Archive for August 2011
I’ve not finished reading Teju Cole’s new Open City as I’ve been interrupted by review work and the like. So obviously I’ll withhold judgment on the novel itself. But for now it does seem to me worth noting that James Wood’s review of the book in The New Yorker is as clear a manifestation of what we might call the political unconscious of “liberal” fiction as is possible. Probably best to read the whole thing to contextualize what I’m about to quote, which comes at the end of the piece:
[The protagonist] is engaged but disengaged. He is curious about the lives of others, but that curiosity is perhaps purchased at the expense of commonality. (This contradiction is even more strongly felt in the work of V. S. Naipaul, whose influence is apparent in Cole’s book.) The city is “open,” but perhaps only in a negative way: full of people bumping their hard solitude off one another. One’s own small hardships—such as forgetting one’s A.T.M. card number, as Julius does, and being consumed by anxiety about it—may dominate a life as completely as someone else’s much larger hardships, because life is brutally one’s own, and not someone else’s, and is, alas, brutally banal. In a sad and eloquent passage, Julius suggests that perhaps it is sane to be solipsistic:
Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as these stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.
This is a brave admission about the limits of sympathy, coming as it does near the end of a book full of other people’s richly recorded stories. Julius is not heroic, but he is still the (mild) hero of his book. He is central to himself, in ways that are sane, forgivable, and familiar. And this selfish normality, this ordinary solipsism, this lucky, privileged equilibrium of the soul is an obstacle to understanding other people, even as it enables liberal journeys of comprehension. Julius sets out only to put people’s lives down on paper, and not to change them, as Farouq, his secret sharer and alter ego, would want to do. But then it is because Julius set out not to change Farouq’s life but to put it down on paper that we know Farouq so well.
In other words, Cole’s novel – whose protagonist is a half-Nigerian, half-German resident in psychiatry in New York – shows us, by the very act of looking at others, that our solipsism is nonetheless somehow not only terminal and excusable but also heroic. We look at others, others who are sometimes oppressed or angry or both, and in the very act of looking we learn that we can never truly see let alone try and connect but that that, in the end, is OK and probably even for the best. All this seeing is an alibi for itself. In short, the abbreviated version of Wood’s review would go something like this:
Valued New Yorker subscriber: read this elegant new novel by a young novelist, originally from Nigeria but now over here, and you too can move around your multicultural but gentrified neighborhood and all of those semi-interactions that you have with multi-hued cab drivers and shop keepers, utility workers and homeless people not only will become more vivid, they will further testify to the vivid youness of you, the heroism of your liberal quietude, the saintliness of your merely seeing. Even that which you see on the tv news – all those uncountable masses of often suffering others – will affirm in their difference and distance that you, sir or madam, are the hero of your own life, a self-contained monadic innocent amidst all that whatever and whomever out there in the fascinating world.
Again, I’d like to finish the book for myself, but this does make Cole’s novel sound like a candidate to replace McEwan’s Saturday as my permanent reference when it comes to what Ballard called conventional fiction’s “consular characters” and the ideological work that they do, despite the best of intentions.
I’m working on presumably the final revision of the book and I’ve done something a bit strange, something that feels to me both a) just what I want to do and b) bound to cause problems. Basically, if nearly every literary monograph with any interest in theory or theoretical questions starts with the definition of key terms via philosophy and then turns to the literature, I’m running things in reverse. I’ll develop working definitions of the key terms via little tour of literary history (broadstroke longview, more narrowing with the period in question) and then turn to the philosophical heritage in order to compare and contrast. At any rate, I just put in the following footnote. What do you think – too much?
If we have grown well accustomed to analyses that apply theory to literary texts – in order to understand or critique them, in order to shed light on their inner workings or the world that they represent – in my choice of trajectory here I propose to do something different. This work attempts to expose the theorizations of time implicit in the literary works themselves and explore these theorizations in (generally contrasting) comparison with what we might slightly reductively call the philosophical “conventional wisdom” on the subject. While any attempt to “forget theory” in writing about literature would either be naïve or haunted by invisible philosophical or ideological presuppositions, it on the other hand seems to be a disciplinary bad habit reflexively to consult philosophy in order to define our terms and only then to turn these terms to literary application.
In general, I simply don’t accept the reflexive necessity of consulting philosophy first. I don’t think of theory as a little machine that one builds in grad school, like a woodchipper or a blender, that one takes texts and runs them through, or at least that’s not how I think one should think of theory. I think that literature has as much to tell us – if differently – about so-called “philosophical” issues as philosophy itself. And I further believe that tons of theory is grounded in strange if not bad readings of literature… or even, more importantly, a kind of unconscious or unacknowledged “literariness” that haunts the answers developed.
After a conversation tonight, I feel that I should re-elevate this post. Read the comments too – there’s some very good stuff about Peter et al.
David Cameron, today, in a speech on the riots:
We talk about moral hazard in our financial system – where banks think they can act recklessly because the state will always bail them out…
…well this is moral hazard in our welfare system – people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out.
Impressive. We’ve gone from metaphorical slight of hand in one direction (the national economy is like your household economy, when dad’s out of work then it’s time to cancel the sky tv etc.) to exactly the other (the poor are like bankers who when over-protected by the state act badly) with hardly a blink or a skip. I guess, given what’s happened with the banks, he’s implicitly saying that Sure, we fucked that one up with the bankers. But we’ll get “moral hazard” right now that we’ve been given a second chance with the welfare recipients!
Interesting thoughts to be had, I think, on the matter of “moral hazard” in general and its deployment both in the discourse of banking and, now apparently, welfare. It doesn’t take much research to see where the interest might lie – wikipedia lays out some of the issues very clearly. First of all, the meaning of moral in moral hazard is historically complicated. The phrase seems to have been around since the 17th century, and early on meant what it sounds like (moral = ethical etc) but over the years came to mean simply “subjective.” (This makes sense – not lots of room in economics for morality in the usual sense….) Obviously it would be better to work this through with something more in depth than wikipedia, but for now, as it says there: “The concept of moral hazard was the subject of renewed study by economists in the 1960s, and at the time did not imply immoral behavior or fraud; rather, economists use the term to describe inefficiencies that can occur when risks are displaced, rather than on the ethics or morals of the involved parties.”
In short, what the term means is something like this: When I rent a car and take out the full insurance policy, I am obviously far less careful about where I park the car than if I was uninsured. It is not a matter of “morals” – I am not behaving unethically when I do this – it’s not my “duty” to the rental company to go out of my way to protect their vehicle. It’s simply the fact that I’ve already paid, say, Enterprise $25 for cover that makes it a dumb bet for me to worry about parking the car in a private lot rather than on the street for free. Were I to forgo the insurance – or were Enterprise not to offer me any – I would be faced with a decision… a decision grounded in tension, in precariousness. I could either invest some of my money in protecting the rented vehicle or I could take my chances with the street. The same goes for banks: if financial institutions have some reason to believe that they are “too big to fail” no matter how badly they perform, then there is an incentive to take on risks that they wouldn’t otherwise take.
What Cameron is up to here is taking advantage of the etymological blur and definitional over-determination of a term of economic art. When he applied “moral hazard” to welfare recipients, he means us to hear the ethical dimension that’s not really meant to be there… very much rhyming with his new meme of Britain’s “moral decline.” But what is clear, if implicit, in Cameron’s analogy, is that the flip-side of the moral hazard is precarity. Borrowing an often misunderstood economic term, he’s found a phrase that allows him to advance a deeply pernicious rebranding of welfare while sidestepping that perniciousness with the murky language of morality. (When the term is used in its vulgar sense, no one is in favor of “morally hazardous” things…) While we would definitely prefer our banks to live precarious lives – fearful that if they fuck up too badly they will, in fact, pay the price for their missteps – I’m not sure that we want a definition of social welfare that sees it from the eyes of the insurance actuary: social welfare is that which encourages non-optimal behavior. The riots become equivalent to someone parking the rental car in a stupid place – or even taking advantage of an insurance policy to roll the car off of a bridge. Thus it’s the insurance itself that has to go – or in this case the benefits, which according to the logic of “moral hazard” can be seen to have indirectly but significantly caused the riots.
Further, precarity moves from being – in the discourse of power – a naturally-occurring side-effect of economic development and change to a desirable condition in and of itself, desirable in that it promotes “good behavior.” Of course we’ve known for a long time that the latter is the case – but it’s frightening to hear it straightforwardly adopted as a desired end of the government, a plan.
More to say, but have to get back to revising my book. Sorry that this is a bit notebookish / sketchy…
Owen Hatherley has an excellent piece on the riots and “urban regeneration” on the Verso website. Here’s a bit:
Look at the looted, torched places, look at what they all have in common. Look at Bristol, a port where you could walk for miles and wonder where its working class had disappeared to, which seems to have been given over completely to post-hippy tourism, ‘subversive’ graffiti, students and shopping. Well, those invisible young, ‘socially excluded’ (how that mealy-mouthed phrase suddenly seems to acquired a certain truth) people arrived in the shiny new Cabot Circus mall and took what they wanted, what they couldn’t afford, what they’d been told time and time again they were worthless without. Look at Woolwich, where the former main employer, the Arsenal, is now a vast development of luxury flats, and where efforts to ameliorate poverty and unemployment centre on a giant Tesco, just opposite the Jobcentre. Look at Peckham, where ‘Bellenden Village’ pretends to be excited by the vibrant desperation of Rye Lane. Look at Liverpool, where council semis rub up against the mall-without-walls of Liverpool One, whose heavy-security streets were claimed by the RIBA to have ‘single-handedly transformed Liverpool’s fortunes’—as if a shopping mall could replace the docks. Look at Croydon, where you can walk along the spotless main street of the central privately owned, privately patrolled Business Improvement District and then suddenly find yourself in the rotting mess around West Croydon station. Look at Manchester’s city centre, the most complete regeneration showpiece, practically walled-off from those who exist outside the ring-road. Look at Salford, where Urban Splash sells terraces gutted and cleared of their working class population, to MediaCity employees with the slogan ‘own your own Coronation Street home’. Look at Nottingham, where private student accommodation looming over council estates features a giant advert promising ‘a plasma screen TV in every room’. Look at Brixton, where Zaha Hadid’s hedge-funded Academy has a disciplinary regime harsher than some prisons, and aims to create little entrepreneurs, little CEOs out of the lamentably unaspirational estate-dwellers. Look at Birmingham’s new Bull Ring, yards away from the scar of no-man’s land separating it from the dilapidated estates and empty light-industrial units of Digbeth and Deritend. This is urban Britain, and though the cuts have made it worse, the damage was done long before.