New piece on Curtis Dawkins, THE GREYBAR HOTEL, prison writing …

… separating the art from the artist, the State of Michigan’s penchant for cruel and dumb lawsuits, and a number of other things. It is at Commonweal.

Still, the existence of the book scandalizes some readers. Such is the conclusion we must draw, at least, from the lawsuit recently filed by the State of Michigan against Dawkins and his publishers, which seeks to reclaim his book’s royalties to recoup the cost of Dawkins’s incarceration. It should be noted that Michigan, like all other states, appropriates prisoners’ labor at sub-sub-minimum-wage levels for a variety of tasks to ends that nobody any longer seriously pretends are rehabilitative; sometimes in conditions such that, last year at Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility, inmates risked death to go on strike. It is just possible that Dawkins is earning his keep. Suits similar to the one filed by Michigan against Dawkins have been levied against imprisoned writers before—most famously, perhaps, in the case of a group of women writers at Connecticut’s York Prison taught and subsequently anthologized by the novelist Wally Lamb. After considerable heartache and expense, that suit was defeated. That Michigan’s government is risking the possibility of such a defeat, and using taxpayer money to do it, might raise one or two questions, especially when one considers that a major Michigan city has been without clean water for, at this writing, well over 1,300 days. One can only marvel at the intensity of the state’s devotion to protecting the readers of The Graybar Hotel from the possibility of moral complicity.

I wrote that in January. Flint’s water situation is still unresolved. Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed is the first and, to my knowledge, only such candidate to take a public stance against the Dawkins lawsuit, which is one of many, many reasons that he has my vote.

New piece on INFINITY WAR

Do you need another opinion on Avengers: Infinity War in your life? Let me rephrase that: do you need my opinion on Avengers: Infinity War in your life? Clearly, the answer to the latter question is yes.

(Spoilers!)

(Also, oh man was it satisfying to dismiss Game of Thrones in an aside. Felt good.)

Preorder RED STATE BLUES!

Hey, you! Yes, you! Are you a Midwesterner? Or a reader? Or, like, a sentient being? Then you should preorder Belt’s new anthology Red State Blues, which includes a number of fantastic pieces by fantastic writers, and also my Midwest essay from Hedgehog Review.

Guest Post at John Warner’s IHE Blog

Many thanks to that good fellow John Warner, whom many of you will know for his fiction or the years he spent editing the funny parts of McSweeneys, for letting me write about the higher ed labor struggle, my hopes for the rebirth of open-ended inquiry through that struggle, and my union, LEO, at his blog Just Visiting.

This was originally my first draft for something that Maximillian Alvarez and I were going to cowrite. Max (whose columns you are surely reading, right?) graciously allowed me to use this version and put his editorial contacts at LEO’s disposal as well, even though he’s extremely dissertating right now. (He has shown up for LEO in so many ways this year, while guiding the campus struggle against fascism and somehow doing his own work. Here is one leftist intellectual who isn’t just building a brand. I’m indebted to him, and I’m also always indebted to Tressie McMillan Cottom for helping me begin to understand how higher ed is structured.)

 

New piece at HEDGEHOG REVIEW; and a plea on behalf of an old building

It’s about being Midwestern and it’s here.

Many thanks to Hedgehog and to the superb writer and editor B.D. McClay for commissioning it. (I hope this is the beginning of a long cycle of us embarrassing each other by publicly stating our honest appraisal of each others’ work.)

I’ve wanted to write about this subject for a long time and, in small ways, have been doing so (references in other pieces, etc.). But the triggering incident was an email from my dad:

This is really wild. I am reading the biography of Josef Stalin”s daughter, and it talks about how, after her defection to the U.S., she eventually married an architect who was part of a new agey kind of cult/commune run by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow. The husband helped the commune to cheat and impoverish Svetlana (Stalin’s daughter) and the book suddenly mentions that shortly before their divorce, the husband ‘designed a church for a town called Alma in Michigan.”” 

Dad put two and two together and realized that this was the weird, kitschily beautiful Catholic church on the other side of the park from the house where I spent my first ten years. As indeed it is!

My reaction to this anecdote was a sort of surprise at the idea of my nowhere hometown being touched by History. I started to interrogate that feeling, and here we are.

By the way, if any millionaires happen to read Hedgehog and want to do a good deed, I just learned that this very same church is headed for demolition. It’s one of the only aesthetically interesting buildings in the entire town! It looks like if Antoni Gaudi and Walt Disney got together on ayahuasca and built Hobbiton! Can somebody save it and do something with it? You’d be doing a favor for generations of mid-Michigan’s Catholics; and also for the generations of random teens who liked to climb on top of the building via its low-slung roof and just hang out on Saturday nights.

New piece on Emmanuel Carrere’s THE KINGDOM

I wrote a thing about a book I think is overhyped but that I didn’t necessarily hate.

Most of The Kingdom resembles not a novel or autobiography but a highly engaging series of lectures, taught by the sort of shamelessly biased, engagingly sloppy, inappropriately digressive college teacher whose students love him (this type is usually a him) but who will never get tenure. His analogies and examples dazzle and sometimes blind; he is always ready with the kind of explanatory anachronism that a fully licensed expert knows too much to risk. He says Paul’s conversion is like Philip K. Dick’s famous mystical experience, and that Hellenic Jewish proselytes are like bourgeois Americans who dabble in Buddhism. Are these comparisons true? Are they helpful? They’re certainly memorable.

On Coates, Cultural Capital, and Remotism

I had taken this post down along with a bunch of others, and a colleague asked me to repost it. That’s why it’s at the top of my page now. Cheers!

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a new piece up at the Atlantic. Like most things Coates writes, it is beautifully written and urgently recommendable. Nominally, it’s about the time Coates spent this summer in a French-immersion program, but, being a Coates piece, it’s “about” many other things: what it’s like to be an autodidact; why narrow nationalism is sometimes a bridge, not a bar, to a generous and open-minded humanism; why brilliant people often hate school. It gives us a qualified defense of cosmopolitanism (the qualifications being just as necessary as the defense); a succinct explanation of barriers to class mobility among black people; a reminder, if any were needed, that oppressed minority groups are punished both for fitting into the surrounding culture and for not fitting into it; and a blessedly unexpected paean to the virtues of memorization. If we lived in a sane world, it would also end all argument as to whether accusations of “acting white” constitute the main barrier to black cultural achievement.

And yet, like a good French dish, this piece left one really foul taste in my mouth, and that taste came from Coates’s use of the metaphor “capital.” For example, he writes:

For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”

I certainly don’t disagree with Coates’s overall point in this paragraph; it’s an empirical point, and he’s empirically right. And I think I understand why “social capital” and “cultural capital” are helpful metaphors when making this point: knowing how to learn does tend to make you richer and happier. If people are kept from knowing how to learn, they are materially impoverished as a result. And so what might look to even well-meaning white people like a series of sins of omissionwe didn’t get around to making sure the black schools are as good as the white schools; we didn’t happen to build a library in this neighborhood; we just sort of committed white flight in a fit of absentmindednesscan be framed as a sin of commission. We didn’t fail, we plundered. We stole. We took away from some people something that everybody should have. And then we called the people we’d taken it away from “deficient.”

Metaphors of “cultural capital” and “social capital” are great and useful because they help make all that visible.

But the metaphor always jars me, and it especially jarred here, in an essay that contains passages like this:

At Middlebury, I spent as much time as I could with the master’s students, hovering right at the edge of overbearing. On average, I understood 30 percent of what was being said. This was, of course, the point. I wanted to be reminded of who I was. I wanted to be young again, to feel that old thrill of not knowing. … And I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more. Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.

…In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.

From a certain perspective, what Coates describes here is the process of acquiring cultural capital. Does that sound right to you? It’s … not wrong. Because Coates has gone through this experience, he will write and read more things; what he writes will be interesting in ways that he has not previously been interesting; the impact on his bottom line can only be good. Capital acquired! But I can’t be alone in feeling like that is an ugly, reductive way of describing what sounds a lot more like falling in love.

And that’s the problem with the “capital” metaphor. When you use the term “social capital,” you are using a metaphor that suggests human social relationships are best compared to money, or to stuff that helps you make money. When you use the term “cultural capital,” you are using a metaphor that suggests that learning a language, knowing how to use a library, falling in love with Balzacthese things are all best compared to money. Now Balzac, of all people, would have been last to deny that money plays a role in these things as in all things. But the metaphor of “capital” takes one aspect, one end result, and makes it the whole phenomenon. And human beings live by our metaphors. When we get in the habit of talking about our relationships with our neighbors as “social capital,” or our relationship with our minds as “cultural capital,” we start to treat people and learning more like tools. Think of the metaphor of the “selfish gene,” which Dawkins defenders will always tell you they know is a metaphor: well, tell it to Jeffrey Skilling. And I have to think that English professors’ deference to the metaphor of “cultural capital” is one reason why so much contemporary academic literary criticism doesn’t so much deny aesthetic experience as simply ignore it. It’s another version of what G.K. Chestertonanother great writer who often leaves bad, in fact far, far worse tastes, in my mouthbeautifully described as “remotism”:

There is one great evil in modern life for which nobody has found even approximately a tolerable description: I can only invent a word and call it “remotism.” It is the tendency to think first of things which, as a matter of fact, lie far away from the actual centre of human experience. … We may take, for the sake of argument, the case of what is called falling in love. The sincere realist, the man who believes in a certain finality in physical science, says, “You may, if you like, describe this thing as a divine and sacred and incredible vision; that is your sentimental theory about it. But what it is, is an animal and sexual instinct designed for certain natural purposes.” The man on the other side, the idealist, replies, with quite equal confidence, that this is the very reverse of the truth. I put it as it has always struck me; he replies, “Not at all. You may, if you like, describe this thing as an animal and sexual instinct, designed for certain natural purposes; that is your philosophical or zoölogical theory about it. What it is, beyond all doubt of any kind, is a divine and sacred and incredible vision.” The fact that it is an animal necessity only comes to the naturalistic philosopher after looking abroad, studying its origins and results, constructing an explanation of its existence, more or less natural and conclusive. The fact that it is a spiritual triumph comes to the first errand boy who happens to feel it. 

We describe things by their consequences, and we forget the thing. So the wealth and health that come to people who can namedrop Balzac gets mistaken for … knowing Balzac. And Balzac gets reduced to a tool. I’m not calling for a ban on the useful metaphor of “cultural capital,” but I wish people who use it would more often acknowledge that these are very serious limitations.

And the bad taste comes back at the end of Coates’s essay, where he uses another phrase you hear a lot when you hang out in English departments:

I came to Middlebury in the spirit of the autodidactic, of auto-liberation, of writing, of Douglass and Malcolm X. I came in ignorance, and found I was more ignorant than I knew. Even there, I was much more comfortable in the library, thumbing through random histories in French, than I was in the classroom. It was not enough. It will not be enough. Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.

Ah, yes. The master’s tools, master’s house, etc. I can’t do justice to the process by which Audre Lorde’s original quotation “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”the original context was that Lorde was understandably sick of being almost the only woman of color invited to speak at academic feminist panelsgot a) shorn of its negative (now it’s usually misquoted, to be about how sometimes you can so use the master’s tools) and b) turned into a shorthand way to defend the strategic value of reading canonical texts by dead white men. But that is usually how I hear it used: “God, you’re reading Moby-Dick? Why?” “Well, sometimes you’ve got to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” And, though I think that’s certainly good strategyyes, you can learn a lot about white peoples’ particular crazinesses by reading our classic books, or about sexism by reading Saul Bellowit always makes me sad. I think: Seriously, that’s all you got from all those books? You plodded all the way through Melville, and all you got from it was some insight into the Racist Hivemind? You never, in all those pages, thought, “Huh, that’s a beautiful sentence,” or “Bellow may be problematic, but he’s an interesting guy”? I hate the instrumentalism of this metaphor when it’s used in this way (I have no problem with the point Audre Lorde was originally making); I hate the idea of canonical texts as “tools.” Certainly the construct of a canon, itself, is a tool, but the books making it up aren’t tools. Moby-Dick isn’t an instrument, any more than my love for my wife is just a way for my genes to get out there and express themselves again.

But the end of Coates’s essay is such a strange place for this meme to appear, too, because he so obviously does not think of learning as a tool, the Master’s or otherwise. He certainly doesn’t seem to feel that way about French, which he writes about with something more like the loving exasperation of a pet owner: “French is a language that obeys its rules when it feels like it. There is no unwavering rule to tell you which nouns are masculine, or which verbs require a preposition. Memory is the only way through.” If, somehow, the knowledge of French helped Coates dismantle the Master’s housewhich, seriously, I still don’t get, because isn’t the problem the Master, and his asshole rules, and not the house? Are houses just bad now? Is this a subtle argument for geodesic domes?but even if it did, he wouldn’t throw it away, as you throw away a tool that has outlived its usefulness. He wants it around for its own sake. Because knowledge, for him, is an end in itself.

That’s what it is for me. And that’s what people are for me. And that’s why I love Coates’s writing. But it’s also why I wish we had more language that, unlike the metaphors of “social capital” and “cultural capital,” insisted that people and knowledge are more than their functions.