Fallow time

Between April 15 and early October we get ruby-throated hummingbirds around here, and I’m a little obsessed. I set up the feeder right outside the screen door, so on a lucky day I can look up from breakfast and see them perch, maybe sit, maybe drink for 30 seconds before they startle off. Deranged with glucose they zoom around the yard, fighting and chasing in tiny-brain fear that they won’t get their absolute fill.

Screen Shot 2020-09-04 at 6.12.07 PM
 Maybe next year

In the past, I’ve sometimes identified with these hummingbirds. I run at a bit of a high rev, and I’m usually hungry to do more, to talk more, to learn more! But this past summer I felt more than ever how slow and ponderous I must really look to a hummingbird. I was living on sloth time, staring around the yard maybe processing? … maybe thinking of nothing? Out of the fog I realized I might be trying to cope with three different feelings of temporal displacement; I don’t have the energy to sketch them more than briefly.

1. Personal grief. My beloved Mom passed away suddenly one year ago, before “all this,” and she’d saved every scrap of paper from our busy childhoods. I couldn’t go back to Long Island this spring, and so my siblings had to empty out the house, mailing me giant boxes full of crumbling Trapper Keepers. Binders full of fantasy houses I drew on graph paper, albums full of stamps I loved in detail—they leaped vividly into my awareness though I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought for 40 years. Oh my gosh, I really was obsessed with the furniture section of the 1979 Sears catalog! The structure of trauma, in psychoanalysis, is organized by Nachträglichkeit: by the inversion of time in which suddenly you remember a new past. Maybe it works like that for good, but forgotten memories too.

When the boxes started coming, the Democratic Convention was playing on TV, and it increased my feeling that a sudden gulf had opened up between the past and present—and that the past looked completely different from this traumatized perspective. The candidate’s personal losses merged with the losses of other Americans in a public grief that felt oddly like a respite from a present moment structured around denial. Usually these conventions are based around some slick kind of hope, but instead the personal testimonies that were shared through glitchy zoom connections induced the illusion of intimacy. But this intimacy was based on loss—of loved ones, and of a whole shared way of life that was now beyond recall. There’s a kind of exaltation when you think a whole community is falling into the same temporal abyss where you yourself are plunging.

2. The stupid pandemic. When you’re spending most waking minutes waiting for the next case update, the next tick upward on the graph—and then instantly forgetting those numbers to wait for the next ones—the weeks tend to dissolve away. Every day felt the same, but was reduced to the urgency of now. I tried to read—and got through a little of my vast summer list—but the lure of the new numbers increased my addiction to social media, where everyone was stuck in the same pattern. 

Part of the dread peril of this present moment is our complete uncertainty about the future. On the one hand we’re cut off from the past, and our memory runs back constantly to those moments in early March when we sort of knew we were about to lose “normal,” but didn’t really know. It’s terrifying to see TV shows filmed before covid, with all those happy unmasked celebrations. I watched a Rick Steves episode from 2018 in which he visits a wine bar in Lisbon and has a glass of port with his charcuterie plate, and nearly had a panic attack. (Then instantly I felt a self-pitying sorrow that I’d felt that panic.) What does the future hold: more terror? Even death (oh surely not, not ever!)? A better plan? Worse numbers? Doing nothing is all you can do—is virtuous, in fact—but when the government does nothing, you’re in trouble. The result is a helpless feeling about the damage that time (and malevolent political forces) can inflict.

3. History is unmaking itself. Since the Trump election the nation has been going through a massive reckoning and re-evaluation. Systems that looked functional reveal themselves to be oppressive—and yet fragile, easily appropriated by a pack of well-connected criminals. Heaving up like a broken iceberg, the past looks strangely horrible. Race, especially, turns out to be the constitutive blind spot—and so art and historiography cluster around the opening, creating “The 1619 Project” and Get Out.

The reaction against Trumpism has been strong—it represents, in fact, the vast majority of the country— but we haven’t all voted yet, and the outcome is bizarrely obscure. How can so many people, in a democracy, be so helpless? During the long years when George W. Bush was president, and shrill hysterical blind warfare blared from every TV, I had a slightly embarrassing reaction to a video of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.” It’s a sad little song about young people stuck in a holding pattern, and when I saw the video in a food court I stopped and listened, and—even though John Mayer is embarrassing!—I felt sad. In 2008 the crises came to a head, and we switched Presidents. But we failed to come to terms with what we’d done, and things eventually got worse.

Joyful memories, foundational losses, pandemic quarantine, historical revision—all this leads to stopping, contemplating, and reorienting. If we ever move forward, and bind our wounds, and build …

But when you’re in stasis, it feels like stasis will last forever.

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The Fourth and Fifth Waves

Everyone knows the first 3 waves of feminism: the first was the political fight for women’s suffrage (let’s say 1880-1920), the second was the revival of the struggle around issues of sexual and financial freedom, inspired by the Civil Rights movement (around 1965-1980), and the third is whatever the hell happened after 1980. Various candidates for what counts as Third Wave include the expansion of the white women’s struggle to women of color, a new openness to gay rights, the rise of queer theory, the revaluation of femme fashion choices (but absolutely not in a backlashy way), sex-positive feminism, and the expansion of academic women’s studies to other groups defined by gender, such as masculinity or trans studies.

It’s clear we’re now in a different moment, albeit one that incorporates elements of the previous movements. Wikipedia says we are currently in a “fourth wave,” linked to the revival of open feminist activism around 2012. But I’d like to muddy the waters by suggesting that we have actually experienced two separate waves of feminism since Y2K, and that they are quite different from each other. Both of them are mediated more or less through internet communication: the fourth through blogs and chat rooms, and the fifth through social media.

Here’s my suggestion for what constituted fourth wave feminism—a phenomenon that went under the radar because it was explicitly opposed to academic feminism, and was considered too trivial to be interesting to the national media. Fourth wave feminism was the rise of girls’ fan culture on the internet in response to popular culture.

Hear me out! The early 2000s were an age when the internet rapidly democratized and we found out what people really care about: cat pictures and porn. (It was not, as I mention here, the cyberpunk dystopia our science fiction had prepared us for.) In this cultural turmoil, new communities formed around fan groups, some of the first of which were the communities around TV recap sites. The best of these was probably Television Without Pity, which originated in 1998 as a recap site for the teen drama Dawson’s Creek, and by 2002 had expanded its focus to 30 shows.

Sorry: I didn’t watch this

Eventually, with the rise of prestige TV, recap culture was integrated into the rest of entertainment journalism. (This article by Alison Herman tells the story.) The writing was personal, funny, irreverent, and addictive—it was an entirely new voice, and one that rapidly spread to the rest of the internet. The recappers and their communities identified fiercely with the characters and their bad choices, and “shipped” characters they longed to see in romantic relationships.

From the perspective of academic literary criticism this point of view is a basic category error: as Linda Holmes recalls in Herman’s article, “It’s easy to think ‘they’re getting angry at a fictional character.’” Fiction is not life, and fictional characters are not real people: this is the basic epistemological bracket within which all literary criticism takes place (though this point gets fudged all the time when we talk about the important historical context of works of art). The idea of “caring” about the characters is not totally scorned, but it’s considered a little immature: literary study means also learning to consider the characters’ actions from a more distanced perspective in the context of the work as a whole.

Bella’s refusal to smile—a truly radical gesture

So there was a true gulf here between academic and popular responses to these TV shows, even though the idea that popular culture is worthy of study was not itself controversial in the academy (see Anne Jamison’s 2013 Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over The World.) Both in academia and in entertainment journalism, a bit of lingering sexism also made pop culture aimed at boys (like Star Wars) seem just a little more serious than the “trivial” romances aimed at girls (like Twilight). Imagine Fredric Jameson writing about Twilight! 

But was this really a new wave of feminism, in particular? Many other marginalized groups and voices also seized this opportunity to have an impact—think, for example, of the impact of African-American fan communities on twitter as they discovered they could boost the ratings of Scandal by live-tweeting it on Thursday nights. However, I believe we can’t understand what’s happening in feminism today unless we understand what was happening in the early 2000s outside the academy and traditional understandings of activist politics. This moment changed feminism in 3 ways:

  1. It was highly democratic, inviting in people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, including tweens, teens, and older women. The only requirement was access to a television and some kind of linked computer. You didn’t need a college degree to understand the community’s codes—all you needed was an opinion.
  2. It was based on passionate enthusiasms that were both shared and highly individualistic. This kind of enthusiasm (often for swoony romance genres or dumb reality shows) had been kept at arm’s length by the other waves of feminism, and especially the academic kinds, which were eager to prove that women were not hysterical but in fact deeply learned and professional. It overturned Gen X’s penchant for cynical grownup approaches to culture, and was in harmony with what would become the millennial mood of creative collaboration (with a bit of faux-infantile absurdism). Feminism was about to lose the slight air of elitist snobbery that separated it from girlish play.
  3. It was powerfully inclusive of all sexual orientations and experiences—as long as they were consensual. As I noticed here, it sidestepped a lot of complicated ‘90s gender theory and drew directly on the experience of frustrated desire we associate with the teen years. Shows that showcased this openness to queer experiences—like the optimistic TV series Glee, which premiered in 2009—were rewarded by ardent fan bases.

The fourth wave gave new confidence to teens and young women, helping them feel their voices mattered and that they were understood by networks of people like themselves. At the same time, the relation to celebrity was one of direct and probably unhealthy over-identification, blurring the lines between reality and entertainment just like reality TV was doing, and by extension Trump’s political career would do. A more inclusive popular culture was the goal of the fourth wave; undramatic matters such as abortion access and getting more women to vote were less compelling. Just as the second wave was inspired by the other liberation movements of the ‘60s, the fourth wave shared its essential shape with the fun-loving, infantile, oversharing, and profoundly democratic spirit of the internet in the 2000s.

As for the fifth wave, with its organized political activism, its radical fight against sexual abuse on every level, and its keen distress at the overwhelming pressure of entrenched misogyny—I feel that began precisely in August 2014, around the time the internet began to suck. Trolls and flame wars had been endemic to internet communication since the days of e-mail, but Gamergate was something new. We now can see that the gangs of organized trolls who gleefully doxxed female tech journalists for the crime of being SJWs were inspired by Steve Bannon, who would use the same techniques to catalyze the rise of the alt-right in 2016.

Iconic founding moment of the fifth wave

August 2014 was also the month Beyoncé famously used the then-shocking word “Feminist” as the backdrop to her song “***Flawless” at the VMA’s, as well as the month of the protests in Ferguson, MO that would give rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The moment of the fourth wave, which rejected conventional political action in favor of individual personal testimony, was passing. Everything got darker, more intense, and more horrifying—we were plunged into an information war of which the stakes were very real. The fifth wave looks more like the second wave, and so we recognize it as “feminism,” whereas the fourth wave—which avoided the vocabulary of “opposition” and “fighting” in favor of identificatory feelings and personal stories—didn’t feel like a noticeable shift, even though it radically transformed the way women articulated their experiences.

Two separate waves of feminism within twenty years! Neither of them will reflect every woman’s interests, but together they have massively expanded the ways women can talk about their experiences in public, and inch closer to a recognition of collective possibilities. For those of us who grew up feeling that feminism had basically done its work, the past few decades have been nothing but wake-up call after wake-up call.

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How this ends

How this ends:

a) Mossad activates sleeper agent Rahm Emanuel, who takes out Trump with quiet efficiency; or

b) Rogue elements of the FBI, probably the New York office, flip and reveal both October surprise and Comey firing arranged by a Cypriot mafia associate of Kushner; or

c) Russian Chekists take out Priebus and Kellyanne with polonium-tainted TV bronzer, leave Bannon in place; or

d) Steve Miller flips, takes out Bannon, Mercer, and UKIP while he’s at it; or

e) CIA activates secret dossiers on 5 Republican Senators, who suddenly out of patriotic conscience decide to turn on Trump; or

f) Mutiny against Paul Ryan in the House by just enough imperilled GOP Reps to join with Democrats in impeachment articles; or

g) Melania and Ivanka stage a coup to save i) Barron and ii) The Brand; or

h) Ivanka and Jared persuade him the jig is up; all flee to newly-created posh golf resort somewhere in the Crimea; or

i) The George III Option: Trump declared unfit by reason of insanity and a dissolute Regent is named (probably Jared); or

j) KGB assassins blocked in the Rose Garden by Shaolin monks sent by Chinese oligarchs who want to protect their exclusive path to visas; or

k) Both parties realize that a cabal within the GOP has been totally corrupted by the billionaire donor class, belatedly enact campaign reform; or

l) Billionaires squeezed by the CIA, all forced to flee to Cayman Islands where they live out lives in increasingly dismal FyreFestival scenario; or

m) Both parties realize that the core of irrational white supremacy that Nixon bought so dearly for the GOP must be combatted root and branch, like the “constitutional protections” prohibitions against Nazism in postwar Germany; or

n) Fox News labelled an enemy of the state; whole operation flees to Quebec where it starts dismantling Canada; or

o) Rupert Murdoch revealed as Russian agent, all property seized and forfeited; The Guardian buys Sky; or

p) Evangelicals kill Trump to install their Messiah Pence; blame Obama; theocratic regime installed; or

q) Trump, stressed, overdoses on diet pills and has a stroke; or

r) Twitter taken down by massive hacking wave, during which everyone in the line of succession UP TO ORRIN HATCH disappears; or

s) Trump’s second scoop of ice cream is sprinkled with arsenic by the person who runs Rogue Potus Staff twitter account (who is probably a cook); or

t) Louise Mensch and Jill Stein join to form a ruling cabal of Bad Women; or

u) Obama recalled from retirement by popular acclaim, like Cincinnatus called from the plow; National Unity Government formed; or

v) Inspired by Thankful Flower emoji, massive emotional popular movement drives people into streets in praise of empathy and welcome to strangers; they give ecstasy to the GOP and all the guns melt; or

w) French army troops land on Cape Cod; greeted with grateful tears and flowers; or

x) Russian democracy activist kills Putin, is instantly strangled by Putin’s pet bear; or

y) Malia and Chelsea rob Wall Street, use the money to instate Universal Basic Income, or finally

z) Law is passed that no men may vote; women assume all elective office and country returns to normal.

Originally posted on Facebook on May 15; minor edits. 

Paradise Island




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What would William Morris do?

To understand politics, you must understand history. But how?


Napoleon crowning himself as Emperor

In our dire political moment, we scramble for action in the present, but we also search history for precedent and warning. It was both bitterly meaningful and completely random that November 9, the day after Trump’s election, also happened to be, in the French revolutionary calendar, the “eighteenth Brumaire,” the anniversary of the coup against the Directory that brought Napoleon to supreme power in 1799. When Marx wrote “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” in 1851-2, he mocked Louis Napoleon-Bonaparte’s imitation of his uncle in naming himself emperor and overthrowing the Second Republic. “All great world-historic facts and personages” repeat themselves, he asserted, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  Sounds relevant, sort of! But what exactly is being repeated—is it the George W. Bush presidency or the advent of fascism? Both of those arguably started as farce, too.

Maybe history repeats itself as this kind of slowly-degrading reassemblage of basic component parts. William Morris, though, had a more hopeful view. His patient studies of British medieval history and craftwork, combined with an excited reading of Marxist revolutionary theory during the 1880s, convinced him that the utopian future could be a throwback to medieval village life, but free of all state and feudal power. In this future, which he envisions in his utopian novel News from Nowhere, the violent revolution of the 1950s has destroyed all Britain’s industries and building stock—and the workers, driven by a fierce hunger for freedom, return to a more natural life with an “intense and overweening love for the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells, such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves.” Morris loved art most of all, and despised modern civilization for its ugliness, hopelessness, and spiritual oppression.


Morris’s library: studying the past to imagine the future

Twentieth century communism did not turn out as he had envisioned it. But Morris, who died in 1896, was not entirely an idealist. He travelled the country lecturing to working men’s associations and trade unions, inspiring generations of British Labour Party activists, socialists, and artists, as well as today’s eco-critics. In an 1887 letter to his daughter Jane, he recounted how he spent Easter Monday marching with Newcastle colliers in “a wretched looking country enough,” eventually climbing on a wagon (“If yon man does na stand on the top we canna hear him!”) to speak to the assembled, “a big crowd of eager & serious persons.” His historicist vision was essentially optimistic, envisioning a re-vivification, a re-flowering, a return to a more meaningful way of life. History in his view can burst into the present in beautiful revolutionary form, pushing society into a better and more sustainable set of conditions. Morris did not live to see fascism, either, in which the past bursts into the present in much more Gothic fashion. In fascism, a toxic pastiche of ethnic domination and hyper-modern technology, the pre-modern past has persisted into the current day in the form of das Volk, the originary fantasy body of the nation-state. Its dream world is that of Inquisitions, of dungeons, of the castle with the demented patriarch imprisoning the fair maiden, and of dark political magic that leads to death. When you open your history book, be careful what you wish for.

I adore Morris’s gorgeous neo-medieval patterns, but as a stodgy liberal I probably lean more toward George Bernard Shaw’s solution to the class warfare of the 1880s and ’90s, which was the long, slow attempt to build a welfare state. As part of the Fabian Society, Shaw was also part of a socialist movement toward a better life for the working class, albeit one that renounced revolution in favor of endless policy pamphlets and insider lobbying. Shaw, like Morris, worked hard lecturing and helping hold together a fragile coalition, at one point being elected to office in the municipal position of vestryman for St. Pancras Borough Council. After a decade or two of this kind of thing, in an atmosphere of social conflict and strikes, and by assembling many different coalitions, England was able to build a Labour Party. Unlike Morris, Shaw lived well into the 20th century, and though he never renounced socialism he gradually became disillusioned with some of its Victorian hopes for progress.

The other thing people always say about history (supposedly this is a quote by George Santayana) is that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” But note: the quote does not say that if you do remember the past you are not doomed to repeat it. I would like to believe in a Victorian-style Whig theory of progress, in which bright hopes lead to useful struggle. But maybe we scholars in literary studies have been coasting on the assumption that “always historicizing,” a progressive project to break the spell of false naturalism that disguises power arrangements as “natural” and “common sense” by showing how things used to be different and therefore can be changed, is the only vibrant way that we can engage with the past. Just such a re-thinking has been happening in my little subfield of Victorian studies in the last year or so, inspired by the V21 manifesto with its call for a “strategic presentism.” In response to the manifesto, which set off a furious transatlantic debate, I think there has been a meta-historicist turn in Victorian studies. (Look here for debates from last fall’s V21 conference in Chicago.)


Strawberry Thief–or clever cherry-picking cultural historian

People in the 19th century certainly did about a million different other things with their fantasies of history, and maybe some of them deserve to be emulated as well as critiqued. I’m not saying we can cure history by fantasizing a neo-medieval utopia, but the attempt to cure history through archival work may also be partial. Literature itself, with its uncanny persistence, slides out of history even as you look at it, bearing seeds of both the past and the future within it. Sometimes a Broadway musical can create a community by making (a little bit) free with history as an act of testimony—and sometimes history takes a disorienting turn and becomes unprecedented and virtually un-narratable. Fantasy and history feed into each other, and we will need to study both to keep our bearings.



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The Peculiar Success of Cultural Studies 2.0

The 1990s were a great age of theoretical experiment in American universities—in political theory, sexual theory, media and film theory. If you combined queer theory, postcolonial studies, and pop culture analysis with the lingering 1970s political energy around questions of feminism and African-American studies, you got the fizzy punch of “cultural studies”—a phrase first popularized by a conference at the University of Illinois in 1990, which led to this book. Cultural studies as a field didn’t exist when I entered grad school, but in 1999 I got my first postgraduate job in the field of “humanities and cultural studies.” Cultural studies seemed like the most useful intellectual catch-all ever: it was edgy, it was interdisciplinary, and it could critique absolutely anything, even the conditions of its own production in the university.


Death knell of cultural studies 1.0

However, in the early 2000s the luster of cultural studies dimmed. I have my own reading of this with which you will doubtless disagree—I think Ralph Nader killed it. It turned out that “real” politics still existed, and proliferating endless critique on the left felt a little beside the point in the face of the Realpolitik turn of 2000-3 (the dirty-tricks Bush victory, the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq War). Cultural studies had been very suspicious of the supposed “objectivity” of science, but once official Republican policy was to deny the scientific consensus around human-induced global climate change, it felt more … interesting … somehow, to back the scientists. By 2007 I was telling my grad students to avoid the phrase “transgression,” which sounded dated. Where’s the glory in simply “transgressing boundaries” if the welfare state is dramatically being dismantled, hurricanes are wrecking the South, and American foreign policy is going berserk? The movements that replaced cultural studies in the academy had a more sober, practical mood: book history, archival research, studies of realism in the novel, a tentative embrace of technology and medical history, and (at the crazy edge) interest in the dispersed and barely-perceptible agency of systems, animals, and geological fault lines. Journalists got bored and started looking for their cultural panics elsewhere.

I think it’s safe to say that cultural studies is back, but the new surge is not particularly being driven by the academics who invented it. It’s being revived by the young—while professors are gently steering them toward book history, they’re protesting dramatically about trans rights and racist police killings. Marxism was always a marginal player in cultural studies—since in general (don’t @ me) it prioritized economic issues over secondary contradictions like gender, race, or resource conservation. But after 2008 the left rediscovered Marx, and so the revival of identity politics feels, to my generation, like we’re going back to a battle we already fought, and maybe a diversion of important political energy.

Predictably the revival of cultural studies is being treated by the once-again-so-interested media as a university-based moral panic, with the same horror at “coddled” youth and their demands for a better and cooler society. But cultural studies is now everywhere outside the university—everywhere, in fact, where young people are writing about culture on the internet. Cultural studies escaped its original institutional framework and is now flourishing in the wild. When I teach Victorian pop culture now, I hardly have to bother doing the whole sexuality-race-gender-class analysis, because it seems so intuitively obvious to my Beyoncé-trained undergrads.

Buffy staking

The dawn of cultural studies 2.0

We’re seeing a moment—like the spread of the New Criticism in the ’50s and ’60s—in which a movement originally developed in the ivory tower has trickled down to the high schools—and in this case, has been actively embraced by teens outside school hours. It’s odd to think that these two movements, which seem to have nothing else in common, should have been the ones to spread the most widely outside the university, but they do share one basic precondition. The New Criticism started as a rejection of historical criticism in the name of close reading the ironies and paradoxes of important, complex Romantic and modern poems; it spread because “close reading” can be done in any classroom without library research, and was suitable for the vast expansion of college education after WWII. Cultural studies, too, can be done without expensive research and training—all you need is the Bechdel test. It’s obvious, once you think about it, that girls should be able to kill vampires and bust ghosts, that black teens deserve second chances from the police like white teens, that Asian-American comedians should be on TV more, that lovers should love who they please. The new cultural studies combines the cheapness and accessibility of the New Criticism with the enthusiasm of internet fan culture and the urgency of the fight against political injustice.

Cultural studies has turned out to be, in retrospect, a weirdly thorough success that is influencing the creation and reception of culture everywhere in the world, especially outside the academy. One might even take the omnipresence of cultural studies 2.0 as a sign that research in the humanities, though obscure at the time, ended up having transformative cultural impact. My one grumpy Gen-X request is that, when they hit 30, today’s culture warriors get one of their girl superheroes to pass a law ensuring new mothers something like the paid leave they enjoy everywhere else in the Western world.


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The New Servility

It should surely by now be recognized that the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada marked a crucial moment in American bourgeois self-critique. The casting of Meryl Streep as a Bad Career Woman, and Anne Hathaway as an ingenue, is not in itself particularly groundbreaking. (More interesting is the movie’s announcement of the skinny jeans trend.) What I find unsettlingly prescient about the film is its celebration of the perverse role of the “Assistant,” with its acknowledgement that most work involves necessary humiliation and submission to the will of a superior. On the one hand, the “Assistant” fits the movie’s Bildungsroman plot, with its assumption that a period of youthful apprenticeship is a stadial approach to the Guild of Adult Power. But on the other hand the movie suggests that being an “Assistant” is no mere phase. Everyone who works at Miranda Priestley’s fashion magazine is engaged to some degree in the courtiership of flattering and cultivating power. In short, the movie invites us to identify, at least half the time and only quasi-unwillingly, with the glamour of servitude.

The Devil Wears Prada feels to me like an archetypal movie from the mid-aughts: aware that it’s in a bubble economy, aware that celebrity is fleeting and shallow, and yet trapped in a world where these cultural ephemera have real power. Since the financial crash in 2008, things have gotten a bit darker. In 2011, the Occupy movement popularized the growing divide between “the 1%” and “the 99%,”—a statistic that probably helped Obama win a second term. If you combine that class-consciousness with the ongoing fads of reality TV, celebrity worship, and the ITV/PBS hit “Downton Abbey,” you get “Another Period,” Comedy Central’s wicked depiction of rich and famous parvenus of Newport, Rhode Island in the Gilded Age.

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) - The Walking Dead - Season 4 _ Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMCI think two main things are being skewered by this hilarious show. First of all, it makes fun of reality TV (the pampered heiresses talk to the camera like Real Housewives or Kardashians) as well as “Downton Abbey,” with its uncritical delight in fabulous hats and gowns. Second, and a bit more interestingly, it foregrounds how distressing it is to see American servants be so grovellingly servile. The lingering postfeudal Tory romance of “Downton Abbey,” with its loyal servants and paternal aristocrats, is not a new genre in 20th century British culture (see large parts of the work of  Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, or Vita Sackville-West). But in America, servitude is not supposed to be permanent, much less enjoyable. The servants of “Another Period” collude openly in their own humiliation, inviting their superiors to treat them as monsters and quasi-humans, which they constantly and unthinkingly do. Only Christina Hendricks(!!!)’s character, a maid brutally nicknamed “Chair,” occasionally shows a flash of violent but impotent rebellion. Of course, humiliation is funny, and the heiress daughters (played by the show’s creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome) are creatively vicious, and the supporting cast of comedy all-stars are peerless in their masochism. I particularly enjoyed watching Gandhi and Trotsky get into a fistfight at Mark Twain’s charity luncheon.

It's complicated

It’s complicated

One of the new things about this bitter depiction of American servility to the wealthy, of course, is that it’s white people who are suffering. Both “Another Period” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (in which Kimmy gets a terrible job as a nanny for an infantile trophy wife) emphasize the pains of servility by focusing on white servitude, rather than black servants (or, um, slaves). But these new comedies strip the narrative of inequality of any pretense of upward mobility or moral uplift. The equivalent of the aristocratic paternalism of “Downton Abbey” can probably be found in saccharine tales like Driving Miss Daisy, in which rich whites and poor blacks touchingly learn to get along. But “Kimmy” and “Another Period” convey absolutely no illusions that the people at the top deserve to be there, or that the people at the bottom are learning anything. It’s a sad world in which the dream of meritocracy doesn’t even work for white people.

Transporting the feudal class hierarchy to America, and gleefully exaggerating the distance between the classes—that’s all okay, of course, because we know the past was a time of inequality and shame. But on another level, “Another Period” is much cannier about collapsing the distance between the Gilded Age and the present than “Downton Abbey.” The reality-TV-style editing is a constant reminder that we, too, are fascinated by preening half-celebrities. I don’t really know what to do with this pop culture connection between celebrity worship and deeper social inequality, which may be the new way we work through the arbitrary nature of privilege. The social subjection of “Another Period” is conspicuously feminized and whimsical—as it is in “Kimmy Schmidt,” in which after escaping from 15 years in a bunker, Kimmy must undergo a new subjection to a tyrannical rich lady played by Jane Krakowski. We know that it’s crazy that the 1% have so much power; is depicting that power as feminized the way we acknowledge that it’s wrong?*

What even is this

What even is this

Stop now if you don’t want to read about how this new servility connects to (what I hope is the brief summer political career of) Donald Trump. Jodi Dean has written incisively of Trump’s appeal as a figure of naked plutocracy, freed by his wealth from the dreary necessity of being polite. Dean suggests that Trump’s infantile glory represents a kind of jouissance, a pleasure derived completely from the id. In the Trump campaign, rational political choice collapses into celebrity worship and what I find the very bizarre desire to celebrate the free and wealthy billionaire, completely apart from whether this serves the voter’s own self-interest. My examples of the new servility have so far been drawn from pop culture that only indirectly connects the humbling experience of social inequality to the supposedly rational contract-driven realm of the (masculine) capitalist workplace. But I detected some interesting responses to the New York Times’s recent article exposing the abusive work environment at amazon.com: while many subsequent commenters deplored the pointless degradations of the workplace, others suggested that the workers should be grateful to Amazon for hiring them. No price is too high to pay for this opportunity! Working an 80-hour day for a tech startup (or a tech giant) is not supposed to feel the same as being a personal assistant to a bitchy celebrity, but it’s hard to deny that they both participate in a kind of cult of servitude.


This horse will not save you

This post feels like it’s building up to a big defiant American finale, a call to declare your independence by going back to the land in a Jeep Wrangler. But romanticizing the ideals of pioneer masculinity as a response to fears of decadent social inequality is definitely an escapist cop-out. Sadly, undoing the glamour of plutocratic inequality is probably going to be tedious, uninteresting work.

* The link between femininity and bad economic excess goes back a long way of course: see Laura Brown’s analysis of the ideology of femininity and 18th-century imperial trade in Ends of Empire (1993) and Rachel Bowlby’s survey of women and consumer culture in 19th-century naturalism in Just Looking (1985). I would tentatively suggest that there is something new about using the feeling of servitude to a capricious rich woman as an allegory for plutocracy.

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Toward an Epicurean Scholarly Practice

To be a scholar is to accept certain ascetic practices—this is an economic constraint as well as a voluntary and cultic self-discipline. The economic constraint comes via several forms of artificial scarcity: the shrinking public investment in education, the insistence that more educational transactions be accomplished with less money, the dogma that human experience be subsidized with maximum “efficiency.” The scholar is a heretic who must be punished—he renounces the principle of short-term gain, for either himself or for his bosses—she embodies all the vices (self-indulgence) but none of the virtues (profit) of the luxury product. Like Oliver Twist, she dares to ask for more (more knowledge!) than is decreed sufficient for her vocational needs. Hence no amount of scholarly poverty is really shocking to public opinion.

You want more than your allotted vocational training??

You want more than your allotted vocational training??

There are several strategies for coping with the terrible guilt of wanting to be a scholar within the all-encompassing atmosphere of puritan American anti-intellectualism. Each strategy carries with it its corollary of perverse pleasures, and is guiltily modeled on the habitus of the business world against which we ambivalently posit ourselves. Maniacal productivism is a relatively pro-social strategy, and one to which the structures of professional advancement offer no resistance. The joy of over-caffeination and the soft egotistical glow of feeling busy: how central is this pleasure to every domain of American life! I’m afraid another strategy is political anger, of either the idealistic or the cynical variety. This praxis is always justified, given the large amount of injustice out there, and may even occasionally be helpful—but the risk of exhaustion is real, and it’s just a sad way to be all the time. Obsession-compulsion is another effective scholarly engine: you get to be a geek, you get to be the best in your field, and you get to rev up your motors to the neurotic pitch that proves your utility. If you have no obsession yet, one will be provided for you.

Here is my guilt: I am not really a puritan. It’s only an avid curiosity that’s kept me in the game thus far. So I had mixed feelings about this fascinating conversation between two lovely scholars about veganism (see pages 18-23). In fact it made me sort of panic and want to eat a donut. Yet I think my deeply symptomatic panic is not just food-based (I love meat as well as donuts), but also about the Sisyphean self-discipline of academic work.  When Berlant asked Stein, “What relation do you see between your scholarly pleasures and disciplines, on the one hand, and your incessant appetitive consciousness, on the other?” I got a little sad because the answer was so clear. Choosing veganism is to choose constraint amidst plenty—or maybe to choose constraint as if there were plenty—and so it does not conflict with academia’s already (I would argue) excessive commitment to ascetic ideals.*

Keep writing until you get the donut. Then accept that there is no donut.

Keep writing until you get the donut. Then accept that there is no donut.

How difficult it is, under current conditions, to imagine an alternative scholarly praxis based on Epicureanism. Epicurus was a materialist philosopher of the 4th century BC who called his school “The Garden” and valued friendship and pleasure above all. He got a bad name for vicious overindulgence, whoring and feasting—as Stephen Greenblatt tells it in The Swerve, the Christian fathers saw his philosophy as a “noxious threat” (101)—but in fact he believed that only moderate pleasures were truly reliable in the long run. (Indeed, Seneca reported that Epicurus would offer gruel and water to guests, since peace of mind is the truest pleasure.) He feasted with his friends, he sought to minimize pain, and the memory of these pleasures allowed him to contemplate death cheerfully. As Americans, the idea of moderation is naturally abhorrent to us—it feels as if your potential for true excess, for pushing boundaries, is being left untapped. (The tradition of Epicurus as a discriminating gourmet—that we’re OK with.) Can you imagine the punitive rage that would be evoked, among all classes of society, by the spectacle of scholars failing to be miserable? But the path we tread now, though it seems safe, is also precarious—we invite burn-out and reinforce the solitude of egotism, losing our ability to care for ourselves and others.

Epicureanism gardenI don’t know if I’m ready for full Epicureanism. Withdrawing from political battles, as Epicurus was accused of doing, seems both short-sighted and difficult. Politics can also be a pleasure, as some other Greek probably said. But friendship, self-care, lack of fear, moderation, generosity—without these as possibilities, however utopian, our scholarly praxis risks being merely a reaction to inherited structures of artificial scarcity. Vegans are also welcome at the feast.

*I felt I had to let Jordan Stein respond to my skepticism about the whole vegan lifestyle thing. He ripostes “My hesitation is that you characterize veganism as an asceticism, a doing-without. And that’s not really what it is, but more germanely, not at all how Lauren or I describe it. I for one am a great fan of donuts!” 

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Should comedy be a religion?

Let’s try a thought experiment. What if comedy were a religion?

Instantly theology would get a lot simpler. No need to defend the lifestyles of ancient desert-dwelling zealots, no need to imagine an afterlife or complicated cycles of rebirth, no need to evangelize with the sword when you could simply try to make your audience laugh. For a postmodern subject this idea is super-appealing. To take a potentially serious and tragic question like the meaning of human experience, and treat it lightly or irreverently: isn’t this something we already do well? Our playful and silly works of art are already among our most valued: we defend The Interview against malicious hackers, and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo against murderous terror. Aren’t the terrorists themselves guilty of blasphemy?

Key and Peele: church ladies fighting Satan

Key and Peele: church ladies fighting Satan

The spiritual benefits of Comedyism seem as appealing as the political. Laughter cuts through every spiritual chain—depression, anxiety, isolation, fear. It feels free when you can laugh about something rather than being crushed by it. Laughter can build a community, a communion of the suddenly-surprised. It lights up the brain; it reverses the chain of command; it gives you sympathy with the outsider. Comedy works best when the oppressed mock their oppressors, when fixed gender roles are reversed, when lovers are reunited and the fool becomes a king. Everything wrong is made right for an hour, here in the green world of Arcadia.

But maybe it’s too hasty to imagine that a religion of Comedy would be politically progressive, precisely suited to modern tastes. Satire can make fun of entrenched hierarchies, but it’s just as easily turned to making fun of stupid weirdos who offend against some standard of taste, or mocking anybody with a new idea. And the cruelty! Maybe we are cheating death when we laugh at cruelty, folly, and humiliation—or maybe we just like dumping on losers. Thank Comedy those people aren’t us! There but for the grace of Comedy! And ugh, the gross parts—the shit and the mud and the fart jokes. Lower than that, even—mockery of celebrities, the cheapest laugh.

Saint Mindy, Patroness of Timing

Saint Mindy, Patroness of Timing

Comedy may be liberatory, but it’s not a democracy. There is no equality in comedy. There is a priestly caste: those who can make others laugh. It’s a spiritual gift bestowed absolutely without merit. What is more existentially unfair than being born without a sense of humor? And like other kinds of communities, the Church of Comedy is built (at least a little) around exclusion. Laughter can hurt and divide, while it binds others together—the ones in on the joke. The pain of being laughed at; the pain when no one laughs at your jokes—these are a form of social death. Those who succeed though are briefly Nietzschean supermen: the brave and amazing, for at least ten seconds.

Dearly departed Colbert Persona, pray for us!

Dearly departed Colbert Persona, intercede for us!

Comedy doesn’t get the big movie awards—it’s fleeting, it’s low, it can’t be sold abroad. It’s hard to translate across cultures, and the contemporary references that create instant community can also decay quickly, leaving the joke pointless and uncool. Telling a joke is like playing with fire: one moment you’ve created a fountain of delight, the next you did something wrong and you’re about to get ripped apart on twitter (or worse). You can spend your whole life devoted to it, but with each joke you have to start completely fresh. (“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”) Works and grace don’t always do the trick, so maybe the theology isn’t so simple after all. Fallible, stupid, and yet joyful, comedy is a very human magic.

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We have always been inside: on Peter Sloterdijk’s “In the World Interior of Capital”

INTERIOROFCAPITALThis is the first Sloterdijk I’ve read, though I’ve always been attracted to the title of Critique of Cynical Reason because it’s got the word “cynical” in it. This volume promises a similar iconoclasm: has the critique of grand narratives, centerpiece of post-totalitarian Europe, itself “already hardened into a comfortable meta-grand narrative” (4)? His proposal really is grand: a philosophy of globalization divided into a “history” of crazy risk-taking (“disinhibition”) and Western imperial expansion from 1492-1945, and a “post-history” in which electronic simultaneity and decolonization together create a space of “inhibitions,” instant feedback, and the “obligatory contrition” (10) enforced on nation-states by international courts of law.

Anyone who likes Adorno’s aphorisms will enjoy Sloterdijk’s wordplay, and his habit of connecting seemingly random details into overarching stories: the “theory of the pirate,” the excurses on Jules Verne and Rilke, the idea that if we switch to solar power, the “romanticism of the explosion” will look in retrospect like “energy fascism” (231). It’s a delightful book, with weirdly defamiliarizing observations on every page. The book’s most vivid section is its depiction of the risk-taking world of the first European explorers, and their literally delusional belief in their own success. Mutinies (and depressive, self-critical thoughts) must be violently suppressed: “Had the Portuguese Magellan … not overruled the objections of the next men in command, marooning and executing Spanish nobles along with the other rebels, he would not have made it unmistakably clear to his people what it means to be on an unconditional outward voyage” (82). This relentless and quasi-psychotic forward orientation survives in modern business practices: “the crews on the discovery ships were the first objects of naïve and effective group modelling processes that were redescribed in the present day as ‘corporate identity’ techniques” (81).

Team-building exercise

Team-building exercise

In this stage of globalization, no one can stop the “unleashed visionary energy of the entrepreneur-charlatans. Today, as yesterday, all of these live off their productive errors … Through their auto-hypnotic talents, practical natures manage time and time again to build up empires around themselves from self-deceptions that succeed in the medium term” (83).

Sloterdijk thinks philosophy has underestimated the conflict between the land-bound and the sea-borne in Western thought: to really build your society and economy around ocean navigation, you have to make your culture portable (so explorers beneath foreign skies can still feel like natives of their country of origin), insure everything, speculate constantly, accept that “enlightenment begins at the docks” (87). The medieval universities and the landlocked countries overestimate the importance of nations, of Boden, of dwelling, and they merely look provincial. But Sloterdijk is so persuasive in his slighting of Heideggerian provincialism and his description of the psychotic-entrepreneurial mindset of globalizing Europe that I found the second half of the book, when he describes life inside the giant Crystal Palace of modernity, a little disappointing.

Global "haves"

Global “haves”: freedom, whatever

This Crystal Palace was clearly built by visionary psychotics (though fully insured!), so it’s not clear how life inside got so dull. Sloterdijk’s Crystal Palace is like the spaceship in Wall-E, with its fat entitled humans—though of course far less equitable, since so many people today live outside the world of consumer dream. (Whether the global outsiders are being exploited—whether this economic inequality is in fact necessary to consumer society—isn’t clear.) Inside the dome, modern subjects engage in various security-enhancing projects culminating in the desire to become a global celebrity. Despite the humor here, I’m not a big fan of the implication that modern society is decadent—it flattens out real political gains made in this century by (for example) women, non-European races, and alternate sexualities into mere consumer choices. Ho hum, women can vote now.

If you live in a glass house, you want to throw stones at the glass house. Glass houses are fragile and ridiculous. But what if you think you live in a city instead? Or perhaps a civilization? Maybe civilization is super-violent and unsustainable ecologically, but it’s also been, thus far, the vehicle of all human liberation. I’m looking forward to reading more Sloterdijk: the first volume of Sphären (translated as Bubbles) is already out and the other two are on their way. But is there an apocalyptic death wish in that title, with its suggestion that bubbles gotta pop? What if some of the things in consumer society create genuine pleasure (an argument debated by Mark Fisher and Jodi Dean in Reading Capitalist Realism)? Humans live in society—as Sloterdijk does point out, we cannot survive in the empty void. Maybe humans actually breathe more freely in cities, in connected groups open to the air.

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American Dreams in China: Challenges of the Transnational University

The film American Dreams in China (2013) is a Chinese film about upward mobility that will feel familiar to most Americans. It’s sort of a Horatio Alger story about getting rich, sort of a Great Gatsby tale of disillusionment with traditional forms of success, sort of like The Social Network in its glorification of entrepreneurship.

The interesting difference is that all the aspirants are mainland Chinese, and the great prize is the American university degree, guarded by stone-faced visa officers, impossible vocabulary lists, and treacherous cultural differences that force you to pretend to be open, casual, and practical. It’s fun—and only fair—to see American plots transposed west to new settings, with Americans cast in the villain/mentor roles in which American films have traditionally cast British actors. (Welcome, Benedict Cumberbatch, to a long period of remunerative employment!) The movie has been a big hitAmerican Dreams in China - poster in mainland China.

But, speaking in my incredibly limited (and yet relevant) role as an American university professor, I was disturbed by the movie’s representation of WHY you might want to study in America. The Chinese students—Cheng, Meng, and Wang—are sympathetically differentiated in their motivations. Cheng Dongqing is the son of the poor farmer whose mother went into debt to finance his education, and is tormented by a fear of failure. He never gets his visa approved—though his beautiful girlfriend does, and leaves him. Wang Yang is the sensitive poet, who has an affair with a pretty American named Lucy (who for some reason is studying in the PRC in the ’80s). He doesn’t get a visa either. Meng Xiaojun is the superior one, who gets his visa and his degree, but finds life as a luckless immigrant too hard and humiliating, and returns to China with an enormous chip on his shoulder.

Cheng was searching for the green light

Cheng was searching for the green light

When Meng returns, he finds that Cheng and Wang have teamed up to tutor a new generation of Chinese students in how to beat the TOEFL and the GRE, and win the prize (ironically) that they were denied themselves. Their tutoring company, “New Dream” (loosely based on the Beijing New Oriental and Education and Technology Group), is a phenomenal success, with increasingly large classes of laughing and excited students. The “losers” are now rich! In the movie’s climactic scene, Cheng crushes and impresses the American legal team who are suing him for what appears to be unauthorized use of TOEFL test questions. He has memorized an entire legal book on the plane, from which he can quote passages at random—in order to prove that Chinese students are just great test takers, a stereotype the movie plays with and rejects, but eventually embraces. The outcome of the legal case is unclear, but at least the Chinese businessmen have finally won respect from the unsympathetic (and generally white) bad-parent gatekeepers.

It’s a satisfying B-movie plot. Possibly it’s Chinese propaganda, as this blogger suggests—but B movies are not usually subtle, and I found this one eminently watchable.

For me, the painful part of the film was its replication of a debate currently ripping apart the American university system about its structure and ultimate ends. Is the university system merely about credentialing—is it an empty machine stamping out degrees that certify economic worthiness? Is it about getting a certificate and passing a test, after which “success” will follow? Or is it even remotely still about “something more”: popular access, democracy, citizenship, human plenitude, imagination, creativity, originality, political questioning, the independent search for knowledge and truth? You are laughing scornfully because you’ve read Bourdieu, and The University in Ruins, and you know that American universities are increasingly enchanted by a corporate model that promises short-term gains built around the intellectually-vacant concept of “excellence.” But I’m upset! I still want some of what’s in category B, the part that this movie (for reasons of nationalism and artistic compression) simplifies away. I’m not in this business to scowl & deny my students advancement.

Do NOT trust the dangerous foreigner

When wanting “something more” is just a trap

The structure of national longing depicted in the movie is that Americans have business success (as well as every other kind of success), and the Chinese understandably want a piece of that. But Americans have nationalist inferiorities of our own. Sometimes we get bored with mere business success, and historically we look eastward to Europe for some kind of art and culture we can never have. Henry James is the avatar of our own national discontent: Americans feel obscurely that we are not good enough at artistic subtlety and dark psychology, so: well, have you read Portrait of a Lady? Some of those national dreams of beating Europeans at their own game are embodied in American universities—but these Chinese students ignore the atavistic Eurocentric parts of American universities (a.k.a. the humanities) because they can’t translate those courses into success at home. Poetry (as Wang discovers) does not cross borders easily.

The movie’s Chinese students show that the emotional structure of meritocracy can be international: it leaves you with perpetual longing and self-hatred, whether you feel like an insider or (as more commonly) a parvenu, an immigrant, a racial minority, a sexual minority. There’s a kind of solution for this, and it is to come together and recognize our common needs rather than focus just on our own “success.” (It would have been nice, for instance, if Meng had some sympathy for the waitress who under-tipped him—since they are caught in common structures of blue-collar precarity—rather than simply being offended and rejoicing when he surpasses her.) But of course meritocracy is also about the desire for individual distinction, and that’s pretty much the opposite of wanting to share that hard-won respect with others. It’s easier to be generous when you’re at the top—which is why we need at least the fiction that we get our degrees in order to give something back to society. That counterweight to personal selfishness is not just good for those less fortunate; it provides an essential emotional buffer against the fears of personal inadequacy that can make meritocracy so painful.


… but my secret last name is “Loser.”

Both heartless meritocracy and idealistic scholarship can lead to disappointment and disillusionment. But they’re not completely identical: the idealism of scholarship is ultimately to advance the cause of free inquiry and truth, not just individual success. If the American university loses that idealism and turns into a mere degree-granting machine, we will lose part of our raison d’être, as William James warned. Moreover, an entirely selfish meritocracy is almost too painful to bear; you never stop feeling like a loser. American Dreams in China shows that the desire to rise is a powerful force, and its nationalism is kind of understandable, but its depiction of the motivation for success is ultimately narrow and unsatisfying.

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