The Right-Wing Lumpen-Intelligenstia: How the “Free Speech” Myth Serves the Ruling Class

Marx once wrote about the “lumpenproletariat,” the unthinking portion of the working class that could never attain class consciousness and were thus worthless to workers’ revolution. Today, we might describe the plethora of right-wing commentators inexplicably paid to share their toxic views constitute a lumpen-intelligentsia: “thought leaders” and “influencers” whose “work” tends to provoke more hostility than thought.

business_insider_logoRecently, right-wing opinion columnist Daniella Greenbaum resigned in a public huff after her employer at the time, Business Insider, yanked a piece she had penned defending the casting of a straight cisgender actor as Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life transgender man who owned several Pittsburgh massage parlors in the 1970s and 1980s that served as fronts for prostitution. Ignoring the justified and complex arguments of transgender activists who have long complained about the underrepresentation in Hollywood of transgender performers, Greenbaum lazily argued from a “common sense” perspective that actors are meant to portray people other than themselves. It should be noted that the 24-year-old Greenbaum herself is not only straight and cisgender as too also but grew up in the lap of luxury in Manhattan, first attending a private Jewish day school and then Columbia University, before an internship at AIPAC plugged her into conservative pundit cottage industry. It boggles the mind why the editors at Business Insider decided the world needed to know the opinions of such a person on transgender representation but given David Brooks’ own lecturing to African-American youth not too long ago, perhaps the discerning reader should not be too surprised the piece went live.

dh7fajfxkaegzfvIt did not remain live for long. Business Insider pulled the piece after the inevitable backlash. As has become vogue for conservative commentators, Greenbaum cried censorship and sent out her resignation letter. Also, a litany of her ilk attended her self-pity party, with the usual cast of characters – Bret Stephens, Christina Hoff Sommers, John Podhoretz, Bethany Mandel, Jamie Kirchik, et al – rallying to her cause. Of course, rather than being blacklisted by the “liberal media,” Greenbaum found a new home at the Washington Post, where her first piece– you guessed it – bemoaned the death of “free speech” and the inclination by people to give in to the tyranny of the “mob.”

185px-free_speech_doesnt_mean_careless_talk_-_nara_-_535383Much has already been made about the hypocrisy of the right-wing media and its members when they cry “free speech.” Obviously, conservatives opine when individuals who share their beliefs are sanctioned in some way for expressing themselves, but conveniently look the other way when academics who criticize Israel lose their jobs or when NFL players take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism. By claiming “free speech,” however, conservative pundits can ensure their reactionary, increasingly antiquated views and values are treated with respect and civility. Moderate liberals will – and have – tripped over themselves to demonstrate their own dedication to freedom of thought, ignorant or indifferent to the fact they are enabling conservative social control to be broadcast to the millions of Americans who consume the mass media.

I do not want to deconstruct this “crisis of free speech” mythology because I believe most people can see through the lie for what it is. What I do want to do is examine who exactly benefits from this strategy and how it is rooted in a long tradition of using the media as a propaganda tool to promote the status quo while attacking the forces of progress. Studying history reveals that the liberal cry of “free speech” has far more to do with protecting perspectives favorable to the powerful than safeguarding dissent.

burkereflectionsUniformly white and privileged, the right-wing chattering class prone to complaining about “censorship” reflect the genteel face of middle- and upper-class of the Caucasian U.S. that is both uncomfortable with the populism of Trump and the progressivism of the political left. Like the Trumpists, though, they despise “political correctness” – that is, the shifting norms and ideas around everything from class to race to gender – and the abandonment of “common sense” – that is, the prejudices and beliefs socialized into their heads as objective truth. Going back to the French Revolution, conservative forebear Edmund Burke argued that the “natural order” of society, embodied in the countryside, was under assault by a destructive working-class movement. Of course, we know now there is no “natural order” of society, that liberalism and capitalism are no more our natural condition than feudalism or slavery was. In the conservative mind, however, the past is something sacred, the “correct” arrangement, even if – as is now widely recognized – such an arrangement depends on the exclusion and suffering of certain groups. Perhaps the most fundamental rejoinder to conservative diatribes like Burke’s is that his idyllic England was no paradise to anyone who was not a straight cisgender property-owning white man. When Burke sought to expose the looting of the Indian subcontinent in the 1780s, it was not to denounce the brutality of imperialism, but to criticize its effect of creating boorish parvenus who threatened to disrupt business as usual with their new wealth. Burke succeeded in turning British imperialism into a national project, enriching and ennobling Britain off the plunder and subjugation of conquered peoples. Implied in Burke’s conservatism is a white supremacy, an ethnic nationalism that views English culture as innately superior to all others. U.S. culture imported this feature from Britain and used it to inspire “Manifest Destiny” and then “American Exceptionalism,” the crafting of a North American empire and then a global one as the self-styled champion of democracy and individual liberty, also ruled by a privileged class of mostly straight cisgender Caucasian men. When right-wing pundits today deplore the “disappearance of common sense,” what they mean is they lament the eroding of age-old ideological constructs that legitimate a status quo predicated on the exploitation of others.

158px-praemonitus_praemunitus_-_the_protocols_of_the_wise_men_of_zion_-_the_beckwith_company_28192029Greenbaum, a Jew and a Zionist, may not be aware that by following in Burke’s footsteps she is walking a path historically littered with anti-Semitism. The mirror image of the conservative utopia (white, tied to the land, patriotic) is the rootless, unscrupulous, and stateless subversive – in other words, for much of Western culture, the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew. For Burke, the cause of the French Revolution’s degeneration into bloodshed was an unholy alliance between the working-class “rabble” and the “Old Jewry.” It may be more apt to say Greenbaum follows in the tradition of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disiraeli, a Jew, who argued Jews were inherently conservative because of their racial self-consciousness and “accumulated wealth.” During the 1848 revolutions, however, he decried “the once loyal Hebrew” among the ranks of “the Leveller,” seeking the destruction of Christianity and the abrogation of private property (see Domenico Losurdo’s excellent Liberalism: A Counter-History for more). Later, this anti-Semitic canard would be recycled as the Nazi belief in “Judeo-Bolshevism,” with Jews behind the popular revolutionary movement of the time, communism. Today, the “cultural Marxism” in conservative writing hides its anti-Semitism but remains essentially the idea that a “secret group” is trying to destroy Christianity, abrogate private property, and otherwise destroy Western civilization and the “common sense” that made the West the undisputed masters of the world (of course, anyone who has read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel knows that the West benefitted from absorbing non-Western technology, favorable geographic conditions, and other structural variables totally divorced from the agency of human beings).

191px-ronald_reagan_testifying_at_house_un-american_activities_committee_huac_in_washington_dcJust as “cultural Marxism” is rooted in the anti-communist “Red Scare” rhetoric of the recent past, so too is the right-wing pundits’ appeals to free speech. During the Cold War, the conservative media regularly accused leftists of being pro-Soviet Union or not anti-Soviet Union enough. The ideological effect of this was to keep liberals on the defensive, to behave like reactionaries to show their anti-communist credentials. Under McCarthyism, liberals lined up to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee to ruin the lives of friends and relatives just to illustrate their fidelity to the national religion. Today, conservative commentators demand liberals do the same or otherwise be guilty by association with the “loony left.” Best of all for conservatives, they do not even need expertise or even experience; hence, why they will line up behind the appropriateness of a 24-year-old woman to speak about something she knows absolutely nothing about. Instead, the only question that matters is directed at the reader, a challenge to stand up for “common sense” and “our side” in the Manichean conservative understanding of “good guys” and “bad guys,” us versus them, so that any issue (such as equal rights for transgender people) becomes one not of logic and fairness but emotion.

The qualifications of people like Greenbaum and the validity of their ideas should be thoroughly interrogated and explored, because as we can see, a little investigation and context reveals that the “common sense” they seek to sell us is anything but. Their work is for and serves the ruling class. We can and should ask why newspapers and magazines are hiring writers like Greenbaum or Jesse Singal to write about things they should not be writing about with any genuine authority or knowledge. We should also question the claims of conservative oppression in the media when writers like Greenbaum are contributing to the political discourse under the mastheads of prestigious U.S. publications whereas major left-wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Cornel West, and others only seem to appear on foreign networks like Al-Jazeera or Russia Today. (I am not endorsing their views, by the way, but making a point.) By hiring “dissenters” from the right-wing of the spectrum, the establishment-friendly mass media sets the contours for political discourse in this country so that it does not channel anger against the status quo, which is already highly precarious in this time of general disillusionment, alienation, and unrest. We are presented either with the views of inoffensive milquetoast centrists or out-of-touch conservative nostalgia. The left-wing perspective, despite its clear growing popularity, is generally not given a platform. (For more on this, see Chomsky’s work on concision and the mass media.)

It therefore behooves those of us on the radical left to use the Internet and especially social media to spread the ideas that are truly dangerous to the status quo, to construct a counter-hegemonic discourse completely separate from the controlled and filtered perspectives coming out of the mass media. The phenomenon of the conservative lumpen-intelligentsia is not a fleeting one but a core part of the modern superstructure that retards the development of human consciousness and building a better world.

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Heartless Romantics: Fascism and Romanticism

Twitter’s own Trillburne (aka The Discourse Lover) and the person behind the excellent Age of Napoleon history podcast recently tweeted this piece of fascist trivia:

The thing is, there’s a word for this bourgeois transgressive mentality: Romanticism.

213px-schmoll_goethe_vaThe philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, in a series of lectures (the audio of which you can find online), drew a straight line between the 18th century Romantic era and 20th century fascism. Specifically, he connects the Sturm und Drang cultural movement, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel and the usual cast of German idealists to the rise of Nazi Germany. Certainly, one can see some parallels between Goethe’s famous Young Werther and Adolf Hitler: both are impressionable, impassioned artists who killed themselves when their fanciful dreams were dashed. But whereas Werther chose suicide after rejection from the woman he loved, Hitler shot himself after the object of his desire — a grand German Empire, brutally cleansed of ideological enemies, its special destiny and supremacy manifest — fell to ashes. Werther was the quintessential sentimental fool, a sensitive soul who believed love should conquer all. Hitler, no less a fool, simply believed that, instead of love, Germany should conquer all — the culmination of a cultural faith in a “special path,” Sonderweg in German, for the sacred Fatherland and its volk, including expansionism into Eastern Europe — Drang nach Osten, the “desire for the East.”

180px-nietzsche1882Many of the aspects of Nazi ideology come straight from Romantic philosophy and culture, and those who followed after it. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, a disciple of the idealist Schopenhauer, wrote about a “beyond-human,” the Übermensch, who lives to exercise his indomitable will to become an exemplar in this world, in contrast to those living for some fictional afterlife. The Nazis appropriated these concepts, twisting them from abstract metaphysical arguments to ideological justifications for applied social Darwinism. In this respect, they were aided by Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a nationalist and anti-Semite who embraced the transformation of her brother’s work in a part of the Nazi ethos (or, perhaps more accurately, mythos). After she published a fraction of her’s brother’s notes in 1901, philosophers connected to the Nazis like Alfred Baeumler and Martin Heidegger argued that Nietzsche’s thought constituted a political philosophy anchored on a natural order of hierarchy produced through conflict, a struggle for dominance between differing cultures. Traditional Christian morality and Enlightenment humanism were aberrations, false constructs created to control and constrain the dynamic heroes of the age. It thus falls to the men of remarkable skill and talent to overcome these inhibitions, to accept and fight the primordial struggle for existence, to throw caution and conscience to the wind and achieve ultimate victory. In the words of the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:

He who throws the dice for a prize also has to dare a wager, hence we have made Nietzsche’s words come true: ‘Have the courage to live dangerously.’ Obviously major projects cannot be carried out as long as dozens of parties get under one’s feet. These parties don’t make history, they only make a fuss. Today one man speaks for the Reich, and his voice echoes the voices of 66 million people.

320px-flag_of_the_legionary_movementIt this sort of romantic, theatrical approach to politics that makes it possible to understand the Iron Guard’s belief in sacrificing their salvation to achieve Romania’s special destiny. Yet there is another important element lacking from the Nazi context: clericalism. The Iron Guard was led by the fanatically Orthodox Christian Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who was referred to reverently by his followers as “the Captain.” Iron Guard followers went so far as to distance themselves from politics, framing their movement as seeking a spiritual revolution. In the words of Mircea Eliade, an Iron Guard ideologist, the movement sought “the supreme redemption of the nation, the reconciliation of the Romanian nation with God, as the Captain said… [T]he victory of the Legion will lead not only to the restoration of the virtues of our nation, of a hard-working Romania, worthy and powerful, but also to the birth of a man who is in harmony with the new kind of European life.” (The Iron Guard was originally called “The Legion of the Archangel Michael” and always referred to its members as “legionaries.”) It would be easy to say that the Iron Guard merely used theology as a political instrument, but the obvious contradiction between mercy and committing atrocities reveals something so problematic about such a pragmatic explanation. The truth is that there is no contradiction; members of the Iron Guard accepted their own individual damnation for a greater good, “the supreme redemption of the nation.” Since fascism elevates the nation, the community above the individual, a single soul is ultimately meaningless next to the deliverance of the communal spirit. If this sounds “silly,” as Trillburne put it, it is because all fascism is based on an appeal to faith over reason, emotion over logic.

163px-bundesarchiv_bild_102-04051a2c_reichsparteitag2c_rede_adolf_hitlersWhile the Nazi ideologues dismissed Christian morality, the regime nevertheless had its own faith based around Germanic paganism and the occult. There is no shortage of sensational documentaries or fantastical works of fiction on the topic, but there is basis in fact. For example, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the swastika symbol in the ruins of Troy, claiming it to be a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors” — a reference to the now widely debunked belief of 18th century European archaeologists in an “Aryan master race” which had founded all the major civilizations before degenerating into miscegenation. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the symbol as representing “the victory of the idea of creative work;” in this there are echoes of the Dionysian chaos and religious ecstasy championed by Nietzsche in tension with the order and structure of Apollo, chief tenets of the Enlightenment. One of the qualities of the “noble savage,” so admired in the Romantic era, is an innate goodness, an intuitive sense of right and wrong, who is free to realize his ambitions free from the shackles of “civilization,” “modernity,” the corrupted and decayed social structure and its values.

320px-570_wewelsburgPerhaps no other fascist figure embodies the bourgeois “edge-lord” mentioned by Trillburne as Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader of the SS and one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. From a conservative middle-class family, Himmler resented missing the chance to participate in World War I and spent most of his career trying to compensate by organizing an order of elite soldiers, essentially modern knightly Teutonic crusaders, warriors pure in blood as well as ideology. The distinctive lightning bolt runes that constitute SS insignia come from the “Aryo-Germanic” runes invented by the Austrian occultist Guido von List. Wewelsburg Castle, intended to be a holy site for the SS cult, contains a sun wheel mosaic based on the “Black Sun” occult symbol dating from the Germanic migration into Europe during late antiquity. Himmler oversaw the Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”) research society that conducted expeditions to prove the fabricated historical hegemony of the ancient Aryan master race. All this demonstrates that if the Iron Guard mixed their political ideology deeply with Orthodox theology, National Socialism to varying degrees assimilated a form of Romantic adoration for the “noble savage” — in this specific case, invented Aryan ancestors — into their understanding of the world. Moreover, Nazi “true believers” were able to spread this understanding to the majority of Germans, who (even if they did not become zealots themselves) legitimated and treated as valid Nazi claims about the holiness of the German homeland and the preeminence of the German people. They went along with the Dionysian ritual madness of Nazism, embodied in the annual Nuremberg Rallies and their grandiose ceremonies cultivating the worship of Hitler and National Socialism.

320px-donald_trump_alt-right_supporter_283245297460429It may seem facile at this point to compare contemporary widespread political unrest and the resurgence of far-right nationalist politics to the turmoil and rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Yet, there are indeed parallels between today’s “alt-right” quasi-fascists and those German Romanticists Berlin described as “socially crushed and politically miserable human beings.” Like the Germans of old, today’s Western right-wingers exalt a made-up history of their purity and greatness, an imagined notion of 1950s white suburbia substituting for ancient or medieval German dominance. They blame moral decay on ethnic “enemies” polluting society as well as sacrilegious, unscrupulous left-wingers. Critically, they both also reject the cult of experts described by John Ralston Saul in his Voltaire’s Bastards. There is a shared assault on the technocratic approach to managing politics, economics, and culture governed through insulated, unaccountable, and unethical professional elites (see “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!”). The bitter, angry shopkeeper of the Weimar Republic — so keen to persecute Jews and Bolsheviks to re-obtain national greatness — finds rebirth in the bitter, angry middle-class American eager to attack migrants and “cultural Marxists” to “make America great again.” Again, not every Trump supporter is a white supremacist ideologue, but just as many Germans endorsed Nazi ideology, so too do many Americans legitimize a worldview that sees white Christian Americans as a persecuted group, their superior status restrained by harmful forces that must be purged. Indeed, such a purge is taking place, whether it be in the mass deportations and breaking-up of families by ICE or the badgering of left-wing academics or commentators (the “secular-progressive” enemies in the U.S. “culture war” conceived by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly). Never mind that Barack Obama deported more people than any other U.S. president; never mind that many academic disciplines, like political science, are far more divided over theoretical and methodological questions than political ones. The holy wars of the contemporary far-right are no more based in reality than the Nazi crusade against “Judeo-Bolshevism” and other anti-Semitic canards and “Red Scare” tactics.

Again, not a novel observation, but there is an interesting question why today so many people — especially young people, as was the case in 1930s Europe — are turning to the irrational, impassioned politics of the extreme-right and what this says about a deeper, pervasive alienation that is fueling a fusion of liberalism and fascism: hybrid regimes with certain political freedoms and civil liberties but also pronounced nationalism, militarism, and a massive military-industrial economy oriented around endless war. Western hegemony today depends on collaborative institutions, hallmarks of liberal philosophy, but these same institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, etc. — are funded and structured in such a way as to ensure Western (particularly U.S.) interests are protected and exploited. In a sense, it is liberalism overlaying a fundamentally fascist approach to power, the “creative victory” of the swastika masqueraded as the organic liberal social contract. Increasingly, however, the right-wing impulse to dethrone the experts, to take back the established institutions into public control to re-purpose them for ideological application, is threatening the status quo. The last time the extreme-right did so, they re-purposed the efficiency and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution from production to annihilation; they industrialized mass murder with the Holocaust. Obviously, ethnic cleansing in the U.S. remains subtle in the form of deportations, mass incarceration of poor people of color, etc. We may not yet be on the precipice of Nazi era genocide. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize where the heartless right-wing romanticism of the past has  led humanity before.

Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

On Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism”

The following is a summary/response I wrote regarding Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism” chapter in The Affect Theory Reader:

This chapter blew my mind, so it is important to define some key terms from the outset. “Cruel optimism” for Berlant refers to emotionally charged attachments to fantasies that are either forever out of reach or, upon attainment, prove venomous. The actual content of the attachment is less relevant than the fact that the attachment itself acts as a structure or pillar upon which our lives depend. Optimism does not always feel optimistic; all that is required is that the present moment conveys a promise that we feel and feed on. While she acknowledges that all emotional investment in attachment could be considered cruel, she emphasizes our affective attachment to the so-called “good life” that in reality leaves us feeling disenchanted, alienated and, simultaneously, cognizant of what she calls “the ordinariness of suffering” and “the violence of normativity.” I will return to this cognizance in a bit, but I want to first emphasize the importance of the present moment and its inherent promises as part of “cruel optimism” because I see connections to Althusser’s writings on ideology and Williams’ writings on structures of feeling.

Althusser refers to ideology as seduction, providing us with a representation of their imaginary relationship to their real material conditions. If ideology is what informs how we view the world and link images to power, then cruel optimism refers to the causal mechanism by which we are made subjects beholden to the “good life” ideal that, as subjects, wears us out. Hence why the homosexual men in William Leap’s interviews concerning urban restructuring and the Navy Yard acknowledge the neighborhood as part of their geography of gay D.C. but do not consider it worth fighting for. They are witnessing the destruction of part of their community yet, in their striving toward the promises of urban renewal attached to the new baseball stadium, they display a form of “cruel optimism.”

Williams, meanwhile, describes “structures of feeling” as a particular lived experience defined by the quality of life at a certain time and place. The culture of a given historical moment, along with certain values and perceptions, are distinct from other social formations before and after it. The attachments and institutions in our lives are not fixed wholes but instead ongoing forming processes. As Voloshinov said, the form and content of social intercourse is defined by the jurisdiction of the epoch and society; ideology is accentualized in order to be attuned with the historic moment. So too for Berlant, the “cruel optimism” we experience is a direct consequence of living in the present moment, as are our confrontations with the subject position and our adjustments after those moments.

Berlant refers to such moments as “impasses.” Effectively, we reach a state of deadlock, a dead end, as the reproductions of our habituated life is suspended or interrupted. Berlant examines evidence of such impasses in three different texts, each associated with different forms of promises. The first is a poem by John Ashbery that gets at the promise of the 324px-THIS_IS_AMERICA..._YES,_SON_THIS_IS_AMERICA,_WHERE_YOU_CAN_DREAM_YOUR_DREAMS_AND_MAKE_THEM_COME_TRUE._-_NARA_-_515779object, or more concretely, the promise of private property, its accumulation and what is popularly conceived of the American Dream. The poem’s narrator drives downtown, nestles in yards and sleeps for peace, a deadened lifestyle dedicated to leisure as mandated by modern capitalist society. Berlant invokes Zizek and the notion that today’s hedonism combines pleasure with constraint: safe sex without consequences, war without casualties, humanitarian militarism, chocolate laxatives, and so on. The major event of Ashbery’s poem, however, is when the narrator is suddenly approached by an unidentified man. This could be another promise, an expected intimacy; the narrator is not just subject to promises of capital accumulation but to the promise of being “king in his castle,” “the master of his domain.” In the marketplace he is concerned with material transactions, while in the home he is nurtured by the promise of intimate transactions of feeling. However, Berlant takes a compassionate turn and notes that the narrator does not appear to have been approached inside the marketplace or the home, but in a “lost space” with the hum of the present moment all around, opening up opportunities to re-imagine the subject. Just as Voloshinov was telling Comrade Stalin that language cannot be controlled by one element of society, there is a struggle for meaning taking place within language and discourse. Berlant’s impasse thus means to be propelled into the space of that struggle. Despite her optimism, however. Berlant makes it clear that such a struggle would require dissolution of “the legitimacy of the optimisim embedded in the now displaced world” with all its accompanying “zones, scenes, scapes and institutions;” otherwise, it becomes just an episode, a brief encounter with valuation and commodification with no genuine resistance.

The next section of the chapter deals with cruel optimism surrounding a different promise, that of exchange value. As textual evidence, Berlant uses a 1994 short story by Charles Johnson about two poor African-American brothers living in Chicago. The elder brother, Lofthis, is ambitious and follows his parents in pursuing wealth and the trappings of326px-MOTHER_AND_DAUGHTER_RETURNING_HOME_AFTER_A_GROCERY_SHOPPING_EXPEDITION_IN_CHICAGO'S_WEST_SIDE_BLACK_COMMUNITY._IN..._-_NARA_-_556152 success in imitation of his parents, despite the fact that hard work and can-do attitudes did not improve their socioeconomic status. Rather than doggedly chasing the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” fantasy, the younger brother, Cooter, loses himself in the fantasy of comic books and watching television. The brothers decide to rob the residence of a seemingly destitute mad woman in their neighborhood, only to find that the woman was secretly wealthy and, in addition to piles of money, possessed very random and unusual objects, ranging from cigar boxes to pieces of a tree. Lofthis, like the woman they have robbed, ends up going mad as he becomes obsessed with protecting their new wealth because, as his logic goes, the purchasing power of their wealth loses that power once purchases are made. Cooter, in contrast, goes into the city to spend some of the money, but finds that money cannot buy him belonging in an environment that is foreign to him and rejects him due to his race and class. While Ashbery’s narrator is jolted from the hollow promise of the American Dream and the bourgeois lifestyle, Johnson’s brothers realize the promise of wealth but find the contradictions of capitalism too toxic to tolerate. When they were living in poverty, they had nothing to lose, and therefore the stresses of everyday life afforded the everyday escapism that constituted Cooter’s life. When they suddenly became rich through their robbery, they suddenly had everything to lose, so much so that Lofthis cannot stomach the thought of “losing” their wealth by spending it via the powers of transaction. The cruelty in monetary optimism is readily apparent.

The contrast between the two promises and the two texts also serve to illustrate the concept of voice. The voice of the narrator in Ashbery’s poem is that of the stereotypical suburban bourgeoisie, the sort we would imagine enjoys resting in vineyards and dropping in on the neighbors. The poem’s narrator is not part of any real community other than that which is sought out and may prove absent; it is the singular event of being approached by a man that jolts the narrator into the “lost space” outside the promise of the object. The experience of Johnson’s brothers take place within the moral geography of a particular narrative, the “rags to riches” story,” which is synonymous with the “bootstraps” promise that people who work hard and seize opportunities will in the end achieve financial success as well as happiness. The fact that the brothers are black is also important because they are not just seeking wealth in the general sense but because wealth has been iconized with the wealthy white people in good neighborhoods where the brothers’ mother used to work as a housecleaner. The elevation in valuation that they seek is not just about personal happiness but equality and recognition. The madness that befalls Lofthis and the woman they rob stems not just from twisted capitalist logic but that, as members of a repressed minority, there is the ever-present fear that devaluation can occur at any time; the wealth that they have come into so suddenly can just as easily be taken away from them. Thus, even as the characters realize the promise of exchange value, they are still living with the nightmare of racial discrimination and oppression.

The final section of Berlant’s chapter deals with the promise of being taught, of attachment to another living being. The textual evidence in this instance is Geoff Ryman’s 1992 novel Dorothy_and_Toto,_1900Was, specifically a section concerning Dorothy Gael, a 19th-century Kansas schoolgirl whose parents have abandoned her and who has been raped and shunned by her uncle. Large and ineloquent, Dorothy is shunned until she meets a substitute teacher named Frank Baum, the man behind the Wizard of Oz story. Dorothy reacts to his tenderness and kindness with a secret internal longing for some sort of connection with him, but the mere promise of relief from her tortured life tears at her soul, makes her more acutely aware of her perceived unworthiness. When she does let her guard down and writes an essay about her close connection with her dog, Toto, Frank Baum the substitute says that he is happy that she has Toto to love. Dorothy achieves her longed-for emotional connection with Baum, but it is predicated on a lie; Toto is dead, having starved because her aunt and uncle would spare no food for it. Just as Frank Baum is a substitute for a constant kindness in her life, respite from torment she is powerless to overcome, the essay is also a substitute, a falsehood that reveals that there can be no true, authentic connection to another human being. In her time of impasse, Dorothy goes insane, a wandering mad woman, and in so doing manages to preserve her cruel optimism rather than imagining a life outside of it.