I really like Madeline ffitch’s essay, “The Problem of Neoliberal Realism in Contemporary Fiction,” in LitHub, as much for its ideas about fiction as for the application of those ideas to political and other narratives.
As I’ve written before (along with many others), we are deluged and deluded by a cult of happiness. You see this, too, ffitch writes, in fiction workshops:
In a fiction workshop, a graduate student asks why we have to read “depressing” stories. “Why do we read stories that are so bleak,” she asks, “when what people really need to hear are stories of hope?” But where and how do people find hope? If we can’t take the bad news, do we deserve the good news? If we can’t take the bad news, will there even be good news? The student was tired of the grind of “literary” fiction, yet it seems to me that such fiction often uses its most difficult material as a formula for familiar meaning-making. Marked by formal unity, the quest for authenticity, and the belief that the self is a “bottomless pool” full of cogent meaning and redemption, Zadie Smith calls this style of writing “lyrical realism.” Skeptical, Smith wonders, “Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?” If bleakness is our concern, what could be more bleak than the sunlit prison of hope without honesty?
This bedtime story is one of redemption and hope and, when conflict is resolved along those lines, it is “American.” “If they see something they don’t like—hatred, bigotry, violence, oppression—they say it’s not American”:
Storytelling that relies on guaranteed meaning fits neatly into a national project that seeks to bring into alignment any story that diverges from a unified whole. Neoliberal realism only tolerates conflict if it’s immediately useful, if it has clear meaning, if we can see why it’s there and how it will be resolved. Even the legacy of slavery can be made to align with a unified national narrative, once it is filled with meaning and viewed through the lens of redemptive struggle.
When we try to wrest clear meaning out of the abyss of brutality, we are refusing to imagine the real. The rush toward hope is ripe for cooptation. This is one way that a politics of domination finds neat support in the very craft of most lyrically realist novels. The political problem is a narrative problem. It is a lack of imagination. It is a problem of storytelling.
And here’s the question that got me thinking about how liberals media-manage their political ideas and candidates: “What is the cost when we diminish conflict, when we aim to manage big stories instead of letting those stories roam free?” Because what we see, over and over and over again, is that the candidate on the left–Bernie Sanders, AOC, even Elizabeth Warren (a neoliberal in the vein of Biden, Obama, and every president since Reagan), is too dangerous, too far out of the mainstream, to be viable.
The DNC and other party rulers must quash debate and dissent in order to appear to be promoting the one candidate who is acceptable to all liberals, despite the fact that the whole point of left politics is to promote dissent, debate, and diversity. But those divisions can’t be aired less they be used against the candidate the way a crowbar might be used to bash apart an already busted up old sidewalk. Write ffitch:
What is the cost when we diminish conflict, when we aim to manage big stories instead of letting those stories roam free? During the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the private security firm TigerSwan—in the pay of the pipeline and using military-style tactics—collaborated with law enforcement to derail water protectors. One internal TigerSwan document reminds personnel that the “exploitation of ongoing native versus non-native rifts, and tribal rifts … is critical in our effort to delegitimize the anti-DAPL movement.”
If we hide our divisions under a guise of unity, they become vulnerable to exploitation. If we claim them, our stories not only might resist such exploitation, but become bigger, uncontainable, more real.
Real Politik, of course, is not about to let the story run rampant. Everything about life in America is about control, managing expectations, and normcoring diversity until we are all skinbags of varying colors marching in lock step.
In a response to her essay, Bianca Lynne Spriggs wrote to ffitch, saying, “‘happily ever after’ narratives where all ends well and the suffering of marginalized peoples is transmuted into some sort of cultural badge of honor … is a result of the historic modality of patriarchal consciousness (either/or, this/that, right/wrong).” And then ffitch quotes Sarah Schulman, the author of Conflict is not Abuse, who concurs that such binary thinking is “the embodiment of patriarchy, racism, and the enforcement of the US class system.”
“Conflict,” ffitch writes, “is urgent unanswerable questions. Conflict is attachment, misunderstanding, mistake, reluctant connection. Conflict is the particularity of people in community. Conflict is the terror and joy of responsibility. Conflict is knowing other people—not observing them—and it is letting them know you.”
If representing conflict as a binary is, as ffitch says, a failure of imagination, is there any hope of imagining a politics that is anything other than a failure?