stood in the way of teaching safe sex and other necessary measures. This led to one of their most controversial and memorable actions, disrupting a mass said by the Cardinal Archbishop of New York at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

As a former member, Sarah Schulman had substantial access to ACT UP’s membership, and so a lot of the book is made up of direct testimony from members. None of the stories she tells through these testimonies are undisputed. This was an important element of ACT UP’s culture, and one that carries through into leftist organizing to this day- a great deal of disputation occurred within the organization, and there was an emphasis on independent action. If you wanted to take an action under the ACT UP umbrella, and you were willing to organize it and get informed consent from everyone involved, then you did it- the flip side of which was, everyone would have an opinion about it, and be less than reticent about sharing. Some of the people Schulman interviewed still felt bitter about arguments within ACT UP, even thirty years on. People fighting a plague tend to have less time for niceties.

It’s impossible to tell all the stories Schulman tells here, or give all of her analysis, of things like the experience of different groups — women, people of color, drug users, artists, etc — within ACT UP, of fault lines in the group, influences on its organizing and style, and so on. The stories are thrilling but with an undertone of sadness. These were people dealing with their own deaths, and the deaths of numerous friends, lovers, family, and comrades, horrifying deaths that sapped the lives from vital people with a lot to give. They did this in a context of ignorance and bigotry, the backwash of generations homophobia swirling in the currents of the me-first ethos of ascendant neoliberal late capitalism. People didn’t want to give a fuck. Say what you want about actions like the one at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral — personally, I would have been up for giving that lousy god-bothering politician in red a pink belly, but ACT UP didn’t do violence — but they made the needs, deaths, and lives of people with AIDS impossible to ignore of dismiss, even more than the FDA stuff.

Along with just the sorrow of the dead, there are the ways in which ACT UP fell victim to, in part, the success of its model. Ideologically, it was impossible to see the AIDS fight as done in 1993, when the group split apart- it’s wrong to see it that way now, pace Schulman’s new-gay-conservative bugbear Andrew Sullivan. But between the decentralization and the concrete/tactical orientation of the group and the many personal and ideological conflicts within it exacerbated by most of a decade of intense struggle, it was impossible to keep the group together. There was enough success that a critical mass of the movement —

most notably white gay men who worked in professions that allowed them access to good health insurance — would not take the fight further. Many ACT UP organizers assumed the next step would be single payer. Their goal was to save the lives of people with AIDS, and if they were going to do that, everyone with AIDS needed health insurance, otherwise many would die from lack of treatment. What a what-if! That would have taken more than die-ins, more than ACT UP could have brought to the table on their own, but if they could have held together a little longer… but it wasn’t to be. 

Well. I don’t think it was ideological, necessarily, but organizational. ACT UP was dedicated to the principle of militant self-organization led by the most affected- in their case, by people with AIDS. There are many good reasons for this. But when you run up against things that aren’t just “systemic,” to use the increasingly vague and overused word, but fundamental, the way that capitalist control of the healthcare system is fundamental to how our society operates, there’s a question of mass. It might not be enough to be dedicated, brave, to have the right answers. Quantity has a quality all its own. ACT UP wasn’t bad at working in coalition, but that really wasn’t it was built for, certainly not the kind of disciplined mass campaign socialized medicine would have taken…

The point here isn’t to slam ACT UP, though Schulman and the people she talks to say plenty more inflammatory things about the organization than that. The point is that the experience of ACT UP, and its legacy on the contemporary organizing scene, is complex. It’s not a simple story, the sort in which Hollywood loves to put handsome white heroes in leading roles (Schulman, one of whose novels probably got ripped off by mega-hit “Rent,” has a lot to say about media representations of the AIDS crisis). To my mind, it’s something both sadder and better than that. It’s a human story, of human weakness but also of incredible dedication, courage, and the love we call solidarity. We can’t just formulaically copy ACT UP, and I tend to doubt those ACT UP veterans still with us — and there is a heart-rending roll call of beloved dead movement veterans throughout the book — would want us to. But we can learn- and we’d better. *****

Review – Schulman, “Let the Record Show”

Review – Herbert, “Dune Messiah”

Frank Herbert, “Dune Messiah” (1969) – I like Dune! It’s ridiculous, but good. This is the first time I tried the first sequel. Different friends of mine say that different of the sequels are good, but disagree on which, and no one I know seems to think that all of the sequels Frank Herbert wrote are good… or that the many more written by his son, Brian, are any good at all. But I figured the only way to do it, if I was going to do it at all, was to begin with the beginning, so when I found “Dune Messiah” on a free pile, I picked it up.

It’s twelve years after the end of “Dune,” and Paul Atreides rules most of the human-inhabited galaxy (and if there are aliens, we don’t see them, though some of the humans get freaky enough). The Harkonnens, the evil clan that killed his dad, is foiled. The imperial family has been thrown down and forced to give one of their princesses to Paul in marriage (not that he does anything with Princess Irulan, only having eyes for his Fremen lover Chani). Paul’s Fremen warriors, the baddest dudes around, have spread the word of the Maud’dib in a jihad that has killed around sixty billion people. Most of the remainder worship Paul as a messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach (say what you want about Frank Herbert, he comes up with cool names for things and people), and he has some pretty cool powers, like being able to see into the future. His sister, Alia, can not only see into the future but also has had full knowledge of the lives of all of her ancestors she was in the womb! So she’s fourteen but, you know, more or less omniscient except when the plot dictates she not be.

The previous power players in the galaxy are upset by the rise of Paul. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood, to which his mother belonged (and she’s just in the wind somewhere), had put the pieces into place to make Paul the Kwisatz Haderach, but he refuses to do what they want. The old noble families, including the imperial family through his wife Irulan, feel dissent for obvious reasons. Less obvious are the motivations of the freaky specialized mutants, the Spacer’s Guild, who are like weird spaceship fishmen who take the Spice drug to steer ships through hyperspace, and the Tleilaxu, weird biotech people who make zombie-clones and often “bio-hack,” as people now say, themselves. I guess the Spacers want an independent source for Spice, rather than letting Paul keep his Arrakeen monopoly, but Herbert both makes them a pivot of the plot, but they’re also definitely the bad guys he respects the least.

Between them, these players hatch a plot to do in Paul and Alia. The plot is really complicated, and moreover, to the extent it plays out at all – to the extent that the good guys don’t use their prescience to see through them, and all the measures they took to prevent the prescience from doing just that – it mostly does in drawn-out, boring conversations. Paul is in a snitty little mood throughout. It turns out he doesn’t like being the Maud’dib that much. He doesn’t like being worshiped, or constantly having to deal with conspiracies, and is less than thrilled over how many people have been killed in his name by his followers. He doesn’t want to just let the noble houses/Bene Gesserit/Spacers and whoever win, especially because they want to kill him and others close to him. But in many ways, he wins via the expedient of staying alive long enough to walk away, and become a different kind of legend. 

But like I said, until some assassination attempts towards the end – which themselves are repeated, almost beat for beat, with different zombie-cyborg-assassins made out of friends of the family, if I remember right? – a lot of what happens in this book is conversation. The original Dune was also a bit slow and wordy. But there was more going on, and everything felt fresher. The strings show more here, the strain of a decently smart guy trying to depict a story of epochal geniuses with minds expanded beyond where humanity could go. In Herbert’s mind, that involves a lot of circular conversations made up of declarative sentences and high-nonsense philosophical aphorisms about power, fate, etc. Herbert had a better bag of tricks than others purporting to depict genius – Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Tom Harris from the thriller side of things – in that he stocks a lot of the genius less in what people say and more in how they observe things due to their super special vaguely-cybernetic training… but that can get a little old, too, especially when the plot does not move at the sort of pace you’d like. So this is a sort of middling effort. I’m thinking about whether it’s worth continuing, or just reading the wikipedia entries. ***

Review – Herbert, “Dune Messiah”

Review – Beran, “It Came From Something Awful”

Dale Beran, “It Came From Something Awful: How A Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump Into Office” (2019) – I’ve come to call it the Mark Fisher school of social criticism. Mark Fisher, for those of you unfamiliar, was a British cultural studies writer who wrote about contemporary culture, especially online culture. If you’ve heard the phrase “capitalist realism,” that’s one of his. His work has proven highly influential on many writers in the same areas, in terms of ideas, themes, and tone. I think it is fair to say, at this point, that he is the object of what could be called a cult (think more like the Marian cult or the cult around Foucault, not Heaven’s Gate). A lot of writers in the “online discourse hell” space hail Fisher as not just an influence, but as something of a prophet, a saint figure, complete with martyrdom at the hands of the force that Fisher understood as fundamental to contemporary life: the depression and malaise induced by late capitalist existence.

I don’t want to dismiss Fisher intellectually, and I don’t want to downplay people’s emotional attachment to a writer who they felt understood what they themselves were going through, and who died, leaving a lot of people feeling bereft. That said, the thought produced by Fisher’s epigones has a lot of severe weaknesses, and a meta-weakness- the cult of Fisher, for all of its wide-ranging criticality, does not do self-criticism very well beyond ritual invocation of its own fecklessness and inability to effect change. 

I’d like to say that this book encapsulates the Fisher school’s weaknesses and its strengths, but that’s only maybe a quarter true. It doesn’t have all the weaknesses of the Fisher school. “It Came From Something Awful” doesn’t have the wounded defensive quality Fisherite work often does, and doesn’t show the sympathy for the far right that often occasions displays of that defensiveness. Beran stumbles into other Fisher school mistakes, but not those, thankfully. The book’s strengths, on the other hand, are less that of Fisher and his epigones and more that of fairly solid, middle-of-the-road history or journalism: fine research, well-organized findings, the relating of an important and interesting story. I suppose where the Fisher school comes in at all is that the author’s embeddedness in some of its precepts undermines him, turns what could have been a great work into a decent one.

I avoided this book when it first came out for a stupid but honest reason: it’s title, subtitle, and cover all made it look deeply inane. But some commentators who I take reasonably seriously took this seriously, and for a while I was trying to keep up with altright-explainers, so I figured I’d give this late entry a try. 

Right off the bat, Beran distinguished himself from other writers on the subject (most notably Fisher-cultist turned “main reason people googled ‘social patriot’ circa 2019” Angela Nagle) by actually knowing what he was talking about. Talking to Nazis like Richard Spencer, or even the boot boys, is like looking at bugs in a terrarium. Actually going into their spaces, especially the fora, is more like levering open a rock and sticking your face into what’s underneath. Journalists and scholars don’t like it, and usually can’t tell when someone fakes it (the sheer lack of new information in “Kill All Normies” should have been a clue, but hey, it was 2017). But Beran not only did it- he had been doing it for a while, at least lightly. He was a habitue of the titular “Something Awful” and no stranger to the chans, especially in the early days. He actually talked to people involved, not just founder figures like “Lowtax” Kyanka, “Moot” Poole, and Fredrick Brennan, but everyday, anonymous users of the boards.

And it shows. Beran lays out a sensible, comprehensible history of anonymous forum culture. He starts with early, pre-web message boards like the Well — which tried allowing users to be anonymous, but quickly wrapped up that experiment — to the beginning of contemporary forum culture with Something Awful (I had friends who were big into it on the early aughts) to the terrible marriage of Japanese anime image boards and American entrepreneurial innovation we came to call the chans. 

In terms of interpretation of this story, Beran is on somewhat shakier ground, but makes some decent connections and points. His biggest point is about a conjuncture between the spread of forum culture and the death of counterculture. By the time the late nineties rolled around, every single counterculture since the Beats, including mutually antagonistic ones such as hippies and punks, and even those that eschewed the whole game, like grunge, had been co-opted, defanged, and commoditized by the overarching capitalist monoculture. Seemingly the only thing the culture industry could not sell, by the time Lowtax was starting Something Awful, was the rejected backwash of Gen X grunge ‘tude: cynicism, indifference, and a certain soupçon of fascination with gory death and sexual violation (it turns out that somebody could indeed sell those things, but I guess the fora habitues were past caring by then). 

I split the difference on this. It’s an unsubtle reading and ignores or misreads some important factors (I’m still rewriting my birthday lecture which covered some of this ground- patience!). But it’s not so wrong as to be unusable, and also probably represents something like the historical common sense of a lot of the people who helped make the forum culture, and at least part of the story as understood by many participants in it today (including, mutatis mutandis, the Fisher cult). 

One thing Beran gets, that a lot of writers both in and out of the internet-discourse fail to grasp, is that a lot can change in twenty years, and it’s not all meaningless signifier churn. At various points, the people on the boards bestirred themselves to do things other than swap funny or grotesque pictures, and abuse themselves and others. Anonymous grew out of 4chan, and while a lot of people pooh-pooh it now, whatever else it represented, it represented at least some people rejecting Gen Xer nihilism for some sort of collective, values-based project. And then, of course, various snitches snitched and it collapsed. A more organized movement probably would not have collapsed like that, but when you’re organized by whoever can talk the biggest on an IRC channel…

Into the gap left by both the decline of Anonymous and the collapse of the “hope and change” Obama dream — and I think a lot of us undersell exactly how high the hopes were for Obama because we don’t want to review how badly most of us, myself included, suckered — came the same sort of nihilism of the kind of people who, at the turn of the millennium, made mocking teenage suicides a sport… but changed. It got sharper and even meaner, weirdly more desperate, more violent. The rise of the incel culture seems to have been a leading indicator, that the nihilism was going to leave the realm of jokes and pranks and start getting bloody… and, for the product of groups of supposedly anything-goes jokesters, weirdly self-serious. I still sometimes try to imagine the reception on “the old internet” that I only watched from a distance to the idea that anyone was entitled to sex… well, between the rise of both internet porn and dating apps (the latter of which could be seen to quantitatively prove nerds’ inadequacy) and the egging on of cultural/political entrepreneurs like Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich, and eventually Trump’s man Steve Bannon, a new crew of culture industry vultures found ways not just to commodify a counterculture’s dissent, but to weaponize it. 

Here is where things start to fall apart in this book. First, so the blame doesn’t all go to the Fisher school, Beran relies way more on Hannah Arendt for his analysis of the right than makes sense. I tend to think this probably comes down to a mixture of simple… I don’t want to say ignorance, but maybe just unawareness of the way the study of fascism has gotten past/around the grand old lady, and the ways in which Arendt’s analysis actually coheres rather nicely with the hopelessness of the Fisher school. Even here, Beran isn’t completely off-base, and makes good use of some of Arendt’s ideas about déclassé upper class types allying with similarly deracinated lower orders to create fascist mobs, which suits the likes of Yiannopoulos and his gamer cohort to a T. But there’s some extreme flattening of historical patterns here that make it hard to see the differences between now and the periods Arendt writes about. I’m something of a lumper myself but it got a bit out of hand here.

This leads to the overarching weakness of the book, where it meets up with the weakness of the Fisher school of contemporary-awfulness analysis (and, in a weird way, Arendt). The Fisher school is so thoroughly invested in the all-encompassing awfulness of our lives under late capitalism that it can’t see anything else… including features of that awfulness that aren’t part of its pre-established menu of tropes and laments. Basically, they really, really don’t get offline. The further Beran gets from a screen (he laments “the screen” without getting into why it’s so much worse than “the page” or “the stage” or “the epic poem”) the less he knows what he’s talking about. Unlike some Fisher epigones, his hopelessness about/spite towards the left doesn’t lead him to hate on online libs/leftists to the detriment of his analysis. His chapters on tumblr are quite thoughtful. 

But leftist opposition to the altright, to Trump, and to other instantiations of the right-wing resurgence we’ve seen post-2008 didn’t come from, or even mainly from, tumblr teens and their concerns for personal validity. Hell, if you want to blame the internet for the many weaknesses of today’s left, tumblr wouldn’t be where I’d look- I’d look at Twitter, which Beran does little with, mostly treats as a neutral medium. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that not only is antifa not a group — and that “black bloc” isn’t one (from Philadelphia?? Beran claims) either — but that whatever concerns those of us who do antifascist direct action may share with the stereotypical tumblr-teen, they/we didn’t get into this because they/we were mad about racist Halloween costumes. To think this betrays the ways in which Beran — and here is where his weaknesses sync up most completely with the Fisher school — really cannot imagine a world apart not from the internet, but from his version of the internet, to the extent that even googling what black bloc does not seem to have occurred to him. 

Beran, unlike Nagle or some other Fisher acolytes, doesn’t add hatred and ax-grinding to the problems this intellectual inheritance brings with him. He does not seem to actively resent anyone who would actually try, however unlikely they are to succeed, to do something about our capitalist-depressive-realist state (and potentially show up the poster-philosophes in the bargain), which I’ve seen a lot of in online essays and comment sections. But the ways in which cynicism and the barest filigree of theory fill in for commitment to thoroughgoing understanding — which would imply much more work, in the archive and the long watch of thought, even if you don’t think it would also imply taking to the street, as I and my comrades do — did a lot to hamper his work. I’m probably making this sound worse than it is, but I think that’s because the good parts and the bad parts stand in the starkest contrast in this book. Moreover, the good parts are good in a simple way — they do the job — and the bad are better fodder for comment… perhaps reflective of the larger incentive structure motivating the fecklessness of the Fisher school. In any event, this book is better than many, for all of its flaws, but somewhat disappointing. ****

Review – Beran, “It Came From Something Awful”