From The Archive
Walter Benn Michaels
No. 18  December 2009

The Un-usable Past

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Let’s go shopping, let’s go chill, Let’s go buy them new Louboutin heels. Ass in the Perla, ears full of pearls, Damn dirty money know how to treat the girls.

—Clipse, “Dirty Money”

When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history back in 1989, he did so with mixed feelings. The good news, he thought, was the ideological triumph of free markets and of the political arrangement most suited to them. Even communists were talking about the importance of being competitive in the marketplace. The bad news was that without “the worldwide ideological struggle” between capitalism and socialism to inspire us, we were in for “a very sad time.” “In the post-historical period,” he wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The end of history would be good for markets, bad for art.

These days, it’s not so clear how the good-for-markets thing is working out. It’s still true that we don’t have any socialists, the ravings of birthers and death panelists notwithstanding. The current administration wants to rescue market competition, not restrain it. And, led by the kind of liberals even bankers love, it may well succeed.

But what if it doesn’t? What if we’re seeing not just the end of a boom but the beginning of a new period of “ideological struggle”? If good-for-markets was bad for art, will bad-for-markets be good for art?

With respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism has been something of a disaster. The past 25 years have been a sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have indeed been committed to nothing more than historical caretaking. It’s no accident that Toni Morrison’s Beloved was proclaimed the best work of American fiction over the period by the New York Times or that prominent also-rans included Blood Meridian, Underworld and The Plot Against America. Even younger writers like Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead have rushed to take up the burden of the past.

Of course, Fukuyama thought that we’d enjoy flattering ourselves by hearing about the great triumphs of our history. And the extraordinary (and otherwise inexplicable) popularity of admiring biographies of the Founding Fathers suggests he wasn’t entirely wrong. But what our novelists have realized is that accounts of the truly horrible things done by and to our ancestors are even more flattering—what we readers really like is to disapprove of other people’s bad behavior. In other words, the denunciation of crimes we haven’t committed is even more gratifying than the celebration of virtues we don’t have.

Thus, even though books about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans are sad almost by definition, it’s also true that the logic that produces them and makes them so attractive is profoundly optimistic. Why? Because trying to overcome, say, the lingering inequities of slave labor (a characteristic injustice of the past) doesn’t involve trying to overcome the burgeoning inequities of free labor (a characteristic injustice of the present). It doesn’t involve criticizing the primacy of markets; it just involves making sure that everyone has equal access to them. So when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism (and when A Mercy reminds us again), we’re being told that what ails us is lingering racism—not out-of-control capitalism. And when Morrison wins the Nobel Prize and Obama becomes president, we’re being reassured that we are headed in the right direction, even if we’re not quite there yet.

Indeed, Toni Morrison has become such an icon of liberal culture that her very presence is used to signify the moral superiority of those for whom the boom was good. When, for example, Drew Faust was sworn in as the new president of Harvard (endowment in 1987, the year Beloved was published, $3.85 billion; endowment in 2007, the year Faust was inaugurated, $34.9 billion), Morrison was on hand to read from the not-yet-published A Mercy and to help bear witness to this happy confluence of wealth and virtue. “Even a few short years ago,” the new university president declared, people like Morrison and Faust herself could not have been on that platform. Their presence now was a tribute to the way universities over the last half-century have served as “engines of the expansion of citizenship, equality and opportunity—to blacks, women, Jews, immigrants and others who would have been subjected to quotas or excluded altogether in an earlier era.”

“Ours,” she continued, “is a different and far better world.”

Maybe so. But if you look at the economic data for the “few short years” Faust has in mind, what you see is not a society with greater equality but a society in which there is less. In 1987, the top tenth of the American population made about 38 percent of the nation’s income. (The bottom fIfth made about 3.8 percent.) That top figure was substantially up from the relatively egalitarian numbers that prevailed from the end of World War II until the emergence of neoliberalism in the late Seventies, but the really big jump has taken place since. In 2006, according to economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top tenth earned about half of all the money made in America, a higher percentage than in 1928, till then the highest figure of the century.

While universities like Harvard have welcomed representatives of racial minorities, they’ve withheld that welcome from the vast economic majority. “Seventy-four percent of students at the nation’s top 146 colleges come from the richest socioeconomic quartile,” the Pew Foundation tells us, “and just 3 percent come from the poorest quartile.” Neoliberal economies are structured to reward the rich at the expense of the poor; neoliberal universities—turning the entitled children of the upper middle class into the credentialed children of the upper middle class—are structured to pass those rewards on to the next generation.

The account of Faust’s inauguration in the Harvard Crimson includes an interview with an enthusiastic undergraduate who claimed (and who would doubt her?) to have read Beloved 12 times. But you only have to read it once to understand the ways in which the world is better; reading it 12 times will tell you nothing about the ways in which the world has grown worse.

Increasing inequality is simply not something that American culture, even liberal culture, has had much to say about. Instead, the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad, say, the Holocaust was. And as our cultural and economic elites have separated themselves from everyone else, and as the Holocaust has begun to show signs of brand fatigue, enterprising writers like Philip Roth (in The Plot Against America) and Michael Chabon (in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) have boldly moved beyond condemning bad things that happened in the past to condemning bad things that didn’t happen in the past: a Nazi takeover of the United States and the exile of a whole society of Eastern European Jews to Alaska.

In the real world, meanwhile, things have finally gotten so bad that even the relatively rich have begun to feel the pain. Harvard’s endowment is now only about six times what it was in 1987, not 10 times as much. And disapproval of Holocausts is getting some serious competition from fear of poverty. Which is what the vast majority—the victims of the boom—have been worrying about all along. So maybe it’s time for us to forget about Nazi bad guys and focus on the free market instead; to stop congratulating ourselves for being against genocide and start asking what it means to be for free trade.

Although it doesn’t appear anywhere on the Times’ best American fiction list, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991) is a much better novel than most of the ones that do, and the Psycho’s self-consoling reminder—“I am rich—millions are not”—has the merit of problematizing the upper middle class’s sense of virtue rather than, like Roth and Morrison, pandering to it. Unlike all our popular meditations on the badness of racism, American Psycho understands that the wealth of the rich is extracted from the poor and therefore that there is a structural—not merely a sentimental-antagonism between them. That’s the meaning of all its descriptions of what rich people wear—“a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren”: You can’t afford these, the Psycho is telling us, because I can.

Or, to take a more recent example, that’s also the meaning of the notes the call girl Chelsea keeps on what she wears to each job (“a Michael Kors dress and shoes and La Perla lingerie underneath”) in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. The movie is set in November 2008 as Obama is about to win the election. And you can see the political point of Chelsea’s clothes by fast-forwarding two months and comparing them to the clothes worn to the inauguration by the novelist, essayist, and passionate Obama supporter Ayelet Waldman. Back when Obama won the South Carolina primary, Waldman predicted on her blog she’d see her readers “on the Mall in January.” “I’ll be the one in the Women for Obama T-shirt,” she promised. By the time January came around, however, a “fabulous Vera Wang gown” (a “loaner” from a friend) had replaced the T-shirt, supplemented by “five-inch Chloe boots” (also “fabulous,” but her own) to be worn to the concert on the Mall. Unfortunately, the Chloes weren’t so great for “dancing madly to U2,” but they, along with the Vera Wang and a cocktail dress by Lanvin and a dinner catered by Daniel Boulud, nonetheless managed to convey the same message as the Women for Obama T.

That message is the exact opposite of that conveyed by Chelsea’s Michael Kors or, for that matter, by the suede Yves Saint Laurents the Psycho’s girlfriend wears, also to a U2 concert (maybe a proper depression will get us better rock ’n’ roll; Titus Andronicus is a good start). The meaning of the Saint Laurents is that the wealth of the rich comes at the expense of the poor, and American Psycho’s political power consists in its recognition of their fundamentally opposed interests: As the Psycho says to a bum he’s about to murder: “I’m sorry. It’s just that I don’t have anything in common with you.”

The great vision of our liberalism is the poor helping the rich to make a better America rather than, say, the poor making a better America by taking away the rich’s money.

The fantasy of Waldman’s Chloe boots, on the other hand, is that the things dividing us have nothing to do with money, and therefore we needn’t be divided at all. When Waldman describes “White people and black people, Latinos and Asians,” all “chanting ‘Race Doesn’t Matter, Race Doesn’t Matter,’” she is describing a liberalism that replaces the antagonism between the rich and the poor with the alliance of the black and the white: “United. Not divided.” After all, black women (Oprah wore Louboutins) can have hot shoes too. “Race Doesn’t Matter” is an alternative to something that can’t be chanted at rallies but is nonetheless what’s always being said: “Wealth Doesn’t Matter.” We don’t chant it at rallies because, once you put the point in those terms, it would occur to someone that wealth actually does matter. But it’s being said anyway, because the great vision of our liberalism is the poor helping the rich to make a better America rather than, say, the poor making a better America by taking away the rich’s money.

Waldman’s autobiographical essays about being and having a mom essentially do the same political work as her Chloe boots and (her husband!) Michael Chabon’s alternative Holocaust history. For if historical novels have been one literary way to make the reality of our social arrangements invisible, they haven’t been the only one. It was also in 1987 that Margaret Thatcher, as canny a cultural critic as Toni Morrison, pronounced herself tired of hearing about society’s problems and, in the wake of her triumph over the National Union of Mineworkers, took a stand against the idea of society itself, proclaiming: “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women, and there are families. . . .” Anybody looking to explain the appeal of the memoir in contemporary writing need look no further. Every sentence in everyone of them, true or false, literary or non-, tells us that there are only individuals and their families. Thus, for example, the proper way for workers to see themselves is not as workers or union members, but as entrepreneurs or husbands and fathers.

For some sense of the contemporary relevance of Thatcher’s analysis, look to the extraordinary success of the Broadway musical Billy Elliot (10 Tony Awards). It is, as they say, “set against the backdrop” of the strike Thatcher broke, but what it’s really about is Billy’s grizzled old miner dad learning to respect his son’s desire to become a ballet dancer, and about Billy learning to respect his best friend’s desire to cross-dress and about all the miners learning that the union is irrelevant and, most upliftingly, about everyone learning that, as the song says, “What we need is individuality”:

If you wanna be a dancer, dance,

If you wanna be a miner, mine,

If you want to dress like somebody else,

Fine!

My point is not that memoir writers or the makers of Billy Elliot think of themselves as cheerleaders for the free market. It’s that in the memoir and in the musical, society is merely the “backdrop” against which we either make or fail to make good choices. If you wanna be a miner, mine—but when it doesn’t work out, it’s because you made a bad choice. And if you wanna dress like somebody else, fine.

It’s no accident that same-sex marriage has emerged as a centerpiece of American cultural liberalism, rather than, say, card check (the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to make it easier for workers to unionize). Card check, despite its euphemistic name, is not about the need for individual choice. Just the opposite; it’s about escaping your individuality, and about the power of collective bargaining. Same-sex marriage, on the other hand, is all about the rights of individuals, and especially their right to form families.

What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict.

The exemplary attraction of same-sex marriage emerges even more vividly when, as in California, it’s an alternative to domestic partnership—in other words, when the legal and economic issues have largely been factored out. Here, as the complaint recently filed in federal court by the Republican Ted Olson and the Democrat David Boies (opposing attorneys in Bush v. Gore but united in Perry, Stier et al v. Schwarzenegger) asserts, the harm in not being allowed to marry is “severe humiliation, emotional distress, pain, suffering, psychological harm and stigma.” Of course, once you’ve identified our problems as having nothing to do with the redistribution of wealth, you’ve also identified the solution as one that has nothing to do with the redistribution of wealth. It’s these problems, described in this way, that American liberalism loves to solve. Hence the popularity of the memoir, always committed, like the lawyers in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, to the primacy of emotional distress and psychological harm.

And hence the opportunity to finally get rid of it. When people’s jobs and investments begin to disappear, the idea that we’ll be better off if we just stop stigmatizing each other and start making better life choices looks a little less plausible. Maybe, at that moment, capitalism starts to look like a problem for which human capital is not a solution, and the economic arrangements of the society you live in begin to seem more important than how your parents felt about you, how you feel about your kids or even how you feel about yourself. So maybe another upside of the collapse of a Thatcherite economy will be the disappearance of this entirely Thatcherite genre. Maybe people will lose all interest in the moving stories of the struggles of other people to overcome destructive parents and seductive addictions, and no one will want to read memoirs. Maybe people will even lose interest in their own struggles, thus conceived, and no one will want to write them either.

So—no memoirs, no historical novels. What else? A lot of non-historical novels will have to go too. For sure, no more dysfunctional family books like The Corrections or Light in August, or any of Oprah’s other choices. And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out where they fit in American culture. Ethnic identity is the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, presenting us with an imagined world where people care more about respect for otherness than about money for their mortgages. But you get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from Ayelet Waldman’s boots than you do from all our novels about people reclaiming, refusing or repurposing their cultural identities. Just think of what it means for Touré (in the New York Times) to hail Colson Whitehead’s novel about upper-middle-class black kids, Sag Harbor, for “reshaping the iconography of blackness”—as if the crucial thing about rich black people is the new way they perform race rather than the old way they embody class.

It’s not just particular kinds of novels that misrepresent life under neoliberalism; it’s some of the things that we take to be central to the very idea of the novel. In How Fiction Works, James Wood approvingly quotes Osip Mandelstam’s claim that “the novel was perfected and strengthened over an extremely long period of time as the art form to interest the reader in the fate of the individual,” and he goes on to emphasize the importance of “psychological motivation” in producing this interest. Thus Wood himself understands “character”—the novel’s primary technology of individuality—as crucial; “to deny character,” he writes, “is essentially to deny the novel.” It’s one thing, however, to insist on the importance of character and individuality in Russia in the 1920s and quite another in the U.S. in 2009, where liberals and conservatives both are as unanimous in their enthusiasm for the one as book reviewers are in their enthusiasm for the other.

Thus when Michiko Kakutani (also writing for the Times) attacks Jonathan Littell’s recent novel, The Kindly Ones, because its central character, the Nazi Dr. Aue, is a “cartoonish” “monster” we can neither “sympathize” with nor “understand,” and when she applauds the “appealing” central character in Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in whose “plight” the reader becomes completely “absorbed,” we should understand that she is invoking political as well as literary criteria of evaluation: Good novels are defined by their interest in character; neoliberal politics by their respect for individuality. And we can go on to get some sense of what’s at stake here for ambitious fiction just by sketching out some of the similarities and differences between the novels themselves. They both, for example, come equipped with glossaries: Chabon’s explains the meaning of Yiddish terms like luftmensh (dreamer); Littell’s provides helpful explanations of the bureaucratic responsibilities of organizations like the Hauptamt Ordnungspolizei or “Main Office of the Order Police.” If the point of Littell’s glossary is to familiarize you with the institutional structure of the militarized society the book depicts, the point of Chabon’s is to replace a society with an ethnicity; the novel’s world is that of Detective Landsman “and his people.” The novel’s major stylistic achievement is emblematized by the way it uses the ordinarily pejorative term “yid” in the same tone and with the same inside pleasure that hip-hop culture uses the term “nigga.” You don’t exactly get “Whussup, my yidz” but you do get lots of sentences like, “Seems like I’ve known a lot of chess-playing yids who used smack.” If the Yiddish word that is Landsman’s name had appeared in the glossary, the most plausible current translation would be “homie.” Individuals, their families and their “people”; this is the way Chabon does neoliberalism.

By contrast, Dr. Aue’s family is literally the House of Atreus; The Kindly Ones is what the Eumenides become at the end of Aeschylus’ trilogy, and Aue’s domestic life, to the extent that he has one, is all incest and matricide, without the slightest effort to achieve “psychological plausibility.” The attraction of ethnicity—of “a people”—is reduced to nothing but the utility of racism; anti-Semites need Jews. Kakutani is right, of course: Aue himself is not at all sympathetic and there’s a certain sense in which he is indeed a monster—not so much an unappealing character as not really a character at all. Indeed, in one of the few smart American reviews of The Kindly Ones, Daniel Mendelsohn describes him instead as “ideology in action,” and it’s this that makes him seem monstrous—to a literary culture that wants characters instead of ideologies and to a political culture that wants the same thing.

Good novels are defined by their interest in character; neoliberal politics by their respect for individuality.

Thus, while Littell’s book belongs formally to the genre of neoliberal historicism, it doesn’t quite deliver the desired dose of flattery. Alternately a figure from Greek tragedy and a scrupulous Nazi bureaucrat, Aue images a society where individual character—good or bad—is largely beside the point, and his opening words to the reader, “Oh my human brothers” (from Villon’s Ballade des pendus), suggest that we might better understand ourselves as creatures like him—entirely structured by ideology—than as the psychologically complex and morally autonomous individuals our literature exists to tell us we are. Or, to put the point more precisely, we might understand our attachment to our psychological complexity and moral autonomy as itself a kind of ideological commitment, our way of imagining our world as nothing but individuals and families, markets and identities.

From this standpoint, The Kindly Ones, like American Psycho, would count as a kind of resistance to the “sad” time for art announced by Fukuyama—a return to ideology. And it would not be alone. The completely homegrown version of Littell (an American who lives in Spain and writes in French) would be the Baltimore-based writer/producer David Simon, whose TV series, The Wire, is the most serious and ambitious American fiction of the 21st century so far. Unlike The Sopranos (which really was about what David Chase always said it was about—“family”), The Wire is about institutions—unions, schools, political parties, gangs. It’s about the world neoliberalism has actually produced rather than the world our literature pretends it’s produced. If a book like American Psycho looks back to the great novels of Edith Wharton—novels of manners in which what’s always at stake are the hierarchies of the social order—The Wire is a way of reinventing Emile Zola or Theodore Dreiser for a world in which the deification of the market may be going out rather than coming in.

Then again, the deification of the market may not really be on the way out. Unemployment may have reached 9.8 percent in October but year-to-date returns were also the highest for hedge funds in 10 years. Besides, the goal of the Obama administration is not so much to oppose neoliberalism as to perfect it, to get us back to the days of the booming economy but without the pointless and expensive foreign wars, the waterboarding, the anti-immigration racism, the gay-bashing and the straight white men on the Supreme Court. None of these things is good for business; some of them (the anti-immigration stuff) may even be bad for business. And American liberalism likes things that are bad for business even less than American conservatism does. So when it comes, say, to reforming health care, the idea of actually socializing it—not just bad but fatal for business—isn’t even on the agenda.

But that’s OK. My point here has not been to imagine ways we could get a better society but ways we could get better fiction. Which we could still do even if inequality goes back to increasing. For while it’s more or less inevitably true that aesthetically ambitious books and TV shows are made by relatively rich people for an audience of other relatively rich people, it’s not inevitable that these books and TV shows must be tributes to how virtuous (how anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-gay marriage, etc.) rich people are. And it’s not required that they accept the terms of literary virtue—the interest in character, the search for your own “voice,” etc.—either. Writers of the world, experiment! How much worse can you do?

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