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July 14, 2010

R.I.P. Harvey Pekar

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 10:22 am

Harvey Pekar died yesterday at his home in Cleveland. He was 70 years old, and those who have been following his career, or at least saw the movie based on his life, American Splendor, knew that he was diagnosed with cancer years ago. However, it is not yet clear which of his many health problems finally got to him.

Pekar was a fine writer, though largely ignored because he happened to write for the comic-book medium. I first heard of Pekar through his association with his friend and occasional illustrator, the underground comics superstar Robert Crumb. But Pekar’s work could not be more different than Crumb’s surrealistic style. More than anyone else, he showed that the comics can be a subtle yet powerful vehicle for realistic, human stories.


June 20, 2010

Postscript on Cultural Keynesianism

Just a couple of days after writing the last post, which referenced Camille Paglia’s comparison of postmodernists to Wall Street financiers, a book I had recently ordered arrived in the mail: David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, from 1991, when the philosophy still had very high cachet in academe. De Man was a Yale professor who had emigrated from Belgium after WWII, and was one of the primary proselytizers for deconstruction. Thought by his cult-like admirers to be a man of the Left (though his actual writing is rather apolitical), he was discovered after his death to have written pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles for Belgium’s collaborationist newspaper Le Soir in the early 1940’s. De Man turns out in Lehman’s investigation to have been a lifelong liar, bigamist, and petty thief. An opponent of deconstruction could use these facts as an ad hominem attack on such ideas (and in the wake of the scandalous revelations, many did), but Lehman does a great job of avoiding arguments, on the one hand that deconstruction necessarily entails the despicable facts of de Man’s life, and on the other that such facts are irrelevant to it.

I was particularly struck by this passage:

This is not a pipe.

Has deconstruction hit Wall Street? Richard Rand of the University of Alabama, co-translator of Derrida’s Glas, thinks so. In the spring of 1989, when Michael Milken was slapped with a ninety-eight-count indictment on charges of racketeering and securities fraud, Rand- an English professor- sent a letter to the Wall Street Journal defending the misunderstood junk-bond king as a “deconstructive financier.” Rand stated that the two things he had studied with rapt attention over the course of twenty years were Jacques Derrida’s texts and the Journal’s financial pages. To Rand’s mind there was quite a continuity between the two, and particularly between Derrida’s theoretical maneuvers and Milken’s leveraged buyouts. Milken had apparently made a deconstructive move when he turned the junk bond from “a ‘marginal’ (and despised) ‘supplement’ to the overall investment machine” into “a central and dynamic feature.” With his leveraged buyouts he had accomplished a “reversal” and “rewriting”- two more terms from the Derrida lexicon- of the merger-and-acquisition strategies already in place in postwar America.

There is nothing outside the text.

This Rand guy reminds me of a character named Murray in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, an academic who has abandoned arts and letters for the signs and wonders of the supermarket’s cereal isle. Reading Lehman’s account of de Man also brought to mind DeLillo’s main character, Jack Gladney, professor of the trendy new field he has pioneered, Hitler Studies.

But what is the significance of the parallel? Again I would refer to the Paul Cantor essay about hyperinflation in Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” He writes that “Everything threatens to become unreal once money loses its reality.” Severed from its origin as a real commodity valued by real actors in a market economy, money becomes a manipulative game, and so to does language when severed from reality. I don’t think anybody will dispute Saussure’s insight that the relation between sign and signifier is arbitrary, but in no way does this have the nihilistic implications of post-structuralism. The selection of gold, say, as a medium of exchange has a mixture of objective and arbitrary qualities to it. Austrians stress the former, but Keynesian and other neoclassical theories tend to see only the latter, with the result that manipulation of the money is seen as the sole key to prosperity. But it is folly to see society as reducible to linguistic discourse and economy as reducible to finance.

June 14, 2010

A Critique of Cultural Keynesianism

Filed under: Contra Keynes,Economics,Literature — rmangum @ 9:07 pm

I’ve often wondered why most literary and cultural theory is Marxist. Conservative claims notwithstanding, most academic intellectuals, especially those in the humanities, are not Marxists. They are not radicals, mostly, but rather polite NPR-listening Democrats. So why isn’t there, for instance, a Keynesian critical theory? A post over at the blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything provides a good example of what this might look like.

The post is quite rambling, proceeding from a scene in Jane Austen that provides a metaphor for capitalist speculation to ruminations on economic metaphors in general, to the current Keynesian stance on whether “WWII solved the Great Depression”, and then on to a quasi-“Crusoe” analysis (islanders trading shells) of the role of money and representation. Obviously, since I think Keynesian economics is wrong, I find that Keynesian assumptions mar the post. But otherwise it is quite interesting, especially comparing it with Paul Cantor’s essay “Hyperinflation and Hyperreality,” on Thomas Mann’s Wiemar-era short story “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” which similarly explores, from an Austrian perspective, the parallels between representation and value in money and representation and value in culture.

A few points:

1) Not long ago, I had coffee with an undergraduate who reported that he had just read Derrida and Lacan on Poe and was excited by the idea that criticism might be the new literature. Twenty years ago, when I read Derrida and Lacan on Poe, my professors teased me the same exciting possibility. It occurs to me now that the idea is about as old as, and has certain structural parallels to, the notion that finance is the new manufacturing. Like criticism over literature, finance traditionally supervised manufacturing yet was thought to be parasitic upon it and less “creative” than it.

Finance is not necessarily parasitic upon production, but it tends to replace real economic activity in a central banking regime, which breaks the link between money and real wealth. Likewise criticism is not necessarily parasitic upon literature. Just as one can probably find money and finance as soon as soon as trade emerges, so too literary theory is almost as old as literature (there’s no reason to assume it began ex nihilo with Aristotle’s Poetics). But the period from the 1970’s to the 1990’s was a sort of “theory bubble.” The metaphor has already been deployed by Camille Paglia in her essay “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” from 1991, which may well be the point when the bubble began to burst. (The equivalent of the economic “flight into real value” being the flight of intelligent students out of the humanities.)

2) I don’t see how Keynes’ theory of the “propensity to consume” necessarily entails equal distribution of wealth (or at any rate a more equal distribution of wealth).

But according to Keynes, there is a problem with concentrating wealth in the hands of the rich: they don’t spend as much of it. They aren’t, after all, in need. “Consumption — to repeat the obvious — is the sole end and object of all economic activity,” writes Keynes, in a sentence quoted by Swartz. That is, money in the bank is for the interim worthless; its value is suspended until it is put into use. Give a rich person ten dollars, and he is likely to put nine dollars in his savings account. Give a poor person ten dollars, and he will have spent all ten by lunchtime on food and services, and its beneficiaries will be people who have to work for a living and who are therefore more likely to spend it themselves. The original ten dollars, if spent by a person of modest means, will multiply their value as they work their way through the economic system.

If aggregate consumption is the goal, and if higher incomes mean lower consumption, then it wouldn’t matter if wealth was redistributed. Consumption by the rich would go up, but consumption by the poor would go down. In fact, we are led to the paradox that we would all be poor if we were all rich, and all rich if all poor.

3) The moral of the story seems to be that when the rich have most of the money and hoard it, the symbolic value of money becomes somewhat unreal—the conversion of money, which is imaginary, into value, which is real, breaks down.

Again, see the Cantor essay on how this is precisely what happens because of the government monopoly on the production of money. But these views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, since a left-libertarian analysis would find that inequality of wealth increases with government monopoly. One can see a bit of this in Cantor and Mann, who find that capitalists (speculators and war-profiteers specifically) are in fact the main beneficiaries of inflation. (There is also a conservative thrust to both, too, but I won’t go into that.)

4) The whole analysis of islanders using shells as a medium of exchange imports facets which characterize a modern central-banking economy into a primitive market situation. Shells would not emerge as money if they had no intrinsic value to the islanders in addition to being a medium of exchange. Therefore it does not matter that “The durability of the shells misrepresents the nature of fish and breadfruit” because the shells are not mere stand-ins for other goods but also goods in themselves. But even if they were just symbolic, it is in the nature of all symbols, all media, to distort what they represent. This is in a sense a defect, but we only use a symbolic medium if it has advantages over the “real thing” as well (usually simplification, but “durability” often applies as well, especially with words).  The point is that in a free market we are much less likely to confuse the map with the territory than we do in a fiat money economy.

5) The question has to be asked of every liberal follower of Keynes: how do you square the belief that in the economy consumption is king with the desire for a less consumerist society? I have my own thoughts on this subject.

May 16, 2010

Sir Patrick Spens

Filed under: Literature,State,War — rmangum @ 11:52 am
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The Scottish ballad tradition contains some of the most haunting and beautiful poetry ever composed, a fact all the more striking since the authorship of most of it is anonymous. Fans of American folk, bluegrass, and country music will find it the lyrical origins of our most vital body of song, expressing a powerful sense of death and loss. “Sir Patrick Spens” has this, and something more: a protest of political power. It is a powerful indictment of a king’s power to send his subjects off to pointless death’s on fool’s errands.

The king sits in Dumferling town
Drinking the bluid-red wine:
‘O whar will I get a guid sailor
To sail this ship of mine?’
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king’s richt knee:
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the sea.’
The king has written a braid letter
And signed it wi’ his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the sand.
The first line that Sir Patrick read
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his ee.
‘O wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time o’the year,
To sail upon the sea?
‘Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid ship sails the morn.’
‘O say na sae, my master dear,
For I fear a deadly storm.’
‘Late, late yestre’en I saw the new moon
Wi’the old moon in his arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to harm.’
O our Scots nobles were richt laith
To weet their cork-heeled shoon,
But lang or a’ the play were played
Their hats they swam aboon.
O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
Wi’their fans into their hand,
Or ere they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the land.
O lang, lang may the ladies stand
Wi’their gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain dear lords,
For they’ll never see them mair.
Half o’er, half o’er to Aberdour
It’s fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens
Wi’the Scots lords at his feet.

In the first stanza we meet the king, who “sits in Dumferling town/Drinking the blude-reid wine.” Kings sit on thrones and hold court, but this king apparently occupies the whole town, signifying how places become identified with “great” political figures (think “Washington”). His wine is “blude-reid” because he is a parasite living off of the blood of the people he rules. It is no accident that the tyrannical king Vlad Dracula, famous for his enthusiasm for torture, bequeathed his name to the most famous fictional vampire. The king wants someone to “sail this ship of mine.” The ship of state is considered the sovereign’s personal property. No sooner is the question asked then someone at court pipes up to volunteer someone else for the job, in this case “an eldern knicht” who “Sat at the king’s richt knee.” It’s always the same story, old men sending off younger ones to die. The knicht may have been a warrior once, but is now just another courtier. He is a right-knee man, which is a much lower stature than a right-hand man. Today the knight would be a security adviser or a pentagon bureaucrat.

When we first meet our titular hero, he is innocently “walking on the sand,” which contrasts with the king’s sitting at the seat power. He has received a letter from the king, who “signed it wi’ his hand.” It is the same in Dylan Thomas’ “The Hand that Signed the Paper,” which declares, “Great is the hand that holds dominion over/Man by a scribbled name.” The hand is a metonymn for political power. The signature is proof of guilt in a contract killing. The king is represented by his limbs, his hand and knee. His body is the body politic (an idea illustrated on the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan), and his subjects are nothing but a multitude of appendages which may be used, severed, and then disposed with. Other characters in the poem are known by their accessories, tools by which ordinary people live, such as the sailors’ shoes and hats, the latter of which will be found swimming on the water, signaling their fate. At the end of the poem we do find reference to an appendage not the king’s: “thair lies Sir Patrick Spens/Wi’ the Scots lords at his feit.” This is a morbid parody of the opening scene of the king with his knights at court.

True to the Scots ballad tradition, “Sir Patrick Spens” highlights the experience of women, who are as affected by the adventurism of government that sends young men out to die as the men themselves. Two stanzas are given to the ladies, wives and mothers who bear the brunt of the loss when the state demands sacrifice. In the poem they represent an alternative body politic which, sitting or standing, may not be made whole because their men have been severed from them.

The poem leaves out a great deal of the story, such as the nature of the mission and how the crew died, but we can imagine any of the innumerable suicide missions a king can dream up. The point is that the brave knight met Leviathan and was destroyed. But Sir Patrick has the last laugh: we know his name, which is immortalized in the ballad, but not that of the ruler.

March 26, 2010

An ill-advised foray into poetry

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 10:41 am
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Once upon a time, my brother and I were going to collaborate on a comic-book that would be a gothic/surrealist fantasy, a sort of Alice in Wonderland with adults instead of children. Our characters would awake to find themselves in a frightening and ever-shifting landscape, with only fragmentary memories of their previous lives, and no knowledge of how they came to be in that place. Are they dead or dreaming? They would have to learn how to navigate the new world as well as deal with its demiurge, a character we called “Mr. Trumble” (the name I see as a portmanteau of “tremble” and “trouble”, but this is an afterthought), who offered himself as a guide through the wilderness. Should they trust him?

The comic was to be called “Spiderland”. I did not invent the name, but stole it from the title of an album by the band Slint. The title seemed so evocative to me because of my lifelong fear and fascination of spiders. An early memory I have is of seeing a large spider and stomping on it, only to have seemingly hundreds of little spiders run out from under my foot. I did not know at the time that mother spiders carried their brood upon their back, and thought I might have created a hundred creepy crawly things by killing one. So the spider to me became a symbol of nature’s fecundity and indestructibility, it’s thwarting of human actions as well as the guilt which comes from all violence (much like the albatross in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).

So when our comic project was shelved I couldn’t resist retaining the name for another creative work, this time a poem I wrote for my creative writing class. The poem “Spiderland” has nothing to do with the plot of our story (though I retain the Alice in Wonderland allusions), and perhaps not much with the spider of my memory. Here I associate it more with human consciousness than nature, but already from the aforementioned spider-stomping it had become an overdetermined symbol. Anyway, here it is:


Away from placid pools
Far from the adulating sun
The slow spider winds her way
Down, down, down.

How deep goes the spider-hole?
All the way down.

Calm as a star
Curious as a crystal

The slow spider slips her thread
(thin white line parting sea of black)
Down, down, down.

There are no effete tulips
or pragmatic pine-trees
upon a benignant plain
in Spiderland.

Only strand linking to strand
Webs spun within webs.

Her subtle, inquiring legs are
Affixed to her logical body,
Anchored by silk chain,
Clinging to the web,
Hung from air.

How deep goes the spider-hole?
All the way down.

There is an imagist influence, but my poem is too abstract for imagism. There is also the influence, I retroactively determine, of Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”, where a spider is compared to the poet’s soul. Even more strikingly resonant are these lines by the gnostic theologian Valentinus (hat tip to Harold Bloom):

I see in spirit that all are hung
I know in spirit that all are borne
Flesh hanging from soul

Soul clinging to air
Air hanging from upper atmosphere

Crops rushing forth from the deep
A babe rushing forth from the womb.

At a still more abstract level than Valentinus, I find this quote from Beckett relevant to the journey of the spider-soul down the spider-hole:

The only fertile research is excavatory, immersive, a contraction of the spirit, a descent. The artist is active, but negatively, shrinking from the nullity of extracircumferential phenomena, drawn into the core of the eddy.

And what Beckett says of the artist is strangely applied in this excerpt from an interview with Harold Bloom, speaking about another literary demiurge, Yahweh, which then brings us back to Whitman:

In a perfectly, I think, Kabbalistic way that Yahweh may have come into existence by this act of Zimzum, this act of contraction or withdrawal, which means that he diminished himself in order to get started. Which I find fascinatingly parallel to Walt Whitman, in which I again follow Scholem: who used to say in conversations with me, that in a secular world somehow Whitman by some miracle without knowing anything about Kabbalah had in effect reinvented his own Kabbalah, and I think that is true. Whitman throughout Song of Myself and elsewhere is always saying that he is expanding, that he is getting to contain more and more multitudes, that his sense of self is steadily increasing. But in fact he too is always contracting and withdrawing. He is endlessly elusive and evasive, and the worlds that he creates and ruins also seem to come from some process of self-withdrawal.

But don’t take these a posteriori quotations too seriously. I’m just wondering on what I wrote more than a year ago and “musing, venturing, throwing- seeking the spheres, to connect them”.

March 15, 2010

Libertarian Literary Kicks

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 2:53 pm
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To be conscious of the social context of art seems automatically to entail a leftist orientation. But a theory is possible that is both avant-garde and capitalist.
-Camille Paglia

I forget who said that though libertarians defend the right to bear arms, the average libertarian is far more likely to pick up a book than a gun. At the core of the libertarian world there is an intense book culture, which is one of its glories. In short, we are nerds. But when we think about the literature of liberty, who do we have in mind? Depending on your particular bent, you might think of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard; or Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman; or maybe Benjamin Tucker, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Lysander Spooner; perhaps someone more outré like Max Stirner, or a newcomer like Kevin Carson. But what about Shakespeare? Dostoevsky? Cervantes? Percy Shelly? Joseph Conrad? Probably not. Those named in the former group, for all their differences, are political and economic thinkers who took up the issue of human freedom as their primary concern. The latter are all entertainers. Brilliant ones, sublime ones perhaps, but what can they as artists contribute to the conversation about liberty?

Marxism long ago took a cultural turn, and hence there is a voluminous supply of books on art and culture from a Marxist perspective, but from a libertarian one its just slim pickings. True, many libertarians are converted first through novels, by Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlen, but its time to get out of the sci-fi ghetto and take up the Canon. (Not that I’m putting down sci-fi as such. I’m a big fan myself, though not really of those particular authors.) Pioneering work here has been done by Professor Paul Cantor, and I am greatly excited to learn from the recent Austrian Scholars Conference that he has co-edited a book with Isabel Paterson biographer Stephen Cox, Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which is available online. Some of Cantor’s essays have been around in different forms for a while, but its nice to have them all collected in one place, along with some intriguing new works by other writers on Whitman, Willa Cather, Cervantes, and especially Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. And Cantor’s ideas on the arts and the market have been presented in a great lecture series from some years back at the Mises Institute.

As a libertarian and an English student, I’m always interested on hearing libertarian perspectives on art and culture, but also I have some additional concerns to add. My literary taste was formed before my politics, and I’ve always enjoyed literature that is apolitical, such as Wallace Stevens’ poetry, the stories of Jorge-Luis Borges, and the plays of Oscar Wilde. But I know Cantor’s work well enough to know that he isn’t creating anything like a libertarian version of culture-studies, which politicizes everything. He respects the autonomy of art. And yet I do happen to agree with the cultural-Marxist rallying cry that “art is not created in a vacuum”. When I inspect the politics of the authors already mentioned, I find they have sympathies with my own. Stevens by many accounts was an Old-Right Taft Republican who opposed the income tax, and Borges often called himself a “Spencerian anarchist” in a Latin American milieu whose politics were mostly divided between Nazis and Communists. As for Wilde, while he espouses some misguided social-democratic views in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” he was an admirer of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and once said “The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.” So what does this mean? That we cannot escape ideology, that there is no autonomous aesthetics? George Orwell took up this issue in an essay on Swift, appropriately titled “Politics vs. Literature”:

For a great deal of his waking life, even the most cultivated person has no aesthetic feelings whatever, and the power to have aesthetic feelings is very easily destroyed. When you are frightened, or hungry, or are suffering from toothache or sea-sickness, King Lear is no better from your point of view than Peter Pan. You may know in an intellectual sense that it is better, but that is simply a fact which you remember: you will not feel the merit of King Lear until you are normal again. And aesthetic judgement can be upset just as disastrously—more disastrously, because the cause is less readily recognized—by political or moral disagreement. If a book angers, wounds or alarms you, then you will not enjoy it, whatever its merits may be. If it seems to you a really pernicious book, likely to influence other people in some undesirable way, then you will probably construct an aesthetic theory to show that it has no merits. Current literary criticism consists quite largely of this kind of dodging to and fro between two sets of standards. And yet the opposite process can also happen: enjoyment can overwhelm disapproval, even though one clearly recognizes that one is enjoying something inimical.

It is often argued, at least by people who admit the importance of subject-matter, that a book cannot be “good” if it expresses a palpably false view of life. We are told that in our own age, for instance, any book that has genuine literary merit will also be more or less “progressive” in tendency. This ignores the fact that throughout history a similar struggle between progress and reaction has been raging, and that the best books of any one age have always been written from several different viewpoints, some of them palpably more false than others. In so far as a writer is a propagandist, the most one can ask of him is that he shall genuinely believe in what he is saying, and that it shall not be something blazingly silly. To-day, for example, one can imagine a good book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, pacifist, an anarchist, perhaps by an old-style Liberal or an ordinary Conservative: one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, a Buchmanite or a member of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction.

So a book need not be libertarian to be good, which is a relief since few of the great authors of history have been, but Cantor’s work show that there is more libertarianism in great literature than has previously been imagined. Also, when Orwell writes about the “false view of life” I can’t help but be reminded of Ayn Rand’s “sense of life” critical approach. A more expansive perspective that remains libertarian is possible.

Another concern for me is my own affiliation with a specifically Left-libertarian perspective. (One question which occurs to me as a left-libertarian that the basically Mises/Hayek approach of Cantor & Co. does not undertake is why, if the seeming panoply of economic approaches to culture are all on “The Left”, they are all a variant of Marxism rather than some other form of anti-market stance, such as anarcho-socialism or Keynesianism.) I take the Paglia quote above as a truism, but I now view the word “capitalism” is dubious, more likely to describe the corporate fascism we are used to rather than a genuine free market, and do not self-apply it. I do consider my orientation to be leftist, though not the politically correct quasi-Marxist one that predominates academe. My own work, proceeding from here will be founded on the notion that not only is a theory possible that is both avant-garde and left-libertarian, but that a left-libertarian theory can only be avant-garde.

March 1, 2010

These are the ways the world ends

Filed under: Literature,Utopia,War — rmangum @ 9:58 pm
Tags: , ,

The latest episode of Battleship Pretension is on Post-apocalyptic film. The related ideas of apocalypse, eschatology, utopia and dystopia, have a special interest for me, and they have come up in the past week without my seeking them. First, I have been reading William Langland’s medieval visionary poem Piers Plowman, which is apocalyptic, but more in the classical sense. Second, my Dad calls to tell me of  his concern about my state of emergency preparedness because of a near-death-experience book he has recently become aware of which contains prophecies of, among other things, a terrorist attack on Salt Lake City and an invasion of the Rocky Mountains (a la Red Dawn) by Russia and China. Now this BP episode. Okay, so I’ll buy some bottled water and some extra round for my .38.

Now, the boys are a little fuzzy on the definition of “apocalypse“, its specific theology within Christianity, as well as its parameters as a film genre (it’s a book genre, too, counting J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, and recently Cormac McCarthy as notable practitioners, and this might or might not complicate the issue). However, they wisely stick to specifically post-apocalyptic film rather than apocalyptic films, the latter being mostly disaster films such as those made by Roland Emmerich (rightly disdained by Battleship Pretension). Case in point, I’d classify Night of the Living Dead as apocalyptic, and Dawn of the Dead as post-apocalyptic. They mostly avoid the novice mistake of lumping these in with dystopian films, which are a different bag altogether. Post-apocalyptic fiction concerns what happens after society falls apart. Dystopian fiction concerns societies which “work”, more or less, but are oppressive and/or perverse. The confusion comes because both typically concern societies in the future, and a dystopia may well come about because of an apocalyptic event (such as a world war). I could go on and on. I would like to quibble, however, about the inclusion of Planet of the Apes which, despite its twist ending which reveals the world to be post-apocalyptic from Chuck Heston’s perspective, seems to me more dystopian than anything. The portrayal of ape society is meant to comment on human society, as much as the non-human worlds visited by Gulliver do in Gulliver’s Travels.

Apocalypse strikes me as a uniquely Western theme, perhaps because of the legacy of Christianity, the most successful of the many apocalyptic sects of the ancient near east. St. John of Patmos is the first great apocalyptic poet, but it seems to me that the apocalyptic imagination only gets stronger the further we get into modernity. It is particularly strong, for reasons I can only speculate about, in Britain and America. The whole Dawn of the Dead/I am Legend/28 Days Later/The Road strain of horror and sci-fi in particular comes from British Romanticism. Check out Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” if you don’t believe me. In America and Australia the genre is concerned with a particular vision of the wasteland, and is tied to the genre of the Western.

My other complaint is that they simply didn’t mention enough movies. Those interested in more books and movies of this type should visit Empty World. They do include dytopian ficiton, but you can argue the point that a dystopia counts an eschatological, or end-of-history narrative, but you’d have to do so on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is dystopian though not apocalyptic (the world changes through acts of congress, not divine judgment), or eschatological, (since the title character shows the cracks in the system which might lead to its downfall), while his novel Cat’s Cradle ends apocalyptically, but is not a dystopia.

February 4, 2010

Belated Terrible Blogging

Filed under: Anarchy,Literature,Personal,Philosophy,Uncategorized — rmangum @ 6:54 am

It’s been a rough year for me so far: starting school, looking for a new car, ignoring collection notices, battling my post-college football season depression, losing in chess to my brother, not drinking enough (I write best between two and four beers). And not wanting my dear dear opinions to dissipate into the blogospheric aether, I’ve set for myself a goal of two posts per week (one Song for Sunday and at least one other post during the week), but its been hard to stick to even that. So with that self-exculpatory preface noted, my apologies to anyone who cares. Now for a few brief updates:

Way overdue update on my bowl picks: I was just over 50 percent, with 17 right and 16 wrong. Good enough to try it again next year. I should note that some of my most confident picks (TCU, most notoriously) were the most wrong.

On two recent famous deaths: I read The Catcher in the Rye I think three times between ninth and tenth grade, and have not read it since. For some reason I was never impelled to read Salinger’s other published work, but my feeling is that he was really a one-hit wonder, like Ken Kesey, Chuck Palahniuk, and so many other American novelists. I’m not sure whether the book would hold up to a re-reading as an adult, either. A People’s History of the United States has long been on the top of my reading list, and since my live-in girlfriend (terrible phrase- sounds more like a job description rather than a relationship- but what am I going to call it since we have no state-sanctioned certificate?) owns a copy I have little excuse for not having read it. It always seems to happen that I discover an artist’s work right after they die, which has happened to me with John Fahey (2001) and William S. Burroughs (1997).

A few words on a book recently read: Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State has two main flaws as I that I can see. Its subtitle is An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory, which might lead one to think that it contains summaries and analysis of actual historical anarchist ideas, thinkers, schools, and controversies. Syndcalism, egoism, Christian pacifism; individualism versus social anarchism; whether anarcho-capitalism is genuine anarchism; how Proudhon was a sexist and Stirner was crazy- that sort of stuff. Instead Sartwell devotes the bulk of his book to a refutation of philosophic claims for state legitimacy, and a short section in the end giving an adumbration of the kind of anarchism he would like to see in the future (promising development of his ideas in a future book). Now this is a very minor flaw, since there are certainly other books devoted to historical and contemporary anarchism, but few that engage in academic political discourse in the way that this one does. This is a step toward anarchy being taken seriously. This leads to more serious flaw, which is that Sartwell admirably takes on the titans of political philosophy: Locke, Hume, Bentham,  Hegel, Rousseau, Hobbes, Nozick, and Rawls, just for starters. Yet he devotes less than 100 pages to this task. Mystics and idolators of state power Rousseau and Hegel are dismissed as presenting no real argument for legitimacy, and rightly so, but surely as lasting and widespread a theory as Hobbes’ deserves to be refuted in greater detail. Perhaps Sartwell is just that efficient. It’s hard for me to tell, since I happen to agree with every word, but I think a skeptic would want more.

Some ideas for upcoming posts: Since I’m taking all English classes, I have more literature than politics on the brain right now. But I have some notions of exploring the overlap, including Argentinian writer Jorge-Luis Borges as a conservative anarchist, and Jonathan Swift as both a proto-anarchist and a proto-totalitarian (so he was accused by George Orwell, referring specifically to book IV of Gulliver’s Travels). Expect possibly also some thoughts on Beowulf, William Blake, the Enlightenment and/versus Romanticism, Jane Austen, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Thomas More’s Utopia, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Coetzee, and so on.

Or maybe you won’t hear from me again until after finals.

January 22, 2010

Mid-January Miscellany

Filed under: Anarchy,Literature,Personal — rmangum @ 2:04 am
Tags: ,

The latest episode of Battleship Pretension is about Shakespeare movies. The unnamed listener who suggested the topic is none other than yours truly. I came away with some good recommendations (I still have not seen the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet, and Prospero’s Books certainly seems intriguing), but was a bit disappointed that there was little mention of Kurosawa’s many films transposing Shakespeare into feudal Japan, and none of the greatest version of Macbeth on film, directed by Roman Polanski. And as an English major, I couldn’t help writhing in my seat as David tried to remember the name of the poet who wrote “things fall apart”, and the name of the poem it comes from. It’s William Butler Yeats, from “The Second Coming”, which is like, the most famous poem of the 20th century, after all that dreary stuff T.S. Eliot wrote.

The latest edition of the Entitled Opinions podcast is also about Shakespeare, though I have not listened to it yet.

And in local news, the latest episode of PRI’s Selected Shorts is a tribute to Wallace Stegner, who grew up in Salt Lake City and graduated from the University of Utah. Not only that, but it was performed live at our fine City Library. I’m not that familiar with Stegner’s work, but I wish I would have been able to catch that one, since the library is only a few blocks from my home.

Speaking of libraries and the U of U, one of the perks of being a college student again is having access to the University Library. I’ve been spending a lot of time there lately, reading Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (it’s about poop) and the beautiful Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf (the most awesome action movie of the middle ages). I happened to notice that they have a modest collection of books on anarchism (dwarfed, of course, by the collection devoted to Marxism, but quite ample compared to what the City Library has), and some modern libertarian books as well, including De Jasay and all three volumes of Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s Dialectics and Liberty trilogy. In my ambition, I have vowed to read the whole lot during my time at the University, and I have already begun with Crispin Sartwell‘s recent Against the State: an Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory.

January 11, 2010

Trust the Tale, Pt. 2

Filed under: Literature,Philosophy — rmangum @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , ,

Following up on what I said previously about The Wire, I found this post by Zunguzungu from early last year. While he takes a quite different (quasi-marxist critical theory) approach to the material than I do, he similarly concludes that there is a disconnect between what David Simon says to interviewers about the show he created, and the way the show actually presents itself. Some artists may have more insight into their own creations than others, but the old truism is the same nevertheless. There may be two reasons why, in the case of The Wire, the show presents itself in a more complex and articulate way than its creators can convey on their own. First, much as Simon fits the mold of television auteur, this is a highly collaborative work involving the comparatively taciturn co-creator Ed Burns, as well as several novelists, including George P. Pelacanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane. Second, while the Simon/Burns team do have a singular vision and a political mission of sorts with The Wire, they are conscientious enough artists to draw from their long experience with the professions they depict (cops, journalists, teachers), life in the city of Baltimore more generally, and their instincts as storytellers. But once the artist is finished with the creation and is asked to play the role of critic and interpreter, they are in no better position than the rest of us, and possibly a worse one sense they have an obvious conflict of interest.

Flannery O’Connor, a writer who had a great deal of insight into her own work, was quite insistent on the fact that fiction is not made out of abstract ideas, the stuff of political reform (and political criticism). From “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are most loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make the actual mystery of our position on earth. . . .

But the amazing thing about The Wire is how aware it is of problems and people, of questions and issues that are embedded in the “texture of existence”. O’Connor too, had certain aims which could have been expressed in abstract terms ( a devout Catholic, hers were theological rather than political). But in both cases verisimilitude came first and foremost.

I began writing this post wanting to show that critics are necessary, and not simply parasitic upon artists and their creations (and probably bitter, spiteful failed artists themselves to boot), that where the artist starts with his or her own unique perception of life, the critic starts with his or her own unique perception of art, and therefore must deal in more abstraction than the artist (if they want to do quality work) is allowed. But O’Connor has me wondering if  ideas as such have any meaningful place in the world of fiction. Why do we ask a television critic or David Simon about the meaning of The Wire? O’Connor again, from “Writing Short Stories” (both excerpts are from Mystery and Manners):

The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what the story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not about abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

Here I think O’Connor takes her polemic against abstraction a bit too far. Much value may be lost in summarization just as in translation, but she comes dangerously close to insisting that a story is only about itself. Why not go further and insist that if stories are made out of the same materials as existence , why go in for even that level of imitation and just live life rather than read stories about it? On similar grounds Plato and followers such as Plotinus rejected art wholesale as a nearly worthless copy of a copy. (Also because poets were politically disruptive, which is not irrelevant to this case either.) But she does point to what is worthwhile about making critical statements. A critic helps “experience that meaning [of the work of art] more fully” just as art helps you experience life more fully.

With that though in mind, you should also read Zunguzungu’s essay, “In Withdrawal from Modernity: The Western and the West Side in The Wire”.

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