Literature, Politics, Religion

Silo: a play from 2018 about a pandemic in Trump’s America

Interior of Red Cross House at U.S. General Hospital #16, New Haven, Conn. during the influenza epidemic. The beds are isolated by curtains

In 2018, I finished writing Silo, a play about a highly fatal pandemic spreading across the United States in the Trump era. It was a political allegory. The play considers how a group of plague survivors might try, and fail, to live together in an emergency shelter.

The play was my first work since publishing If in 2014. Although the play ended up being a semi-finalist for the Bridge Award in 2019, it never found a producer. One reason may be that it is extremely violent.

Now that the United States is actually facing a pandemic, and one that has been shaped by our current politics, I thought I would go ahead and publish the play. A link to the PDF appears below.

Silo - page 1Silo

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If, Literature, Politics

Modernism and the Finite Territory of the Avant-Garde

Influenza ward, Walter Reed Hospital, Wash., D.C. [Nurse taking patient's pulse]

This post is about the limits of the avant-garde, and the possibility that the formal possibilities within any art-form are finite.

But first: I recently learned that within the hopeless market for literature professors, the situation is even more dire for aspiring professors who specialize in Modernism — my favorite period in English literature, the period stretching from writers like Conrad, James, and Yeats through writers like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, and too many others to list: Williams, cummings, Moore, Faulkner…

Apparently there are few or no openings for teachers of Modernism in the entire United States in an average year. A search of the MLA Job Information List seems to confirm this picture, although there are a few positions that include Modernism within a broader job description.

I find this particularly sad, because I’ve always felt that Modernism was the last period in Anglophone literature that succeeded in doing something new and great — the last period that can plausibly claim to stand beside the accomplishments of earlier revolutionary literary moments like Romanticism. As the modernist scholar Marjorie Perloff mentioned in a conversation on Robert Harrison’s Entitled Opinions a few years ago, her students have been attracted to Ezra Pound’s work, despite his promotion of fascism, his embraces of historical, economic, and linguistic crankery, and his voluminously unsatisfying literary experiments, because he at least made a case for poetry mattering — and mattering greatly — and he wrote poetry that attempted to fulfill his grandiose demands.

Growing up in a period when poetry for the most part felt lifeless and faux-antiquarian, Pound rethought how poetry can work from the ground up — using the framework of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia — worked through countless formal innovations in his own poetry, played a role in launching the careers of other Modernists like Eliot and Joyce, and went on to attempt a monumental “poem containing history,” The Cantos, which, even if it inevitably failed to satisfy his impossible vision, contains some of the most beautiful, powerful, and heartbreaking passages of poetry in the English language — for me at least. The failed ambition itself supplies some of the pathos, especially in the final fragments.

(It is probably no coincidence that the best and most thrilling and memorable work of literary criticism I have ever read, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, is also concerned with Modernism. It offers a survey of what made Modernism revolutionary, with Pound at the center of the vortex.)

When the literature of the intervening century is compared to the work of the Modernists, it is hard not to feel a sense of belatedness, of arriving after the main act has already ended. From the powerful, quasi-Biblical intensity of the images and music in, for example, The Waste Land, we pass to the mostly self-defeating, self-protecting ironies and light finger-exercises of mid-century poets like Auden and Larkin; the dated, small-worlded pleadings of the countless confessional poets from Lowell onward; the shoddily rambling half-experiments of those who came in Pound’s wake — even the best of them, like Olson and Zukovsky; the dead-end conceptual experiments of the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” school and the “unoriginal geniuses” like Kenneth Goldsmith whose work Perloff has heroically attempted to defend; the trivialities of countless New Yorker-style MFA-industrial poets attempting to capture what it feels like to drink a cup of coffee at an empty kitchen table while listening to NPR after getting divorced; and on and on.

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Literature, Politics

McSweeney’s: “Artisanal Coal”

Many people don’t know this, but in order to support my lifestyle as a writer of experimental fiction, I sometimes moonlight as a copywriter for the coal industry.

I was particularly happy with the reception of my latest work, “Artisanal Coal: A Message from the American Federation of Coal Producers.” Not only did my sponsors at the AFCP promise to put me in touch with an administrator at the EPA to talk about employment possibilities. They also agreed to repost the ad on a website run by publishing baron Timothy McSweeney (of the San Francisco McSweeneys). Enjoy!

Hi. I’m a young American. If you’re like me, you care about locally sourced produce and environmental sustainability. That’s why I bike to work, ferment my own cabbage, and only use organic coffee beans in my cold brew.

The last thing I ever thought I wanted in my life was coal, or a coal-powered mobile electricity generator. 

But then some friends introduced me to small-batch electricity. It’s fresh, all-natural, and American-made…

(The rest at McSweeney’s.)

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Literature, Philosophy, Science

Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Decline of the Literary Humanities

It seems hard to believe, from our current vantage point in which the academic study of literature appears to be in a state of perpetual crisis, that there was a time, not so long ago, when the literary humanities reigned over an expanding scholarly empire — one that was not unlike the empire of the quantitative social sciences, and especially economics, today. Instead of literary academics feeling tempted or obligated to apply quantitative methods to the study of literature — as, for example, Franco Moretti has done, with results of (predictably, it seems to me) real but limited value — non-literary scholars felt tempted or obligated to become conversant in literary theory.

I was reminded of this while reading some essays by Jerome Bruner, an academic psychologist who died in 2016. In works like “Life as Narrative” (1987), Bruner found it useful to draw on literary theory about the structure of narratives as a source of ideas for understanding his own field, and even for designing empirical experiments. He cites Vladimir Propp, Frank Kermode, and Paul de Man, among many others.

Who outside of literary academia reads the works of literary academics today? What happened?

I would like to propose, a little controversially, that the literary humanities finds itself in its current state of isolation in part because of its rejection of structuralism. By “structuralism,” I do not mean only what Lévi-Strauss meant when he introduced the term. I mean something more broad: arguments that attempt to reduce complex, unwieldy human phenomena into relatively simple structures that can then be used to make predictions. The kind of models that the structuralist anthropologist Mary Douglas developed, for example. In its turn to poststructuralism, American literary academia developed a profound antipathy toward this kind of thought — an antipathy, I would argue, that has discouraged literary scholars from developing insights and models that might be of use outside of academic literary studies.

When literary scholarship turned against structuralism, it also implicitly turned against modeling. But models are a large part of what we use to make sense of our worlds, and they are one of the primary ways that ideas move between academic disciplines. To reject the search for predictively useful models is to invite the kind of intellectual isolation in which literary academia currently finds itself.

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Economics, Law, Politics

“Finally, Whites Come First”

Like many white Americans, I have been pleasantly surprised by the Trump administration’s efforts to increase racial equality in the United States. After a lifetime of being denied opportunities based solely on the color of my skin, I now have a first, tentative sense of what racial justice must feel like.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty I am free at last.”

I realize my reaction may be difficult to understand for the dominant groups in the United States today, such as blacks, undocumented immigrants, gays, and Muslims. If you have never been discriminated against, it can be difficult to appreciate the ways that racial oppression distorts and limits a life.

Let me share a parable that captures my experience. It comes from the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who spent years talking with the white victims of racial discrimination in the United States.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

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Economics, Literature, Politics

This Must Be What Freedom Feels Like

In the waiting room of the hospital sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who is in pain and seeks to gain entry to the hospital.

“Anyone may enter the hospital,” the gatekeeper tells the man. “All you need do is enter through the emergency door.” She gestures toward a wide, swinging door at the far end of the waiting room.

The man approaches the emergency door, then turns back. “How much will it cost to enter through this door?” he asks. The gatekeeper says that there is no way of knowing the cost before the man enters. She encourages him to enter for the sake of his health. “We can settle the cost afterward,” she smiles. “We are not barbarians, after all.”

The man returns to the gatekeeper’s desk and asks her if there is another way to enter the hospital. Continue reading

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Law, Philosophy, Politics

When to support a war: consequentialist + deontological justification

I’ve been meaning to write a quick post about the question of when a nation should go to war, and when it should not — and in particular, under what conditions the United States should use large-scale military force against another country. I don’t mean the question of whether a war is legal under the international humanitarian law governing jus ad bellum. I mean the question of when large-scale military engagement is a good idea, something that the public should support. It’s not inconceivable that there are situations when military force is a good idea even though the legal basis is unclear or lacking — such as Kosovo in 1999, or maybe Libya in 2011 — and there are also, certainly, situations when the legal grounds for a war exist, but going to war would be unwise — such as attacking Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea last year.

Based on the armed conflicts involving the United States during my lifetime, it sometimes seems as though the wisdom of entering or not entering an armed conflict gets determined in retrospect, based on how the war turned out — which doesn’t seem like a useful or fair standard for judging wisdom. No one seems particularly bothered about Desert Storm, looking back, although many progressives at the time (including, for example, Joe Biden) opposed military intervention. On the other hand, many people seem to feel that the United States should have intervened in Rwanda to stop the genocide, although there was no great progressive push to do so at the time. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, looking at attitudes toward U.S. uses of force over the last few decades, that we tend to treat decisions about wars as good decisions when they turn out well, and treat them as bad decisions when they don’t. But we often can’t know in advance how a war, or the choice not to go to war, will turn out — wars are notoriously unpredictable, and often develop their own momentum, and motivations and expectations frequently change — so how are we supposed to decide what to support beforehand?

The idea I’ve been meaning to post is an answer to this question. It’s a fairly simple one, and it may already appear somewhere in the literature on just war. But I’ve never come across it before.

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Economics, Politics

Can progressives exploit national security fears too?

President Obama recently made a speech to graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, arguing that climate change is a national security issue. This is an argument that the Pentagon made in a report last year. Many others have been making it for over a decade.

I’ve often thought that progressives who care about climate change should make the connection to national security more often, in an attempt to appeal to the values of cultural conservatives — although there will of course be limits to the persuasiveness of such an appeal if conservatives perceive it as coming from liberals.

More generally, what President Obama might call “a whole host of”* progressive policies could be advocated on national security grounds. This casts a new light on several previous arguments that have appeared on this blog.

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