Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Missing Sovereign

One of the odder developments in the world of books during the early years of this decade was the revived interest in the American author John Williams' 1965 novel, Stoner. After a politely received debut and a couple of modest reprints in the US around the millennium, the book became a bestseller after 2010 in both France and the UK, and even Waterstones' book of the year in 2012. Literary fiction is a marginal interest at the best of times, but its occasional eruption into wider consciousness (when not tied to a film or TV adaptation) is often related to its political resonance with a small number of "taste-makers" in the media. Given that Stoner was set over the course of the first half of the twentieth century and followed the third-rate life of a second-rate academic, its resonance doesn't immediately appear to have much to do with the pivotal 60s, but its concerns with truthfulness in life and academic integrity place it between the existentialism of the 50s and the postmodernism of the 70s. It has moments of self-awareness, but it's not a very good book: the characters are flat, the language carefully monotonous, the baddies wear all-too-obvious black hats. It appears to be the combination of its unadorned style and relentless self-pity that helped it find favour among the grand names of contemporary British fiction.

Much of the praise for the novel focused on its moral lessons: "We live in an era in which happiness and success are pursued ruthlessly, selfishly. We feel entitled to have them, at any cost, whether that involves divorce or questionable ethics. This is a novel that serves as an antidote to that expectation, reminding us that a life that looks like a failure from the outside, that will be quickly forgotten once it ends, can be a noble, quirky and somehow beautiful experience". That assessment should indicate the conservative virtues at the heart of the work, but it is worth being precise about who is cast as the serpent in this particular garden. The plot involves two strands: William Stoner's emotional estrangement from first his dirt-poor parents and then his wife, Edith, a frigid, unsympathetic solipsist; and his academic career, centred on the teaching of Rennaisance literature, which is blighted by the growing malevolence of his head of department and reaches a climax over the latter's protégé, a fraud and a liar. Though some sceptics have noted the class contempt and misogyny of the first strand, the reason for the book's renewed popularity is to be found in the second strand and its tale of a decent man done down by relativism and the special pleading of the aggrieved (both the department head and his protégé are disabled).

With its focus on academic bad faith and social pretension the novel is ahead of its time, occasionally reading like Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, but without the humour and as much instrumental sex. If that mid-70s work captured the emerging reaction against post-structuralism and post-modernism, it also prefigured the way that "historical inevitability" would be recuperated from the left to advance reactionary politics. Bradbury subsequently claimed that the novel's protagonist, the self-styled radical Howard Kirk, ended up voting for Thatcher in 1979 and Blair in 1997, the two politicians who made belief in a higher truth central to their appeal. Stoner's contemporary resonance has more to do with the salience of campus free-speech and safe-spaces in media discourse than the socio-economic realities of teaching, but it also elevates a traditional ideal of male integrity and literary fidelity to the level of hagiography, which goes down well among writers prone to berate "snowflakes" and anti-canonical minorities from the security of their well-appointed studies. As one awed reviewer described Stoner's miserable span: "He has been a priest of literature, and given himself as fully as he could to the thing he loved. The book’s conclusion, such as it is—I don’t know whether to call it a consolation or a warning—is that there is nothing better in this life".

You don't have to hunt too far to find claims that post-truth and fake-news are the products of postmodernism rather than the economy of the media, and thus something rotten in the academy rather than the logic of capitalism. The response to this displacement has been a doubling-down among academics on the foundational nature of truth. This has led to what one might term "grade inflation" in respect of the political consequences of truth's abuse. For example, the American historian Timothy Snyder has claimed that "post-truth is pre-fascism". His argument is built on a chain of dependencies: "Democracy only has substance if there’s the rule of law. That is, if people believe that the votes are going to be counted and they are counted. If they believe that there’s a judiciary out there that will make sense of things if there’s some challenge. If there isn’t rule of law, people will be afraid to vote the way they want to vote. They’ll vote for their own safety as opposed to their convictions. So the thing we call democracy depends on the rule of law. And the things we call the rule of law depends upon trust. Law functions 99 percent of the time automatically. It functions because we think it’s out there. And that, in turn, depends on the sense of truth. So there’s a mechanism here. You can get right to heart of the matter if you can convince people that there is no truth. Which is why the stuff that we characterize as post-modern and might dismiss is actually really, really essential."

The "mechanism" can be summarised as follows: democracy depends on law, which depends on trust, which depends on truth. This is questionable. The idea that democracy depends on the rule of law is no more meaningful than the idea that autocracy does - all forms of government depend on laws. The idea that law depends on trust is here reduced from the expectation of justice to mere administrative efficiency: the automatic functioning of the law. Up to this point, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have ticked all the boxes. The idea that trust depends on truth ignores the collective insistence of philosophers, sociologists and economists that it depends on self-interest (or enlightened altruism, if you prefer). We might still take oaths on holy books, and the shame that arises from the breach of social rules about lying is a deterrent, but what ultimately keeps us honest is consequentiality: the fear of worldly punishment or of lost opportunities arising from reputational damage. In Snyder's argument, trust is a rickety bridge intended to span the gap between law and truth. A straight link between the two is difficult to make when laws in a democracy aren't intrinsically "true" but simply norms that we have agreed to through political debate. What distinguishes democracy from autocracy is who decides, not the quality of the decision.

Snyder's equation of good governance with laws and laws with truth is actually a conservative argument that harks back to the pre-democratic era when laws were deemed to have divine sanction through monarchy. What democracy depends on is not a law against vote-rigging, but a social convention that you don't cheat. Challenging claims to absolute truth does not undermine democracy. In fact, just as contesting miscarriages of justice occurs more in democracies than autocracies, it should be seen as a sign of a healthy society. Likewise a press that is routinely sceptical rather than partisan. Looking back at Germany in the 1930s, Snyder notes the power of the media: "The second thing that German Jews were not aware of, or Germans were not aware of, was how new media can quickly change conversations. In that way, it’s not exactly the same, but radio at that time often ended up being a channel for propaganda. There are parallels with the internet now, where there were hopes that it would be enlightening. But in fact, it turns out that with presidential tweets, or with bots, or isolated habits of viewing, it isn’t necessarily enlightening. It’s the opposite. A lot of us were blindsided by the internet in much the same way that people could be blindsided by radio in the 1930s."

The jump from prewar radio to the Internet is telling, skipping both television and modern newspapers, not to mention their current symbiotic relationship with social media. This historical elision also ignores the deregulation of radio and TV that started in the 1980s, which created a market for news and opinion in which fairness and objectivity withered under commercial pressure. Given that the Internet cannot be held responsible for the growth of a right-wing media ecology in the 80s and 90s founded on myths, bullying and paranoid conspiracy, the idea that postmodernism was to blame for the erosion of truth serves the dual purpose of diverting attention while affording media practitioners, many of whom were at college in those decades, a degree of revenge for past slights and embarrassments (notably their own temporary commitment to intolerant strands of activism). More fundamentally, this characterisation of the Internet as a propaganda machine without precedent beyond the archetypal medium of mid-century totalitarianism serves to cast the present situation as exceptional: "we are facing a real crisis and a real moment of choice", as Snyder puts it.

This sense of impending crisis encompasses both the belief that the forces of an emergent Fascism might engineer a state of emergency - for example, Snyder suggests that Trump might leverage a terrorist attack in the manner of the Reichstag fire - and the idea that the erosion of truth by self-interested Internet companies and Russians waging nonlinear warfare has gone so far as to require state intervention to revoke the errors of a misled democracy, such as in the case of Brexit. Apart from the cognitive dissonance required to hold both of these views, the obvious flaw here is the casting of two dim kids on seaside donkeys as horsemen of the apocalypse. While acknowledging the dangers of complacency and the all-too real erosion of rights since 2001, I can't help but suspect that Trump is too lazy to mount a putsch while the outcome of the EU referendum has been a series of botched coups (usually involving Michael Gove) that never managed to get beyond the beer hall. To borrow the terminology of Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist and originator of the concept of the state of exception, what has been striking is the inability or unwillingness of anyone to take on the role of the sovereign. In that sense, William Stoner's failure to command his own life, and his escape from the world into the imaginative consolations of the past, makes him all-too representative of our time.

1 comment:

  1. I think you have chosen a good metaphor here.

    What I felt made 'Stoner' quite sad was the pointlessness of his life. He never really fought for anything, and was reluctant to struggle for his own happiness. Even his affair seemed to be lacking in passion. As such, his 'martyrdom' seemed to be for nothing.

    As you suggest, this ties in well with liberal centrists. They scoff at activism and any radical views that tackle social inequality, the status quo, and affect everyday life, yet seek to 'die in the last ditch' defending abstract and intangible ideas like 'truth'.

    I think this is evidence of their decadence, and a major reason why they make so much fuss about Russia, given that the Cold War and its 'triumphant' aftermath was just about the only thing that's given them any real purpose since WWII. The irony is that the anti-Russia scare is every bit as irrational as anything their ideological 'enemies' come up with.