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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Economics, Politics

Paul Starr on a New Progressive Era

Free Photo: World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893

Paul Starr, the Bancroft and Pulitzer prize-winner historian, has a new article at The American Prospect that addresses some of this blog’s earlier questions about what a new progressive era might look like. The article is titled “How Gilded Ages End.”

I’d recommend reading the entire thing. For my interests, the key passages come toward the end, when Starr concludes that a new progressive era, like the progressive advances of the twentieth century, should center around “three critical domains for curbing oligarchic dominance.” These are: “taxation, the rules of the market, and the rules of politics.”

In a nutshell, reforming the rules of politics makes it possible to reform the rules of the market (which determine wealth before taxes and transfers) and the rules of taxes and transfers (which determine how much wealth everyone ends up with). In turn, reforming the rules of the market and of taxation will help reduce wealth inequality, which will lead to less inequality in political power, which will make reforms of the rules of politics more likely.

Where one starts may depend on political contingencies. But no matter where one starts, the “three domains for curbing oligarchic dominance” should reinforce each other in a virtuous cycle.

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A hierarchy of political needs?

Free Photo: Mexican Migrants Home

Longtime readers of the blog may remember that when I first started posting, in March 2014, I began with an odd question: what would a progressive Milton Friedman say? Underlying the question was my sense that contemporary American progressives have failed to articulate a vision of government that could replace the crumbling vision of the Reagan era, as embodied in Milton Friedman’s rhetorically powerful and very influential Capitalism and Freedom.

In retrospect, one of the unstated assumptions of that series of posts — to which I hope to return, especially as the materials for a progressive post-Reagan-era vision continue to accumulate, if not coalesce — was the idea that a contemporary, progressive Capitalism and Freedom would be primarily about economics, as Friedman’s book was.

But why should this be the case? Why must economic policy and the government’s role in the economy be the defining focus of the next “era” — the next political or constitutional regime — in the United States? Even if the New Deal era and the Reagan era were largely defined by changes in economic ideology and policy, must this always be the case?

In particular, as I turned toward thinking about the environment as part of a recent project, I wondered whether the next American political regime could be defined by the response to environmental problems and above all climate change, which, it’s at least plausible to argue, is the single most important political issue facing the United States and the world today. Maybe Europe’s Green Parties could be a sign of things to come.

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What so few economists know, but nearly all the good legal scholars understand

Free Photo: Stacks of Tires in a Rubber Factory

Many of the blogs I’ve enjoyed most over the years feature recurring motifs. One of Kevin Drum’s hobbyhorses is the relation between the phasing out of lead in the United States beginning in the 1970s and the drop in violent crime over the last two decades. If a prominent article proposes an explanation of the fall in violent crime (for example, arguing that “broken windows” policing was responsible) without mentioning the possibility that Americans are less violent because they’re no longer being poisoned by lead at an early age, Drum will chime in. Similarly, Paul Krugman returns again and again, both in his blog and in his columns, to failed predictions of runaway inflation by commentators on the right. Whenever a new warning against “printing money” and the risk of hyperinflation appears, Krugman posts a response. Likewise, Sanford Levinson (at Balkinization) circles back repeatedly to the criticism of political analysts who fail to recognize the harmful political effects of the undemocratic, hardwired structural provisions in the U.S. Constitution, such as the malapportionment of the Senate, the selection of the President by the electoral college, and life tenure for Supreme Court justices.

If I were going to have a hobbyhorse, it would probably be the failure to recognize the role of government in the economy. Not the role of government in regulating the economy. The role of government in constituting the economy. Progressive legal scholars have been hammering away at this point for nearly a century, at least since Robert Hale’s “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923), but it has never gotten through to the public consciousness. It has never shaped the way that the American public thinks and talks about the economy. And that’s a tragedy for our national economic conversation.

One reason that the progressive legal scholar’s view of the economy as a government creation has not gotten through to the general public may be that the public (naturally) looks to economists for guidance on how to think about the economy. Unfortunately, even most progressive economists today talk about “the market” as something that exists in opposition to the government, rather than as something created by the government. Whether on the left or right, mainstream economists tend to share the basic conceptual framework of the Reagan era when it comes to the economy, the framework I criticized in an earlier post on Greg Mankiw.

Consider Joseph Stiglitz’s recent remark in Harper’s: “Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘purely’ capitalist system. We have always had a mixed economy, relying on the government for investment in education, technology, and infrastructure.” These statements may sound progressive at first glance, but they adopt some of the central and most damaging assumptions of the Reagan era.

When Stiglitz says that there is “no such thing as a ‘purely’ capitalist system,” he’s right–but not in the sense he intends. The reason there is no such thing as a “purely capitalist” (or “purely free market”) system is not that all modern governments engage in infrastructure spending and the like. The reason is that “capitalism” is not a concept that has an essence or a core. We can talk about pure water–water with all the impurities removed, water that is nothing but H2O. But it simply makes no sense to talk about “pure” capitalism if this means something like capitalism with all traces of government removed. Markets without government aren’t markets at all, at least not in any sense we would recognize today. If the government plays no role in the economy, then there are no property or contract rights–and surely private property rights are one of the features of every economic system that we would call “capitalist.”

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