Review – Zipperstein, “Pogrom”

Steven Zipperstein, “Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History” (2018) (read aloud by Barry Abrams) – “My grandmother brought that pendant with her from RUSSIA, from a POGROM, JEFFREY!” I think it was the first season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where Susie shouts that at Jeff after a foster child lifts a beloved family heirloom from their home. The name “Kishinev” doesn’t come up, but historian of Eastern European Jewish life Steven Zipperstein attributes the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 as the event that lodged the word “pogrom,” and certain ideas of what the word constitutes, into historical consciousness, well beyond the Moldovan backwater where it occurred.

Why this massacre, and not others, Zipperstein asks? Why did the Kishinev pogrom become this tipping point, that figures from Vladimir Jabotinsky to W.E.B. Du Bois would attach many (often more or less fanciful) meanings to? There’s an extent to which Zipperstein undermines his own point when he says that Kishinev helped lead to a false impression that pre-1917 Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement was wall-to-wall pogroms, while also asking why this one pogrom would be elevated above others… but such are the risks of this kind of cultural history. Really, any amount of pogroms other than zero is the wrong amount, as I’m sure Zipperstein would agree. And we don’t really get why Kishinev became the flashpoint for world awareness of the brutality of Russia, towards its Jewish inhabitants and towards its people in general, other than the usual answer- concatenations of historical circumstances, actors with agendas shooting their respective shots. 

The facts of the case are that one day, in 1903, Moldovan Christian inhabitants of the provincial city of Kishinev, sparked likely by an interaction between Moldovan children hassling Jewish adults and the Jewish adults rebuking them, formed mobs and attacked Jewish homes and businesses. Something like forty-three Jews were killed. Zipperstein’s investigation leaves the realm of the frankly ticky-tacky – wondering why they tagged Kishinev with the massacre, when really it all happened within a few blocks, is not that interesting of a question, in my opinion – when he gets into the process of making Kishinev and pogrom household words. It was basically a matter of contingency that as many people came to Kishinev as they did to investigate the pogrom. Zipperstein focuses on two. Hiayim Bialik came to Kishinev because his (at the time) small and beleaguered group of religious Zionists sent him to report on it. Michael Davitt, an Irish nationalist journalist who had a habit of pissing people off (more than usual for Irish nationalists, even), also made his way to Kishinev to write a report for the famously sensationalist Hearst newspaper empire. 

Davitt and especially Bialik’s writings from Kishinev had a profound impact on how the world would understand what happened there, and what it all meant, for Jews, for Russia, for Europe, for people the world over. This was a time when relations amongst disparate and unequal communities that lived with each other were under strain all over the world, and people were looking for answers. 

Probably the most notable cluster of agendas and answers hung around Kishinev were those related to Zionism, and particularly to Zionism’s depiction of the Jews of the diaspora. Cartoonist Eli Valley’s “Diaspora Boy and Israel Man” comics have only begun to explore (after decades of complicit silence in the Jewish community) this dynamic, and arguably, the poem that Hiayim Bialik produced after his extensive investigation of the pogrom, “In the City of Slaughter,” is the paradigmatic example of Zionist hatred for Diaspora Jews- for, that is, Jews like themselves, at least for those who partook of the dynamic before the first generation raised in Israel. Much of the emotional weight of the poem lies on the image of Jewish women being raped by Moldovan gentile men while Jewish men – husbands, brothers, sons, fathers – hid. This, and numerous other images of Jewish passivity, were pounded into the heads of Zionist youth from the day Bialik published the poem to the present: “In the City of Slaughter” was a standard in the Israeli literary curriculum, something like how American schoolkids are expected to memorize the Gettysburg Address, in Zipperstein’s telling. The solution to this supposed weakness and failure of Jewish manhood, in the Zionist worldview, was to start over again in Israel… and, the unsaid part, find their own people, the Palestinians, to ride roughshod over, to harden themselves through oppressing. We have seen what that means, more and more clearly as the years progress. 

From Bialik’s own notes – he was a meticulous notetaker – we know that in at least some instances, Jewish men in Kishinev did flee the mobs and leave women relatives behind (the audiobook producers made the peculiar choice to allow the voice actor to read a block quote from one of these women’s descriptions of her experience in a kind of weepy, lightly-Yiddish-accented, womanly-pitched voice, which I wish they had not done). We also know that the woman he drew much of his imagery for his central scene of sexual assault told him, explicitly, that her husband fought her attackers until he was beaten unconscious, and that she fought, too, none of which shows up in the poem or in Zionist imagery of Diasporic Jewish weakness. Neither did Bialik, or most other reporters from Kishinev, discuss how Jews organized for self-protection. There were whole neighborhoods where neither the mobs, nor the police who protected them, could enter, because there were armed and organized Jews protecting them- and organized basically ad hoc, too. Riots are some of the more chaotic, “dynamic” situations you’re ever going to encounter, so it’s hardly a surprise that different people and groups of people break in radically different ways. Anyone trying to tell the story is trying to impose order on a basically chaotic event. You can – we are compelled to – come up with something. But in that chaos is also opportunity. What began as an attempt to alter linguistic politics – “In the City of Slaughter” was a major advance for secular(-ish) Hebrew poetry, as opposed to Yiddish or gentile-language Jewish writing – turned into a major node into the self-definition of a whole people and their history, and a pretty dark one. 

The impact on the world outside of the Zionist movement was also interesting, though perhaps less revelatory than Zipperstein argued. This is roughly the Michael Davitt half of the story, though the man’s writings don’t loom over how Americans, Europeans et al reacted to Kishinev the way that Bialik’s poem does over Zionist understandings of Jewish identity, gender, and violence. Davitt was an odd duck, no one’s idea of a philo-Semite, possessed of some strange race ideas but the kind that wouldn’t go much of anywhere, given that one of them was a burning hatred of the English, who more or less ruled the roost at the time. Davitt was writing for the Hearst papers (he might have been blackballed from most papers, including Irish ones, closer to home, for being annoying and weird), and said papers did what they did and sensationalized the crimes committed there- accounts of hundreds or thousands dead, streets run red with blood, etc etc. This wasn’t Davitt’s faults – whatever else he was, he was a very thoroughgoing reporter – but Hearst will do his thing. 

The contrasts between reality and perception here are, to my mind, less stark and less revelatory than that between the world depicted in “In the City of Slaughter” and the actual Kishinev pogrom. Yes, papers reported an inaccurate number of dead, but 43 dead, thousands assaulted, many of them raped, and hundreds of homes and shops burnt is no picnic. You could argue that the attention paid to Kishinev gave ammunition to antisemites. One of the lead antisemites of Kishinev, who arguably had more of a hand than anyone in creating the atmosphere that led to the pogroms, was also one of the writers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious anti-semitic forgery that lays down the ways that Jews supposedly manipulate most of modern life to the detriment of gentiles. The contrast between the reality of Kishinev – which of course antisemites downplay well past what the record will support – versus the reporting, and the upswell of condemnation for Czarist authorities, seemed to many anti-semities to justify their antisemitism- obviously, the Jews run the media, why else would everyone be so up in arms about a few dead shopkeepers, Moldovans will Moldovan, etc. etc. I mean… I don’t think Zipperstein accepts this logic, but to be honest, entertaining it at all, pretending that what anti-semites do and say and really anything that Jews do have a straightforward one-to-one relationship, is an odd read to me. Though, you have to figure that media-unsavvy provincial weirdos like the Kishinev anti-semitic publishers must have been thrown for a loop by this early example of the power of global mass media…

Similarly, it’s intriguing how the reporting from Kishinev helped inspire both black and Asian activists in the US – Chinese groups were the first non-Jewish groups in the US to donate to victims of Kishinev, and the founders of the NAACP cited Kishinev as an inspiration (that must have calmed the nerves of anti-semites!) – but maybe not the mind-blower Zipperstein presents it as. There are important differences between the lynch law that many people of color and immigrants faced in the US at the time, and the pogroms of the Pale of Settlement… but there were also some important similarities! And it kind of seems like solidarity is a good thing to build? Zipperstein doesn’t condemn it. I’m not sure what he’s doing with it. Maybe, as a historian who has immersed himself deeply in the life of Eastern European Jews in the centuries before the Holocaust, Zipperstein can’t help but rue the ways in which much of global culture has reduced that whole life to what happened at Kishinev, making it the central image of a whole way of life for millions of people. I get that. I guess I’m an organizer more than a historian of Jews and Judaism, so to me, it’s a step in the right direction… anyway, this is a pretty good book with some odd turns. ****

Review – Zipperstein, “Pogrom”

Review – Felker-Martin, “Manhunt”

Gretchen Felker-Martin, “Manhunt” (2022) – This book has made quite a splash! It’s a post-apocalyptic horror novel where the three most prominent characters are all trans (two trans women and one trans man) who have to make their way in a world ravaged by “T-Rex,” a disease which causes anyone with enough testosterone to turn into ravaging mindless mutants. A lot of the reviews of this book put their emphasis on the bloodiness and violence in it. Surely, a story where two of the main characters hunt zombified men and cut their testes off to extract the estrogen they need for them and other trans women to avoid turning into said zombies (I’m enough of a dummy about endocrinology I didn’t even know you got estrogen from testes! Learning!) can be said to be pretty choice as far as violence is concerned. I’m a dude who doesn’t quail from written, or most visual, depictions of violence, especially violence in the heat of combat, so that didn’t bother me too much. Body horror does gross me out more, and Felker-Martin, herself a trans woman, does fine work with the particulars of the T-Rex disease, the semi-conscious cancers, the way it deforms men (and trans women who cannot get what they need in time).

Considerably more interesting to me than the blood-and-guts horror elements are the political and interpersonal horrors of the world Felker-Martin makes. She says she wanted to dramatize – she uses the word “melodrama” as a compliment – what trans women face in the world, the ways their bodies can turn against them in visceral, horrifying ways, and the ways others seek to harm them. With the others, there’s a quite strict gender line in terms of how the cis express that sadism: men are mindless mutants who rape, kill, cannibalize- you can almost feel bad for them, they just can’t help themselves. Women, for their part, have chosen to imitate pre-T-Rex men, their exclusions, their hierarchies, their militaries and religions, their secret police, and aim all of that towards trans women. The real villains in the piece are TERFs, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who form fascist militias who look to make themselves queens of the wasteland. Felker-Martin, in the fine tradition of Sun Tzu (and Tony Soprano’s reading of same!), has found the most choleric opponent of all time, the online “gender critical” types, and has irritated the shit out of them. They’re mad, folks! I’m not sure if we’ve heard about the book from the other type of woman Felker-Martin paints in vivid, spiteful (in the most complimentary sense of the word) colors, rich, vaguely-progressive, kind of Elizabeth Holmes-style girl-boss types, but they probably don’t read the same social media feeds that TERFs do. 

For most of the book we follow Beth and Fran, a pair of trans women who used to know each other in high school, and who now wander the New England countryside trying to survive. Beth is a big tough former jock type who’s handy with a bow, Fran is a pretty, petite gal with the medical training to help keep them alive and find the stuff they need. The body horror can be gross, the horror of being hunted is tough, but really, the grimmest stuff for me was the inter-trans interpersonal stuff, the fraught relationship between working-class Beth, who cannot pass as a cis woman, and the more middle-class Fran, who can. Everybody talks about doing the right thing, being there for each other, respecting each other’s identities until the chips come down, and then it turns into gender essentialism, heartbreak, people getting brained by falling air conditioners, and other things no one wants to think about. Things get more complicated still when Robbie, a trans man who’s been wandering around sniping rampaging cis men, and Indira, a cis woman who’s their friend and a skilled scientist (she turns the balls into estrogen), enter the picture. It’s “found family” but not in the lame Joss Whedon sense- it has all of the claustrophobia and barely-suppressed despair of real found family, found under the circumstances such families are generally found: a struggle for survival. People pair off, off and on, in ways that make some happy and some less so, all in the context of this awful situation. 

On the run from the TERFs, led by an enforcer with a bad habit of sleeping with trans sex workers, the foursome take a job with a “bunker brat,” the aforementioned girl-boss, who took her family money and built a GOOP-ified survival bunker into the New Hampshire hillsides. Naturally, the bunker turns out to suck pretty bad, but equally naturally, it also dangles the sorts of promises that such setups do to get people involved- money, safety, acceptance (for some). In the end, the characters need to battle both the bunker brats and the TERF militia for survival and for a potential future where they could thrive.

So… this is “taking the eagles to Mordor” level criticism, but my cis self did wonder the whole time… Beth and Fran are worried that if they don’t get enough estrogen, they will get T-Rex and face a fate worse than death. They’re trans women. Why don’t they remove their testes? Fran is at least partially motivated to do some bad things when the bunker brat holds out genital replacement surgery to her. Removing testes is a lot easier, people did it all the time back when before antibiotics etc. We learn that at least some people do that, and that the TERFs actually make boys who are young enough not to have enough testosterone to get T-Rex either get castrated or get killed. I figure that’s a hint- that the TERFs do it, they create a kind of caste of jannissaries out of emasculated boys, so it’s probably bad. I’m not sure I get why? I’m a cis man. I want to have my male genitalia. If it were a choice between not having them and still having them but becoming a disgusting mindless zombie, I’d choose the former! I’d straight up Thomas Aquinas the situation. But then again if I have to live in a shitty post-apocalyptic world, I’d probably just choose a quick death before either… 

So, we run into the limits of experience, here. I do not know what it’s like to be trans. And I try to learn about it without asking a bunch of specific, prying questions, so, I tend to learn things in kind of an indirect way, among other things by trying to listen to trans people (and other people with radically different life experiences) in my life. I wonder if that’s what makes people mad about Felker-Martin’s work- an unapologetically trans voice, one that conjures a world where trans people are at the center, not marginal figures for pathos or diversity points, and not needing to over-perform — to avoid tweaking the irritable, for instance, or to answer every question a dumb cis dude reader might come up with — to establish validity. It doesn’t make me mad- I like to see it. Some of what comes with it leaves me wondering, but that’s not too bad, and it’s an inevitable companion of the limits of experiential knowledge. 

We also run into the limits of horror, or, horror and me. I’m not a big horror guy! Like anime, video games, and numerous other cultural touchstones of the people around me, horror and me passed like ships in the night. At the end of the day, any type of writing is selling something. Nonfiction tends to sell a thesis. Fiction tends to sell feelings. Probably, due to a mixture of scaredy-cat-ness and pedantry, I often don’t buy the feeling of horror, at least not in a thrilling way. I’m a reasonably smart boy, dealing with this stuff at a remove, so I can say stuff like, “well, plenty of eunuchs got along just fine back in the day, I’d just lop my balls off!” A bit like a golden age scifi hero of instrumental rationality (except their authors usually were anything but- you figure a Heinlein hero would torch galaxies rather than slip that girdle over his oat tote), and ultimately just as out of tune with what anybody wants to hear… but, here I sit. 

But that’s not to say that nothing in books scares me. Maybe this is trite, but the interpersonal (and, to an extent, the political/social collapse stuff) is scary, and Felker-Martin does as well with that as the writers whose stuff in that vein makes up part of my personal canon. Felker-Martin loves melodrama more than John Kennedy Toole, Charles Portis, James Cain, Doris Lessing, and other favorites of mine who explored the impossibilities and imprisonments of communication, desire, the condition of being human with other humans… but then again, Toole and Cain surely weren’t strangers to a more grand guignol style of emotional failure and cruelty… anyway! A fine, compelling work, even if it’s a genre the offerings of which I’m less receptive to than others. ****’

Review – Felker-Martin, “Manhunt”

Review – Jonas, “The Gnostic Religion”

Hans Jonas, “The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity” (1958) – It’s a commonplace, and a true one, that a lot of the tropes we assign to villains in fiction coincide with stereotypes that Christians often hold of Jews: sneaky, treacherous, cunning, possessed of a combination of physical weakness and ugliness with danger and a certain allure. I’d add another set of villainy-tropes that map onto an essentially religious divide, and these are associated with Gnosticism, or anyway, European culture’s memory of Gnosticism. Secret cults, underground in both social and geological senses, dedicated to esoteric (but not overly complicated, so as to overwhelm the reader!) belief systems at odds with orthodoxy, intimations of weird sex and other lifestyle practices, convinced something is essentially wrong with the world and, moreover, that maybe we ought to act accordingly… we see plenty of all that in bad guys in fiction, film, comic books, etc.

We don’t know that much about Gnosticism because its opponents, the Christian Church (this was before it split off into Catholic and Orthodox branches and well before the Reformation), eradicated pretty much all Gnostic groups from the face of the Earth. For centuries, most of what we “knew” about them came from whatever inquisitors chose to jot down about their victims before destroying them. About a decade before philosopher Hans Jonas began writing this book, the Nag Hammadi corpus, discovered by archaeologists in Egypt, had started filtering out, providing us with almost all of the direct primary sources on Gnosticism we have. Seeing as Nag Hammadi was just one respectable cache of documents, it was a huge find but not comprehensive. We’re still missing a lot, texts but also, crucially, context to a lot of what we do have about Gnosticism. 

Arguably, the whole category of “Gnosticism” is more of an artifact of orthodox Christian persecution, the ideas and practices they lumped together as they proscribed them, than of anything having to do with the beliefs of those they persecuted. Indeed, the literature these days seems to be in a place where they almost regard the term “Gnostic” as more trouble than it’s worth, a lump where there ought to be splits (admittedly, I get this impression mostly from one (1) podcast, but hey, I’m a modernist). 

Well… I gotta admit… there is a part of me that thinks that the “reception history” of the Gnostics is almost more important than whether or not they were truly a unitary group. Note, I do think it’s important to try to understand what they actually believed. But… they’re gone. Gone, gone, gone. All those sects with all those odd and vaguely sinister-sounding names – Valentinians, Basilideans, Sethites, Marcionites, Manicheans, on and on – are gone, and even if some internet weirdos say they’re going to adopt their beliefs, get the band back together again, it’s not the same. In most respects, Gnosticism is more important as a shadow of Christianity than it is in its own right. 

Hans Jonas was a student of Heidegger’s in pre-WWII Germany, one of a group of Jewish students of the loathsome dwarf master and who went on to big careers, including Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse (I read a book by a skillful but pedantic intellectual historian yelping about how they were illiberal, illiberal all, tainted by the master! “Well, duh! Who cares?” It was the nineties, or anyway the eternal nineties of the liberal mind…). He left when the Nazis took power, swore he’d only come back to Germany as part of an army to defeat them- and lived up to his promise as part of the Jewish Brigade in the British army. He may have denounced Heidegger, but he didn’t denounce all of the dimensions of the philosophical explorations Heidegger called for, encouraged his students towards. 

Practically speaking, this means that Jonas makes much broader analyses than is common in ancient history today, and one gets the idea was becoming common back then, too. Thank god! Yes, there’s a need for the cautious, carefully source-bound histories that are now de rigeur, the more so the further you get from the presence. But there are readability and relevance questions involved, and history that’s too tightly tied to primary sources — especially when there’s not a lot of them in a given area, and some of them of indirect relevance — risks turning into pointless antiquarianism.

In my mind, that impassioned but rigorous — really, more impassioned and rigorous, in the best of this sort of work, the two don’t detract from each other — multidimensional analysis that characterizes the best German (and German-inspired) historical thought is probably the best approach we moderns can take to the history of Gnosticism (outside of straight up fiction approaches, maybe). Jonas begins with a discussion of the Greek Mediterranean in which Gnosticism arises, a meeting place of cultures from India to Spain and which participants reached well beyond. Among other things, the Greek Mediterranean became the cockpit where competing ideas not just about religious content, but what religious form — what religion constitutes, how it regulates action and thought — would look like for vast swathes of the human planet going forward.

Christianity was one product of this setting. So too was its shadow, Gnosticism (Gnosticism deserves to be seen as Christianity’s shadow, much more than the bad joke of Satanism, half of which is just misappropriated, garbled Gnostic ideas and tropes anyway), even as Gnostic movements would become important in places well away from the Mediterranean. Beyond whatever errors antiquarians might ding him for, Jonas comes closest to intellectual traps when he ascribes ideas as uniquely belonging to given cultures- this a Greek idea, this Persian, that Babylonian, etc. But by and large, he avoids essentializing, which you’d fucking well better in the insane stewpot of peoples and cultures that was the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East at the time. Rather, better to think of these ideas as forms, structures of thought molded in given environments that came into contact with each other, combined, re-formed.

Then we get that favorite German intellectual pastime: classification. We go through the various Gnostic subgroups based on their attitudes towards where their central concern — error, imperfection, evil — comes from. Persian-inflected Gnosticism, like Manichaeism, which understands evil as primordial, a darkness always coexisting with good, what Jonas sees as Syriac Gnosticisms which hold that a germ of imperfection comes from iterative layers of creation by increasingly imperfect spiritual creators, Marcion’s Christian-ish Gnosticism, etc etc. 

Jonas doesn’t stint from showing off what primary sources were available, giving us bits of Gnostic poetry, scripture, and lore from Nag Hammadi or from Christian polemicist accounts. And what lore it is! Alongside the questions the Gnostics asked — pretty fundamental ones that Christian apologists, to my mind, really don’t answer that well — it’s the lore that has attracted such figures as Jorge Luis Borges, whose essay on Basilides the False probably helped launch more interest in Gnosticism than any other document of the twentieth century. What Jonas calls “Syriac Gnosticism” especially had colorful, strange, uncanny stories attached, made all the more dreamlike by how fragmentary they, and our knowledge of their contexts, are and is. Multiple layers of creation guarded by the spawn of a blind idiot god, where you needed to memorize thousands of passwords to let your soul ascend to its true home beyond anything like the ken of this world; the incarnation of Wisdom as a woman tempted into creating a fallen material world out of a desire to imitate her impossibly remote, perfect father, only to fall further and further into the world’s degradation (including incarnations as Helen of Troy and as a Tyrian sex worker) who must be rescued and restored to free humanity from this false, wicked world…

Because, let’s face it- how the Gnostics fit in to the world of late antiquity, what happened to them, all the ins and outs and specifics… they’re important, no doubt, and we should encourage work that is more granular than what Jonas does, attentive to material culture, linguistic analysis, etc etc, stuff that Jonas either didn’t have access to or care to do in his broad analysis of Gnosticism. But unless we’re gonna invent time travel any time soon, those gritty details are less important for the general historical writer than the things the Gnostics represent. There’s the aspect where they represent the dark, the shadowy, the other, the villainous, all those tropes we talked about earlier… but there’s also a way in which they articulate, arguably more than any other cultural force in western, maybe in human, history something important. Common to all Gnostic faiths is the idea that this world is not our home- that there is something essentially wrong not (just) with people, but with Creation. Christianity puts original sin on a lady, an apple, and a snake- Gnostics ask the obvious question: why ladies, snakes, apples, etc., if an all-powerful all-good being had a say in the matter? Why any of this? Something stinks. 

To me, this suspicion is an ineradicable part of the human inheritance. We can imagine other worlds, and we can reflect on this world, and we can see gaps between the two, for better and for worse. Gnosticism is, whatever else it is as a specific phenomenon of Mediterranean antiquity, the expression of that gap… and you can argue that Christianity was the channeling of the thoughts that result from the gap into a set of channels that various people understood as theologically and, dare I say it, socially and politically acceptable, shutting off dangerous lines of enquiry. It’s way too much of a stretch to attribute real revolutionary potential to Gnosticism. As it existed, it seemed to oscillate between ascetic withdrawal and hedonistic excess. Google contemporary Gnostics and you’re in the world of new age nonsense, a notch or two away from QAnon, complete with online grifters- and there was always a carnival barker element to Gnosticism, as seen in the career of Simon Magus. 

Amusingly, one major right-wing thinker of the twentieth century, Eric Voegelin, did try to attribute the rise of more or less every ideology to the left of, say, Alexis de Tocqueville, to a sub rosa embrace of Gnosticism! But pay any sustained attention to what actually successful revolutionaries are like, and you don’t see much Gnosticism there- which, indeed, seems to disappoint some of my more… aesthetically-inclined friends. For the revolutionary, like it or not, we’re stuck with this world. And part of this world are the feelings and thoughts Gnosticism expressed, and a truly ruthless criticism of all existing has to take it into account. You’ll find few better ways to take it on board, in my opinion, than reading Jonas. *****

Review – Jonas, “The Gnostic Religion”

2022 Birthday Lecture: Notes Towards an Intellectual History of Generation X

2022 Birthday Lecture: Notes Towards An Intellectual History of Generation X

By Peter Berard

I – Generational History, Vernacular History

There are generations for which it would be possible to write a fairly “straightforward,” “standard,” “elite” intellectual history. Prior to the watershed of the First World War, commentators restricted the concept of “generation,” as a coherent unit of analysis, to the articulate portion of the population, the ones who left written records, that is, to elites- the usual actors in intellectual history. These generations often took the form of people who were a given age for a specific, bounded historical event. Take “The Generation of ‘98,” the generation of Spanish intellectuals that came of age around the same year that the United States seized most of the remnants of Spain’s overseas empire. The term mostly refers to intellectuals, writers and philosophers like Miguel de Unamuno, Antonio Machado, and Ramon del Valle-Inclan. The term “generation,”’here, makes little reference to the mass of the Spanish population born and living at the same time, and was never meant to.

Such an approach will not do for Generation X. This is not because Generation X lacks intellectuals. It has the same complement of them any generation has, and some fairly good ones, too- there’s a number of fine historians in that age cohort, I know. The approach won’t do because of changes in what we mean when we talk about of generations. These, in turn, reflect and were determined by changes in the larger spheres of cultural life. For this reason, and for others, we must turn to what I call “vernacular history of ideas,” or “vernacular intellectual history,” if we are going to start to get a grip on what Generation X means. 

I have toyed with other terms for it, usually swapping out words like “popular,” “demotic,” “extra-curricular,” “extra-mural” (as in, outside of the walls of the academy), but I think “vernacular” works best. For centuries, depending on the part of the world in question, vernacular language, the types of language spoken in homes, fields, and markets, was generally not the language of serious, engaged thought. Sacred languages, learned mostly by elites and special castes, seldom used for quotidian business or personal life – Latin, Greek, Slavonic among Christians, Pali in the Buddhist world, Sanskrit in India, pre-Zionist-revival Hebrew among Jews, specialized forms of Arabic and Chinese – were the language of scholars. There were some times and places of intellectual ferment in the premodern world where the vernacular language was also the language of scholarship – Plato’s Greek would not have been that different from the Greek spoken by most Athenians, or the Arabic of many of the great thinkers of the flowering of Islamic philosophy from the people in the bazaar – but the assumption that scholars will speak and work in the same language as their host society was not one anyone could make prior to a few recent centuries. 

It wasn’t just snobbery that led to this division within languages. Scholars believed that the linguistic qualities of vernacular language suited these languages to vernacular purposes, and that the languages they used in scholarly doings were suited to the proper subject of scholarship, which they understood to be the divine and eternal. Sacred languages had specialized vocabulary and grammatical structures that seemed more suited to discuss abstract ideas and unchanging verities in a rigorous fashion. Often enough, people believed these languages to be the tongue with which God himself spoke to humanity. Vernacular languages, on the other hand, were the language of the contingent, the chance-based, the slippery, labile, unrigorous, of the “restless motion” that Thomas Browne observed in the nematodes and gnatworms. 

I would put it to the reader that most intellectual history discusses, as it were, intellectual history in the register of the sacred scholarly languages of old. This is true even when a given work of intellectual history exclusively concerns itself with intellectual artifacts written in vernacular languages, i.e. almost all of modern intellectual history, now that the sacred/vernacular writing distinction has mostly collapsed. Most intellectual history, that is, concerns itself with ideas produced by professional producers of ideas. These are often academics, but even where the subjects never held an academic position, they are usually the producers of intellectual material that academics would read as part of their work- well-regarded literary artifacts, serious philosophy, etc. 

These works — both the mainstream of intellectual history, and the works they draw from and analyze — tend to ask questions about the sort of issues that once would have been deemed appropriate to the sacred languages, and usually take approaches that reflect that orientation. They grapple with ideas that seek to illuminate high-level problems, whose authors intend them to last the test of time, to be applicable outside of the welter of context and contingency. Even where determinedly secular, as in the history of, say, post-Cartesian science or post-Marx leftist movements, the orientation towards the eternal, towards something that points towards an order that transcends the mundane and quotidian, lingers in intellectual history. 

As it happens, the intellectual history of ideas produced by people we could call “vernacular,” that is, people who produce ideas, but whose primary social roles is not to produce ideas, often deals with the same transcendent topics – life and death, good and evil, morality, metaphysics, the right ordering of societies – as the most determinedly “sacred” philosophers. Arguably, contemporary vernacular thought is more concerned with the sacred than academic thought is these days… but, I would put it to you that even the religious speculations of the Five Percenters, the metaphysics of the New Age (or, darker, QAnon), and the thoroughgoing, whatever else you’d call it, political theory of the Sovereign Citizen movement can still be called “vernacular” in this “vernacular-sacred” dichotomy I am using. Even where the thinker in question takes the transcendent as its subject matter, it still usually uses more of the approach of the vernacular. It speaks vernacular language, thinks vernacular thoughts, applies vernacular operations to its subject- not always exclusively, but reliably. Especially given the collapse of the sacred-vernacular distinction between different languages, and the rise of mass education that this collapse helped enable, concepts and vocabulary from the academic realm find their way into vernacular thinking… and vice-versa. That said, the walls of the academy make for a decent rough and ready demarcation point for our purposes. 

Vernacular thought does not belong strictly to the poor or downtrodden, nor does academic or sacred thought belong strictly to the elite. The records most billionaires choose to leave of their thoughts would be the subject of vernacular intellectual history, even if they mix in half-remembered lessons from the colleges they dropped out of. The grad student who served you your coffee today has likely written work that would fit in well into traditional academic intellectual history. To be absolutely clear, I do not subscribe to any model that purports that the contemporary academy can easily be slotted into the role that the Catholic Church or other religious institutions did in times and places where their political and cultural power waxed, and certainly do not mean to suggest that vernacular literature is, always and everywhere, populist, subversive, or anything other than linguistically and structurally inclined towards the contingent and contextual. I also do not see one tradition as superior to the other. I do tend to find vernacular thought a little more interesting, and more of a challenge in the historiographical sense. 

Let me propose a literary metaphor: most intellectual history, almost all of it in the sacred/academic mode, resembles, in subjects and structure, canonical literature. Some intellectual history recapitulates the literary theme of the quest, extended efforts to overcome difficulties to attain some goal. Others resemble the classic bourgeois novel of marriage and inheritance, with its overwhelming concern for reconciling feeling with legitimacy. Still others, like concept histories, echo modernist and postmodernist explorations of form and medium. 

Perhaps this is vain, but I think a worthwhile vernacular intellectual history more closely resembles genre fiction, and in particular, the two forms of genre fiction that most reliably mount a challenge, both to their readerships and to literature and society in general: science fiction and crime fiction. From science fiction, vernacular intellectual history can draw countless examples of how to understand and depict strange worlds, and a century of experiments in the art of making the familiar strange and vice versa. From crime fiction, we can take the methodology of both characters and authors, the use of manifold, in some cases specialized, unpredictable, or improvised, tools and techniques to illuminate obscurity — who is the killer? — or pry open what has been denied to us — how are we going to get these jewels? 

This could just be own taste, but many of the best mixtures of scifi and crime came about in times fruitful for the study of vernacular ideas: Bester’s “The Demolished Man” as the McCarthyite freeze began to thaw but before hype overtook the sixties, and Dick’s “Ubik” as the era spiraled out of anyone’s control; Gibson’s “Neuromancer” at the gloaming period that wasn’t quite the Cold War and wasn’t quite the End of History; the work of writers like Madeline Ashby, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ayize Jama-Everett in our confusing time. It feels… right, somehow. 

II – The Structure of Feeling

Intellectual history as a subfield has its giants, lineages, debates (such as the one between whether we ought to call it “intellectual history” or “history of ideas”), and so on. Vernacular intellectual history doesn’t really exist as a sub (sub-sub?) field with all of those accoutrements, so we try to collect own forebears catch as catch can. One I would name is the great Welsh critic, novelist, and historian Raymond Williams.

Raymond Williams belonged to a group of brilliant British Marxist historians in the mid-twentieth century: E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and so on. Unlike these luminaries, Williams came from a working class background. He grew up in rural Wales, the son of a railroad worker, and he spent almost as much time working in adult education as he did teaching at Cambridge. Perhaps this has something to do with Williams’ abiding interest in acquiring a synoptic view of cultural moments in history, understanding how all of the relevant parts of a culture at a given time operated to create a coherent whole, very much including what we could call “popular,” or even “vernacular,” culture. Williams was one of the first people to open up popular culture as a field of sustained academic study. One of the terms he created to describe what he studied was “structures of feeling.” This phrase has made its way into general discourse, though often in vague and unhelpful ways.

You can see why it might get vague- how do you make a structure out of feelings? I think it’s important to think of the structure of feeling less like a physical structure and more like a medium of communication- not the structure of a barn, but the structure of a TV network. The structure of feeling is all of the infrastructure – ranging from widely-held societal values, to artistic works, to the actual physical infrastructure of communication and its influence on how ideas are communicated – that allow for some things to be communicated in a broader community in a given time and place, and which render other things impossible to communicate. The structure of feeling is the way historical conditions express themselves in a given cultural period and vice-versa. 

Two things are worth noting here. First, in his 1961 work “The Long Revolution,” Raymond Williams, when introducing the concept of “structures of feeling,” specifically cited generations as examples, arguably the paradigmatic example, of a structure of feeling, a means of communicating values and ideas that shift with the times and that are not formally established, or even consciously learned. The next is that Williams stood at a cusp, of sorts, in how generations were understood. The aforementioned elite idea of generations, as being made up of those who went to universities or were university-aged together at a given time when such distinctions were only for the elite, eventually gave way to a more broad-based idea of what a generation was, inspired by such society-wide common experiences for given age groups as world wars and global depressions. 

So! The works of Raymond Williams should provide a model for studying generations, Generation X included, right? Well- yes and no. Williams is certainly a model in terms of breadth of scope, sensitivity and thoughtfulness of analysis, and the interweaving of the cultural and the material. But I think it is something of a weakness of his generation of Marxist scholars that they essentially tried to turn the vernacular into something like the sacred- think of E.P. Thompson’s line about rescuing the history of the English working class from “the enormous condescension of history.” It’s hard to overstate the importance of the project of social historians like Thompson, Williams, and the others in their cohort mounted to explore the lives of common people in history. But they did this in large part because of an ennobling instinct. As Marxists, they believed the working people are the protagonists of history. Arguably, they had the highest – one might say most sacred – goals of any historians of their century.

Raymond Williams in particular sought to embed all meaningful culture into a communicative framework, where the communicants, the framework itself, and Williams himself in explicating this framework were all elevating the practice of communication – the basis of all organized life, starting from the cellular and on to whole human civilizations – to greater and greater heights. As a Marxist and as a man dedicated to the working class from which he came, he believed that these heights were only attainable if the people as a whole participated in this ever-scaling journey up the heights towards perfect communication and comprehension, hence his efforts to wrest intellectual history towards a broader base outside of the academy. 

It’s not so much that I disagree with any of this – though many of my main disagreements within Marxism are of the teleological variety – so much as I’m intrigued by the possibilities of other approaches. At the heart of my approach to vernacular history lies this supposition: that miscommunication is as important, as critical to the making of culture, if not more, than communication. Every medium of communication, which Williams treats as, if not solely existing for the purpose of communicating truth than mainly existing for the communication of sincerely meant ideas, is also a medium for misprision. Any medium for communicating truth is also a medium for propagating falsehoods, intentional or unintentional, elaborate or plain, aimed towards a wide variety of others or towards self, or simply yawped into the universe. In short, we need to take the lesson of the internet, the supposedly neutral and free communication forum-of-fora that turned into… well, the internet… to Williams’s concept of the structure of feeling. 

Raymond Williams specifically cited generations as examples of structures of feeling, the kind of structure that allowed for some communications to have a kind of meaning and impact within the structure that the same communication could not have outside of it. He discusses generations both in the elite sense – generations of writers, scholars, other opinion-forming types – and in the then-ascending mass sense, the idea that being born in a specific time unites everyone born in said time, not just the people who went to college together.

Among other things, self-conscious generational definition was ramping up to a fever pitch as the Baby Boom generation approached adulthood simultaneously with Williams’s work in this area. Between Williams’s own blessings, and the ways in which we have all seen generational discourse be used for obfuscation, bullshit, salesmanship, ideology, and simple cretinism, I think looking at generations as structures of feeling is as good a place as any to introduce some of the muck of misprision into the gleaming palace of communication that Williams sometimes wrote as though structures of feeling are. 

III – Some Basic Lineaments of the Case of Generation X

Let’s start with a basic premise, then, that will root the generational structure of feeling where it belongs, in the fertile muck of misprision: despite being notionally based in time of birth, generations are not born, they are made. Yes, there is such a thing as shared experience based on being a certain age for certain events or phenomena. But as the case of Generation X will demonstrate, the concepts of generations that are promulgated by writers, artists, and thinkers invariably create major exclusions within their age cohorts. As such, it joins numerous other identity categories of dubious origins, such as race and nationality, but lacks the gravitas of history, or millions dead as the case may be, behind it that those two categories have. Much like with race, nationality, religion, and so on, it is the belief in the concept that people have come to invest in the idea of generation that gives some weight to the category, not what few intrinsic merits it has.

Here’s a way to get across the artifice of generational identity, using Generation X, our sometimes missing subject: where were the black people? Think of any of the cultural touchstones of Generation X and what you see is blindingly white. Then consider that the cultural ascendance of Generation X also saw some of the most important black cultural accomplishments of the twentieth century, including the epochal musical change that was the birth of hip hop! If anything, Generation X, understood as a cultural artifact and structure of feeling, is considerably whiter than the Baby Boom generation, whose cultural and political trajectory is unimaginable without the influence of civil rights and black power, as well as of soul and r and b music. This is remarkable, when considering that by population, Generation X was considerably less white than their baby boom forebears, and saw things like the aforementioned rise of hip hop, the career of Michael Jackson, several substantial black uprisings like that in South Central LA in 1992, arguably the first serious black presidential campaign, mounted by Jesse Jackson, and that the first and so far only US President elected from Generation X was Barack Obama. 

Here’s another: who are the definitional writers of any given generation? Writers only yield to musicians and possibly filmmakers as the creators of definitional imagery for any given generation. Given that writers usually come to prominence at a later part of their life than musicians do, it’s not too unusual that many generation-defining writers are, in fact, older than the generation they supposedly define. 

But consider what Generation X literature would look like without William S. Burroughs (born 1947), Kathy Acker (born 1947), Charles Bukowski (born 1920), Tom Robbins (born 1932), William Gibson (born 1949), Bruce Sterling (born 1954)? The situation is even starker with the Baby Boom generation. Quick, think “Baby Boomer writers.” The names come quick and fast: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Marilyn French, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac. Definers of literary modes and attitudes we associate with the Baby Boom generation, all of them, and born in 1933, 1923, 1934, 1937, 1929, 1922, and 1922 again, respectively. That’s not even getting into the racial dimension- why such major black writers from the generational cohort born between 1960 and 1980 as Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward and who knows who else aren’t considered Gen X writers in the same way as Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and Jonathan Lethem… the latter three not only all bring white, but literally all having belonged to the same freshman class at tiny Bennington College. 

Lastly, on the definitional space: even leaving aside the question of how sensible it is to group people by birth cohort this way, who decides on the size of the cohort? In my conversations with people about this topic, almost all of them understood generations as encompassing everyone born within a given fifteen to twenty year span. Like other aspects of generational identity, the holes are obvious when you think about it, and the provenance of this common sense is a lot closer in time than one might think. 

If the logic of generations is that of shared experience, of being a given age for a given event, then there’s nothing obvious about arguing that, to take one example drawn from Gen X, the early sexual experiences of someone born in 1965, coming of age in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and someone born in 1979, coming to the same age as AIDS treatments became available (at least to those with means and access), and in any event, AIDS ceased to be a looming media phantom, would be at all similar. You can extend that to numerous other generational touchstones- and a millennial reader probably doesn’t need to be reminded of the gap in experience between people born in 1984 versus, say, 1996. 

Assigning generational labels to ever-larger age cohorts seems, from what I can tell, to be an artifact of efforts on the part of vaguely social-scientific scribblers to create a coherent historical theory of generations. This actually coincided with what would become the defining of Generation X as a body with a discourse around it. In most cases, any given generational discourse starts with previous generations trying to define those who come after. For all this is supposed to be a lecture about Generation X, much of the story is about people from earlier generations – mostly people who are Baby Boomers, and who embraced what that generational self-definition is supposed to mean – crafting a discourse about them, attempting to define and give meaning to the experience of a cohort over whom they had some degree of power. 

And, boy howdy, you will not run into too many Boomers more Boomer-ish than William Strauss and Neil Howe. That’s not just me being hypocritical and using the generational lens I decry, but cannot entirely avoid: they’ll tell you that themselves. Both dabbled in the student movement, if I understand the biographical snippets they include, before becoming Capitol Hill types, staffers turned consultants turned pundits. Howe affected seriousness before his death in 2007; Strauss, who is still with us, was one of the founders of the Capitol Steps, the political musical comedy troupe made up of Capitol staffers who make up doggerel songs about the electoral doings of the day and travel the land performing them. 

The pair are best known for the Strauss-Howe generational theory, first propagated in their massive door-stop book, called, boringly enough, “Generations,” published in 1991. It’s become a commonplace to compare dubious ideas to astrology. But I’m not the first to make that comparison between the Strauss-Howe theory and the horoscope pages. Not only do Strauss and Howe purport to define all thirteen generations that have passed since the first English settlers came to America, but they insist that all generations follow a four-slot pattern. Generations of “Heroes” are followed by generations of “artists,” then by “prophets” and “nomads” before the cycle goes back up to heroes again, each cohort about twenty years in length. Strauss and Howe might not have invented the concept of long generations, but they certainly popularized it.  

Much like the lecture where I discussed Traditionalists like Julius Evola, actually explaining what Strauss and Howe meant by all this would take too long, and is too stupid to really belabor. And unlike Evola, Strauss, Howe, and their beliefs are boring- the Capitol Steps thing is the funniest thing about them. There’s these special conjunctions of epicycles and combinations of which sort of generations are when in their life cycle with whatever other generations that are supposed to have significance. This is where Strauss and Howe’s many friends in high places come into the narrative. When the book was published, Strauss’s main project was writing little ditties about the deficit; Howe’s main project was working with Peter Peterson on selling deficit hawk politics and pushing entitlement privatization as the solution. Peterson wasn’t alone- there was a genuinely bipartisan enthusiasm for Strauss and Howe’s ideas in the early nineties, with many copies of the paperback exclaiming how “Generations” was a book Al Gore and Newt Gingrich could agree on! 

It became a truism that the generation of “nomads” that Strauss and Howe identified coming of age as they wrote would be the ones to impose their austere, practical values on the bold but impractical moralistic schema of their “prophet” Baby Boomer elders, and finally privatize social security and force through something like a balanced budget amendment. The early Baffler magazine, led by Tom Frank and Rick Perlstein, cut their teeth savaging the cultural flak thrown up by obvious political grifters pursuing this end, the numerous tergiversations they employed as they simultaneously midwifed and exploited new tropes for their generation: Gen Xers, as they came to be known around this time, having grown up in the scary, unstable seventies, craved solidity and so simply could not believe that Social Security could remain solvent; Gen Xers were individualists and risk-takers who were disinclined to the stultifying stability of company-man life that PR flaks managed to memetically associate with adequate pay and benefits, the welfare state, and unions around this time. 

Many of these same concepts found their way into the hype for the first internet bubble and the rise of techno-libertarianism in the 1990s more generally. The feeling put abroad was that something was changing, and even if we weren’t clear on what that something was and how it was changing, people were assured by business writers and glossy magazine contributors that the only proper reaction to these changes was slashing the welfare state and piling more money and power at the feet of the rich. This was the period where Tom Friedman came to prominence, which says most of what needs to be said. 

As is the case with a lot of neoliberal dreams thirty years later, the only ones enthusiastic for Strauss and Howe’s esoterica, and for many of these early ideas associated with Gen X identity, are now fascists. Steve Bannon, a man who has dabbled in numerous vaguely occult ideas, had at one point triangulated from the turnings of the Strauss-Howe theory that the coming of the millennial generation would signal the rise of his kind of nationalist reactionary politics, and that the election of Trump to the presidency was proof of this. This concerns the generation of heroes that supposedly follows, inevitably, nomads- that is, us Millennials. This comes up in the recent play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, which is about Millennial tradcath intellectuals making each other miserable as they prepare to be these heroes. For anyone keeping score, given that Gen Z has also been called, by some, a uniquely conservative generation, this is three generations in a row that pundits have attempted to say would make America great again… arguably, convincing anyone at all of this is not the Baby Boomer’s least trick, given the single biggest demographic behind the Trump movement…

It’s a mistake to think that any of these men- Republican, Democrat, notionally “independent” pedants like Peterson or fascist goons like Bannon, really let Strauss and Howe, or any other writer or thinker, dictate plans to them, act as a guidebook. That’s something that people who write about the intellectual influences of politicians and other non-academic figures often flub. They often seize upon a given thinker as the singular guide to a given politician’s ideas and behavior, treating them not unlike a rather unflattering portrait of how Marxists supposedly treat Marx. From my own research and experience, the construction of vernacular ideas of the political usually involve more eclectic patterns of borrowing, collage, and rapid cycling of thinkers and ideas in and out of the rosters and toolboxes of practical people. That’s not to say that these thinkers and ideas are irrelevant to the people who look to them. Just that they’re relevant in a different way. 

IV – The Generation X Structure of Feeling

Beyond finally stepping a foot in the concrete history of Generation X, I want to get a point across, here, by relating a high level overview of the sordid story of the Strauss-Howe theory and its uses: that the structure of feeling that is any generation, and certainly Generation X, is constructed, by people, not according to some master plan, but through the push and pull of numerous actors making use of the found parts left them by history. I tend to see the dimensions and dynamics of this space — the architecture of the structure of feeling, what communications it amplifies, multiplies, muffles, disallows, garbles — as being made up of numerous switches and spectra between discursive points, answers to questions and postures relative to concepts, that actors in the space can switch between, or slide along the spectra amongst, depending on whether we see a given discursive line as binary or spectral.

The lines or other shapes created by these interacting dimensions point in assorted directions, though I would say that in most generational discourse, and in Gen X discourse more than most, most lines of discourse point to one of two spaces, or both of them simultaneously: to each other, and to success in the market. I think this is one reason a vernacular approach to intellectual history ought to be distinguished from a standard, sacral approach. The standard approach tends to assume that the lines of discourse tend to run towards some standard point- up, generally, towards greater and more universal truth, however conceived. For the most part, we are not looking at such arrangements here. I’m sure people with better senses of physical space than I have — which is to say, most people — could come up with more and better metaphors here. But these should suffice for now. 

Whether we imbue it with the intention of the censor or the innocence of the cinematographer framing their shot, the sum of the lines and shapes that go into a structure of feeling include some things and necessarily exclude others. At whatever level of intent, actors in the space will make use of these exclusions and inclusions, modifying them as possible or as they see fit or otherwise making use of what they find there. This is one of the key entryways through which misprision makes itself known in the space of intellectual history. A simple lie — saying I have eleven fingers when I have ten — is the least interesting form of misprision for our purposes. What I want to explore is ways that users of a structure of feeling can make use of the structure to communicate with something other than an intention to arrive at truth, or even how they can shape structures of feeling to encourage their misprision of choice. 

In a time of surplus, it seems logical to think that misprision would often make use of surplus materials. As numerous observers of the late twentieth century have informed us, it was indeed an age of surplus- not just surplus money and consumer goods, but surplus ideas, surplus images, surplus art, surplus discourse, surplus purveyors of all of these things. So, a lot of the misprision we see in Generation X discourse involves substitutions, making use of the many available cultural materials to efface, distract, or obfuscate. Two types of this operation I want to highlight are simple substitutions-as-obfuscations, and somewhat more sophisticated mimicry-substitutions. It’s possible to use one cultural material to obfuscate, crowd out, or demote another, a narrative, movement, or artifact that actors in the cultural space would prefer not to interact with in favor of something else. It’s also possible to mimic a given cultural artifact, to deliver part of whatever message an original concept was supposed to convey but not all of it, or with extra appendages not in the original. 

“We’re not talking about X because we are so busy talking about Y” is an unfortunate reflexive trope of contemporary, often internet-based, discussions. But cliches come from somewhere. I think that the ways in which the constructors of the Generation X structure of feeling came to place grunge at the center of the cultural conversation they were having with themselves served, above all else, as an obfuscation. Namely, grunge discourse is an obfuscation of what turned out to be the more long-lasting trend in music and youth culture, the rise of hip hop. It’s not like commentators, then or now, pretended hip hop didn’t exist, and most would have granted that it was important. But we still see Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and the rest as generational voices in a way that we don’t see Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Nas, or dozens of other epoch-defining rappers. In a way not too dissimilar to how Obama became a generational touchstone, you could say Jay-Z and Beyonce did at around the same time Obama rose to prominence- but less for their artistic merits and more as aspirational figures, the first hip hop billionaires. All of these figures are big deals born as part of Generation X. But they’re not big Generation X deals, if that makes sense. 

There’s a lot of reasons that this could be. Race almost certainly plays a part, as does the evident desire of music critics to establish a clear line of transmission from the rock music that defined their generation to something similar – something prominently featuring guitars and existentialism – in the one upcoming. I think, especially given the ways in which the conversation about music and the conversation about broader social trends were intertwined at the time – arguably, more so, with less ironic distance, than they are today – that it makes sense to argue that what grunge was meant to represent acted to obfuscate what hip hop was meant to represent, in a social sense. Hip hop, for all of the nihilism in gangster rap, is vibrant music coming out of a culture that saw hopes raised and brutally dashed within the lifetimes of many of the people who brought it to mass popularity. It’s not just the immiseration, the crack trade and the gang wars, the mass incarceration and abandonment of black and brown communities by the rest of society that informs this music- it’s the previous generation of hope and accomplishment, whose music provided many of the hooks and samples that hip hop uses so well, that provide much of the historical piquancy of hip hop. Hip hop was a record of a people who had experienced defeat, and lived with its circumstances. 

That is not to say that grunge was happy, hopeful music, as anyone who has ever listened to it could attest. But the focus was different. Kurt Cobain and other grunge heroes often enough came from families buffeted by the receding economic tides of neoliberalism, and grunge rose to prominence during the early nineties recession. Still, the focus of grunge music, and much of the culture we think of as specifically Gen X culture – that which is most commonly spoken through the communication medium we can call the Gen X structure of feeling – understood the defeat and decay of the times as essentially personal, a matter of individual and familial circumstance. It’s not that grunge thought society was fair. Rather, grunge’s concept of society essentially reflected a dark and irrational view of the individual. And so, we see an essentially individualist and ahistorical concept of the decay of the end of the twentieth century occlude one considerably more rooted in the realities of the moment.

You see this pattern in many, many places in Gen X discourse, both the discourse of who Gen X is and what characterizes them, and in the discourse generated – sometimes to this day – by members, self-identified or not, of that cohort. I think it is sufficiently prevalent that we can call it a basic element of the Gen X structure of feeling. I’ve used physical metaphors to explain what is actually in a structure of feeling elsewhere in this lecture, so I suppose doing so again might help. We have the metaphor of occultation – of something covering something else from view. I use “occultation” rather than other, simpler words — hide, conceal, mask, etc — because, coming from astronomy, where celestial bodies are said to occlude each other from observation, occultation does not imply intent or a plan. I don’t think the occlusions in the cultural space of Generation X were the work of a master plan, of grunge acts, social scientists, journalists etc meeting in secret to make sure hip hop didn’t get its due or some such thing. But I do think that many of these occlusions, as though they were reacting to the same gravitational pull, worked to obscure the possibilities of collective power, of meaningful historical change, of the idea there is some vitality outside of the ruts in which the culture seems to have had landed. 

Occlusion is one metaphor- mimicry is another. Here, intent is unavoidable. Why does something mimic something else? Generally, to fit into a niche where otherwise the mimic would be unwelcome. As it turned out, there were few time periods with more vacant cultural niches than the end of the twentieth century. 

We sometimes talk about the nineties as a time of triumphant neoliberalism capitalism. Some people clearly felt pretty pleased about the state of affairs. But clearly a lot of people did not. And it wasn’t just depressed grunge rockers, alienated slackers, and rioting inhabitants of Los Angeles, either. A cultural artifact often conjured to summon the supposedly triumphant mood of the time is Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man.” That book does, indeed, proclaim that liberal democratic capitalism, as represented by the United States, had ended the cycle of ideological conflict and with it, capital “H” History the way that Hegel and philosophers who followed from him, like Fukuyama, understood it. But the tone of the book is not the sort of end zone dance you might expect. You get that from Tom Friedman and other writers of the period, but not Fukuyama. Fukuyama, a neoconservative, was pleased by the fall of state communism, but was actually a little bummed out by what he saw around him. Without ideological conflict, what would give society meaning? He foresaw life in the west as the reshuffling of exhibits in the museum of its glorious past. In a very odd passage, he praised the street gangs of Los Angeles, the Crips and the Bloods, as representing the man motivated by “thymos,” of pride and honor, as conceived of by the Homeric Greeks, the sort of man you weren’t going to get much of anymore.

That strangely autumnal mood — of a triumph that isn’t triumphant — stalks the culture of the nineties. So, too, do strange growths across the cultural horizon. Grunge made a certain degree of sense, as a terminal point for rock and roll. I would ascribe a certain fixation one sees in Gen X culture on high school, with an attendant idea that adult life is basically high school but sadder and with more pretensions, fits into this pattern as well. But there were other, less gainly cultural forms developing as Gen X reached maturity, and I think they owe some of their strangeness to the ways in which they came to fruition in this sort of historical nether-zone. Whether or not the parties involved agreed with Fukuyama, or even knew who he was, by and by, cultural actors came to fill the niches vacated by the actors in the grand drama upon which Fukuyama thought he had seen the curtain fall. 

Whatever else it is, the aforementioned Strauss-Howe generational theory, with all its grandiosity, is a sort of mimic — somewhere between an off-brand imitator and a methadone substitute — of the kind of social theory that might produce rigorous, challenging, or simply coherent ideas. Generational theory was hardly alone in playing this role. I’m unwilling to turn this essay into an effort to adjudicate the theory wars of the late twentieth century. But whatever one wants to say about the potentials of the theoretical interventions of this period emerging from the academy, the debates themselves over things like poststructuralism and postmodernism, especially when they spilled outside of the little hobbit village of academia, provided a sort of mimic substitute for the more thoroughgoing, mass-based radicalism of times both before and after. 

These things filled niches. Clearly, despite the advertised deaths of “metanarratives” like dialectical materialism, someone still wanted grand theories of history, and Strauss and Howe could sell you their birth-order astrology. Fukuyama might have thought the conflicts over ideas that characterized modern history were over, but you could still make a living writing op-eds about what was going on campus. Few of these ideas were truly new. They were mostly third-string liberal ideas, products of the fecund frenzy of twentieth century liberals to make up ways to understand history and society that kept them off of the grounds of the left- or sometimes the right. The late twentieth century was their time to shine.

One deviation from that pattern among the mimic-niche-fillers is what we see in terms of an artistic avant-garde in this period. The idea that art had a “front” at which the avant-garde could be at implied it had a direction, that it was going somewhere. Even if a given artistic avant-garde insisted the direction of their art had nothing to do with politics, it usually at least implied some kind of challenge to the status quo. Human history is full of subcultures of artistically-inclined people living differently from those around them. But for most of history, these subcultures were not understood, by themselves or by those around them, as challenging established hierarchies, either of power or of cultural values. If anything, artistic subcultures were usually quite close to power- that’s where the money came from, and usually the people with taste, too. An avant-garde that does challenge these things is an artifact of modernity, the period of change and ideological strife whose passing Fukuyama marked. 

So… what would avant-garde mean in a historical period where there was no more “front” to the process of history? Where either it had got where it was going, or had never existed in the first place? Well, that turned out to be pretty simple. You just sort of swan about in similar ways to how earlier avant-grades — surrealists and dada, abstract expressionists and futurists, etc etc — did, and let cultural presentation of self do the work for you.

When I say this, I mean it less as a judgment on the talent or acumen of artists of the last quarter of the twentieth century – though, in the one area where I have much ability to judge, literature, they didn’t amount to much – and more on the claims made for their work to be something really new and revolutionary. Most participants in these avant-gardes would gladly admit that all of them were just shuffling ingredients that came before, usually well within living memory. Even if you would argue that the original literary modernists, or the surrealists, or the futurists, or whoever else a nineties artist could model themselves after, were doing the same thing, the originals almost never would have admitted to it. 

If I’m being honest, the plastic visual arts of this period seem like nothing so much as a set of bad pranks elevated to a sort of vitiated pseudo-religious importance by truly bored rich people and those who cater to them. But I will admit I don’t know painting, sculpture, etc very well. I do know prose writing a bit better, so to illustrate this dynamic, I will use the example of the “literary brat pack” that came to some prominence in the mid-1980s, some members of which are still prominent in literature today. 

Of course, no one described as being part of the literary brat pack liked that term themselves, and insisted they just hung out a few times, that it wasn’t a real literary movement. You don’t need to know much art history to know that most movements either insist on their nonexistence, or else act like something between a small political party and a cult, complete with excommunications- and the former is a lot easier. 

Among the most insistent of the brat packers with regards to the nonexistence of the pack as a unitary body was Bret Easton Ellis, the member of the group whose literary career has lasted the longest- you don’t hear much from Jay McInerney or Tama Janowitz these days. Ellis was anointed an important new literary voice on the strength of his 1985 debut novel, “Less Than Zero,” a tale of nihilist teens in Los Angeles that Ellis started writing when he was, well, a nihilist teen in Los Angeles. It’s remarkable to think that in the eighties, gossip sections and tabloids would dedicate space to writers, just as writers, not as writers who are, say, dating a more famous person. I have been assured by fans of gossip blogs that this doesn’t generally happen anymore (interesting, when you consider that the content mill would presumably take, demand even, ever more grist!). But back in the eighties, Ellis and company made it on there, sometimes, partying and posturing with a certain jaded-beyond-their-years loucheness. 

While “Less Than Zero,” with its child sex slaves and implication that rich LA kids had the life expectancy of then-starving Ethiopian children, as a friend of mine liked to put it, is a little more extreme than comparable works, the work of the Literary Brat Pack shared many characteristics: all of the protagonists were contemporary young adults (usually about the same age  and the same gender as the given writer), all of the prose was studiedly flat, all had a general tone of decadence and doom. Fukuyama probably would have chewed his own arm off rather than depict some of the things Ellis has his characters casually observe, but both saw this end of history period as, at the very least, sad, and somewhat bereft.

There were two reference points for the packaging of the literary brat pack by the publishing industry. One was, obviously, the Hollywood brat pack, young stars like Charlie Sheen who became tabloid favorites. But the other was the so-called Lost Generation writers of the period immediately following World War One. Youth without moorings, writing minimalist prose about dark and traumatic things, imbued with that Hemingway/Fitzgerald glamor… you can see why publicists would want to run with that, and they did, not just for the actual social circle around Ellis and McInerney, but for Ellis’s Bennington classmate Donna Tartt when she came out with “The Secret History” well after the shine had started to come off for most of the crowd. References to the twenties were a gift that kept on giving, at least until readers of literary fiction gave up on caring about that kind of thing altogether.

Here’s the funny thing with that: none of the Brat Pack writers read very much like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, or Stein. And they don’t really claim them as influences, either, as I’ve seen. Bret Easton Ellis worships at the temple of Joan Didion. McInerney was basically doing WASP-y dissolution-and-divorce, think Louis Auchincloss with the volume turned up. Donna Tartt cited influences from seemingly everywhere — Evelyn Waugh, classical drama, southern gothic writing, horror paperbacks — other than the literary modernism that the Lost Generation ushered into the American consciousness. And what exactly did any of the literary brat pack lose? In their fiction, their sense of loss typically stems from being raised fecklessly, usually in comfortable circumstances, and general post-adolescent ennui. They did not see a catastrophe like the First World War. 

Most of them did not claim to, so they are not entirely to blame — whatever one may think of gadflies like Ellis — for the impression that all it took to be considered avant-garde after the late seventies or so was to look bored and disaffected and have a good publicist. That’s before even getting into how an avant-garde based on an earlier avant-garde would even make sense, in geometric terms if nothing else. So why did anyone bother? 

Here it’s worth noting that the Gen X age cohort might have been the first to come to adulthood after the establishment of vertically and horizontally integrated corporate media. I’m well aware that prior generations of artists, like the rock stars of old and the jazz singers before them, had to struggle with the money game in their respective fields. What I am saying is that what we see emerge in the seventies are considerably more consolidated, professional, and just bigger and more powerful media conglomerates. These had a more rational approach to turning culture into profit than such actors as, say, Elvis’s Colonel Parker. That’s not to say the Colonel was not interested in profit. Just that he could not pursue it the way modern record labels, movie studios, and publishers could and can. So, the likes of Ellis, et al – Cobain, too, for that matter, and the Gen X filmmakers, Linklater, Tarantino, and so on – were put through a considerably more advanced image-making machine than earlier generations of artists. It must have been a simple answer for publicists: a bit of glamor, a bit of terseness, a bit of transgression, and a lot of appeal to the distinctly limited historical reference base of the late-twentieth century reading public, et voila! We have a new Lost Generation. Never mind the context. Never mind the actual texts, and how they don’t fit!

V – Of Flat Worlds, Edges, and End Times

It’s important we don’t let our discussion of forms – the shapes of cultural operations within the structure of feeling of Generation X – lead us into a sterile formalism. Context and content still matter, and interact with each other and with the patterns of form we have laid out in many-fold complex ways. But, I’m afraid I’m going to have to make these discussions brief, more of a sketch. I tried to sketch the formal discussion above, too, but I think at that level of abstraction, I needed to expand on things to make them clear. I think to serve as this lecture intends to, we need to bring up some of the elements one has a right to expect when discussing the intellectual history of Generation X, and the context that helps define and contain their formal relationships.

Maybe because I’m used to sharing my ideas in spaces like these birthday lectures and social media, I tend to expect more immediate reaction to the things I say than most academics do, and I expect that reaction to be blunter, less guarded by convention. So whenever I make a generalization about a time period, I am prepared to hear a “what about.” While sometimes frustrating, I actually think this has been helpful. If I say, “high ‘End of History’ period, the decade from the fall of the Soviet Union to 9/11, was a time of feelings of decay and defeat,” there are obvious counterpoints. There’s the capitalist ecstasy of the prophets of globalization and the early world wide web, the idea of a triumphant Pax Americana that would spread peace and prosperity the world over, the idea of a liberation from old, deadly conflicts between nations and ideologies, etc., and from cultural hierarchies as pop culture advanced across the globe and into acceptance as important art, etc. 

It doesn’t do to dismiss these as irrelevant. It might be appropriate to bracket them, on the idea that any given study needs to limit itself. But I do see myself as trying to create a prologue to a study of this period, and the generation that came to maturity in it, in Anglophone culture as a whole, so that bracketing maneuver would be a cop out. Instead, consider the two emotional registers at either end — say, the apocalypticism of a Kathy Acker or the despair of a Kurt Cobain on one side, and the ecstasy of a Tom Friedman or some of the early cyberculture enthusiasts as the other — as poles, points that circumscribe a space. Affectively, these poles may be opposites. But between them, they cooperate to define what is in, and crucially, what is outside of a given space. 

The peculiar versions of both pessimism and optimism we see in this structure of feeling aren’t the only polar dyads in the space, but they seem to be an important one. Consider what they exclude: agency, especially collective agency. The pessimism of grunge culture; the sense of exhaustion, barely masked by giddy theoretical excesses, in most academic fields; the cynicism in the arts from literary brat pack sneering to the increasingly obvious prankish pointlessness of much of the plastic arts; the elegiac wistfulness you find in Fukuyama and many of the other boosters of the Pax Americana… none of those promised the ability of people to do great things, to change the reality in which they live, and promise even less for the possibilities of collective power to change. 

Where there was such a thing as change it was individual, or at best familial, often enough in the context of chosen family. You and your buddies could joke away the collapse of meaning (away from your feckless and/or abusive actual family and community ties) in the Palm Springs desert, around the faded glamour of the twentieth century, like the protagonists in the Doug Coupland novel that helped give Generation X its name. This, or the promise of “fuck you money” by getting in early on an internet startup, or learning the Supreme Mathematics of the Five Percenters, which such hip hop artists as the Wu Tang Clan saw as key to a stoic acceptance of the nature of the universe, was the liberation on offer. And things weren’t much better as far as the optimists were concerned, except they thought no one could possibly need or want the power to change, beyond perhaps the wisdom to see their situation as already optimal- to stop asking “who moved my cheese?” as a business bestseller of the time put it, and simply follow the cheese wherever the cheese chooses to go. 

“The world is flat,” as Tom Friedman put it at the time, from the editorial page of the New York Times (he’s still there, folks!) and from the title of one of his several bestsellers that attempted to explain our brave new post-Cold War globalized world. The literary figures we’ve discussed – “brat pack” members like Bret Easton Ellis, accidental generation-namer Douglas Coupland – would likely want little to do with Friedman, his exuberant, emotive, disorganized writing (perhaps an unacknowledged father to some literary styles today?), or his optimism. But it would be hard for them to disagree with the central premise, as far as their writing is concerned. Their worlds, too, were flat, and described in fitting language. And they were as impossible to escape as Friedman thought his version of liberal democratic capitalist globalization was- he referred to it as “the golden straitjacket,” and everyone would soon be wearing it. So it was in Gen X literature. If you escaped from Ellis’s world of emotional deadness, commodity fetishism, and just regular old fetishism, you ceased to exist, as far as he was concerned. His worlds are as hermetically sealed as any secondary world fantasy- more so, arguably, given the relatively small number of real-world influences that have bearing on Ellisland, especially compared to the wider bases of reference from history and mythology from which fantasists generally draw. If you read any of Ellis’s nonfiction, you’ll see how his cool vanishes as soon as he’s expected, even momentarily, to acknowledge the existence of people outside of his chosen realm of the affectless rich. Doug Coupland’s blithe Gen Xers, for their part, would see anything outside their ambit as trivia, a genocide just as much as an old movie star’s sexual pecadillos, all facts with more or less piquancy to catch and launch at each other like so many conversational pokeballs. 

If the world is flat, where else to go but the edge? I did not have time or space to do the history that the concept of “edginess” deserves in this lecture. From what I can glean, it seems like the concept of edginess, to the extent it was ever meant sincerely, came to the fore once it became good and certain that any counterculture could and would get “appropriated” by mass culture, packaged up and sold. The only debate would be whether this was a tragedy, or whether every given counterculture was always already a consumer product, as Thomas Frank argued at the time. 

So edginess could be a few things: it could be the desperate lunge for a frontier, where you’d have to pick up sticks and leave every few years as the culture took what had once been edgy and defanged it, like how some American frontiersmen supposedly used to light out a few hundred miles further west whenever they could hear neighbors. Or it could be a kind of catch-all, a reticule where assorted off-brand ideas, aesthetics, cultural/political movements could be placed in arrays that seem baffling now. Take a gander through the “Apocalypse Culture” or “Gone to Croatan” collections, sold through alternative bookstores or mail order catalogs at the time, or cast your mind back to the internet before contemporary social media did its magic. In certain respects, the grab bags of ideas — conspiracy theory next to social theory, Nazis next to communists and anarchists, “extreme” genres of music, obsessions with cults, killers, UFOs, reinterpretations of history and cosmology — you see in these spaces were more the results of low editorial standards than any intentional strategy. 

But you could argue “low editorial standards” was a key part of the worldview of nineties edginess culture, that it’s precisely that that allows for freedom and flourishing of expression, whatever its implications may be socially or politically, as far as the edgy were concerned. Anti-globalization thought and activism lingered — all too long, possibly fatally long — in the edginess space, but this was still very much a cultural formation for the flat world Friedman proclaimed. As aging Gen Xer Jez from the British sitcom Peep Show put it, when calling a Nazi on his racism would momentarily inconvenience him: “Aren’t we supposed to be living in a multicultural democracy? And isn’t that the point? You know, the Jews, the Muslims and the racists all living together happily side by side, doing and saying whatever the hell they like?” 

And here is where I want to give something of a fillip to my readers/listeners, most of them, like me, millennials, from the generation that came after Gen X. We have, supposedly, the smarter millennials anyway, left behind edginess culture, the idea that the world is flat and that difference is just so many meaningless aesthetic markers that carry with them no historical or political charge. For their part, it seems that Gen Xers, as a cohort, have clung less to a generational identity than have baby boomers, which I think is an admirable decision. But many Gen Xers who have decided to lean on their age cohort as part of their presentation of self have done so specifically in studied contrast to what they see as the failings of millennials. This mostly has to do with our supposed moralism, with we dispatched the edginess culture, and who knows what else- chain restaurants, engagement rings, etc etc. A number of prominent contemporary  crusaders against “woke culture,” ranging from Matt Taibbi to Megan Daum to Wesley Yang to Thomas Chatterton Williams to Bret Easton Ellis to, on the extreme end of things, Gavin McInnes, all either cite their generational identity or, much the same thing, the specific times and circumstances in which they came to maturity as a mark of superiority to millennials, one of the things that elevates them above woke moralism (you would figure that they had literally no say over what year they were born might inculcate a certain modesty about this accomplishment, and yet!). 

Even if you don’t subscribe to the sort of cultural-revolution theory of wokeness implicit in the more grandiose anti-woke worldviews, I do think that the structure of feeling that has grown up since the second decade of the twenty-first century has some pretty substantial differences from the one that Gen X made and/or had handed to it by its elders. Using the sort of spatial metaphors we were using before, a lot of valuations within the space got rearranged. It would be hard to think why they wouldn’t, over the passage of time and the many important events, technical and economic changes, etc. A lot of matters that Gen Xers understood as switches came to become spectra (gender being the most notable), and various things that Gen Xers typically understood to be spectra tended to get simplified into something more like switches (the distinction between ideas and actions that are and aren’t acceptable stands out). The Gen X critics aren’t just being dramatic when they say they can’t speak anymore, even though they continue to palaver. Structures of feeling are a communication medium, and the structure of feeling of my generation is different enough that a lot of what they try to say doesn’t translate. 

These differences are real, and relevant. But I would put it to the reader — mostly from my generation but it might be relevant to those who came before and come after, too — that things have not changed as much as they appear to have done. To me, the single greatest piece of evidence for this is the stuckness of culture, especially in literature. I said a fair few negative things about Gen X writers, and have plenty more to say — I didn’t even really get into David Foster Wallace here — for other occasions. But with all the differences in ideas between millennials and Xers, for all of the many-fold changes in technology that you’d figure would allow for new voices to come forward, it’s impossible to say much more for millennial literature, now that the oldest of the generation approach their forties, than you can for Gen X. There’s still the same failures of nerve and imagination, the same promotion of mediocrity (this time more from insisting writers engage with social media than getting writers onto the pages of tabloids), the same palpable sense of exhaustion as we try to pick out a good standard-bearer- even the better candidates, your Sally Rooneys or whoever, exude fatigue. 

This is remarkable, when you think about it- we’ve witnessed history, proclaimed over in our lifetime, come roaring back to life. We have this undeniable sword of Damocles dangling over our collective heads in the form of climate change and attendant disasters. We have seen real changes in how many people think about many basic ideas- about gender and race, about love, about the future. We have the opportunity that comes to every generation with the changing of the times! And yet, and yet! We replicate the same navel-gazing, the same sterile aping of either early-20th century modernism or later postmodernism dressed up as avant-garde, the same limits on the imagination, that made Gen X literature such a wasteland. 

To me, the lesson is clear- we make culture, but we do not make it just as we please. The Gen Xers understood themselves as living in a sort of imaginary Alexandria of heterodoxy and freedom, done in by the Jerusalem of millennial moral fanaticism and the Rome of power-mad boomer revanchism. But here’s the deal: all those cities were in the same damn empire, often enough not even really supervised that closely by the supposed capital. Above all, inhabitants of all of them — and of the Babylon one is tempted to consign this whole period of history to — all wiped their asses with a sponge on a stick kept in a pot of vinegar, if they were lucky, and a third of their kids died before they were five. 

My point is: we cannot break through the limits on our collective imaginations because they are, in part, material. They are material in many-fold ways, from the ways in which it is increasingly difficult for a working person to get their foot in the door of culture to the near-instant cooptation of counterculture or oppositional culture. Numerous material factors, from the price of rent to the construction of the carceral state, have helped keep us where we are. If you want a real irony, consider the sort of feckless idealism that animates much of both Gen X and Millennial literature, and the massive weight of materiality behind that enforced sense of nothing truly mattering, that commonality between our respective structures of feeling that make the concept of material change, directed by people, so difficult to meaningfully communicate…

Well! At the end of the day imagination translates to reality with the staking of a claim- I believe something, and am willing to risk something based on said belief. I said earlier that vernacular discourse points in many directions, whereas sacred discourse points “upward,” however upward is conceived in a given culture, towards the universal. Were I to point upward here, it would be that as long as we live with the paradox of infinite imagination and distinctly finite physical reality, the staking of a claim, of risking what is finite to gain something we can only imagine, is always an option open to us. Vast arrays of cultural formations, many of which have survived the decades from Gen X coming up during the end of history, to our own period of history’s return, exist to convince us to not stake claims, or to pretend to do so while not doing so at all. But it seems as though some people, somewhere, are going to anyway, despite how late the hour is getting. The owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk. Let’s fly.

2022 Birthday Lecture: Notes Towards an Intellectual History of Generation X

Review – Chatelain, “Golden Arches”

Marcia Chatelain, “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America” (2020) (read aloud by Machelle Williams) – This is a fucker of a sad story. If there’s one thing I’m not going to moralize about, it’s eating “bad” food. I actually think fast food is a good concept with godawful externalities in terms of ecological damage, labor practices, and health. I don’t think whatever kind of vaguely-elven/hobbit-ish “slow food” vision some people have for a better food world should be the only one available in a better future (and how many farm-to-table, slow food type restaurants also have terrible labor practices?). And I think people have the right not to optimize for physical or mental health- they have the right to pursue experiences that might harm them, up to and including eating unhealthy food.

People have the right to eat unhealthy food- but they also have the right to healthy, wholesome food, and McDonalds, and other fast food companies, are what many black communities in this country have instead of that. Fast food is so ubiquitous it can fool us into thinking it’s always been there- I’ve lost count of the number of medieval fantasy novels I’ve read where the author treats eating at a roadside inn as structurally similar to Denny’s, if not quite up to McDonald’s speed and efficiency. The most relevant differences between the fast food giants that grew to prominence in the US after WWII and other eateries were that fast food chains were labor-intensive, highly standardized enterprises, run by out-of-town corporate giants but dependent on local buy-in, from customers, workers, and key to the growth of McDonald’s and other chains, franchisees. 

Drop something like that in the cities that were soon to roil and burn with discontent and there was bound to be an interesting situation. Black communities had a bifurcated response to McDonald’s at first. Most McDonald’s franchises, early on, went into suburbs and other areas black people often didn’t or couldn’t go. McDonald’s obeyed the usual segregation customs, and at least once dozens of sit-in participants were trapped and brutalized in a southern McDonald’s. But, and this is a dynamic that historians of consumer capitalism have identified elsewhere, there was one special appeal that chains like McDonald’s had for black customers: unless something went wrong, culpably wrong, with the process, when you ordered something at McDonald’s, you got the same thing, at the same price, everyone else got. This is a similar logic to why black customers were early adopters of packaged food and chain supermarkets- you weren’t going to get cheated buying a box of corn flakes like you would be by a racist small shop owner who has to weigh you out your flour or whatever. 

Moreover, once McDonald’s got somewhat less racist, both black entrepreneurs and the Chicago-based company saw another appealing facet to establishing the chain in black communities. It did not take that much money, in the grand scheme of things, to buy a McDonald’s franchise, and the company would help you set up, without banks or whoever else involved. McDonald’s quickly noticed that franchises with black owners often did better in black neighborhoods than if they were owned by white people. Moreover, in the wake of the ideological conflicts within the black freedom struggle and the exhausting round of riots, assassinations, and recrimination that happened around the same time, McDonald’s lucked into an ideological fad- black capitalism was, for a little while, on everyone’s lips, even people like Ishmael Reed, who should have known better. 

Richard Nixon knew what he was doing when he promoted black capitalism as a solution to black America’s woes, even as the fulfillment of “black power.” It’s a placeholder idea, a vacuous non-concept that can still effectively stand in for where an idea might otherwise be, if no one kicks the tires (not unlike a McDonald’s meal is a placeholder for something better, come to that). Nobody — not Nixon, not such movement veterans as Floyd McKissick who embraced the concept — articulated how, exactly, you were going to get black capitalism without a critical mass of capital in black hands, without some kind of massive redistribution program. That wasn’t on the table. What was on the table was a certain amount of grant money, much of which went to businesses who could prove they were promoting black business ownership and job growth. In a period of deindustrialization, McDonald’s, with its franchise model (you’re hardly going to franchise steel manufacturing plants), was poised to take advantage, massively increasing its footprint in black America and posing as a community investor.

McDonald’s proved skillful at playing the cultural games that grew in importance in the late twentieth century as the possibilities for material change receded. In this, an earlier investment paid off- those black franchisees, some of whom moved into senior corporate positions, proved vital to McDonald’s efforts to adapt. This involved both learning marketing targeted at black people and figuring out how to defuse challenges from local community organizations who either wanted a bigger slice of the profits McDonald’s was extracting or else keep the company out in general. McDonald’s was also helped by the times- it “fit right in there,” as Sam Elliott put it in another nineties classic, The Big Lebowski. Vague aspirationalism, cheap products produced by increasingly globalized supply chains and taylorized workforces from the farm to the cash register, relying on people not to look too close… the eighties and nineties, despite some academic trends, poor times for close criticism.

Really, it was just sad to watch these communities, with leaders who had struggled so hard and done so much during the course of the black freedom struggle, reduced to slinging slogans about burger restaurants, whether they’re good or bad or whatever. It’s sad to see the hopes people invested in black franchising, and not just McDonald’s either- a chain named after Chicken George, from “Roots,” was in fact black owned and was doing pretty good… before it got poleaxed by market changes. That’s what happened to the numerous chains opened up by black celebrities during the black capitalism fad, too, when they weren’t just vaporware to begin with. That’s what the kind of deep fundament of capital that established — read, white — firms have, their relationships across the web of capitalism from banks to suppliers to media, can get you. McDonald’s could afford to screw up everything from its initial introduction of chicken sandwiches to avoiding lawsuits for discrimination, because they’re established and backed by other established players. None of these black enterprises had that. Black capitalism can’t replace black power because you need power to do capitalism. 

And so, McDonald’s grew omnipresent in black America. As black communities continued their slide into immiseration, fast food places are often the only places to affordably feed a family with the kind of time people scrambling to make a living have, so the worse things got, the more McDonald’s was in demand. A franchisee conman who got his start using black pride sloganeering to boost his McDonald’s franchises stood behind Bill Clinton as he signed the welfare reform bill, further cheapening McDonald’s labor pool and encouraging people to spend their dwindling food budget there, in case the ironies involved were too subtle. 

It’s sad, but also hard to blame the individual black people involved. Capitalism in general, and consumer companies like McDonald’s in particular, does everything it can to obscure what actually makes the machine go, to impersonate natural forces or acts of god. And anyone who knows anything about the struggles of the sixties knows the profound exhaustion that came after a decade of fighting seemed to fall short of tangible goals. You can’t blame drowning people for scrabbling at any kind of driftwood they can lay their hands on. And it’s not like the opposition — Chatelain begins the book with the kind of sneering, “junk food” criticism of fast food that misses a lot of the point — was great, either, immersed in whatever spell seemed to stop Americans, especially but not exclusively white ones. from taking anything structural into account until, maybe, 2010 or so in their understandings of the world. All in all, a discouraging picture, well painted. ****’

Review – Chatelain, “Golden Arches”

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”