Friday, November 30, 2012

What is Literature?

In an earlier post I argued that there was nothing in the nature of genre fiction to categorically exclude it from the body of work dubbed "literary." Looking back on it, however, it seemed that some elaboration of what, exactly, this contentious word "literature" means.

Where this discussion is concerned the word may be said to refer to texts, usually but not exclusively fiction (e.g. poetry, prose works like short stories and novels, dramatic works like plays), which are identified by the relevant experts (professional critics, from the Academy to the review pages) as such on the grounds of outstanding form and/or content, and which accordingly comprise the written, verbal portion of a society's "high culture."

Of course, this raises the question of what qualifies as "outstanding" form and content, what exactly a writer must be good at to win such accolades. The standard, of course, varies immensely with time and place, and certainly has been a subject of well-documented debate throughout modern history. Indeed, that history can be seen as a record of such debates, typically reflecting broader conflicts in society (the Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, for instance), and new developments in thought (like the impact of psychoanalysis on early twentieth century literature), as well as more "purely" aesthetic concerns.

Enter the Moderns
It seems useful to start with the attitudes of the present. It seems fairly obvious that the tendency in the last century or so has been to esteem conspicuous technical accomplishment (complex narrative structures, stylized prose, etc.) over straightforward storytelling. Where content is concerned, works dubbed literary tend to emphasize character over plot and action, the author's engaging with Important Themes or conveying a sense of "felt life" over "mere" entertainment. The realistic is favored over the fantastic, the everyday over the sensational or exotic, as these things are perceived by the critic making the judgment. (Joe Lansdale made a case for the merits of Robert Howard as compared with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Few but confirmed Howard fans are likely to give it serious consideration.) The serious is preferred to the comic (though the comic has hardly been excluded, as the status of writers like Evelyn Waugh demonstrates). And the doings of grown-ups are more likely to be appreciated by critics than those of the young (the difference in the protagonists' ages certainly one reason for the comparative standings of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear).

Modernist novels about the love lives of discontented middle-aged persons of means just so happen to fit these criteria perfectly (so that someone making a survey of twentieth century British or American literature can easily feel as if they are reading about little but that).

Postmodernist Literature
One can go into greater detail where the last half century or so has been concerned, the work accorded the most prestige in those decades distinctively postmodernist literature--which is to say, literature expressive of the postmodernist turn of mind.1 Here the skepticism of the postmodernist philosopher extends to the conventional view of art as a way of making sense of the mess that is existence, that activity instead depicted as illusory or subverted through such devices as the use of unreliable narrators, fragmented narrative structures, and disruptions of not merely cultural boundaries (like the distinction between "high" and "low" culture), but "consensus" reality (as with abrupt intrusions of the paranormal, or historical anachronism, into the course of a story)--tendencies evident in such works as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-House Five or Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.1 Just as in our politics, there has also been a heavy stress on identity here (exemplified, perhaps, by the work of Toni Morrison and Michael Chabon), so that along with ontology (approached by way of the "reality games" described above), it is one of postmodernism's principal themes.2 And in the end, just as postmodernist philosophy's sense of irony reduces it to a parlor game, so does this go for "postmodernist literature," in which a text is likely to not be about anything but an author's game with the reader, a tendency reflected in the prominence of metafiction (writing about writing) and pastiche (homage to and parody of other works, rather than engagement with life) in postmodernist writing.3

It is, of course, not a very postmodernist thing to look at one work and deem it better than another (and certainly to esteem the "originality" that postmodernists dismiss), but the innovativeness or skill with which one postmodernist author or another works in these ways, with these subjects, nonetheless wins them distinction--while authors who work in more "old-fashioned" ways, or with themes other than the fashionable ones, have generally got less acclaim. That is not to say that such authors do not exist in the upper echelons of the literary world--but it is worth remembering that Jonathan Franzen's eschewing postmodernism for realism and social criticism in his more recent novels has been sufficient to draw widespread commentary about their anomalousness.

Reflecting Upon the Canon
Where older literature is concerned, critics (mostly) accept the received judgment of tradition, but pay special attention to work that enjoys a prominent place in literary history--for instance, because it appears to have been a turning point (like the contributions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions or Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther to Romanticism), or exemplifies or epitomizes an earlier literary school or tradition (like the satires of Jonathan Swift). Claims are also made for writers and works which have purportedly "withstood the test of time," retaining their appeal and cultural significance despite changes of taste (as with the plays of William Shakespeare).

It is worth remembering, however, that the older works in the canon also gain or lose in esteem in line with the concerns prevailing at the moment (Virginia Woolf gaining it as Sinclair Lewis, whom Woolf had rather admired, lost it), while works which retain high status (like Shakespeare's plays) are likely to be reread in the light of contemporary concerns (as with the absurdist take on King Lear, the existentialist interest in Hamlet, and more recently, the postcolonial emphasis of writing and teaching about The Tempest). It is worth remembering, too, that the natural interest of literary scholars in the history of their subject makes old but artistically marginal works seem worthy of examination (trashy Elizabethan revenge plays or nineteenth century dime novels, for instance).

One may argue with the criteria, which are far removed from what most of that already small minority of people who read for pleasure typically look for from books. One may argue, too, with the ways in which these standards have been applied--as many fans of "genre" work do, feeling that this slights many worthy works. However, the point is that they do exist, and an understanding of them is crucial to any serious debate about the issue.

1. While less evident outside of "highbrow" literature, much of this appears to have filtered down even into "middlebrowish" work--the avoidance of the third-person omniscient viewpoint in particular having come to seem like a "rule."
2. The intrusions of the paranormal into the normal, the disregard for generic boundaries (including the boundary between speculative fiction and other genres), the anachronistic treatment of history, all constitute occasions where speculative elements find their way into literary work--and thus the significant exceptions to the preference for realism.
3. The influence of postmodern thought in these respects would seem to have been reinforced by a number of other factors, like an increased concern with the possibilities of language itself as electronic media supplant print (which is to say, the things which a novel can do that films cannot), and the convenient fodder that hard-to-read books provide for learned articles and books--the publication of which makes the works in question more likely to be taught and studied.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith

Sinclair Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Arrowsmith in 1926. The book is not as funny as, for instance, Babbitt (1922), let alone Elmer Gantry (1927). (I find that the comedy in Lewis's novels, like those of Eric Ambler, is directly proportionate to the protagonist's capacity for blatant stupidity.) Nonetheless, like all his best work, it still rings true nearly a century later.

Where in those two other books Lewis wrote about middle-class life and organized religion, here he took on medicine and science by way of the career of doctor and microbiologist Martin Arrowsmith.

In contrast with fiction's default mode of presenting effortlessly ultracompetent and omnicompetent Mary Sues and Marty Stus living out Edisonade adventures, Lewis writes, compellingly, of the sheer effort Arrowsmith makes, and the gaps in his knowledge he only discovers when properly getting down to work.

When this accomplished medical school graduate finally embarks on a serious career of research he finds himself giving up "three or four hours wholesome sleep each night to grind over matters which everyone is assumed to know, and almost everyone does not know"--like algebra. And when he does get around to undertaking scientific work, it proves time-consuming and grinding and frequently nerve-wracking, any pretension to inhuman, infallible meticulousness absent. The struggle to discern the order within the mess that is nature is apparent, and the results not always cut and dried. On top of that, there are institutional politics to think of--patrons to be placated, clashes between the imperatives of scientific inquiry and careerism--and at the climax in which his protagonist confronts an outbreak of plague on a Caribbean island, between methodological rigor and medical ethics.

The result is perhaps the most convincing and compelling portrait of the actual practice of science I have ever encountered in fiction.

As Arrowsmith makes extensive and effective use of scientific detail (courtesy of the considerable input of microbiologist Paul de Kriuf), and hinges on a fictional discovery rooted in then-contemporary science, this Pulitzer Prize winner can also be read as a work of science fiction which critics have simply not bothered to label as such.

Naturally one wonders why this novel has so often been overlooked by historians of the genre. I suppose it is a reflection of the unfortunate extent to which the novels of Nobel Laureate Lewis have been overlooked in an age which equates Important Literature with Modernist experimentation, and as much as ever, is uneasy with satire of this type, which offers in place of postmodern equivocations audacious social criticism of a sort discomfiting to vested interests and established mores. Jonathan Swift and Voltaire are distant enough to be safely read today (Voltaire's hostiltiy to the Church, perhaps, apart), but Lewis still has bite, George Babbitt and Elmer Gantry and Berzelius Windrip being all too clearly with us almost a century on.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Of Alternate Literary History: Jack London's The Assassination Bureau

Jack London's novel The Assassination Bureau is about the moral dilemmas facing a group of anarchists who contract out their services as assassins to clients whose motives they deem just. He did not complete the book, and it was in fact not finished and published until 1963--almost half a century later.

Naturally, it is unmentioned in discussions of the early history of the spy story, but I find myself wondering what might have been. The earlier development of the genre was overwhelmingly the work of British writers, and its initial, principal and defining tradition from Kipling, Childers and company on (to quote Julian Symons) was "conservative, supporting authority, making the assertion that agents are fighting to protect something valuable." By and large it was pop entertainment and a vehicle for nationalistic and militaristic propaganda (though Kim certainly enjoys a well-deserved status as a work of literature, as do Joseph Conrad's forays into the genre, while G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday likewise commands respect as "something more").

Yet in The Assassination Bureau there was an American spy novel which was unabashedly leftist and anti-militarist in its politics (enough so as to make a politically faithful film an impossibility, just as was the case with the graphic novel V for Vendetta, and for much the same reason), while also being exceptionally witty (its urbane humor surprising me as a reader who'd previously known London as the author of books like The Call of the Wild), decades before Eric Ambler came along. That London was at the time already well-known and influential made it that much more likely that, had the book been completed and published at the time, it would have been recognized.1

All that being the case, the possibility seems to me an interesting might-have-been of literary history, one that might have made the lineage of the spy story quite a different thing from what it is today.

1. The movie--which might reasonably be regarded as proto-steampunk--left the political principles of the bureau much more abstract, and played out as a Bond film in Belle Epoque period costume, complete with Diana Rigg as Bond girl, and Telly Savalas as the Bond villain (the exact roles they played in that same year's On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

On Bond Bashing

Just like every other comparable pop cultural phenomenon (Star Wars, or Star Trek, for instance) James Bond has rather a large army of rather vociferous detractors, more than usually vocal at the time of a new addition to the series.

In Bond's case the detractors have two arguments. The first is that the franchise simply does not do the things it is known for particularly well; that the action is mediocre, the sexuality tepid, the "sophistication" shallow and unconvincing (a case Stephen Marche made on the Esquire blog a few days ago). The second is a condemnation of the sociopolitical content of the series (a tradition begun even before the release of the first film by, ironically enough, Paul Johnson, in his review of the novel Dr. No, "Sex, Snobbery and Sadism," and continued up to our time in pieces like Ian Dunt's analysis of Skyfall for Politico).1 The critic in this case charge that the content of the films is racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic, imperialist, and generally reactionary.

There is more than something to both criticisms. Some of the Bond films do leave something to be desired as action movies, too goofy or flabby or derivative (like The Man With the Golden Gun, or A View to a Kill, or Die Another Day) to really work well on that level. And especially after the 1960s, there were likely to be not just other action movies (for instance, war movies or Westerns), but really comparable action movies (movies set in our contemporary world or something like it) which were fresher, grander in scale, harder-edged or simply more finely crafted than the latest Bond installment in any given year - with the Bond films often imitating the successes of other unrelated movies (as seen in The French Connection's influence on Live and Let Die, or Jaws' influence on The Spy Who Loved Me), to say nothing of their own past successes (Diamonds Are Forever reworking Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me reusing the formula of You Only Live Twice). At the same time the films' much-vaunted sexuality came to seem at once unsubtle and tame, porn movie-casual in the frequency and manner of its incidence, and PG in the restraint of its presentation (a common enough combination in '60s cinema that today seems surreal). And there is little disputing the extent to which the image of Bond's sophistication remains rooted in an association with brand names (like Savile Row and Aston Martin) or anachronistic images of the moneyed at play (like black tie wear for a night at the casino, which already seemed comically out of date in Diamonds Are Forever).

Equally, while the excesses of postmodernist, identity-oriented analysis have done much to muddle cultural criticism by making anything and everything seem like exactly the same cesspool of oppressive ideology (often through a misreading of the texts in question), one hardly has to go to such extremes to find the politics of the Bond films problematic.2 Ian Fleming's view of the world certainly had its idiosyncracies (the element of irony in his conservatism, an ecological consciousness that appears ahead of its time, the hints of a progressive streak in his essay "If I Were Prime Minister"), but there is no denying that he possessed many of the prejudices common to men of his generation and social background, and that these made overt appearance in his fiction (including pointed remarks about the working class and women, a patronizing attitude toward Blacks, and plots reflective of Cold War-era paranoia about the left). Certainly the filmmakers strove to depoliticize the material from the start, downplaying the Cold War and leaving the books' more troubling dialogue out of the scripts, but instances where this was handled imperfectly aside (Bond's telling Quarrel to fetch his shoes in Dr. No, for instance), there may have been an extent to which the issues were not totally eradicable. Bond, despite being a representative of a national intelligence outfit, often acted as a global policeman, frequently displaying a cavalier attitude toward the sovereignty and laws of other countries, with all this implied about Britain's place in the world, and about other nations and peoples (invariably, the sources of villainy, another issue for Bond's detractors). There was, too, the problem that even while Bond's missions tended to marginalize real-world political conflicts, there was an acceptance of these conflicts as a valid reason for the Secret Service's being (at least, until Quantum of Solace, which pointed up the limited extent to which they could eschew orthodoxy). And so on.

Yet, there is little question that some of these criticisms can seem disproportionate. What seems silly to some in the treatment of the action and sex is to others exactly what appeals about the films - Deborah Lipp making that case particularly well in The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book - and at any rate, most can concede that the post-'60s films had their ups as well as their downs. As to their politics, most of what might reasonably be criticized is less some quirk of the Bond films than a matter of the action genre as a whole, where there has been many a worse offender. For instance, has Bond been more arrogantly imperial than the Secret Service agents in Vantage Point? More classist, racist or aggressively nationalistic than the similarly high-living Iron Man (an Edisonade character updated for the twenty-first century, with all that genre's ideological baggage intact)? My impression has been that Bond has actually been less troubling in these ways than those other characters - though Bond's antics have attracted far more comment.

This difference in response warrants an explanation. One possibility is the long continuity of the film series, which may cause some critics to closely associate even the latest Bond films with the content of the earlier films. This may have skewed perceptions so that even as Vicky Allan wrote quite correctly of the "feminization" of the Bond series, others wrote about it as if it had not changed an iota in fifty years. It may also be the case that Britain's post-imperial status has made observers more acutely conscious of, for instance, what Bond's professional conduct says about the country's place in the world than they have been when watching Hollywood action fare starring American characters, globally deployed and engaged U.S. military and intelligence forces regarded as a given. (Putting it another way, the behavior of Iron Man may go unremarked because we take the idea of an American operating this way so much more for granted.) And of course, there is the fact that writers in general have a tendency to tread well-beaten paths, many a writer making the case against Bond precisely because so many others have already done it during the past six decades.

There is one last matter after these, namely the cachet Bond still enjoys in British pop culture, which, strictly speaking, is not paralleled in the U.S. or anywhere else. Consider the British grosses of the last four Bond films: Die Another Day ($59 million), Casino Royale ($106 million), Quantum of Solace ($81 million) and Skyfall ($118 million and counting). The numbers are especially striking given that the British market is roughly a fifth the size of that of the United States. Factoring that in it appears that at the British box office even Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace made the kind of money the series has not seen in the U.S. since Thunderball (equivalent to about $400 million in the American market today), while Casino Royale and Skyfall (each the biggest hit of its year, something no Bond film ever managed in the U.S.) went beyond this to earn Avengers-style money (equal to $600 million in the U.S. market circa 2012).3 It is as if, for the Bond series, at the British box office, the '60s never ended - a fact which does much to explain both the predominance of British writing about the character, and of course, the sheer exasperation of British critics like Simon Winder, aghast at the fact that 007 is still so prominent when, in his view, the character is not only a legacy of the neuroses of a moment long since passed, but numerous other franchises do the same thing so much better.

1. Paul Johnson's later right-wing politics and personal predilections aside, it is worth recalling that he was to become a close adviser of Margaret Thatcher - who appeared as a character in 1981's For Your Eyes Only (played by actress Janet Brown).
2. The efforts of both Jeremy Black and Simon Winder in this area, notably, benefit considerably as a result of their eschewal of these approaches.
3. Die Another Day was only the third-biggest hit of 2002 in Britain, but it still beat both Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, and Spiderman, while doing more than three times the business of XXX - a far cry from how the movie performed in the United States (where Spiderman earned $400 million and Star Wars $300 million to Die's $160 million, while XXX did almost as well with $140 million). In 2008, Quantum of Solace was again third in its year, but still beat Indiana Jones, Hancock and Iron Man, though all three of those movies performed far better than Quantum in the U.S. (Indy and Iron Man breaking $300 million each, Hancock breaking $200 million to Bond's $168 million in that market). The data on the performance of these films comes from Box Office Mojo, which has systematic box office data for Britain going back to 2002.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Has Quantum of Solace Been Overcriticized?

At IndieWire Oliver Lyttleton recently offered his list of the five worst Bond films. Unsurprisingly Moonraker, Die Another Day and Licence to Kill were all there, the first two especially being standard on such lists (with the third film also frequently eliciting strong feelings, negative as well as positive). Quantum of Solace was there too, a more recent addition to these listings.

Seeing such reactions I have found myself wondering if Quantum has not been overcriticized. The film had its weaknesses, the action less overwhelming than one might have hoped (especially given the massive $230 million budget), the tone one of Licence to Kill-like grimness. I imagine many were also disappointed by the relationship between Bond and Camille Montes, which did not head in the accustomed direction (though few major critics have been sufficiently un-p.c. to say so).

Still, Quantum was better paced than the bloated Casino, and the dynamics between Bond and the principal Bond girl apart, was to me much more impressive as an attempt to combine the old elements with new ones. And if it was lacking in flash and humor and glamour and fun - wasn't that what critics and audiences were supposedly demanding? Certainly if one was looking for grit in their spy adventures (as supposedly everyone is these days), there it was in abundance - in the decidedly un-touristy Haitian and Bolivian backdrops, in a plot far more substantive than those of the much-praised Jason Bourne films, not least in its featuring a villain who could have come out of a Greg Palast investigation.

But that may have been part of the problem. For all the alleged hunger for the different, the substantive and the "dark and gritty" the critics claim to have, many of them reacted much like the low-IQ lout who yells "BORING!" the second anyone mentions something about politics or the economy in their presence - just as also happened in the frenzy of over-criticism that was the reaction to The Phantom Menace. ("How dare George Lucas use a term like 'trade embargo' in a Star Wars movie!") This is often no more than the small-minded stupidity that it appears to be, but it can also be a veiled way of criticizng a work's political content (which is the way critics tend to do this sort of thing, since they are supposed to be "above" such "pettiness").

Julian Symons wrote in his critical study of the detective story, Bloody Murder, that there are
two traditions in the spy story . . . The first is conservative, supporting authority, making the assertion that agents are fighting to protect something valuable. The second is radical, critical of authority, claiming that agents perpetuate, and even create, false barriers between "us," and "them."
What he did not point out there is that the conservative, orthodox tradition prevails in the popular, crowd-pleasing thriller, as it has from Childers to Clancy, while the critical tradition is the preserve of highbrows who may occasionally pop up on bestseller lists, but generally do not command that sort of following - the Graham Greenes, the John Le Carrès. There are exceptions; certainly in the 1970s, a period when anti-Establishment feeling was especially intense and widespread, a critical element turned up in popular fare, but even there, as in the novels of James Grady or Robert Ludlum, it tended to be of a limited kind, the bad guys rogues of an otherwise upstanding organization or somesuch. This is certainly the case with the Bourne films, as compared with a movie like Syriana (another Matt Damon starrer that made just a fraction of that other film series' grosses).

However, here was a James Bond movie that, in parts at least, played like Syriana. Admittedly the blend of fantasy with realistic critique this entailed was an uneven one, as commentary as well as entertainment. Certainly from the standpoint of the left, what the spies in that movie were up to was not some aberration but standard operating procedure, and not limited corruption that a brave insider can root out, but the way the System works - while the fact that the day was saved by a heroic outsider (the Bolivians who resisted the attempt to privatize Bolivian water supplies in real life just a few years earlier nowhere to be found) was also displeasing. In other words, the shift of the series to the left did not go far enough, and could not have, within the framework of the James Bond series, given what British intelligence has really done historically, the film's need to have 007 save the day, the series' need to have him reconciled with his boss and his Service before the credits roll.

But many must have thought the opposite, that a Bond film which presented the CIA as bad guys, and even worse, one which painted not mad billionaires using their empires' resources in some zany scheme, but multinational corporations going about their ordinary business, as bad guys, went much too far, even when they didn't flatly say so. (The leftishness of movie critics, like that of Hollywood, goes only so far.) And the force of the reaction was such that the reports Bond 23 would round out a trilogy about Bond's battle with Quantum proved short-lived - apparently, to the great pleasure of those who so disliked the last film, who are loving the more conventional Skyfall.

Ultimately, the craving for "grit" in cinema seems, like so much else in critics' artistic wish lists, is a matter of taste in surface aesthetic rather than substance, few having much stomach for the real thing - like adolescents trying to show off how tough they are by saying tough-minded things in front of each other.

Review: Vultures' Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, by Greg Palast

New York: Penguin, 2011, pp. 432.

In television and film the crusading reporter who does whatever it takes to get the story is a tired cliché. In reality, they are all but nonexistent. After all, investigative journalism is expensive, and tends to make waves, and neither of those things is particularly well-liked by the exclusive club of big, ad revenue-dependent, flak-fearing, profit-maximizing and capital "E" Establishment businesses which own and operate news outlets, which prefer simply to do such things as relay the contents of press releases and the pronouncements of spokesmen to their audiences--cheap and safe.1 Greg Palast of the BBC's Newsnight actually lives up to that image, however. Palast, who does not pretend to be "objective," "nonpartisan," "moderate," "centrist" or anything else of the sort, is also an unabashed class warrior for whom the sheer rottenness of the System is a given, making his perspective doubly unique for American journalism.

Here Palast, whose previous books The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Armed Madhouse covered an assortment of topics ranging from the stolen U.S. presidential election of 2002 to the shenanigans at Enron, from the destruction of New Orleans to the Iraq War, takes on the "Energy-Finance Combine" in investigations into several of the biggest energy-related disasters of the last quarter century (the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Fukushima meltdown), the dumping of toxic assets on countries the world over (like Greece), and the activities of "vulture funds" bilking the world's poorest and most vulnerable nations (like Liberia). As might be expected the book details some of the striking revelations on which he happened (the Deepwater Horizon, for instance, turns out to be just one part of the much bigger story of the oil industry's destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Fukushima disaster was NOT the unforeseeable result of a freakishly powerful earthquake), but these are just pieces of the larger story illustrated on the book's cover: the destruction of the planet's economies and ecosystems--and countless human lives--by the corporate greed and political corruption neoliberal globalization has done so much to unleash.

Robert Kennedy Jr. has likened Vulture's Picnic to a spy novel, and it certainly has some features in common with that genre: Palast's globe-trotting among exotic locations, some glamorous, some dangerous, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Monrovia to Baku; the subterfuge to which he turns to get answers, and get out with them again; the traps laid in the hero's way (one of them, courtesy of Piers Morgan--yes, that Piers Morgan); his confrontations with bad guys as twisted and megalomaniacal as any member of S.P.E.C.T.R.E.; his piecing together of the clues to unmask an international conspiracy. And indeed, Palast does weave a narrative out of it, and suit the telling to the tale.

There are ways in which this novelistic approach can be a problem, however. Palast's first chapter rapidly cuts among various threads of his investigation, tantalizing the reader with hints rather than explaining where the book is going--a routine approach in thriller novels, but a bit frustrating in a nonfiction work. And while the chapters become more focused afterward, the book is organized around Palast's pursuit of the facts, rather than a tidy presentation of the facts he digs up--which is also perfectly acceptable in a thriller, but of debatable value in a work of nonfiction. Complicating matters is the fact that this particular thriller is nonlinear and at times highly digressive--not wholly unlike Kurt Vonnegut writing about the bombing of Dresden. The book's lack of an index also makes skipping around less of an option than it otherwise might be, and backtracking that much more trying. And all this clearly did get to some readers. While the one-star ratings assigned a book like this on Amazon would usually be expressions of the readers' ideological hostility to its content, this time around the negative reviews mostly expressed a dislike of the book's style.

Yet, even as a reader usually impatient with modernist storytelling technique (and who did, at times, wish Palast presented what he had to say in a more concise fashion) I have to admit that there is much to commend this blending of form and content. The book's structure isn't the only way in which it reminded me of Slaughter-House Five: this, too, is a story of mass destruction on such a scale as to cast doubt about humanity's chances of survival, and the adequacy of more straightforward ways of approaching the events at hand. And Palast's feel for how the world really works--his sense of the whole planet as Dashiell Hammett's Poisonville--gives his account of these events a grit that very few novelists get anywhere near. As I have often said before, "dark and gritty" is a grossly overused phrase, as descriptor, superlative and ideal, but as an approach it does have its place, and there are people who do it right. This is an instance of both of these.

1. Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman describe much of this in their "propaganda" model of the press in their book Manufacturing Consent. You can find a summary in the notes of my review of Chris Hedge's Death of the Liberal Class.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Of Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction

One of the debates currently roiling the section of the blogosphere devoted to science fiction is the one regarding the relative standing of genre and literary fiction--a now-ancient argument into which Arthur Krystal's essay in the New Yorker back in May, and a follow-up this past month, have breathed new life.

Krystal's position is the traditional one, that literary fiction is superior to genre fiction; the former art, the latter easy entertainment. In the later piece he concedes that the term genre should not be regarded as an epithet, that literary authors do sometimes work "with" rather than "in" genre, and that quality "comes in different forms" (there being well-written genre fiction and badly written literature)--but without diminishing the divide, or compromising the value judgment accorded to it.

This standard is inconsistent, and unsatisfying, not least because of what these two labels happen to entail.

A genre is a body of work unified by a certain commonality of tropes and concerns, and a sense of tradition among both the writers and their audience. This self-awareness is likely to be reflected in such works getting their own sections in bookshops and libraries, the emergence of organizations for self-identified genre writers and genre fans, and the appearance of specialized publishers connecting the two.

The term literature is essentially an honorific applied to especially worthy works of fiction. In general terms the expectation is that work of this kind will innovate significantly, or provide something aesthetically or intellectually or dramatically richer than the "trite-and-true," as Arthur Krystal puts it.

The two definitions are not mutually exclusive. There is no good reason why a work cannot be "genre," and at the same time, a piece of literature. A work's employing certain well-established tropes, or recognizing a popular tradition, does not rule out its rising above the "trite-and-true" to offer the sense of "felt life" by which Krystal sets so much store. (M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device, for instance, deals brilliantly with concerns hardly specific to the space opera--just as Shakespeare's Hamlet is a revenge tragedy of the sort that was such a pop theater entertainment in its day, and at the same time much, much more.1)

However, obvious as this is, few seem to understand it. The most likely reason seems to be the simplistic equation of genre with formula in the minds of many critics (Krystal included, it would seem).

It is, of course, indisputable that genres do have formulas--but it is not true that all genre work is formulaic. At a minimum, those founding works that establish a formula cannot be looked at that way. (Can one seriously speak of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest as a mere formula novel, any more than they would Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice--a work massively imitated for the past two centuries?) There are also indisputable genre works that do not lend themselves to transformation into a formula. (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a classic spy novel that has not spawned legions of imitations, for reasons which should be immediately obvious to anyone familiar with it.)

Again, this seems simple enough. Yet, it may be that what has been regarded as "literature" for the last century has raised the bar of "non-formulaic" out of reach even of such works. After all, from the Modernists forward literary critics have favored authors who emphasize character over plot or idea; who are conspicuously stylish rather than merely skillful, especially when they opt for narrative modes which present stories in ambiguous, subjectivity-emphasizing ways rather than opting for clarity-prizing straightforwardness. The result is that anyone telling an intelligible story--let alone the kind of story that most people would want to read--runs the risk of not seeming "literary" at all.

Clearly, this is taking it very, very far--and I, for one, think that on the whole literature has been the poorer for this view.

1. Indeed, an argument can be made that virtually the entire canon of literature consists of "genre" work of this sort.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Best and Worst of Ian Fleming's James Bond Novels

When the question of the original James Bond novels comes up, most seem to mention Live and Let Die (1954), From Russia With Love (1957) or On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963) as the best. All of these are regarded as robust action-adventures in which Fleming worked relatively fresh territory. Live and Let Die, for instance, offered the first of Fleming's famously theatrical villains, and the first of his underwater action sequences, both of which won him high praise from even so sardonic a critic as Simon Winder, who compares Fleming to Jacques Cousteau in his bringing a sense of the world beneath the sea to a wider audience. (He also praises the shootout in the tropical fish warehouse as "one of the most delirious set pieces in all the books, and proof of why Fleming was so often far, far more than a hack.")

Three years later, From Russia With Love opened with the interesting device of devoting its first third to the dramatization of the emergence of the Soviets' plot to get Bond within SMERSH itself, during which 007 is just a name and a picture in a file. The idiosyncracy of the plot, so obviously a trap into which the Service and Bond knowingly step, is an intriguingly Ambler-like idea, which leads to an action-packed visit to Istanbul and trip through southern Europe on the Orient Express, and a cliffhanger of an ending that could really have spelled the end of the line for Bond.

By contrast, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is remembered as the novel where Bond gets married. However, it is also worth recalling that the action in the last part of the story is strong enough that the makers of the 1969 film did not need to add very much to make it memorable on screen.

Familiar as these three books are to purveyors of lists of Fleming's best, it is equally customary to find The Man With the Golden Gun (1965) numbered as the worst. Not only is it the case that Francisco Scaramanga is a far cry from the great villains of previous novels, or that the image of Bond at rock bottom is a bit much for many a reader to stomach. This slender book consists mainly of weak repetitions of elements from earlier and better Fleming novels (the Jamaican setting from Live and Let Die and 1958's Dr. No, the American gangsters and miniature train from 1956's Diamonds Are Forever, itself usually numbered among the weaker Bond adventures), in the most anemic prose any of the Bond stories have to offer.

Of course, many a critic regards that book's weaknesses as partly a function of Fleming's ailing health (not unreasonably, given that the book felt to me underedited), or as simply the worst of the conventional adventures, with The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) the worst of Fleming's books overall. That book, narrated from the "girl"'s point of view, offers a mix of confession and hard-boiled crime (the one-chapter retelling of Bond's mission to stop a minor SPECTRE operation in Toronto aside). Fleming's handling of the female viewpoint struck many as ridiculous, offensive or both, while the noirish plot (involving a pair of low-rent hoods trying to burn down a motel in upstate New York so their boss could get the insurance money) was a big step down from the accustomed stuff of Bond's adventures. Even Fleming was displeased with the result, enough so that he forbade a paperback issue in his lifetime (though it is of course available in that format now).

The other novels are less often talked about in these ways, but among the remainder, it semes to me that Dr. No and Thunderball (1961) rate honorable mentions for crystallizing the version of the series we see in the films. Dr. No brought the idea of the freakish, theatrical villain using high technology in a still higher geopolitical game (already fully developed by 1955's Moonraker) together with an exotic setting and fast-moving action-adventure (the mix that made Live and Let Die work, and which also happened to be absent from the awkwardly structured and comparatively dull and drab Moonraker). Thunderball followed the same pattern, but also gave the world SPECTRE. The result was that it was a comparatively short leap from the page to the screen in their cases (in part, I suppose, because they began as screen projects, Dr. No in plans for a TV show, Thunderball in a screen treatment). Much the same can be said for Goldfinger (1959), a less groundbreaking and efficient tale which nonetheless gave the screen what is for many the definitive Bond film.

By contrast You Only Live Twice (1964) is a stand-out for its sheer strangeness, given the image of a shattered Bond at the start, his dispatch by M on a mission expected to be psychologically therapeutic as well as useful to the Service, the strange circumstances that lead to his even stranger final confrontation with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, his loss of his memory, the consequences of that event at the end. And of course, Casino Royale (1953) has a special place as the very first of the books, even though it was to prove uncharacteristic of the series as a whole in its structure and treatment of Bond's adventure.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ian Fleming's 007 as Gary Stu

I have previously remarked here about the limitations of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels as fantasy, his original conception of 007 as a Gary Stu (or Marty Stu). Certainly 007 was such a figure for Fleming, clearly modeled on him (in his Scottish ancestry, Eton education, wartime Naval intelligence work, etc.), but doing what Fleming himself could not--have adventures in the field instead of doing staff work at headquarters. It is clear, too, that the Bond novels also worked this way for the audience, with their travel and luxury, their adventure and sex (less overwhelming than in the films, though certainly there), giving readers a comparable sense of transport. But Bond was also a fallible, vulnerable, at times even helpless figure, most of the time a "pursed-lip civil servant" (Simon Winder's phrase, here) out of his time and out of his depth, who spends most of his working days dealing with tedious paperwork and mundane office headaches, tormented by doubt and self-doubt when he has a moment in which to think. On many an occasion he suffers significant defeats, with painful consequences.

Consider the first Bond novel, Casino Royale. Here Bond gets bankrupted at the gaming table and has to be bailed out of his hole by Felix Leiter's money. This enables him to defeat Le Chiffre, but he is then tricked into a chase which turns out to be a trap that leads to Bond's capture. Then, "puny and impotent," he is tied naked to a chair and bashed in the genitals with a carpet-beater by Le Chiffre as he demands the return of the money Bond won. Bond does not free himself from this situation, or get personal satisfaction in avenging himself on his torturer, but is saved when an enemy SMERSH agent shows up and kills Le Chiffre instead--and cuts a signifying mark in Bond's hand before letting him go. Afterward he goes through a lengthy recovery from his injuries in hospital, and watches the romance between him and Vesper Lynd die slowly, concluding finally when she kills herself and leaves a note telling him how she betrayed him--something she did for the sake of another, previous love, a whole other layer of betrayal.

This is all very far from the stuff of personal fantasy (for most of us, anyway), and such things happen again and again and again in the books. Bond getting stomped on by football-cleated Wint and Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond getting poisoned by Rose Klebb in From Russia With Love. Bond seeing his bride killed right after the wedding and going to pieces and getting brainwashed by the KGB and betraying the Service and winding up in a mental hospital being subjected to electroshock therapy to break him of his mental conditioning in the story arc that unfolds through On Her Majesty's Secret Service, You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun.

It was one reason why the books so utterly failed to grab me the first time I looked at them, and even now I find myself comparing Bond not just to his later screen incarnation, but to other fictional figures in this regard--not least, Robert Howard's Conan, perhaps as much a Gary Stu as a character can possibly get.

One may as well start with the character's extraordinary autonomy. He is without a past, family, country or superstition (his god, Crom, is conveniently distant), and admits no master, joining this leader, this army, that crew, only where it serves his own purposes, and only for so long as it does so--and able to go on acting that way because of his utter competence and adaptability. Conan is not merely an able fighter, but one strong enough to fell an ox with a single blow, and fling a lance like a javelin--and to boot, an able military strategist, skilled sailor, talented linguist, canny thief, charismatic politician, and just about everything else his diverse adventures can possibly require him to be in order not only to survive them, but to become top dog wherever he winds up, be it a pirate crew, a tribe of hillmen, or the elite of an ancient metropolis, in any corner of the rough and tumble Hyborean world. Even the setbacks serve to show just how formidable Conan is. Being betrayed in "A Witch Shall Be Born", for instance, proves an occasion for him to show his fearsome prowess in battle as he takes on a hundred attackers and kills them until they lay "strewn in heaps thigh-deep about him" before their comrades get a hold of him; his extraordinary endurance when he is crucified (Conan still able to tear the nails out of his feet, mount a horse and ride ten miles when his rescuers find him); and exact a like revenge on his enemy (who does not survive the treatment).

Conan's barbarism is a considerable asset rather than a disadvantage in this respect. Not only is it held to be the source of his physical strength and endurance, but also his cleanness of soul, and his clarity of mind. That he is uninhibited by civilized men's mores about such things as property and social distinctions lets him see the world more accurately than those who would look down on him--as well as go after what he wants with a clean conscience, and sense of honor intact (able as he is to abide by his simpler ethics). And Conan's wants are not small ones, be it a taste for adventure or an eye for loot. In contrast with Howard's earlier, womanless heroes, like Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane, Conan is not only a sexual being, but in his proclivities and successes--well, rather like we think of James Bond being. Ultimately he winds up the crowned head of a Hyborian kingdom, Aquilonia--and while on its throne, even proves himself an exceptional ruler, not least because he is so utterly self-made.

The wish-fulfillment in this narrative can hardly be more complete.

Granted, Bond was, is, a creature of the modern world, of large organizations and high technology; there is simply no room in such a milieu for a figure like Conan, a fact that Howard escaped by going back to the antiquity-before-antiquity that was the Hyborean Age. Reflecting on the two characters there seems no question that there was a profound difference in the attitudes of these two authors to their creations. Fleming was conflicted, ambivalent, ironic toward Bond (as, one supposes, he was toward himself), and this shows in his writing, the inconsistency rather consistent. Reading Howard, however, I have never sensed anything of the kind; instead he appears to be in full fantasy mode.

Perhaps the difference in the respective ages of these authors was a factor. Neal Stephenson remarked in Snow Crash how until the age of twenty-five men on some level hold hugely deluded ideas about how tough they could be, given the incentive or the chance. ("If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge.") I imagine some recognize it for what it is earlier, and a good many others never quite let the notion go. Fleming was already well into middle age when he sat down to write Casino, but Howard still in his twenties'--and as it happened, exceptionally gifted at expressing this aspect of himself.

Postmodernism and Self-Censorship

Uncertainty and doubt has always been part of intellectual and cultural life--including that exceptionally large doubt as to whether anything is knowable (an issue that seems as old as philosophical speculation itself). Equally, intellectual and artistic expression has always entailed risk. There was always a premium on pleasing "everybody," and offending "nobody."

The difference between our own, postmodernist-influenced era and earlier periods is that a significant portion of opinion elevates incoherence to a virtue, with the result that muddled pseudo-engagement is often taken as something bold and worthwhile, while the muddle itself is taken for aesthetic sophistication.

How did we get here? Certainly part of the explanation is the inescapable irony of the postmodernist outlook, which very easily turns intellectual life into a parlor game. (Indeed, "playful" is a word that comes up very frequently in postmodernist discourse.) Surface is about all we can get at, so that text is assumed to be about nothing but itself, a premise that can reduce politics to hollow theater, culture to a play of symbols.

This makes it especially easy to fall into the frame of mind that we can't know anything, and can't do anything about it--and therefore bear no responsibility. (Philosophers do not change the world; they don't even interpret it anymore.) This being the case, why fuss over ideas? Especially when we can't be sure what the truth is, and thinking that we do is arrogance, pure and simple? (History, in the old sense, is over.) Besides, aren't we always being told that ideas just get in the way of art? ("If you want to send a message, use Western Union.")

But all the same, it's almost impossible to totally escape ideas, to totally escape making reference to the world. At least touching on them sometimes is something writers can't help. And one supposes that touching on them that way can make the parlor game more interesting. It gets attention. People may even call you daring and clever for doing it. (And all that can be profitable, of course. No one's so postmodernist they don't appreciate dollars and pounds, euros and yen, "skepticism" about the existence and value of these interestingly lacking on the part of even those most committed to these ideas.)

And it's possible to play it safe. Just evoke the idea, while studiously not taking a position--not least by turning your "text" into a game with the audience. Or if you do wind up taking a discernible position, so that it is possible to spot the personal "truth" from inside of the bodyguard of what the plainspoken might call lies surrounding it (sometimes writers just can't help it), play it ironically, so that you have that avenue of retreat. If anyone thinks you did say something, you can always say that they're not reading you correctly, that you were being ironic, that you meant to say the opposite. Or perhaps to say nothing at all about anything but THE TEXT!

Play it even safer: say you were being ironic even when the whole thing is an impenetrable muddle.

Are you telling the truth when you do that? Well, what's truth? What's honesty? What's the self? What's memory? You're unsure yourself; your reader will be more so.

Ah, there's that postmodern doubt again, just when we needed it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Note on Literary Technique in an Age of Muddle

Postmodernist thought is famously marked by a suspicion of certainty and stress on subjectivity, and a tendency to view cultural production as "play." Those attitudes are quite prominent in the prevailing views of literary technique. That the author (unavoidably an authority figure making authority claims within their work) should be invisible in their work, their voice never obtrusive (the sorts of "indulgences" in which, for instance, Victor Hugo engaged in a book like Les Miserables today unthinkable). That it is far, far better thing for them to write from within a character's point of view than to write from a third-person omnisicient point of view, and even more impressive, several first-person viewpoints. That the use of unreliable narrators is to be especially esteemed. That a writer's "showing" their story is far better than merely telling it, or even showing and telling, and "incluing" far better than "infodumping."

All other things being equal, the use of these techniques - which have come to be regarded as "rules" for writers with any aspiration to genuinely literary endeavor - makes a piece of fiction more rather than less difficult to read, which, ironically, only raises their prestige. Many influential critics in and out of the Academy treat such difficulty as a virtue rather than a failing, because they enjoy approaching books as puzzles, because it is the more difficult works which require the kind of explication and interpretation which results in published papers, because mastery of the obscure carries with it great prestige. Because, for all the postmodernist suspicion of value judgments, and questioning of the old line between high culture and low, a leisure class elitism not only endures, but where literature is concerned, seems to be growing wider. (Thus America's first Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Sinclair Lewis, is virtually unmentioned among highbrows, while these typically regard the High Modernists as kings and queens of twentieth century literature.)

This is not to dismiss techniques of the sort discussed here, or the difficult books in which they result. Certainly all of the devices mentioned above have been used to good effect by various authors in various books. Equally, difficult works can be well worth the demands they make on the reader. Yet, it is undeniable that, in line with the postmodernist emphasis on surface, and sense of cultural and intellectual life as a parlor game, the attitude elevating them presumes that what one says is of far less importance than how one says it - with the premium placed on everything but clarity.1 The result is that while a writer can create a narratively and intellectually coherent story with the techniques discussed here, they make the task much more difficult, and anyway one who elects to use them in the first place has already made a concession to the prevailing fashion - gripping them within a very powerful tendency toward the fragmentation of the work in which they are using them. Naturally, one can make quite the muddle of things without particularly trying - and if they are very, very lucky, get hailed as a genius for doing so.

1. One might plausibly regard this as also a function of the advent of electronic, visual media, and a consequent tendency to emphasize what print fiction can do that, for instance, film and television cannot - leading to a stress on how language is used, and in particular, the word game. One might also see the postmodernist emphasis on surface rather than depth as a factor.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How James Bond Got to Have a 50th Anniversary

My writing has tended to look at the ways in which the James Bond series has dated, or been exceeded--rather than why it endured so long.

Of course, one should put the matter of the series' longevity into the proper perspective. Bond has been around for almost six decades in various forms, the film series for a half century. But Mission: Impossible in its various incarnations goes back to the '60s, as does Star Trek, which has been prominent on the big screen for four decades now. Thirty-five years after the first Star Wars film, we are hearing about plans to make Episode VII. And of course, comic book superheroes like Batman and Superman hit print and screen well before Bond did--but are still very much around.

What is really more extraordinary than the length of time for which it has been around is how prolific the series has been, twenty-four feature films appearing in the space of fifty years, the six year break between 1989 and 1995 the longest gap within this output. This warrants some explanation, and it seems to me that four factors are responsible (beyond the allure of a brand name).

First and foremost was the sheer scale of the series' success in the '60s, the kind of success that comes with not just being a hit, but a game-changer that has everyone else scrambling to follow. Success on that scale meant not just a powerful brand name, but a certain inertia. Putting it in financial terms, the series' grosses were so high at their peak that even with considerable erosion the films could go on being financially viable for quite a long time, as was indeed the case. There was a (more or less) steady decline in the films' earnings after 1965's Thunderball, the result of which was that 1989's Licence to Kill grossed a mere quarter what the older film did (after inflation)--but still turned a profit. That sort of margin also meant plenty of opportunities for at least limited comebacks from the low points--such as Goldeneye managed after Licence to Kill.

There was also the fact that the series was based not on a story with a beginning, middle and end (in the manner of the Star Wars saga, for instance), but a formula which proved susceptible to considerable adaptation. The early films, certainly, can be construed as having been about Bond's battle with SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but no one seems to have been seriously troubled by the switch over from SPECTRE to Auric Goldfinger in the third movie (in fact, he became the series' most celebrated villain by far), and after Bond's last real battle with Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, there was no sense that Bond's adventures had come to an end, no real reason why M could not simply send him on yet another mission after another villain. And even by that point the film had developed enough models to allow considerable scope for reworking, the series' concept accommodating films as diverse as Live and Let Die and Moonraker within the space of six years--and audiences accepting it, making each of those movies a hit on a scale not seen until well into the twenty-first century.

It helped that the films were consistently backed by large budgets. Long after the Bond movies ceased to be pace-setters for the genre, the big money behind them let them provide enough spectacle to remain a draw, very few comparable series financed on the same scale until the late 1980s (the Bonds of that decade all produced for $30 million or more, even as Hollywood still tended to spend $10-20 million to make major action films like Commando, Aliens, Predator and Robocop).1 There were certainly misfires despite this, films which were too goofy or flabby or derivative to really satisfy as action movies (like The Man With the Golden Gun, or A View to a Kill, or Die Another Day), but a fair number of the later installments offered memorable stunts, chases and fights. (The pre-credits sequence of the much-maligned Moonraker, for instance, was to be copied time and again by other films, like 1996's Eraser.)

Finally, there was the continuing appeal of the concept's idiosyncracies for a considerable audience. The familiarity that bored and annoyed some attracted others, while the series lasted long enough to have become an object of nostalgia without ever really having gone away. There remained, too, an attraction on the part of many to the idea of a sophisticated, globe-trotting, hedonistic hero, the over-the-top quality of the characters and plots and action, the lightness of the tone with regard to the sex and violence--much more than those who pompously insist that the "guilty pleasures" of pop culture "must change with the times" would admit. Much as the films did have to change, a significant part of the films' attraction was the ways in which they did not do so--though of course, this could not and did not go on forever.

1. It should be remembered that the early Bond films played a significant role in founding the genre, doing much to develop the form (its structure and pace, its use of the set piece, its editing techniques), creating quite a number of classic scenes (Bond's fight with Red Grant on the Orient Express in From Russia With Love, the climactic battle at SPECTRE's volcano crater base in You Only Live Twice), and inspiring wide, direct imitation of specific elements (in decades of James Bond-style adventure from Our Man Flint to XXX).

Of Postmodernism and Conservatism

Three years ago I published an article about the politics surrounding space development, in which I identified postmodernism with conservatism. It was not the first time I suggested this in a public forum, but that time around it evoked a strong, and mostly negative, response, many readers of my article expressing shock or outrage at my having suggested a connection. Alas, those expressions of shock and outrage did not include a coherent criticism of my position, and apart from some brief explanatory remarks I offered during an appearance on The Space Show, I left the matter at that. However, given the replies some of my recent remarks have drawn (specifically those regarding the ways in which a postmodernist stance can be a dodge) it seems appropriate to enlarge on them here.

Just What is Postmodernism Anyway?
Offering even the most basic definition of postmodernist thought is an exceedingly difficult task (complicated further by its close relationship with post-structuralism, and the imperfect boundaries between them, as well as their looser relationship with critical theory). Offering a list of its most central characteristics is only slightly less difficult. However, it would be relatively uncontroversial to say that postmodern thought is hugely skeptical of the various forms of human reason and their exercise (deduction, induction, definition, categorization, dialectic, the separation of subject and object, linguistic description, etc.).

Accordingly it takes the position that what knowledge of the world is attainable is of a limited, conditional, "fragmented," surface character (at best), and more aptly described as "constructed" than "discovered." Experience and understanding are therefore relativistic and subjective--while the subject itself is also a target of the aforementioned skepticism, postmodernism typically regarding the individual as "an effect of social forces, and an illusory one at that." Accordingly postmodernists stress the role identity plays in one's approach to the world, to the point of denying that it can be transcended to permit anything like the formation of coherent, objective images of the world modern thought generally strove to produce, let alone a satisfactory basis for making value judgments.

The result is the elimination of not only the basis of a universalistic view of the world, but of comprehensive and systematic understandings or explanations of the world--and for criticisms of it. This narrowing of the scope for critical, rational thinking also constrains the possibilities for rational action, and the ideas premised on it. This certainly includes the "utopian" projects of ameliorating the condition of humanity through the use of reason espoused by the major ideological traditions that came in the wake of the eighteenth century "Age of Reason." Indeed, the presumed end of the era of such "grand," "totalizing" or "meta" narratives--like the Modern idea of progress, the Enlightenment "project" of emancipating humanity, or the Marxist reading of history--is exactly what Jean-Francois Lyotard referred to when he wrote of "the postmodern condition" in the 1979 book by that name.

A Negative Conservatism
As it happens, the outlook I have just described has historically been the province not of the left, but the right, corresponding to the thought of those who attacked the Enlightenment in the wake of the French Revolution--men like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, and their intellectual descendants. It is they who have for the last two centuries emphasized the limits of human knowledge, reason and action; who have denounced the application of reason to human affairs, and especially the utopian impulse; and who have responded to universalistic liberal or radical principles with a stress on identity and particularism.1

There is, too, the way in which each of these streams of thought emerged. Just like the conservatism of Burke and his contemporaries, postmodernism emerged in the wake of revolutions, wars and associated catastrophes--in the postmodernists' case, the rise of fascism, World War II, the Holocaust, while, as M. Keith Booker notes in his study Mushroom Clouds, Monsters and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, it also received a great deal of impetus from Cold War anti-Marxism. And just as the ideas of Burke, de Maistre and the rest became part of the intellectual arsenal of the opponents of revolution, so has postmodern thought tended to explicitly oppose Marxist thinking, with the result that postmodernists and Marxists have often been at odds--a fact acknowledged in the writings of Marxists like Jurgen Habermas, Frederic Jameson, Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Parenti and John Molyneux, who pointedly dismissed postmodernism's "incredulity toward metanarratives" as "an old song long intoned by bourgeois historians of various persuasions."

While postmodernism's essentials safely situate it within the conservative tradition, it is the case that there are important differences between postmodernist thought and the mainstream of conservative thought, specifically that where conservatism typically has something to offer in place of reason, whether tradition, religion or some other sort of authority, postmodernism offers nothing. Even postmodernism's endorsement of identity and the traditions on which it is founded lacks the certainty and solidity of conservative theories about the validity of those things: their claims for divine endorsement of their favored social order, for society as an organic entity on which surgery ought not be performed, for institutions like property, capitalism and traditional family structures as "natural."2 Indeed, postmodernism's skepticism and hostility to system-building leaves it wearing an ironic face rather than the earnest one generally associated with more conventional political stances, and an uneasy fit with any source of authority (including the authority of postmodernism's own premises).

One may contend on this basis that postmodernism is a negative form of conservatism, much more suited to attacks on the intellectual tools and objects of the left than the defense of those things cherished by the right, but, just like the arguments of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, conservatism nonetheless, tending overwhelmingly toward acquiescence in the status quo, whatever that status quo may be, in both intellectual and practical terms.3 And it does not seem at all implausible that, in ways direct and indirect, postmodernist thought has contributed significantly to the larger political climate in conservative ways--inhibiting robust criticism of society and the exploration of alternatives, lowering the expectations of reformers, shifting politics away from matters of economics and class toward symbolic issues, and in its attitude toward science, opening the door wider to the "merchants of doubt" who have manufactured specious arguments for "creation science" and "climate change skepticism."

Explaining the Confusion
Given the case to be made that postmodern thought is essentially conservative, one may wonder why this position is not more widely seen outside the academic Marxist writing of which the mainstream is scarcely conscious (and even within Marxist theory, not more fully developed and frequently expressed than it currently is).4 A central reason would seem the undeniable fact that many a postmodernist thinks of themselves as being left of the political center, not least because many of them espouse liberal-left positions on specific political issues (as has been the case with, for instance, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida). The apparent dissonance between their philosophy and their practical politics in this regard is concealed by the reduction of political ideology in the public imagination to stances on a few hot-button issues (abortion, gun control, etc.), the notion that conservatism, liberalism or radicalism entail larger understandings of the world apparently alien to most of those claiming adherence to these ideas (which is itself a rather postmodern attitude). This image is bolstered by the tendency to associate postmodernist "identity politics" not with all those engaged with such issues, but only the claims of ethnic minorities and other traditionally disadvantaged groups championed by the left, rather than the claims of dominant groups, which can equally be termed identity politics, but which usually come bearing other labels (like "culture war").

The confusion is increased by the notorious unreadability of much of the relevant writing.5 Where the English-speaking world is concerned, this is likely compounded by their experience of French academic writing as "difficult" due to the differences in prose style across academic cultures (a more frequent use of "point-late" text structures, the less frequent organization of paragraphs around topic sentences, etc.), and the divergent traditions of Anglo-Saxon and continental philosophy (e.g. the synthetic-analytical divide), which leaves English-language readerships struggling to follow the thread of argument, overwhelmed with abstractions and starved for concrete evidence for the claims they see being advanced.

The matter is certainly not helped by the fact that few outside the Academy, or the upper strata of high culture, consciously and openly avow postmodernist thought. One generally does not see politicians, CEOs or popular authors cite postmodernist authors, and certainly the works of Jacques Derrida do not command the kind of intense elite enthusiasm that those of, for example, Ayn Rand enjoy all these decades later. Their combination of irony, idiosyncracy and obscurity has not lent itself to use in public battles of ideas in the manner of, for instance, the ideas of Herbert Spencer, Ludwig von Mises, George Gilder--or the aforementioned Rand--in the last hundred and fifty years. Conservatives looking for intellectual champions simply find more appealing candidates elsewhere, leaving the parallels and the connections unadvertised. Unsurprisingly, there has been little effort to convey the actual content of postmodern thinking to general, non-scholarly audiences--to produce "pop" postmodernism for lay readers.6 Thus critical engagement with postmodernism's actual ideas has remained the purview of a cultural-intellectual elite, even as those ideas have become so ubiquitous as to be utterly taken for granted within the mainstream.

1. This is all without getting into such matters as its rendering of situations where oppression exists much more ambiguous through power analytics; its original sin theology-like propensity to reduce all human activity to an exercise in power relations; and the divisiveness fostered by identity politics, and the ways in which they undermine broader struggles for equity (which conservatives have frequently exploited, going back at least to Klemens Von Metternich). It is certainly worth recalling Michel Foucault's enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution--a rare but particularly telling example of the way in which the postmodernist critique can take the shape of explicit support for retrograde irrationality and anti-rationality.
2. It is even clearer that postmodernists have nothing to offer the left in the way of these things. As Alexander Sidorkin put it, "postmodern writers do not give us a good reason to act, nor do they give us a reason to resist oppression. They are just not useful in dealing with our real problems of injustice and human suffering. They do very little to address racial or gender discrimination, or to redeem inherent economic injustices of capitalism."
3. In that classic Hobbes argued for obedience to the prevailing government in preference to the worse alternative of disorder, rather than on the basis of tradition, historical practice or religious doctrine (in the manner of, for instance, the much less well-known Robert Filmer).
4. Rare exceptions of non-Marxist writers making this point include Morris Berman in The Twilight of American Culture. There has also been some acknowledgment of the relationship between conservatism and postmodern thought on the right in Gerald J. Russello's writing on Russell Kirk.
5. Noam Chomsky, a not altogether unsympathetic observer, wrote that on examining the texts of Foucault and Jacques Lacan "what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish."
6. However, that is not to say that postmodernist jargon and thought has failed to enter mainstream usage, with that influence most evident in the rhetoric of identity politics (like feminist use of the term "objectification," a legacy of Lacan's writing).

Friday, November 2, 2012

Reading S.M. Stirling's Draka Novels

S.M. Stirling's well-known Draka series presents a culture founded on a distillation of the most brutal elements in nineteenth century European thought (the proto-fascism of Carlyle, the pseudo-scientific racism of Gobineau, the Nietzchean will to power), and given space in which to develop and expand (nineteenth century southern Africa).

Thematically it is an interesting concept. However, Stirling's treatment is quite unconvincing, even by the standards of alternate history, which is quite a different thing from historical counterfactual.

It is nearly inconceivable that a feudal culture of xenophobic, Classicism-obsessed, warrior-landowner aristocrats, presiding over a population of illiterate serfs whose lot is no better than slavery, would succeed in building an industrialized society. These are, after all, exactly the kind of people who have held development back elsewhere, and if anything the history of both South Africa, and the southern United States (a major contributor to this culture), only reinforce this view of the Draka's prospects. That this society should not only industrialize, but do so in a part of the world that in real life has suffered greatly from what development theorists term the "resource curse" (the propensity of a natural resource-rich country to "underdevelop," in line with which South Africa was a developmental laggard); and then succeed at their task so completely that they technologically outstrip the rest of the world by the 1940s, and go on to push the envelope far beyond what our world achieved by that time; is nothing short of preposterous.

The idea that this mix of elements would at the same time produce such an atheistic, feministic and hedonistic culture as that of the Draka, and somehow harmonize this with a quasi-Spartan martial ethic, is that much less believable. It is hardly more credible that with their rather small demographic base (despite the infusions of Loyalists, Confederates and other immigrants into the region) they would succeed in conquering and developing sub-Saharan Africa in the space of a century, and Eurasia in another, even with their technical prowess and without the grave disadvantages of their social model. (We are given to understand that the ratio of serfs to Citizens gets as high as eighty to one, and that even serfs who serve in the armed forces have a very low glass ceiling over their heads – as does everyone else not born at the top in this extremely inegalitarian culture.) Stirling does make some concessions to the handicaps such a system would suffer in its pursuit of its goals, the Draka culture's limitations all too apparent by the time of the third novel in the series, The Stone Dogs – yet, they finish that book as masters of the planet, their enemies literally driven off the Earth's surface.

Reading the novels some readers have taken these aspects of the book for a wish-fulfillment, one which some readers have found appealing (Stirling himself has commented on those "who wanted to move there"), while others have charged Stirling with being a racist himself (Stirling remarking "Oh, all the time" when asked whether this happens). Of course, Stirling is contemptuously dismissive of those who read the book in such ways. However, it is worth noting that no one can mistake Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for a wish-fulfillment – but the truth is that there is at least some scope for such a reading here. Orwell's Oceania was a very far cry from the world to which those who joined the Communist Party generally aspired, but the Domination of the Draka realizes a host of fantasies regarded as unseemly in the mainstream, but which nonetheless have their enthusiasts. There is a radical right-wing fantasy of a society built on the most harshly elitist principles, which not incidentally finishes off the Soviet Union and Communism by 1942. A militarist fantasy of a modern-day Sparta sweeping all before it (with much made of the softness of other folk). A Southern nationalist fantasy in which the South does rise again (even if it does so in another hemisphere), and takes on the Yankees and wins decisively (and on a global stage, an extension of the U.S. Civil War the final world war). And that is all without touching on the other fantasies (of power, sadism and other things) to which Draka culture speaks. (I leave it to the reader to judge whether the illogic of the outcome makes such appearances more or less pointed.)

Additionally, the novels focus not on the outsider or the rebel traditionally at the heart of the dystopian tale, but the system's biggest beneficiaries, the most privileged of the Citizens, who despite particular misgivings and occasional alienation, ultimately uphold the prevailing order. Their homes and estates, and their often brutal entertainments, are also described with a lushness that might not unreasonably be seen as romanticizing their world. Stirling contends that despite the Domination of the Draka being a dystopia
any society that lasted that long would have to have some attractive features. Besides, part of the challenge of using the bad guys for p.o.v. was to force people to identify with them and then go ICK! mentally.
This is, of course, plausible enough, but the approach does not always have the effect planned, and this time around there is little arguing that the Draka series is fairly susceptible to those interpretations he has dismissed in the above comments – even by those not given to "reading against the grain" and invoking the Founding Fathers of the Linguistic Turn with every breath.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Myth of Liberal Hollywood

Back in August New York magazine's Jonathan Chait published an article titled "The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy is on Your Screen," which contended that a liberal view of the world pervades Hollywood and its product.

What was remarkable about the article was not the sentiment, but the author and forum. Jonathan Chait, after all, recently authored a noteworthy critical analysis of supply-side economics, The Big Con: Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America--and whatever else one may say about it, New York magazine is not The National Review or The Weekly Standard. (Indeed, the first sentence of the Wikipedia article about Chait pointedly describes him as a "liberal commentator.")

Naturally, the piece excited some critical comment, but that such an argument should have appeared in that forum at all--that this image of Hollywood's liberalism should be so enduringly pervasive--is astonishing.

Granted, it may seem that nothing would be more natural than for Hollywood to be a bastion of the left. It is, after all, a center of the arts, peopled to a significant extent by those who have chosen self-expression and the creative life over the "practical" world of the 8-6 job, and situated in one of the country's biggest and most cosmopolitan metropolitan areas, out on the west coast in youthful, forward-looking, forward-thinking California. And as all this might lead one to expect, some of its most well-known personalities do indeed speak unfashionably leftish opinions (as Sean Penn and George Clooney and Bill Maher do).

Yet, Hollywood is also a place dominated by gigantic multinational corporations (like the Time Warner Company, News Corporation and General Electric), and a hugely wealthy elite who are living out the American dream of fortune and fame, and prone to believe they are doing so because they are deserving of every bit of it, and others aren't--or at least, prone to be content with the status quo and complacent about "playing the hand you're dealt" because, after all, their hand was a Royal Flush.

These are people who live within an enclave of privilege, who have often been born to it and never known anything else (the preponderance of working actors, directors and writers with significant familial links to the business can give the impression a caste system is at work)--or if they did come from humbler places, may be all the more dismissive of life's difficulties for it, because, after all, didn't things work out for them in the end? People whose income makes them investors and employers, and leads to their association with others of the same socioeconomic level but from quite different walks of life--like the actress who marries a financier. People whose particular way of making a living (not least the outsized claims for talent, conspicuous consumption and flamboyant display that make up so much of publicity) steeps them in a "leisure class" culture, to which they are all too susceptible (as demonstrated by their propensity for alternating between lavish excess, and spectacular bankruptcy). People who are, like everyone else, not unknown to become more conservative as they get older (or simply richer); to run their lives into the ground and, after hitting rock bottom, decide they've found Religion (usually, a severe form of it), or simply learned the Hard Facts of Life (about which it is always easier to lecture others from the lap of luxury); and on occasion, be reached by the same events, the same trends, affecting and afflicting the rest of the country in which they were born and of which they remain a part (and which has itself been moving steadily rightward).

The results of all that are predictable. There is no denying that there are actors, directors, producers and writers of liberal sensibilities in Hollywood, but conservative political attitudes have never been scarce there, either, and support for the Republican Party certainly no rarity, even among its Big Names (as figures ranging from Clint Eastwood to Adam Sandler, from Kelsey Grammer to Vince Vaughn, from Dwayne Johnson to Jon Voight, from Joel Surnow to Mickey Rourke, demonstrate). And these are by no means silent or inactive. They routinely lend their celebrity (and give their money) to conservative causes, media and political events (like the Republican National Convention), and on many an occasion, run for political office themselves (like the previous two-term governor of California, and the fortieth president of the United States, political heights no liberal entertainer has come anywhere near). Between the extremes the "center" is less liberal than libertarian, in the sense Michael Lind describes in his writing on the "overclass," of which Hollywood's glitterati are most certainly a part. Naturally they are to the left of the American center on sociocultural matters like GLBT issues and the legalization of marijuana (which, admittedly, are all that those who equate politics with the "culture wars" care about)--but hew much closer to the political right on socioeconomic issues like tax rates and spending on welfare programs (much less often talked about).

The product we get reflects the fact. Take, for instance, the economic sensibility prevailing in film. As conservatives often complain, we do frequently see the business corporation cast as villain--but the bad guy is usually a bad apple rather than The System. At the same time, there is also lots of CEO worship, endless celebration of wealth and "success," and the mentality of the Horatio Alger story, reflected in such things as the transformation of the "IT billionaire" into one of the screen's most tired clichés (such that, thanks to the man who brought us The Big Bang Theory, even the implausible Ashton Kutcher is playing one). David Fincher's The Social Network, so widely characterized as a "hatchet job" on Mark Zuckerberg, is actually just another piece of tech god mythmaking, and along with the success of Iron Man on the big screen in not one but two major franchises, is at bottom an update of that close relation of the Horatio Alger tale, the Edisonade.

That genre in which one might most expect to see teeth, the political thriller, similarly plays it safe with films like Syriana the exception, not the rule. The much more widely imitated Jason Bourne series does have its hero fighting his former employers--but drains the tale of anything remotely resembling political content, turning it into the spy film equivalent of Seinfeld, a "movie about nothing" (to paraphrase Roger Ebert). Meanwhile many of the thrillers that do espouse a clearer political position offer shallow orthodoxy, like The Kingdom or Vantage Point, while TV has offered NCIS, and the torture porn of 24, and the "allegory" of Battlestar Galactica, and . . . the list goes on.

And so on and so forth. Consequently, liberalism is a presence, but it is often of a limited, mild, muted or superficial variety (and always more evident in the sociocultural sphere than the socioeconomic)--with conservatism tending to fill in the spaces it leaves open, and frequently rather bolder and blunter in its expression. Indeed, looking at it all it seems that in Hollywood, as elsewhere, "postmodern" conservatism is king.

Star Wars: Episode VII?

One of the bigger stories of the past week (in and out of that part of the news media devoted to speculative fiction) was the sale of Lucasfilm, and the Star Wars franchise, to the Disney corporation for four billion dollars. Making the story even bigger was the announcement that Disney will use its newly purchased rights to make another Star Wars film, due out by 2015.

The Star Wars films were, of course, foundational for me when I saw them way back when. Later I enjoyed the prequels, which I regard as having been treated unfairly by many a fan of the original trilogy. Still, I'm not sure how to feel about the prospect of Episode VII. Certainly the series offers an appealing universe, without real parallel in the history of Hollywood space opera, and the idea of returning to it in additional stories has its attractions. And as the films are expected to be based on an original story, there is at least an avoidance of the obvious complications entailed in filming the Heirs to the Empire trilogy (which, at any rate, seems at best a postscript to the larger saga of Episodes I through VI)--like recasting the roles of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia.

Yet, this franchise has already been very heavily mined at this point, so much so that I'm not sure the company will recoup its outlay to buy Lucasfilm anytime soon. And Disney's crassness can be nothing short of spectacular. Consider their lack of compunction about debasing their hit films with cheap straight-to-video releases (Aladdin IV: Jafar May Need Glasses only a slight exaggeration of their practices), from which they have graduated to big screen sequels no one asked for (like 2011's Cars 2). And frankly, wouldn't it be nice if filmmakers were actually allowed to work with NEW IDEAS, instead of being pressed into feeding the studios' addictions to old IPs, with the result that (the recent and highly anomalous Avatar excepted) our grand-scale space opera franchises all go back to the 1970s (Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien)?

At best I'm ambivalent--though yes, I would enjoy a good, new Star Wars film.

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