Eugene Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship: Toward a Theory of Bureaucratic Political Power” (1980) – I have a feeling the Citizenry (become a Citizen of my newsletter, it is rad) voted for me to read this book out of two motivations: a minority are genuinely interested in how bureaucracy works, and a majority who thought it would be funny to make me read and review something with a title that sounds this boring. Joke’s on them! I love this shit. I tracked down this book and bought the cheapest but still rather dear copy I could find with some stimmy money. I had known about it for at least a decade, after seeing it in some “works cited” of interesting books.
I probably would not have noticed this in “works cited” were it not for the second subtitle (I basically refuse to have second subtitles in the headlines of my reviews, nonfiction authors should count themselves lucky to have subtitles, let alone fiction writers getting subtitles!): “The Organizational Lives of Hyman Rickover, J. Edgar Hoover, and Robert Moses.” What a trio! Hard charging bureaucrats who gave precisely no fucks and ran important parts of American state power at roughly the same time, Rickover was the “father of the nuclear navy,” Hoover ran the closest thing to a nationwide secret police force America ever saw, and Moses was “master builder” of New York, basically in charge of the city and state’s public infrastructure for decades. They weren’t the gray, colorless figures we associate with master bureaucrats. They weren’t exactly flamboyant like the politicians they coexisted with, like Roosevelt or Johnson, either. They were their own thing- the titular public entrepreneur.
This book belongs to what you’d call “historical sociology,” that odd by-blow of two fields you’d figure would maybe have more in common but reached a real nadir of mutual misunderstanding not long after this work was published. I’ve read some good historical sociology (like this book) but it’s not a good way to rocket up the field in either history or sociology, specializing in it. Essentially, what Eugene Lewis (a political scientist, according to his short, eccentric, one suspects self-written Wikipedia page) tries to do here is use historical examples to prove a social scientific point. He doesn’t do primary research (a big history no-no) and he doesn’t do anything quantitative or any fieldwork (a substantial social sciences no-no). Mostly, he talks about the careers of the three men, based on secondary sources (including Robert Caro’s legendary biography of Moses, “The Power Broker”), and fits them into a definition of public entrepreneurship. Public entrepreneurs both fit (uncomfortably) into their organizational molds and break them wide open, they expand their domains, they present a face of apolitical technical competence, they get old and stumble on new political realities, etc etc.
I shouldn’t give such short shrift to Lewis’s theory here, but A. it’s not why I read the book and B. it didn’t go anywhere. My understanding is that “Public Entrepreneurship” is respected in its field but that field isn’t huge and this didn’t spark a big, long-lasting conversation. It also came at an interesting time- 1980, just as neoliberalism was coming down the pike and bureaucracy went from being seen as a necessary evil to… well, here the story is funny. Neoliberalism is a famously slippery term, and people tend to associate it with a rebellion against bureaucracy and rules-bound organizations in favor for “thriving on chaos” in the marketplace, but recent research and arguments have gotten across the point that neoliberalism in fact thrives on, proliferates, rules and bureaucracy. But in any event, those bureaucracies wouldn’t look that much like those of the heyday of the mid-twentieth century. A “theory of bureaucratic power” that made a Weber-inflected take on those bureaucracies in 1980… that’s just bad timing.
But really, I mostly just found the descriptions and comparisons of how the three principals worked interesting and written in quite lively style, remarkable for social science. All three were tough- interestingly, the one from the actual military, Rickover, while a hardass when it came to his agenda, was probably the least of a son of a bitch of the three (then again, he probably wouldn’t have hesitated to flip that nuclear switch if the order came down, so…). Moses routinely destroyed neighborhoods to build highways, and Hoover, arguably, would be the one man to erase from American history if you only got one (I’m aware other people did worse stuff- but most of them would have been replaced by equally bad, roughly equally competent people, not the case with Hoover in my opinion). While Lewis makes notes of things like the lives destroyed during the red scare, he is ultimately more interested in bureaucratic form, how the three men managed new technologies and techniques and played politics, all while appearing apolitical. In many ways, that is the most appropriate portrait of these three men and others of their type, and I’d argue the type is worth understanding. The siren call of “just getting shit done”… not always enough to get an elected politician over the line, but it can provide a basis for power that slips the bonds of what is usually associated with bureaucracy (i.e. the notional source of the apolitical nature of the bureaucratic entrepreneur). Lewis admits his book is more of a jumping off point than a set of definitive answers- alas, I don’t know what jumped off from it.
One thing I found myself wondering- is this sort of power exclusive to liberal capitalist states? Would other bureaucratic setups nurture similar people under similar dynamics? It would seem they could- surely clever people played communist and fascist bureaucracies pretty well. I guess I’m wondering A. would such power dynamics inevitably exist in any system with bureaucracy, and could (should?) they be prevented and B. could you have, if not socialist, then social democratic public entrepreneurs within a capitalist system? Frankly, I have my doubts, though I have fewer doubts about the technical feasibility — some AOC devotee landing in charge of Head Start or something and cancelling their opponents on Twitter until they ran all of the country’s pre-K or some such — then whether it’d actually be helpful to socialism. I don’t hate bureaucracy but it’s not my preferred way to play the game. In this case, I very much am asking for some friends who I could see seizing upon such an arrangement were it possible… people love some sewer socialism… maybe my navy-man alter-ego in a work of fiction (who would no doubt greatly admire Rickover!)… anyway. An interesting and evocative book. ****’
I wrote a piece for Full Stop, which is rapidly becoming my favorite outlet for which to write. It started as a review of Tara Isabella Burton’s new book on millennial spirituality and religious practice, “Strange Rites.” It’s a provocative book, well worth reading, and summoned strange thoughts in me when juxtaposed with some of the other stuff I study, especially the contemporary right. Put it all together and you get this piece. Enjoy.
James S.A. Corey, “Cibola Burn” (2014) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Back to the Expanse! This time the drama takes place on a planet on the other side of an ancient alien wormhole. But humanity doesn’t leave the cynical maneuverings that characterize the Coreys’ (its two guys, James Corey is a nom de plume) gritty workaday space solar system as established in the previous four volumes. Some squatters, survivor of the collapse of a colony on Ganymede that we saw a book or two back, went through the wormhole first and settled a seemingly earth-like planet. Alas, according to the rules, an Earth-based megacorp has dibs. They can’t even agree what to call it! The megacorp wants to call it New Terra, the squatters call it Ilus. In any event, they start fighting. Who’s called in to mediate but Jim Holden, space-dad and classic perspective-dullard, the protagonist who has less character than all the others but whose dogged insistence on heroic goals drives the story forward?
This one is pretty fun, taking as its motto the old writing workshop advice, “chase your characters up a tree, and once they’re there, throw rocks at them.” The corporate security people and the settlers do tit-for-tat terror on each other. The settlers are desperate for a place to live, and the leader of the corporate team is depicted as a kind of Colonel Kurtz psychopath, except speaking in corporate tough talk rather than whatever Brando was doing, so Holden can’t get them to knock it off. In the midst of all this, the planet turns out to be less a planet and more a planet-sized factory made by the same long-dead intergalactic alien civilization that made the wormholes… complete with defensive systems. These systems go off one by one, creating additional headaches for Holden et al at an agreeably frantic pace.
The other perspective characters include Elvi, a naive corporate scientist with a big-girl crush on Holden, Havelock, a corporate security guy, and Basia, an accidental (he only wanted to do property damage!) settler terrorist. I guess talking about them is as good a place as any to talk about this book and colonialism. Various people have told me the show is a good, “subversive” take on the difficulties of colonialism. I haven’t seen the show — I want to get through the books first — but that’s not really how I see this book. The actual issues of colonialism aren’t really here, because there is no indigenous culture (unless you could the long-dead builders of the planet). There is some racism on the part of the corporate security people, who are mostly from cushy, established Earth, and the squatters, who are hardscrabble Asteroid Belt types, but that’s about it. If anything, there’s more of your classic inter-settler squabbling, like Elvi the scientist earning the ire of the settlers for trying to get them to do less mining (and pooping) so she can do more science on a fresh, untainted biosphere. The violence of both sides is understood as being about greed, sociopathy, and in-group loyalty, the kind of thing basically-good people like Basia and Havelock can transcend, not really about power and who wields it for whose benefit.
There’s still enough of the Coreys’s master, George R.R. Martin, here to make any politics beyond “people are generally bad, except for your (often chosen) family, who you should be good to and open to expanding” supremely unlikely.But that’s ok, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s fine for a scifi adventure to be a scifi adventure without a scathing political critique behind it. It’s almost heartwarming, seeing the authors gesture at a broader point but landing on the usual bromides about family and empathy… anyway, I actually think the Coreys best Martin in terms of delivering on promises, and I’m not just talking about that last ASoIaF book we’re not getting. I mean resolving plots in a satisfactory number in an acceptable span of verbiage, balanced worldbuilding — the concept of the Expanse is about as thin, conceptually, as that of Westeros, but the Coreys haven’t built as much on such shaky foundations as Martin has — and not automatically going for the most cynical/grimdark resolution every time and calling it “tragedy.” Elvi gets over Holden and it’s fine- in Westeros, presumably she’d die horribly. Havelock learns some lessons without getting tortured. Even Holden’s girlfriend, Naomi, a cardboard Strong Female in most instances, shows some vulnerability in a human kind of way. All in all, not bad. ****’
I published this piece in LARB almost two months ago but forgot to update here! It’s a review of Marc Stears’ “Out of the Ordinary,” which purports that a focus on “ordinary life” on the part of a group of British writers and artists (including George Orwell and Dylan Thomas) helped create a humane, effective center-left in Britain in the mid-twentieth century. I don’t “buy” it but it was an interesting and thought-provoking book. Also, Stears wrote a nice tweet about my review! In contrast to my rep in some quarters as an unforgiving ideological warrior, I do like to clasp hands across divides. It just turns out some divides are hard or impossible or not worth crossing. Anyway! Here’s the link. Enjoy!
Paul Thomas Chamberlin, “The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace” (2018) – The “new global history” makes its way from the archive-heavy “groundbreaking” texts that get a scholar through the door, to the more approachable, secondary-source-using works that help a professor get tenure (and if they’re lucky and have a good contract, textbook buys). Chamberlin did the former with his book “The Global Offensive,” about the PLO’s international campaigns, and is now doing this latter with a broad-scope look at the Cold War in Asia. It makes sense the Cold War is such a locus for global history, given that it took place around the world, and the archives are mostly intact, and in a variety of languages for all these scholars to show off their chops. It’s been a good time for Cold War scholars.
Chamberlin takes aim, though in a curiously unaggressive way, at two shibboleths of recent twentieth-century historiography. One is right there in the subtitle: “the long peace,” the idea that the Cold War constituted a peculiar time where conventional wars between great powers ceased, in marked contrast to the first half of the century. This was most strongly promulgated by the dean of Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis, though Gaddis, in this as in other instances, was always more of an affirmer of consensus establishment ideas than he was an innovator. It’s easy to see the Cold War as peaceful from Yale. It’s a lot harder from pretty much anywhere in the parts of the world that Chamberlin writes about and refers to as “bloodlands,” making another nod at another Yale historian with substantial crossover appeal, Tim Snyder (Chamberlin went from a job at the University of Kentucky to one at Columbia over the course of researching this book, for those playing the home game). Snyder’s “Bloodlands” was an interesting and frustrating book, understanding the regions between a Germany and Russia through a lens inflected both by an understanding of the central importance of mass violence and a certain liberal totalitarianism-school dingbattery that only got worse once Snyder got Resistance-brain after the Trump election.
Chamberlin reassures us he’s not having a go at Gaddis and I don’t recall him mentioning Snyder by name but there’s enough of interest here to retain us without academic backbiting. The central idea should be obvious to anybody: maybe we avoided the big nuclear blowout everyone was afraid of, but a lot of countries suffered terribly due to the Cold War. Particularly given the coincidence of the Cold War occurring during the collapse of the European empires, the conflicts that would have accompanied decolonization in any event became supercharged and freighted with meaning as the Cold War superpowers forced each conflict into the framework of bilateral — or at best, US vs USSR vs China trilateral — conflict. The Cold War’s gravitational pull — and especially the sheer determination on the part of the American side to assimilate seemingly every political event between 1947 and maybe 1980, if not well after, into an us vs them framework, and the money and force they’d throw into the project — drew in wars that had little to do with decolonization as well, particularly in the Middle East.
While some of this dynamic played out in Africa and Latin America, Chamberlin chooses to focus his efforts on Asia. This makes sense, as many of the worst conflicts occurred there, and enough of them happened that you get a solid arc of conflicts from the end of WWII right up to the nineties. Most of the book is made up of respectable capsule histories of Cold War conflicts running in an arc from Korea all the way to Lebanon. Chamberlin artfully balances concision and completeness, overarching theses and the details of the individual conflicts. It wouldn’t make a half-bad textbook with which to teach the Cold War.
The historical narratives Chamberlin threads through these conflicts include atrocious conduct towards civilians as well as the eventual downfall of both revolutionary Third World communism and of secular nationalism in much of the arc of conflict he describes. Most of the wars in Cold War Asia were civil wars, and one thing that has become increasingly clear in history is that civil wars are a special kind of hell (you have to wonder how much the fact that the US Civil War was understood as “chivalrous,” alongside the way the English kind of throw their civil war down the memory hole, contributed to the delay of that realization in anglophone history). These invariably become wars against suspect populations. In Korea, massacring suspect civilians was de rigueur when either side, the American-backed South or the communist North, seized an area, or retreated from it. Massacre was also common on the invariable “both sides” in Vietnam, to the point where many were surprised that after the communist revolutionaries final victory, their revenge kill count was “only” in the five or six figures. On and on.
“Both sides” doesn’t really cover it, though, because one side was typically a good deal stronger than the other, and that was the side that was backed by the United States. The Soviets and Chinese did not distinguish themselves with their regard for human life during interventions in Afghanistan, Korea, and Vietnam. But it’s clear, from this book and from the Cold War scholarship in general, that both material and ideological factors rendered American-backed parties in these wars both deadlier and more willing to use that deadliness indiscriminately. You want to see disregard for human life, have a gander at the conversations between Nixon and Kissinger about what their friend, the Pakistani military under Yahya Khan, was doing in Bangladesh in 1971, or the approving CIA memos of the mob slayings of hundreds of thousands of purported communists in Indonesia in 1965. You didn’t need to be a sociopath like Kissinger, though- just accepting of the Cold War establishment party line and not thinking too much, like most Americans involved in destroying Korea and Vietnam, in large part from tens of thousands of feet in the air or from an office somewhere, killing between one and three million in both places, mostly civilians. Even the (arguably) grisliest set of episodes in the book, the killing fields of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, took place with tacit American (and Chinese) approval, to “counter” in some backwards way, the (Russian-backed) North Vietnamese.
The international left won some pretty substantial victories in Asia during this period, mainly in creating and maintaining a communist regime in China and the victory over American imperialism in Vietnam. But it took a beating in doing so. Brutalized societies do not for utopias make. In many respects, our caricatures of Communist regimes as brutal and deprived gain their truth from the fact that all of them — not just the ones in the Asian bloodlands, either — went from long-oppressed, typically impoverished autocracies to war-torn messes to just left to their own devices. There’s limits to how much failure and oppression that excuses, but the point is that deprivation and violence, often enough inflicted by overweening foreigners (who think they’re doing you a favor in the bargain!), tend to elevate harsh, hasty decisions and those who are comfortable implementing them. The rest is history.
It’s questionable how much that factored in to the ways in which the third wave of Asian Cold War conflicts in the Middle East (after a first wave in Northeast Asia and a second in Southeast Asia) turned away from communism and towards ethnic conflict and religion, especially militant Islamism. It certainly didn’t help, in terms of confusing local socialist forces (do we favor China or Russia, etc?) or inculcating paranoia and divisiveness in, say, the Afghan left. Egypt and Arab nationalism is somewhat outside of the scope, or anyway the framing Chamberlin gave it, and while he doesn’t underplay the American hand in encouraging Islamist forces, he doesn’t quite nail how destroyed the Middle East left was by direct suppression, not just discouragement at how communism seemed hard and treacherous.
This brings me to one of the odder things about the book- what he counts and what he doesn’t as part of his “bloodlands.” Snyder was odd about this too, including relatively quiet Estonia but not bloodied Yugoslavia, but he had a thesis, double-occupation, Nazi-Soviet totalitarian interplay, to advance. I don’t really see what Chamberlin’s thesis would lose by including the Hukbalahap rebellion in the Philippines in the late forties and early fifties, or the “Malay Emergency” that ran from 1948 to 1962. I guess every pedant will find a gored ox in any book of this kind, and the book doesn’t suffer too much from their exclusion. It probably doesn’t help that neither war is that well sourced or widely written about, as I have reason to know. In fact, the main people who write about them are self-dealing counterinsurgents crowing about them as success for their model of war. Beyond them it’s tricky to find stuff. The British aren’t eager to talk about Malaya because of their usual impulse to hide their dirt; Americans aren’t eager to talk about the Philippines because it’s a confusing by-blow that doesn’t demand anything of them (not unlike Liberia in that respect). For instance, I can’t find a good casualty count for the Huk War. Details are a little better with the Emergency but not much. It could be they simply weren’t bloody enough for Chamberlin’s definitions? But among other things, they encouraged the western side in the Cold War to take a hard line in Asia…
Anyway, this is a pretty admirable work of history. It’s interesting to see the “bloodland” thing taken out of the context of totalitarianism arguments, most of which implicitly back Anglo-American power, if not all of its uses (often, totalitarianism-minders want that power to be used more aggressively, like North Korea hawks). It’s conceivable that this book is an instance in a kind of positional warfare on the part of soft-left (here meaning actual leftists who are cautious about revolution, not liberals) academics to use widely accepted notions — like that it’s bad to kill millions of people — to criticize the Cold War state and its inheritors, most of the states currently extant and the neoliberal capitalism that dominates most of them. That’s cool- I can’t help but imagine the slashing attack an Eric Hobsbawm or a Walter Rodney would make of the same material, but sometimes expanding the trench lines works too. ****’
Erik Davis, “High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies” (2019) (narrated by the author) – Reading (well, listening to) this book, appropriately enough given its content and tone, was an experience. Historian of religions Erik Davis landed this book right into two registers that produce very different emotional responses for me. One register is that of chewy, involved, critical intellectual history, a happy place for me, somewhere I feel both welcomed and challenged. The other register is that of mysticism, spirituality, and the particular chip on the shoulder of intellectuals who study esoteric subjects, a much more fraught and murky intellectual/emotional space for me. It is impossible to disentangle these strands in “High Weirdness” and pointless to try. In the end, the challenges involved in taking this book in have helped make it, for me, one of the best books I’ve read this year.
I locate an echo of my ambivalence in the three subjects around whom Davis structured his narrative: hallucinogen evangelist Terence McKenna, journalist and novelist Robert Anton Wilson, and scifi master Philip K. Dick. Before listening to this book, my feelings were reverence for Dick, distaste for Wilson, and for the most part a lack of interest in McKenna. In many respects, I took opposite paths between Dick and Wilson. Wilson’s “Illuminatus!” trilogy was passed around by the hippie/nerdy boys (gendered pronoun used advisedly) of my very hippie/nerd-heavy school. I got my hands on it at fourteen, enjoyed the first fifty or a hundred pages of historical references and sex, and then lost it. I picked it up again in my late twenties, and was distinctly unimpressed by the history, the sex, the libertarian politics, the prose style, and the general “ain’t I a stinker?!” tone of the work. I read Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” as an alternate history obsessed teenager. I liked it but didn’t really “get it” until I got into PKD more generally in college and reread it. As for McKenna, I only knew about him because a psytrance act I liked (don’t at me, they had some groove to them) sampled his lectures.
Did I change my mind about any of these impressions? Not really- maybe I’m a little more sympathetic to Wilson, learning about assorted personal tragedies of his, but that’s not enough to make me read more of him. But in many respects the men themselves are beside the point except as ideal types of “the psychonaut.” The word itself takes me back to attic rooms with boys tolerant of, but not always enthused by, my uptight company, shoving Chinese research chemicals from the internet up their noses while I sat by and prattled (knowingly) of tabletop role playing games and (utterly ignorantly) of girls… boys who are now men, many of them husbands, fathers, homeowners, and I’m very pleased to say some of them are still friends (it probably helps I got a bit less uptight). Anyway! Davis is a historian, methodologist, and champion of “the weird,” as both a topic of study and as a way of approaching the world. As I was in those attic rooms, I am ambivalent. Unlike my time in the attics, I am going to make a good faith effort to understand.
This is made difficult by a few things. In many respects, I came to what intellectual maturity I possess through interaction with the special bugbear of countercultural psychonautry- materialist critical analysis. Hippies need squares, and one suspects that goes both ways. Hippies and communists actually just don’t get on very well if they take each other’s premises even marginally seriously. They are incommensurate. I identify as a democratic socialist more than a communist, and my friends, then and now, interested in psychedelia identify even less with hippie-ness, but you get the idea. In college, I put down my few feelers to what Davis calls “consciousness culture” in no small part by reading The Baffler, which took great delight in skewering the conjunction between counterculture and capitalism that loomed so large during the first internet boom. I wasn’t a punk, and if anything, I’d rather listen to the 13th Floor Elevators than to Minor Threat any day, but many of my teachers were punk. Be fast, be mean, hit vulnerable spots… among other things, it seemed a better set of principles for someone escaping nerdery (let’s throw another subculture in the mix!) in my circumstances than “tune in, turn on, drop out.”
And then there’s the chip on the shoulder that students of esoterica who get as far as Davis has gotten — well-known journalist, history PhD — in “straight” intellectual life. I get it… kind of. Academia can, indeed, be stultifying. Studying stuff off the beaten path can get you frozen out, especially considering grim economic realities (though esoterica can also be flashy enough to attract grant money and undergrad eyeballs, it’s worth noting). But there is a distinctly passive-aggressive hippie-macho quality to the way psychedelic advocates express the chip on their shoulders, and Davis is no exception. He broadly implies that academics don’t engage more with the esoteric, the “weird,” and the psychedelic because they are afraid of having their minds blown, that they have to stay within the rules of consensus reality because they’re too chicken to venture outside.
Well… lord knows academics are often cowardly enough. But I’ve also known a lot of people who would do god knows what with their bodies and cerebellums but are terrified of critical thought or honest self-examination. They’ll brave the ayahuasca jungle but not the therapist’s couch, take aboard criticism from fellow impaired miscreants before listening to an editor. Moreover, speaking as a materialist, what’s more comforting- the idea that there is a big magical universe that takes human consciousness as a key element, or the idea that there is nothing other than the material, that there’s no magic, that when we die we rot, and human consciousness was probably an evolutionary adaptation to make us better hunter-gatherers? I could just as easily say psychonauts, heads, and freaks are the cowards, retreating up their own assholes, refusing the trek into the desert of the real. That’s certainly something like what The Baffler would have said back in its glory days, if they could stop laughing at what they saw as countercultural clownishness long enough.
It’d probably be pretty good if I got into what’s actually in this book, huh? Because it’s good. It’s really good. Even the parts where I was ambivalent made me happy because they made me think. Davis dealt not just with three “psychonauts,” but their most outre flights of fancy, on their own terms but in a way that made them relevant even to my materialist ass. It would have been easy to focus on “Illuminatus!” and “The Man in the High Castle,” and Davis does discuss them, but as a prelude to jumping into the deep ends with his subjects: the McKenna brothers’ efforts to build a… psychedelic musical computer/philosopher’s stone? in the Colombian jungle, Wilson’s entry into (and out of) a paranoid “Chapel Perilous,” and Dick’s “2-3-74” experience, which dominated the last part of his life and helped produce the Valis series as well as his impenetrable Exegesis. Davis’s own exegeses of these are bravura performances of insight, sensitivity, and erudition, borrowing from vast arrays of historical and theoretical literature. This is already a long review so I’m not going into detail, but take it from an only intermittently-sympathetic interlocutor, they are quite good.
But there is a certain extent to which these exegeses, for me, were more like (noble, accomplished) work-showing for the larger contextual points Davis makes in “High Weirdness.” As far as the exegeses themselves are concerned, they serve as proof of concept for Davis’s takes on how to approach “the weird.” Neither confirming nor denying whether his psychonaut’s experiences were “real,” applying Bruno LaTour’s actor-network theory where objects are constituent, active parts in the construction of truth, borrowings from Derrida, there’s a lot going on here. Some of it is genuinely innovative- some of it reminds me of that other habit of esoteric academics, using “what do you mean by REAL?!?”-type rhetoric to keep alive the idea (often a childlike hope- not that of the six year old desiring magic power, but the twelve year old who doesn’t want to put his magic kit away) that the supernatural is real… more the former, really, I guess I’m just sensitive to the latter, especially from a guy who likes to take his shots at the intellectual courage of materialists… really, I’d say methodologically, Davis is at his best in incorporating “trash culture” and subculture histories into serious intellectual history, but that could just be reflective of my particular interests.
Historically, Davis makes some provocative claims for his subject. McKenna, Wilson, and Dick were proud freaks, outsiders… but their thoughts and actions weren’t so far outside of the mainstream as that might imply, especially not in the seventies. I have some disagreements with Davis, here, though probably more about emphasis (and arguably misprision) than fact. Davis wants to upend the seventies-as-decline narrative, one of the few things both the left and the right can agree on. All three of his subjects were involved, to one degree or another, with the sixties movements, and according to many readings, their retreat from politics and entry into paranoid delusion (if we choose to look at their experiences that way) goes along with the decline-into-individualist-malaise theme of a lot of seventies historiography. I basically agree with this notion, but also think it is ripe for some productive disagreement. If nothing else, the psychonauts didn’t (always) understand the situation as a decline, especially not the comparatively hearty Terence McKenna and the increasingly smug right-libertarian Robert Anton Wilson… the depressive (and actually brilliant, as opposed to half-smart like Wilson or just sort of questionably relevant like McKenna) Philip Dick had a tougher time. A lot of people thought they were going in the right direction. I might disagree (so might PKD!) but it’s worth understanding their perspective.
Davis takes us home towards the end of the book with a discussion of “the network society,” a concept that starts taking on valence more in the seventies and which the three subjects prefigured, and especially McKenna participated in. Whatever credulity Davis might display towards the claims and especially the premises of psychedelia, he is no naïf about the magic of networks, showing how from the beginning, whatever supposedly liberatory, freaky-Deleuzian (to bring in another theorist he name-checks) quality networks might have had, they were also systems of deception, fuckery, and control- and it was impossible to disentangle the two. This he displays in the case of hippie, early network enthusiast, and murderer Ira Einhorn’s both digital and social network of futurists and freaks. I know a thing or two about how cold the countercultural imagination can be, from that same school often described as a “hippie” school. When I enrolled in the late nineties, this school openly advertised itself as being the school for the network society, but there wasn’t much peace and love there. The founders were libertarians, ruthless Zionists, pigheaded supporters of the Iraq War, and one of them even made the local news for how much money he donated to Trump’s reelection campaign. In a gesture at contemporary relevance that I don’t think Davis necessarily needed to justify his work, he ties in the altright, “meme magic” etc., in an impassioned call to understand “the weird” before it destroys us.
Well… as it happens, I know a thing or two about fighting fascists and cut my teeth in fighting the “altright” variant. We beat the altright by dragging them away from fora and memes and into the real. We challenged them to come fight on the streets, with the means of politics, violent and otherwise. They tried, and we beat them so hard that no one calls themselves “altright” anymore. There are plenty of Nazis, but that specific strategy is played out, dead, because of us and what we did, in reality, relying on masses, weight, truth. If you ask me, that points to a good way to study the weird- not necessarily with an eye towards beating it (though learning to break anything down is often quite instructive), but by relating what it says about itself to assorted tests of consensus reality. You don’t need to be “reductive” to do that. You don’t need to grade the weird like so many undergrad essays. Just throw it around and see how it reacts. If these ideas are so interesting and important, they should survive.
Along with “psychonaut,” Davis uses an interesting word, mainly for Dick- “hermenaut” (not sure of the spelling because audiobook), navigator of the word and the methods of reading. Maybe it was my odd sensitivities, but it seems like Davis had an odd relationship with Dick. It turns out that Davis knew Terence McKenna “Bob” Wilson- Dick died when Davis was fifteen, and they did not meet. Davis knew of Dick’s work and helped edit the Exegesis, and maybe this herculean task introduced a certain frustration with the great man that Davis doesn’t have for his old, now dead, friends McKenna or Wilson. It got borderline disrespectful, from where I sat- more emphasis on Dick’s romantic failings, the phrase “mendacious imagination” came up… but “hermenaut” is interesting. It’s worth noting Dick had given up on psychedelics, mostly, by the time he had his vision in 1974. He still did plenty of drugs, especially the proletarian uppers needed to keep him writing. All three subjects were voracious readers but Dick had a reading (and writing) habit that put the other two to shame. There’s a reason (beyond academic appreciation, which Dick has more than the other two) for the Borges comparisons.
Forgive me for another reference to my youth. At my weird hippie-nerd high school, I was known for my refusal to use drugs, and a boy I knew who was quite enthusiastic for them asked me how I intended to expand my mind. As far as he was concerned, the options were either psychedelic drugs or decades of meditation- I didn’t want to do either, so what was I going to do? “I’m going to expand my mind by reading,” I told him. I don’t relate this story to “own” the boy. I don’t actually stand with the Baffler crowd in dismissing other ways of learning and other existential concerns out of hand, though I may not have much time for them myself and utterly refuse to be shamed for that. But I’ve chosen to explore the noosphere — the realm of human thought, which Davis refers to once or twice but wasn’t really part of his or his subjects approach — instead of whatever dimension the psychonaut chooses. Truth be told, I think it’s been good for me, and has actually granted some of the benefits, like enhanced connection with others, that more esoteric strains of consciousness promise. Dick’s hermenaut imagination helped raise him from his “tomb world” of depression and paranoia (funny how the whole range of “spiritual” thought avoids the realities of clinical depression like it’s a damn leper, like it doesn’t disprove the idea of a good universal consciousness…). I think that way of doing things has helped me, too. And that’s part of why, despite my ambivalence, despite occasionally rolling my eyes, I can only feel gratitude to Erik Davis for producing this work. *****
Taylor Branch, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968” (2006) – “Non-violence is a tactic” is a phrase I’ve heard intoned many times over the last few years. Left unsaid but implied by context is the fact that non-violence is not the only tactic. People who say the line usually also include the implication that non-violence is not a strategy, a goal, or a politics. Like a lot of intoned phrases, “non-violence is a tactic” tries to foreclose on an argument ahead of time, because in a key moment in American life, non-violence was more than a tactic. It was a strategy, a goal, a politics, a tactic, a discipline, and, in language that has now become hackneyed but still retains some of its power, a dream.
“At Canaan’s Edge” is the last in a trilogy of books by journalist Taylor Branch covering the civil rights movement, largely through examining the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. These are big, long books written for an educated but popular audience. As such, they are relatively thesis-light and narrative-heavy. But coming to the end of King’s life, and with it, Branch heavily implies, the end of the “civil rights” portion of the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century, the theses become more pronounced.
The theses are not the strong points of the “America in the King Years” series. Branch identifies with the civil rights movement in a way it’s tempting to attribute to his being white, liberal, and well-off. His version of King is not the nice Santa Claus figure embraced by conservatives and by many liberals alike. Among other things, Branch, writing a substantial biography, does not steer away from King’s increasingly vociferous criticism of capitalism towards the end of his life, or the way white liberals from LBJ on down turned on King as King made his opposition to the Vietnam War clear or as the movement set its sights on de facto segregation in the north. But even in the late date of 2006 (the first volume of the trilogy came out in 1988), and even with caveats about the warm personal relationship between King and figures like Stokely Carmichael, Branch still holds to the old idea that the rise of the concept of black power did much to end the civil rights movement that a reader of the series had, by then, invested a good two thousand five hundred pages reading about.
Ultimately, Branch charts the declension narrative of civil rights going into 1968 “more in sadness than in anger,” as the saying goes. Carmichael and the rest, veterans of hard work and harrowing persecution in the struggle in the Deep South, had good reason to embrace black power and more robust self-defense. Struggle, in general and in the peculiar pitch of non-violence, wears people down, King included. Just, for reasons Branch doesn’t make clear, King could stand it longer than the others, could keep the non-violent faith, commitment to multiracial alliances, and a form of patriotism that even his closest allies could not. Then he was murdered, and that was that.
The stuff one comes to this kind of book for — narrative history — satisfies more than the theses do. Branch tells the stories well and in a lot of detail. If there’s an issue here, it’s that Branch gets a little too ambitious and gives us a lot of what’s going on in Vietnam along with the black freedom stuff. I get it- it was all part of the largest gestalt, and Vietnam helped drive King’s allies in the White House, President Johnson included, away. But we didn’t need all of the details of strategy meetings with the national security council for that. I think Branch wanted to make Johnson out as a tragic figure. I can even buy it, a little- Johnson probably would have preferred not to have inherited the Vietnam mess, and focus on his poverty programs. But ultimately, a man killing hundreds of thousands to stay in power… not that tragic. More just bad. And it slowed the book down.
Still and all, this trilogy was well worth reading. Like I said before, I probably knew more about black power movements than I did about civil rights. It’s almost as though universities assume that you get so much of (a bastardized version of) King and civil rights from elementary school onwards that it’d be redundant to teach it seriously in history classes.
What, beyond firming up the details instead of it just being a blur of compelling black and white images, did I get from reading these books? Well, I do think non-violence is best understood as a tactic, or really more of a strategy. Moreover, I think in many cases fighting is appropriate and justified. I certainly think the parody of King’s strategy that’s invoked by the media and on-the-ground peace police at street actions isn’t worth much. But I don’t think it makes sense to let the matter rest there. Reading these books, it is impossible to accept the picture of naivety, passivity, or even cowardice that leftists sometimes allow to develop of the civil rights movement, a kind of negative of the (frankly, often patronizing, naive, overly-sunny) picture of black power militancy we have created. Whatever their mistakes and flaws, these were serious people with a serious strategy, aware of alternatives, who made their choices with their eyes open. You don’t need to believe in non-violence in any capacity, and you certainly don’t need to accept Branch’s occasional dip into patriotic bathos, where he insists King was doing no more nor less than the Founding Fathers, to accept that.
Practically speaking, I think the main takeaway from King, the SCLC, and the “civil rights” side of the (debatable, heuristic) “civil rights-black power” dyad isn’t the power of non-violence but the power of discipline. The sort of non-violence King used took immense discipline, and no amount of militant sneering can efface that. That discipline meant endless work on recruiting, educating, organizing, and mobilizing many many often previously-unpolitical people. The movement’s inheritors kept the fire but did not, generally, keep the discipline, as though by coming out from behind the shadow of “Lawd” (as some SNCC hands called him behind his back) King, they could relax, let out long-suppressed breath. Sometimes it seems that they thought that dispensing with non-violence meant dispensing with any discipline beyond (often arbitrary) chains of command and adherence to lines. That didn’t answer, couldn’t answer, to the strains. I think we need to learn that discipline again, even if we don’t accept all of the premises King, Branch, or anyone else added to it. ****’
Chinua Achebe, “Arrow of God” (1964) – This is the end of what they used to call Chinua Achebe’s “African Trilogy.” This isn’t really an adequate descriptor of the three books (“Things Fall Apart,” “No Longer At Ease,” and “Arrow of God”); they take place in a specific part of Africa (Nigeria, and mostly the Igbo parts in the southeast), Achebe wrote more books set in Africa, it’s not like there aren’t other African trilogies, etc. What “The African Trilogy” stands as an adequate descriptor for is the way in which Achebe, and his first three novels in particular, broke through to white readers in a way that African literature never had before the early nineteen-sixties.
It also helps that Achebe had real talent. He’s equally at home in describing Igbo village life, British colonial administration, and the people whose lives occurred uncomfortably between the two. “Arrow of God” might be my favorite of the trilogy. Here he tells the story of Ezeulu, high priest of the main god of an Igbo village during the period between the world wars. Ezeulu is in the familiar “African Trilogy” position, trapped between village life and “modernity” as represented by the British. But Achebe also resists facile dichotomies. Like any great tragedy, Ezeulu also makes his own bed with his pride and conviction that he can control events.
Being my kind of nerd, I really love Achebe’s depictions of Igbo society. Never didactic, he throws you into the deep end of Igbo complexities. The British never liked the Igbo (save for some missionaries who liked their relative openness to Christianity) in no small part because Igbo culture resisted the sort of informational/governmental grid any colonizer needs to throw over the people it oppresses. The British felt (rightly or wrongly) they “had a handle” on the Muslim societies in the north of Nigeria, or for that matter, the Zulus or the Afrikaaners they fought in South Africa. They might fight, but the British understood fighting. They really couldn’t wrap their minds around the way Igbo did hierarchy. It’s not to say they didn’t have hierarchy- they had plenty, and Ezeulu was near the top, locally. But these hierarchies were flexible and overlapping and could be dissolved and reformed relatively easily, and with seemingly very little loss of authenticity to the hierarchies thus transformed.
Case in point in this book- Ezeulu’s god, Ulu. As far as I can tell from this book and a few others, in Igbo tradition, the Igbo raise their own gods. Sometimes, they memorialize (or catalyze?) important events- a war, a famine, the life of someone important. Ulu is the civic god of the village federation where Ezeulu lives, a sometimes-uneasy alliance got together to ward off attacks from another village and sealed by the raising of the god Ulu. Ezeulu is in charge of the rites that affirm this god and lives in a big compound with his two wives and many children who he terrorizes with his outsized personality.
That the Igbo could raise new gods to honor events within historical memory mystified the British some, but could be filed under various racist rubrics. What really threw the colonial overlords was Igbo governance. Not only was there no central leadership to the ethnicity as a whole, but even most of the villages didn’t have a single recognized leader. “What are Africans without a chief?” you can almost hear them crying out, and so under once-legendary colonial administrator Frederick Lugard, the British simply found important (or just self-important) men in each Igbo village and appointed a chief, someone they could talk to and channel orders through. Predictably, this didn’t work well. Among other things, the Igbo were as flexible in terms of village structure as they were in religion, and formed and reformed villages and confederations as suited their needs, with the British always trying to catch up.
None of this is to imply the Igbo were some anarchist society, except maybe in the sense “anarchist” sometimes translates out to “lots and lots of meetings.” The villages, confederations, clans, religious societies et al of Igboland are forever disputing internally and externally, in the telling of historians, ethnographers, and writers like Achebe. If the British were less racist, they’d probably see the Igbo way of doing things as not too dissimilar from their favorites, the ancient Greeks. There’s a great emphasis on performing public good for public glory to accrue to one’s village, one’s lineage, oneself. War, wealth, and worship are the main ways to do that.
Ezeulu competes in this world of rivalries in a haughty and sometimes off-handed fashion. He’s already pretty high up when the book starts. But his unyielding stubbornness and conviction that old ways are best doesn’t help him. Rivals in the village get it to go to war over Ezeulu’s objections, and when the British put a stop to it, these rivals make Ezeulu out to be a stooge for the whites. His kids are scattered in different directions, some dissolute on palm wine, some looking for other ways out, some just scared. He sends one son to learn the ways of the British, including Christianity, but the son gets in too deep and causes some major problems. The British offer Ezeulu one of their made-up chiefdoms and he scores some points back home by refusing it, but by then, it’s too late. He tried to regain control over the villages by delaying a key harvest festival, but that only makes things worse. No one is going back to the old ways.
All of this is related in fine, crisp prose. Achebe weaves together Igbo dialect, rich in allusion and aphorisms, with the modernist prose that probably helped him get through the door of the Anglo critical establishment. I’m curious to read his subsequent books, including the one that got him in trouble with the Nigerian government and began his long exile, and his work on the Biafra War, which saw that government (with the help of the British) brutalize the Igbo people. ****’
Ottessa Moshfegh, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (2018) (narrated by Julia Whelan) – I don’t know, man. I tried. I really do try with these works of recent literature, especially those written by women. It used to feel kind of good, thinking I was above contemporary literature- now the sheer lack of interest to be found there gets me down. It doesn’t help when it makes me think I’m just not capable of relating to the experiences of people different from myself, even if I know that’s a way publishers guilt people into buying their books…
A gloomy start to this review, I suppose, but this one wasn’t all bad, not as bad as some other recent examples of capital-L Literature I could cite. For one thing, Moshfegh’s prose isn’t bad. A little typical at times- a lot of lists of three items separated by “ands,” but hell, it’s only three, compared to the great galloping mock-heroic and-lists we’re used to seeing that’s downright restrained. And for once, a somewhat interesting concept: a young woman in turn-of-the-millennium New York tries to zonk herself out for a year, on the idea she’ll come out the other side better off.
The unnamed narrator is a woman in her twenties living in the fancy Upper East Side. She has an art history degree, conventional beauty, inheritance money, and an annoying best friend named Reva who’s enough of a “Jewish American Princess” stereotype to be borderline antisemitic. Her parents are dead upper middle class jerks (probably not actually rich enough to have left her enough money to live in the LES, but who cares, it’s the early aughts). Mossfegh depicts her as having taste. She certainly sees through the pretensions of the art world when she works for a gallery downtown, in what are probably the book’s best passages. For the most part, though, all her sensitivity gets her is an increased sense of disdain for everything and everyone around her. No wonder she wants to xanax herself into sleep for a year, though the assumption that that will help somehow is at least as delusional (or anyway should be seen as such) as Reva’s crash diets to attract a man’s attention.
Look… I’m persnickety enough to by now be a little bit sick of the “I’m so tired of hearing about privileged people in literature!” thing. It’s not like writing about the underprivileged is some magic ticket to good writing (and how many of these same people gatekeep people away from writing about people other than themselves?). But… there’s a reason, above and beyond political bullshit and posturing, for why that critique rings out so often. I’m reminded of Tocqueville talking about how what pissed the sans-culottes in the French Revolution more than anything wasn’t the power of the nobility, which had been declining for years, but the perks and privileges and swanning around the nobles still did, even as they were completely useless even in their own terms. The ultimate perk of the world elite at this moment is for their individual pain to matter. That they continue flaunting this perk as they do nothing — show that they’re capable of doing nothing — while the world burns…
I mean, I get it. I get that rich and beautiful people get depressed and that depression sucks no matter who it happens to. I’ve known enough rich kids to know their lives aren’t all great. I’m not a preacher looking for a moral, a charitable foundation looking to means test those I’d dole out my reading fee-fees to, or a consumer looking for stronger jerks on my tear ducts. What I am is a reader looking for something interesting. This has a reasonably interesting premise- world-despising privileged lady tries to blot out world. I can get down with that. But it becomes a lot less so when you realize the shape of its arc: family-inherited trauma to extreme behavior turns to crescendo to bliss-out.
Spoiler alert- the narrator’s quack psychiatrist (the voice actress makes her sound a good amount like Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos) gives our heroine a made-up drug that takes away time in neat three day black out chunks. After some neat planning, the heroine takes enough of these to black out several months without dying or doing anything that fucks her up too bad. Then she feels fine, enjoying the little things, except a little sad that Reva dies in 9/11. Maybe the point is that the rich and the pretty always bounce back? Reasonable enough, I suppose, but it still feels like something of a waste.
I wonder if what’s really going on here isn’t a certain finickiness. The narrator does gross things — pukes, blacks out, lets various bad men grope and have sex with her — and is generally “unlikable” in a respectable rebuke of the reader-whine you hear so often about “likable” characters. But maybe I’m just missing something here- I think blotting out life, I think three things. I think suicide, I think the Internet/video games, and I think opiates. The narrator does consider suicide at various points, but only if her restoration-through-sleep plan doesn’t work. The Internet (and the really addictive online gameplay it allows) was much less of a thing when this book was set. But for all the narrator’s outrageous drug abuse, Moshfegh is very leery about opiates, having the narrator only pop one or two “stray” vicodins. That’s interesting to me. The woman wouldn’t need all of her complicated prescription cocktails if she got Doctor Feelgood to give her oxys. It’s almost as though that’s too dirty, though, or would make this an “addiction” book (it’s not as though the drugs she does take are so “clean” or non-addictive)… you get the feeling that Moshfegh avoids them, and suicide. This book dips a toe in the sort of world-abasement that even the New Yorker crowd can get down with, all things considered, but steering clear of the stuff that’d really scare them… anyway.
I’m probably making this book sound worse than it is. It beats Sheila Heti, Moshfegh’s cousin in high pointlessness (another problem with both books- they expect me to care about visual arts, when the visual arts have been instructing me not to care about the visual arts since before I’ve been born). It beats Bret Easton Ellis, creator of the narrator’s sibling in New York-based rich kid madness, Patrick Bateman. Moshfegh doesn’t try our patience with lousy writing and stupid tricks like Heti or Ellis, which is a shame, as all of them wind up in the same netherzone. ***