I have a guest post on the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
Today I learned two new vocabulary words: microburst and macroburst, downdrafts that blow in a way opposite to a tornado (click through for unusually detailed Wiki page, including even differential equations!). As I type, crews throughout the neighborhood (the vicinity are cleaning up after the tree damage from yesterday’s thunderstorm. No one was home at the time, and everyone is okay.
Here’s a picture from my upstairs window after most of the tree leaning on my house after most of it had been removed.
Here’s a cross-section of the trunk, next to my shod foot. (The shoes are a half-size too big for me, so the tree is actually even bigger than it might look.)
Earlier today I looked out my window and wondered why there seemed to be a screen blocking my view. Had the tree workers hung something up while they worked? No, it was just cloud cover. I’m going to miss that tree.
(Connoisseurs will recognize that this is this the first image posted at this blog; hopefully it will display all right.)
During the main library’s closing, I saw a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails staring up at me from the small branch library’s small “new books” shelf (it’s easier to see interesting things on the small shelves, because they’re not surrounded by too many other books, and because frankly, it would almost no one uses the branch library, so things are very much more often still on the shelves), and although it had sounded to me like something I wouldn’t like, I picked it up. (Bakewell has also written a kind of self-help book based on the essays of Montesquieu.) I was pleasantly surprised.
At the Existentialist Café is framed as an exploration of the writers Bakewell had been fascinated by in college, and almost got a postgraduate degree in, before leaving the academic world. The book traces the development of existentialism from Kierkegaard through to Sartre, following its fate as an inspiration for the rebels of 1968 whom Sartre championed. The text moves easily between personal reflection on the meaning of the writers’ philosophies, history and biography, and explications of the works themselves.
Bakewell’s book is very much the clearest explanation of the central parts of Heidegger’s, Husserl’s, and Kierkegaard’s philosophies that I’ve read: aimed at the general reader, not the specialist or the student who’ll need to read the originals themselves anyway. These philosophers don’t (to use the historical present, as I’ve been taught to do in these contexts) concern themselves with the traditional concerns of philosophy, as they’ve been understood in the line from Plato through to Bertrand Russell. They aren’t concerned with epistemology: how we know things, how we find out we’re wrong about them. They aren’t concerned with distinguishing reality from appearance or illusion. They aren’t concerned with determining the boundaries of true knowledge, or with deciding whether true knowledge is possible outside the borders of “science,” or what “science” is. Many philosophical texts try (especially in the cases of Husserl and Heidegger) to fit them into this tradition anyway. They focus not on what Husserl and Heidegger said about life, so much, as on what presuppositions about the nature of Knowledge Husserl and Heidegger must be making in order to say what they do. They ask the question, what is happening in the history of philosophy, that philosophers of such important are turning against (deliberately or otherwise) parts of the tradition. Primarily, they try to construct a bulwark to protect this tradition.
Bakewell ignores that, ignores the epistemological presuppositions a student of philosophy might want to consider if she were to reconcile, say, Heidegger and Kant. She focuses instead on (something that is hard even to describe from within the worldview of traditional English-language philosophy) their recommendations for life. For this reason, however, Bakewell gets across quite strongly the fact that these theorists—at least as they’ve been received—don’t worry themselves much over the ontological or moral statuses (whether they’re real, roughly, and whether they’re good, respectively) of the truths they recommend the reader grasp. The nuances of how truths are grasped—whether through reading, through social activity, scientific research, or quiet reflection—differ from theorist to theorist. Each, though—Sartre, possibly, excepted—did, she suggests, assume their nature and status would or should be obvious to the reader. Sartre makes extremely clear that the choice of project is moral and not epistemological or scientific.
Each of these writers viewed life as a kind of project in the world, a projecting outward of the self into reality, and a taking in through listening of truths compelled in the course of that projection. Bakewell traces the differences in expression and emphasis between the kinds of “listening” recommended by Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, and her other subjects, though not in so much detail as to become boring. She doesn’t ignore Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations, and indeed presents a convincing explanation of how closely his philosophy meshed with those, but these aren’t her focus. She does mention Sartre’s membership of the Communist Party, perhaps at less length than previous, more critical, writers have done; she makes rather less of Merleau-Ponty’s political sins than those writing with less distance from the events have done. She narrates the central figures’ interactions as teachers, students, colleagues, and archivists: her account of how Jesuit students saved Husserl’s papers, and his widow, from the approaching German invasion is especially interesting.
As the title suggests, the book’s center is the social world dominated by Jean-Paul Sartre, and secondarily by Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This is told well, in a manner not at all as precious as might be suggested by some of Bakewell’s interviewers, and in a way that doesn’t assume the reader already knows material like the true identities of people from Beauvoir’s memoirs. As Bakewell tells it, existentialism spiraled finally into the social theories Sartre expounded: in its essence, first, refusing to excuse one’s own behavior as caused by external forces, and refusing to escape freedom by denying ones actions are a result of one’s own choice; and second, “tr[ying] to adopt the gaze of the outsider, turned against the privileged caste—even when that caste includes himself.” (Sartre believed this required membership in the Communist Party, or at least what was then called fellow-traveling, though as time went on other choices became more popular.)
The first part of this, particularly, was not fully agreed to by everyone in the circle. The story Bakewell tells raises the question whether Sartre’s thinking about choice and responsibility works best for someone like him—white, male, privileged, in fact the center of his social and intellectual circle—and not for everyone else. Camus, an exile, a European alien in Africa and an African, provincial foreigner in France, someone with political projects and concerns that didn’t neatly align with those of lifelong Parisians, might have found it more difficult to “choose freedom” than his friend. Beauvoir wrote an entire book explaining how and why women might find it difficult or impossible to choose as Sartre did.
Whether this has anything to do with the Heideggerian (or more generally phenomenological) project is another question. It’s not only that the ability to sit in the woods and listen for the voice of reality is an activity that demands privilege and time. It’s that some might find the revelations of that voice more congenial, more supportive of their everyday lives, than others. Camus and Beauvoir might be seen to have worked to tease out the implications of some of those difficulties (with differing levels of conflict between themselves and Sartre).
This circles back to the questions raised traditionally by philosophy. What is reality? Where do moral imperatives come from? The Kantian tradition answers in one way. Heidegger answers differently. He gestures toward a philosophy for people who work directly with physical reality—people who use, in his example, hammers, for instance—but Bakewell shows that the connection between tools and the “clearing” where imperatives appear to the thinker is murky. He famously stated that “only a god can save us”; but which God? For Heidegger, it was the god—the forced willing of the existence of a god everyone knew was not present in the world in any form—of Nazism (however much he may have disliked the reality of the Führer and his minions). For Sartre, it was the god of the people and the prophecy of the Communist International. For most of their present-day followers, it is neither of these things. Whether what the existentialists (and phenomenologists) wrote can guarantee present-day existentialists’ beliefs will remain consistent with the results of their encounter with the world, would seem to be an open one. Maybe we do need traditional philosophy after all; maybe the existentialist tradition is actually not sufficient unto itself.
I’ve tried to puzzle through some writings by Judith Butler over the years, and finally think I’ve gotten a handle on some of them—not Gender Trouble, though, for which I only downloaded a sample, once, that turned out to consist only of the introduction to the revised edition. I’ve even looked into the kerfuffle with Nussbaum. (New York magazine recently published a profile of Butler, linked to by Dennis Dutton's Arts & Letters Daily site: you can still see it if you load the non-mobile version of the page.)
There are a lot of interesting things to be thought and said, in my opinion, by examining what Butler actually wrote. There are a lot of interesting things to be considered about her influence on life today.
But Judith Butler is a philosopher and her book is philosophy. What it “means” depends on a lot of philosophical presuppositions that, first of all, few people who aren’t philosophers know about, and second of all, are not universally shared even among philosophers (let alone non-experts). One can say things about Derrida and the transformation of philosophical texts into literary ones, the replacement of philosophy by literary criticism, and so on, and still, eventually, one runs into the question of ideology.
And obviously there is more than one ideology in the world. More, even, than two.
I sometimes picture a certain kind of writer sitting back and watching as we non-expert readers thrash blindly about trying to figure out what’s going on with them, waiting patiently for us to grasp the currently correct way of understanding the kind of thing they do, gently ignoring our coherent but inaccurate attempts. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we realize this kind of thing is ivory-tower theorizing and—by design—can have no direct connection with practical or political concerns, which never—never, ever—derive from the theoretical in any kind of simple way.
The Internet is full of people who’ve read one book, one time, or participated in one discussion group, and learned one or two vocabulary words to describe parts of the world, and maybe a third to describe the world as a whole, and—similarly—sit back and wait patiently while they try to needle other people into coming around to their own point of view. To use the term Rorty invented, it’s a game of “Guess My Final Vocabulary.” For those who don’t realize there’s more than one, it’s easy. But the big one is “anti-capitalism,” or “anti-liberalism.” It’s easy for someone to just slap “and it’s capitalism’s fault” to the end of every critique. Readers can fill in the blanks the way they like.
Freddie de Boer recently complained (as he so often does - UPDATE: Freddie has updated his comment so that the quote I used is no longer there - the original version can be found here) of Butler that, while she criticizes capitalism frequently, the “pop” version of her theories leaves that part out. (It also leaves out much of the criticism of the gender binary and of the idea of femininity, but Freddie doesn’t seem interested in that part.) But no one is unaware that Butler is on the left, so that complaint seems a little off-target. It’s interesting that Freddie does not complain that attacking “capitalism” is often more than a little vague. What, specifically, is wrong with “capitalism”? What is “capitalism,” other than a handy word for “the way we live now”? What is he proposing we should have in its place? Is there anything around right now that could serve as the basis for an alternative way of thinking, or is everything actually existing right now tainted by “capitalism”? Maybe these questions seem academic, I don’t know. But people have been criticizing “the way we live now” for centuries. What does the word “capitalism” add?
One definition of socialism used to be that there was something that the modern world had lost from the world that came before, and it was socialism’s job to reincorporate those things. Now, apparently (if writers like Freddie are typical, especially of "socialists" whose concerns aren't primarily economic at all, but more all-embracing and "revolutionary"), socialism instead means nihilistically opposing everything about the status quo in the name of those worst off. You don’t have to know anything about anything: you just have to prove your passion by your willingness to go all the way and use the “S” word. But then you have to believe this makes you better than people who actually know the details of the critique and how they might be ameliorated, and you have to believe your call to tear it all down is superior to their step-by-step plans. People like Freddie seem to be waiting, patiently, for people who have other things to do, to realize they ought to abandon everything they know and accept his (left) critique of capitalism in its place: to have it suddenly dawn on them that they need people like Freddie to lead them. (The similarity of that last sentence to a statement about “religion,” or “psychoanalysis,” or “the Twelve Steps,” or “Reality,” is not a coincidence.)
I was going to say something about how gender fits into all of this. I guess there isn’t time.
This is the last day of school in Framingham, since we only had two snow days this year—last year the district was threatening to run school into July. The main library has reopened, as of last week; it had been closed since February, when a fire started during work on the building. The new branch library opened in April, with a lot more space (the old building wasn’t much bigger than the first floor of my house), though I’d kind of liked the way the jammed-in nature of the children’s room made it easy to find things. The building next to the library, which dates from the nineteenth century and houses an art museum and school, a music and performing arts school, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, has recently been declared uninhabitable and will be closed on September 1. The various schools that were damaged by burst pipes and flooding over February vacation will hopefully all be repaired before then. The biggest of the bridges that led to the old mill area in the Saxonville section (and to the old branch library) has been re-opened after only a year and a half.
I see I’ve gotten a lot of page views in the past couple of days. I guess the things that get attention are (a) writing about science fiction, and (b) getting into a fight at Crooked Timber.
I started this blog while I was on bed rest while pregnant with my daughter. It was something to do besides reading and felt more productive than just reading and listening to the radio, and slightly more productive than either posting comments or writing drafts of things nobody would see. I didn’t have enough time to write anything polished or long, but I did have lots of time to listen to NPR and to think.
When my daughter was small, I had blocks of time that were just the right size for writing the things I had time to write about. Now that she’s in school, I have larger blocks of time that could be filled with things that are more productive, or that call for more reading, revision, and thought. I don’t want to write about things that could identify her or the school she goes to. I also don’t want to post about medical issues that are taking up my time, about the brand of shoe I bought that seems to help, the various pieces of amateur medical advice I’d give a friend face-to-face with the understanding that I’m not a doctor, how boring my physical therapy is.
People use blogs in different ways now than they did eight years ago. Facebook and Twitter are now bigger than they were when I started. Reddit and the chan systems are, too. Online versions of print publications are now taken much more seriously than they were eight or ten years ago, and online-only publications have become much more mature. Blogs are now respectable ways for professionals, as well as commercial entities, to communicate in a serious way; indeed, they’re often mandatory. Writing online isn’t mostly a hobby anymore, but a way for young professionals to break into the business. Book and film blogs that started out small are now increasingly professionalized. Bloggy subcultures have hardened along professional lines or turned into youth subcultures. Much of the vibrancy that remains in the general atmosphere is devoted to outrage culture of one kind or another, whether GamerGate and its like, or the prosecution of various political campaigns. What this means is that I don’t really want to post about my take on an analysis published by some twenty-something on some social or political issue; I don’t want to write about books or movies in the ways currently done on the existing fan and book-culture sites; I don’t want to spend my time researching men’s-rights groups so I can get angry about them.
The few dozen silent readers of this blog, and the somewhat minimal page views (hopefully, soon, no longer to be inflated by the annoying automatic systems that try to get blog owners to click through and sign up for their services) are appreciated but it is entirely opaque to me what they take from my writing.
I looked at Twitter last week to see if it might be worth signing up for it, and found that the writers I might most want to follow spent a lot of time, much more time than I cared to spend reading, posting about cats and jokes and what they did the night before. Or rambling about topics they have no expertise in. It seems like a good way to build a personal brand, if you wanted to do that, and a mediocre way to recreate some of what Usenet used to be: without any promise of being more satisfying than Usenet ever was, and with extra tools for ostentatiously enforcing cliques and in-groups. Those who don’t partake in that part of the online universe, conversely, seem too often under the spell oftheories about their sub rosa participation in a worldwide logos via double-secret apprenticeship to Great Thinkers they’ve never met (and, too often, with trying to enforce a boys-only and perhaps a white-Christians-only rule without anybody much noticing).
Maria Farrell wrote today (discussing the shooting of the English M.P.) that
writing is just another narcissistic act in an aggressively subjective culture.
I don’t think I’d go that far. It isn’t subjectivity that I see being enforced, by and large. True, it can be hard to tell the difference. But to the extent writing is narcissistic (whatever that means) it seems, to me, the existence of an audience makes writing less so. Feedback makes a difference. (And also lack of feedback. And assuming the audience isn’t reacting overtly in such a negative way as to turn continued writing into, itself, a sheer assertion of will for its own sake. And keeping in mind the overwhelming mass of Internet verbiage that consists of telling other people to “grow up”: to learn precisely the lessons the writer herself or himself has already learned.) But the question is, is it more “narcissistic” to write about one’s reading and show it to nobody, perhaps for years, even without any likely prospect of ever finishing it, or to publish that writing before it’s ready, just to get it “out there”?
 For obvious reasons, I’ve always had a back-of-the-mind feeling that “White Wedding” and “Sister Christian” are the same song, and I have to hum them both to myself to be certain they’re not.
In 1938, in an essay titled “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster coined the phrase “two cheers for democracy,” and that’s apropos here. As a novelist, Forster himself gets three cheers, I’d think. Evelyn Waugh should then get two cheers, and The Magicians, which is enjoyable enough but not, to be honest, a great work of art, would get one. For the sake of argument, however, I’ll give it two for the time being. When the commercial recap columns start appearing a day late, or not at all, and they start asking in their headlines what’s the point of it all (as the Observer’s did over the past couple of weeks), it’s fair to say that some people are wondering whether a show—albeit still in its first season—has jumped the shark. I’d like to take a moment, though, to point out some—possibly overlooked—things I like about it.
When, a couple of weeks ago, Eliot’s same-sex romance got hot and heavy, only to turn out to be an evil trick that would result in the boyfriend’s death, the Internet started getting antsy. This kind of thing turns out to be an actual TV Trope with an actual name, and as it turned out, some other show had used its apparently more usual lesbian version in what sounds like a somewhat worse way, so the Internet explosion carried over to The Magicians, as well. Even worse, in response, Eliot had to kill his boyfriend, and then he turned into a serious addict.
This, however, actually solved a problem with the original story. When we meet Eliot, in the book, he is already drunk or high all the time. Why he’s that way is never explained. He isn’t depicted as out of control in any way, just a heavy user of mind-altering substances. He isn’t depicted as explicitly gay, either (that I recall—I still don’t have my own copy of the first volume of the trilogy). But he is, after all, an obvious human allusion to Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. I hadn’t read that book until after I’d finished The Magicians, but the way in which Eliot Waugh is obviously alluding to a novel by Evelyn Waugh, which novel is about a middle-class boy enamored with Oxford University, country house life, and Roman Catholicism, all in equal measure, was . . . obvious. Now that I’ve read Brideshead, the way in which Sebastian’s and Eliot’s addictions are overlooked and underestimated, as much as their homosexuality and their inability to find what might be called “a spiritual outlet,” is even more obvious. Standing on its own, however, by the third of the novels, the question why Eliot drinks, especially years after the characters have all graduated, begins to be a question. The answer can’t be that he drinks because he’s gay, but the alternative—that he drinks because there’s nothing corresponding to Fillory in the real world—is too far-fetched and too subtle for television. And the Eliot of the books, a kind of seedy Holden Caulfield figure with a mysterious and possibly romantic background, would come off on TV as much too unsympathetic. So he’s presented as attractive and charming and relatively sober, . . . until something terrible happens to him.
And at that point, we’ve got the Eliot of the books. Because another change from the novels’ version of events is that on TV, Quentin pairs up with Alice right away, while Eliot and Janet are pushed to the margins for a very long time—while in the books, Quentin follows Eliot and Janet around like a puppy dog (the way Charles Ryder obsesses over Sebastian and his sister Julia in Brideshead Revisited), and only connects with Alice later. But why this is, isn’t really explained in the book. We believe it because Quentin is the narrator and he tells us that it's so. Television doesn't have a narrator, and so the television series spends eight or nine episodes getting both Janet and Eliot to the point where we believe they’ll follow Quentin and start hanging out with a group who are much less cool than the two of them. (As for Penny, the change is really drastic and only partly explained by the fact that he was given part of a story that, in the book, belonged to another of Quentin’s closer friends.)
This makes it sounds like I really dislike the show, and it’s true that it is very disappointing if it’s considered a straight-up adaptation of the books. It is actually not bad. It seems to want to be very plot-driven. The mystery-of-the-week type episode a couple of weeks back was really not too bad, even if it did move up an enormous mystery from the last third of the last book in the trilogy to before anything even had started. The themes are not quite those of the books, but they’re interesting. The biggest changes in the themes that are carried over from the books (as opposed to being entirely new) only take about a week to take hold and seem natural. But between providing background from the books, adding background to the books, running quickly through sequences from the books that aren’t to be fully dramatized, and humanizing the characters, there’s not much time left for plotting either mysteries of the week or the basic storyline from the novels.
I almost decided to stop watching the show when I saw the coming attractions set in the Neitherlands. I have a very clear mental image of what the Neitherlands should look like—like a Di Chirico painting, all proto-fascist neoclassical architecture and no people, cold symmetrical fountains with colonnades behind them—and instead I could see we were getting something Romantic and pre-Raphaelite, with moss and trees and overgrown ivy, lots of open space, and rolling hills, and no buildings at all. I was happy that the first ten seconds did give us something like what I thought it should be. It seems emblematic. I really am not certain what this part of the show is about anymore. I always felt that the novels were about Fillory and/or Brakebills as literature itself, or as ways of looking at life through a filter set by literature. The TV series heavily emphasized another possible subtext, that “magic is a drug,” and then seems to have dropped it, but doesn’t yet have anything to put in its place. Instead we’ve gotten a lot of people trying to get in touch with, or else to avoid, their emotions, . . . while the implications of the written characters’ investigations of other people’s lives (that is, the other lives themselves, the story within a story for its own sake) is being downplayed. There just isn’t enough time to luxuriate in the other-worlds aspects of the story. And without it, what’s really left?
As for Julia’s story, after a couple of weeks, as I said, I’d made my peace with each of the changes the TV writers made, one at a time. But I was dismayed to see how the “Free Trader Beowulf” group was handled (it can’t really be called a subplot: it constituted almost the entirety of Julia’s half of the second novel, and nearly all of it is gone). I should probably have guessed that Kady is the character screen-named Asmodeus, and I can almost see a very roundabout way in which she works as a replacement, but really this seems wrong. Asmodeus is Julia’s best friend online, in the books, and Julia is shocked to find out she’s an energetic seventeen year old who’s nevertheless been involved in the group for years and is way more senior in it than Julia is. If the show spent a couple of months getting Eliot and Janet to the point they were at, at the beginning of the first novel, and the same amount of time getting Quentin and Alice to a point about two-thirds of the way through, in that period it’s gotten Julia almost to the end of her entire storyline in two whole books (she has two different timelines in the second book, so this is taking her to near the beginning of the later one, but at the end of it she disappears). I can find some interest in seeing what the TV writers want to do with the novel’s own themes, but this seems to go beyond that. They’ve taken Failstaff and the other Beowulf figures and made them safe (to say the least), and they’re coming close to replacing “the goddess,” with its overtones of paganism, feminism, and pantheism, with a straightforward statue of the Virgin Mary. They seem to want to take the end result of her searching and get rid of all the dangerous stuff she engages in, in the book, to get to that place. I think I could get on board with a Julia whose life is totally different from what it is in the books, which is what we had up until a week ago. I am not thrilled with a Julia who has the same friends, in very similar situations, to what she has in the book, except that the friends also have lives that are totally different from the books, and the situations are just close enough to map cleanly but in fact are totally different. At least not like this.
Mad Men also had a kind of lackadaisical attitude to making all the episodes line up as a single, smoothly arcing narrative, and a large cast of characters. But Mad Men’s world-building was almost entirely visual, it had ten or twenty minutes more to play with, and it didn’t have to use the entire cast every week. Up until this week or the week before, I could see the series going in a direction where it got all the character development and world-building out of the way, and then concentrated on the adventure stuff. I’m not confident now that this is going to happen. I’m certainly not confident that it’s going to be good.
When the news broke that Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, had set up a private e-mail server, outside the bounds of what government IT people controlled, for her own use, I said to myself, “This is bad.” People on both right and left now seem to think this is very, very true.
And at the time, I expected to see a lot of coverage to this effect in the press. Instead, what I saw was sincere incomprehension that this was even an issue, and eventually I realized that I’d been wrong to expect otherwise. We have a press, remember, that can’t see even the slightest problem with keeping the most sensitive information in the cloud . . . with the idea that every company and organization in the world, and even the federal government, should get rid of their own e-mail servers outright and use free servers instead. They had convinced themselves that we ordinary people shouldn’t worry about the security of our data, and that nobody should, because there was nothing to worry about.
They were wrong, and arguably what Clinton did was not likely to be secure. But my first take was that if they didn’t understand this, Clinton and her people, and maybe even lots of people in the government, didn’t understand this either.
On the other hand, . . . my second take was different.
I started to ask myself, what sequence of events could have led to this taking place? Did no one step up and say, “this is insecure; this is not proper; this may not even be legal”? And I realized that almost certainly someone did. The popular conception of what happened seems to be that Clinton and some computer-illiterate people said they had to do this, for weird private reasons of their own, probably having to do with power. But the most likely thing that happened is quite different. Most likely, a bunch of IT people and a bunch of security people got together in a room. Some of them said they had certain requirements, either because the Secretary had to use certain devices, or because she had a certain setup in her house, or simply because they had investigated the standard IT setup and they found it wanting. Some regular IT people at State, it seems plausible to assume, made objections, raising regulatory issues, the fact that they didn’t do things that way, that they didn’t have or couldn’t spare personnel and resources to handle it, technical issues around opening things up for the Secretary in a way that they didn’t want to make available for other employees, or allowing her to be on the network without becoming vulnerable to them. At some point, I think it’s safe to guess, one of two things happened: either the high-level security people said to the regular State Department IT people, “I don’t care about your objections, this is the way it has to be,” or the high-level security people convinced the regular IT people that they couldn’t meet the requirements in the usual way, and the requirements did have to be met, and all things considered this was the best possible way to do it.
It comes down to whether you think it’s likely that Hillary Clinton made those requirements up, that she overrode the opinions of qualified IT and security people and made up her own server system according to her own whim. And that seems unlikely. On the other hand, a small number of high-powered security people with access to classified information, overriding the rules-following of less highly placed IT people, does seem very likely to me. And it’s not obvious to me that they would have been a hundred percent wrong.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a pleasant, low-key independent film, half screwball farce, half lightweight romantic comedy, that in spite of its nearly elephant-sized plot holes and occasional confusing editing missteps will certainly entertain, not least with images of coastal Washington state. The movie garnered an astonishing range of positive reviews. It stars Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreation, and Mark Duplass, who co-produced it with his brother.
Plaza plays Darius, a morose twenty-something intern at a Seattle magazine who doesn’t have the personality to land a paying job doing something normal, like waiting tables. She’s sad because her mother died when she was a teenager. She volunteers to work on a story about someone who’s placed a classified ad asking for someone to time-travel with him, joining two men, a fulltime reporter, and another intern, a nerdy undergraduate science major who joined the magazine to add diversity to his CV. When they travel to the seaside resort where the mystery person lives, it turns out that the reporter really only wants to hook up with an old high school fling who used to live in the area, so after his initial attempt to approach the subject fails, it becomes Darius’s job to learn about the guy all on her own.
It’s all very zany and intriguing, and not especially serious. If you’re going to object to the idea that these people truly are investigating whether the guy really does have a working time machine hidden in that ramshackle house in the woods, you’re watching the wrong movie. On the other hand, it does arguably go a bit too far, beginning when Darius is led into the woods to (it turns out) participate in a felony, and neither the professional reporter nor her editor (who we later learn has been receiving blow-by-blows via e-mail) objects to this fact or calls the story off. On reflection, there is a point where it simply isn’t any longer plausible that magazine reporters would operate in this way, inserting themselves into the story under false pretenses and (one assumes) not even revealing that they’re reporters except after the story’s seen in print.
The plot is more short story than novel, which is fine, and usual for an indie film. The subplots more echo the main storyline than deepen it. There’s little effort to gain the viewer’s empathy for the characters, and in fact, several of them have basically no positive traits at all. This, again, is more or less par for the course in an independent film, as these tend to avoid the strenuously mechanical screenplay building more usual in Hollywood. Also par for the course is the quirkiness. This, though, is possibly a little too extreme. Kenneth is obviously, by the end of the movie, and arguably, from the first moment we see him, seriously mentally ill. There are vague gestures in the direction of explaining why he’s angry, in the form of explanations of the way peers have treated him in the past, and of painting him as simply a nerd, ambiguous between explaining why he’s mentally ill and demonstrating how difficult life can be for an ill person. And there’s nothing wrong with this kind of ambiguity, as an element of a film. All this film’s ambiguities seem, however, to point in the same direction. Kenneth is nerdy and has no social skills, but he’s surprisingly charismatic for an older guy with a bad haircut, and—who knows?—he may be brilliant!—he claims, after all, to have invented a time machine, and if he’s telling the truth, he has got to be an amazing genius after all. And he wrote a very nice tune and accompanies himself in a very accomplished manner (on the zither), even if the lyrics are a bit sketchy. This is all okay. A romantic comedy where an unpleasant person, like Darius, finds love is perfectly okay. Suggesting that anyone is so unpleasant that it would be a good thing for her to submit herself totally to the plotting of an insane person (because he does have many good qualities and even an insane person deserves some happiness) is, I think, not so okay.
And (SPOILER ALERT!) Safety Not Guaranteed does end, as all the critics noted at the time, with a welcome if unexpected pairing-off. Of course—another spoiler alert!—he turns out to be not so totally insane after all . . . except for the lying, the past acts of violence, and the felonies . . . that we know about. But as with his ridiculously inept criminality, maybe that doesn’t matter so much, in what is after all a comedy. As I was watching, I thought, well, there’s a lot of bad male behavior in this movie, but it really could be almost a feminist movie . . . they’re really being quite intelligent about how they’re handling this . . . This is, however, to deconstruct a story that has three female characters, all either bitchy or seen as bitchy by the men; that focuses on the importance of making sure nerds get laid; that is interested in the subjectivity only of men, and is interested in the lives of men only in terms of how easy or difficult it is for men of different ages and personality types to get laid, and interested in the happiness of men only in terms of their finding women. The movies I feel are closest to Safety Not Guaranteed in terms of mood, story, and approach are It Happened One Night and Manhattan. Those are terrific movies, and Safety Not Guaranteed is good, too. I hope the follow-up does rather more to distinguish itself from GamerGate.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a decent number of page views on this blog, for some reason—until a couple of days ago, when they went off a cliff. I’m not sure why. It could be totally random. It could be that I used the word “bros.” It could even be that I wrote something about David Foster Wallace. It’s kind of weird. It’s hard to judge who’s really out there. Is there a real correlation between writing something that could have made someone mad, and seemingly correlated changes in readership? (If I can’t match things I write to drop-offs in page views, how can I consider matching things I write to increases in them? Surely, they’re either random in both cases, or in neither.) Or is it just in my imagination, a matter of how I choose to think about it?
In any event, I’ll make amends by writing something in favor of Bernie Sanders’s appeal. Not that there’s any connection between him and the word “bro.” (Though I’m sure everyone remembers that opposition to the word started at least a year before the Sanders campaign’s start, and the campaign against it only started to pick up steam when it acquired some electoral valence.)
Corey Robin recently wrote an astute post, remarking that the surprising success, so far, of the Sanders campaign has to seem even more incredible to anyone approximately his age who was taught that it’s important to be realistic and measured when proposing progressive reforms. Sanders seems to prove that was wrong. Here’s a similar argument, from the blog at Dissent magazine.
If you’re my age or a little younger (I’m only a few years older than Robin is), you were probably taught to regard the late nineteenth-century Populist and Progressive movements with some disdain. Robert Hoftstadter’s The Age of Reform, which I was assigned in AP American History, my last year in high school, tried hard not to condemn the Populists and their candidate, William Jennings Bryan, but seemed content not entirely to succeed. At the same time, Hofstadter emphasized the greater sense of responsibility possessed by the Progressive movement, but couldn’t disguise its lack of attraction in our own liberal days, with its overt racism, anti-Catholicism, patronizing attitude to workers and the poor, and support for Prohibition. Regardless, if you’re about my age, probably you were taught to respect the political and economic achievements of those movements, their attitude of opposition to big corporations and support for the small businessman and farmer, and their openness to the idea of economic reform.
Within the past ten or twenty years. however, a different attitude has become evident. Nominally progressive writers, a bit younger than I am, people like Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein (now both at Vox), have laid heavy emphasis on the unacceptability of populism in today’s politics, and on the impossibility of criticizing once-contentious ideas like the perfect “efficiency” of the labor market (“efficiency” here means that everybody is paid exactly what they’re worth, all the time, without any forces operating except the purest supply and demand).
Part of this attitude has been based in the association of populism with racism. As Michael Kazin shows in The Populist Persuasion, a leftist class-based politics has been stalled in the US, in part, because of historical white racism within the labor movement. Kazin argues that it is nearly impossible to think of a broad-based popular or working-class movement for just this reason.
The Sanders campaign appears to have transcended this, appealing to white people in the heartland as much as to Black Lives Matter activists. If they have, that’s a pretty big achievement.
As big an achievement, though, is the questioning of the neo-Hayekian status quo among the “Very Serious People” establishment. When Thomas Piketty showed incontrovertibly that inequality is real, and really increasingly, and not coincidentally that measures like GDP have limitations for measuring the health of an economy, the growing concern about the GINI coefficient became unquestionably respectable. This meant, therefore, that “skills-based technological change” could no longer be used as a catch-all explanation for discomfort with the state of employment statistics—nor could its soothing prescription of “more education,” or its desperate hope that things would change for the better in a couple of years, continue to seem plausible. This, in turn, took away part of the force of the anti-populist argument: it was no longer able to simply dismiss populists as people who refused to get sufficiently educated.
What this is going to mean, in terms of future policy change, is still in doubt. As far as I can tell, the Sanders campaign’s proposals are of two kinds: incontrovertibly left-progressive or social-democratic reforms to make parts of the economy less “market-based,” and almost old-fashioned policies seemingly intended to recreate the ideals of the mid-twentieth century liberal consensus. The call for universal free higher education, in particular, seems like it is still very much in thrall to ideas about “skills-based technological change.” Helping more people to be able to do well for themselves is a terrific idea, and so is listening to people attracted to populism, instead of disparaging them. But it might be worth thinking about why populism was discredited for so long, and whether those reasons have fully gone away.
This year is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Infinite Jest, so here are two of the best links I’ve found discussing that anniversary.
Emma-Lee Moss, a writer at The Guardian, decided to read the book for the first time in order to write about it, and to invite her friends to join a discussion group and read it with her. A podcast of all of them discussing the novel is here. They discuss some of the high points about the book and its significance, and read aloud from its best passages.
A woman writer, not Moss, wrote somewhere recently that she’s been putting off reading Infinite Jest because she’d need to carry it places and people would see her reading it, and she’d have to fend off unwanted attention from literary bros trying to tell her how to read it. (None of these people are reading e-books, I guess; maybe the experience of reading the very long book depends the nature of its physical form.) In 1997, obviously, that kind of thing didn’t happen. I would have loved, back then, to have someone remark on the fact of what I was reading so that I could discuss it with them. Though I suppose the Internet equivalent of that kind of person did start to appear pretty quickly.
Like a lot of people, I guess, I occasionally type the names of people I once knew into online search engines, just to see what comes out. I long ago ran through all the names of the people I really care about—former roommates, best friends, boyfriends, daily study partners—though I occasionally do a search for someone who hasn’t come up before, just to see if they’ve done something notable enough that the person I knew could rise to the top of all the other same-name people the system keeps track of. But I’ve moved on to random acquaintances, like people who were high-school famous when I was a teenager, or anyone on my freshman-door floor whose name I can still recall. A few years ago I googled the names of all the guys I had crushes on, and then I was bored so I googled their best friends, too. Some were successful out of line with what had seemed their grades and potential in high school (a school I’d been persuaded in recent years was much, much worse than I’d previously thought it had been); some were successful entirely in line with their high-school performance as it had been available to view back then.
I’ve been pondering the results of one of these searches for the past several days.
I typed the name of someone who, in fact, looms large in my personal mythology of my teenage years. Not someone I knew well, but someone with a story, which intersected with mine in a small though meaningful way. I had never looked up their name before, and I’m not sure why, because I’ve thought of them relatively frequently. Maybe I’d reasoned that the name was so common that I’d never come up with anything.
But so I typed in their name, prepared to add the word “philadelphia” to the end so I could narrow the results, and before I’d finished typing their last name, a Wikipedia link—with their picture on it—appeared at the top of the list of Safari completions—they are apparently somewhat Internet-famous. And I learned some things about the person that surprised me, given what I’d thought I’d known about them, about my former school, and about this mythos-narrative or set of possible narratives I’d come to build up in my head out of remembered emotions and what I thought at the time was going on. I learned, as well, that the person’s father is a historian of some moderate renown, not someone whose books appear to be listed these days in bibliographies and syllabuses, but probably in the back pages of the books those syllabuses list (and also apparently a neoconservative).
It’s odd, and I’m not sure what to think of it. It’s almost as if you’d discovered that the Ally Sheedy and Judd Hirsch characters from The Breakfast Club had turned out to be the children of a supermodel and a famous novelist, and that they were now a well-known college professor and fashion designer, and that the parents of the Molly Ringwald character, by contrast, owned a gas station. Maybe not quite that extreme.
The other day I was listening to NPR in my car, and an interviewee made the following statement: that “hoarding” and “collecting” are synonyms.
Surely they aren’t.
Yes, in a structuralist kind of sense—taking the computer scientist Roger Schank to represent linguistic structuralism—they both describe the same set of actions of owning, taken with respect to the same number of objects.
It might be possible to argue that both words denote the same thing, though they have different connotations.
Is this the definition of “synonym”?
In a Roget’s Thesaurus kind of sense, perhaps. Your word processor might offer one as a “synonym” for another, or they might fall under the same numeric code in Mr. Roget’s scheme (though in a full and unabridged version, they might not).
But that’s the kind of synonym that produces laughable freshman-comp essays, like when a student feels “navy blue” isn’t snazzy enough and substitutes “cerulean.”
You could say, I guess, if you were so inclined, that “collecting” is the name we give to “hoarding” when we’ve decided not to condemn it, morally. This seemed to be what the guy on the radio was getting at: gently suggesting that this collector could hardly claim to have given up the hold things have on his life.
But this isn’t really the case. The denotations of the words are really fairly different. We frown on hoarding because it’s different enough from collecting to make it seriously irrational—not just because we’ve decided this person should be discouraged, while that one should be allowed to pass. Most people have no trouble distinguishing between collectors and hoarders, and the behavior of the two isn’t too difficult to tell apart. We have plenty of concepts; we don’t have to fit all the words into a tiny number of pigeonholes.
Attempts to find contemporary political meaning in the most popular works of science fiction and fantasy are a perennial favorite on the Internet, even when they get out of hand.
The most reason one seems to be a dispute over whether a post on J.K. Rowling’s blog makes mistakes about political science as it relates to the history of Africa. Timothy Burke, an anthropologist at Bryn Mawr, has all the links here and here; Vox has an explainer here. I like Burke’s, especially, because he goes into what he thinks the differences would be, between an African magical establishment of the kind described by Rowling, and what she describes at Hogwarts.
Attempts to find a philosophical meaning in a book based explicitly on Plato’s Republic are not very surprising. Jo Walton’s The Just City is such a book, and Crooked Timber has a symposium about it.
I’ll be getting soon to the last couple of sections of the first chapter, which discuss different ways of understanding the distribution of goods, in a little while. I want to say something, first, about the bulk of the book. The rest of the chapters consist of a series of examinations of different social goods, illustrated through historical and sociological case studies. Since I’ve committed myself to reading these and looking for a purpose in them, it’s more than possible I’ll find a reason for each of these. As a whole, though, o my first reading these seem to imply a certain political argument that, it seems to me, hasn’t panned out as expected.
What it reminds me of is something like the New Historicism of the subsequent decade, as represented by Stephen Greenblatt’s book on religion in Shakespeare, Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt sets out to provide readers with the religious and social context that he believes lies behind the text of Hamlet. He covers the religious institutions as they existed at the time, popular narratives of ghosts and hauntings, indulgences and masses said for the dead and how they relied on the doctrine of Purgatory that was rejected by the established church, paintings and illustrated books for clergy and the laity (including popular piety, especially that of women), as well as high literature. He introduces readers to the fascinating story of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a cave in Ireland where people were said to experience visions of the afterlife. He explains how the pain experienced by the dead in Purgatory and Hell was conveyed to the living, and bound them to the institutions of the church. Finally he explains how all this historical and cultural context informs Shakespeare’s imagery and dialogue.
The New Historicism is generally taken to have a left political purpose. But Greenblatt doesn’t make any such argument explicitly, and it’s not obvious how a reader should draw one out of the book. There are a small number of clear points made: The kind of burial society that was common in the Old World, and among immigrants to the US, is a democratic way of serving the social need to support people whose loved ones have died, by helping with burial costs and the support of the survivors; in Tudor England this purpose was served by the bureaucracy of the church. People who are mourning often feel their deceased loved ones are still present in some way, often dream about them, and when they believe in an afterlife, often worry about their wellbeing after death; and culture and religion provide a way of thinking about these. Institutions, and also people out for profit, can often benefit financially from the worries of those mourners; thus, the people who controlled the cave known as “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” could charge entrance fees to people who believed they could learn something important from the visions induced there, and the Catholic Church could charge for masses said in order to speed the souls of dead rich people out of Purgatory (and thereby pay artists and musicians who created a culture around those masses). Most of the book is about the second of these three: the way cultural and religious assumptions structure the way people experience the feelings that arise out of mourning, and specifically the details of the structure that existed at the time Hamlet was written (assuming, as Greenblatt does, that Shakespeare was deeply influenced by the Catholic doctrines that the Tudor monarchy had put under a legal ban).
So how does this kind of historicizing literary criticism get read into politics? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s generally read into a theoretical context in which the structuralism of people like Lévi-Strauss and the poststructuralism of people like Derrida, Foucault, and Bourdieu are taken for granted, along with their reworking by Marxian theorists like Althusser. The leftism, that is, like the metaphysics, is incorporated into the literary criticism, basically, by reference; it no longer needs to be stated explicitly (though Greenblatt’s book has a lot of footnotes, with citations to works in social science). Without the Marxian element, of course, this is just poststructuralism, which might have any political valence, or none at all. The politics (for the reader), then, is optional. To the extent that this is true, and that the book itself doesn’t explain the theory, most of the political work is done elsewhere. Greenblatt does often enough explain the theory, but it’s not uncommon to find thoroughly straightforward accounts of literature or culture that do not, yet seem to be intended as political interventions on the left.
It’s this kind of account, superficially naïve even if intended to allude to some deeper, unspoken theory, that Walzer’s case studies seem most to resemble. His chapters don’t have anything like the depth of New Historicist research, which mostly postdates his book. They don’t make obvious reference to a theoretical basis as Greenblatt’s do. Their purpose seems to be intended as obvious and literal. And given Walzer’s emphatic renunciation of abstract philosophizing, any other purpose seems impossible. One kind of reader might, on the contrary, assume that Walzer is writing as some kind of Straussian here, hiding his true, philosophical intentions behind a scrim of unobjectionable facts. Such a reader would expect the true response to Walzer’s book to be some deep thought about his premises and logic, and a thoroughgoing reworking of the ideas he expresses into something resembling more an unexpressed truth. I see no need for that assumption. I think I’d argue, from what I’ve seen of them both so far, that the true continuation of Walzer’s work in this book is to be found in Greenblatt’s.
There’s a new book out, called Exit Right, that looks interesting if you’re interested in the political or intellectual history of the middle and end of the twentieth century. It’s a new history of men who started out on the far left and then moved to the far right: Chambers, Burnham, Reagan, Podhoretz, Horowitz, and Hitchens. There are new reviews by Sam Tanenhaus in The Atlantic and Alan Wolfe in The New Republic.
Near the beginning of Wolfe’s review, he discusses his personal encounters with David Horowitz. One is related by Daniel Oppenheimer in the book under review:
before Horowitz came to this realization [the loss of faith in revolution], he “participated in a small seminar at Berkeley, on the topic of ‘Marxism and Post-Marxism,’ with a number of his fellow New Left veterans.” I was one of those participants; the seminar helped me rethink my radicalism to emerge as more of a liberal than a leftist. It was not so much the books we discussed—I can barely remember what they were—so much as our attitudes toward Cuba and the Soviet Union, neither of which, to most of us, held out any hope for progressive change.
Wolfe says no more about this fascinating fact. Who else was part of that seminar at Berkeley? How many of them left the movement around the same time? What was the nature of Wolfe’s own change (to, as TNR readers know, a form of consensus liberalism), and why? We find out something about the passions and concerns that led his former friend Horowitz to drastically change, but little about the historical context in which he did so.
We seem to know so little about the people who were involved in political debate and action over the past hundred years. We know about the people who left Communism, and we know about the people who became neoconservatives, and that’s about it. And we know even less about people who are younger. Most historians of the 1960s and the New Left have written histories of their contemporaries but almost nothing about themselves (there are scattered exceptions, like Mark Rudd, who’ve written memoirs). Younger writers, like P.J. O’Roarke, those socially but not especially politically inclined, have written of their move from a libertarian liberalism to more of a right-wing conservatism, driven apparently largely by their rejection of drug use. Even younger writers have often written narratives of addiction and recovery (culminating in the notorious case of James Frey), implicitly assimilating “growing up” itself to a certain vision of sobriety. There’s the occasional spiritual journey, like that of Elizabeth Gilbert, and perhaps, not much more. Perhaps there’s little space for other stories in the accepted and expected narratives. Why that’s the case isn’t entirely clear.