Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Have you ever wished you were queer?" (ASA 2011)

“Transforming Liberalism: African-American Fiction of the Postwar Period.”

(Third in a series of reports from the American Studies Association)

John Charles observed that for a long time, African American writers found a sticking point in such terms as The Negro Writer and Negro Literature: such terms were seen to intensify black writers’ cultural marginality and individual anxiety, and they chafed against the labels, especially after Native Son, fearing that white desire for The Negro Novel demanded reproducing tales of Negro subjection. Hurston in “What White Publishers Won’t Print” noted that the two acceptable images of The Negro were the banjo-picking darkie and the grumbling sharecropper; like Baldwin, she saw the obligation to protest as another form of imposition, leaving us “bound, first without, then within, by the nature of our categorization,” to quote his Foucauldian insight on regulatory fictions and “sympathetic discipline.” Hence black authors such as Yerby, Motley, Petry, Hurston, Wright, Baldwin, and several others produced the novel of white life as a form of resistance. Except for Giovanni’s Room, these novels have tended to be ignored by critics. Hughes dismissed them as representing an “urge to whiteness”; Asante called them “decapitated texts.”

Charles pointed out how these authors revitalize the discourse of sympathy previously denied black authors and shift readers’ gaze from black suffering to white domestic crisis. They show how the ideals that underwrite white identity are damaging without reproducing black abjection; they assert black agency over shared themes of sympathy and privacy. Petry’s Country Place depicts a white resort town turned upside-down by a hurricane and invades white private lives, a significant thing, since in The Street blacks experience publicity as a violation and in A Country Place authorial privacy is protected, and the sole black character is spared degradation. The novel shows a white son suffering the deleterious effects of Mother Domination, as his mother, a suffering sick old woman, gradually realized that others have interiority and spends her last days imagining how other people feel. Her will enacts an impulse toward social justice by leaving her estate to the servants, all POC; the son, defending the will against the aghast in-laws, becomes capable of asserting himself after his mother’s death but elects not to perpetuate the tradition of white male domination: he relinquishes the property and with it the possessive investment in whiteness.

David in Giovanni’s Room goes in the other direction, choosing social death to perpetuate a hegemonic idea of white American manhood. And Yerby’s hero in The Foxes of Harrow recants white supremacy in favor of liberal nationalism, all the while perpetuating spectacular Yerbyan misogyny. It’s an intensely ambivalent novel, depicting a longing for the comfort of white supremacy while resenting its effects. In general, the white life novels resist the discursive figurations of white liberal racial discourse by allowing black authors to become the subject, rather than the object, of sympathy.

Mollie Godfrey began with Baldwin’s critique of the protest novel’s message that “black is a terrible color in which to be born.” Irving Howe’s piece elevating Wright over Ellison and Baldwin described the controversy as a debate by and about men: it’s a debate about how to have male agency under emasculating conditions. Ann Petry found a way out in the prospect of productive gender relations, especially in The Narrows.

The critique of objectification in protest literature goes back to the Harlem Renaissance; the debate continues through Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Writing” and through Baldwin’s and Ellison’s critiques of Wright and Myrdal, arguing that the frameworks of liberalism, of sociology, and of Marxism were inadequate to do black American life justice. Wright dismissed Harlem Renaissance artists as sissies: it’s telling that he chided himself for having written a book that bankers’ daughters — not bankers themselves — would cry over. In Wright, agency becomes masculinity. In Baldwin too, there’s a slippage in the rhetoric from discussion of humanity to discussion of manhood. Baldwin sees Wright and Stowe as unjust because they emasculate. Ellison, Baldwin, and Wright are not in a conflict over agency but one about varying attempts to express black agency, not a fight about social determinism. And Petry addressed the problem in “The Novel as Social Criticism” and in The Narrows, which addresses the political responsibilities of the artist. But Howe ignored Petry [I wonder why!].

In The Narrows the Communist photographer flattens the historical and interpersonal complexities, figuring not Baldwin’s argument that protest art dehumanizes people, exactly, but that it humanizes certain people at the expense of others. The newspaper coverage of the interracial affair in the novel is fought as a battle between racist propaganda and sexist propaganda. All of these characters are complicit in each other’s oppression, as Linc says in the novel: “Me, executioner; you, executioner . . . Executioners all, hung from the sour apple tree.” He recognizes the similarities in each execution. Everyone seeks the agency that comes from taking someone else’s agency away. But Abby’s attempt to save Camillo, having recognized their similarities, shows the possibility, even in Linc, of identifying across race and class, and by extension also across gender.

The press in The Narrows reinforces stereotypes in the manner Baldwin decried protest art for doing, but the novel shows that racial and gender stereotypes are placeholders, not reflecting reality and not capable of containing people. The novel is not just about contrasts but about connections. Linc, whose position as a covert writer says something about the novel’s message concerning artists, remarks “When all candles be out, all cats be gray.” The Narrows is capable of advocating agency without advocating the dehumanization of others.

Adam Jernigan remarked that scholars who identify with the sensibilities of Baldwin’s essays frequently distance themselves from his fiction. Gates accuses Baldwin’s fiction of the “Manichean simplicity” that Baldwin found in Stowe and avers that Baldwin was himself afraid that his own criticisms applied to him. Howe offered a similar critique in “Black Boys and Native Sons” and accused Baldwin of promoting Cold War Liberal values. On the right, Albert Murray and others, contrarily, accept Baldwin’s take on the Protest Novel but accuse his fiction of shrillness, while, back on the left, Morris Dickstein and his ilk call Baldwin’s fiction to soft, wishful, and accommodating. Jernigan is not going to defend Baldwin but to discuss how both camps make a sacrificial object of Baldwin’s fiction in the face of Baldwin’s own fidelity to fiction and belief that fiction was what had the capacity to improve race relations.

Isn’t there, Jernigan asks, a certain countersentimentalism to be found in Baldwin, of the sort that Gates denied was there? Baldwin’s aesthetic is, after all, informed by his critique of liberalism, of tolerance, of white liberal views of the black liberatory-integrationist impulse, on the grounds that the liberal view didn’t recognize a) How much whites would have to change and b) How much black life was and had always been central to American society. Baldwin saw how the sanctity of self and home had been expanded in the sentimental novel’s pity and compassion for vulnerable others. He does not post an autonomous or liberal subject; he argued that our own liberation came through, not love, but through the eternal heterogeneity of the self.

In Another Country, the nonsanctity of the self would be taken as the default condition of the human subject. In enacting the risks that go with making oneself available to another, the novel goes directly from the inconclusive scene in which Rufus accuses Leona of adultery to a scene with a very different tenor, moving from the metapragmatic frames of performative force of Rufus and Leona’s interactions to the restrained and focused account of Rufus and Vivaldo’s encounter. In contrast with the earlier confrontation, Baldwin frames the men’s dialogue with speech verbs that have minimum pragmatic value and keeps the account of physical movement small and terse, denying us the cues that tell us what they’re up to and leaving a lot of work to the reader. This scene, then, refutes Gates’s claim that Baldwin always tells and doesn’t show; in fact, Baldwin is able to reopen the question of how characters might feel in the present. These features are what underlay Podhoretz’s defense of the novel and its “banality,” or its “moral” neutrality and manifest Baldwin’s attempt at an aesthetic that could move us beyond the sentimental/moral culture. He is aware that the moral heat Americans bring to such issues is deleterious and hopes he could help to usher in another country, one less preoccupied with guilt and sin.

Tom Perrin, who is currently working on a project about the middlebrow in Hemingway, Eliot, and Highsmith, asks whether the end of The Street is a cry of despair or a call to action. The 1940s was the era of the Social Problem Novel, a novel trying to do progressive politics and wondering under what conditions such a politics might be possible. The middlebrow social novel was criticized from the left and the right: books such as Strange Fruit, Gentlemen’s Agreement, The Harder They Fall, and, later, To Kill a Mockingbird were, to use Sedgwick’s formulation, kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic. Sianne Ngai has written of the novel’s preoccupation with its powerlessness and its consequent ability to theorize powerlessness. To the authors of the “problem novel,” the central problem was not material inequality but prejudice: hence, while the right complains of such a book that it is “a sermon, not a story,” the left complains of its liberalism.

Petry called The Street a problem novel. It’s unapologetically aimed at mainstream readers, it has a swift-moving plot with an emphasis on realism, and, like other middlebrow literature, it is very self-conscious about language and storytelling. Lutie has not been an aspiring writer, so her question at the end, “What possible good has it done to teach people like me to write?” is Petry’s own: presumably, the novel itself is her answer. For decades, The Street has been seen as a naturalistic and futilitarian story; its fans have praised it as an Aristotelian tragedy, a genre which purges spectators of disquiet rather than moving them to action. But more recent critics see in it a critique of determinism. Petry had political aspirations for the novel, believing that all good art is propaganda. Nonetheless, The Street contains a lot about the powerlessness of books and a general tendency toward pessimism about change and agency. Petry’s relationship with the socialist press and the left in general was ambivalent: perhaps the fatalism is part of the novel’s point. But Macklin saw The Street as a Gothic novel calling for government intervention against real urban horrors. Petry’s use of violence, most intensely in Lutie’s vision of all her enemies, individual and institutional, as she commits the murder, juxtaposes the emotional power of the scene over and over with Petry’s theory of society: fiction gives such theories emotional force as it responds to the world with propaganda.

Lawrence Jackson gave a sixteen-minute response/series of questions to the panelists, in the middle of which I had to step out and hit the Men’s Room. When I left, he was saying that The Street was the most heavily didactic of the 1940s protest novels; when I returned, he was saying “Just like Franzen, Chester Himes, Milton Klonsky, and the rest of them.”

John Charles replied to whatever Jackson had said in my absence, that the white life novels help us appreciate how keenly aware black writers were of the racial structure of the liberal public sphere. White writers were unaware of how their whiteness was structuring their access to the debate. The idea of black domestic pathology was used to dismiss black authors as voices that could speak of something other than their own abjection: hence black authors showed they could say other things to and about whites than “stop hurting me.” Yerby was assigned the greatest amount of indexical significance, and held up as proof of the progress of The Race, because he could talk about the Old South just like white folks.

Godfrey has been struggling with how to address the ways in which Baldwin’s fiction is more complicated on gender than Ellison’s. Baldwin’s essays seem to be more masculinist than Go Tell It on the Mountain. Another Country, which came out simultaneously with the Howe/Ellison debate, is all about the process of identification, and there’s more skepticism than in The Narrows about interracial identification. Lawrence Jackson sees Vivaldo as having failed Rufus. Ida demands that Rufus take on some of the consequences of history.

Adam Jernigan: “I agree with everything that’s been said.” Vivaldo fails Rufus, Baldwin presents Vivaldo’s relationship with Ida as contradictory. Another Country is very interested in critiquing white liberalism: Vivaldo is great at projecting the troublesome aspects of himself onto black life; ultimately it’s from blues singers that he learns acceptance of the body. It’s unclear whether Ida opens herself to Vivaldo, as she remains completely opaque to readers.

Petry is also ambivalent about domesticity: in her author bio for Tituba of Salem Village, she wrote, “Ann Petry lives in a little white house with a little white picket fence in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.” Perrin sees middlebrow fiction constructing itself at midcentury via an anxiety of influence vis-à-vis Modernism: it disavows Modernism while itself writing self-consciously about language and metadiscourse. Petry’s relationship with the American Negro Theatre involved something like the middlebrowing of Brecht, importing Leftist ideas about shock without going full Verfremdungs.

Eric Sundquist has analyzed how antiracist novels crossed over into the mainstream, through commentators talking about antiracism and anti-Semitism in the same breath, as in Diana Trilling’s review of Strange Fruit for The Nation, which invoked Laura Z. Hobson, or the myth that Du Bois had reviewed Petry. A question from the audience about the paperback revolution cited Dwight MacDonald’s anxieties over the loss of distinction and remarked that what you lose in cultural capital, while what you gain is a disruption of hierarchy. Baldwin’s anxiety about Another Country’s being published by a paperback book company is well-documented. Perrin pointed out that you couldn’t order specific mass market paperbacks: you called Bantam and ordered in bulk, and you put whatever they sent you on your racks. The history of protest fiction, he noted, is very much the history of the middlebrow.

The World Fantasy Award

Nnedi Okorafor and Karen Joy Fowler are among the winners of this year's World Fantasy Awards. Yay!! Congratulations Nnedi and Karen! And congratulations, also, to Alisa Krasnostein, the publisher of Twelfth Planet Press in Australia, for her Special Award Presentation.

Here's the full slate of winners:

Novel: Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death
Novella: Elizabeth Hand, "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" (Stories: All-New Tales)
Short Story: Joyce Carol Oates, "Fossil-Figures" (Stories: All-New Tales)
Anthology: "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me" (Penguin), edited by Kate Bernheimer & Carmen Gimenez Smith
Collection: "What I Didn't See and Other Stories" by Karen Joy Fowler (Small Beer Press)
Artist: Kinuko Y. Craft
Special Award-Professional: Marc Gascoigne, for Angry Robot
Special Award-Non-professional: Alisa Krasnostein, for Twelfth Planet Press

Jeff VanderMeer reports here, for Omnivoracious.

How could I possibly take this personally???

"A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star." So begins Glen Duncan's New York Times review of Colson Whitehead's Zone One.

Until I read that sentence, I'd thought myself immune to the vitriol that warriors in the stultified Genre War routinely fling at one another. But this opening struck me like a shower of acid in the face. And now I'm a little surprised at myself, for actually having taken it personally-- and surprised that my surprise isn't enough to make me go on reading the rest of the review.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Eleven Pages of Anxiety (ASA 2011)

Panel: “Black Psychoanalysis in the 1950s”

Panel Chair Gwen Bergner explained that scholars have used African American literature and theory to revise psychoanalysis as much as the reverse. Black writers have actively engaged with psychoanalytic thought throughout its history, and in keeping with the conference’s themes, we are going to discuss imagination, transformation, and reparation in black uses of psychoanalysis. Bergner is proud to have been a reviewer for the book manuscripts of all three panelists. She credited Dorothy Stringer with having assembled the panel. Badia Sahar Ahad began by citing the historical objectification of the black female body, which has been seen as a locus of “primitive sexuality” and of what’s a pathological subjectivity by mainstream standards. One medium through which African American women challenged the idea that they were sexually loose and morally bankrupt was the Mental Hygiene movement. Working-class women were attracted to normative ideals in this time, when there were few spaces left for black women to inhabit deviant desires. The periodical literature, study of which was inaugurated by Frances Smith Foster in her work on the importance of popular media, manifests the discourse of the everyday in such genres as the advice column, where psychoanalytic ideas got filtered to the public. Popular media’s banal engagements of these ideas prescribed ways for African American women to be both proper feminine and desiring sexual subjects.

The magazine Tan Confessions, established late in 1950, worked to contain a space for black female sexuality. In its pages, black women were active participants in the culture of therapy. The expression of interiority and intimacy in general for black people has been fraught, and the contradictions therein are evident in Tan Confessions. The magazine contained homemaking coverage alongside steamy expositions of illicit, bizarre, and absurd adventures and alternative sexualities, enacting a quasi-religious impulse to confess. The advice column often employs the language of psychoanalysis, using terms like “inferiority complex” or, worse, “superiority complex,” a problem that damaged black women’s capacity to submit to their husbands. And the magazine was full of stories of transgressive desire.

The term “mental hygiene” was originated in 1898 to name the art of preserving the mind against deleterious influences, through discipline of the intellect and government of the passions. But Tan Confessions shows an ambivalent relationship to the mode of mental hygiene. The magazine, as its readers’ responses emphasizes, makes accessible some alternative narratives previously rendered invisible. Readers sent letters condemning the magazine for having printed “Strange Love,” a tale of a married woman’s affair with a Lesbian. The story gushes with praise for its Lesbian character’s beauty and depicts the natural growth of same-sex desire: the heroine regrets having committed adultery, but the gay sexual attraction is never disavowed. Other stories manifest important women’s issues such as discontent with domestic life and sexuality.

The stories are written to educate women on how to address domestic and sexual dilemmas. In “Do Good Husbands Make Unhappy Wives?” the heroine learns not to be a domineering wife, as psychological texts teach her to come to terms with her “superiority complex.” Her story speaks to the production of therapeutic cultures. The confession periodical appears as a communal vehicle for self-help, wherein shape an engagement with mental hygiene outside the usual institutions of psychoanalysis. The black female subject is presented as an architect of therapeutic communities, fostering intraracial dialogue about black issues. But the punishment for deviance is psychosis. The stories frame sexual and social lives in mid-century psychoanalytic terms, but black women are trying to create subjectivities that ultimately run counter to mental hygienic and psychoanalytic norms

Dorothy Stringer is studying Richard Wright’s post-exilic work. Citing Wright’s vow after Uncle Tom’s Children to write a book so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears, she noted that psychology is the whole theme of “How Bigger Was Born” and that Wright is indebted to Freud’s “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” as well as his own barely-manageable affective flux, evident in his remark about an “act of concentration, of trying to hold within one’s center of attention all of that bewildering array of facts which science, politics, experience, memory, and imagination were urging upon me. And then, while writing, a new and thrilling relationship would spring up under the drive of emotion, coalescing and telescoping alien facts into a known and felt truth."

Wright was very very widely read in psychoanalysis (but not in Lacan). Inventing and controlling and transmitting affect is what writing is for him: it’s how he integrates an analytics of race as bodily reality. Affect, we know from Laplanche and Pontalis, is a diagnostic object which, like physical pain, can’t be repressed. And it lacks a necessary relation to language.Wright was uninterested in mapping sociocultural dynamics. How psychological necessities affect and change the political world. He sought to describe a racialized history of affect. What holds his post-1947 work, and especially the works of his very prolific time after 1951, together? The connection between affect and modernity: what he called “psychological reactions.” He attributed oppression to specific affects, as in his “Never have so few hated and feared so many.”

Savage Holiday was not reviewed at all in the U.S. It lacks any of Wright’s usual topics. In this text, racism shapes subjectivity in the absence of people of color. The “savage” seems initially to be just a figure of speech; but when Erskine Fowler thinks of a “savage,” he has Gothic feelings that are manifested in violent acts. The “primitive” is not primarily used to describe a racist fantasy of another but Fowler himself. Fowler is an insurance executive, in a sense experiencing the disordered affect of the professional-managerial class that Wylie, Mills, Riesman, and others addressed in 1950s discourse. But Wright refuses to consider whiteness therein as neutral or self-constituting. Passages such as “He stripped off his pajamas and loomed naked, his chest covered with a matting of black hair, his genitals all but obscured by a dark forest, his legs rendered spiderlike by their hirsute coating. Nude, Erskine looked anything but pious or Christian” compare Fowler to various grotesque racist fantasy-figures. The filmic and pulp clichés that are central to Wright’s work are generally ignored by Mills and other social commentators. In Native Son, movie monsters and the like are a commentary on Du Boisian double consciousness; in Savage Holiday the reformist critique is absent: the conflict is one of affect versus discourse, primitive versus civilized — and ultimately, Fowler has to turn himself in, because the discourse cannot see him as a criminal.

The crisis in Savage Holiday is a Poesque, cosmic crisis. After the door closes behind Fowler, on that bad morning that leads to his crime, “A fine film of sweat broke out over the skin of his face. Again he grasped the doorknob and strained at it, hoping that his sheer passion for modesty would somehow twist those cold bolts of steel, but the door held and he knew that steel was steel and would not bend. There was no doubt about it; he was locked out, locked out naked in the hallway and at any second one of his neighbors’ doors would open and someone would walk out and find him . . . They’d scream, maybe, if they were women. Good God, what could he do? His face was wet with sweat now.

“He tensed as the faint sound of the elevator door opening downstairs came to him, echoing hollowly up the elevator shaft. Somebody was coming up! Maybe to this floor! He glared about in the sun-flooded hallway, searching for nooks and crannies in which to hide, clutching awkwardly his bundle of Sunday papers. His hairy body, as he glanced down at it, seemed huge and repulsive, like that of a giant; but, when he looked off, his body felt puny, shriveled, like that of a dwarf. And the hallway in which he stood was white, smooth, modern; it held no Gothic recesses, no Victorian curves, no Byzantine incrustations in, or behind which, he could hide.

The elevator was coming up . . . He felt that he was in the spell of a dream; he wanted to shake his head, blink his eyes and rid himself of this nightmare. But he remained hairy, nude, trembling in the morning sun. If that was Mrs. Brownell coming up, she might scream; she’d surely complain, maybe to the police . . . He felt dizzy and his vision blurred.” And it goes on like that for eleven pages of anxiety, the naked-in-public nightmare from which there’s no waking up.

Fowler’s unconscious complicity in his own exposure — he’s pretty clearly aware of the risk he takes stepping out of his door with that breeze blowing — is consistent with the failure of sexual repression. But Wright encourages skepticism of psychoanalysis. His epigraphs group the anthropological Freud, with his totems and fetishes, alongside other unreliable cosmologies. The quote from Job, on the other hand, gives the Bible a special place. The Bible is the working-class text par excellence (recall Wright’s grandmother’s attitude toward it) and constitutes all of Fowler’s library. Wright’s use of Job inverts and parodies the racial history of primitivism: the savage is actually Job, God’s good man. Ultimately, Wright is a very bad Freudian: he’s willing to use psychoanalytic texts in his unresolved bricolage, but there’s no Master Text in Savage Holiday or elsewhere, no key to What It Means. Just the use of distinct, granular units of affect.

Mikko Tuhkanen spoke of his admiration for Leo Bersani and introduced the topic of “James Baldwin and Fascination.” Evidently Bersani’s and Laplanche’s work on how the Enigmatic Signifier calls the subject into desire is relevant to a Baldwinian ethics of otherness. For Baldwin, Protest Novels fail in the task of Art — in dealing with the complexity to which he gives the Nietzschean name “reality.” Like Nietzsche, he insists on the ethical necessity of undoing and being undone. Protest Novels strengthen the categories whose violence they delineate. But accepting the terms of the argument cannot extricate us from the deadly, timeless (and Hegelian) battle of the master and the slave.

Randall Kenan has written on “the strange fascination” Uncle Tom’s Cabin held for the young Baldwin as an unethical relation. Kipling and Proust show us that fascination immobilizes. Lacan and the étade de miroir demonstrate the fascination of the Imaginary, the simultaneous identification with and alienation from one’s gestalt, the semblable. Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves discusses this murderous fascination with the Other and the subject’s libidinal attachment to the Other in a master/slave dialectic: we have also seen recent analyses of Wright in those terms. Go Tell It on the Mountain addresses immobilization in dialectical violence: Elizabeth’s doomed affair with Richard, her fascination with the white cop’s weapons. In what Baldwin calls the “rage in the blood,” the fascinated gaze gets caught by the sight of the Other’s violence and, as in Kipling and elsewhere, it is the fascinated party who gets devoured. For Baldwin, protest artists remain damagingly beholden to their Others, in the thesis/antithesis confrontation he calls “thrust and counterthrust.”

Baldwin narrates his departure from the U.S. as a breaking of the thrall of violent fascination. The mirror scene in “Notes of a Native Son” involves the breaking of the hold of the specular image, of the deadly allure of the Imaginary Other. But Baldwin retains a hunger to unearth racist fantasies — he is fascinated by the consciousness of Bull Connor — and in 1947 writes “the root of our trouble is between their legs.” Neither Baldwin nor psychoanalysis suggests what we may find beyond the dialectic. The dreaming narcissist, the nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus is trying to awake, are mesmerized states which Baldwin wants us to snap out of. In the diasporic imagination, Modernity often figures as a state of involvement with monstrosities. Vivaldo’s awakening is gained at the expense of Ida’s confinement. Baldwin’s breaking of the spell should constitute reality’s becoming: he prefigures the argument for narcissism in Bersani’s rereading of Laplanche.

An audience member asked about the diagnosis offered by “Going to Meet the Man” and what Baldwin offers as the consequences of that revelation — the call to an awakening at the end. Mikko said that’s one of the more Wrightian of Baldwin’s texts, whose pessimism leaves no easy way to break the dialectic. But it also suggests that what Baldwin rejects is ego-psychology and not psychoanalysis itself. An auditor suggested that if there’s a Master Text in the post-exilic Wright it’s Enlightenment thought, and Stringer acknowledged that in Black Power, for example, he’s got whole chapters on how The West Is Superior. Q: Savage Holiday is a book that makes you do certain kinds of ham-fisted psychoanalytic readings. Stringer: And it makes you feel dirty.

An audience member suggested the message that white Westerners are afraid of the moral chaos that’s let loose by Enlightenment thinking and that the black American is better-equipped to deal with Enlightenment thought. Stringer objected, But there are so many references to High Romantic, fairytale, magical texts, jokes about Blake — the whole thing is psychotic. The obsessive method is more like a dialectic that’s become toxic than like a dialectic that’s achieved or achievable. The book that Wright wanted his post-exilic reputation to rest on was probably The Long Dream. Mikko suggested that, as we might infer from Max’s speech, Wright believes in the Light of Reason. And what interests Wright is that psychoanalysis is the undoing of Reason. Descartes and Husserl talk about reason as awakening, while Freud tells Wright that we’re not sure when we’re awake and we’re not sure what the awakening entails. The “I” of Black Power is designed as an untrustworthy narrator.

An audience member asked, What does your work with these writers lead you to think about the utility of psychoanalysis now? Stringer offered a forceful answer that made me wonder how people like her manage to speak so quickly and intelligently while people like me hesitate and stammer and couldn’t answer a question in a complete sentence even under threat of punishment. Something like, “Psychoanalysis has fallen into disrepute in the clinic and in the academy, but its ghosts are everywhere; and its scraps are everywhere: it’s come into bits and the bits have spread out; it’s now something that’s being dismembered and repurposed. So we’re at a point where concerns about its status and authority can be thrown out . . . I know that if I’m going to speak about desire in mid-century black literature, I’m going to use it, and I don’t care about its reputation in that context."

Ahad, as I was trying to take down Stringer’s forceful answer, replied to an audience question by talking of the Negro Projects in the Social Hygiene movement of the 1930s and of the fact that Wright and Ellison along with Wertham started a Mental Hygiene Clinic in Harlem in 1946 and we can read the Case Studies of the many women who went there to be cured of their homosexual desires: there are wonderful remarks therein, such as that of one woman who said, “Maybe my life is just revolutionary.” In founding Tan Confessions, John Johnson was very interested in the politics of black respectability. But many letters to the editor affirmed the deviant behaviors that were included in the magazine as cautionary tales. The behaviors described can become destigmatized through repetition and people seemed relieved by the existence of these stories. Johnson ultimately couldn't take it: he felt guilty having a confession magazine. After a couple of years, the magazine changed to Tan, and by the time it folded in 1955, it was a domesticity magazine.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Archaeology of the Sissy (ASA 2011)

American Studies Association, 20 October 2011. Harry Thomas's talk on a panel entitled "Violent Transformations: Imagining the Gendered Body."

Harry Thomas began his talk, “Amplifying the Paradox: Effeminacy in the Age of AIDS,” with a discussion of how the sissy has been alternately a figure of fascination and horror in our culture. The creation of the Boy Scouts was motivated by sissiphobia, as was the 2008 Lawrence King murder; on the other hand, Liberace was the most successful entertainer of the 1960s, and he’s had many effeminate superstar successors. Now, the term for hybrid bodies that both horrify and fascinate is, of course, “the grotesque.” And the paper will address both the threatening grotesque and the fascinating grotesque.

The sissy as threatening grotesque is featured in Randy Shilts’s nonfiction novel And the Band Played On, in the form of one Gatean Dugas, the alleged “AIDS Patient Zero” who, we are told, deliberately went about spreading HIV in various cities in the Seventies and early Eighties, about whom Shilts makes monstrous claims that invoke misogynist stereotypes. While Douglas Crimp and others have debunked the Dugas myth and discredited the very idea of an AIDS Patient Zero, celebration of Shilts persists. Shilts’s portrait of Dugas incorporates class and gender stereotypes, depicting a bitchy swell from the lower orders (even sissy memoirs are upward-mobility tales) with vindictive/emulative urges toward his betters and a monstrous vanity. In Shilts’s melodrama, Dugas is the victim of bullying whose suffering leads to a need for recognition. Shilts must continually emphasize Dugas’s effeminacy, lest his promiscuity look like a studly virtue. Although Shilts’s book is anti-homophobic, it tends toward the femmephobic and sex-negative. The confrontation outside the American Boy store between Dugas and a butch gay man who tells him to leave and stop infecting people suggests that healthy, all-American masculine gay men can restore the community.

Now, the polarities are reversed in Angels in America: the tough pro-American macho gay is Roy Cohn (and to some extent Joe, who is conspicuously absent from the community — “the liberal Edenic America” — that forms at the end of the play). Kushner’s femmes, far from being villainous, have special and sometimes superhuman abilities. Belize says of Roy Cohn, “A queen can forgive her vanquished foe” and is given the moral triumph of persuading Louis to say Kaddish for the villain: his compassion stands out in the Reagan-era U.S. And of course, Prior’s heroism takes place on an even grander scale. Kushner’s queens are heroes and prophets, the bandagers of wounds and the redeemers of the American Dream. Belize says to Roy Cohn, “I’m your negation.” So effeminate men in Angels in America are not fully-realized characters either. Must effeminate men be superhuman in order to be sympathetic? Thomas ended his talk with an illustrative quote from Sarah Schulman’s Rat Bohemia:

I read in Herve Guilbert's book that Foucault died, not knowing exactly what had hit him. His lover found his handcuffs and whips and couches full of leftover manuscripts on such trifles as the history of socialism. Charles Ludlum was the most profound loss. America doesn't even know what she's missing . . . But what do we do with all the mediocrities who never created anything worth remembering and never would have even if they had lived to be eighty-five? It drives me crazy how quickly the great ones get canonized. Blah-blah-blah is such a terrible loss. Does that mean that the death of one mediocre slob is not as terrible? Do fags have to be geniuses to justify living?

I was struck by how Thomas’s description of Dugas’s character resembled Tom Ripley and how Shilts’s invention of Dugas resembled the fictional character of “Michel Foucault” that James Miller presented in The Passion of Michel Foucault, and how both recalled earlier fantasies of effeminate purveyors of infection, such as Jews. Also I noted that Belize is a bit too much of a Magical Negro. In the Q&A, I asked for a genealogy of American sissiphobia — did it start around Teddy Roosevelt? Thomas was sympathetic to Michael Kimmel’s claim that we have to go back at least to Andrew Jackson’s reinvention of elite American Manhood. But the age of TR and the Boy Scouts was certainly a high water mark for these kinds of anxieties.

When less is more

Freud got some things right. As, for instance, here, when he's talking about Shakespeare's artful characterization (of Richard in Richard III):
It is, however, a subtle economy of art in the poet that he does not permit his hero to give open and complete expression to all his secret motives. By this means he obliges us to supplement them; he engages our intellectual activity, diverts it from critical reflection and keeps us firmly identified with his hero. A bungled in his place would give conscious expression to all that he wishes to reveal to us, and would then find himself confronted by our cool untrammeled intelligence, which would preclude any deepening of the illusion.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fiona Lehn's The Last Letter

Aqueduct Press is pleased to announce the release of The Last Letter, a novella by Fiona Lehn, the latest volume in our Conversation Pieces series.  It's a fascinating tale. On Island SG7, one voracious parasite endangers a protected forest and a small community. But the biologist hired to bring the place into balance is already compromised—by a too-narrow view of her duties, and—increasingly—by a love she cannot ignore.

This is the love letter of Peta Sutton, who struggles to perceive the full complexities of her place in a foreign ecosystem and an extramarital relationship. As the island roils and the parasites seem to drag people's worst fears into being, Peta struggles to forge a peace at the heart of fears that threaten to consume everything.

Here's a taste:

Nearly 25 years ago, in the northwestern region of the New World, on Island SG7, in the month of May, I spoke with you for the first time. I had called a general meeting. Such meetings usually drew 200 people or less and so were held in the pub, where they comfortably adopted the tone of a family squabble. My meeting, however, took place in the school gymnasium at the northern tip of the island, to accommodate the nearly 2500 island inhabitants who attended. They sat in the bleachers that lined the sides of the room. You stood alone against the far wall by the exit and said nothing, watching the proceedings as if observation were your business. In the middle of the gym floor, I clung to the sides of the podium with sweaty palms, trying to emanate an authoritative calm.

“Thank you all for coming,” I said. “This community obviously cares about its forest system.”

“You're damned right we do!” A man's voice shot out from the crowd and echoed about the gym, followed by righteous voices of agreement.

“I've spent the past week in the forest, as you know,” I said, “and I want to share with you what I've learned.”

“We already know—the worms are taking over the entire island!”
More shouts of assent.

“If you would please refrain from commenting until I've finished,” I said, “We'll have time for everyone to share their views.” The crowd quietened. “The web worms and their webs are unsightly,” I said, “but they have done and will do no permanent damage to the forest. This Spring, the web worms will continue to develop through six phases, called instars—during which they will grow and molt, or, shed their skins—until late June when they coccoon. I will destroy any cocoons near ground level and trap moths in early July. In the months that follow, I will destroy all accessible egg masses. This process will significantly reduce the web worm population and give the forest a chance to renew itself. That is the first step to restoring balance to the island's forest system. As well, I will develop a long-term eco-balancing strategy. Until the forest regains balance, it may look strange to you, but I need you to be patient and let me do my job.”

The islanders, a mix of superstitious island-borns and educated, retired imports from the mainland cities, were accustomed to autonomy and immediacy. They wanted predators shipped in, they wanted bug bombs and pesticides. I reminded them that their overuse of pesticides over the past decade was one of the things that had gotten them into this mess in the first place, killing off beneficial insects and losing their web worm predators in the process.

“Then spray the worms,” someone shouted. “If the other organisms or creatures are gone, then we have nothing to lose anymore. Spray everything!”

“Spray them with what?” I said. “After completing my preliminary tests, I can tell you that the web worms have developed a resistance to insecticides, viruses, and funghi. Even the parasites they host have no significant effect upon them. You have bred some very resilient web worms here. So we must control them another way. But this will take more than a season, so again I ask for your patience—”
“We've waited long enough already. Those worms have devoured half the forest.”

“What will they eat when they run out of trees?”


“Our homes?”

Fiona Lehn is a new voice in feminist science fiction, and it's my pleasure to do what I can to make her better known in our field. Her only publication to date is a novella in The Writers of the Future series. Fiona grew up in Stockton California and took a BA in Creative Writing at UC Santa Cruz but now lives as a Canadian citizen in Vancouver, British Columbia. Besides writing fiction, Fiona is also a musician. From 1993 to 2006, she co-produced several CDs of her original songs and performed across the U.S. Of particular interest for this blog's habituees is that from 2007 to 2011, she served on the editorial collective of Room, Canada's oldest feminist literary magazine.

You can purchase The Last Letter here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Reading for a Friday

Today is Ursula Le Le Guin's birthday. Happy birthday, Ursula!

---It's therefore fitting that today's first link is to a description by Ryan Britt of a panel discussion, at the Center for Fiction, on the influence Ursula K. Le Guin has had on the sf/f field. The panel was moderated by David Hartwell and included N.k. Jemison, Michael Swanwick, Ellen Kushner, and John Wray. I was particularly interested to read...
In terms of her influence on the panel’s writing specifically, N.K Jemisin noted that Le Guin made a big impact on rediscovering her love of short stories. Jemisin cited “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a major revelation as the story caused so much “pain, because it’s intended to be a painful story.” Jemisin previously felt she didn’t need nor understand the medium of short fiction, but after some prodding from peers and reading the short fiction of Le Guin, she thinks totally differently.
...because it reminded me of how important Le Guin's short ficton was for me in the 1980s and how for a long while I firmly believed her short fiction superior to her novels. Eventually I decided, perhaps because the generally shared assumption that novels matter more than short fiction began to insidiously erode my conviction that the best short fiction is as powerful and affecting as the best novels, that perhaps I might be wrong. (Not that I'm not used to being alone in my critical judgments...)

---This is a bit old in internet terms, but in case you missed it: Vandana Singh's most recent column for Strange Horizons continues with the second part of her series on "Science, Emotions, and Culture."

Spread/Art Culture has a photo essay by Kisa Lala, "Visions of a Treeless World," that ranges from the Vikings' slash and burn razing of forests to Easter Island to current day Manhattan, offering striking art work along the way.

--In her essay The Balm of Sisterly Consolation: Thoughts on Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho, Abigail Nussbaum wrestles with Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho and finds the young Jane Austen reacting against the labeling problem women writers face now as well as then. Nussbaum notes:
It's a question that crops up again and again, whenever art by, for, or about women is discussed. You see it whenever chick-lit--the term, the publishing category, and the question of who gets classed into it--is discussed, and especially when an author of literary fiction--usually a female one--comments disparagingly on it. These discussions, if they acknowledge that chick-lit is rooted in some deeply problematic assumptions (and that it is equally problematic that women writing about the domestic, such as Austen herself, are assumed to be writing chick-lit, or at least less worthy work than male writers who write about it), will usually fail to admit that the perception of chick-lit as frivolous and shallow is rooted in misogyny, and vice versa. During the discussion of the dwindling ranks of women writing SF, there were several surprisingly negative responses from female bloggers, which were partially explained by their argument that women haven't been driven out of SF but have left it for fantasy and paranormal romance, and that the prioritization of SF is just the flipside of the tendency to discount these genres. But all is not well even within those fields: witness, on the one hand, Stina Leicht complaining about the expectation that a female fantasy writer must be writing paranormal romance, and on the other hand, M.K. Hobson's creation of a moniker for a female-oriented subset of steampunk which she dubs "bustlepunk." And then there's the fact that what is meant by literature for women is often literature for white, middle class, heterosexual, cisnormal women, as discussed in the comments to Kyra Smith's review of a romance novel at Ferretbrain.
---Over at the Nation, Ari Berman weighs in with How the Austerity Class Rules Washington:
In September the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a bipartisan deficit-hawk group based at the New America Foundation, held a high-profile symposium urging the Congressional “supercommittee” to “go big” and approve a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan over the next decade, which is well beyond its $1.2 trillion mandate. The hearing began with an alarming video of top policy-makers describing the national debt as “the most serious threat that this country has ever had” (Alan Simpson) and “a threat to the whole idea of self-government” (Mitch Daniels). If the debt continues to rise, predicted former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, there would be “strikes, riots, who knows what?” A looming fiscal crisis was portrayed as being just around the corner.

The event spotlighted a central paradox in American politics over the past two years: how, in the midst of a massive unemployment crisis—when it’s painfully obvious that not enough jobs are being created and the public overwhelmingly wants policy-makers to focus on creating them—did the deficit emerge as the most pressing issue in the country? And why, when the global evidence clearly indicates that austerity measures will raise unemployment and hinder, not accelerate, growth, do advocates of austerity retain such distinction today?

An explanation can be found in the prominence of an influential and aggressive austerity class—an allegedly centrist coalition of politicians, wonks and pundits who are considered indisputably wise custodians of US economic policy. These “very serious people,” as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wryly dubs them, have achieved what University of California, Berkeley, economist Brad DeLong calls “intellectual hegemony over the course of the debate in Washington, from 2009 until today.”
Berman names some names and takes notes of the deep pockets backing "these very serious people."

---A New Scientist article by Andy Coghln and Debora MacKenzie reports that
An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.

The study's assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts contacted by New Scientist say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.

The idea that a few bankers control a large chunk of the global economy might not seem like news to New York's Occupy Wall Street movement and protesters elsewhere (see photo). But the study, by a trio of complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is the first to go beyond ideology to empirically identify such a network of power. It combines the mathematics long used to model natural systems with comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world's transnational corporations (TNCs).

"Reality is so complex, we must move away from dogma, whether it's conspiracy theories or free-market," says James Glattfelder. "Our analysis is reality-based."

Previous studies have found that a few TNCs own large chunks of the world's economy, but they included only a limited number of companies and omitted indirect ownerships, so could not say how this affected the global economy - whether it made it more or less stable, for instance.

The Zurich team can. From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company's operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.
The image the article provides of interlocking ownerships is awesome. 1318 corporations make up the "core," but a "super-entity" of 147 owned 40% of the total wealth in the network.
John Driffill of the University of London, a macroeconomics expert, says the value of the analysis is not just to see if a small number of people controls the global economy, but rather its insights into economic stability.

Concentration of power is not good or bad in itself, says the Zurich team, but the core's tight interconnections could be. As the world learned in 2008, such networks are unstable. "If one [company] suffers distress," says Glattfelder, "this propagates."

"It's disconcerting to see how connected things really are," agrees George Sugihara of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, a complex systems expert who has advised Deutsche Bank.

Fascinating stuff. The study is to be published in PloS One.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What I read last summer, part 3

This is the third in the series. (Sorry it's taking me so long to get all of these out...) The first can be found here, and the second here.

One of my most enjoyable reads of the summer was Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo. The story spins off from a Senegalese folk tale abot a foolish, gluttonous husband that the book begins with, casting the gluttonous husband's estranged wife Paam (who is a fabulous cook) as its "heroine" (the term the narrator uses to characterize her), in a conflict with Chance, a djobmi ("one of the undying ones"), whose power over probability (mostly referred to as "chaos") has been taken from him and given to Paam. Chance's "shadow" in the world wears an indigo skin, and the redemption in the title refers to Chance's redemption, not Paam's (for Paam is an exemplary human being). Since the narration takes the style of a folk tale, and the narrator adopts the role of storyteller, there are many generalizations about human nature, as well as lessons. Which works fine, though the narrator's recurring defensiveness is a bit irksome. I found this particular mixture of science with fantasy fresh and delightful. The style as a whole is gentle and good-humored, the writing lovely.

Fresh; gentle; entertaining. Recommended without reservation

I've read a lot of work by Jane Gardam, and I was pleased to see Europa bringing out one of her novels, since its editions are so handsome. Oddly enough, though, I didn't enjoy Old Filth as much as I've enjoyed her other books (several of which are collections of short fiction). "Old Filth" refers to Sir Edward Feathers (a name that kept making flash on Angela Carter's wonderful character named "Feathers"). In a set-piece dialogue, one of Old Filth's colleagues remarks about him: "Great advocate, judge and-- bit of a wit. Said to have invented FILTH--Failed In London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap."

This is not Gardam's usual protagonist, and I suppose that's why this novel, of all her novels, has reaped loud critical accolades (and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize). It's also the reason, I suspect, that I was mostly bored by it. The book is a sympathetic portrait of a wealthy, privileged man whose childhood was traumatic and literally unspeakable (until, in advanced old age, he finds it necessary to make a confession of it to a priest). The narrative is discontinuous and jumps back and forth in time-- but never connects any of the dots, and never shows the most important moments of the protagonist's life. The mature Filth is pretty much oblivious to other people, except when he's annoyed by their presence or absence-- and by his dependence on them. He never bothers to learn the name of his devoted housekeeper, whom he calls "Mrs. Er..." (and whom the reader discovers, near the end of the book, has never been married and has been working for him for decades). The younger Filth (like the older one) is a prig and snob. Still, Gardam does get in quite a few good bits, which, along with her nicely economical style, kept me reading.

Recommended for people who enjoy British raj lit fic.

Pathological liars aren't exactly rare on the ground. I suspect that more people than not have had close encounters with at least one. And close encounters with such people usually leave a very bad taste in the mouth, if not a kind of soul-sickness. That's probably the reason they've been depicted so often in fiction. (Jane Austen depicted them brilliantly.) Curiously, in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok characterizes the pathological liar as "quite harmless." That absolutely flummoxes me. I mean, she's a philosopher. I have then to wonder whether she's ever actually encountered one. I suppose this is her reasoning for calling them harmless: "There is an undoubted psychological easing of standards of truthfulness toward those believed to be liars. It is simply a fact, for instance, that one behaves differently toward a trusted associate and toward a devious, aggressive salesman." (134) Bok finds pathological liars so negligible, in fact, that she only brings them into her conversation to ask whether one is justified in lying to a pathological liar. I presume this is because she considers them both "harmless" and irrelevant to a discussion of morality, except insofar as how a moral agent behaves toward them: the point being that pathological liars cannot meaningfully be considered moral agents. (Similarly, children only figure in her book as "deceived persons.")

I unfortunately had the bad luck to have known a pathological liar over a long period of time because he married my mother, who, though usually very smart about people, took literally years to see through him (by which time he'd run through a lot of cash that she had toiled long and hard hour to earn). Basically, he continually told people anecdotes about himself that charmed his current interlocutors, or impressed them, or-- and this is the weirdest part-- intersected in (literally) incredile ways with their own past, long before they'd met him-- thus establishing a kind of fated connection with them. These stories changed every time he told them. But beccause he always believed them while telling them, he never noticed. That's the thing: although he was a big manipulator, the element of conscious calculation was missing. And that was just as well, because he was below average intelligence. At the time I met him, I had a memory like a steel trap. So just a couple of weeks after meeting him, I began to register the constant shifting and altering of details, and the contradictions between stories. (Which was probably why I was the first person in the family to fall out of the spell he had woven over all of us.) Once I tumbled to the falseness of the stories, I began to register other falsenesses-- ones less cunningly concealed and more obvious. I also began to realize that he lied almost constantly, even about trivial, insignificant things without any possible benefit to him. It was as though he had no continuous consciousness, no social or even personal memory at all. In short, I discovered there was no there there-- only a shallow, selfish, attention-hungry core that would do anything to keep people from seeing anything real about himself. (That this caused problems in my relationship with my mother is an understatement. I can't tell you what a relief it was when, after a ridiculous amount of time, other family members fell out of the spell.)

Austen's Mr. Wickham is probably one of the most famous liars in literary history. She doesn't have him lying about everything*, but she does get it right about his believing, absolutely, every lie he tells at the moment he tells it. Which is to say, he doesn't think of himself as duping the people he's lying to. That's a key aspect of pathological liars-- when called on a lie, they'll never admit that it's a lie; if really pushed, they'll insist that you've misremembered exactly what they said, and then come out with an altered version designed to accommodate the contradictions you've raised. I always wondered, when watching that television show about the experts on detecting lying whether "tells" or even changes in voice would ever manifest themselves in pathological liars, since their baseline is lying, and since they really do believe what they're saying. Deliberate, calculating liars work it all out in advance. People who aren't used to telling the truth are always ad-libbing, always living life as improvisational actors. Pathological liars tend to operate in a passive-aggressive mode. (Confrontation is just not their thing.) Conscious habitual liars, though, enjoy confrontation and operate most of the time in an aggressive mode. Lying, for them, is an act of aggression. (I'm not talking, of course, about the many lies most people tell to spare others' feelings. I'm talking about lies that make fools of the deceived [in the liar's estimation, that is] told mainly to prove to the liar how smart they are compared to other people, who "stupidly" (in the liar's estimation) fall for their bullshit more often than not.)

I mentioned that Austen's Wickham doesn't lie about everything (though, as is later revealed, he lies about a lot of things). That could be either because there are pathological liars who don't lie about everything (which would be a clever adaptation, since it would help them keep their interlocutors under the spell for much longer), or because Austen didn't want to spoil her plot, in which Elizabeth needs to be able to fling his "persecution" of Wickham into Darcy's face when he makes his arrogant proposal to her.

All of which is preface to my reaction to reading Justine Larbalestier's YA novel, Liar. It's purportedly narrated by a teenager, who is purportedly female and purportedly black-- and avows herself, from the beginning, to be a liar. This narrator (whom I'll refer to as "she," because that's how she identifies herself to the reader, without ever shifting from that identification) lies frequently-- but knowingly, with calculation. Which means, of course, that she isn't a pathological liar and has no problem keeping truth separate from lie in her own mind. Since she's the narrator, being a deliberate rather than a pathological liar makes her a lot less interesting, because it means that not only do her lies cast no spell on her interlocutors, but she also doesn't believe her own lies. If she did believe her own lies, merely in speaking we'd catch her lying, and there'd be something for the reader to parse. But in fact she changes the stories she tells simply to pull the rug out from under her interlocutor(s) (whom we never learn anything about)-- and, of course, the readers of the novel, who are situated in the place of that mentioned but never specified audience. Every time the narrator does that-- oops, sorry, here's another big lie I've been telling you, the narrator says-- it's like a bitch-slap flicked at the reader. (Remember: lies, for such people, are acts of aggression.) Such people, rather than casting spells, simply alienate people, because no one, even their original families, are able to believe a word they say and far from being charmed by their lies simply turn off after a point. (Either that, or they react to aggressive lies in the way they react to other acts of aggression: fight or flight.) Their friends are always short-term (unless the "friendship" is cynical and the "friends" not interested in having a personal relationship) because the problem with a habitual liar (whether pathological or conscious) is that there's no "there" there.

Habitual liars can of course be written about in fiction when they're described from the outside. But what does it mean to have a narrator who spends the entire narrative telling-- and then retracting-- one lie after another, and no other narrative voice for reference?

What it meant, for me, was after a point no longer being able to hear the voice of this fictional character speaking as "I" or to engage imaginatively with anything at all this voice claimed had happened: after too many retractions of too many lies, all I was aware of was of the author's presence in the narrative, of her fingers inside the narrator-puppet's head, moving it's mouth to simulate its speaking. I kept thinking: Oh, this is the author ventriloquizing the voice of a teenaged girl, using that voice to jerk the reader around. (Repeated conscious lies are acts of aggression.) Not that it was the lies, exactly, that first made me hyper-aware of the author's presence in the story. That happened in the first half of the book, before I gave up on believing in the narrator's existence, as I waited and waited and waited for the narrator to announce that the story was a variant of a particular trope (of a sub-sub-genre), which the narrator had been heavily implying it was from the first few pages of the novel. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) (This is an otherwise ancient, worn trope that has been interestingly explored by several feminist writers over the last 20 years.) As I waited, I asked myself the author's purpose in playing nudge nudge wink wink for so many long pages. The first reason I came up with was that we were supposed to understand that the book was not written for genre readers-- which would in turn keep reviewers from talking about the book in an explicit way so as not to spoil it for those inexperienced readers who had never read anything in the sub-genre the narrator eventually invoked. At the same time, I knew this coyness was supposed to play into the theme of the narrator's lying-- which it wouldn't have had to do had the narrative been written in close third. But I also suspected it was a ploy to keep the book from being pigeonholed as genre, to make the book's potential audience wider. (This latter was merely the result of my annoyance at such coyness.) After laboriously (so many lies, and I've just never enjoyed lies, you know?) reading the book through to the end, though, I knew that I was meant to understand that the invocation of the trope might be a lie, too. (Well, duh!) And also, that in some sense, it didn't really matter whether the invocation was a lie or the truth, since the consequences were the same.

But here we run into the key problem characterizing the reading experience of this book: viz., that it's impossible to say what the consequences or even the acts that had consequences ever were, because nothing the narrator says has enough heft to grant even hypothetical reality to it, even if the narrator does remain consistent on a handful of things (i.e., gender, race, and age). Just because she didn't retract those few things-- her gender, for instance, or that she's a great runner, or that a teenaged boy was killed before the narration begins-- doesn't mean we have any reason to actually believe they're true. When anything can be true, nothing can be believed. It's a little like those "oh it was all a dream" stories, only in this one, the narrator claims to be writing the narrative for some specific mysterious person or persons she claims she wants to tell the truth to (meaning: manipulate). That might be true-- but then again, once I stopped hearing the fictional narrator's voice, even if it is true, it became, at that point, really "academic," as they say. That's because nothing in the narrative is verifiable. Certainly not the characters, or the events described, recanted, or reinterpreted. Perhaps, had we ever been allowed a glimpse of the supposed interlocutor, there might have been more than the author's voice left at the end. But that would, of course, have required the author's providing a frame for the narrative, which would have taken us outside the first-person pov. But because there is no frame, not even at the end, I can only conclude that that draining away of thereness and eventual flattening and disappearance of the characters is the whole point of the novel: delivering up the bitter lesson that novels are only words put on a piece of paper by the author. And that it doesn't matter how one interprets those words. Because they're all just lies, lies, lies, and although readers can tolerate a degree of unreliability in a narrator, they still must be able to believe some things without question. A rather cynical lesson, and a bit harsh for young readers. I myself prefer to be under a spell when I read the "lies" in a novel. It's that spell that allows me to build a world and embody a set of characters in my mind, to feel intensely, to analyze and worry over, in the way I might do about people I care for. Which is to say, for fiction, I prefer pathological to calculated lies. I'd rather not see the author's conscious manipulations, rather not see the author's hands moving the characters around like paper dolls or puppets-- unless those manipulations are actually part of the story (as in metafiction, they often are) and don't necessarily destroy the illusion of reality that stories so often offer. That's a personal choice. Many readers may enjoy this departure from the usual.

The disintegration of the story, for lack of believable anchors for constructing any kind of narrative at all (other than the reader's narrative: that you can't trust anything this narrator says), raises the question of whether Liar is actually anything that could be called a story at all. I think I'd have to answer that it is a story-- if only a meta-story-- because I, as a reader, ended up reminded that fiction is a game of pretend, and that if the author chooses to play a (second-level) game with that game, the story ceases to be about the fictional narrative and becomes all about the limits of the reader's ability to create a story from the text (which is what readers typically do with the tests of fiction). Here's a classic discussion of what a story is, from James Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work:
A story is impelled by the necessity to reveal: the aim of the story is revelation, which means that a story can have nothing --at least deliberately-- to hide. This also means that a story resolves nothing. The resolution of a story must occur in us, with what we make of the questions with which the story leaves us. A plot, on the other hand, must come to a resolution, prove a point: a plot must answer all the questions which it pretends to pose. In the Heat of the Night, for example, turns on a plot, a plot designed to camouflage exceedingly bitter questions; it can be said, for The Defiant Ones, that it attempts to tell a story. The Book of Job is a story, the proof being that the details of Job's affliction never, for an instant, obscure Job from our view. This story has no resolution. We end where we began: everything Job lost has been returned to him. And, yet, we are not quite where we began. We do not know what that voice out of the whirlwind will thunder next time --and we know that there will certainly be a next time. Job is not the same, nor are we: Job's story has changed Job forever, and illuminated us. By contrast, the elaborate anecdote of Joseph and his brothers turns on a plot, the key to which is that coat of many colors. That coat is meant to blind us to the fact that the anecdote of Joseph and his brothers, so far from being a record of brotherly love and forgiveness, is an absolutely deadly study of frustrated fratricide and frustrated (thought elaborately disguised) revenge.
I did see another way of reading Liar: as a failed attempt of showing us an habitual, conscious liar-- and a damaged personality-- in action. But that's something that can be done only from the outside-- maybe not entirely from the outside, but with occasional departures from the liar's "I." (A pathological liar would be another matter altogether.) Frankly, though, I'd rather understand the novel as a cynical metafictional lesson rather than as a failed attempt to anatomize a character who flattened and receded from view, retracted lie by retracted lie. As a reader, I desperately want to read the most successful book I can make out of a text, even if I've totally misunderstood the author's intention.

Recommended for readers with a reasonable tolerance for metafictional experiments.

I've liked some of Michael Blumlein's work, but The Roberts was a chore to get through. I picked it up in the Dealers Room at Potlatch, with relatively high expectations because it is published by Tachyon. (I hadn't realized it was originally published in F&SF, or might have given it closer scrutiny before purchasing it.) It's a merger of the story of Pygmalion (though not Shaw's) with the story of Narcissus. All about a "genius," Robert, who after a spectacular failure and the loss of an eye, no longer finds women beautiful, and so creates, as his muse, Grace, who is not only beautiful, but also made to want only Robert's happiness, Robert's love, and to not be hurt when Robert, busy with More Important Affairs (the result of his genius) ignores her for weeks or even months on end. (The other women he'd loved had all been hurt and left him because he forgot, while he was thrashing about in the throes of genius, that they existed.) But Robert then goes a step further-- and creates a second Robert ("Robert's Robert") to keep Grace company at home while he's busy out in the world. And Grace, at the same time, creates another Robert, too (Robert No. 3). Genius Robert is (inevitably) devastated with jealousy when he learns that Robert's Robert is having sex with Grace. But not to worry. All ends happily ever after.

At one time this story would have filled me with rage. Now I just find it pathetically fatuous (with a bit of an ick factor, since all the created humans have adult bodies with "infant" minds). Oh, and incidentally, it totally fails the Bechdel Test.

Not recommended.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Witnesses, well-to-do or otherwise

This morning, when I read this passage in Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern---
While a dozen civil wars were raging, [17th-century chemist Robert] Boyle chose a method of argument--that of opinion-- that was held in contempt by the oldest scholastic tradition. Boyle and his colleagues abandoned the certainties of apodeictic reasoning in favour of a doxa. This doxa was not the raving imagination of the credulous masses, but a new mechanism for winning the support of one's peers. Instead of seeking to ground his work in logic, mathematics or rhetoric, Boyle relied on a parajudicial metaphor: credible, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, the matter of fact, even if they do not know its true nature. So he invented the empirical style that we still use today. (18)
---I thought of the Guardian article I read yesterday, Rick Perry Officials Spark Revolt after Doctoring Environment Report, noting how all the scientists who had contributed to the report removed their names in the face of the Texas governor's censorship of the science he is determined to suppress.
By academic standards, the protest amounts to the beginnings of a rebellion: every single scientist associated with the 200-page report has demanded their names be struck from the document. "None of us can be party to scientific censorship so we would all have our names removed," said Jim Lester, a co-author of the report and vice-president of the Houston Advanced Research Center.

"To me it is simply a question of maintaining scientific credibility. This is simply antithetical to what a scientist does," Lester said. "We can't be censored." Scientists see Texas as at high risk because of climate change, from the increased exposure to hurricanes and extreme weather on its long coastline to this summer's season of wildfires and drought.

However, Perry, in his run for the Republican nomination, has elevated denial of science, from climate change to evolution, to an art form. He opposes any regulation of industry, and has repeatedly challenged the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Texas is the only state to refuse to sign on to the federal government's new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. "I like to tell people we live in a state of denial in the state of Texas," said John Anderson, an oceanography at Rice University, and author of the chapter targeted by the government censors.

That state of denial percolated down to the leadership of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The agency chief, who was appointed by Perry, is known to doubt the science of climate change. "The current chair of the commission, Bryan Shaw, commonly talks about how human-induced climate change is a hoax," said Anderson.
When I read the article yesterday, I thought about how Texas's government censorship of science is perfectly in line with the state's Stalinist approach to rewriting the history that is taught in its public schools. But today I'm thinking also that Perry's tactics exemplify the nature of the struggle underway. Although people who call themselves "fundamentalist" Christians claim the Bible as their source of authority, they in fact (as any scholar of the Bible could tell you) ignore that authority when it suits their purposes (as well as favor mistranslations and similar distortions of it) and prefer instead to seize control of the doxa (mostly by brute, well-capitalized, propagandizing force). I wonder what Boyle might have said about this development (other than to characterize the lunatic Republicans as having adopted the "raving imagination of the credulous masses").

ETA: As with the Bible, so with the US Constitution. Always, they ignore and distort what doesn't suit their interests.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

That Fabulous Murdoch Touch

You knew, of course, that Murdoch owns not just Fox News but the Wall Street Journal as well, right? So perhaps you won't be surprised by a story in the Guardian by Nick Davies, Wall Street Journal circulation scam claims senior Murdoch executive, which reports that the corruption of Rupert Murdoch's extends to the Wall Street Journal. Apart from other things, Murdoch's executives have been engaging in a scam to boost the WSJ's circulation figures, selling papers in bulk to sponsors for less than 5 cents a copy-- and then distributing those copies to students attending the sponsors' seminars. But when the sponsors grew unhappy with that arrangement, among other things (including tampering with the content of the newspaper) they actually started providing the money for those bulk purchases of the WSJ to one of the sponsors that  was supposed to be doing the purchasing. (If that isn't baroque... selling on the cheap to boost circulation numbers, then also providing the money for buying on the cheap...?)
One of Rupert Murdoch's most senior European executives has resigned following Guardian inquiries about a circulation scam at News Corporation's flagship newspaper, the Wall Street Journal.

The Guardian found evidence that the Journal had been channelling money through European companies in order to secretly buy thousands of copies of its own paper at a knock-down rate, misleading readers and advertisers about the Journal's true circulation.

The bizarre scheme included a formal, written contract in which the Journal persuaded one company to co-operate by agreeing to publish articles that promoted its activities, a move which led some staff to accuse the paper's management of violating journalistic ethics and jeopardising its treasured reputation for editorial quality.

Internal emails and documents suggest the scam was promoted by Andrew Langhoff, the European managing director of the Journal's parent company, Dow Jones and Co, which was bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation in July 2007. Langhoff resigned on Tuesday.

The highly controversial activities were organised in London and focused on the Journal's European edition, which circulates in the EU, Russia, and Africa. Senior executives in New York, including Murdoch's right-hand man, Les Hinton, were alerted to the problems last year by an internal whistleblower and apparently chose to take no action. The whistleblower was then made redundant.
The circulation scam is probably legal-- though European companies advertising in the WSJ might not be so happy to hear that almost half of the paper's European circulation was in effect bogus:
The scheme was controversial. The sponsoring companies were not reading the papers they were paying for; they were never even seeing them; and they were buying at highly reduced rates. The students to whom they were distributed may or may not have read them; none of the students paid for the papers they were being offered. But the Audit Bureau of Circulation ruled that the scheme was legitimate and by 2010, it was responsible for 41% of the European edition's daily sales – 31,000 copies out of a total of 75,000.
What took the scheme over the top, though, was the next step of the arrangement with one of these sponsors, Executive Learning Partnership:
In early 2010 the scheme began to run into trouble when the biggest single sponsor, a Dutch company called Executive Learning Partnership, ELP, threatened to back out. ELP alone were responsible for 16% of the Journal's European circulation, sponsoring 12,000 copies a day for which they were paying only 1¢ per copy. For the 259 publishing days in a year, they were sponsoring 3.1m copies at a cost to them of €31,080 (£27,200). They complained that the publicity they were receiving was not enough return on their investment.

On 9 April 2010, Andrew Langhoff emailed ELP to table a new deal, explaining that "our clear goal is to add a new component to our partnership" and offering to "provide a well-branded showcase for ELP's valuable services". On 30 April, ELP agreed to continue to sponsor 12,000 copies at the same rate. But that deal included a new eight-page addendum, which the Guardian has seen.

The addendum included a collection of side deals: the Journal would give ELP free advertising and, in exchange, the ELP would produce "leadership videos" for them; they would jointly organise more seminars and workshops on themes connected to ELP's work; but, crucially, Langhoff agreed that the Journal would publish "a minimum of three special reports" that would be based on surveys of the European market which ELP would run with the Journal's help.

It is this agreement that is now being cited as the reason for Langhoff's resignation on Tuesday. It led to the Journal publishing a full-page feature on 14 October 2010 that reported a survey conducted by ELP about the use of social media in business, quoting ELP's chief executive at length. The story carried no warning for readers that it was the result of a deal between the Journal and ELP, nor that ELP were sponsoring 16% of the paper's European circulation. Similarly, there were no warnings attached to a second story, published on 14 March 2011, which consisted of an interview with one of ELP's senior partners, Ann de Jaeger, about the role of women in company boardrooms.
As the Guardian reports, employees of the WSJ started to get unhappy with this arrangement. (Hence the whistle-blower, who in turn caused a panic among the executives involved.)

It sounds as though all of these shenanigans are legal. But are they ethical? I wonder whether it's even possible for any publication owned by Murdoch to meet basic ethical standards for journalism. Everyone knows that Fox News has lower journalistic standards than, say, the National Enquirer. But what about the Wall Street Journal? I have to wonder.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Second Issue of the CSZ now available for free download

The second issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is now available for download, free, here.

Here's the table of contents:

Vol. 1 No. 2—April 2011

Feature Essay
Hyperbolic Futures: Speculative Finance and Speculative Fiction, by Steven Shaviro
She Lives, by Shweta Narayan
Grandmother Magma
Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor, reviewed by Uzuri Amini  
Birdbrain, by Johanna Sinisalo, reviewed by Carrie Devall  
The Broken Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin, reviewed by Ama Patterson  
Destination: Future, edited by Z. S. Adani and Eric T. Reynolds, reviewed by Karen Burnham  
Under the Poppy, by Kathe Koja, reviewed by Rachel Swirsky  
Of Blood and Honey (Fey and the Fallen), by Stina Leicht, reviewed by Paige Clifton-Steele  
The Universe of Things, by Gwyneth Jones, reviewed by Nisi Shawl  
Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft, reviewed by Liz Henry
Featured Artist
Susan Simensky Bietila

Fresh Outrages in the War on Women in the US

Topkea, Kansas, has repealed its domestic violence law-- supposedly to save money-- and to keep Shawnee Country from passing the buck for prosecuting domestic battery. Which means, of course, that they're flashing the green light to batterers in that city: telling them that in Topeka, domestic battery is no longer against the law. Here's a snippet from the McClatchy Newspapers report by Joe Lambe:
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said that around the country, prosecutors are being forced to prioritize certain types of cases, but these decisions are rarely discussed in public.

“Usually no one comes out and says that starting today I’m not going to prosecute that crime, which sends a message of failure and tells the community you’re free to commit that crime,” he said.

Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, said the situation in Topeka demonstrates that its politicians need to give domestic violence a higher priority.

“For the city and county to say this is about economics seems disingenuous to me,” she said.
Seems disingenuous to me, too.

Sarah Seltzer reports for AlterNet that Congress is debating Let Women Die legislation:
Today's installment of the War on Women is brought to you by Congressman Joe Pitts, whose HR 358 is finally being debated in the House this week. The bill is an extreme and sweeping anti-abortion measure that would decimate insurance coverage for abortion and gamble with women's lives. It's so drastic that it's been nicknamed the "let women die" act.

At Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan explains why this title is totally apt (emphases mine):

The bill has been lovingly nicknamed the "Let Women Die" act, as it would allow hospitals that receive federal funds but are opposed to abortions turn a woman seeking an abortion away in all circumstances, even if an abortion would save her life. It also proposes to outlaw any federal funds from going to health plans that cover any abortion services. Finally, it would make it impossible to block federal funds from going to health organizations that don't support abortion rights, hence the hospitals' freedom to "Protect Life" by refusing to perform a procedure that might save a woman's life. HR 358 was penned Joe Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican and a vocal member of the House's Pro-Life Caucus. For those of you keeping score at home, Joe Pitts does not have a uterus.    Read more