Category: Essays

Capitalism and its Discontents: On Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust

I have written on the intersection of capitalism and literature in the past, and I’m intrigued about his project of giving the following thinkers (some of whom are more relatively unknown than others, especially to North Americans) a public hearing. So far, having finished the introduction and skipped to the “Further Reading” pages, I must say that I find his style to be engaging, personable, and forthright. Note:I will be adding reflections on each chapter of the book as I get to them — as of right now Chapters 1 and 2 are complete and can be found below.

Chapter 1: David Harvey locates the essence of Harvey’s work in the capitalist tendency to overaccumulate — “the fount of all crisis”, a word Harvey defines as “surplus capital and surplus labor existing side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together.” Investors sit on piles of cash, unwilling to put it into the hands of workers they won’t risk hiring, but upon whom the economy relies as consumers.

So far Harvey is depicted as assembling stray bits of Marx into a coherent picture of how, in “normal” circumstances, fictitious capital (credit), uses the promise of tomorrow’s profits to bridge today’s gap between a economy’s ability to pay its workers and the workers’ ability to consume what the economy produces. Thus always borrowing from the future imposes the GOD (Grow or Die) imperative on the economy.

Again, these contradictions come straight from Marx, in Volume II of Capital, […]: “Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production: the laborers as buyers of commodities are important for the market. But as sellers of their own commodity—labor power—capitalist society tends to keep them down to the minimum price.”

Thus in the long run, as profits in the “real economy” become increasingly more difficult to attain, where investors are driven into non-material investments in the credit sector and workers are squeezed into accepting lower wages (and the lower buying power that comes with it), a crisis of underconsumption becomes inevitable.

And since Harvey is a geographer by training, he rescues (via the idea that property is inherently fictitious capital, since its market value = a claim on future rent income) the Marxist notion of Ground Rent by introducing a spatial element: future rents are leveraged in the present day to invest elsewhere: finance becomes a hypermobile, global jetsetter who is yet paradoxically tethered to an inert real asset back home.

This “spatio-temporal fix” to the problem of overaccumulation is often beset by “switching crises” as the “equilibrium” between “real” asset values and what they are leveraged for is distorted…

imageBut if this appears to you as an ever-growing House of Cards waiting to fall, well, keep on waiting, since capital will just keep expanding in other ways (privatising what’s public, commodifying what is not yet a commodity, colonizing other territories either directly or by proxy [all that used to go by the name “Enclosure” of the commons. See Michael Perelman’s The Invention of Capitalism for that])

Now, while capital is partying around the world at increasingly fictitious/profitable parties, we poor humans are stuck in the real economy, one beset, since 1973 or so, by the “long downturn of persistent stagnation” (a term from Robert Brenner, subject of another chapter).

imageAnd, from the 1980s to today we too were given credit (since there was a class war on wages that began with the “Volcker Shock” of deliberately driving interest rates sky high in the closing years of the Carter administration, and that continued in much more celebratory fashion during the Reagan-Thatcher years) to party with in our own, somewhat diminished fashion.

But that all ended. In 2008.

Yes, remember 2008? When I was writing my dissertation in 2005, I was living in the UK and every other TV program seemed to be about selling your English home and buying another somewhere else, particularly in Spain or eastern Europe. The housing bubble collapse was one of Harvey’s “switching crises”, and a big one. It also marked what may be a waypoint of a longer-term switching crisis, that of the handover of global supremacy to the Chinese.

image(Kunkel cites Gianni Arrighi’s monumental The Long Twentieth Century on this, but the roots are in the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s theory of long-term economic history, perhaps beyond the scope of his book.)

In any event, capitalist empires last but 80-120 years or so (“long centuries”), says Arrighi, borrowing this notion of Kondratiev waves or K-waves that track the rise and fall of capitalist empires. If you Google Kondratiev or Kondratieff waves you’ll see that many of the graphs that come up seem to be driven by technological change, but Marxists like Harvey locate the cause for change in contradictions in “social property relations”, particularly in property owners’ compulsive search for ever-greater rates of profit.


Kunkel concludes this chapter by noting that Harvey proposes several hard, actual limits to the expansion of capital, most of which are ecological. He doesn’t really deal with any criticisms of Harvey’s model, and maybe we shouldn’t expect him to here. He also leaves out Harvey’s uneasy flirtation with postmodernity theory—which, post-1989, drew many a Marxist to recant their materialist beliefs entirely, drawn as they were like moths to the flame of the “Cultural Turn” (signifying that Saussure’s decades earlier “linguistic turn” had somehow initiated a completely new epoch, one in which culture/language was always already mediating/ constitutive of “material” or economic matters, among other things) that filled the intellectual void they felt was somehow created by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But there is an important debate about the “essence” of capitalism, between Harvey and Ellen Meiksins Wood, which stretches back to another, older debate (“Dobb–Sweezy”)—

Read the full article on my Longreads blog…

Jonathan Franzen’s The Twenty-Seventh City and the Culture of Capitalism

When Jonathan Franzen’s first novel The Twenty-Seventh City had its 25th anniversary re-issue back in September of 2013,  it was almost as ignored as much as it was when it was first published in 1988. While Eric Lundgren in The Millions wrote a poignant and nostalic reflection on the novel and its relationship to the city of St. Louis and Nina Martyris contributed an excellent piece on the novel’s complex portrayal of the Indian-American experience in the LARB, Paurl Segal wrote in Slate of its many failings. And that, at least as far as I could tell, was pretty much that.

The book is definitely not without its faults, but it does a lot of things very well indeed, and if you are a fan of Don Delillo or Thomas Pynchon you will recognize their influence on the book, which attempts to ‘unveil’ certain previously hidden or unacknowledged economic and sociological aspects of our lives to us. And though critics such as James Wood would decry any such attempts to go beyond the ‘proper’ scope of the novel (i.e., the investigation of the ‘soul’ of the isolated individual) as what Wood called ‘hysterical realism’, Franzen’s novel largely succeeds in its aim to get us to confront how our individuality is predicated and threatened by vectors of power and history.   Lev Grossman, writing in Time Magazine, captures the ambitions of books like this superbly:

What I see now when I look at books like White Teeth and Infinite Jest and Underworld is—among many other things—an attempt to gesture at the infinite, overabundant, overwhelming complexity of reality, and the increasing force with which that complexity is borne in upon us by means electronic and otherwise (i.e. by the overabundance of blogs like this one). Those books rarely end without a suggestion that they could have gone on and on indefinitely, because the world’s narrative resources are just that inexhaustible. You rarely meet a character, even a minor one, without getting the impression that the camera could wander off with them, instead of with whoever the hero of the moment is, and the result would be as rich and interesting a novel as the one the author actually wrote. You can imagine those books as endlessly ramifying trees of story, their branches dividing and dividing until the reader gets the point, which is that they could branch and divide forever and still not capture the full complexity of the world around them.

If you don’t like these kinds of novels, don’t read them. But if you do, this one will open you up to considering, among other things, the role that capitalism plays in your life while you aren’t watching! Very few novels have attempted such a feat, and in this twenty-nine year old’s first novel, we see many of the above characteristics deployed with the maturity of a much older writer.

Franzen’s latest book, Purity won’t attempt any such feats: he’s long since changed his mind about the kinds of things that fiction ought to be doing. Oh, I’ll read it, and probably enjoy it well enough, but it probably won’t remain bubbling away in my veins long afterward the way The Twenty-Seventh City did –and does, to this day.

One final note, the following is quite a bit more academic-oriented than most of what appears on this blog (hysterical realism almost begs to be scrutinised in such a manner, though). The essay is quite long, but I’ve laboured to keep it readable as best I can!

A Polyphonic Spree: Notes on Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel

I have always been obsessed with Milan Kundera, and wanted to figure out why, so I grabbed his book The Art of the Novel, and sat down to take notes. What follows is my account of his account of why he writes the kind of books that he does.

ONE: The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes

In 1935 the philosopher Edmund Husserl diagnosed a “crisis of European humanity”(3) by which he meant the very modernity that Europe bequeathed to the rest of the world, for good or ill. This modernity was a Cartesian quest to mathematize scientific knowledge, as well as a Faustian quest for knowledge-as-power, the personification of which is a rather virile scientist who seeks to “apprehend” and “interrogate” the world much as Kundera’s own character Tomas in ULB (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) wields a scalpel, both in his role as a surgeon as well as in his epic quest to conquer the infinite variety of women in the world. And just as such men reduce women to the status of objects, modernity for Husserl “reduced the world to a mere object of the technical and mathematical investigation and put the concrete world of life, die Lebenswelt [. . .] beyond their horizon. The result is that modernity began a process of the “forgetting of being”(4), the forgetting of what it means to be human (and thus the reduction of what it means to be human to the scientifically discoverable.

But for Kundera the modern era is an ambiguous one, marked by gains as well as losses, and there is another kind of investigation, one begun by Cervantes, that took as its object that which science ignored: “the investigation of this forgotten being,” the human. It, too, seems quite masculine in Kundera’s vision, as its task is to “scrutinize man’s concrete life and protect it against the forgetting of being, to hold ‘the world of life’ under a permanent light“(5, my italics).

The novel’s forward march through time runs in parallel, then, with scientific modernity, and it is charged with the duty of discovering hitherto uncharted territories of the human (in fact, any novel that fails to do so is, for Kundera, an “immoral” one) (6). For example, with Cervantes we get the exploration of man-in-the-world, of adventure; with Richardson, exploration of the psyche, of the “inner” man; with Balzac, man’s place in history; with Tolstoy, irrational man; and with Proust and Joyce, the human sense of time.

What marks the novel’s “progress” most particularly is that it does not discover objective truths about morality, say, as science would claim objective knowledge of the material world. Rather, the novel sees ambiguity and contradiction everywhere it looks, and its sole duty is to undermine those who would seek to impose the scientific, binary, either/or way-of-knowing on the human realm–what Kundera calls “totalitarian truth”(14).

The novel’s progress is itself ambiguous, marked by contradiction, by gain as well as by loss, and Kundera sees it as running in parallel with the decline in religious certainty: when we lost the miraculous infinity of the City of God we began to look for a compensatory infinity, first in the outside world with Cervantes, and then in the depths of the human soul with Flaubert, to take two of his prime examples. Thus while Don Quixote moved freely in an external world that was “open wide”(7) to him (but with little sense of interest in his “inner self”), by the time of Madame Bovary, the horizon of the external world has shrunk, and the novel compensates us for this loss with “one of Europe’s finest illusions”, the “infinity of the soul”. In the 250 years (1605-1856) spanning these two writers, the novel’s concerns have shifted from exploring the peregrinations of the adventurer-hero (across a landscape just beginning to be haunted by the loss of the timeless religious certainties of the past) to exploring the seemingly infinite psycho-geography of a single unique human consciousness.

For Kundera, though, the 20C deprives us of even that compensatory illusion, as the past century brought us to what he calls a series of “terminal paradoxes”(13), wherein, for example, “Cartesian rationality has corroded [. . .] all values inherited from the middle ages”, but has given us nothing to take their place except expediency and instrumental value: humans, like everything else in the modern world, are devalued by the “termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art”(17). Into the vacuum produced by Cartesian doubt leaps irrationality, and voila! Rationality sees itself deposed by a tyrannical unreason, which nevertheless rules our lives with an iron fist (as seen in Kafka and Musil, e.g.).

This does not mean that this is necessarily the end of History (a là Francis Fukuyama), however—the history of the novel or of political progress. Though many, many novelists are content to repeat the discoveries that others have made before them, to peddle wares that confirm the prejudices of their readers and of a society that would like to see itself as the final telos of history, there remain avenues of progress for the novel in the under-explored precincts of its own past: we could investigate the “appeal of play”(15) in the novels of 18C writers who were sceptical of the virtue of verisimilitude—as in Sterne and Diderot; the “appeal of dream” and the limitless possibilities for the imagination to break free from the conventions of realism, as seen in a writer such as Kafka; the “appeal of thought”(16), of philosophical reflection and contemplation—a mode that is definitely a part of Kundera’s own work, but he cites Musil and Broch as exemplary practitioners; the “appeal of time”—specifically, perturbing the temporal boundaries of the individual human life, anchoring them in larger patterns of history, by way of inquiring into the possibility of a sense of “collective” or epochal time.

If these remain possibilities for the novel, the contemporary world is not interested in them, for these are matters of complexity and continuity, and the reductionist spirit of our age is one of simplicity, of ahistoricism, with the horizon of time cut off in both directions by a totalitarian sense of the present moment. In our age, the novel is no longer allowed to be “a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future), but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow”(19).

Kundera’s conclusion is a somewhat dispiriting, if intransigent one: if the novel is to go on progressing, he says, it must do so only by “discovering the undiscovered” in human life, something that is entirely at odds with a technological and technocratic understanding of progress. The novel’s progress cannot be wedded to any understanding of social progress, for the latter is univocal, while the former revels in ambiguity and celebrates contradiction. Kundera sides with the former, with “the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.”(20)

Read the rest of this piece on my Longreads blog

Football & the Death of the Hero in “56-0” by TC Boyle

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
—“To An Athlete Dying Young” (A.E. Housman)

Robert Downey Junior’s character Derek Lutz (in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986)) may well have been poaching, with tongue-in-cheek, from Don DeLillo’s End Zone when he quipped that “violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war,” but TC Boyle takes Lutz’s (or Delillo’s) conceit up a notch or two in “56-0”, which I jealously think is one of the most perfectly crafted stories that I have ever read. “56-0” can be found in Boyle’s  Stories, but it was previously published in his 1992 collection Without a Hero, whose title is a perfectly apt controlling metaphor for the story as a whole, since, with seemingly effortless grace, Boyle has somehow managed not only to revivify one of American culture’s most clichéd of plotlines (an underdog team’s attempted, “against all odds” heroic “comeback”), but also to bring the ossified Aristotelian unities magically back to life, such that his story gains a remarkable, athletic equipoise,  in which  humour is locked into a dialectical deathgrip with existential gravitas. And—somehow—Boyle  manages to make writing like this appear to be the most natural thing in the world.

1. Life is Football (and Football is Life)

The main character of the story is Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot, who was named by his father “after the three greatest offensive line-men in college-football history”(163), and who was thereby burdened with an ineluctable, but equally impossible destiny: to live an outsized, classically heroic life. The story opens, however, with a symbolic death, with a

[. . .] humiliation. Fifty-six to nothing. That was no mere defeat; it was a drubbing, an ass-kicking, a rape, the kind of thing the statisticians and sports nerds would snigger over as long as there were records to keep. He’d always felt bigger than life in his pads and his helmet, a hero, a titan, but you couldn’t muster much heroism lying face down in the mud at fifty-six to nothing and the other team’s third string in there.(156)

And, if he feels like he is at the end of his life and not at its beginning (at 22, he has “his whole life ahead of him, and he [feels] ready for the nursing home” after the pummelling that—quite literally—he has just endured),  something in us identifies immediately with Ray Arthur Larry-Pete’s (let’s just call him R.A.L.P. from here on) predicament: if to be a hero means to be “bigger than life”, what we all feel that we are really in for is a bit of, well, life-–which amounts, more often than not, to getting our asses kicked, and more. Thus, from the outset, Boyle has signaled that this story will explore the tension between what we can imagine (and thus what stories can offer us) and what we can or must live with (Beethoven’s famous Es Muss Sein, orIt Must Be”). Our imaginations structure the stories of our lives aesthetically: meaning is a form of compensatory artifice, as Milan Kundera has suggested in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Early in the novel that Tereza [MK’s main character] clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite novelistic to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as fictive, fabricated, and untrue to life into the word novelistic. Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. (54)

R.A.L.P. has certainly gone through a lot of distress over the past four years—his team, the Caledonia College Shuckers, have an 0-43 record, with this most recent loss clearly the worst in his career. In fact, pain, loss and humiliation have provided the only discernible pattern in this young man’s four year apprenticeship on this existential playing field, and after this most recent loss he finds himself “depressed” and “brooding about his college career, his job prospects, life after football”(160). [Wait a minute: life after football? Isn’t that an oxymoron—equivalent to life after life?] Well, if he is to be the hero of his own life, then he can only hope that his plot-line has reached its nadir, and that if his life is to be viewed “symmetrically”, if only by him,  he has to get out of the basement and make something of himself—redemption, that’s what heroes seek after reaching the basement, right?

Continue reading this article on my long-reads site

Note, if you liked this, you might want to check out  one of my own stories — thanks for reading.


The Arc of Modernity: From Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The following is a little potted something that I give to my students when we are trying to puzzle out what it means to be ‘modern’, to work towards an understanding of what historical continuity connects  Hamlet to L20C works like The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I include it here as an addendum to my previous post: before you go emailing me about how historically vulgar and Olympian it is, I’d just like to say that it is a bit, yes, vulgar and  Olympian, a bit of a caricature of intellectual history. But young students need to see history in such broad bush strokes to care about it at all, to feel it is relevant to their experience of the world as it feels like it stands now. I reproduce it here because, increasingly, I feel, a lot of contemporary literature has abandoned even this vestigial inkling of historical awareness. So many writers today feel as if they can safely ignore the efforts of those who have written before us, those modernists hose who have wrestled with one or another version of this narrative: Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Brecht, Borges, & etc, are now safely consigned to the dustbin of literary history, so easily forgotten in the search for the next Booker short list nominees. Writers today are free to write in any mode they choose, to write, even, as if 19C realism is in no way compromised or problematic. And yet questions of form and of form’s relation to ‘reality’ were obsessively debated by our forerunners –why are they not now?

     I have no answer to that last question, but it is by no means rhetorical.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is in part an inquiry into what it means to be human in a world which is making the transition from the stable certainties of medieval Christendom to the dynamism of modernity. Hamlet feels personally bound to those Feudal ties of belonging, which unite peasant, yeoman and aristocrat into one mutually supportive, but static “Great Chain of Being”, ties which also demand that he be the agent of vengeance when he sees those supposedly eternal, natural laws being trampled upon by his uncle and mother: at times, the ideological certainties (such as the Divine Right of Kings) that derive from Ptolemy’s geocentric universe seem to provoke in him both religious and filial fervour, for to avenge the memory of his father would be to strike a blow for an equally threatened cosmology, an understanding of the cosmos that has placed Mankind at its very centre, and that is shot through – from the greatest of men to the smallest of flowers – with meaning.

Yet, if Hamlet keenly feels the pull of such “ghosts” of the pre-modern past he is no less haunted by the uncertainties unleashed by the modernity in which he has been schooled, as he spends much of the play doubting the meaning of the very presuppositions which would guide his actions (if ever he could only bring himself to stop questioning and, finally, act). For Hamlet’s melancholy, while perhaps partly due to his constitution, is a by-product of modern life: if Descartes helped usher in scientific modernity by instructing us that the only way to sweep away the cobwebs of myth and tradition was to methodically doubt what we think we “know” until we arrive at that which is indubitable, he also failed to find that final primary thing that could not itself be doubted. Science itself, while building on Descartes’ method, has taught us to distrust what “seems” true, and like Horatio, require sensory proof before we believe. And though micro- and telescopes have enabled our “insight” into the “true”, physical nature of the world to straddle vast distances of space and squeeze into the tiny spaces between atoms, such intellectual tools tell us nothing about what remains about the “meaning” of modern life.

The answer most moderns usually give is that “life in the abstract may no longer have meaning, but my life has meaning for me”. We feel this way because modernity has created us as individuals, something unheard of in feudal Europe (or any other world historical culture). The very forces that gave birth to early modern science also unleashed capitalism, such that humans increasingly began to discover their identities and their lives’ meaning not in the communal relationships of village life, but in the socio-economic exchanges characterized by life in the modern city: according to the economists of the Industrial Revolution (L18C, roughly contemporaneous with the political revolutions in America and France) we are “utility-maximizing rational individuals” – Homo Economicus – calculating, solitary creatures whose primary aim in life is to increase our pleasures and minimize our pains, or, as the more stirring words of the American Declaration of Independence puts it, our primary rights and duties centre chiefly around around “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.


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