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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Lukács and the Mockingjay

How important is Katniss Everdeen, really, to the uprising in Panem? Would she count as a “world-historical figure,” according to Georg Lukács?

I don’t really know, because I haven’t read the third book in the “Hunger Games” series, Suzanne Collins’s teen-dystopia trilogy. Every hint and spoiler I’ve heard on the internet leads me to believe it will be “hard” and “violent.” Fans wonder if the violence will even be representable, though I have great faith in Hollywood’s capacity to depict fantasy violence.

Not a mere tactic

Not a mere tactic

But the second movie in the series, Catching Fire (which I will now be SPOILING MASSIVELY), plays some clever tricks with the concept of historical narrative, and with the hackneyed template of individualist Hollywood epic. Our heroine, Katniss, thinks she’s starring in one kind of story, but then finds herself starring in another. (Is genre-mashup the way we imagine revolution nowadays?) The plot of Catching Fire first seems like a tired retread of the first movie (The Hunger Games), except that this time the Games are set up specifically to neutralize Katniss, who became a symbol of forbidden hope after forcing the Gamemakers to change the rules. In the first movie, her televised mourning for fellow tribute Rue (a young African-American girl) set off a wave of public anger—though in the second movie she is mostly too cowed to rebel. Katniss is sent back into the arena as part of a “Quarter Quell,” in which the victors of previous Games are pitted against each other.

When the first movie came out in 2012, everyone found their own allegory in it. Conservatives saw a rebellion by the Real America against out-of-touch Big Government, like the Tea Party. Liberals took it as a fortuitous mirror of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protests against the capture of democracy by Big Money. For me, the most powerful part of the story was the despair of the young people trapped by rules they didn’t make. Did this reflect the death of the American dream, since young people in “Generation Screwed” have to carry the twin burdens of debt and falling expectations? Or maybe teens just like dystopias because they dramatize the painful individuation of growing up.

Accidental symbol

This is just an accident

Catching Fire throws an interesting kink into the Katniss-as-rebel-heroine narrative. We know that Katniss only wants to survive, and her prime loyalty is to her family. In the first movie, the sacrificial moment in which Katniss volunteered as tribute to save her innocent sister Prim was heroic, but not motivated by any larger political purpose. Katniss brings the same individualist family-first ethos to this movie, but the game has changed: her whole society is now organizing around a more collective strategy. Katniss here is like Rick at the beginning of Casablanca, a lone wolf who tries to avoid getting swept up in the Resistance. She just happened to be wearing a pin with a mockingjay on it during the first Games, and so the mockingjay (a mutant bird with uncanny powers of mimicry) became the symbol for the Rebellion against Panem. Katniss is now a figure of popular identification: even President Snow’s granddaughter copies Katniss’s braids, saying that “everybody” wears their hair this way now. But she just wants to be left alone.

The weight of the past

Defeat with no honor

It’s easy to identify with a figure of vague rebellion, especially a reluctant and ambivalent one. But I felt that Catching Fire was a little more powerful than the usual celebration of “being yourself” you see in American movies. Maybe this time I felt the weight of American history a little more strongly. Didn’t we once have a revolution for real, with our 13 colonies? And didn’t we ruthlessly crush the uprising of the Confederacy, burning a track through a rebel state?  I got the chills from the hollow vision of the Victor’s Village, with its melancholy Federalist/Civil War/New-Deal era furniture. When President Snow corners Katniss in her library, it feels like he’s in a farmhouse in Appomattox.

Or maybe it’s that more than in the first movie, we’re reminded again and again how spectacle—like the one we’re watching—can be used to crush dissent. Bread and circuses! And romantic fantasy—the hope that one crazy couple can get away from it all, like at the end of Blade Runner—is just pulling the wool over your eyes. “Remember who the real enemy is!” Finnick reminds Katniss, just before they destroy the Quarter Quell arena. I gasped in the theater at that line: “the real enemy”?? You mean winning a rigged neoliberal Survivor-like game is not the best we can hope for? Blogger K-punk enthuses that because of this line, Catching Fire is a truly revolutionary work of art, coming at precisely the right moment.

You shouldn't want this to work out.

You shouldn’t want this to work out.

What’s clear is that the Hunger Games doesn’t fit simply into the Twilight template of one girl torn between the two boys she loves (though that plot is also there). Katniss exploited the popular hunger for romance to survive the first Games, and in this film it’s even clearer that the bond between Katniss and poor Peeta (who really does love her!) is the Capitol’s way of diverting attention from real political oppression. But this implies that insofar as we (the pampered spectators) root for Katniss to find love, we’re being lulled into passivity by the culture industry.

The other plot twist that feels politically powerful is the revelation at the end that Katniss (like us) has been in the dark about the whole Quarter Quell. The other victors had already banded together to concoct a plan to destroy the Games as a signal to the Rebellion, but left her out of it—ostensibly because she’s being watched by Snow, but really because she’s too much of a loner. Unlike Rick in Casablanca, Katniss has not yet figured out that there’s a war on, and that she is in it. She’s only an accidental heroine, just as the mockingjay is an accidental symbol. We completely misread her role: she is not in fact (or not yet) the heroine of an epic.

Jeanie Deans's quest to save her sister

Jeanie Deans’s quest to save her sister

Georg Lukács suggested in The Historical Novel* that the best kinds of historical novel—like the ones by Romantic novelist Walter Scott—don’t focus on the great historical actors. They focus on mediocre, marginal figures like the English squire Waverley in Waverley (1814) or the Scottish lass Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian (1818), who are caught up in larger events. They are forced to reveal their heroism—a heroism latent in all humans—because of the stress of their revolutionary times. But their heroism is intensely context-specific: “Having successfully carried through her aim, Jeanie Deans returns to everyday life, and never again does she experience a similar upsurge in her life to betray the presence of such strengths” (52). The epic, by contrast, focuses on the hero—the king or the warrior—who embodies and maybe transcends historical change. Only in epic is the famous person also the main character of the narrative: “The all-national character of the principal theme of epic … require[s] that the most important person should occupy the central position, while in the historical novel he is necessarily only a minor character” (45). For Lukács, the value of Scott’s novels is to show how history is moved forward unknowingly by large masses of people and not just one or two great men. They’re progressive and implicitly democratic stories, he argues—even if the hero isn’t the one celebrated by history.

So is Katniss the agent of change, or is she just a humble girl (with fantastic archery skills) swept up in a bigger story? Evidence—in this second movie at least—points to the latter. The movie’s last scene, though, depicts Katniss’s face moving from trauma and confusion to anger and resolve, hinting that she’ll take a more active role in events from now on. So probably the third movie will revert to Hollywood archetype and depict a protagonist in more control of her own destiny. If it does, I will feel satisfied—like a Capitol citizen rooting for her favorite—and that will be a little disappointing.

* Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (Boston: Beacon P, 1963)
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Coppola’s Girls, Coppola’s America: Guilty/Not Guilty

It’s hard to watch Sofia Coppola’s 2013 The Bling Ring, which came out on DVD about a month ago, without feeling like you’re at the end of a chain (no, I didn’t say human chain) of recycled celebrity worship. The film tells the story of a group of vapid and glamour-obsessed teens in LA who figure out just how easy it is to break into celebrities’ houses and abscond with their blingiest objects: their antique Rolexes, their Alexander McQueen sunglasses, their Louboutin heels. Rather than covering their tracks, they post appalling selfies on social media, displaying both their intimacy with the celebrities and their rool-breaking teen fearlessness. When they’re caught, they act with a maddening sense of clueless entitlement, asking if they can just give all the stuff back. The teens then become mini-celebs themselves, fawned upon by local media because of their famous victims.

You won't be needing those flip-flops any more

You won’t be needing those flip-flops any more

The kids are mostly horrible. Emma Watson’s character is especially vile, pouting “I want to rob!” in one scene and then, when she’s caught, excusing herself: “I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me.” But the movie gives you no easy position of moral judgment, because it of course replicates the very glamour it criticizes, down to the list of luxury brands thanked in the credits. The movie’s pleasures are the same as the teens’: the supernatural ease of breaking into beautiful homes (it seems no harder than clicking on a link), the pleasure of the stolen glitter and silk, and the fact that they get away with it for so long despite their obvious stupidity. The LA night is soft with marine haze, and celebrity houses in the Hollywood Hills are lit up like transparent gems. Moreover, the real “Bling Ring” teens, fictionalized with different names in the movie, were in some cases let off with probation because (as I learned from the DVD extras) the case’s LAPD detective served as a consultant on Coppola’s film. Simply by watching this movie, you’ve helped pervert justice.

And yet, of course, you can’t really blame kids for growing up in a fantasy-addled society with no sense of moral accountability, a.k.a. America. The movie is clearly a satire, perhaps no better than we deserve, of a society where unfair amounts of riches are lying around for the taking. The kids get off with minimal jail sentences, yet they’re longer (must I say it?) than those served by any of the bankers who caused the 2008 financial crash. Parts of the satire are quite delightful, especially the scenes in which a mother, played by Leslie Mann, attempts to home-school her coke-snorting daughters according to a religion based around the greedy magical thinking of The Secret. The movie’s emotional core, such as it is, is pity for the group’s lone male (Israel Broussard), who yearns for human connection. When he gets adopted by a clique of bad-news party girls, he’s never been happier in his life.

Too young, too beautiful

Too young, too beautiful

Sofia Coppola’s movies about luxury, and the luxurious moods of regret and anomie, are sometimes dismissed—altogether wrongly—as self-indulgent, when in fact they crackle with timely self-awareness. Her 2006 Marie Antoinette is one of the loveliest and most knowing 9/11 allegories of the oughts: for how could you blame the sad pleasure-seeking Queen for the injustice of the ancien régime? She’s guilty—of having enjoyed herself—and yet she’s not guilty, since she was merely the most visible symbol of a whole system of inequality. When America was attacked, we were similarly shocked, and felt like, and were, innocent victims; and yet were we not also guilty of eating cake while others starved? We both were, and were not, guilty of those crimes. The fun-loving Marie Antoinette is punished excessively, and yet she was raised to do exactly what she did, and so had really no way out.

Maybe the bill will never come

Maybe the bill will never come

Casting a naïve young person as an allegory for American decadence is an ambiguous gesture that gets to the heart of what it feels like to live with consumerist blindness, and how we exonerate ourselves from amorphous feelings of guilt. I have mixed feelings about this: I think that in pop culture terms, most of the last decade has been about trying to ignore the consequences of American mistakes at home and abroad by either retreating to a childlike world of wonder, or pretending life is an endless dance party. You can’t charge children for the bills rung up by their parents, can you? Morally you can’t, and yet economically apparently you can. The adults got away without paying, so maybe if young people don’t think about it, and distract themselves with partying, the stolen goods under the bed will just magically go away.

Chartreuse means never having to say you're sorry

Chartreuse means never having to say you’re sorry

The color schemes of Coppola’s movies have charted the evolving moods of baffled, quasi-blameless American overprivilege. Lost in Translation (2003) was rootless, pale, bleached by anxiety; Marie Antoinette was full of delicious pastels and false hope. The Bling Ring goes for neon: the opening credits are chartreuse, and the shiny rolling suitcase that Rebecca steals from Lindsay Lohan and wheels off into the sunset is hot pink. Neon is no longer anxious: it’s shameless, it’s fearless, YOLO. It’s the death of alternative culture, in which youth adopts a pose of alienation from the market: these kids are happy conformists. They’re criminals, and they know it, and they sort of get away with it.

The moral framework of self-loathing in The Bling Ring is both inadequate to the nature of the problem, and a step in a new direction. While the death of Marie Antoinette is tragic, these kids are just corrupt, and the corruption of their culture is not enough of an excuse.  Should they have to pay? Will we have to pay?

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Mood Economy

Here’s a roundtable talk I gave at the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory’s conference at the University of Illinois to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the publication of Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. It’s cross-posted here on the Unit’s Kritik blog, where it was published on September 9.

A few days ago I came across the phrase “mood economy” as a way of describing how “working class youth are privatizing happiness” (the headline of an article in the Boston Globe). “Losing hope of the American Dream,” the headline continues, “a generation hopes for inner strength instead.” Sociology researcher Jennifer Silva, a postdoc at Harvard, has just documented how a whole generation has been locked out of the traditional metrics of success—-graduating from college, getting a job with benefits, marriage—-and is focusing instead on a totally different aspirational vocabulary that can be summarized as “Getting My Shit Together.” Their “definition of adulthood” is now built on “defining and conquering emotional problems, mental illness, family chaos, addiction.” Silva suggests that this focus on the self is not only the result of the pervasive influence of therapeutic language in pop culture, but it’s a response to an environment that literally won’t let them grow up.

Now, participants in a forum dedicated to rethinking Marxism are likely to see this development not as an empowering moment of agency but as a kind of pathetic petty-bourgeois backsliding, a mere symptom of the failure of individualism. But the desires of the working classes have only intermittently included hammering through abstract political tracts. Marxists have historically been better at some moods than others: better at sternness, at criticism, at exhortations to solidarity; less attentive to tears and softness, to depression, to aesthetic delight, to things that are funny. Of the many recent works on political affect, I’ll call attention to two that try to engage with these unpromising affects: Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, which links affect to the experience of precarity, of living in a state of permanent crisis that is no longer confined to a nomadic underclass; and also Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling–-although she is trying to reclaim precisely the kind of left-melancholic affect that Jodi Dean, in our conference readings from The Communist Horizon, would have us put behind us.

Phillip Wegner reminds us that Jameson’s figure of “cognitive mapping” is not a map that can be seen all at once, but a kind of narrative unfolding that helps us make connections between the otherwise reified fragments of our experience. I wonder if there could also be an “affective mapping” of late capitalism: and if there were, if it would be considered less (or perhaps more?) politically useful than the cognitive approach that Marxism has so often privileged. Would it seem regressive? Would it seem infantile?

Marxism has a complex relationship with the figure of “maturity.” The possibility of a Communist future comes always at the wrong time, either too early or too late. Marx was worried that Prussia was historically backward when compared with both French politics and with British industrialism, so it would have to somersault forward to catch up (see my article here). And yet, the time he thought was ripe—-the failed bourgeois revolution of 1848—-turned out to be still agonizingly premature. The working classes are never ready, never quite self-aware enough—-until they’ve sold out for Model Ts and cheap televisions and you’ve missed your opportunity for revolution. Are Marxists too mature, too fixed and rigid to respond to what Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity,” or is the fantasy of utopian revolution an essentially childlike stance compared with the “hard truths” of Realpolitik-y policy wonks? Are we destined to live in a world where, according to Jeff Bezos, “All businesses have to be young forever,” while humans, with their troublesome tendency to age, are already obsolete?

Perhaps Marxists should be more playful in imagining what the future might hold. New collectivisms emerge constantly, especially through the internet, and most of them are bonded by some kind of affect. Could there be a cyber-socialism that wasn’t mainly constructed around the national security state? Can ecological thought make peace with a bureaucracy that fosters and redistributes wealth, or is it committed to a zero-growth world? Can the struggle between free choice and a just society be finally resolved by tweaking the “choice architecture” of public regulation, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler promise-—or is there, as behavioral economics tends to suggest, no such thing as a “rational” economy?

One of the reasons I’m harping on the question of affect has to do with the problem of foretelling the future. Do you remember—-and this is a cautionary tale—-cyberpunk? Stories like William Gibson’s & Bruce Sterling’s Neuromancer foretold a world of druggie hackers and chilly dames with mirrored sunglasses surgically implanted into their faces. They invented the concept of cyberspace, and they weren’t wrong about the rogue hackers. But nobody saw that with the invention of Web 2.0—-of Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr—-everybody would use all this information technology to send around pictures of kittens. In the battle between punk and cute, cute won the internet. All the futurists were wrong about this basic fact about human nature, now terrifyingly revealed. So perhaps Marxists, who are always wrong about the future—unless, perhaps, they aren’t—-should integrate temporary wrongness into their theories of history, and permit themselves to experiment. Why should capitalism have all the fun?

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Leonard Woolf: was it luck?

Leonard Woolf’s father was a fine lawyer, but there’s nothing else in his background that would have led you to predict he’d be at the center of so much British artistic and intellectual life of the 20th century. He seems—as I’ve been reading in Victoria Glendinning’s delightful 2006 biography—to have lucked into a series of dazzling connections, and then by dint of strenuous hard work, passionate idealism, and undying loyalty to have made himself essential to everyone around him. First the Cambridge Apostles, then Bloomsbury, then the Fabian Socialists and the Labour Party in its mid-century prime: he was the consummate insider, though, as a Jew, he often felt more like an outsider, casting a wry eye on the snobbery around him.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1912, the year of their marriage

Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1912, the year of their marriage

It was certainly luck that landed him in Trinity College at Cambridge, where he became best friends with the intensely decadent Lytton Strachey. Their endless series of cliques and debates led them to the semi-secret Apostles club, where Woolf’s youthful political idealism was stoked higher by G.E. Moore’s high-minded Principia Ethica. His future wife Virginia Stephen first heard of him, through her brother Thoby, as a man who “trembled all over” because “he was so violent, so savage; he so despised the whole human race.” She later reported that “I was of course inspired with the deepest interest in that violent trembling misanthropic Jew.”

Woolf village_1926Leonard Woolf’s biography impresses so much in part because he seems to have made so many good intellectual choices. As a colonial administrator in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), he did his job to the best of his abilities, but later sided with the Ceylonese against British atrocities and wrote what is apparently the definitive novel of Ceylonese colonialism, The Village in the Jungle. During WWI, he was one of the first writers to consider the topic of international law, writing International Government as a special research project for the Fabian Society; the book was one of the inspirations for the League of Nations and an important foundation document for the discipline of international relations. He avoided both Zionism and Communism, arguing with Kingsley Martin on the board of the New Statesman (but this seems so obvious!) that liquidating dissident Chinese civilians was never justified, even in the interest of “progress.”

And then he happened to marry the most brilliant woman of his generation, a writer still read with pleasure today. He fell in love: she was his “Aspasia,” his Platonic highest good.  And he never fell out of love, despite her affair with Vita Sackville-West and her fragile emotional state. When you read the story of their marriage, you’re no longer sure that he was quite so lucky. The marriage was chaste—doctors said she was too fragile for sex—and soon after their wedding in 1912 she plunged into a suicidal depression, a recurrence of her breakdowns in 1895 and 1904. From then on the relationship focused almost entirely around the flux of her moods, until the struggle finally came to an end with her suicide in 1941. Without Leonard’s support, one feels, the story might have ended earlier.

Leonard Woolf lived for 30 more years in excellent health, so I sort of wanted to know: were there other women after Virginia? There were! As a tragic widower, he attracted several caretaker types (with at least one of whom, the oddly named “Trekkie,” he was in love) and scores upon scores of crackpot lady correspondents, who seem to have figured out algebraically that “This man was married to an unstable lady who was a brilliant artist. I am also a needy unstable lady who feels like a brilliant artist. Therefore to him, only, can I tell the secrets of my heart.” Woolf seems to have been more than kind to this swarm of nutters, one of whom actually flew all the way from LA to Sussex to leave a potted plant, mysteriously, on his porch.

Woolf’s instincts seem to have balanced pretty neatly between ferocious idealism and a ferocious work ethic—and in the 20th century, this instinct for pure excellence could have gone so very wrong. Idealists are not always reasonable (and here, I confess, I’m thinking of a scene from this summer’s movie “The Internship” in which Will Ferrell’s character, a demented mattress salesman, reveals that his neck tattoo reads “MAKE REASONABLE CHOICES” in Sanskrit*). Yet Woolf seems to have avoided the intellectual traps laid thickly around him, from vicious Bloomsbury gossip to Stalinism, by following some inner code based on a Periclean vision of Athenian democracy. All the negative part of his crankiness was expended on the shops in his town, and in complaining about the new innovation of “junk mail.” May we all be so fortunate in figuring out the difference between cranky idealism that’s worth it (say, by marrying a brilliant artist who does, after all, love you) and cranky idealism that will be condemned by history like a bad neck tattoo.

*Shockingly, there is no picture of this neck tattoo on the internet.

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Inability to resist “Hannah Arendt”

I have a feeling that some of my posts will end on a cynical or critical note, so it is really my duty to say when I just can’t resist a movie. Fortunately, extreme emotions of all kinds are permissible on the internet.

My rivals in devotion

My rivals in devotion

There are only two barriers to full identification with the movie Hannah Arendt: the reverent depiction of her adoring American students—whom I see not as viewer surrogates but as rivals in fangirl devotion—and the endlessly significant cigarettes she smokes to indicate grueling moments of thought. But in what other movie can you see Mary McCarthy cheating at pool with Hannah Arendt in an upstate dive bar? Or Arendt facing down the Mossad alone on a deserted road (thereby clearly proving that she’s stronger than the Nazis)? The most famous point of her argument about the 1961 Eichmann trial, in the series of New Yorker articles that became Eichmann in Jerusalem, is that evil might not be Satanic or monstrous, but might be “banal,” a matter of just “following orders.” The movie shows us that heroism too can be a matter of the everyday, as Arendt struggles to speak her understanding of the truth at sometimes great personal cost.  The point of both her argument and the movie’s is a general one, a scary one, and essentially a liberal one: our humanity is gained and lost in the “civil courage” of everyday interactions. It’s basically To Kill a Mockingbird for girls who love philosophy.

Civilization triumphant

Civilization triumphant

There is almost no moment in the movie in which Arendt is not depicted as living toward truth—except, very occasionally, when love might be at stake. Before this movie I’d have said that the most powerful part of Arendt’s biography was her student affair with existentialist philosopher Heidegger, who shockingly abandoned his Jewish students to flirt with Nazism.  The movie hints that she’s working through Heidegger’s moral failure both in her indictment of the SS bureaucrat Eichmann’s “inability to think”—the most damning thing she could possibly have said to Heidegger!—and her determination to maintain the posture of German mandarin better than the master himself.  But the publication of the New Yorker articles, on which the movie focuses, is a deeply moving chapter of her life that I had never really heard before. In the absence of family, Arendt relies heavily on her friends, especially her liberal and Jewish friends from pre-war Germany—and this is just the group that turns on her with the most outrage at what they perceive to be her apology for Eichmann’s behavior. You sense that, at her age, and with a frail husband, the loss of these friends is irreparable. Our historical distance makes it clear that Arendt’s ground-breaking insight on the distributed nature of evil in modern society was by no means an apology for Nazism, so the witch hunt against her comes across as sheer persecution, inflicting tragic and unfair damage. She defends free speech and intellectual integrity most nobly, but the struggle is so exhausting that at movie’s end she spends more and more time lying on her daybed, smoking and sadly thinking about the Holocaust.

Yet somehow this is not a downer. The movie offers more pleasures than the heroine’s courage: it depicts postwar New York as a golden age. Advanced German classes are full to overflowing. Your Upper East Side apartment has a view of the river.* Somewhere, a young Woody Allen is still dating age-appropriate women. Arendt’s character is a feminist hero who doesn’t need a bow and arrow—she’s got her manual typewriter and her string of pearls. You know she will read every single one of those trial transcripts, and slowly (because thinking is HARD!), long after the deadline has passed, will emerge with the clue that breaks the whole case.

Correction: I’ve been informed that Hannah Arendt’s real address was on Riverside Drive, on the Upper WEST Side. The movie lingers lovingly over views of Manhattan’s Upper East Side seen from the river, but perhaps the real object of desire there is the midcentury-modern United Nations Building.

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“True Blood” and the concentration camp

Maybe I’m one of the few people still interested in HBO’s “True Blood,” a show a friend of mine recently dismissed for its “allegorical promiscuity.”  This is a far more devastating point than merely disliking the depiction of actual promiscuity, which is completely part of the show’s reason for being. But on the occasion of tonight’s season finale, I thought a few words on the show’s cult of sexual power might be opportune.

The real villain: an illiberal politician

The real villain: an illiberal politician

Perhaps you remember the show’s original goosing of liberal pieties: the premise that vampires had come out of the closet and were being marginalized (in the Gothic South, of course) just like homosexuals. Civil rights = vampire rights, get it? One can forgive a little allegorical slipperiness—and by which I mean vampires are actually by definition a bunch of killers, unlike (according to the logic) blacks or gays—because vampires are interesting, and you want to see what they do next.  The vampires are still the show’s best part: Bill Compton, the courtly Confederate soldier who will always betray you; Eric Northman, the Viking who combines cold suavity (coded as “European”) with hidden sentimental loyalty; baby-vamp Jessica, who continues her search for love despite her tendency to cry tears of blood; and slutty, snarky Pam, who struts around tossing off bon mots much as I imagine Choire Sicha must do at home.  Honorable mention for fantastic characters has to go to Anna Camp as Sarah Newlin, whose self-deluding mixture of Christian piety and sexual desire started out as a stereotype and who, this season, has become a simple melodramatic villainness—but is always simply radiant and delightful to watch.

The problem is that the show’s rapturous over-investment in the vampire lifestyle makes its politics completely incoherent. Vivid characters making nonsense of plot: this has to be one of the signal aesthetic characteristics of our era of serialized TV and endless movie franchises. The liberal fantasy of integrating vampires into American life is supposedly made possible because they don’t “need” human blood any more, as they can get by with the artificial substitute of bottled “True Blood.” But did anyone tell the Feds about the secret network of Vampire political identity reaching from the “Kings” and “Queens” of various American states up to the secret cultic “Authority”? The show finally got rid of this whole political subculture last season, after implying dimly that the Feds were somehow colluding with The Authority. I say, though, that those vampires can’t be both monarchists and Americans. It’s a simple question of citizenship. Give them rights and let them vote, but make them recant their foreign allegiances.

This season’s “put the vampires in a concentration camp” plot was also notable for its lack of political imagination. As in last season, the conflict between American democracy and foreign kinds of authoritarianism is mediated by the rubric of “corruption”: it’s the South, so (by a kind of associative shorthand) politicians are supposed to be able to get away with violent and selfish things more than they might in say, Maryland. But in fact, even though it is coded as “evil” and “Southern,” the moral panic that leads to the incarceration of all our favorite vampires has a bit of sense in it. For as we’ve known all along, and the show cannot stop from showing us, vampires love to bite and kill humans more than they love anything else, and the fact that some of them are cute is no excuse for that kind of behavior. It needs to be made legally actionable, or else you’ve accepted a population that you’ve removed from the logic of personal responsibility, which undermines the concept of all being equal before the law. I was also sad that there was no legal blowback from the Feds for Louisiana’s clear junking of the Constitution. Where were the head-shaking New Yorker Talk of the Town pieces, the ACLU, the forced busing and integration? Why didn’t any vampires call the FBI? True, there were a couple of Freedom Riders, who were quickly eaten by werewolves.  In general, the show wants to depict American moral panic as an outgrowth of the Southern Gothic, but doesn’t have the time or narrative sophistication to make that political point persuasive.

Camping it up

Camping it up

The larger problem is that the vampires are too damn sexy to be good liberals. In this show, sexual charisma is the ultimate drug, and the vampires’ code of “glamoring,” of centuries-long fealty to one’s “maker,” and to immortal pair-bonding is depicted as powerfully attractive. Vampires never defend their actions in terms of merely human ethics like “loyalty,” “love,” or “protection,” but in fact they demonstrate these virtues over and over again. To be glamored or turned by a vampire (especially Eric) is, according to this show, the highest and most noble ecstasy. Merely liberal fantasies like contracts, equality, and democracy have nowhere near the same appeal.  The show is so enamored of authoritarian sex that it can’t help depicting the vampire concentration camp as an intriguing sex farm of domination and submission. “Fascinating fascism,” as Susan Sontag says! Of course the concentration camp is not really fun, and ingenious torments are devised for the vampires that combine Nazi-style sadism with scientific cruelty—and are meant to depict the moral perversions of Louisiana state government when they really just serve as an excuse for more HBO-style soft porn. When the vampires are released, as (WARNING, MASSIVE SPOILER) they were last week, they take revenge on their captors in predictably bloody ways that leave you with the uneasy feeling that maybe they should be, occasionally, a little bit locked up. The invocation of liberal pieties (we’re against concentration camps!), combined with an aesthetics that romanticizes violent blood bondage, ends up as just not a convincing indictment of either American moral panic or concentration camps. Hannah Arendt would not be pleased.

“True Blood” has tried to keep its political allegory fresh by adding new supernatural subcultures and political conspiracies—and sometimes just ignored the allegory in favor of focusing on character development, which is OK too.  But the concentration camp plot is just so pointlessly troubling that it’s hard to overlook it. In last week’s episode, the apparent humanism of Terry’s funeral, juxtaposed with the bloodsport of killing in the concentration camp, was not a moment of critical reflection: it was an incoherent farrago.  You can have your vampire melodrama, and you can hate concentration camps, but in  “True Blood” you can’t do both at the same time.

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