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Josh Lukin
Posted on Thursday, February 06, 2003 - 10:04 am:   

"She has many things. You should see her floppy hat collection." --Destruction, telling Orpheus about Death in Neil Gaiman's "Song of Orpheus."
Timmi, you once in another discussion venue criticized readers who mistook Judith Butler's idea of performative identities for a claim that such identities are freely chosen or voluntary. But I don't know that you articulated what it is that you value in JB. I'm curious, because aside from a few nice apercus, I'm having difficulty finding a lot that's useful in her work. But maybe it's just the sentence structure that's holding me at bay.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, February 06, 2003 - 04:26 pm:   

I mentioned only the hats in my personal collection that I thought likely visitors here would be interested in. To answer your question, Josh, I'd have to don one of my other hats. Should I do that in this venue? After all, hats tend to be occasion- & site-specific. One doesn't wear a baseball cap to the opera (well, maybe *these* days one does, maybe that's a dated example), one doesn't wear a top hat to the movies (unless looking for a fight), & one certainly doesn't wear a bowler to go bowling. On the other hand, it may be simply the two of us here in this place, which sounds to my ear as quiet as a bank vault. (Not that I've ever *been* in a bank vault: but we fiction writers spend so much time imagining places we've never been & experiences that we've never had that we're quite likely to sound as though we've lived enough for a hundred rather than being, in fact, persons who, chained to their keyboards, spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the dust & hair we can't help but notice lurking between the keys.) (Not that we *leave* the dust & hair there; for, having noticed it, we then must spend a lot of time *removing* it.)

Where was I? Oh yes, you wanted me to talk about the useful part of Judith Butler's theorization of gender performativity. See, right away, that very *word* probably sent any browser in the vicinity running. (That language is so contagious that before I wrote "browsers" I wrote "flaneurs"-- you see how insidious is the power of interpellation? Go on, go on, I seem to hear you screaming, put that damned hat on!)

But before I do that, I just *have* to interrupt myself because I am suddenly reminded of Jane Siberry's hat song. "I go down to the lobby, and everybody stares. They say, Take off that foolish hat, what man? I say." The narrator/singer refuses to take it off, even as the pressure builds. She refuses to go back upstairs. "and they say this is your darkest hour, this is my finest moment. . ." Come to think of it, when I was talking about North American writers not having done much in the genre of political fable, I wasn't thinking about songwriters. *Big* mistake.

<sigh.> All right, Josh. About Judith Butler: to put it simplistically (i.e., in nontheoretical language), in her early work Butler made an interesting (even vital) connection between gender & the physical, material habits that help determine who a given person is & what s/he can be. Butler sees the body as discursive-- i.e., as speaking (through its deportment, movement, its conscious & unconscious gestures, its tics & habits, & above all its interpretation by those perceiving it). Just as the language of words teems with habitual gender implications, inflections, & limitations on what can be said & done, so with the language spoken by the body. The key here is *reiteration.* Gender performativity is not, as her critics often charge, largely voluntaristic; rather, it includes all the many unconscious ways in which we daily enact gender (with all the class, race, age, & other inflections that must be considered as intrinsic to gender). I suppose what most bothers Butler's critics is her insistence that because gender is performative, the body "has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality." Interestingly, this point is important to her because she uses it to argue that the public regulation of sexuality (particularly as it punishes those who don't conform to heteronormative conventions) rests entirely on the "fantasy" of a psychological core that produces gender coherence-- thus precluding "an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject and its fabricated notions about the ineffable interiority of its sex or its true identity." Her critics are also concerned about the question of agency, in the same way many of Foucault's critics have been.

Don't you think, Josh, that since I've answered your question you should go over to the Poets & Guernica thread & answer one of mine? You know a good bit about politics in literature in the 20th century US, more particularly of the 1950s. Could you explain to me why the Left estranged itself from the arts in the last half of the twentieth century? Why leftist publishers don't support politically radical fiction? Why publications like _The Nation_ don't bother with reviewing anything but mainstream work in any of the arts? Why they're more likely to review the latest Star Wars movie than a new novel by Rebecca Ore or Carter Scholz?

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Jeremy Lassen
Posted on Thursday, February 06, 2003 - 06:13 pm:   

I’d like to throw in a quick answer to your question. Not an answer really, but an idea.

Progressive publications like “The Nation”, as with most of the progressive movements of the 2nd half of the twentieth century continually struggle against the seeming paradox of their class status. Progressive and populist are not the same thing, though progressive organizations often champion causes that are ostensibly for the benefit of the underclass. At the same time, these progressive organizations are often supported by and made up of members of the middle/upperclass.

Do progressive publication focus on more “populist” forms of entertainment (Star Wars, John Grisham) in an attempt to maintain “street credibility”? Witness The Nation’s recent article on music and youth culture.

Fiction... the written form of entertainment has been slowly becoming a form of elitist/upper-class entertainment. I wrote a column about this at My essential thesis is that forms of mass entertainment are technological and socially driven, based on the most cost effective way to entertain large numbers of people. In Shakespeare’s time, theater was the most cost effective way. In the 18th and 19th century, in the western industrial world, the printing press and high literacy rates made written narrative the primary form of mass entertainment. In The early 20th century radio eclipsed the written word, and Television went on to supplanted this.

To answer your question, fiction and poetry in the later half of the 20th century have become elitist forms of entertainment. Radical fiction therefore falls outside the progressive paradigm of trying speak to and represent the underclass. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously by a blue collar constituency if you are a liberal east coast/west coast commie-pinko-liberal. If you spend your time on the soapbox talking about radical fiction, it is all the more easy for your opponents to undermine your message by suggesting you are “out of touch” with the people you are supposedly trying to help.

At least this is one possible explanation for why progressive organizations have marginalized radical fiction -- Because the larger culture in which these organizations exist has marginalized all forms of fiction.

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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Sunday, February 09, 2003 - 02:00 pm:   

I've been taking some time to think about your post before replying, Jeremy. (I also wanted to hear what Josh Lukin might have to say on the subject, which, so far, seems to be nothing at all.)

Your points about the professionalization of people who think of themselves as cadre for progressive movements (persons who often, I fear, imagine there is only one true progressive movement or leadership-- witness the recent spate of red-baiting by supposedly "leftist" commentators) & the tendency of progressive publications to focus on "populist" forms of entertainment are points I've recently been exploring with a few of my correspondents. The exercise of genuine leadership on the pages of progressive publications would, in my view, entail giving wider exposure to and amplifying the voices of the many, many progressive "organic intellectuals" at work on the local front lines across the continent. I ran across this in a footnote in an article in _Feminist Studies_ the other day: "Jorge Castaneda argues that in polarized societies such as Latin America [sic] where civic institutions are weak, the figure of "an intellectual" can take the form of a "writer, priest, journalist, academic, artist, activist." In fact, the US teems with such intellectuals-- who are all but invisible to the "political class" that, we've lately come to realize, has appointed itself as the group of people ranging along a political spectrum (clumped increasingly at the far right end of that spectrum) that presumes to tell the public what it should think on any given "public" subject. _The Nation_ just barely rates representation in this hegemonic "public sphere," but-- importantly for those public intellectuals who speak in its pages-- the fact that they are, however marginally, included in the political class probably goes a long way toward determining how _The Nation_ & other progressive publications interpret their mission. Instead of bringing us a plethora of voices of organic intellectuals from around the country, they concentrate on educating their particular slice of the public. As you indicate, Jeremy, it's a class thing. Not, by the way, that I don't appreciate getting frequent access to voices like Katha Pollit, Edward Said, & Barbara Ehrenreich! My point (& presumably it's in rough agreement with yours) is that rather than facilitating the representation of progressives to themselves, publications like _The Nation_ presume their function is to educate & speak *for* their section of "the public." In this sense, the organization of their mission resembles that of any right-wing publication. I presume this attitude is a combination of arrogance, laziness, & ignorance. An academic couple I know here in Seattle told me that when they moved here from Boston in 1979, they thought they were saying goodbye to progressive activism. They had no idea that not only did Seattle have a vibrant progressive community, but that its history seethes with progressive, collective action.

I enjoyed reading your column (thanks for the pointer), dismaying as it is. I am not sure, though, that I agree with your linking reading to the "eltist/upper-class." In my experience, upper-class people do not read. (Not one of the millionaires I've met over the years ever claimed to read anything besides celebrity biographies or business-self-help books.) As for elites-- most of the "political class" do not read serious literature for pleasure. We know from pundits' references that they read certain bestsellers at the moment they are in vogue-- for instance, last summer, the Adams biography. & they probably read John Grisham & Tom Clancy & their ilk. But when they read, it's not because they enjoy reading beautiful prose that provokes them to thoughtfulness. The people who *do* read a lot of fiction tend to be in the lower tax brackets. I know quite a lot of upper-middle class people, & not one that I can think of reads for pleasure. These people tend to live in households with two professional incomes & two children. They're highly scheduled, with most daily "downtime" going into vegging-out television-viewing. Reading for pleasure rarely makes it onto the daily agenda of such people. Finally, I regularly use the bus here in Seattle; I've observed that a lot of people who use the bus system read. These are not your lawyers or your doctors or your executives (who almost never use the bus). The Seattle Public Library, by the way, though suffering slash after slash of its budget, has never been more popular than it is now.

Reading may well be on the way to becoming a relatively minor form of entertainment (though note: theater is alive & well in most cities), but I don't think it's one that will ever be appealing again to the upper classes.

There's much to ponder here, isn't there.

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Josh Lukin
Posted on Sunday, March 09, 2003 - 12:37 am:   

No, I have plenty to say on that and indeed any subject. But a lot of my mental energy has been devoted to preparing for the course I’m teaching, so I’m getting to this topic a month late. The garrulousness I get from my mother; the slow reaction time I get from my father, who in 1997 got mad at the ACLU for having defended the Nazis in Skokie and discontinued his membership. Twenty years after the incident. An inopportune time to abandon that organization, but look how much in dues they’d gotten out of him in the interim!

But your question was about why the (U.S.) Left estranged itself from the arts. Why Leftist (U.S.) publishers don’t support politically radical fiction. Why publications like The Nation stick by and large to reviewing mainstream work. And then the topic turned to what class of people read books. Now, the only question for which there’s a ready answer is number three: find someone who works at The Nation, ask them why they discontinued Stuart Klawans’s Small Press Roundup, and you’ll have something to work with. Or possibly a small press maven such as Curt White or Peter Dimock has inside knowledge on that one.

The class of people who read books is certainly researchable as well. It is, as you indicate, not identical to the class of people who buy books; so as the elimination of the commons, as it were, continues (recall the town in Northeastern Washington where a public campaign of misinformation is leading to the obliteration of the public library system), the answer will no doubt change. But as it is, like you, I can only talk about my personal observations on the subject.

The only people I know who, as a class, don’t read are those “highly scheduled” people –in my milieu, that’s the petit-bourgeois, who spend ten or twelve hours a day running their convenience store, coffeehouse, etc. and use their downtime for bowling, sailing, and listening to Howard Stern. Well-heeled members of the professional-managerial class are far from abundant in my life: there’s my racist uncle, who reads a lot of white authors; but being Polish, he’s not representative. My dissertation director’s son is an NYC attorney: he and his cohort read the bestsellers that can respectably be read –I’ve told you in private conversation about his clique’s obsession with Jonathan Franzen, who seems to have become the Herman Wouk of the new millennium. My doctor reads investment guides and literary journalism. The young female psychologist from India who worked for our campus counseling center a couple of years back was partial to Roland Barthes. An employee of the national oceanic and atmospheric administration in Boulder relies entirely upon me for literary recommendations –most recently, Ralph Ellison and Richard Powers. So there are p-mc readers out there.

And yes, there are also the bus and subway readers, as well as the homeless readers. The best conversations I’ve had about literature at this university are not with the faculty but with the staff: the faculty are too busy with teaching and service and credentialing to have time for conversations about what they read when they’re not getting paid for such conversations. In diners where a meal costs eight dollars, one sees the single customers reading books; in restaurants where it costs twenty, they talk on their cellphones.

Just speculating here on the issue of street cred, how about this hypothesis: street cred for literature excludes politics and street cred for politics excludes all but the most entrenched kind of literature. Point one originates in the Red Scare years: the Cold War liberals who dominated the public discourse of Culture in 1947-1962 were scrambling like eggbeaters to repudiate the Popular Front years and the art associated with that era –proletarian novels (of the highbrow Dos Passos or the lowbrow Jack Conroy sort) were out, as was visual art that manifested political dissent, Commie songwriters, and any artistic effort that staked a claim for revolutionary societal change. The arguments against such art were various, and mutually contradictory: it was shallow, it lacked “universality” (in materialist terms, “universal” = “widely marketable”), it was tainted by “innocence”, it had led to the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact, it hysterically overemphasized social injustice, it assumed that such injustice was remediable rather than an immutable part of “the human condition,” what have you. We saw the triumph of what Richard Wright called “that art for art’s sake crap.”

How relevant are those events to the present? Late in 1997, I was having a conversation in a coffeehouse about whether Tarantino movies were racist, and I brought up the kind of racism that Eddie Murphy noted in the original Star Trek, wherein the expendable crewman who got turned into a dodecahedron in the first three minutes of each episode was usually the only black man we saw on the show. And another guy sitting at our table, a math professor, just spontaneously combusted. He started in, “I’m sorry, but I find the entire tone of this conversation deeply offensive. It is a disease in academia to assume from a single instance or the treatment of a single character, or even five characters, that a work is racist, or misogynist, or manifests, criticizes, or even reflects some kind of social injustice in the society that produced it. Okay, sometimes a work can do that, but that’s never the most interesting or important thing about it.” He screamed at me for some time; I’m condensing heavily. What’s important is that his rhetoric of “disease” suggests that discussions of literature in terms of its social origins and content is something novel. The New Critical attitude has been naturalized, or doxified. Whereas one can go back to Madame de Staël in 1800, if not Aristotle earlier on, to see that the Literature and Social Institutions discussion has a noble pedigree and that it’s the idea of disassociating literature from society that’s anomalous.

The tenor of the stigma changes over time: in the Fifties one was more likely to see dissident literature framed as vulgar and unpolished, in the Eighties and later it became unhip and po’faced; but the impulse to want one’s literature unpolluted by the “political” (i.e. by an acknowledgment that the political is inescapable, or that the terms of the world we live in are politically determined rather than “natural”) remains. But that’s the Arts –as recognized in the public sphere-- estranging themselves from the Left, and you asked about the opposite, seeming to assume that I have some expertise to bring to bear on that issue.

But all I can say about that question is that the journalistic Left is full of swells, Puritans, and philistines. The swells play a role in one aspect of The Nation’s mission, which –like that of The New Republic and its ilk, is not just to address p-mc progressives but Congressional staffers. Swells are interested in establishing their status, but in a culture where your capital increases when you claim populism (vide the popularity of David Brooks), also very concerned about the accusations of elitism or obscurity that Jeremy identifies, and easily swayed by fashion. They choose their literature from whatever their peers see as the Next New Thing, while occasionally waving the Old Established Thing around just to prove they went to school. By Puritans, as you know, I don’t just mean those who might have the attitude of “Other goals are trivial and self-indulgent by contrast with blocking Estrada” (to name a policy decision on which The Nation had a demonstrable impact); I’m talking in part about what have elsewhere been called the Gitlinoids. Those who idealize an imaginary Old Left focused exclusively on class and unpolluted by the “racism/sexism/homophobia crowd”, i.e. the nudniks who suggest that those three issues are serious injustices as well. That kind of Puritanism seems to mesh well with the condescending “arts are a distraction” attitude, since it condescends to and dismisses people and values that are so often important in dissident art (and were so in the days of the actual Old Left). The philistinism comprises the three sins that you enumerate –arrogance, laziness, and ignorance. These artifacts are not recognized by anyone whose recognition I recognize, and I never heard of them, and I’m not gonna bother to learn. Or increasingly, given the fact that the Overworked American phenomenon has required more and more people who used to be able to live by their writing to get jobs that entail heavy course loads, I lack the time to bother to learn.

Why Ore and Scholz in particular don’t get attention has to do with the kind of cultural capital sf (a medium with which Scholz is associated) has and doesn’t have. Why does Harper’s run an essay denouncing science fiction every three years, and why in the most recent version were all the sf writers named straight white males? There is still a very strong impulse in some quarters to associate sf (and fantasy, and comics) with People Who Don’t Count, and, pace Lethem, I’m not convinced that the sf field brought this condition upon itself. But what did, and what distinguishes those quarters? I don’t think anyone’s given a satisfactory answer to those questions.

As for why leftist publishers don’t support politically radical fiction, the first kind of Puritanism –the tendency to condemn work outside of a narrowly defined sphere of political action—that I mentioned could play a role there. Remember the Alterman article from four years or so back, in which he asked Soros and other more or less progressive philanthropists why they don’t do what the Right’s been doing for thirty years and invest in propaganda that could provide the resources for some mechanism analogous to the Mighty Wurlitzer? And they all said something along the lines of, every cent I spend on something other than famine relief, human rights lawyers, and other political projects could cost someone’s life? And he tried in vain to demonstrate to them that lives could be spared or saved through a long term project as well? Triage mentality. Conviction that the politics of a Howard Zinn book are more real than those of an Octavia Butler book. "A writer of story-books? What kind of a business in life –what mode of glorifying God, or of being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation, may that be? Why, the poor degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddle-player!"

That's all the pondering I gots for now.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2003 - 05:59 pm:   

Thanks, Josh, for posting your ponderings. In sum-- & as I expected-- if the etiology & reasons for the separation (or is it a divorce?) between the US Left & the arts are complicated (as they obviously are), then the separation between the Left & leftist science fiction is even more so. & so it's no wonder I've never heard of a publisher who'd be likely even to consider publishing any of my feminist leftist (& otherwise counterhegemonic) science fiction novels. The closest example of anything like my political science fiction novels I've ever found is Fred Pfeil's _Goodman 2000_ (which isn't really anything like my novels)-- & that was published by a university press almost twenty years ago now. Since then most university presses have since fallen under the control of their marketing departments & would never consider publishing anything that called itself "science fiction" anyway.

Triage is usually practiced in crisis or emergency situations in which time & resources are limited. It is a short-term tactic rather than a long-term strategy. Are we to understand, from this argument, that the Left in the US has been in a state of emergency since the end of WWII & that it is unable to conceive of itself ever taking on the task & projects of long-term thinking? If that is the case, then I'd say it's no wonder that the Left has gotten feebler & less visionary for at least the last two decades. This reminds me of the approach many people in this country take (& are actually often encouraged or even forced to take) towards health care, & has become the approach that Republican-dominated government takes towards public health generally. (Which is: let's not, for godsake, provide free health care to the children of the working poor-- since that would be a manifestation of the terrible evil known as "socialism"; rather, let's make it necessary for parents to rush their asthmatic children-- to take one example-- to the ER every couple of months to stave off deadly asthma attacks that could have been prevented had they only been able to afford office visits & asthma medication.) One of my favorite of Audre Lorde's essays, first published in 1977, is "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." She talks specifically about women of color needing poetry, but some of what she says applies to the situation in which the Left has come to find itself:

"The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are-- until the poem-- nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding." A bit later, she says, "I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word *poetry* to mean-- in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight. For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought."

One of the most serious blocks to progressive change in the US over the last couple of decades has been the insidious (mis)perception fostered by the mass media, especially, that What Is is as good as it gets & the only possible way that it can be, anyway-- that this is as good as "democracy" gets, that this is as good as "quality of life" & "standards of living" get, that this is the only way it can be. How, I would like to ask the proponents of triage, can people escape being mired in fatalism without the visions of possibility that only creative art forms can inspire in us?

I have, by the way, long struggled with the question of when a "triage" approach to my time & energy & talents is appropriate & when it isn't. From the time I began writing fiction, I've been on a see-saw pitting political activism (ranging from organization work to civil disobedience) against my fiction writing. This question bedevils many politically serious artists & intellectuals. I wonder to what extent the attitude that the arts are a luxury is responsible for placing us on that see-saw in the first place.

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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 03:19 pm:   

I've done Fred Pfeil the injustice of misrepresenting the title of his novel. It should be _Goodman 2020_. My apologies to everyone.


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