Sunday, July 30, 2017

Theories of Ideology and Sciences of Belief Systems

Around the time that I left the SPUSA, I conceived a non-fiction writing project which I think I will be laying aside. Tentatively entitled "The American Ideology," the aim would have been to try to identify a set of ideological presuppositions that would be both peculiar to citizens of the United States and nearly universal among them. I still think it would be a worthwhile project, but not necessarily the best use of my individual efforts.

Theories of ideology play approximately the role in Marxism that epicycles did in Ptolemaic accounts of the solar system. While important, foundational hints were provided were provided in Marx's work--the first chapter of Capital on commodity fetishism, the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and of course The German Ideology, left to the gnawing criticism of the mice and published posthumously--it was never his top priority. Nor should it have been. As of his death, working-class political parties had been formed in all the countries in which advanced capitalism had taken hold (including Britain and even the United States), and these parties were growing and advancing in their theoretical and practical comprehension of capital. The proletarian revolution was on the march. Ideology--the ruling class's mechanisms of deception and self-deception--would no doubt be overcome. The future was bright.

The concept of ideology takes on an importance to Marxist thinkers in direct proportion to the apparent distance of the proletariat from fulfillment of its imputed historic role. Lenin wrote "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism" at a moment when he thought he would not live to see a revolution. Gramsci's notebooks were written in a Fascist prison. Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" functions as a postmortem of the 1968 French uprising and his own party's dubious role in bringing about its defeat. Theories of ideology derive sophistication from the depths of their authors' despair.

Theories of ideology are important and necessary if one aims through politics to hold onto a long-term hope for victory, and to trace a reasonable-seeming path from defeat to victory. The important phase here is "long term." If there is no long term, or at least no reliable promise of it, then theories of ideology no longer serve a purpose for political tactics. It may be nice to understand why people believe what they believe, and how it feels to believe the things they do, even if those beliefs are ultimately self-destructive--a radical extension of empathy--but unless one has a path forward for shifting those people from false consciousness to true, that knowledge is of limited utility. In a short-term perspective, it more useful to be able to assess whether, on the basis of a grouping's current set of beliefs, it is possible for them to be inspired to take beneficial action. Such a judgment may well be entirely independent of one's judgment of the truth value of those beliefs.

So I am setting aside the "American Ideology" project. One of the more useful things to come of it, however, was reading Towards a Science of Belief Systems by Edmund Griffiths. I say this even though I consider the book itself to be flawed, precisely insofar as the author holds to a notion of the scientificity of a certain form of Marxism. This blog post will not be comprehensive critical analysis of the book. But I will highlight some of what I regard as its strengths and weaknesses.

A strength is his definition of "belief systems": "a set of propositions held to be true, to which some emotional charge (affect) is attached and which gives more or less cogent expression to a general sense of how the world is." (§3) But this in turn reveals a weakness, namely his insistence upon the phrase "belief systems" in lieu of "ideology." For example, he writes, "Among Marxist writers, meanwhile, ’ideology’ is correctly used in a sense that is both broader and narrower than ‘belief system’: broader because it also includes, for instance, the arts, and narrower because it refers only to phenomena that are seen determined in some way by a mode of production." (§3) Both the narrowness and broadness that Griffiths imputes to "ideology" as compared "belief systems" seem dubious to me. The broadness because, by emphasizing the propositional content of belief systems, it downplays the importance of phenomena, such as the artistic works, from which it may be difficult to extrapolate a belief system's propositional content, but which may be essential for decoding its affective meaning for believers. And the narrowness because, if Marxism is taken seriously as a science, then in the final analysis every phenomenon is ultimately "determined in some way by a mode of production."

In general, Griffiths seems motivated by a kind of anxiety about the scientificity of Marxism. By electing the term "belief systems" he wishes to hold open the possibility of participation in his proposed new science by people who do not accept Marxism, and thus might be repelled by the term "ideology" and its associations. Yet he himself holds to the truth of a certain kind of Marxism, and devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 5) to articulating the possible relationships between "belief systems and the materialist conception of history."

(A secondary problem here is that "materialist conception of history" ought not to be treated as singular, or as identical with Marxism. The latter has already been shown by Plekhanov in his Development of the Monist View of History, which shows how Marxism borrows from and extends insights from earlier forms of historical materialism. That there can be other materialist conceptions of history is central to my emerging world view, i.e. one that would dispense with the dualism between "man" and "nature" implicit both in Marx and in his putatively "monist" predecessors, as can be found for example in this passage from "The Critique of the Gotha Program": "Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. the above phrase is to be found in all children's primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor.")

From his definition, Griffiths identifies two topics of analysis that are essential to analysis of belief systems. One would be the affective dimension, and to this his book contributes far less than might be hoped. The other is the propositional content and how it hangs together through a combination of explicit and implicit beliefs. This hanging together is described through what he terms "descriptive logic," that is, analysis of how believers actually reason, rather than an attempt to impose prescriptive, formal logic onto the propositions of a belief system. The power of this methodology can be seen precisely in that it can be applied to Griffiths himself.

Let us take, for example, a statement of Griffiths that I find factually false, since these can often serve as entry-points to the implicit reasoning of a belief system:

"It may seem odd that no well-developed science of belief systems has yet to be put forward within Marxism, and that the most thoughtful and interesting Marxist writers have not typically devoted a great deal of their attention to belief systems – certainly much less than they have given, say, to the arts. There are book-length studies of artistic and aesthetic questions by such prominent Marxists as Plekhanov, Lukács, and Trotsky; and a number of brilliant Marxist thinkers have done their best work precisely on the arts (Caudwell, Max Raphael). Belief systems have not been so favoured. There is Kautsky’s stimulating book on early Christianity, there is some outstanding work by Marxist historians and other scholars (Rodinson, Christopher Hill, Peter Worsley)... but, in general, Marxism’s knowledge of aesthetics and the arts is considerably in advance of its grasp of belief systems." (§108)

I have already given a brief criticism of Griffiths' differentiation of "aesthetics and the arts" from "belief systems," but the factual errors of this passage go deeper. At best it represents an incomplete bibliography, at worst a blind-spot: One can use the author names given to reconstruct some of what a fuller bibliography of Marxist theories of belief systems would include. For example, Plekhanov’s Monist View contains much material in this vein; his oeuvre has been incompletely translated into English, but Griffiths’ fluency in Russian denies him this excuse. Lukács’ work includes not only History and Class Consciousness, but also Eclipse of Reason. From Trotsky: The Stalin School of Falsification, Their Morals and Ours, and In Defense of Marxism are all must-reads for examples of reconstructions of the belief systems of others and their articulation to class interests. Then there are the missing names (Gramsci being the most glaring omission).

A bit of "descriptive logic" goes a long way in reconstructing Griffiths’ apparent blind-spot. In the following reconstruction, I follow Griffiths' convention of italicizing those propositions which are directly quoted from the work of the believer, leaving the implicit steps in the reasoning process in plain text:

  1. Marxism is true.
  2. If Marxism were true, then we would be on the way to the proletarian overthrow of capitalism and creation of communism.
  3. We appear to not be on such a path.
  4. In the history of Marxism, apparent failures of the proletariat to fulfill its historic mission have been explained with reference to theories of ideology, which claim to account scientifically for belief systems.
  5. None of those theories of ideology accounts well for the present world political situation.
  6. Thus a well-developed science of belief systems has yet to be put forward within Marxism.

I would thus argue that Griffiths succeeds partially in his aim, in developing a theory of ideology (though he does not call it that) whose power is not dependent upon agreement with the author's Marxism, and that this power is demonstrated precisely insofar as the methodological insights of descriptive logic can be applied critically to Griffiths himself. Extension of this study can include the further elaboration (and formalization) of descriptive logic, but would also need to attend to the comparatively weaker portion of Griffiths' work, the study of affect. As with his gloss on Marxist theories of ideology, there are bibliographical gaps that provide a hint as to directions for future research. For example, there is a substantial Enlightenment and proto-Enlightenment literature on the relationship between reason and affect. Spinoza and Rousseau stand out to me as its pinnacles of achievement. Comparing this literature with the literature of modern experimental psychology to see how well it has held up would be a worthwhile endeavor for someone who wished to study the affective nature of belief systems (or ideologies--I am convinced that the terminological distinction is largely a matter of taste.)

There is far more of value to be found, in embryo, in Griffiths' slim little book, and I may return to my notes on it for other entries. But I would argue that, at this moment, the study of ideologies has more ethical and aesthetic import than political significance. And so for the time being, I hope to be able to turn such of my energies as are available for writing away from the essayistic and back toward the fictional.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Emancipatory Biopolitics

I have for some time (at minimum since November of last year) been saying that Marxism is past the point of provability, and thus no longer salvageable as an exemplar of "scientific socialism." In more short-hand forms I have taken to referring to myself as "post-Marxist," dissatisfied with that term, since it encompasses a wide range of political and philosophical manifestations, more than a few of which I dislike. What I have not had time to do, until now, is try to articulate what aspects of the Marxian edifice retain some plausible correspondence to the facts, and which have to be jettisoned as corollaries to negated premises. After I left the SPUSA last month, I have had time, and my thoughts have begun to cohere, for the first time in years, into something resembling a coherent world view. This post represents my first attempt to articulate that world view. Its weaknesses are, I hope, in the nature of a first draft.

There have, within movements purporting to be Marxist, been two distinguishable visions of the communist aim. One can find traces of both in the first section of the Gotha Program. One is the notion that workers get more and more, until the workers have it all. This Marx stigmatizes as Lasallean, even as he concedes that, with some modifications, it describes a necessary but temporary stage. The second is that the workers cease to be workers as distinct from society at large, that the self-emancipation of the proletariat corresponds to its self-abolition as a class. The contradiction, insofar as it is Marx's own contradiction, is a contradiction in the Hegelian sense, one that resolves itself through its own immanent development. More concretely, Marx argued that the partial (trade union and legislative) struggles waged by the working class to lessen its exploitation at the expense of capitalist profit, while they would not end that exploitation, would enable the working class to develop the collective confidence and self-concept necessary to take over from the capitalists--and thus to put itself out of existence. One finds the two visions in different proportions in different areas of Marx's work--more of the aggrandization of the proletariat in "Value, Price, and Profit," more of its self-abolition in the "Communist Manifesto"--but both are there.

Varying admixtures are found in later Marxist writers as well. For example, Trotsky articulates the former vision when he writes (in his 1939 essay "Marxism in Our Time," that is, on the eve of the bloodiest war in history) that "The class struggle is nothing else than the struggle for surplus-product." Its traces are all over the Transitional Program as well. The notion that the class struggle is "nothing else" than the struggle over surplus-product does not mesh well with Marx's dictum from the Manifesto that "every class struggle is a political struggle." The point is not to pick on Trotsky: He was intelligent and well-read, and quite familiar with self-abolition as an aim of the proletarian class struggle. For example, it figures in the arguments of his book on Literature and Revolution. That the economistic notion of the class struggle as the struggle for the surplus figures so strongly in his more overtly political writings may help account for the political weaknesses of subsequent organizations claiming to be Trotskyist, but does not necessarily cast doubt on Trotsky's quality as an interpreter of Marx. Certainly not in comparison to some of the alternatives.

How do these two visions fare in the face of climate crisis, in which Marxism's "fundamental positive hypothesis has been invalidated, not as a moment of a self-devouring dialectic of negativity but as an inexorable consequence of physical processes triggered by humanity but escaping its control"? Neither fares well. For the moment, we need to examine each in turn before comparing their bruises and wounds.

"The struggle over the surplus-product" can be summarized more concisely in the slogan of someone who was never a Marxist, the American trade unionist Samuel Gompers: "More." One hesitates, at a moment when the inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. is the greatest it has been in nearly a century, to abjure the need for workers to demand more. Most such struggles, in fact, can and must be joined without hesitation. To fight for a shortening of the working day and working week, for more leisure and freedom, is a fight to lessen subordination to capitalist production and its destructive outcomes. To fight for better health and safety on the job is to insist that some things have value that cannot be reduced to the universal equivalent of money. To decouple the basic preconditions of social life--health, food, water, shelter, education--from employment and the wage is essential.

But what of fights for higher wages? At the basic level, among the layers of the working class who now are not paid enough to meet their basic needs (on a global scale--the majority), this is an urgent demand. But if posed more generally, we must ask, to what end? What does more money get us? Greater claim to a mass of commodities, most of which meet no need at all, but whose production serves to accelerate our social death.

Or fights for more jobs? We must ask: Doing what? Creating what? And most importantly at the moment, creating what waste products?

The struggle over the surplus-product is a struggle over the conditions of our hastened collective demise. A political struggle would be a struggle for human survival, against heedless destruction, and thus, against the very conditions for the existence of the surplus-product.

Does this mean that we forego the struggle for "more" entirely, in favor of a direct struggle for proletarian self-abolition? This would not be an unprecedented conclusion, and has been articulated repeatedly by representatives of the "communization" current. Where I would differ from most representatives of such thinking is that they present the unilateral preference for self-abolition as compared to economic struggles as belonging to Marx; I consider this a misreading, but such philological questions pale in comparison to magnitude of the tasks we now face, and are thus tangential. A more important difference, that makes it impossible for me to embrace the notion of immediate communization that might, somehow, outrun the coming decline of capitalist rule is that this vision underrates the necessity of class-consciousness as a precondition to class self-abolition. (I've linked to a post from 2013 even though I now regard that post to have been too flippant in its approach to the underlying question. I still hold to the conclusion, if not to the style of argument.) Based on tracking atmospheric carbon concentration, the probable links of current weather phenomena to climate change, and some of the second-order effects in the literature, I estimate we have perhaps twenty more years until climate effects begin to erode the social wealth created in the twentieth century. If the preconditions for communism are both material and within mass consciousness (with mass consciousness being understood not as an ideal phenomenon, but as something conditioned by and forming part of the material conditions), then those preconditions are slipping away rather than strengthening.

Note that I am not postulating an eternity of capitalism. That is frankly an impossibility. With the drive to accumulate being so fundamental to capital as a social phenomenon, it is incompatible with human survival over the long term. Either we all die, or human self-preservation intervenes to replace capitalism not with communism, but with some form of as yet unheralded class society (because there will be scarcity, and with scarcity, "to each according to their needs" is impossible).

There is thus no longer a singular class struggle (if there ever was), but struggles on two fronts. The first, indispensable struggle--because without it the second struggle is impossible--is the struggle for human survival. It is the struggle against anything that threatens to accelerate climate transformation to a point where adaptation and survival are rendered impossible. The second struggle is over the shape of the new society that emerges among surviving humanity. It is the struggle to preserve and expand human freedom despite the damage we have done to ourselves, to defend every gain made by oppressed people in spite of capitalist rule and to ensure that those who consigned us to such straitened circumstances are not allowed to set terms for their own continued dominance.

The ugly not-quite-neologism I have come up with for this double struggle is "emancipatory biopolitics". (A quick Google search tells me that over the last 10 years, a few people who write about people like Foucault, Negri, and Agamben have used the phrase. Whether it is used in precisely the same sense as I intend, I do not know, nor do I particularly care at the moment.) The important point to make is that this struggle is not (just) a class struggle. It opens up a struggle within the ranks of what Marxism would term the working class. A pipeline welder, and a nurse volunteering as a medic in a water protectors' encampment, are both workers in a sense that Marx and most Marxists would understand. But they have taken opposite sides in the fundamental struggle for survival. It is only by regarding the former as a complete dupe of the capitalists that one can excuse his actions--and I have met enough workers who do destructive jobs to know that they are not mere dupes, that they are thinking beings as capable of rationalizing their actions as I am capable of rationalizing mine. And lest you decide that I have conveniently chosen an extreme case, consider more such dyads: A wall-builder, and a migrant attempting to climb a wall. A coal truck driver, and a child (maybe even his own) suffering asthma. There are two sides. One can change sides in this struggle--we must try to get more people to change sides--but ultimately one must take sides.

This is because the site of the struggle is not production, which under capitalism is necessarily capitalist production, that is, production for profit. It is a struggle over (social) reproduction, that is, the ways in which human beings collectively create the social conditions and material necessities for one generation to replace another. To the extent that capitalist production has either crowded out or taken parasitic control over other modes of social reproduction, it has become ever more the production of waste products (CO2 and leaked methane, of course, but also pollution in air, land and water, food waste, and human beings consigned to being treated as waste). The struggle against capitalist production over the conditions of social reproduction is the struggle over how much shit we will allow capital to choke us with.

I do not anticipate founding a "Party for Emancipatory Biopolitics." Not only is the phrase a barbarism, but the formation of a party would be beside the point. We have to ask ourselves, what type of knowledge, and what type of power, do we need to organize and build, in order to wage the double fight for survival and freedom? With no false modesty, I can honestly say that the point is not to have read Marx, Camatte, Foucault, or Negri. Such erudition pales in comparison with knowing where the water-treatment plants are, when the oil trains are scheduled to pass through town, the production and storage of food, or how to find and use stockpiled weaponry. For a negative example, of what can go wrong when the the forces of death are the ones who know and act on such matters, consider Jamie Allinson's account of ISIS in his essay "Disaster Islamism". But also comparatively unimportant (though sometimes tactically necessary) is knowledge of the names and personalities of local elected officials or the mechanisms of constitutional government. The types of knowledge created and mobilized by a party are at best of secondary importance. A "collective" instead, perhaps?

I make no strong claim to originality in this. My path to this outlook may be rare or unique, but the outlook itself is, I hope, not. Nor are the names especially important, either. But since my skills are primarily as a reader and a writer, let me end this on a comparatively optimistic note. Whatever the phrase "Collective for Emancipatory Biopolitics" lacks for stirring euphony, perhaps can be compensated for with a summary slogan: "Long live life! Death to death!"

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why I Am Resigning from the Socialist Party USA

Is there any genre of writing more tiresome than the leftist letter of resignation? The protagonist and narrator is always more sinned against than sinning, a paragon of good judgment mired in others' groupthink, and world-historical import of the decisive conflicts is inflated to a degree inversely proportional to the actual stakes of the disagreements. This will not be such a document. I almost decided not to write this, but since I did announce my decision to first join four years ago on this blog, and have defended once or twice since then even when I adjusted my own political outlook from that which first led me to join, it seemed to me appropriate to register my departure. That way, any regular readers--if I have any of those--might not be left with out-of-date impressions of my affiliations.

The fact of the matter is that the decision as to whether or not to renew my membership has been an annual agony. It has not helped matters that the time for me to decide whether or not to renew always, until this year, seemed to coincide with what one comrade whom I like has referred to as "the annual spring schism." The word "schism" implies more in the way of substantive political differences, though, than is appropriate. The general contours of these fights, played out primarily over social media, create an impression of a more or less homogeneous ideological old guard that is comfortable with the party as it is, and more heterogeneous groupings of relatively new members who sense that it is or must be changing. But that is an oversimplification. Close examination of the lines of demarcation usually reveal them to be fractally intertwined, with enclaves and exclaves embedded into one another.

In three prior years, I renewed either because of the combat--it seemed to reveal that things were broadly moving in what I considered the right direction--or in spite of it, because of promising developments on the local level. Indeed the comforting myth repeated by party leaders of longer standing is that the people who get most embroiled in the online fights are least involved in building the party on the ground, and that one should focus on working in one's local area. This year, for precisely this reason, I did not hesitate to renew: There seemed to be no "spring schism" (in fact, there is, but delayed), and things seemed to be going well for socialists here in Maine.

Well, they're not going that well in Maine. And if any local journalists have clicked looking for dish about local activists, sorry, you're not going to find that here. What I will say is that, in the Southern Maine local at least, the things I found repeatedly troubling at the national level about the culture of the SPUSA have been faithfully replicated: An aversion to political discussion and debate, and an emphasis on patching things up interpersonally (or scapegoating individuals when that proved impossible) in lieu of attempting to resolve political disagreements through a combination of argument and action. The new Eastern Maine local, which is less stagnant, seems not quite as uniformly prone to these faults, but there's a real danger of them succumbing to it as well. The notion that there was, in the party, a clear differentiation between online kibitzers and on-the-ground organizers, or that local efforts are an antidote to national malaise, has now become clear to me as what I referred to it above--a comforting myth. Knowing that it is a myth deprives it of all comfort. And lacking any apparent contradiction between what I find banal about the local party and moribund about the national one, there appears to me no available lever for change. At least not internally.

In my initial post announcing my decision to join the SPUSA, I referred to it, tentatively, as appearing "flexible." I recognize now that, coming from a political background of organizations that mistook rigidity for durability, what I mistook in the SPUSA for flexibility was mere softness. The organization is no more flexible than a marshmallow. Subject to pressure, it will nonetheless retain and return to its pre-existing shape. Rigid organizations grow, if they grow, by scaffolding themselves a piece at a time. Marshmallows grow, if they grow, through the amorphous accretion of fluff. In a tumultuous political situation, rigid organizations will shatter; if a marshmallow survives, it does so only by way of being crushed underfoot rather than set ablaze.

And so for the good of my mental health and family life, I will no longer allow myself to be fruitlessly exasperated. There are, within the SPUSA, people who strike me as being quite serious about the need for revolutionary transformation of society. Those I am sure I will see around in other contexts. For those for whom it functions as an ego-boost, a pink-shaded version of Kiwanis, or a secularized church, we're probably mutually better off parting ways.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Aphorisms toward a History of American Marxism

A materialist history of ideas is not an oxymoron: It would be a history of the institutions that shape and propagate the ideas in question.

A visible difference between the histories of European and (U.S.) American Marxism: The predominant institutions to shape and propagate the former have been political parties, trade unions, and in moments of rebellion against the bureaucratization of the first two, collectives. The predominant institutions of the latter have been the academic circle, the sect, and the cult.

This difference is conditioned in part by the differences in mainstream political and civic life between the two continents. U.S. political parties are not membership organizations with defined programs. They are not the means of ideological mobilization, but the ends. A rigid caste delimitation is maintained between the ideologist and the ideologized, so ideas are formed in more delimited elite circles: the think tank, the secret society, the religious denomination.

There have thus been two dominant trends in attempts to Americanize Marxism. One is to ape the methods of elite political formation--to attempt to turn the academic circle into the think tank; the cult into a secularized secret society; to capture the ballot line. The results are Marxisms unrecognizable as such when measured by the notions of a European orthodoxy. The other has been to attempt to Europeanize American political culture: to build a mass political party as such (the Socialist Labor Party and Socialist Party of the 1900s and 1910s; the pre-Popular Front Communist Party; arguably, the Black Panther Party as well); to revolutionize the trade union (first as tragedy: the IWW; then as farce: the more syndicalist formations within American Trotskyism); or to re-create an ideological collective on a European model (the Johnson-Forrest Tendency in the 1950s; the Sojourner Truth Organization and various Maoist formations in the 1970s). State repression has played an inarguable role in the decline of these attempts, especially of the first two types, but this does not negate the fact that all such attempts have degenerated into the forms proper to American Marxism: the circle, the sect, or the cult.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Horse Dances and Goat Songs

I have been reading Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, in the newest version put out by University of Nebraska Press. I am glad to have encountered this text, an essential reference in any discussion of the history and spiritual practices of North American native peoples, in such a complete critical edition, as it helps clarify even to a casual reader which aspects of the text originate faithfully from the visions of Lakota warrior and medicine man Black Elk, and which are intrusions of Neihardt's authorial voice. Neihardt, a poet and journalist, first met Black Elk in 1931. It would not be fair to call Neihardt "a man of his time," since in terms of his respect for the intelligence and dignity of Native American peoples, he was far in advance of nearly all white men of his day. Yet there are traces in Neihardt's prose of a condescension, and a casual acceptance of the race "science" of the pre-World War II Euro-American intellectual atmosphere, that sit poorly with this modern reader.

This became particularly clear for me in Appendix 5, which reproduces a column that Neihardt wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describing his first encounter with Black Elk. In the very first sentence, he speaks of "a contemporary antiquity that, in certain cultural respects, may be described as pre-Homeric." What he means by "pre-Homeric" is spelled out, in embarrassing detail, at the end of the column's lengthy concluding paragraph.

Black Elk's "visions, as set forth in careful detail for this writer, rank easily in beauty and profundity of significance with the supreme things in the rich literature of the Aryan peoples. [sic] ... Unfortunately, for us white people, literature, in our sense, never developed among Black Elk's people. His culture never passed the evolutionary stage of the dance ritual and accordingly the great vision can be adequately expressed only in the dance ceremony, with its accompanying song. One portion of the vision alone--the horse dance, which is poetry of a sublime order--would require some five or six hours to produce.... Black Elk is truly a great poet; and if ever our world shall be privileged to see and understand his masterpiece, the horse dance--as this writer hopes it may--there will be few to question the indubitable truth of this statement."

The reference to "evolution" betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of culture, and the contrasting of dance ritual to "literature, in our sense" indicates a convenient forgetting of the facts of the Homeric and post-Homeric antecedents of that literature. Unlike Homer--who, if he existed, may never have scratched so much as a character into the earth--Black Elk was capable of writing, albeit only in Lakota. And following the Homeric epochs, the next great Hellenic creative outburst, to which "we" trace what is called literature, was what is now called "tragedy." That word in most European languages shares a common ancestor with the modern Greek word τραγούδι, meaning "song." And what did that ancestral word mean in ancient Attic dialect? "Goat." Ancient Athenian men wrapped themselves in goat skins to sing and dance in groups, and from that we now have the written words of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Together with their less reputable cousin comedy, these goat-songs came to be known as drama, which by the time Neihardt was writing had re-accommodated itself to song and dance in the form of musical theater, both on stage and in a new sort of painted vision of shadow and light called "film." A big hit on Broadway that year was a show called The Band Wagon which featured a song entitled "Dancing in the Dark" that became a hit for Bing Crosby. Walking around St. Louis, Neihardt might have heard a passerby whistling the tune.

The emergence of boundaries between various modes of expression is something against which artists and visionaries have rebelled nearly everywhere and every time such boundaries have been around to rebel against. While it can fairly be stated that genre boundaries tend to be an emergent property of "civilization" (for which read, class-divided societies) the precise mapping of those boundaries varied not only over time, as an evolutionary perspective would have it, but with the overdetermined ideological structures developed by dominant classes to legitimate their rule. For example: Christian clerics embraced the liturgical use of instrumental music as a point of differentiation from both Judaism and Islam, with their austere emphases on the unadorned masculine voice. With the lyrics and order of, say, a mass prescribed and known to all, the means of expressing devotion and passion in Western European music shifted from the word to the ensemble of voice and instrumentation, from the melodic line to the harmonic combination. From this decision to J. S. Bach's Mass in B Minor there is not a straight line, but a series of breaks, discontinuities, and alternate pathways. Nor was the victory of the ensemble over the soloist, the composer over the librettist, ever final. From Mozart's collaboration with Schikaneder, through Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Wagner's dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk, to Schoenberg's Gurrelieder or Ned Rorem's simple settings of poems by the likes of Wallace Stevens, the musician longs to be reunited with the poet. This longing is at least partially understood by Neihardt himself, in that he recognizes Black Elk as one of his own, a poet.

As I hope to have shown with my random walk through the cultural leavings of what is called the West, both high and low, "literature, in our sense" has never been as far away from the horse-dance and the goat-song and Neihardt seems to have been taught. Nor is Black Elk's vision, and its description as relayed through Neihardt, far from what might have been recognizable as holy to Homer, or Sophocles, or the prophet Ezekiel. Just as classical sculpture has literally been whitened, by erosion of once vibrantly painted surfaces down to a durable marble base, the literature of the ancients has been metaphorically whitened, through the construction of dubious genealogies that retroactively project the modern myth of the West onto cultural artifacts that should amaze through their strangeness and multiplicity. It is possible to read Black Elk through Homer. It may now be more necessary to read Homer through Black Elk.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Asymmetry

The fiction blog Asymmetry has been at it for a couple of months, long enough that their aesthetic is coming clear. Today, they published a piece of psychological horror, of flash fiction length, entitled "Cynthia". I wrote it. But to get a sense of what they are up to, I would recommend reading the early stories contributed by editor Nathan Kamal, which are some of the more interesting pieces they have put out, and the ones that convinced me that this new endeavor would be a good spot for my story.

Any writers reading this who have a piece that sits uncomfortable at an interstitial point between genres ought to check them out, and submit work to them. Anyone who likes to read that sort of story, keep track of this venture and see what it puts out.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Meta-Anthology 2016

Here I go again. This features short stories that appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, Best American Mystery Stories 2016, 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. Because of the lag built into the editorial processes of those volumes, the stories in question were first published in the year 2015. I make no pretense of this comprising the best stories of that year. Just the stories that best exemplify what "anthologies" (from the Greek άνθος, "the blossom of a flower," or metaphorically, the highest or best; and λόγος, "word") ought to be about.

Megan Abbott, "The Little Men," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Bibliomysteries.

To be quite honest I am not entirely sure what happened in this story. The narrative so effectively evoked the main character's increasing paranoia that it collapses the line between the real and the imagined, leaving the reader with the unmistakable smell of gas and the indisputable fact of death.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Apollo," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, April 13, 2015.

There is more going on beneath the surface of this eleven page story than on the surface of most novels. Bonus points for any reader who can pinpoint the ways the narrator of this story subtly undermines his own contentions and beliefs.

Steve Almond, "Okay, Now Do You Surrender?" from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Cincinnati Review, vol. 11, no. 2.

When my meds are out of whack I bear a bit too much resemblance to the protagonist of this story. The daughter seems a bit too young to support the twist, but it was otherwise entertaining enough that I decided to suspend disbelief.

Tahmima Anam, "Garments," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Freeman's, October 2015.

The challenge of writing a good sweatshop story is that it is hard to convey exhaustion if one has not lived it, and hard to find the time to write if one is living through that exhaustion. While there may be some sweatshop poets in Bengali, few if any of them have been translated. Anglophone residents of the republic of letters have to trust that Anam has bridged this gap well enough to tell us about life at the other end of the supply chain.

Charlie Jane Anders, "Rat Catcher's Yellows" from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Press Start to Play.

I read this story when it first came out in a themed anthology, and already considered it to be one of the better pieces from 2015. A compelling portrayal of how love manages to survive the circumstances, and even the minds, which first gave rise to it, it holds up well on a second reading.

Andrea Barrett, "Wonders of the Shore," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House

This is a very bookish story--literally--but I am a very bookish person. A kind of 19th Century "Missed Connection" unfolds in the margins of some popularized natural history.

Charles Baxter, "Avarice," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

This is either the most anti-capitalist Jesus story of the year, or the most Jesus-y anti-capitalist story. And so much more besides.

Matt Bell, "Toward the Company of Others," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House 65.

A novel excerpt that works on its own as a short story, and thus makes me want to seek out and read Scrapper, whence it came. The world needs as many Detroit stories as possible.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, "The Bears," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Glimmer Train, Spring/Summer 2015.

More than a hundred years later, our writers and our neuroscientists are still catching up with William James's early psychological insights. Along the way Bynum refashions the Goldilocks story into an allegory of the clueless disconnection of contemporary life.

Ted Chiang, "The Great Silence," from Best American Short Stories 2016 and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in e-flux.

This may be the best story of 2015, though I did not have occasion to read it until it was reprinted in the May/June 2016 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the same issue in which my story "Caribou: Documentary Fragments" appeared). My message to Ted Chiang: "You be good. I love you."

Chris Drangle, "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in The Oxford American.

What passes for country music these days isn't really country music any more. This story is like an old-time country song in prose form, complete with war, tragedy, sex, liquor, and the love of a dog.

Louise Erdrich, "The Flower," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, June 29, 2015.

I loved this story when it was first published. In a different layout, I found more to love--it's odd, but certain sentences stand out better when stretching across a full page than when in a third-of-a-page column, and vice versa. Such as, for example, Anishinaabe practices in the naming of girls.

Yalitza Ferreras, "The Letician Age," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Colorado Review, vol. 42, no. 2.

Reminds me, peculiarly, of N. K. Jemisin's novel The Fifth Season, insofar as, when geological time and human time intersect, pliable organic matter usually ends up singed or crushed.

Kendra Fortmeyer, "Things I Know to Be True," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in One Story.

I suspect this was set in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, rather than contemporaneously, in the wake of our Endless Wars, because today the story told would be encompassed within a few abbreviations and stock phrases, such as PTSD or paranoid schizophrenia. Fortmeyer set herself the challenge of telling a story through a narrator whose words, literally, escape him, and met it admirably.

Tom Franklin, "Christians," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Murder under the Oaks.

Some Southern Gothic worthy of Flannery O'Connor, except this one appears to have been based upon real yet obscure incidents of the class struggle in southern Alabama.

Meron Hadero, "The Suitcase," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Missouri Review, vol. 38, no. 3.

An Ethiopian-American O'Henry story, redolent of injera and berbere. There are many world cultures in which hospitality and honor are bound up with one another, so I also ended up chuckling with recognition in those places where Ethiopians sounded strangely like Greeks or Ashkenazi Jews.

Smith Henderson, "Treasure State," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House 64.

Haven't we all wished we could cave in our fathers' heads like pumpkins? Oh, is that not quite a universal sentiment? Well, the pumpkin was asking for it.

Robert Lopresti, "Street of the Dead House," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in nEvermore!

There are a few too many Poe retellings in the world, but this among the better ones that I have seen. There is something in the intellectual atmosphere that is leading many a writer to try to give voice to the beasts.

Elizabeth McCracken, "Mistress Mickle All at Sea," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story.

The story accretes, like a pearl on a grain of sand, around this aphorism: "The world was their oyster. An oyster was not enough to sustain anyone."

Erin McGraw, "Priest," from 2017 Pushcart Prize 2017. First appeared in Image.

Pascal's wager does not always work.

Caille Millner, "The Politics of the Quotidian," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in ZYZZYVA no. 104.

I wanted to dislike the story. After all, I am so sick of stories and novels set in academia, have a general, principled stance that the world would be better with fewer of them, not more. But at a certain point it hit that this was my story--the impostor syndrome, the unexpected failure to play a game one scarcely knew existed--and then it became more than my story, with added intersections overdetermining the outcome. Roland Barthes looms large in the text, but Pierre Bourdieu lurks in the subtext.

Michael Noll, "The Tank Yard," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2015.

This could have been one of the best stories of all time, not merely one of the best stories of 2015, had it not taken a moralistic turn toward the end. The turn was ambiguous enough, however, to keep the story from melting into a puddle of cant. Rural desperation and methamphetamine bond to one another as tightly as anhydrous ammonia and H2O.

Dominica Phetteplace, "The Story of a True Artist," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in ZYZZYVA

The difference between being "Gen X" and "Millennial" seems to be roughly the difference between being imprisoned in the Panopticon, and being born into it. Dominica Phetteplace's writing brings me the closest I can be to understanding what that difference means.

Karen Russell, "The Prospectors," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, June 8, 2015.

To snatch back life from death is the biggest steal of them all. To know the fact of one's death well enough to be able to forget it is what it takes to become a ghost.

Sofia Samatar, "Meet Me in Iram," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Meet Me in Iram / Those Are Pearls.

A lost city, or a tribe, of which one may imagine oneself to be a part.

Vandana Singh, "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared on Tor.com.

Vandana Singh is so comprehensively, multi-facetedly brilliant as to vaporize all trace of writerly ego. No one else can write about the possibility space of impossible machines half so convincingly.

Micah Stack, "The G.R.I.E.F." from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in The Oxford American

It's hard out there for us queer hip-hop heads. A little bit of fantasy helps the hate flow smooth.

Lisa Taddeo, "Forty-Two," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in New England Review.

Is there any Schadenfreude better than watching terrible people make one another, and themselves, miserable?

Brian Tobin, "Entwined," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2015.

I like this as a voice-driven driven story, capturing the iterative nature of guilt and depression, despite the somewhat contrived nature of its revelations along the way. I like the fact that redemption and forgiveness cannot be given by facts, when the person who feels the guilt does not wish for either.

Catherynne M. Valente, "Planet Lion," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Uncanny Magazine May/June 2015.

"What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?" I like stories that begin as jokes but become sublime.

John Edgar Wideman, "Williamsburg Bridge," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Harper's Magazine, November 2015.

I recently had a story rejection pounce on one of my meta-fictional digressions, so it is a relief to see that someone can get away with them in print. To be fair, Wideman does it better.