The Complicit Culture
In literature, as in politics, and plenty of life, there can be a big difference between liberal and left. Literature is not somehow mystically ideology free. Don Quixote, as with many other classics, was written as propaganda. A lot of progressive views are to the left of the basic liberal views of periodicals like The Nation, n+1, The Guardian, London Review of Books, the New Yorker, etc. Substantial left views should be heard in national publications, especially since left views, as I understand them, and as polls reveal, are largely popular views. Instead, many left views are severely drowned out “even” in liberal media, as great media watch organizations like FAIR and Media Lens demonstrate. (Of course in my view conservative and reactionary views are typically as bad as or worse than liberal views.)
Obviously there are some ideological differences between basically liberal publications. There are significant differences between, say, The Nation and the New York Times, and so on. Alexander Cockburn, for example, is a left columnist for the predominantly liberal Nation magazine (though his column space was halved a few years back). The New York Times has no corresponding left columnist, though Paul Krugman occasionally comes close. The Nation is basically a liberal publication with some left tendencies, and its commentary on literature reflects its predominantly liberal emphasis, with many left views blocked out and discredited. The New Yorker, though predominantly liberal, lies to the right of the Nation. Though liberalism and its variants evince some genuine qualities, they also possess predominant and atrocious deficiencies, crucial to reveal.
Curiously, even progressive and left publications have poor lit coverage, including the very left Z Magazine, also the progressive Texas Observer. I’ve disagreed fundamentally with Z’s liberalish assessment of the ideological nature of the film Good Will Hunting, for one example. I’ve also long disagreed with the Texas Observer’s choosing to run the essentially liberal fiction it sporadically publishes rather than progressive fiction that would befit the publication. The Texas Observer also recently interviewed, for example, a Palestinian American poet who declaims standard liberal status quo ideology about politics in poetry, a poverty that can be readily dissected. Liberatory writers are often decried as ideological by the establishment, a way of spurning and denouncing such fiction for not fitting within the establishment’s ideological constraints. “Radical critics…have a set of social priorities with which most people at present tend to disagree. This is why they are commonly dismissed as ‘ideological’, because ideology’ is always a way of describing other people’s interests rather than our own” – Terry Eagleton.
Of course there are important differences between literature and politics, and between the ideology of literature and the ideology of politics. It goes without saying, I would think. For example, much ideology in imaginative literature has often tended to be more indirect and implicit in articulation and expression than has much nonfiction. Yet there are also crucial similarities, overlaps, intersections. The next time Richard Eder calls antiwar novels categorically “belligerent” in the New York Times, someone from the literature establishment ought to write a letter to the editor about it, which might even get published. Apparently no one of note in the literary world bothered. The NYT certainly did not publish my letter. And some established critic might bother to review the unique, progressive, revelatory Liberation Lit anthology when it comes out in paperback, or even as it currently exists online. Established critics could do it pro bono somewhere if need be. And if not, why not? (Of course, they had better re-examine their ideological understandings in literature and in general or they will further expose their deficiences, and poorly account for the literature and life they would discuss.)
The idea of left or liberatory or progressive fiction has been buried, long since, as I detail at length in my writings. VF Calverton, editor of the Modern Quarterly for 17 years (for a brief time co-edited by Edmund Wilson and others of note), has penned some of the most central understandings of liberatory fiction in his book The Liberation of American Literature (1932) – along with Bernard Smith in Forces in American Criticism (1939), also Kenneth Burke in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), and Upton Sinclair in Mammonart (1924). With the partial exception of Burke’s book, these crucial texts have been buried. The attempt to bury Calverton’s views was strongly carried out even in his own lifetime (he died at age 40 in 1940 after publishing more than a dozen books). Sinclair had to self publish Mammonart (in book form), and so on.
The rise of New Criticism was in many ways directly opposed, centrally opposed, to the rise of a variety of “progressive” literatures – revolutionary, materialist/marxist, liberatory, propagandistic, partisan, documentary, etc. In the establishment in the US, New Criticism (varieties of formalism, narrow aestheticism, then abstract art, and later theory rather than the “old criticism” sociopolitically engaged) was given plenty of state/corporate support and funding, and succeeded to the point of burying even a conception of what liberatory or progressive literature basically means, or might, the progressive and revolutionary thinking and action that rose out of the ashes of World Wars I, II, and the Great Depression.
Central works of this vital tendency of liberatory criticism certainly do not make it into the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, nor into even Gordon Hutner’s excellent historical anthology of criticism. It’s basically wiped out of history. Vincent Leitch, the editor of the massive Norton Anthology, is one of the very few people who even seems to know something of what has been lost. Even the rebirth of Marxist criticism in the 1970s deviated from “history and sociology” in that, as Leitch notes: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1970s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”
“Complete disregard,” yes, though it seems “forgotten” is partly the wrong word, and it is not “odd” because the propaganda tide against it has long been intense, heavily funded and supported, and the persecution significant to overwhelming.
Leitch continues, “In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’….”
The greatest counterrevolutionary achievement in US literature is that virtually no one knows the history of progressive, liberatory criticism, or even what it means. It’s not even clear that more than a small minority know much what is meant by counterrevolutionary and revolutionary – the normative implications and distinctions.
England is apparently no better. The England based Booker prize awarded its 2008 prize to Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger that even others in the establishment can see is lacking. Amitava Kumar via the Boston Review finds “Adiga’s villains utterly cartoonish, like the characters in Bollywood melodrama. However, it is his presentation of ordinary people that seems not only trite but also offensive.”
Compared to what Kumar has “witnessed,” Adiga “knows next to nothing” about the reality he writes about. Adiga’s work is “false”…”wrong”…”belies…truth” and is at times, though not always, literarily poor: “utterly cartoonish, like the characters in Bollywood melodrama.” The establishment struggles to deliver even to the level of some laudable liberal sensibilities.
In other words, according to Kumar, the 2008 Booker Prize novel is too often a lie, let alone poorly wrought. Much of the establishment focuses on how well wrought something is, and typically scants or distorts normative analysis, especially failing to examine or to understand how revelatory the work may or may not be in progressive let alone revolutionary veins, or how much of a lie it may or may not be, not least given the ideological assertions and implications and consequences therein and there from.
Skewed or false norms are more fundamental than craft refinements. Moreover, normative accomplishments and weaknesses are not only integrally interrelated with form, they exist and function as a major part of aesthetics. To scant or distort normative elements or to critique as if they do not exist or matter much – to emphasize or merely show that The White Tiger is not a very good novel in literary terms (the typical status quo critical review) – is to eviscerate story and discussion of it, or at best to remove discussion to abstract technical grounds uncertainly, superficially, or falsely grounded.
Overt liberatory revolutionary fiction is so anathema to the lit establishment that it is filtered very much out, de facto censored. This is no game of who is more progressive than whom – it is an institutional and normative analysis of what is tolerated and encouraged by the establishment, and what is not. It is no game that so much of the lit establishment in the US virtually writes central, great liberatory novelist Victor Hugo out of history, particularly in lieu of Flaubert (a prominent MFA, political, and formalist establishment favorite), though it’s pretty close to farce and sheer ignorance and worse. Flaubert is like Hugo’s appendix – even establishment scholar Victor Brombert seemed to gain some inkling of this late in his career. Hugo has more to say about literature in his book William Shakespeare alone than anything I’ve seen by or about Flaubert. Moreover, Hugo’s great novels, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, Les Misérables in particular, and Ninety-Three (even leaving aside Notre-Dame de Paris, and others), dwarf the best that Flaubert could manage, and over a 45 year span. It’s not only a question of the works of Hugo being far more liberatory than those of Flaubert, but more generally intelligent and otherwise accomplished, even in many ways aesthetically so, and not least. Hugo has been far more influential than the lit establishment typically knows, or allows, tolerates, wishes, or is comfortable with – the cap has been held on.
Progressive periodicals scarcely serialize fiction anymore, long since, places where authors like Upton Sinclair and even the soon to be reactionary Ralph Ellison were early published. It’s all self and small scale collective publishing now. Meanwhile the establishment creaks and stinks on enormously, if not entirely. Ideologically status quo authors are safe for the establishment – their prominence and renown has necessarily nothing to do with literary quality or other vitality, though enforced lack of opportunity can surely crush the potential of liberatory authors and others discriminated against – including at one time or another, and to various extents today, black writers, native writers, women writers, slave writers, prison writers, and so on. In recent years in circles of relative prominence it has been left to Terry Eagleton but especially and moreso to the great John Pilger to take to task the lit establishment for its various complicities in war and aggression, and other atrocities, in Pilger’s various Silence of the Writers articles. It remains monstrously spectacular how little overt antiwar fiction has been published, for example. Such authors must really be incompetent. They must be spectacularly stupid or untalented, the explicit and liberatory antiwar writers. Or just taboo, in a complicit culture.
 Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (Chapter Thirteen: “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s”):
“When the MLA put together its centennial issue of PMLA in May 1984, it commissioned Paul Lauter to write about the impact of society on the profession of literary criticism between 1958 and 1983. Lauter was a radical associated with the Movement in the sixties…. According to Lauter, the MLA between the fifties and the eighties had expanded and diversified immensely, yet ‘the hierarchy of the profession remains fundamentally unaltered, so-as yet-does the hierarchy of what we value’…. This conclusion was based on two surveys of hundreds of syllabi collected from around the nation in the eighties. Just as the reigning critical ideology in the late 1950s was ‘formalism,’ so the dominant mode of criticism in the 1980s was ‘formalism,’ however expanded to include hermeneutics, semiotics, and poststructuralism, all of which criticism ‘accepts the formalist stance by analyzing texts, including its own discourse, primarily as autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions’…. What most dismayed Lauter about such fashionable criticism were its alignment with linguistics and philosophy rather than history and sociology, its tendency to become obscurant self-referential metacriticism in a debauch of professionalism, its preference for a limited canon of elitist texts, its increasing abnegation of practical exegesis and humanistic values, and its deepening occupation of the core of the profession”…. [Even the rebirth of Marxist criticism in the 1970s deviated from “history and sociology” in that]: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1970s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”
“In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’….”
“Rather than an instrument or weapon of ruling-class oppression, literature was potentially liberating [in the view of Louis Kampf – MIT English professor and activist who co-taught with Noam Chomsky], provided it was set within a living context close to daily life and removed from its sacrosanct place in the great tradition. ‘In spite of our academic merchants, literature is not a commodity, but the sign of a creative act which expresses personal, social, and historical needs. As such it constantly undermines the status quo.’ The task of the radical critic was to destroy received dogmas and procedures, letting literature be an instrument of agitation and resistance and a force for freedom and genuine liberation. ‘As members of the educated middle class, we must learn that our words should discredit our own culture. Those of us who are literary intellectuals and teachers ought to illustrate in our work that the arts are not alone available to those who are genteel…’.”