Here is the second installment of our reading recommendations to kick start your summer…
A few scattershot things I’ve read, am reading, or plan to read this month:
- Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten: Welcome to the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants whose pedagogy consists entirely of the textbook What is the Purpose of the Benjamenta Instituteand the ubiquitous Rules of the same. A lyrical little dream-monologue of a book by an unjustly obscure Swiss author from whom Franz Kafka learned many of his tricks.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister: Speaking of Kafka forces me to mention this dive into the Nabokovian back-catalogue, as the protagonist possesses a beetle-shaped shoehorn named Gregor. I shall also quote Nabokov’s prefatory warning about a sudden break in the narration toward the end of the novel, sure to delight those, like me, allergic to psychoanalysis: “The intruder is not the Viennese Quack (all my books should be stamped Freudians, Keep Out), but an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me.”
- Brian Evenson, A Collapse of Horses: An early number of the horror comic The Haunt of Fearincludes “A Strange Undertaking…” in which the cemetery caretaker Ezra Deepley exacts revenge upon the bodies of the doctor, dentist, banker, and politician he feels ruined his life, symbolically mutilating their corpses (for example, inserting pennies where the banker’s brain and heart had been). When Deepley himself dies, the cadavers rise from their graves to get their own back. The result is never shown or described, only the horror and disgust of the townspeople. The narrator explains, “Want to know what they did to Ezra? What’s the most horrible thing you can think of? Hee, hee! That’s it!” What the authors of The Haunt of Fearknew, or at least intuited, was that the most intricately described horror pales in comparison to what a reader’s imagination will concoct when given free rein. Think of A Collapse of Horsesas an extended meditation on this insight: more a series of finely drawn sketches than short stories, disturbing evocations of horrors only hinted at and all the more disturbing for it. The first tale in the collection, “Black Bark,” is a masterpiece of unspoken menace.
- Albert Woodfox, Solitary: Unbroken by four decades of solitary confinement. My story of transformation and hope: Albert Woodfox endured thirty-six years in solitary confinement, one of the Angola Three whose decades of isolation on trumped-up murder charges attracted international attention. Woodfox, a living testament to the power of the human spirit, speaks with an unyielding determination and a radical commitment to justice that can only ever partially express the unfathomable ordeal he and his comrades Herman Wallace and Robert Hilary King endured. Other worthwhile attempts to reckon with the unspeakable include Rachel Aviv’s profileof Woodfox in The New Yorkerand Herman’s House, a documentary about The House That Herman Built,a collaborative project between Wallace and artist Jackie Sumell, after the latter asked “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over thirty years dream of?” and then resolved to realize Wallace’s dream.
- Last but never least, audiophiles really ought to invest in James Earl Jones readingthe King James Version of the New Testament. The Voice of God indeed.
“The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of Postmodernism,” forum in The Chronicle Review including short essays by Mark Greif, Ethan Kleinberg, Marjorie Perloff, Moira Weigel, and others.
Much has been said about the surprising resurgence of the term “socialism” in American political discourse in recent years. Judging by the strong pejorative connotations it still holds in many spheres, it has been said that the Cold War ended well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So-called “epistemological McCarthyism” kept a wide range of economic questions off the American political agenda until recent years. Quinn Slobodian’s 2018 Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism argues that this was no accident: Neoliberalism can be succinctly conceived as the protection of market economics from the demands of politics, often drawing upon state power as “market police” against social needs and democratic demands that might challenge the primacy of markets. The result is what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”: the charge that any alternative to free market capitalism is unrealistic or utopian. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “there is no alternative.”
This started to change after the financial crisis of 2007–2008. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 began to transform the Amerrican political Zeitgeist. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders adopted the label “socialism” as a solution to the apparently widespread sense that “the system is rigged.” 2018 candidates for local, state, and national offices such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez associated with the Democratic Socialists of America have effectively mobilized new constituents under this banner. Yet aside from a few minimal social-democratic policies such as Medicare for all and vague egalitarian and redistributive gestures, the political future this term points toward remains hazy. “Socialism” now seems to function less as a unified program containing positive elements of social welfare provision, planning, or market regulation, and more as a signpost of the demand to move beyond “neoliberalism” (another contested term pointedly debated last year in Dissent). In many cases, “socialism” seems to function mostly negatively, as a counter-concept to the status quo.
This association of socialism with a post-capitalist future is politically plausible in America because socialism has never been a hegemonic political movement there. By contrast, in Europe and Latin America, where socialist parties have been in power in recent decades, the term has been sullied by historical failures ranging from military dictatorship to selling out to neoliberal forces. In many such places, socialist parties have come to be widely perceived as retrograde and have suffered tremendous losses in recent years. The case of France is illustrative. Édouard Louis’s incisive and moving recent polemic “Who Killed My Father” (an extract of which is published in The New York Review of Books) calls out j’accuse! at all of France’s political elites of recent decades, conservative and liberal, but also socialists such as François Mitterrand, for eviscerating the social welfare state on which his working-class and chronically impoverished father depended.
The Point magazine’s latest issue, “Socialism in Our Time,” features a wide-ranging essay by John Michael Colón called “The Dictatorship of the Present” that explorers the new lives of “socialism,” what the DSA wants, and how new movements have learned from past socialist failures. He writes, “Only a socialism that internalizes the lessons of the twentieth century and puts pluralism front and center can win. We want a socialism where democracy permeates every aspect of our lives.”
Alongside the reemergence of the category of “socialism” is the counter-category of “capitalism,” a Marxian term that also disappeared from popular discourse for decades. Today one encounters the term in the political rhetoric of such figures as Elizabeth Warren. “History of capitalism” is a rising new subfield in history departments and “capitalism studies” programs have emerged at several American universities. This turn has also injected new life into contemporary critical theory.
The recent work of the American socialist-feminist critical theorist Nancy Fraser offers a conceptually powerful map of our present conjuncture. Fraser argues that we find ourselves in a global “crisis of hegemony” in which neoliberalism has lost its ideological appeal, opening the floodgates to reactionary neo-fascisms (see Enzo Traverso’s recent The New Faces of Fascism) but also emancipatory socialist or post-capitalist alternatives. As Fraser cites Antonio Gramsci, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Last year she published an illuminating analysis of this present conjuncture with the German critical theorist Rahel Jaeggi as Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory. The work is structured as a Socratic dialogue in which Fraser usually plays the part of the master, outlining her broad synthetic conception of capitalism, deftly steered by Jaeggi’s pointed objections and provocations. The theorists’ wide-ranging discussion centers on expanding the narrow understanding of capitalism as an economic system into a broader theory of “capitalist society” as “an institutionalized social order.” Fraser synthesizes a vast literature from philosophers alongside historians and sociologists to describe three “hidden abodes” that constitute the background conditions of capitalism beyond the famous one Marx identified: surplus value extracted from workers in the sphere of production. Namely, social reproduction (the unwaged labor that sustains life and historically has often been carried out by women), ecology (natural resources that are extracted and depleted), and politics (the conditions that enable the functioning and regulation of economic activity). In illuminating these three background spheres, whose division she draws from Karl Polanyi, Fraser synthesizes advances made in recent decades by feminist, decolonial, ecological, and democratic theory into an expansive social theory that helps explains the complex crisis nexus today. In our era of impending ecological catastrophe, a crisis of care, and rising populism, she argues, the challenges we face are not simply intra-realm—narrowly political or economic crises—but increasingly inter-realm. Financialization and deregulation in the economic sphere have led to increasingly acute crises in the other spheres, adding up, she argues, to a general crisis. Fraser and Jaeggi’s critical theory rises to the challenge of explaining in lucid terms this increasingly complex social nexus and the historical transformations that brought us here. One step beyond critique, Fraser has also recently offered a minimal vision of what a socialism for the twenty-first century might look like.
(This week’s featured image is a close up from Jan Van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele)