U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Baffler Round Table, Entry #1: Eric Brandom

[Editor’s Note: This is entry number 1 of 4 total in our round table covering The Baffler, No. 19 (March 2012). Today’s piece comes from Eric Brandom, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. Tomorrow’s will be from Adam Parsons and Wednesday’s from Keith Woodhouse. A response to all three will follow from John Summers, The Baffler‘s new editor-in-chief. – TL]
“The man in the street is not expected to know the intricacies of the magic of inducing fertility or casting evil spells. What he must know, however, is which magicians to call upon if the need for either of these services arises…The practical difficulties that may arise in certain societies (for instance, when there are competing coteries of experts, or when specialization has become so complicated that the layman gets confused) need not concern us at the moment.” [1]
This is the first part of a roundtable discussion of The Baffler 19. The normal conventions of academic reviewing are difficult to apply to such a publication. I have been selective, knowing that other contributors will have different interests and perspectives. As a guiding hypothesis, useful as a provocation, I want to suggest that The Baffler’s editorial line in this issue is shaped by social constructivism as opposed to a more thoroughgoing materialism. The central problem to be solved is the one raised, and deferred, in the above citation: expertise. This means, I want to suggest, that although the writers here represented–let us called them Bafflers–can explain why certain social arrangements crush creativity and imagination, their critical stance amounts to asserting the autonomy of the various spheres of life, most saliently the economic, political, and artistic. This is problematic because the Bafflers care very much about how these are or might be connected to one another.
The Baffler was founded in the late 1980s as an anti-business “punk literary magazine” in the spirit of Arthur Rimbaud.[2]
It is now considerably older than this precocious young man was when he gave up poetry and took up trading in Africa. What is The Baffler up to these days? John Summers frames Baffler 19 as a broadside against faith in a digitized “creative class” (7). It keeps its distance from academia yet, as Thomas Frank wrote almost 15 years ago, it is conducted with the understanding that, “yes, postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism.”[3] It is surely a somewhat quixotic gesture to so proudly claim the form of the “little magazine” this far into the 21st century. Does The Baffler help us, as Lionel Trilling wrote commemorating the tenth anniversary of another little magazine, “to organize a new union between our political ideas and our imagination”?[4] How is this best done? The quality of the contributions and the general level of editorial ambition–especially as this issue is a new beginning–suggests that this standard is not too high. But, it seems to me, the constructivist rather than materialist perspective adopted by the magazine as a whole makes it difficult to engage either with the technology under debate in so much of the issue, or the physicality of the human bodies this technology is meant to liberate or at least comfort.
The Baffler 19 certainly paints a discouraging picture of the experts supposed to manage the rolling crisis that is today’s economy. Most alarming is, in Maureen Tkacik’s evocative phrase, a “tendency to level the playing field between reality and fiction” (120-121). According to Thomas Frank, the marketization of everything and the attendant growth of inequality have undermined all the institutions of “organized intelligence” (11). Frank compares the current patterns of economic thought to the transition from the 1930s to the 1940s. “Premature market skeptics” are dismissed today, even as their positions are publically confirmed, just as “premature antifascists” were dismissed after the opening of hostilities against Nazi Germany (a theme echoed by Newell’s fondness for referring to “quislings” in the press or congress (30, 34)). The system as currently rigged, Frank says, means that even the election of a president who believes in expert opinion does not solve the problem. The experts are rewarded not for telling hard truths that eventually turn out to be right, but for reassuringly collective error. James K. Galbraith frames and excerpts from a memo drafted by a group of economists, which he sent to the Obama administration in 2008. It is filed under “We told you so,” and is the moment Cassandra rarely gets. Jim Newell’s “I Was a Teenage Gramlich” is something like a microhistorical account of how one learns to speak the language of economics fluently without, in fact, attaching thoughtful meaning to these words. We are far from 1969, when it could be publically asserted that “we have learned at last to manage a modern economy to assure its continued growth”–what happened?[5]
Rick Perlstein begins the story in the ‘70s–the 1870s. Intransigents like William Lloyd Garrison who “pointed out that the new systems of agricultural labor […] guarded by Ku Klux Klan terror, scarcely differed from slavery,” were dismissed (38). The great strike waves of the era were called anti-American, “transcending strife–achieving consensus–was the meaning of the new nation” (38). Reconstruction was achieved through a nationalist, racist, anti-labor ideology. The same ideology of transcendent national unity, again built out of broken promises to African Americans, Perlstein suggests, brought Ronald Reagan to the White House in the wake of a civil rights struggle that was was somewhere between a revolution and a civil war. Reagan invented–or anyway first made real–a new political language: “Reagan did not get elected to the presidency because he promised to dismantle big government. The Reagan Moment arrived less because of any popular shift in ideology about the role of the state than because of the kind of stories Ronald Reagan told” (46). Through sheer embodied political work–but also very canny timing–Reagan remade American political discourse and therefore the coordinates of the politically possible. Perlstein’s Reagan, we might suggest, is the organic intellectual of the rising creative class that comes in for such abuse throughout this magazine.
Which, it seems to me, begs the question of how American political discourse might be changed in a different direction, one more to the liking of The Baffler. Chris Lehmann’s meditation on The Harbor, a recently re-published novel written in 1915 by Ernest Poole, suggests one set of constraints. It is a bildungsroman for Billy, a writer, torn between the upper reaches of the business elite and the toiling manual laborers at the harbor. Poole knew something about this himself. Indeed, the novel draws heavily on Poole’s own experiences helping to put on the 1913 Paterson Pageant in Madison Square Gardens, to support an IWW-led silk workers’ strike. The Pageant, an “artistic success,” was, according to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “disastrous to solidarity during the last days of a losing strike.”[6] The show closed after one performance, the strike lost, and many of the artists involved went off to Europe. As Lehmann emphasizes, this way of thinking about international and cross-class solidarity came to an abrupt end with the arrival of war the next summer.
The novel comes from a very different moment in American politics and culture–one in which many of the most prominent writers were socialists. Yet Lehmann detects some echoes with our own time and draws a cautionary conclusion. The Harbor’s “real romantic conflict lies between the narrator and the crowd” (56). It is an exploration of a bourgeois intellectual’s psycho-drama involvement with the proletariat, “his craving for authenticity” (58). “The socialists of the past century were less besotted with working-class internationalism for its own sake than they were smitten with the psychic compensations of the enhanced reality that life among the proletariat had to offer” (59). Indeed one can only agree that “the struggle for justice in the workplace is plenty taxing on its own, without the added burden of producing existential meaning for restless bourgeois spirits” (58). Lehmann, citing Christopher Lasch’s judgment that “one signal failing of the twentieth century’s new radicalism was its misapplication of political means to cultural ends” (59), concludes that whatever the working class is, “one way to ensure that its lot will never improve is to keep it always at voyeuristic arm’s length” (59). It is easy to find contemporary examples of wealthy and privileged audiences finding “authenticity,” “enhanced reality,” and “existential meaning” in representations of what was once called the lower depths. But I wonder if the widely-held assumption that “struggle for justice in the workplace” can no longer generate existential meaning for anyone is not a more serious problem. What’s more, the heirs of Poole and Billy seem unable to provide any kind of answer to Perlstein’s Reagan who, following Lasch, seems to have successfully applied cultural means to political ends. What’s a Baffler to do about this?
One answer might come from a different moment of American leftism. Baffler 19 prints the first third of the story–“Cotton Tenants”–that James Agee and Walker Evans filed with Fortune Magazine in 1936. The story was refused, and has never before been published in this form; Agee expanded and reworked it into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is brilliant writing, a powerful and detailed description of the “existential meaning” of a given time and place. Such a document is not published here out of purely historical interest. What should a writer or artist who wants to be political today learn from the kind of literary reportage of humanity in misery represented by Agee’s text?
The ethical problem that drove the prose of Famous Men was self-torture over the possibility of making something like saleable art out of the suffering of real human beings. It is absent from this earlier version. Consider the first sentence: “Line them up on their front porches, their bodies archaic in their rags as farm bodies are; line them against that grained wood which is their shelter in three rude friezes and see, one by one, who they are: the Tingles, the Fields, the Burroughs” (152). Here is the objectification–archaic bodies in friezes–by insertion into art history that Agee struggled against in order to make Famous Men. The sensitivity of the writing is calibrated to an objectivity so confident in itself that the unknowable is not destabilizing. Lucile Burroughs, ten years old, is a “full-blown enigma […] she uses her eyes to watch into the eyes of other people, quite as calmly as death itself, and as cluelessly, too. [… S]he is advanced in consciousness to that stage at which a child dislikes its name” (157). But Agee is not yet so advanced as to replace this name with a pseudonym–that would come only in the later version of the text.
For Agee’s cotton farmers, labor comes quite directly out of the body, and is inscribed on it. Like George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (1937), with which it is almost exactly contemporary, “Cotton Tenants” is therefore obsessed with bodies. A mother’s breast is “shriveled and knottily veined; and her hands, when you notice them, are startling: it is as if they were a couple of sizes too large, drawn over what the keen wrists called for” (156-157). One man’s body “which would otherwise have been very conventionally handsome, is knotted into something else again by the work he has done; and his skin, alarmingly fair beyond the elbows and neck, is cratered and discolored by the food he has eaten and the vermin he has slept with” (156). The same man “is a very poor picker. When he was a child he fell in the fireplace and burnt the flesh off the flat of both hands, so his fingers are stiff and slow and the best he has ever done in a day is 150 pounds. Average for a man is nearer 250” (161-162). It is clear that in a certain immediate sense, if one is to criticize an economic or political regime, one must insist on the damage done to people, the pain inflicted on human bodies. Yet from social criticism, it is easy to slide into a new voyeuristic exploitation. The Baffler 19 contains nothing else like Agee’s prose, and does not seem interested in contemporary journalism that treads the same dangerous ground.
Fiction, on the other hand, still aspires to map out just how each body is pinned to the reproductive wheel of the capitalist economy. It avoids Agee’s ethical dilemma by subtracting truth-claims. “My Own Little Mission,” a sort of monologue from Dubravka Ugreši? that is broken into pieces and spread at intervals through the issue, is its most effective literary encounter with life under late-late capitalism–the question of its fictionality, perhaps like Reagan’s imaginary bridges, seems beside the point. “Edge Lands” by Chris N. Brown is set in an artists’ colony, a quasi-sovereign state carved out of Mexico. The dystopia running underneath the spectacular, sensual, experiments that the artists perform on themselves and other living bodies is, of course, the corporate world that pays for it all. It is an apologetic, self-pitying story told by the “creative class” to itself. Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312” rings a change on the witticism (now raised to the level of postmodern metaphysics) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The first part of the text is a light and helpful guide to physically making one’s own biosphere out of a hollowed-out asteroid. Its smooth and reassuring voice gives way to chopped-up fragments of exposition describing the Accelerando: a space elevator in Quito; Mondragon accords for an AI-planned economy; and the GINI coefficient on Mars. Insistence on the level of form that it is difficult for us to imagine that “capitalism […] with some rule and attitude changes […] has proven it can be an interesting game, even beautiful, like baseball or volleyball. It is a valid project at the margin, a form of self-actualization, not to be applied to the necessities, but on the margin a nice hobby, even perhaps an art form” (139). Here indeed is a dream for the politicized artist–if only capitalism could be rendered as marginal and easy to ignore as I am–that would have made little sense to Agee.
David Graeber tells us, in “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” that we aren’t likely to get any of this imagination-freeing technology. Graeber has been most in view recently both for his early involvement in Occupy Wall Street and for his timely Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011).[7] His basic claim is that since the middle of the 20th century, but particularly since 1970, the rate of real technological change has slowed and nearly halted. We are literally going more slowly now–Apollo 10, in 1969, was the fastest a human being has ever travelled (71). Postmodernism, as a broad cultural constellation, is the recognition that in the last 40 years “the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things.” These have stood in for what we really wanted, “pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices” (68). Nor, in a binary he uses several times, do we have artificial intelligence or robots to do our housework for us. “The Internet”–the obvious answer to the challenge that nothing has changed–“is a remarkable innovation but all we are talking about is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office, and mail-order catalogue” (77). Adding touch-screens to cell phones is kind of neat, but it does not constitute a fundamental technological breakthrough, and for the past decades we’ve done little better than this.
The central explanation Graeber offers for this failure of expected change is in the title of the piece–the declining rate of profit. “Marx argued that […] value–and therefore profits–can be extracted only from human labor. Competition forces factory owners to mechanize production, to reduce labor costs, but while this is to the short-term advantage of the firm, mechanization’s effect is to drive down the general rate of profit” (73). There is no consensus about the accuracy of these claims, “but if it is true, then the decision by industrialists not to pour research funds into the invention of […] robot factories […] and instead to relocate their factories to labor-intensive, low-tech facilities in China of the Global South makes a great deal of sense” (73). Of course capital prefers not to invest in labor-saving machines, and will take its profits wherever the geopolitical situation allows. Globalization and sheer police power have broken real worker resistance.
This Marxian explanation is accompanied by what strikes me as a profoundly constructivist reinterpretation of capitalism and creativity. If, for Marx, intra-capitalist competition inevitably drove innovation, Graeber gives social form–bureaucracy, abstracted from any non-human technological basis–the power to trump change. For Graeber, American capitalism is basically corporate, which means bureaucratic (80). It is in contrast with British capitalism, which had a more diverse social structure and was therefore more open to change. Not profit as such, but corporate-bureaucratic standardization has halted scientific progress–especially in academia. Far from freeing us from standardization, bureaucratic technologies like the internet and “computers have played a crucial role in […] narrowing our social imagination” (81). Toward what sort of politics does this point?
The goal of politics would be–as in Robinson’s story–to put rationality at the service of poetry, and not the other way around. Graeber describes replacing bureaucratic technologies with “poetic technologies” (81), so that “free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs […] our imaginations  [can] once again become a material force in human history” (84). This is a call to the post-scarcity society that the 1960s believed it was about to achieve, and is a directly voluntarist challenge to the contemporary class structure. Graeber suggests that if sufficient resistance to capital can be mounted, or simply in the fullness of time, technological progress will pick back up, and we indeed will be able to dispense with capitalism without giving up the benefits of modernity.
Here, it seems to me, we see again the broad difficulty into which The Baffler falls. Graeber effectively wants the economy to be made autonomous, so that it can be ignored. Elsewhere, Graeber has described his anarchist politics as “prefigurative.” In short, a hierarchical and authoritarian revolutionary party will not produce an egalitarian and free society. The Occupy movement was consensus-based and participatory, prefiguring the desired social order. There is an element of political formalism here–when politics is imagined as an autonomous sphere with its own logic, that logic is the essential thing.
One triumphal narrative in recent years has been that new communications technologies are prefigurative of a coming society. The Baffler 19 exhausts itself in destroying this narrative, but cannot make an alternative one out of the pieces left by the demolition. As Robert Eshelman insists, Twitter didn’t make the Egyptian revolution. But Graeber himself notes that new ways of organizing people, not steam power or anything so obviously ‘technological,’ built the pyramids (82). Is it really unimaginable that these new means of (what Graeber would perhaps call non-) production do not carry some potential for resistance? If so, surely it can be revealed only by the kind of attention that Agee sought to pay to the life-world of the cotton tenant farmer. That is, only by taking seriously–not dismissing as failure or distraction–the realities created by the new means of communication, by the “creative class” and its daily life, will it be possible to rise, as The Baffler wants to do, from distemper to dissent.
The Baffler’s rejection of the contemporary situation seems so complete that I cannot resist, by way of supplement to Trilling’s goal of uniting imagination and political ideas, citing from a text written at the same moment as “Cotton Tenants” and mentioned by Maureen Tkacik: “if you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality.”[8]
[1] Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 95-96.
[2] The Baffler, “About,” http://thebaffler.com/faq (accessed April 26, 2012)
[3]  Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, eds Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland (New York: Norton, 1997), 15.
[4] Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. (New York: Doubleday, 1950), 103.
[5] Richard Nixon:”Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1969. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=1941. (accessed April 26, 2012)
[6] Cited in McNamara, Brooks, “Paterson Strike Pageant,” The Drama Review: TDR 15, no. 3 (1971): 61.
[7] An anthropologist by training, his first book drew on his own fieldwork in Madagascar as well as other ethnographic resources to present a process-oriented theory of value by synthesizing Karl Marx and Marcel Mauss. See Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, (New York: Palgrave, 2001).
[8] Mao Tse-Tung “On Practice.” http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_16.htm (accessed April 26, 2012).