Feb/Mar 2009

Going Boom

The economic collapse points up how little our literary world has to say about social inequality.

Walter Benn Michaels


When, in 1989, Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history, he did so with mixed feelings. The good news, he thought, was that the ideological supremacy of free markets and of the political arrangement most suited to them (liberal democracy) had been established—even communists were talking about the importance of being competitive in the marketplace. The bad news was that without “the worldwide ideological struggle” between capitalism and socialism to inspire us, we were in for “a very sad time.” “In the post-historical period,” he wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The end of history would be good for markets, bad for art.

Right now, of course, it’s not so clear how the good-for-markets thing is working out. But it’s still true that we don’t have any socialists—unless, like Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, you count Barack (“I love the market”) Obama. If things get really bad, however, that might begin to change. What if there turned out to be more truth to the conservatives’ outlandish accusations than to the liberals’ indignant denials? What if what we’re seeing now is not just the end of a boom but the beginning of a new period of “ideological struggle”? If good for markets was bad for art, will bad for markets be good for art?

For it does seem fairly clear that, with respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism hasn’t been so great. The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have been committed to historical caretaking. It’s no accident that Toni Morrison’s Beloved was proclaimed the best work of American fiction over the period by the New York Times or that prominent also-rans included Blood Meridian, Underworld, and The Plot Against America. Even younger writers like Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead have rushed to take up the burden of the past. And it’s not hard to see why. For although it’s true that books about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans, are more or less definitionally sad, it’s also true that the logic by which they are produced and that makes them so attractive is an optimistic one.

Why? Because trying to overcome, say, the lingering effects of slavery doesn’t involve criticizing the primacy of markets; it just involves making sure that everyone has equal access to them. So when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism (and, in case we start to forget, A Mercy reminds us again), we’re effectively being told that our problem is lingering racism—not burgeoning capitalism. And when Morrison wins the Nobel Prize and Obama becomes president, we’re being reassured that we are headed in the right direction, even if we’re not there yet.

But as the current economic catastrophe has the great merit of demonstrating, we are not headed in the right direction. People are losing their health care, their houses, and now their jobs for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with bad things that happened in the past (done to and by our ancestors) and everything to do with bad things happening right now (done to and by us). Indeed, the only relevant past here is the very recent one: the one in which the triumph of markets that Fukuyama announced took place, and during which things got not better but worse.

In 1987, the year Beloved appeared, the top tenth of the American population made about 38 percent of the nation’s income. (The bottom fifth made about 3.8 percent.) That top figure was substantially up from the relatively egalitarian numbers that prevailed from the end of World War II until the late 1970s, but that rise was nothing compared with the jump that has taken place since: In 2006, according to the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top tenth earned about half of all the money made in America, more even than in 1928, till then the highest figure of the century. The bottom quintile got 3.4 percent.

For a great many Americans, in other words, the boom has been the problem, not the crash. But the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad, say, the Holocaust was. And in the past few years, as the actual Holocaust has begun to show the first signs of brand fatigue, enterprising writers like Roth (in The Plot Against America) and Chabon (in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) have boldly moved beyond bad things that happened in the past to bad things that didn’t happen in the past: a Nazi takeover of the United States and the exile of a whole society of Eastern European Jews to Alaska. (At least they can see their homeland from there.)

Since September, however, things have gotten so bad that not just poor people but relatively rich people—up till now, the beneficiaries of the boom—have begun to feel the pain. And disapproval of holocausts is getting serious competition from fear of poverty. Which is just what the vast majority—the victims of the boom—have been worrying about all along. So maybe it’s time to forget about the Holocaust for a while and focus on the free market instead, to stop congratulating ourselves on being against genocide and to start questioning what it means to be for free trade. Although it doesn’t appear anywhere on the Times’s list, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is a far better novel than most of the ones that do, and the Psycho’s self-consoling reminder, “I am rich—millions are not,” has the merit of problematizing the upper middle class’s sense of its virtue rather than, like Roth and Morrison, pandering to it.

But forgetting about history is just a first step. For if historicist novels have been one way to make the reality of our social arrangements invisible, they haven’t been the only one. It was also in 1987 that Margaret Thatcher, an even better cultural critic than Fukuyama, pronounced herself tired of hearing about society’s problems and dismissed them by proclaiming, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Anybody looking to explain the increasing appeal of the memoir in contemporary writing need look no further. In this context, all the debates about whether memoirs really count as literature and about whether it matters if they aren’t altogether true are completely irrelevant. Every sentence in every one of them, true or false, literary or non-, tells us that there are only individuals and (most memoirs add) their families. So maybe another upside of the collapse of a Thatcherite economy will be the disappearance of this entirely Thatcherite genre. Maybe people will lose all interest in the moving stories of the struggles of other people to overcome destructive (although sometimes seductive) parents and seductive (although always destructive) addictions, and no one will want to read memoirs. Maybe people will even lose interest in their own struggles, thus conceived, and no one will want to write them, either.

So—no memoirs, no historicist novels, what else? Actually, a lot of other novels will have to go, too. The end of the novel is sort of like the weather, people are always talking about it . . . but maybe this time, we’ll get some results. For sure, no more books like The Corrections, or any of Oprah’s other choices. And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages. But they don’t. You get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from any of Ellis’s famous descriptions of what people are wearing (“a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren”) than you do from all the accounts of people reclaiming, refusing, or repurposing their cultural identities.

And you get an even better sense of it from something that’s not a novel at all, the TV series The Wire, the most serious and ambitious fictional narrative of the twenty-first century so far. Unlike its more widely watched competitor The Sopranos (which really is about what David Chase always said it is about—“family”), The Wire is about institutions—unions, schools, political parties, gangs. It’s about the world neoliberalism has actually produced rather than the world our literature pretends it has. If American Psycho harks back to the great novels of Edith Wharton—novels of manners in which the hierarchy of the social order is always what’s at stake—The Wire is like a reinvention of Zola or Dreiser for a world in which the deification of the market is going out rather than coming in. Although, of course, you had to pay the HBO subscription fee to watch it.

Walter Benn Michaels’s most recent book is The Trouble with Diversity (Metropolitan Books, 2006).

Kai in NYC

September 9, 2010
9:46 am

If it's merely for iconoclastic effect that you over-disparage the historicist trend in literature in favor of works that critique (present day, pernicious) institutions and the market, then right on, I say. We could certainly stand to lift up more works that challenge us in a topically political manner.

On the other hand, if you meant every word exactly as you wrote it: come on! If Beloved or A Mercy (I notice you do not mention the inconvenient Tarbaby) do not explicitly critique latter day capitalistic institutions, does that ipso facto mean they "pander to the upper class's sense of its own virtue"? Of course not! Who on earth comes away from reading Beloved feeling "pandered to"? No one.

(Also I'm saddened by the short shrift given aesthetic considerations. The Wire may well be everything you say it is. But American Psycho, however topically acute, ay, ay, ay; would you really wish to exult it over works like Blood Meridian or Underworld? I am wounded in my soul...)

sgniwder99

October 18, 2010
3:16 pm

"Who on earth comes away from reading Beloved feeling 'pandered to'?"

I'd say an integral part of being effectively pandered to is not feeling as if someone is pandering to you. Is Michaels' reading of Beloved an oversimplification? Absolutely. But it's a standing joke among the academics I know that the only indispensible author in American literature these days is Morrison, because her books touch us in all the right political/emotional places for the ways we like to talk about literature in the academy. Good books they most certainly are. But that doesn't mean they aren't preaching to the choir. Which is another way of saying "pandering."

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