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?

Teach Violence

Come on, parents, get yr boys started young! Teach them that violence (and especially gang violence, as they’ll learn playing tackle football) is the best way to solve life’s little problems.

Sweet on someone who doesn’t return your affections? Tackle that recalcitrant lover and show them who’s boss! Got a boss who won’t recognize your enviable talents? Apply those skills you learned in the third grade!

Yes, you too can be a brick in the giant pyramid scheme called football. College and pro ball rely on millions of little boys (and their ignorant parents) to build the foundation for the successful manipulation of testosterone into profits for fat, beer-swilling owners! And don’t forget the service you’re doing for the fans: they eat bread and watch the gridiron circus as you get your brains pummeled. Don’t worry, though, capitalist healthcare has your back–yeah, that knife, that one right there…

The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

The Hidden Life of DogsThe Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book. Thomas writes gracefully and forthrightly and, clearly, judging by the many negative reviews of this book, her writing is not for the faint of heart. This is what I’d call “thick” ethnography; thick in the sense that she writes from a place that is in the thick of things.

Thomas has wonderful empathy and insight into dogs’ minds. She rightly challenges the all-too-human ban on “anthropomorphism.” She’s way nicer about about challenging that ban that I am. Thomas points out that humans are animals and, like all animals, we share common ancestors, have long sequences of genetic material in common, and have similar brain structures. So why wouldn’t we have similar emotions and cognitive abilities? To assume that humans are somehow unique is, in my view, precisely the hubris that has allowed us to dominate the planet–and to destroy it. While I wouldn’t care that we are destroying the planet if it were only a matter of humans dying out, the fact of the matter is we are taking all life forms down with us.

In “The Hidden Life” Thomas wanted to answer a relatively simple and straightforward question: what do dogs want? Again, humans tend to think they know everything and to know what is best for everyone (though in fact we haven’t a clue). Trained as an anthropologist, Thomas used the participant-observer method to find out what her dogs wanted. This entailed letting them, so to speak, run wild. She tracked the extent of their ranging by the calls she got from the people upon whose doorsteps the dogs ended up. (They’re smart: the travel far, but then let a human call home so they can get a ride.)

A lot of reviewers are really upset about this, stating (as if they know best) that Thomas doesn’t deserve pets. They’re correct: in Thomas’s view, pet “ownership” is a sort of slavery. That’s why it’s called ownership!

But I doubt the people who left angry reviews actually read the whole book. If they had, they’d have been left in a puddle of tears: the last half of this short book is very moving, tender-hearted, and full of insights about dogs’ minds and hearts.

I think if you can read this book understanding that it is nothing to do with being a “pet” “owner” and everything to do with being inquisitive and empathetic, you will, as I did, learn a lot about your best friends.

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Duo Tandem “Watching the World Go By”

Playing classical guitars, Duo Tandem brings the world to their fingertips. The debut album, Watching the World Go By, focuses on American and Turkish Cypriot folk tunes influenced by a wide range of harmonic and melodic ideas from a wide range of sources, including Persian, Turkish, and American blues. Guitarists Nicati Emirzade and Mark Anderson are note bending and playing slide, interesting techniques for nylon-stringed guitars, and which dovetail nicely with Phrygian and other “exotic” modes to produce a wonderful melange of blues and folk styles of many culture. Duo Tandem have a fine, enjoyable album here.

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.

Jack London and Louis-Auguste Blanqui

Could Jack London have read Louis-Auguste Blanqui’s Eternity by the Stars?

London, a well-known socialist, wrote The Star Rover, published in 1915. It’s an early science fiction novel, the narrative delivered by a professor serving life in San Quentin for murder. Tortured by prison guards and squeezed into “the jacket,” Professor Standing “escapes” via trance that enables him to walk among the stars and visit his many previous lifetimes. So, star walking and reincarnation are themes in this novel.

Blanqui was a famous French revolutionary, a socialist who was imprisoned “for his role in the socialist movement that would lead to the Paris Commune of 1871,” according to a piece by Paul Halpern (a professor!) in Aeon called “Time after Time.” Eternity by the Stars was published in 1872.

As Blanqui looked up at the night sky [from his prison cell], he found comfort in the possibility of other worlds. While life on Earth is fleeting… we might take solace in the notion that myriad replicas of our planet are brimming with similar creatures – that all events, he said, ‘that have taken place or that are yet to take place on our globe, before it dies, take place in exactly the same way on its billions of duplicates’. Might certain souls be imprisoned on these faraway worlds, too? Perhaps. But Blanqui held out hope that, through chance mutations, those who are unjustly jailed down here on Earth might there walk free.

I don’t know if London read French or if he was familiar with Blanqui, but he did join the Socialist Party in 1896. London was born four years after Blanqui’s Stars was first published, but that doesn’t mean that London didn’t at some point see it or hear about it. And, perhaps tellingly, he was accused of plagiarism on a number of occasions.

I’m no London scholar, but just as London’s The Iron Heel influences Orwell’s 1984, the two socialists, Blanqui and London, might have had a intellectual connection. He is said to have been largely self-educated but, in Oakland, he met a librarian who seems to have acted as a mentor and literary guide. So who knows what he might have read as a kid or discussed with fellow travelers as adventured around the world.


Review of Steve Tibbetts, “Life Of”

The flesh of Steve Tibbetts’ fingers flows across the worn frets of his father’s old Martin 12-string like water over rocks in a stream. Every note is liquid, sensuous with microtonality, appearing as if just thought of in that exact moment of performance. The music here is molten, but Life Of is a slow eruption: this is music for meditation, guitar music that luxuriates in Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Mark Anderson’s relaxed percussion grooves, the cello drones of new collaborator Michelle Kinney, and Tibbetts’ own reverby piano. The spiritual heir to 1988’s Big Map Idea, Life Of is a sonic practice compressed over many years into a diamond sutra of theory where everything sounds easy, the impossible techniques now all second-nature muscle memory. Tibbetts is an alchemist, the wise guy on top of the mountain who, when you finally gain the summit looking for enlightenment, just grins at you and keeps on playing. The wisdom, you realize, was never going to be in words but rather is in this ancient-sounding music that bathes your brain with distant memories of melancholic bliss. Life Of is photos of family and friends, photographs not so much gazed at fondly as held to the chest to let the heart do the seeing. Hard to explain Tibbetts, in other words, which is why the most common descriptors of his music are “unique” and “one of kind.” He’s been releasing albums since 1977, a lot of them on ECM, and is criminally underknown. His oeuvre spans not just decades but continents: every album he’s done sounds like it’s from elsewhere, some explicitly so, as his collaborations with Tibetan Buddhist nun Chöying Drolma, Chö and Selwa. Others, such as 1994’s The Fall of Us All or 2002’s A Man about a Horse, are transcendental metal music from a galaxy where fuzz pedals and high-gain amps are cures for depression and anxiety. For fans of the ECM label, Bill Frisell, Terje Rypdal, David Torn, or anyone seeking sonic transportation.

This review was first published by Minor 7th.