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Amor Mundi: The Problem of the We

The Problem of the We

Omri Boehm turns to Richard Rorty’s 1998 lectures Achieving Our Country for perspective on Mark Lilla’s recent critique of identity politics. Rorty spoke of the “cultural left” that specialized in “what they call the ‘politics of difference’ or ‘of identity’ or ‘of recognition.’ This cultural Left thinks more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed.” Losing interest in labor unions and laborers, the “academic, cultural Left” argues that “the system, and not just the laws, must be changed.” And while the cultural Left labels the system “late capitalism” or, more recently, neo-liberalism, it, as Rorty writes,

“does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decisionmaking. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of the welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements.”

Rorty mirrors Hannah Arendt’s argument about the “theoretical sterility and analytical dullness” of the leftist revolutionary movements during the 1960s. At a time when the institutions of liberal democracy have failed, “revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up.” But the revolutionaries of the Left today can’t pick up the power because they are caught up in obsolete clichés. The question that needs to be asked, Arendt writes, is “how to arrange matters so that the masses, dispossessed by industrial society in capitalist and socialist systems, can regain property.” But she worries that the Left has not asked this question.

For Rorty, the cultural Left has abandoned the dispossessed masses. While it has successfully shed light on racism, sexism, and homophobia and “decreased the amount of sadism in our society” (especially among college graduates), it has turned its back on economic inequality and economic insecurity. The result has been a chasm opening between the urban and suburban cosmopolitan elites and the rest. The successful insist that rich countries share their wealth with the world’s poor; the rest of the people “insist that the primary responsibility of each democratic nation-state is to its own least advantaged citizens.” And here is where Rorty makes his now famous prediction:

“At this point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”

What Boehm understands is that Rorty’s analysis is the backbone of a basic truth in Mark Lilla’s account of identity politics. And yet, Boehm also sees that Lilla’s call for a universalist and nationalist “we” is predicated on an ideal of what unites us as Americans that does not exist. What is needed is what Rorty and Arendt both called for: to think about our present situation. To talk and to listen to each other. To abandon old pieties but also to insist on the hard work of identifying those ideas, beliefs, traditions, and practices that unite us and not only those that differentiate us. What we need, in other words, is not a recognition of the “we the people,” but a new commitment to re-think, re-imagine, and re-make the people into a “we” that is true to the current state of American political, social, and economic life. Boehm pursues this idea by exploring the truths and contradictions that have made Mark Lilla’s attack on identity politics so fraught.

“But if we do take Lilla’s challenge seriously, deeper questions arise about the alternative politics that he offers. The Once and Future Liberal prescribes civic liberalism that seems very much like Rorty’s patriotic variety: there is “no liberal politics,” we are told, “without a sense of we”; the only answer to the consummation of Reaganism through Trump’s demagogy is a recourse to “something that we all share but which has nothing to do with our identities” — this isn’t human nature, but “citizenship”. Undermining the “universal democratic we on which solidarity can be built,” Lilla complains, liberals have been “unmaking rather than making citizens.” It is necessary to return from “me” to “we,” he insists.

Lilla’s attachment to radical we-liberalism becomes perhaps the clearest in his attack on liberals’ “legalistic” approach to politics. “Most foolishly,” he writes, liberals grew “increasingly reliant on the courts to circumvent the legislative process when it failed to deliver what they wanted.” Rather than “building consensus,” they preferred presenting their case as “a matter of absolute legal right.” Working by this method, instead of convincing the American “demos,” the only people liberals had to convince are the “judges” assigned to their case.

This rebuttal of ACLU and its sister organizations is, in fact, covert anti-constitutionalism. Lilla here de facto subscribes to a voluntarist interpretation of liberalism — preferring the will of the American people, the “we,” to the prescribed principles that were supposed to bind it. In this light, when this book speaks of American “national pride,” it prefers the demos collectively respecting the national anthem to the United States Constitution. “We,” Lilla writes at some point, “is where everything begins.”

This latter proposition is the book’s main premise, and it is also its main liability. Because liberalism has replaced universal metaphysics by a non-universal ‘we’, the distinction between identity- and patriotic liberalism has actually become not so sharp. This distinction wasn’t watertight already in Rorty’s time; but it has been finally reduced ad absurdum by the rise of Trump in American politics. If we are to learn anything at all from this absurd, it is that patriotic liberalism is but a species of identity liberalism: not of women, blacks, L.G.B.T or Muslims, but of those who can start the political debate by asserting “we Americans.”

In other words, ‘we’ is not where everything begins; it is where everything ends. Political progress in America has always been achieved through the struggle — even the civil war — over who would utter ‘we’ successfully. And the struggle goes on: insofar as it only has the current “we Americans” to fall back on as anchor, nothing in this patriotic locution could distinguish a progressive sounding “Achieving Our Country” from the reactionary “Make America Great Again.”

Lilla seems to be at least bothered by these complications, for he repeatedly modifies the words ‘citizen’ and ‘we’ by the adjective ‘universal’; and, in two irritated footnotes, he dismisses the question of who counts as a citizen as a “sign of how polluted our political discourse has become.” Polluted or not, these are the questions haunting the book. The reference of the word ‘we’ is never universal; patriotic politics is not cosmopolitan politics. By the same token, ‘universal citizenship’ is a contradiction in terms. In short, liberalism is not humanism: having dissociated truth from politics, it can lay no claim to universality. If Lilla’s promotion of a universal patriotic we is not a noble lie, then it is an attempt to enjoy the fruits of metaphysics without assuming the appropriate responsibilities.”

The Moral End of Politics

Jason Willick argues that the partisan resistance to a solution to legalizing the Dreamers is grounded in a misplaced and illiberal moralizing of politics.

““If you want to keep DACA, here’s a thought,” one conservative tweeter noted wryly in response to the torrent of outrage that met President Trump’s decision to scrap the program, “make a proposal that opponents are willing to compromise on. That’s how politics used to work.”

There is, as Yuval Levin notes, a “huge opening” for such a compromise. Some Congressional Republicans would be willing to codify DACA (which shields unauthorized immigrants who came here as children from deportation) if it was accompanied by certain restrictionist measures. And some Democrats might be willing to vote for more border security or a reduction in less-skilled immigration if it meant that “Dreamers” were given real security.

But anyone who has been watching American politics for the past several years has to be skeptical that any deal along these lines will actually transpire. Because however “politics used to work,” they don’t work that way anymore. Instead of a set of public-spirited representatives bargaining for partial victories, we are now watching maximalist factional leaders performing ideological purity rituals to increase their status within their tribes. The coming fight threatens to damage U.S. institutions even further.

The DACA chaos—from its unilateral inception under President Obama to its twilight without any fix in sight under Trump—isn’t just about immigration. It points to a growing disturbance within liberal politics itself. Understanding the roots of that disturbance can help prevent it from spreading.

“The historic contribution of liberalism,” wrote Daniel Bell in 1955, “was to separate the law from morality.”

In other words, just because something seems morally right doesn’t mean it should be reflected in the law. And just because something is the law doesn’t mean that it is morally right….

The DACA crisis arises out of Americans’ deteriorating ability to separate their own moral views from the law—or to separate the outcomes they desire from the process required to achieve it.”

Public Purpose

K. Sabeel Rahman considers the nature and changing definition of the public good in our time:

“The battles over health care, education, and other goods underway today express a very different view of public goods, one grounded not in economic terms of efficiency and production, but rather in moral and political concepts. In this framework, “public goods” are those essential to enabling human success and well-being. Let’s call this the democratic conception of public goods. It is a democratic conception in the substantive and aspirational sense of “democracy”: these are goods that we owe to one another in a shared democratic society. In turn, this suggests that ensuring equal access to these goods is a matter of public concern and public obligation.

Viewed this way, public goods encompass much more than conventional utilities and infrastructure (such as roads, bridges, and electricity). The category also includes a wider array of “social infrastructure”—those essentials that allow for one’s full potential to be met, ranging from health care and housing to broadband Internet.

Such moral appeals to the importance of basic necessities and the need to provide them publicly and equally are familiar aspirations. But by themselves they have often been politically unpersuasive: skeptics frequently cast these demands as luxuries rather than necessities or argue that they would be too costly to provide publicly. And in an era marked by deep distrust in government, “self-correcting” free markets might seem more likely to provide such goods and services efficiently and competently.

But a democratic conception of public goods entails more than just the aspiration for equal access to basic necessities. It also includes a second, critical claim: that power in the modern economy is exercised through the control, administration, and provision of these very goods. Whether they are public agencies or private firms, providers of goods such as health care exercise control over those dependent on them. Historically this power has been used in ways that create and perpetuate racial and economic injustice. Public goods must be democratic, then, in a second sense: by ensuring the accountability and responsiveness of these providers and protecting beneficiaries of public goods from exploitation.”

Time Marshes On

Elizabeth Rush reports from America’s rotting marshlands:

“A gnarled old pine marks the entrance to the Sprague River Marsh. It is high summer, a short season of riotous green in Maine. But the tree hasn’t taken any cues from the tilting of the planet, the long hours of sunlight, or the sudden warm spike. Its branches extend, empty and bare. This pine must be at least a hundred years old, but as with so many others I saw lining the banks of tidal marshes up and down the coast, too much salt water had too regularly soaked into the ground around the tree’s root system, killing it. On the surface, a single tree might seem inconsequential. But its death is a sign of a much larger transformation—the disintegration of tidal marshes all along the coast.

Because tidal marshes sit exactly at sea level, they are one of the first landscapes to show the effects of accelerated sea-level rise. Sometime during the past half-century or so, this tree’s taproot started to occasionally suck down salt water instead of fresh. It was stunned and stunted at first. Then it stopped growing. The sea kept kneading into the aquifer, storms got stronger and dumped more standing water onto the marsh, and it and so many other elegant old trees all along the coast—from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Gulf of Mexico—started to die.

Twenty-five years ago, hardwoods and pines often thrived alongside our marshy shore. Now not. It is still hard for me to believe that a departure this big began in my lifetime. I’ve encountered so many of these bare and lifeless forms that I have come to think of them as a series of memorials, a supersized Christo installation that spans the entire country from the Louisiana bayou all the way up here to this remote corner of the Gulf of Maine. Together they commemorate the tipping point: the moment the salt water began to move in. And now that sea levels are rising more quickly than they have in the past twenty-eight centuries, an even bigger change is happening: the ground itself has begun to rot.”

In The Nick of Time

Sara Ahmed praises something that feels increasingly inevitable:

“Why snap? A snap is the sound something makes when it breaks. Something snaps because it is under pressure. A snap happens after the pressure has reached a certain point. You can hear the sound of snap, but it is hard to notice pressure unless you are under it. A snap can sound like the start of something. But a snap would only be the start of something because of what we do not notice: the pressure on something that can break something.

When we snap, it might be that we speak in a certain way; we might snap at someone, break a bond with someone. Even this kind of snap can take time to reach. You might be in a relationship with someone who is violent. Relationships that are hard to endure can be hard to leave. You might have been told by a person that you are beneath that person; that you are worth nothing, that you are nothing. But there can be a point, a breaking point, when you can no longer put up with what had previously been endured. Something snaps; you snap. It can seem sudden. A refusal can appear to come out of nowhere. But a refusal comes from somewhere. Perhaps the slow time of bearing can only be ended by a sudden movement. Or perhaps the movement only seems sudden because we do not witness the slower times of bearing. If snap breaks with what came before, snap comes out because of what came before; going back as coming forward. Maybe in snap something or somebody spins off their axis, a revolution as how you no longer revolve around somebody or something.

See how she spins; out of control.”

Violently New

Wyatt Mason offers a searing account of the violent power of the French writer Pierre Michon. Michon is nearly untranslatable because his work is so violently new. “The originality of his work is in his commitment to the reconsideration of such familiar things, and his success in finding forms that admit to the mixedness of the motives of all storytelling.” And yet, Michon has finally found his English translator.

“Through the thirty-four years of his career, Michon has been formally preoccupied with the production of “lives” in the Plutarchian sense, attempts at gathering what is known about a historical figure and contriving a suggestive narrative arrangement of the evidence. Many of Michon’s stories involve figures, not infrequently artists, of some renown: Van Gogh, Goya, Watteau, Piero della Francesca, Claude Lorrain, Arthur Rimbaud. And yet in each case, the focus of such stories isn’t these notable figures but rather their satellites: models who posed for them, followers, students, disciples, friends and enemies whose histories haven’t been written and indeed, absent any significant data in the historical record, cannot be. Michon adapts the Plutarchian mode to memorialize obscure figures who might, as the story revolves, offer rarer views of the planet they orbit. As a result, though Michon’s method originates in and often relies on research, the events of his texts are largely invented.2

Many writers have produced fictions inspired by history. What is notable about Michon’s use of history is how wholly he has managed to make it submit to his larger concern: how a particular kind of violence, a uniformly male violence, an animal sexual urge to seize the world and have it submit to its will, is the source of both human cruelty and artistic creativity. “The sex-instinct,” as Ford Madox Ford called it in The Good Soldier, is of course a commonplace in fiction, the way in which desire complicates our social sphere. But Michon’s preoccupation with male desire, and his documentation of the male will to claim, take, and make, are unique in my reading experience. Michel Houellebecq, Michon’s immediate contemporary, has a similar preoccupation with sex and maleness, something one could say of Philip Roth, too, or, in his own way, of David Foster Wallace.

Michon’s monomaniacal focus on the male drive, its yields and its wastes, has a nihilism more like Cormac McCarthy’s vision of male action, its routine horrors, their biological basis, their inevitability. But whereas McCarthy, particularly in his early books, doesn’t, as Guy Davenport noticed, “waste a single word on his characters’ thoughts…he describes what they do and records their speech,” Michon is intimately interested in the psychology of his men. Though he does not, for the most part, exhibit similar curiosity about female psychology or experience, in Michon this always feels like a tactical choice, one that is part of the revelation of his male characters’ limitedness, and not an expression of the limit of the author’s imaginative powers (a limit one often encounters in Houellebecq’s fiction, where simplistic ideas of women predominate). As such, Michon’s stories come out as neither for nor against their depredations. Rather, like a good historian, he documents what is, to the end that we might acknowledge our antecedents, our patrimony: that we are, as a culture, descended from that violence, not merely in the obvious arenas of power where a fist wields a sword but at the culture’s so-called high end where hands manipulate paint and language.”

Romancing Austen

Bill Deresiewicz has written extensively on Jane Austen and has had to defend himself for caring about an author who is typically the province of women. Why is Austen so claimed by women and off limits for men? Deresiewicz argues that it is in part because Austen has been domesticated and romanticized.

“But why Jane Austen, of all female authors? Why is she the one we so identify not with femaleness but with femininity? The answer goes, I believe, to both the way her novels are constructed and the way they’ve been received. That is, to the nature of Austen’s world in both senses: the world of her characters and the world of her readers, the world she made in her work and the world, the community, we’ve made around it.

Compare Jane Austen’s novels with those of Eliot or Woolf or Charlotte or Emily Brontë and you find that hers are centered, far more than the others’, on feminized spaces. Which means, to start with, on domestic ones. Such environments are not necessarily feminine—think of Wuthering Heights—but in Austen, they almost invariably are: the space that the heroine rules in Emma, the one from which Mr. Bennet withdraws in Pride and Prejudice,and so forth. The activities that happen there—tea, conversation, musical performance, needlework—are female ones, as well.

But Austen’s feminine spaces are also those created between women. Marriage, the establishment of a relationship between a man and a woman, is always her endpoint, but what her stories mainly move through are female relationships: between sisters like the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, or the Elliots in Persuasion; between friends like Catherine and Isabella or Catherine and Eleanor in Northanger Abbey; between young women and older ones like the heroine and Mrs. Weston in Emma or Anne and Lady Russell in Persuasion. That’s where most of the conversations happen, where the feelings are worked out. Men may be the topic, but it’s women who do the talking.

Austen’s novels have also been received, especially in recent years, as feminine in a more stereotypical sense: as romance novels in the contemporary meaning of the term, chick lit in its purest form. The movies do this, and so does the fan fiction. But her stories aren’t primarily about romance. Love comes only at the end—her heroines must grow up first—and when it does, it doesn’t look like Cupid’s arrow. Love, for Austen, is a slow outgrowth of friendship. It’s something you have to prepare yourself for, not something that magically happens to you.

But the movies—the major way that people are exposed to Austen’s work today, and certainly the leading factor in creating her contemporary image—never stand for that. She is always Brontëized, always turned into the exponent of grand and unquenchable passion. The music swells, the handsome actors and beautiful actresses—always so much better-looking than the characters are in the books—lock lips with hungry urgency. So what’s scrubbed from her stories is not only everything else they’re about, but Austen’s own violations of gender performance. Jane Austen, as anyone who has read the novels (and still more, the letters) knows, was not a good girl. She was cool, sharp, sometimes bawdy, sometimes cruel. Her novels can be gloomy, even sour. In her own life, she chose art over marriage. Yet all this has been airbrushed from the picture.”


Merve Emre takes stock of the state of the personal essay:

“For a certain breed of personal essayist at work today, there exists a necessary and desirable trade-off between aesthetic clarity and moral complexity; a bargain premised on the depressing notion that words are always insufficient to the task at hand and so we may as well stop trying to choose the clearest or most precise ones. The adjective that best captures the conditions of this bargain is messy. Messy feelings, messy reality, messy relationships, the messy unfiltered stuff of life; the personal essayist evacuates all in one, big messy outpouring of repurposed clichés about love and life and pain and joy and men and women and whatever other themes readers of these essayists are, by now, primed to receive as universal human concerns. “Style is character,” Joan Didion proclaimed in her 1979 essay collection The White Album. However imprecise this statement of equivalence may be, one suspects that it has been thoroughly internalized by personal essayists today who elide aesthetic judgments—judgments about the formal or stylistic features of prose—with ethical and subjective ones that assess the character of the human being who would produce such prose.

The eager transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical is not new; nor is criticism of the personal essay’s manipulation of its readers (its intimate “grossness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once sniffed). The form has always grappled with the many valences of the term “personal” and the kinds of authorial projections it allows. Taking an unapologetically snobbish tone in her 1905 essay “The Decay of Essay Writing,” Virginia Woolf lamented how the nineteenth-century democratization of literacy had flooded the literary marketplace with personal essays. A new class of writers, blinkered by the “amazing and unclothed egoism” that came from asserting one’s importance through reading and writing, thought nothing of sacrificing “their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox,” Woolf complained. Theirs was a mass demonstration of newly acquired cultural capital over and above any aesthetic or political purpose they may have had for putting pen to paper in the first place. “You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes—the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast in the form of the essay,” Woolf wrote, scolding those middle-class writers who would dare leave their grubby prints on the windowpane of good prose. If one can set aside her disdain, there is a larger point: too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.

If, in the early twentieth century, the “I” of the personal essay bespoke the educated man or woman, then today it inaugurates the mindful one; the subject whose apparently infinite capacity for self-reflexivity trades the precision of language and thought for “the baggy fit of feelings before they’ve found their purpose” (Chew-Bose again). Yet the shamelessness with which the bargain is brokered these days can leave a reader feeling like something cheap and tawdry is at work: a shortcut hacked through the dense thicket of form and feeling. More than the lack of conviction or the preciousness of prose, it is the peacocking of the author that chafes. What should we make of writing that serves primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to present the author as a more admirably complicated type of human subject than others? It is the literary equivalent of the ill-mannered man who, thinking himself to be very mature, declares, “I may be an asshole, but look how self-aware I am about it.””

Posted on 9 September 2017 | 11:50 pm

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