Wednesday, January 28, 2009


"--But it's no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life.
--What? says Alf.
--Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred..."

-James Joyce, Ulysses

As a January snow softly falls upon all the living and the dead outside my window, I'm sitting here thinking about James Joyce and the future of the past. The future, that is, of Modernism (and its late phase, soi-disant postmodernism), and the need for a Modernist-style revolution in literature today. Not a national or a nationalist revolution, but an international, cosmopolitan movement or tendency. The last example of such a phenomenon was probably magic realism, a literary tendency that spread across the world like avian flu (although it was a considerably more beneficent epidemic). With Kafka and Cervantes as its cosmopolitan precursors, magic realism spanned the globe like Jim McKay, eventually entering English literature courtesy of a short kid from Bombay whom I will call Sal the Man. But this is all old literary news. We need a new revolution now, a new movement to energize the six addled souls who still give a shit. (Pessimism keeps me grounded.)... Yes, pessimism is realism, but let's not overdo it. Let's not talk/think ourselves into Morris Berman's infuriatingly attractive black hole of cultural despair. For me, that would be little more than artistic suicide--or, more appropriately, artistic abortion. It's necessary to remind oneself that the collapse of America--now well underway as the economy crashes through its worst slow-motion train wreck since 1929--is not the end of the world. It's the end of an idea of America, but so-called 'American ideals' (more properly, the ideals of the European Enlightenment) are actually being achieved more effectively in countries that will probably weather the current crisis better than the United States (France, Germany, Sweden). I'm not saying that Europe is a mixed-economy Promised Land while Reaganized and Bushified America is an insufferable hellhole; I'm merely pointing out that in Western Europe, although racism is rampant and the far rights are rising, decent health care is considered a right rather than a privilege of wealth, the political left (the real left, not the centrist liberals called 'leftists' by American 'conservatives') has a voice and a role in government, the social safety net is strong, and unions have real power. In short, the end of America is not the end of the world, and to be cosmopolitan today is to be ahead of the curve, ready for a decentered, pluralistic future, an age with multiple centers of power rather than a single superpower. It's going to be a dangerous next few decades, though, because America in decline will inevitably lash out like a wounded tiger. We will undoubtedly kill many thousands more before our death. How to counter this sickness, this psychopathology of national decline? Deploy cosmopolitanism, intellect, eros, the difficult pleasures of the greatest art. Work against the day by thinking against it and creating opportunities for thinking otherwise. That's probably the best and most that art can do.

"In a world of lies the lie is not removed from the world by means of its opposite, but only by means of a world of truth"--Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks

To provide opportunities for thinking otherwise. That may be the end, means and purpose of art, insofar as its sociopolitical efficacy is concerned. Books that are worth our time, books that strive toward the state of Kafka ice-axes, give their readers occasion to think differently, to ride thought-trains and make connections undreamt of in the hegemonic ideologies; such books increase the circumference and volume and depth of our imaginations; they show us the impossible--which can be defined as that which our dominant ideologies render unthinkable. This is the ultimately subversive chord struck by the slogan of our great-grandfathers' avant-garde: "Make it new." The authentically new, as opposed to the advertisers' 'new and improved,' is always the unthinkable, the unseeable, the unsayable, the unheimlich. An art worth more than a few minutes of our time must embody this, body it forth (to use a lovely archaism).

American writers today are in a dubiously privileged position for writing about hegemony because we're in the midst of it. We live at ground zero, we're citizens of Rome during the reign of Constantine (now hoping that Obama might be a successful Julian); the artifacts of corporatist ideology--its products, forms and structures--are all around us. It may be impossible to write about America today without writing in some way (even implicitly) about corporatism. This is the ideology that shapes the information we receive and pollutes the air we breathe; it's everywhere, riding each new wave of technology like a virus (this time hardly beneficent), infecting and infesting our minds until we mistake it for reality and can imagine no alternatives. Art can counter this exactly by imagining those alternatives, seeing the unseeable, speaking the silences, pushing back the claustrophobic horizons that threaten to crush us and inviting the world inside. That's what cosmopolitanism means to me: pushing back those horizons, expanding the imaginable world. We must counter the world of corporatist lies with a Kafkaesque "world of truth."

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