U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Baffler Round Table, Entry #2: Adam Parsons

[Editor’s Note: This is entry number 2 of 4 total in our round table covering The Baffler, No. 19 (March 2012). Today’s piece comes from Adam Parsons, a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University. Yesterday’s review was by Eric Brandom, and tomorrow’s will be authored by Keith Woodhouse. A response to all three will follow from John Summers, The Baffler‘s new editor-in-chief. – TL]

In his editorial introduction to the newest issue of the revived Baffler, John Summers (who will, I hope, forgive me for perhaps reading too deeply into his remarks) sounds like no one quite so much as Voltaire responding to the Lisbon earthquake. “Has the market god,” he thunders, “ever appeared so remote and mysterious as it does in the present crisis?” While the ostensible theme of the issue is technology, in many of the pieces, as in Summer’s introduction, the real question is theological: where, as Summers asks, is the god of the market? Why have its priests (who, with their “mind-cure” homiletics, read as decidedly mid-century Protestant clerics) failed so miserably to produce a brave new world with their endless ministrations?(p. 7)

Few of the authors wax so openly theological as does Summers; the exception is Barbara Ehrenreich, who examines the relationship between early human religiosity and new, mystical ideas about the curative power of animals. Nevertheless, many of the entries in this issue are devoted to attempts to answer the question of why, after all the assurances, after all the predictions, there has been no deus ex machina in the late capitalist world; of why our societies are left waiting on hilltops like so many bands of disappointed Millerites. None are more focused on this question than David Graeber’s “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” Citing a “sense of disappointment” bred by the failure of a “generational promise” made to the children of the Cold War that technological wonderment lay in their future, he argues that even our most impressive inventions are merely Baudrillardian hyper-real simulations of objects and activities we had once dared to imagine ourselves making, as it were, flesh (p. 66).

Rather, Graeber argues, what technological advances have accrued have been either mundane or politically expedient, and often both. Information technologies have not created a “workless utopia,” but, on the contrary, have allowed for the large-scale precarization of a workforce which is at the same time driven to work longer hours and to relax the work/leisure boundary. Advances in more tangible fields like robotics – once central to the techno-utopian dream – have instead been turned to political ends. The most pressing political end, of course, is the preservation of neoliberalism, which he imagines future historians describing as a “form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones,” a system concerned with its own perpetuation rather than with its viability in any substantive sense (p. 75). However (and here we return to theodicy) it has become eminently clear that neoliberalism has failed not only to provide the kind of future which it has promised, but also to provide the basic goods – a rising middle class, intellectual and technological innovation, geopolitical stability – which it offers to justify its present stranglehold on power. To succeed this dead god, Graeber offers the promise of spontaneous creativity. This offer comes, of course, as no surprise to those familiar with his political activities.

A similar hope animates Kim Stanley Robinson’s excerpted novel 2312, which imagines a humanity who, having expanded to fill the solar system, have constructed for themselves an economy which is equal parts Kurzweil and Belloc. In this interplanetary Mondragon, humans occupy themselves with pastoral fantasy writ large, constructing entire private biomes in hollowed-out asteroids. Notably, Robinson alone in this issue offers a concrete and winsome view of the future. The other piece of speculative fiction, Chris N. Brown’s strange and compelling short story “Edge Lands,” imagines a more sinister possibility in which the creative impulse has canvases both larger and more alive, but is restricted to an elite class of self-referential and self-modifying socialite high artists.

Self-referentiality among the would-be cultural elite is not, however, a dystopian fantasy, suggests Maureen Tkacik. On the contrary, we can have all we want right now, in the form of so-called “Thought Leaders,” or, as Tkakic calls them, the “Omniscient Gentlemen of The Atlantic” (p. 114). In particular, she is concerned with tracing the similarities between the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its journal Encounter and the array of centrist think tanks within which Atlantic editor David Bradley seeks to position his publication. More interesting, however, is the compelling, if occasionally tacit, case she makes for the intellectual affinities between contemporary centrism and the “mind-cure faith” of Bradley’s childhood in Christian Science (119). Convinced of the societal irrelevance of productive labor, she argues, they are also prone to “level the playing field between reality and fiction” (p. 120).

A similar leveling, argues Will Boisvert, has occurred in that Vatican of technological research, the MIT Media Lab. Comically juxtaposing the lab’s inflated descriptions of new technologies (“seamless and pervasive connections between our physical environments and information resources”) with the mundane devices themselves (in this case, new ways to pick TV channels at a bar), Boisvert, like Graeber, bemoans the absence of real innovation. The devices produced by the lab are not only lacking in novelty, but also in any of the grandeur of a previous age of invention. These are not monuments of ingenuity but “feeble, feckless gadgets” who “simper and cringe at our dieting travails;” in large part, they are simply more efficient tools for the perpetuation of narcissism (p. 98). Boisvert’s indictment of the gadget is something of a shared theme. G. Beato, comparing the iPhone apps Hipstamatic and Instagram, complains of their ability to manufacture and market scarcity itself as a good: we can, their structures inform us, have unlimited information for free, but we must pay to limit that same information. The virtualization of goods which our gadgets enable now requires us to pay more for the absence of goods than for their presence. As always, capitalism provides us with the means to manage the crises it causes – but for a price.

Robert S. Eshelman’s attack on the cult of the gadget is even more pointed: talk of a Facebook revolution in Egypt is not only exaggerated, he says, but wrong, an attempt to put a technocratic mask on working-class agitation centered around trade unions. In his telling conclusion, Eshelman quotes from the memoir of Egyptian Internet activist Wael Ghonim, who is explicit about the inability of social media to connect with working-class Egyptians. According to Ghonim, the Egyptian revolution was “not an Internet revolution… In the past, revolutions happened, too” (p. 106).

If one were to judge only by the contents of the latest issue of The Baffler, in fact, one might think that revolutions and the conditions which cause them happened only in the past: either the temporal past of the earlier United States or the displaced past which Westerners so often imagine for the second and third worlds. The poor and the dispossessed are present everywhere here, and often compellingly so, but they are never our poor: never the poor of east Kentucky, or of suburban Paris, or of Washington Park in Chicago. Rather, along with old-fashioned Egyptian trade-unionists, the reader encounters the poor of Ernest Poole’s socialist novel The Harbor, of post-Communist Russia, of Depression-era Alabama, and of 1930s India. In themselves, these pieces are often impressive, but taken as part of the whole, they reveal a striking absence (or, perhaps, an absence of striking – but I digress).

Analysis of the present political situation is mostly limited to bemoaning failure. Jim Newell closes an otherwise excellent memoir of his time as a member of a championship-winning Fed Challenge team (a sport which is both nerdier and more strange than one might imagine) by moralizing about the damage a “single Randian ideologue” like Alan Greenspan can do (p. 35). Thomas Frank seems genuinely shocked that, in the years leading up to the crash, mainstream economists and pundits were so consistently wrong in ways so consistently beneficial to the wealthy. Even Rick Perlstein’s fantastic analysis of Reagan’s appeal is framed as a lamentation: in this case, for Americans’ easy succumbing to the Gipper’s seductive moral imprimatur, which offered a way to escape the self-criticism which the aftermath of the Vietnam War was demanding of them.

The most serious attempt at a concrete prospectus is, to return to the metaphor of religion, atheistic. James K. Galbraith, writing in 2008, advises neither a recourse to the arcane machinations of the Federal Reserve nor the breeding of a better and more moral class of experts but, instead, a return to “collective action on the grand scale”(p. 27). This, he argues, necessarily entails the demilitarization of industrialized economies, both to allow the devotion of resources to the construction of infrastructure and to remove incentives for technological solutions which, like coal power plants, are militarily preferable but socially and environmentally disastrous.

Galbraith is so starkly different, in fact, that one is almost tempted to think that the entire issue is intentionally arranged to make Galbraith seem more attractive. However, even if that is not the case, the revived Baffler works remarkably well. The volume is skillfully edited and, even when it is absurd, not for a moment dull. Marked by a visual style that is almost nostalgically postmodern, it manages to create the same sense of disorientation which its contents so frequently criticize. Perhaps there is some irony here – after all, isn’t the freedom from endless and disorienting stimulation, a la Hipstamatic, precisely what G. Beato suggests we are paying for when we pay for curation?

2 Thoughts on this Post

Comments are closed.