Thursday, March 8, 2018

Seeing Ramallah

Can poets be great prose writers? Can a writer's quality be judged in translation? After having read I Saw Ramallah by the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, my answer to the first question is, "Why not?" And to the second, it is clearly yes if one is fortunate to have Ahdaf Soueif as one's translator.

The experience Barghouti describes--a displaced person is allowed to return to the hometown from which he was forcibly separated, not in conditions of freedom, but in an awkward power-sharing arrangement wherein the conquerors retain power--is not unique to Palestinians. And it is far from universal among Palestinians, being a privilege reserved to a minority of the displaced, and now effectively closed to nearly all. Prolonged statelessness is now a condition of being for Syrians, Rohingya, Somalis, Sri Lankan Tamils.... It does not seem likely that the now growing list of groupings will begin to diminish any time soon. Worldwide, there are more refugees and other displaced persons than there are Britons.

Nor is Israel the only agent of oppression. It was the police of Anwar Sadat who saw to it that Barghouti would be separated from his wife, the Egyptian novelist and literary scholar Radwa Ashour, and their son Tamim for most of the latter's childhood. In another generation, Ashour might have dutifully followed her husband in his wanderings, but Barghouti's feminism leaves traces throughout his narrative and seems sincerely felt--better to let her have a career, and for their child to grow up in a place that is at least partially home, than to make her into a camp-follower. He is critical throughout, not only of states and powers, but of political parties, social movements, and not least of all, himself--his old poems, his fateful choices, his rages, and his responses to feelings of loss.

The memoir is powerful, but leaves one with a desire to read him in his preferred medium, and that is something I should do soon.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

It Mek

I have bookshelves. Many shelves, full of books, and then there are the books that do not fit on the shelves. After more than five years in this house, the gradually increasing entropy of tsundoku had gotten to be too much, even for me. In the last few weeks, my wife and I--on my initiative--have alphabetized the books by author's last name, re-shelved them, and purged the collection of duplicate copies and other things we do not want. The books from U-Z are still unshelved, and I estimate we need at least another 8 linear feet of shelving to accommodate them. But more importantly, the process reminded me that I own a lot of good books that I have yet to read, and that perhaps I ought to do that.

So what I am doing is choosing an as-yet-unread-by-me book off each shelf, sequentially, and reading it. Thus far I have read It Begins with Tears by Opal Palmer Adisa and Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks. Today I started I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti. It was only as I was making my way through the Barghouti that I realized it would be worthwhile to blog about each such book I discover, or rediscover. Rather than do two separate posts about the Adisa and the Banks, I will post about their unexpected commonalities.

Banks is a writer who gets inspired by places. The novels and stories of his that I have especially enjoyed are those which peer into the wickedness of two of the stranger places I have lived, which he and I share biographically--southern Florida, and the Adirondack region of upstate New York. The stories work because, no matter how marginal the characters whose lives they trace, the places seem true, recognizable, and therefore uncanny. Rule of the Bone is not one of Banks' best works, I suspect precisely because it takes a lengthy detour into a place that Banks clearly does not know as intimately, Jamaica.

Adisa knows Jamaica very well, as it is her home. She tells the story of a village by interleaving the stories of those who have stayed, those who have returned, and the supernatural neighbors whose joys and tears wreak opposite effects upon the human world. While the book is written in literary Standard English, the characters speak in Jamaican creole, rendered on the page through the device of "eye dialect." Banks does the same, for a major character in Rule of the Bone is "I-Man," a Rastafarian who becomes a kind of spiritual guide to Bone, the teenage stoner dropout from Au Sable Forks who gives the book its name. There seem to be a lot of things that Banks does not understand about Jamaica, and a Jamaican could do a better job than I of picking them all out. I will focus on one symptomatic word: "mek".

"Mek" sounds like the Standard English verb "make," and that is how Banks has I-Man use it, as an eye dialect marker in places where make would have been used by an American or British speaker. In the mouths of Adisa's characters, "mek" reveals the wider ranger of grammatical functions and meanings that it has taken on in everyday Jamaican language. Yes, there are plenty of examples where it is used like make. But also: "Me dance wid all de boys cause me did love dancing, but me neva mek no boy touch-touch me breast or put dem hand unda me dress." (222) Here it functions more like "let" would in Standard English. As also in this folk saying, which Adisa uses as a chapter title: "Stand steady mek ant crawl over you." (180) In other places, "mek" functions more like an exclamatory "why?" For instance: "God, Marva, mek you use so much pepper! De children can't eat dis!" (130)

The last usage relates grammatically to one that can be found in texts that both Adisa's novel and Banks' reference, the corpus of Jamaican folk and popular music, with the latter coming into the awareness of North American culture vultures like Banks and me by way of ska and reggae. So for example, I have long puzzled over the lyrics to Desmond Dekker's classic "It Mek". The full refrain, and various interpretations of it on the internet, suggest a meaning along the lines of "That's why!" (As in, that's why you'll get what's coming to you.)

You think I never see you when you jump over de wall
You think I never see you when you accidentally fall
Me said a it mek - mek you pop your bitter gall
A it mek - while you accidentally fall
A it mek - hear she crying out for ice water

And now that I've puzzled that out with a bit of help from Adisa's rendition of everyday Jamaican speech, it occurs to me that the song carries the same note of glee at misfortune foretold that I would hear when my grandmother, translating Yiddish speaking ancestors, would gloat "God got you" at my misbehaving younger brother.

The levels of meaning to "mek" would have required more time and care for Banks to discern, just as it would have taken more time and care for him to sort out some of the apparent disjunctions in his narrative. (For example: Why would I-Man, seemingly a respected ganja wholesaler in Mobay and a prosperous smallholder in his home village, have ever left Jamaica to cut cane and pick apples on a migrant farmworker visa in the States? Reasons there may be, and are even suggested in the text, but he is too much the one dimensional "magical Negro" figure for them to ever hold.) In his narration, Bone refers throughout to Jamaican creole as "their Jamaican language," not recognizing the words he hears and eventually learns as English, and while this seems to be intended an indication of a northcountry crust-punk's lack of sophistication, it is something that linguists would regard as perhaps naively accurate, in comparison with the homogenized tolerance of treating all linguistic differences as matters of "accent." Creoles are languages in their own right, and can support not only the everyday speech of the village and the market, but carry the weight of literature and statecraft as well. That they are denigrated and held as lesser by their own speakers, regarded as "bad English" (or French or Portuguese or...) derives from social facts that make themselves felt within, but go far beyond, language.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Look Back on a Disappointing Year

My Own Writing

Three stories of mine were published this year. If you want to read "Ruins of a Future Empire," you will need to order a print back-issue of Salvage No. 4, since they do not put their fiction and poetry up on their website. I think it's worth it, not merely for the story, but because Salvage is a serious journal of political thought that deserves to be more widely read. "A Summary of Menistarian Law..." is, for now, only available to subscribers to Lackington's, another publication whose purchase I would recommend, but if either the money or the inspiration fails you, note that they will make it available online for free at some point. The flash-fiction piece "Cynthia" may be viewed by all on the website of Asymmetry.

As of now I have 13 pieces out on submission, 12 fiction and one creative non-fiction (essay), and I am doggedly, perhaps delusionally, optimistic about some of them. But at the moment I have no contracts in hand, so no concrete publication plans on deck for 2018. It is the first year since 2015 to begin that way for me. Which is to say, if someone reading this is a fiction editor who has been considering commissioning something from me, now would be an excellent time for you to reach out.

Translation: The Der Nister Project

Things finally settled well enough in my workday life that I can contemplate applying for grants and fellowships to further my literary endeavors--I am no longer a one-person office, but the Director of a two-person office, so I now have reliable back-up at work. Thus, if I am fortunate enough to receive something, I can arrange to take a bit of time off and know that the grant-seeking endeavors of my colleagues will be in good hands. My debut effort in this vein was to apply for a translator's fellowship from the National Yiddish Book Center. However, even if I do not get the fellowship, the preparatory work for the application stirred in me a great enough passion for the stories of Der Nister (pen name of Pinkhus Kahanovich, lit. "The Hidden One") that I shall proceed with the project one way or the other. (Or, as Der Nister would say, vi-nit-vi.) The initial stage of the project, proposed for completion within one year if I get the NYBC fellowship (longer perhaps if I don't), is translation of the stories he had published under the collection title Gedakht. I have already translated two stories ("In vayn-keler" and "Geyendik") and am working on a third ("A forshpil"). The tone and subject matter of the stories is such that they would fit readily, if perhaps a bit uneasily, in contemporary fantasy publications, which are increasingly open to the publication of work in translation. However, I have not yet sent them out for submission or query, since I need to finish my due diligence either to secure the rights or (what I think is more likely, since Der Nister died in a Russian gulag in 1950) to document that these are in fact orphaned works. Also, the story I am now working on, "A forshpil," has some references to Yiddish theater, so I will likely need to do some archival work in YIVO's excellent collection to try and pin down those references before finalizing that translation. The other two stories stand well on their own, and will likely be ready to go out once I have sorted out the rights question. Let the hidden one not be quite so hidden any more.

Other People's Writing (aside from Der Nister)

The amount of money I spend on things like memberships (e.g., to be able to nominate for the Hugo or Nebula awards) or magazine subscriptions (to keep on top of what is going on in the world of short fiction) is directly tied to my income from story sales. So the former have expired, and on the latter, I am down to The New Yorker, Lackington's, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (and I think my F&SF subscription will expire soon). This is all to say, only slightly apologetically, that I am no longer really trying to keep on top of new short fiction as it comes out. Therefore, this section will focus on what I read within the bindings of books, checked out from one of the libraries to which I have access. Of the books I read in 2017 that were published in this year, the following are those I believe to be worthy of note (arranged in alphabetical order by author's last name, to avoid the futility of ranking):

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky
  • Elif Batuman, The Idiot
  • Roxane Gay, Difficult Women
  • Nick Joaquín, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic
  • Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
  • Jim Shepard, The World to Come
  • Pajtim Statovci, My Cat Yugoslavia
  • Jeff VanDerMeer, Borne

Some summary comments, in lieu of full reviews.

  • I had been looking forward to the publication of Arimah's first collection of short fiction since her story "Who Will Greet You at Home" first came out in the New Yorker. There is no shame in acknowledging a greater talent. The only notably weak piece in this collection was, ironically, the title story; I am so caught up in the dismal mechanics of climate change that I found its underlying world-building distractingly implausible. The rest are worth seeking out and reading again and again.
  • I am honestly not sure how well Batuman's first novel would stand up to reading by anyone who did not attend college in the mid-1990s. Since I did attend college in the mid-1990s, I loved it as a Bildungsroman that rendered obsolete my own potential contribution to the genre. I am glad she was bold enough to undermine the very genre of the Bildungsroman, ending it with the sentence, "I hadn't learned anything at all." And that it is a love story, not about falling in love with a boy (there is a guy, kind of a jerk) but with language.
  • Gay is not as great an essayist as she has been built up to be, and while I think she is a good novelist I recognize that there is room for debate. But if anyone makes so bold as to question her command of the short story, we will have to fight. Nearly every story of hers that I have read has been like attending a master-class on form; they are some of the best published in recent years. So finally she has a collection out. Particular favorites of mine from the collection include "I Will Follow You," "FLORIDA," "North Country," "How," and "Strange Gods."
  • In retrospect, it appears that Nick Joaquín was one of the best short story writers of the 20th Century. And yet despite his having written in English, he is hardly known by anyone who is not Filipino. So perhaps we should remedy that oversight and all read this new Penguin collection of his work. I don't think he's as strong a playwright as a prose writer--"A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino" has some compelling stagecraft in the first two scenes, but lapses into melodrama and sentimentality in the third. But unlike the play, all the stories are worth reading straight through. I suspect that for readers that share a background knowledge of Catholic religion, there are points of reference that this Jewish atheist cannot identify with, but their emotional and intellectual range was evident to me even with such barriers to shared comprehension or experience.
  • The irony of my inclusion of Roy's new novel is that it reinforced my suspicion that she is a better political essayist than a novelist, so unlike many critics I was in no great rush for her to "get back" to writing fiction. Two data points is not enough, but the hypothesis seems to accrete further evidence. Thus my review of the novel, even though I enjoyed and respected it, focuses more on its fundamental structural weakness than its strengths: By starting with Anjum's story, Roy has deceived several lazy critics into thinking that she is the main character. Wrong: The main character is Tilottama. The book written accordingly, through shifting points of view and montage, would have been amazing. But by framing it within the excess detail of Anjum's character development and backstory--rather than allowing those to be revealed, Cubist-style, in glimpses, as was the case with Tilo and her classmates--the overall pace of the resulting work is dragged out.
  • I was neither hoping for nor expecting a novel from George Saunders, and I am glad that his contribution to that saggy genre was so experimental in nature. Here's the thing with experimental writing (speaking as a sometime practitioner): Sometimes experiments don't work. But the narration built some momentum, the writing of the Lincoln father-son relationship was sufficiently touching, to get me to overlook some early bumps and become invested in seeing the book through to the end.
  • When I like Jim Shepard's short stories, it is because they defy my expectations. He is frequently included in The Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize, and through those means keeps ending up, to my surprise, included in my Meta-Anthologies. So when I saw a collection on the library shelf, I figured I ought to give it a shot, and I am glad I did. Shepard, at least in the stories of this collection has a knack for the catastrophic: its prefigurations, causes, manifestations, and consequences. "HMS Terror" alone makes it worth seeking out.
  • I recommend Statovci's novel (written in Finnish, by an author of Kosovo Albanian origin, and translated into English this year) to any first-generation immigrant queer boys with abusive Balkan dads. The rest of you may find the cruel, emotionally manipulative cat who walks on two legs to be the most reassuringly familiar part of the novel.
  • If my SFWA membership were still in good standing, VanDerMeer's overdetermined apocalypse is the novel that I would nominate for the Nebula.


Where to begin? The reassuring thing about the Trump presidency is that, when one points out the horrors, they are not dismissed as the ravings of a paranoid radical. However, locally, I have been shying away from any sort of organizing for the better part of the year, for reasons I have already detailed. The good news since then is that some of the more competent and committed socialists in Maine have begun to take the upper hand and initiative from the egomaniacs and slackers. But, because of the national weaknesses of the party, and the geographical distribution within the state of the people I can stand (i.e., they're mostly not near me), I am not inspired enough to throw in my lot with them once more. I made a slight step forward in how I think about political organizing, but no forward motion on attempting to put such understanding into practice.

On this uninspiring note, forward to 2018! What can we look forward to? Who knows?!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Meta-Anthology 2017

As I have explained in previous years, I make no pretense to this representing the best short stories of this year. First of all, because they are not of this year, having all first appeared in 2016. But also, since I could not possibly keep up with all short fiction publications of interest, I have culled them from four key anthologies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Best American series, in its Short Story, Mystery Story, and Science Fiction and Fantasy instances, and the Pushcart Prize. Despite the names of those anthologies, it represents not the best of the best, but a selection of what was deemed "best" by others that I found nonetheless to be worth reading. All together, here are nineteen stories, any one of which should have gone viral. Can we hope perhaps that it is never too late?

Chad B. Anderson, "Maidencane," from The Best American Short Stories 2017. First published in Nimrod.

This was a risky story, containing practically everything novice writers are told not to do by well-meaning, aesthetically conservative elders--second person, unreliable narrator, frank depictions of bisexuality. It angers me, in a way that is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the short fiction ecosystem at the moment, that it first appeared in a journal that "pays" with contributor's copies.

Dale Bailey, "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. First appeared in Nightmare Magazine, December 2016.

Self-consciously referential, but nonetheless manages to elevate itself above its concept with more than a few insightful passages.

Dan Bevacqua, "The Human Variable," from The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. First published in The Literary Review.

The two New Englands meet somewhere in California; climate change impacts and pot cultivation. Several of my favorite things find their way into a single story, and it works.

Tom Bissell, "Creative Types," from The Pushcart Prize XLII. First appeared in The Paris Review.

Two clichés--the underachieving, barely accomplished, man-child writer, and the married couple "looking to spice things up" in the bedroom--get combined in some unexpectedly charming and--dare I say?--even sweet ways.

Lydia Conklin, "Counselor of My Heart," from The Pushcart Prize XLII. First published in The Southern Review.

I am a sucker for anything that gets digs in against Harvard. Because let's face it, lesbian slacker only realizes she loves her uptight girlfriend after killing the girlfriend's dog is a paint-by-numbers epiphany story. Acute socio-psychological observations--especially against Harvard kids--are needed to lend the composition some flecks of impressionist color.

Brendan DuBois, "The Man from Away," from The Best American Mystery Stories. First appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Up in the north woods portions of New England--Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont--there's a genre of joke that boils down to, underestimated backwoodsman outsmarts the supposedly clever fellas from away. This is a slightly darker than usual telling of that joke, in which a Masshole gets what's coming to him. Still worth a laugh.

Brian Evenson, "Smear," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. First appeared in Conjunctions.

There is more metaphysical terror in seven pages of Evenson's fiction than in a 700 page volume of existential phenomenology.

Lauren Groff, "The Midnight Zone," from The Best American Short Stories 2017. First published in The New Yorker, May 23, 2016.

Is there a greater fear for a parent than having something bad happen to a child? It could be, being rendered helpless in the presence of one's children.

N. K. Jemisin, "The City Born Great," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. First appeared on, September 28, 2016.

"We got this. Don't sleep on the city that never sleeps, son, and don't fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here." Even if I can't assent to the implicit optimism of the narrator and the narrative--when it comes to New York City, I suspect the Enemy is long since past the gate, its tentacles in every Starbucks-Pinkberry-AppleStore-CondoRehab--I gloried in the rebellious b-boy survivor tenor of its wordplay.

Kyle McCarthy, "Ancient Rome," from The Best American Short Stories 2017. First published in American Short Fiction.

As someone who serves indirectly as a servant to the ultra-rich, it is interesting, and uncannily recognizable, to read a story told by a more direct sort of servant. Also interesting, and uncannily recognizable, to read a story written in the voice of a female narrator who displays a kind of intellectual arrogance that, in earlier generations, was usually coded as male.

Marc Jude Poirier, "Mentor," from The Pushcart Prize XLII. First appeared in Crazyhorse.

My stomach turned in recognition. Too many of us have stories like these; mine involves crabs.

Steven Popkes, "The Sweet Warm Earth," from The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. First appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Somehow, even though I subscribe to F&SF, this story made no impression upon me when it first appeared, to the extent that I do not even recall having read it. Perhaps I had been rendered cranky and impatient by whatever pieces it shared its issue with. A key conceit of the story can be interpreted with either a fantastic or a naturalistic spin, which accounts I suppose for the peculiar combination of the journal of its first appearance and the anthology in which it was included. Yet more important to how this story works as a story is a distinctive narratorial voice and good characterization.

Eric Puchner, "Last Day on Earth," from The Best American Short Stories 2017. First published in Granta.

Contra Tolstoy, all happy families are peculiar, but each unhappy family has some grim similarity to the others. This story is an example of the latter; telling a story about the former would be more adventurous, but risks degeneration into schmaltz.

Sujata Shekar, "The Dreams of Kings," from The Pushcart Prize XLII. First appeared in Epoch.

An appropriately grotesque story of violence and commuting.

Jim Shepard, "Telemachus," from The Best American Short Stories 2017 and The Pushcart Prize XLII. First published in Zoetrope.

Jim Shepard's geeky obsessions do not overlap at all with mine, which makes the fact that he managed to squeeze some great sentences and brilliant paragraphs out of them all the more notable to me.

William Soldan, "All Things Come Around," from The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. First appeared in Thuglit.

I drive my three-year-old to and from his daycare nearly every day, and even though on most parts of most of our drives the greatest hazard would be a wayward deer, still my heart feels like it takes a few steps up in my chest from its customary position to ride just below my throat. This story gave me the heart-directly-in-throat sensation of a child in danger and kept it there nearly from start to finish.

Peter Straub, "The Process Is a Process All Its Own," from The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. First appeared in Conjunctions.

If words like "happiness," "fulfillment," or "satisfaction" smell to you like the emissions of someone with a corpse in their mouth, then you may have more in common with a serial killer than you would like to believe.

Catherynne Valente, "The Future Is Blue," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. First appeared in Drowned Worlds.

Bless Valente for having the chutzpah to call her readers Fuckwits. All available evidence suggests that we deserve it. (Bonus points for working in a shout-out to Becky's Diner.)

Keith Woodruff, "Elegy," from The Pushcart Prize XLII. First appeared in Wigleaf.

Flash fiction tied together by its dedication.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Long Road to Menistaria

I wrote "A Summary of Menistarian Law, Composed for the Citizens of Olakia, in Response to Our Present Crisis by Dr. Clemons Indement," early in the year 2014. It was just published in the "Trades" issue of Lackington's (No. 16). I will hold off from talking about what inspired the story until more people have had a chance to read it. For now, I will take a page from my issue-mate Alexandra Seidel and tell the story of the story, some of the reasons why it took so long to find its way into print.

I thought the story was funny--I still do--and Unidentified Funny Objects was open to submissions. The slush readers evidently disagreed; it was rejected within 3 days. From there, things went a fairly standard route--customarily swift rejections from Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld--until I submitted it to an online publication called LORE. There it sat for eight months, until I heard through the grapevine (that is, through one of the "Codex" discussion boards, not from the publishers themselves) that LORE was shutting down.

By then, Unlikely Story, which had previously published by story "The Joy of Sects" as part of the The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography, was seeking submissions for a Journal of Unlikely Academia. Perhaps Dr. Indement came across as too likely an academic; once again, the story scored a speedy rejection.

My next attempt was to the journal Sci Phi, which bills itself as publishing stories that highlight the philosophical dimensions of science fiction. Since that seemed to describe this story even more than most of my stories, I submitted it. It was only after the submission that it became evident to me that the journal aligns itself with the revanchist right wing of the genre, but given the journal's insistence that they wanted stories from all points of view, I kept up my wager.

The short version of that part of the story is that the editor-in-chief seemed to like the story, but it never got published. First, after six months with the story in the queue, he suggested that I "Make it an essay exploring the different national law. Sort of like you have done. Give me a couple of days i'll make some suggestions if you like, if you don't already get what I meant. Upside, it would run a lot sooner." I replied, "I think I'll wait for your suggestions. My concern is that, if I'd wanted to write an essay arguing for a particular point of view, I'd have done so, and most likely would have posted it on my blog. The benefit of a story is that it can be read various ways, depending on the philosophical and political lenses the reader brings to it. But I'll keep an open mind, and look forward to your suggestions."

Three months later, with no editorial suggestions forthcoming, I received a mass e-mail (sent, I believe, to everyone in the Sci Phi slush pile) indicating that they were going to move to a royalties-only model for paying writers--with no guaranteed minimum. To which I replied politely, "I would like to withdraw my story. Good luck with your endeavors."

After that, Dr. Indement's reflections upon Menistarian law got another swift rejection from a venerable digest--Asimov's this time--and then I tried my luck with a short-lived literary magazine, now "on hiatus," that expressed openness both to experimental work and to multiple submissions. Before their current hiatus, they at least had the decency to reject all my stories.

Then a slow rejection from a journal that reads blind, and a quick one from F&SF. I submitted it to a couple of new journals to which I thought it was a match, illusions of which I was swiftly disabused. I even rolled the dice on Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, a publication that is usually not my style, after reading a few stories by authors whose work I like and respect in there. By the end of 2016, I was beginning to despair that this peculiar bit of literature would ever meet the public eye.

Then in March of this year, Lackington's, a publication I had read with pleasure, and which I had tried and failed to crack into with other stories on other themes, announced the "Trades" theme for No. 16. Having taken a few licks, I did ask, "If a story has more 'trades' in the sense of exchanges than in the sense of métiers, worth a shot or no?" Ranylt Rachildis gave an encouraging response; though perhaps I need not have even asked. After all, if there is anything about which Dr. Indement is forthright in his narration, it is the means by which the various figures whose misadventures he recounts have secured their daily bread, regardless of what a reader may think of the legitimacy of their various occupations.

Usually when writers give these sorts of embarrassing, behind-the-scenes details of how hard it can be to find a place for a story, the intention is to send some rousing message of inspiration to other would-be writers: "Don't give up! You never know!" I actually think art and literature can benefit, however, from well-timed forfeitures and acts of despair. Some stories merit patience and reward it for both writer and reader, though the monetary rewards are almost never sufficient to the labor entailed. I think Dr. Indement's essay, to which I have given fictional existence, has found an appropriate site for its public manifestation. I encourage you to subscribe to Lackington's, and read it.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Cognitive Dissonance in the Shadow of Bolshevism

A problem of the far left, at least in Anglophone countries, seems to be that we believe our major problem to be "the problem of organization." That "the problem of organization" is posed as such, as if it were a singular problem rather than a carrying case for a great number of other, potentially knottier problems, is a symptom of the fact that, 100 years on, we remain in the shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, or more precisely, of a given set of received myths about that historical event. The fact that I even called it "the Bolshevik Revolution," rather than "the Russian Revolution" or "the partially successful Russian-centered episode in the mostly failed World Revolution that concluded and followed the first World War" is in turn indicative of the nature of the received myth--the notion that the relative success of the revolutionary upheaval in Russia can be attributed to specific features of a political party formation known as the Bolsheviks. And from there, that there is a necessary concordance between one's attitude toward events in Russia at that time and one's approach to political organization today. Nor is the recognition of the mythical nature of this story sufficient inoculation against its effects; for evidence of this, one need only peruse prior entries of my own blog. So long as we believe our political disagreements about the type of society to be created and how to go about creating it to be disagreements about the type of political organization that is necessary for the creation of said society, the more we evade the underlying political disagreements and hamper the building of effective organizations.

The thoughts in the previous paragraph are the consequence, not a summary, of those contained in this Twitter thread I wrote about an article entitled "The sociology of Leninist organizations". Where the author of the article, Scott Jay, was coming from is indicated by his formerly having been a member of the U.S. International Socialist Organization, and the article having been published on a British-centered website that serves as a kind of multi-tendency hub for "left communists." (A phrase that I put in quotes because, for readers not steeped in the far left, it would be mysterious. For the moment, I can recommend the Wikipedia article about this political tendency as being both accurate and comprehensive, a good starting point.) Jay's article suffers both from overgeneralizing specific features of the U.S. ISO and its former comrades in the British Socialist Workers Party to "Leninists" at large, and from overlocalizing sharply observed weakness of left political organization to nominal Leninists. Jay's article is valuable more for these observations than for its attempts at analysis.

For analysis, Jay leans appropriately but too heavily on findings from the early days of social psychology and organizational sociology. Ignoring these disciplines, as most leftists do to their peril, is as if Marx had dismissed all of political economy as "bourgeois." Generalizing directly from their findings, as Jay does, is as if Marx had written Capital not as a critique of political economy, but as a pastiche of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Neither is sufficient. The latter is particularly odd, however, inasmuch as some psychologists have begun to recognize the ways in which their discipline is prone to critique. This brief notice from an APA publication summarizes a study which takes some keystone findings of the discipline to task for being too dependent upon populations of human subjects which they characterize as being from "Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD)" societies. One can and probably should quibble with elements of the acronym--"democratic" clearly being taken as synonymous with constitutional, representational systems of government, which are hardly democratic in essence, and "Western" being a synecdoche for "white". As a critique of the synchronic overrepresentation of privileged social elements in these studies, it is indisputable. In point of fact it does not go far enough, since it does not take account of historical development.

Consider the concept of "cognitive dissonance," upon which Jay's account leans so heavily. Mainstream descriptions of the phenomenon tend to localize it to fringe elements, such as the UFO cult described by Festinger. Jay's application of it to "Leninist" organizations tacitly accepts the marginalization of anti-capitalist ideology. Yet it is precisely the ways in which we are raised in capitalist society to regard its fundamental preconditions as natural that help to normalize the methods used for resolution of cognitive dissonance, both at the margins and the core. Marx's account, in the first chapter of Capital of the "fetishism of the commodity" is an attempt to induce cognitive dissonance by showing how it is by no means obvious that a bushel of wheat, a heap of cotton cloth, and a quantity of human labor-power should all be "equal" to one another, and to a certain amount of money. He does this in part by historicizing, pointing to how Aristotle regarded the early manifestations of a money economy as "unnatural." Aristotle in turn is an example of how earlier societies both created and addressed different types of cognitive dissonance: Man is a "rational, political animal," so only those regarded by the polis as being part of it can be rational, and thus men. Slaves are not human, but "talking tools." Is the resolution of cognitive dissonance through rationalization a "natural" phenomenon of the human animal, as Festinger argues and Jay follows? Inasmuch as it can be observed in a variety of human societies, of different levels of technical development and a variety of cultural backgrounds, probably so. But with both the objects and the mechanisms of rationalization varying so much, we do not have enough data to be able to pin down the natural core. The objects and methods for resolution of cognitive dissonance are in all cases conditioned by the dominant ideas of society, that is, the ideas of its dominant class.

It would seem then that the aim of a revolutionary organization would be the repeated induction of cognitive dissonance, the disruption of received ideas of how things work. The history of Marxist organizations at large provides few examples of such revolutionary organizations, nor is this limited to those that have called themselves "Leninist". Nor does Jay's essay provide a promising counter-model. Throughout he counterposes to organizations built upon recruitment to shared ideas the notion of organizations based in working-class struggles for concrete needs. I can agree with him about the need for the latter, without regarding it as a panacea. Consider, for example, this paragraph:

An organization with a base in workplaces and neighborhoods would be far less likely to split over the bruised egos of the leadership, because splitting would result in a loss of organized power. Instead, for many, splitting is an improvement over hum-drum, undemocratic party life and the only way to pursue an alternative political direction.

What he seems to have lost sight of, perhaps because of the fact that he is based in the United States, is that "organized power" resting on "a base in workplaces and neighborhoods" was the substance of historical Social Democracy and Stalinism. It is easy to lose sight of that, because in the U.S., all left organizations are sects, including social democrats and Stalinists--yes, including the DSA and their "massive" membership that represents one-hundredth of one percent of the U.S. population. "Why should I join your Spartakusbund when the SPD is a power throughout the nation?" "The CPSU is the vanguard of the proletariat, I don't want to hear any bullshit from that traitor Trotsky!" Organized power has been the aim and rationale of time-serving bureaucrats throughout the history of the workers' movement.

The disorganization of power, the disruption of what power would have us take for granted, the de-naturalization of the given social order--this would require not merely a different structure of organization, but a different conception of politics.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Theories of Ideology and Sciences of Belief Systems

Around the time that I left the SPUSA, I conceived a non-fiction writing project which I think I will be laying aside. Tentatively entitled "The American Ideology," the aim would have been to try to identify a set of ideological presuppositions that would be both peculiar to citizens of the United States and nearly universal among them. I still think it would be a worthwhile project, but not necessarily the best use of my individual efforts.

Theories of ideology play approximately the role in Marxism that epicycles did in Ptolemaic accounts of the solar system. While important, foundational hints were provided were provided in Marx's work--the first chapter of Capital on commodity fetishism, the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and of course The German Ideology, left to the gnawing criticism of the mice and published posthumously--it was never his top priority. Nor should it have been. As of his death, working-class political parties had been formed in all the countries in which advanced capitalism had taken hold (including Britain and even the United States), and these parties were growing and advancing in their theoretical and practical comprehension of capital. The proletarian revolution was on the march. Ideology--the ruling class's mechanisms of deception and self-deception--would no doubt be overcome. The future was bright.

The concept of ideology takes on an importance to Marxist thinkers in direct proportion to the apparent distance of the proletariat from fulfillment of its imputed historic role. Lenin wrote "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism" at a moment when he thought he would not live to see a revolution. Gramsci's notebooks were written in a Fascist prison. Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" functions as a postmortem of the 1968 French uprising and his own party's dubious role in bringing about its defeat. Theories of ideology derive sophistication from the depths of their authors' despair.

Theories of ideology are important and necessary if one aims through politics to hold onto a long-term hope for victory, and to trace a reasonable-seeming path from defeat to victory. The important phase here is "long term." If there is no long term, or at least no reliable promise of it, then theories of ideology no longer serve a purpose for political tactics. It may be nice to understand why people believe what they believe, and how it feels to believe the things they do, even if those beliefs are ultimately self-destructive--a radical extension of empathy--but unless one has a path forward for shifting those people from false consciousness to true, that knowledge is of limited utility. In a short-term perspective, it more useful to be able to assess whether, on the basis of a grouping's current set of beliefs, it is possible for them to be inspired to take beneficial action. Such a judgment may well be entirely independent of one's judgment of the truth value of those beliefs.

So I am setting aside the "American Ideology" project. One of the more useful things to come of it, however, was reading Towards a Science of Belief Systems by Edmund Griffiths. I say this even though I consider the book itself to be flawed, precisely insofar as the author holds to a notion of the scientificity of a certain form of Marxism. This blog post will not be comprehensive critical analysis of the book. But I will highlight some of what I regard as its strengths and weaknesses.

A strength is his definition of "belief systems": "a set of propositions held to be true, to which some emotional charge (affect) is attached and which gives more or less cogent expression to a general sense of how the world is." (§3) But this in turn reveals a weakness, namely his insistence upon the phrase "belief systems" in lieu of "ideology." For example, he writes, "Among Marxist writers, meanwhile, ’ideology’ is correctly used in a sense that is both broader and narrower than ‘belief system’: broader because it also includes, for instance, the arts, and narrower because it refers only to phenomena that are seen determined in some way by a mode of production." (§3) Both the narrowness and broadness that Griffiths imputes to "ideology" as compared "belief systems" seem dubious to me. The broadness because, by emphasizing the propositional content of belief systems, it downplays the importance of phenomena, such as the artistic works, from which it may be difficult to extrapolate a belief system's propositional content, but which may be essential for decoding its affective meaning for believers. And the narrowness because, if Marxism is taken seriously as a science, then in the final analysis every phenomenon is ultimately "determined in some way by a mode of production."

In general, Griffiths seems motivated by a kind of anxiety about the scientificity of Marxism. By electing the term "belief systems" he wishes to hold open the possibility of participation in his proposed new science by people who do not accept Marxism, and thus might be repelled by the term "ideology" and its associations. Yet he himself holds to the truth of a certain kind of Marxism, and devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 5) to articulating the possible relationships between "belief systems and the materialist conception of history."

(A secondary problem here is that "materialist conception of history" ought not to be treated as singular, or as identical with Marxism. The latter has already been shown by Plekhanov in his Development of the Monist View of History, which shows how Marxism borrows from and extends insights from earlier forms of historical materialism. That there can be other materialist conceptions of history is central to my emerging world view, i.e. one that would dispense with the dualism between "man" and "nature" implicit both in Marx and in his putatively "monist" predecessors, as can be found for example in this passage from "The Critique of the Gotha Program": "Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. the above phrase is to be found in all children's primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor.")

From his definition, Griffiths identifies two topics of analysis that are essential to analysis of belief systems. One would be the affective dimension, and to this his book contributes far less than might be hoped. The other is the propositional content and how it hangs together through a combination of explicit and implicit beliefs. This hanging together is described through what he terms "descriptive logic," that is, analysis of how believers actually reason, rather than an attempt to impose prescriptive, formal logic onto the propositions of a belief system. The power of this methodology can be seen precisely in that it can be applied to Griffiths himself.

Let us take, for example, a statement of Griffiths that I find factually false, since these can often serve as entry-points to the implicit reasoning of a belief system:

"It may seem odd that no well-developed science of belief systems has yet to be put forward within Marxism, and that the most thoughtful and interesting Marxist writers have not typically devoted a great deal of their attention to belief systems – certainly much less than they have given, say, to the arts. There are book-length studies of artistic and aesthetic questions by such prominent Marxists as Plekhanov, Lukács, and Trotsky; and a number of brilliant Marxist thinkers have done their best work precisely on the arts (Caudwell, Max Raphael). Belief systems have not been so favoured. There is Kautsky’s stimulating book on early Christianity, there is some outstanding work by Marxist historians and other scholars (Rodinson, Christopher Hill, Peter Worsley)... but, in general, Marxism’s knowledge of aesthetics and the arts is considerably in advance of its grasp of belief systems." (§108)

I have already given a brief criticism of Griffiths' differentiation of "aesthetics and the arts" from "belief systems," but the factual errors of this passage go deeper. At best it represents an incomplete bibliography, at worst a blind-spot: One can use the author names given to reconstruct some of what a fuller bibliography of Marxist theories of belief systems would include. For example, Plekhanov’s Monist View contains much material in this vein; his oeuvre has been incompletely translated into English, but Griffiths’ fluency in Russian denies him this excuse. Lukács’ work includes not only History and Class Consciousness, but also Eclipse of Reason. From Trotsky: The Stalin School of Falsification, Their Morals and Ours, and In Defense of Marxism are all must-reads for examples of reconstructions of the belief systems of others and their articulation to class interests. Then there are the missing names (Gramsci being the most glaring omission).

A bit of "descriptive logic" goes a long way in reconstructing Griffiths’ apparent blind-spot. In the following reconstruction, I follow Griffiths' convention of italicizing those propositions which are directly quoted from the work of the believer, leaving the implicit steps in the reasoning process in plain text:

  1. Marxism is true.
  2. If Marxism were true, then we would be on the way to the proletarian overthrow of capitalism and creation of communism.
  3. We appear to not be on such a path.
  4. In the history of Marxism, apparent failures of the proletariat to fulfill its historic mission have been explained with reference to theories of ideology, which claim to account scientifically for belief systems.
  5. None of those theories of ideology accounts well for the present world political situation.
  6. Thus a well-developed science of belief systems has yet to be put forward within Marxism.

I would thus argue that Griffiths succeeds partially in his aim, in developing a theory of ideology (though he does not call it that) whose power is not dependent upon agreement with the author's Marxism, and that this power is demonstrated precisely insofar as the methodological insights of descriptive logic can be applied critically to Griffiths himself. Extension of this study can include the further elaboration (and formalization) of descriptive logic, but would also need to attend to the comparatively weaker portion of Griffiths' work, the study of affect. As with his gloss on Marxist theories of ideology, there are bibliographical gaps that provide a hint as to directions for future research. For example, there is a substantial Enlightenment and proto-Enlightenment literature on the relationship between reason and affect. Spinoza and Rousseau stand out to me as its pinnacles of achievement. Comparing this literature with the literature of modern experimental psychology to see how well it has held up would be a worthwhile endeavor for someone who wished to study the affective nature of belief systems (or ideologies--I am convinced that the terminological distinction is largely a matter of taste.)

There is far more of value to be found, in embryo, in Griffiths' slim little book, and I may return to my notes on it for other entries. But I would argue that, at this moment, the study of ideologies has more ethical and aesthetic import than political significance. And so for the time being, I hope to be able to turn such of my energies as are available for writing away from the essayistic and back toward the fictional.