Archive | September, 2008

A Question About Literature and Political Philosophy

30 Sep

And since people are thinking about literature I’ll take this opportunity to ask a question I’ve been considering recently: Why doesn’t more literary criticism make mention of rights-based liberalism?  Not that I expect a lot of lit professors to approvingly cite Rawls, but he doesn’t even get name checked.  This might seem like a silly question considering that Rawls didn’t have a lot to say about literature (as far as I know), but I’ve never heard him referenced.  Not even as figure to disagree with.  Then again, I never hear Nozick or Judith Sklar either. Marx, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, yes–but nothing about Rawls.  

There’s a lot of vague comminitarian talk that gets thrown around and plenty of discussion about the difficulty of language, but seemingly nothing about rights-based liberalism.  What gives? (I leave this an open question for people who probably have more experience considering the two fields).

Brief Thoughts On Fiction

30 Sep

I don’t have a lot to say in response to Matt Zeitlin’s post on fiction and James Woods’ disdain for the “hysterical realism” of Rushdie, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, et al.  I read more poetry than I do fiction, so I’d gladly defer to the opinions of people who have read many of these authors and more fiction criticism.

It seems that Woods (at least from his White Teeth review) is making two interrconnected arguments: 1) an argument about the formal comparative advantage of literature and 2) a larger moral argument about what these formal choices say about the world.

The first argument is concerned, put crudely, with the idea of the novel as a formal machine, and that literature does the best job of investigating (and representing, and interrogating, etc.) the interiors of human experinece. In poetry, we often talk about poetry as if we were creating little verse machines (though they need not be in verse or follow “traditional form”) and how those formal choices support or detract from what the poem is trying to do or what we’d like it to do.  This is analogous to Woods’ discussion of the “architecture” of Zadie Smith’s novel; for Woods, the novel’s architecture doesn’t hold up:

The passage might stand, microcosmically, for the novel’s larger dilemma of storytelling: on its own, almost any of these details (except perhaps the detail about passing the shit and piss through the cat-flap) might be persuasive. Together, they vandalize each other: the Presbyterian dypsomaniacs and the Mormon aunt make impossible the reality of the fanatical Muslim. As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

But we might ask ourselves why the formal elements should support the sort of novel Woods finds sucessful? First we have to ask ourselves what we consider sucesses to be.  Let’s assume that we take Smith’s novel on its own terms and that we hold nothing against “hysterical realism”; what does a sucessful novel in this style look like?  An unsucessful one?  

It quickly becomes clear that we have to resort to some kind of standard or categories outside the novel, even if that it standard is simply the reader.  What would an ideal reader of “hysterical realism” be interested in and why would a work like White Teeth or Gravity’s Rainbow resonate with them?  I agree with Zeitlin here and think the answer doesn’t really have a foundational element; there is no core artistic concept or Platonic ideal that we have recourse to (as Ned notes). But that doesn’t mean Woods thinks there is only one formal structure that leads to sucessful novels, or to making the sort of statements he’d like fiction to make:

The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness. 

And now we come to the core question of values and Woods’ second argument.  Whether Smith (and by implication, Wolfe, Pynchon, DFW, and others) lacks moral seriousness is a question that can be answered.  Just not by me (I haven’t read their work nor do I want to wade any further into this lit crit morass I’ve dreged up for myself).

If we, like Zeitlin and Woods, see certain techniques as larger statements about a work or the world around us, then we can take these statements and evaluate them against some exisiting conception of the world and the sort of moral commitments you think are important.  Woods wants a literture that connects with the sublime and what is most deeply human about us.  That’s something I want too, though I’m not sure I can tell you why you should be prefer this (even assuming that literature does this better than any other medium, why should you want this in the first place).  In the end, I think you have to make reference to a lot of held assumptions and values that lie outside of fiction qua fiction.

The Perils of the Low Information Voter

29 Sep

The bailout plan fails in the House. And hey, the Dow closes in -700 territory. So that’s exciting.  

On the political side, I can understand the behavior of representatives who claim to be receiving calls 100:1 against the bailout. They’re worried about protecting their seats and watching as their vote is painted as a taxpayer giveaway to billionares. But this is the one of the real-word consequences of the the “low information” voter.  The bailout is a complex and confusing morass that requires a lot of technical knowledge.  So we’re asking the voter–who hears “bailout” and “fatcat” thrown around like CNBC is covering a national game of Monopoly with the Fed playing the roll of Mr. Moneybags, complete with Depression-era monocle–to smile and put their faith in unelected technocrats. 

This is, in part, a trust and information problem. If more voters understood the problem, they might be inclined to support the bill. (I’ll also note that some of this blame could be shared by Congress and the Bush administration for not selling this better). If some voters had more information, they’d know enough to understand…that they don’t know enough. 

Instead, they call and complain to their local representative, allowing the House GOP to cry partisanship. Best comment comes from a friend in investment banking:

LOL. No! They’re [the Republicans] protecting the little guy by insisting on tax incentives for speculative investment. Wheeeeeeee! We’re all doomed!

Live-Blogging the Debate: The Blogs to Read

26 Sep

I’ll be busy at one of the last Fall For the Book readings tonight so I won’t be following the debate as closely as I’d like.  You, however, should follow along with these fine bloggers who will be giving you some of the best foreign policy and political commentary as they live-blog the event:

  • Ned Resnikoff and Charlie Eisenhood at NYU Local: Sweet political barbs from the Big Apple’s progressive, hipster capital.
  • Democracy Arsenal hits you with a right hook of wonkishness and lays you out with a southpaw of firece foreign policy analysis.  Or some other such boxing/defense policy metaphor-combo.
  • Dan Drezner: The man boasts political economy and foreign policy bona fides. If you mess with him, he will cut you.
  • Think Progress: It’s a virtual room full of wonks and twenty-something Beltway progressives, including Matt Yglesias. You don’t have to drink to hang out, but you will have to provide your own booze.
I’ll weigh in with a (hopefully) substative take post-debate, but until then enjoy your Friday.

What Obama’s Economic Argument Should Look Like: The Great Risk Shift

23 Sep

One of the things that seems to be missing from the Obama campaign’s economic rhetoric is a coherent narrative under which he can group his policy proposals .  Citing deregulation, the influence of lobbyists (with strong ties to the Republican party and John McCain’s campaign), and tax cuts for oil companies is a scatter-shot of political sins and policy failures.  But as Ezra Klein observed recently when critiquing an Obama ad, these things don’t really go together in the minds of voters:

But the substance of the ad, the solutions, are a string of disconnected, and fairly unconvincing, sentences. “Reform our tax system to give a $1,000 tax break to the middle class, instead of showering more on oil companies and corporations that outsource our jobs.” This would be fine if McCain were publicly advocating the “Oil Companies and Outsourcers Tax Cut of 2008,” but as he won’t admit to favoring these things, it just sounds like Obama is another politician promising Good Stuff, and no one really believes in Good Stuff. 

Jacob Hacker’s idea of “The Great Risk Shift” would be one, I think powerful, way of thinking about the current crisis and forming a positive argument.  It also has two major political messaging benefits:

  1. Like Bill Clinton’s 1992 message, it tells the voters what the Republicans are doing wrong (they’re shifting the burden of financial risk from other players in the system–who can and should assume their own risk–and shifting it to the middle and lower classes).  It’s the worst features of both Big Government and free-market fervor: regulatory capture, corporate patronage, and bailouts for those at the top combined with little to no oversight to keep markets running smoothly (even if you favor a “night watchmen” for regulatory oversight, it’d be best if that watchman wasn’t asleep on the job). 
  2. It offers a flexible range of policy responses.  The campaign doesn’t have to adopt all of Hacker’s proposals to make the case against McCain’s plans.  You could offer a more populist, John Edwards inspired package under the narrative of restoring safeguards for the American worker as easily as you could a more limited, “iPod government” initiative.

The message of the late 80s and early 90s was that “trickle-down economics” had failed to actually trickle down.  The message for the remaining days of this campaign should be that average voters deserve a governemnt that makes all players in the system assume their fair share of risk.

Sentences That Worry Me

15 Sep

Perhaps if I had more experience with financial markets, I wouldn’t be as concerned, but as it stands this sort of thing doesn’t sound good:

$$$ With Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns gone, everyone is asking whether Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs will survive as independent investment banks.

And these from Felix Salmon:

If you’re looking for silver linings, it’s clearly the investment banks which are most worried right now, not the big commercial banks in Europe or even in the US (Wells Fargo). When Wall Street’s alpha males stop competing and start cooperating like this, you know you’re living in historic times.

Hopefully not too historic.

I Believe in Dylan Matthews

15 Sep

You’ve got to support a guy who is fake-running to be a UC representative at Harvard and references Thomas Carlyle as part of his biography:

In fact, if Thomas Carlyle were to have met Dylan, he would have hanged himself in despair at the impossibility of achieving such greatness. And Thomas Carlyle was a total baller.

Walt Whitman would agree, and Whitman was the OG of American poetry in addition to being a super-pimp¹, so he would know.

¹When you think about it, a good 50% of Leaves of Grass says as much.