Category Archives: signs of the times

Post-humanism, “Black Betty” writes a novel?

In my last post, I wrote about a cool short story by Nisi Shawl. It’s written from a dog’s point of view but, as I say, retains the cognitive center of a human. Not surprising at all because, again, to repeat myself, Shawl was writing for humans, not dogs.

But what, I wonder, what sort of story would a dog (or any other animal) tell? Would we recognize that telling as a story? Put another way, could a human truly write from an animal’s point of view? Is it possible to decenter the human in favor of an animal’s consciousness?

The question is framed up nicely by Jane Rawson in a LitHub piece:

But how would you even go about writing a novel from an animal’s perspective? There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether authors have the right to write from the perspective of people different to themselves, and those who argue yes generally emphasize how important it is to do your research, to understand the community, the history, the thoughts and feelings of your protagonists. But do we even have any idea what animals know, think and feel?

It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves, particularly in relation to the animals we raise for food. How much do cows suffer when we slaughter them? Do fish feel fear when they’re pulled from the water? Does it matter?

Rawson is arguing in this piece that the only way to save animals from extinction is by considering them as persons, as individuals. She writes:

When we think of animals as a species rather than as individuals, not every rhino death is equal. The last one has to carry the full weight of our self-involved concern.

But for the northern white rhinos themselves, the death of the last male was no more traumatic than the deaths that came before. Potentially, it was less traumatic, in fact. Sudan, as we knew him, died at 45—the upper end of rhino life expectancy—from old age. You might call it a good innings. He died surrounded by those who loved him—his keepers—though sadly without much comfort from other rhinos. Most northern white rhinos over the past few centuries, on the other hand, died in horrible circumstances, forced from their homes and killed for their horns. They passed unmourned on Facebook.

I’m not sure where to take this, but the Rawson piece is worth reading. Plus, yay, she quotes Richard Powers, the author of The Overstory, my favorite book of 2018 (and one of my favorites ever), and that seems to be a good place to leave this:

“Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely.”

Can Democrats Learn from Narrative Theory?

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?

Natalie Wynn Makes The New Yorker

I’m crazy about Natalie Wynn. And here she is popping up (um?) in The New Yorker. Can that be a good thing? I honestly fear for her and though I wish her wealth and publicity and all good things on her mission to propagandize socialism, well, fear. Life is full of it! But this:

“You often hear, with regard to the alt-right or the Intellectual Dark Web or pro-Trump nationalists, that the way to avoid normalizing them is to avoid responding to them, or to only respond by calling them offensive and terrible and bad,” she said. “And, look, sometimes they are offensive and terrible and bad, but you don’t win by saying that. You win by pointing out why they’re wrong, and by making better propaganda than they do.”

Yes! Here’s to better propaganda.

Here she is on Incels, doing her “politics as aesthetics” thing. Right on!

Climate Change is Class Warfare

That’s a not-entirely-novel observation by Kate Wagner, writing in The Baffler. Wagner notes that the house left standing in the wake of Hurricane Michael is the Sand Palace, a building that cost at least $400,000 and is owned by a rich radiologist. It has 40-foot-deep concrete pilings and is poured from reinforced concrete. So, yeah, it survived, even though the rest of Mexico Beach, Florida is now a ghost town, or worse, an apocalyptic wasteland. Wagner says that hurricane-proofing a house “adds roughly $30,000 to the total amount”:
This price tag almost by itself restricts future survival along much of the country’s beaches to the radiologists of the world. Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, news coverage of “the house that survived Michael” has expressed little outrage about its owners relative wealth and what it means for class and climate change, preferring instead to frame the prudence of the good doctor as a feel-better cautionary tale…. It is an urgent architectural warning to all of us that the wealthy will survive a Category 5 hurricane. The rest will be left to stare down devastation, realizing perhaps too late that climate change is class war.
This is for sure class warfare, and it goes deeper than whose house stands or falls. The cost of rebuilding is enormous and is born by us all via the insurance premiums and taxes we pay. Federal money–yours and mine–will be used to rebuild Mexico Beach but in ways that will be more conducive to the wealthy then even before. I’ve written about that in my review of Orin Pilkey’s book, Retreat from a Rising Sea.

The Cult of Be Happy, Don’t Worry

earthThe science of psychology, such as it is, is catching up with the intuitions of depth psychology and the probings of literary critical theory. Depression is about to have another day.

A new book by Svend Brinkmann, a psychology professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University, is called Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, is just out. In it, Brinkmann says that our insistence have-a-good-dayism is “almost totalitarian” in its rejection of the tempests of being, e.g., sadness at loss, depression generally (which we embrace only with a happiness cure: tea, but rarely any real empathy)–and anger is right out of there. It’s exactly happy-norming that the alt right cucks are using when they say “quit being a sore loser.” Brighten up, lighten up, it’s all great again! Putting the squeeze on unstable emotions is an attempt to reduce the friction of resistance. It works, sometimes. Continue reading

Eight Years

Eight years ago today I quit smoking cigarettes. After 32 years of Camel no-rags, I met a woman who answered “yes” when I asked if smoking were a deal breaker. Granted, it was the first time I’d asked that question: is smoking a deal breaker?

I made that promise to this woman I’d fallen in love with right around Dec. 31, 2008. I read up on quitting, and realized I needed a plan, and a memorable quit date.

Barack Obama’s inauguration was my memorable quit date. January 20, 2009. I haven’t smoked a cig since, and have regained considerable lung capacity–and added almost a fifth to my vocal range.

Today I came home from work, heart sick. I had to be with my dog, and wait for the aforementioned woman to get done with science.  The dog and me, we picked her up from work. He was glad to see her, painfully, his paws unintentionally scratching his lady’s face in a frenzy of howdies. Been at least nine hours, after all.

Enough time, as my work-friend said, “for the Father of Lies to swear an oath.”

And plenty of time, while we’re at work, at a university doing the people’s work, making things better for you and I, for whitehouse.gov’s faceless minions to leave a dirty “page not found” for LGBT rights, civil rights, and science. Entire reports: gone.

The future is disappearing. Which is why scientists are scrambling to save the data.

This octoversary of not smoking, the devil come up from the swamp.