Gramsci Again

Following the Georgia special election in which Karen Handel, a Republican, defeated Jon Ossoff, a Democrat (as expected in the heavily Republican district), the hand-wringing over the direction and strategy of the Democratic Party has begun anew. I’m particularly struck how the discussion has become suddenly narrower this time. Whereas before the debate might have centered around whether or not the party should focus on long term strategy versus short term tactics, now it is solely revolving around the question of how to best win elections. And I think this is worth teasing out a bit.

To be certain, not every circle after the election was arguing for a reorientation of the Democratic Party (or its progressive wing). But there was some talk of what Gramsci called a “passive revolution,” a battle for cultural hegemony that would play out in the world of ideas and discourse. The analog to a hypothetical left war of ideas is of course that which the libertarian right began soon after World War II. Out of organizations like the Mont Pelerin Society and the Heritage Foundation, neoliberals believed that in order to win elections, they couldn’t so much as find or target the voters that they needed. They had to create them. Their decades long war bore fruit slowly. (And yes, they called themselves neoliberal.) Continue reading “Gramsci Again”

What Is Revolutionary Narrative Art?

Last week I published an essay about Moonlight that is a bit tricky, or so people tell me. It’s an exploration of the movie through the lens of posthumanism, which I argue might be released from its bounds as an ethics of non-human animal relations, or as an exploration of cyborg hybridity, by returning to its roots in antihumanist theory. Check it out, but definitely watch Moonlight first; it hit Amazon Prime last month, and it might be the only movie in Academy Award history that both won the Best Picture prize and deserved to do so. It’s a rich film and I hope we’ll all be writing about it for a while.

I’ve written pieces of contemporary filmic criticism before but never anything quite so theory-driven. In hindsight, there are a couple reasons why I must have felt compelled to do so. First, I had been working on an analysis of films of the 1950s through the category of liberal humanism, which was brought to my attention by Mark Greif’s excellent book, The Age of the Crisis of Man. And I’ll have more writings on 1950s liberal humanism in popular culture soon enough. Last week’s essay was actually cut for length, and at one point it had a lengthy section on the racial liberalism of cinema in the late forties and fifties. I suggest that we might think of this approach as “racial liberal humanism,” for these old films tended to pose racism as a psychic problem, one to be defeated by strong individual wills, rather than social or state institutions, and they neglected the role of social experience in shaping identities and material realities. I even cut out a whole bit about Hidden Figures, which though I greatly enjoyed and admired the film, was clearly rooted in a model that I argue owes much to a liberal humanist episteme. Continue reading “What Is Revolutionary Narrative Art?”

Against Centrism

Well it’s not like I’ve ever been accused of being a centrist. But this isn’t an argument against centrism per se, but rather an argument against the idea of a center. It’s something I tend to think about whenever I receive reader comments. I’ve found several times that my anonymous peer-review readers, through no fault of their own, approach my work within a certain paradigm that sees liberalism as a center.

This presents a couple of interrelated concerns. First, that liberalism is understood only as the in-between of the left and right. (This itself can manifest in one of two ways: that which sees liberalism as a common-sense leftism, or one that sees liberalism as the dead-center bisection between left and right.) The problem here is that political culture is necessarily then understood on a flat, two-dimensional spectrum with immutable sets of beliefs or policy positions on each end. For example, one assumes that if one is anti-racist, he/she is also a civil libertarian suspicious of state power. (I’ve written about the ways this particular conflation manifests here.)

Continue reading “Against Centrism”

Against Free Speech Pt. 2

My friends and colleagues already know well my position on matters of “civil liberties” and “free speech”: in short, 1) invocations for such things are often red herrings and/or diversions from real discussions about power and inequality, and 2) they are premised on such liberal utopian notions as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “marketplace of ideas,” which I argue never has existed, and never will in the context of a civil libertarian free market.

As I read the latest round of responses regarding the “fracas” at Middlebury College, the accompanying rebirth of arguments about the “coddling” of students, and new arguments for the alleged “tyranny” of “intersectionality,” I wasn’t sure if there was anything I wanted to do besides shout curses at Twitter. And there have been some very good pieces written in response to the backlash. But I do wonder if there are ways that we can think about this matter that have yet to be entertained by others. ** WARNING: This is probably going to be a random, impressionistic, and incomplete set of thoughts. **

Continue reading “Against Free Speech Pt. 2”

Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?

The latest Star Wars film, Rogue One, isn’t “political” according to Disney, the studio that produced the film. But according to Kate Aronoff of Jacobin, it is if we want to be. Aronoff argues that Rogue One is “politically substantive” from a leftist perspective, and a celebration of “rebellion from below.” Other outlets of cultural criticism, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, have published similar analyses of the film, ones that posit that Rogue One is anti-fascist, a much-needed boon to progressive discourse at the dawn of the age of Trump.

Aronoff is right to point out that the meaning made from the film will ultimately come from its viewers, and that the potential gains that may come out of making leftist meaning from the film, by coopting its narratives and signifiers, are such that we should not dismiss Rogue One and other pop culture blockbusters like it lightly. I want to argue, not contrary to this, but from a different perspective: that which sees Rogue One as a symptom of and contribution to what Nicole Aschoff calls the “meta-stories” of our neoliberal age. Rogue One may hold out interpretive promise, but it stands from the start as an expression of libertarian myths and symbols. Continue reading “Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?”

What Can an NYC Entrepreneur and Reality TV Show Star Tell Us About Trump’s America?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But a few years ago, high from the fumes of finishing my dissertation and still waiting idly for my defense date to come, I binge watched the television reality show Cake Boss and became convinced that I needed to write an article about it.

Several weeks later, I had a publishable article, or so I thought. After a couple of revise and resubmits I lost interest in the thing, and my fleeting career in cultural studies ended just as it began. But I was thinking of it recently, in the context of how the twin narratives of the mythological American dream and white identity have worked discursively in supporting Trump’s ascendance.

Continue reading “What Can an NYC Entrepreneur and Reality TV Show Star Tell Us About Trump’s America?”

What Would JB Do?

A few weeks ago, a trip through a very good work of intellectual history led me to take a fresh poke at post-structural theory. (as one does from time to time!) I was revisiting Judith Butler through whatever was available to me on Google when news of the killing in Orlando came out. Over the next few days, I found myself compelled to take a deep dive into one of Butler’s books in particular: Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a collection of essays written in the time period that followed 9/11.

As I’ve written before, my own intellectual pursuits have been heavily influenced by writers like Michel Foucault and Nikolas Rose, those who in parts of their work have sought to identify, uncover, or deconstruct geneaologies of the idea of the liberal Enlightenment self. Jamesian and Deweyan pragmatist philosophy, that which posited that social experience is what constitutes the self, even pops up when I’m writing about Captain America and the Avengers. And such philosophy, as James Livingston writes, points in a straight line towards Judith Butler and feminist theory.[1]

Continue reading “What Would JB Do?”