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dfw, bureaucracy, left sexiness, etc

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Excited to be writing up a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. And even more excited to be able to say that the politics of this unfinished novel are at once incredibly subtle but utterly profound – exactly the right answer to so much that has gone wrong lately and continues to go wrong today. Won’t scoop myself by telling you just how this works, here, but for a quick preview of the sorts of things that I am thinking about, and that I think Wallace was thinking about as he wrote this, let me point you to some old posts. First, if you’re interested, take a look at this one on bureaucracy. Second, here’s the final paragraph of my critique of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and its about bureaucracy:

On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

Anyway, hopefully if you’re interested you’ll see the review one way or another.

A side point,perhaps a controversial one:

Sort of frustrating situation nowadays amongst what we might call the youngish writing left. Here’s the problem: I’m continually tempted to write something longer on bureaucracy. I have a feeling (obviously you can disagree!) that I’m on to something with this line of argument – perhaps even something like an important “rebranding” of some words whose usage allows for a considerable amount of political mayhem to go on ostensibly with the support of the public. If it doesn’t deal with vibrators and porn, or zombie movies and eco-distaster, or moody depressive pop music, or dumbish sci-fi, pubic hair styles, or some sort of (in the extreme case) blinkered souixante-huitardism it doesn’t feel as though there’s a tremendous amount of market space for it. In other words, let’s say (just play along with me for a second) that one has a hunch that she or he has a good answer to some of the current problems and impasses, but that that answer, in the end, is somewhat boring or even utterly unsexy.

More deeply, one might have a secondary sense that the above referenced themes give themselves on to bad political arguments – arguments that seem to me to have lots more in common with the worst trends in the status quo than anything else. (Left feminist works that mostly spend almost all of their energies hating on women, works “against capitalism” that argue – to my eyes – against the same institutions that capitalists would love to destroy, etc…) (Zizek and Badiou, if complexly in the case of the later, do seem like the bad influences that had set a lot of this in motion…) In short, it starts to seem that somehow the instinct or decision to take up “sexy” lines of approach or themes leads to shit arguments… In particular, in almost none of the cases that I’m referencing here is their the slightest hint behind the attitudinizing and easy critique of a path forward, the simplest step to be taken – at least, again, ones that haven’t already been part and parcel of the right’s approach already (per what I say about Capitalist Realism above…)

I’ve heard all the arguments about “sexing up socialism,” and definitely agree that there’s some serious PR work to be done. But somehow, the current atmosphere seems incompatible with going about things the right way. Maybe I’m wrong, being a bit defeatist about things, but it is the sense that I have.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am

10 Responses

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  1. I know, in my case, there always seems to be a passage from Jameson at hand, that while not having all the answers does have those rich and suggestive (and inspiring) sentences. I’m less statist than I once was but it’s hard not to deny the force of this argument at this time. This one’s from “Actually Existing Marxism”, one of my favorites. (I was able recently to write a paper for a nursing class that relied upon another passage from this essay.) It’s collected in Valences which is available in its entirety here: This passage may be found on page 382:

    but at a time when even the welfare state is under attack by the new world market rhetoric, and when people are encouraged to loathe big government and to fantasize about private solutions to social problems, socialists should join with liberals(in the American,centrist sense of the word) to defend big government and to stage their discursive struggle against such attacks. The Welfare State was an achievement; its internal contradictions are those of capitalism itself and not a failure of social and collective concern;at any rate,where it is in the process of being dismantled,it will be important for the Left to seize and articulate the dissatisfactions of ordinary people with the loss of those achievements and that safety net, and not play into the hands of the market rhetoricians. Big government should be a positive slogan; bureaucracy itself needs to be rescued from its stereotypes,and reinvoked in the terms of the service and class commitment it has had at certain heroic moments of bourgeois society(while reminding people that the largest bureaucracies are in any case those of the big corporations).Finally, it is crucial to undercut the use of private or personal analogies—one’s own monthly income and budget, “spending beyond your means,”etc.—for the understanding of national debts and budgets. The problem of paying interest on an enormous national debt is a problem of the world monetary system as a whole, and should be thought of in those terms and analyzed as such.


    April 17, 2011 at 3:59 pm

  2. terrific!


    April 17, 2011 at 4:26 pm

  3. Ever read Bruno Rizzi’s “The Bureaucratization of the World,”? Seems relevant.


    April 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm

  4. Just downloaded it into pdf… Thanks for the tip.


    April 17, 2011 at 6:39 pm

  5. Interesting post, and recently I’ve started to have similar misgivings. I have no problem with anyone writing about zombie movies, crappy pop, lapdancing etc. The problem is when this cult-crit (or punditry) over-reaches into manifesto, with declarations rather than observations. Maybe I’m an old fart, but it seems a fair few of the young and impressionable are taking this as an example of political ‘action’. It isn’t – and like most things, it’s not averse to a fair share of neoliberal impulses, either.


    April 17, 2011 at 11:25 pm

  6. Except, Wallace ended up writing about bureaucracy and accounting *as if* it was a psychiatric institution.


    April 18, 2011 at 7:49 am

  7. W. Kasper,

    I don’t think you’re an old fart – I think you’re pretty close to hitting the nail on the head. I’ve been long preoccupied with trying to see the usefulness of things clearly, i.e. what things are useful for what purposes. I increasingly think it as the responsibility of authors who would be “political” to think through these things clearly themselves. Getting it wrong can actually intensify apathy and the misdirection of energies, as, yes, one can mistake writing / reading (for instance) cult-crit for engagement etc.

    So yeah, sounds like we’re on the same page.


    Well, sure. But actually per the plan of the novel (if we’re talking about The Pale King) psychiatization is actually deployed AGAINST the remnants of bureaucratic service / probity / ideals. They blur together because someone has a scheme to rationalize the service.


    April 18, 2011 at 10:42 am

  8. Yes, but what I mean is that what makes the PK an interesting failure is that despite the change of subject matter, everybody talks like the halfway house characters in IJ. For me, DFW actually wasn’t that good at doing adult characters like he could adolescents.
    I’m certainly interested if you think he’s hit on some kind of political solution but for me it looks a bit too Thomas Frank meets Pynchon meets DFW almost parodying himself by strewing random tax stuff all over the place.


    April 18, 2011 at 1:28 pm

  9. <>

    So these recent trendy(ish) Left(ish) theory critiques of contemporary culture (we’re thinking Zero books, right?) are really just clever new ways to fetishize(or re-fetish?) the commodity and pop culture… could we say in fact they actually promote a sort of rareified consumption, in which a quasi-Marxist aesthetic is reconfigured as a sort of utopian vintage kitsch?


    April 20, 2011 at 8:37 am

    • You’ve said it better – and more concisely – than I could.


      April 20, 2011 at 8:52 am

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