About Me

My Photo
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
Admire John McPhee, Bill Bryson, David Remnick, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and James Martin (and most open and curious minds)


Edward Said

Let Them Drown

The Violence of Othering in a Warming World

Naomi Klein


Edward Said was no tree-hugger. Descended from traders, artisans and professionals, he once described himself as ‘an extreme case of an urban Palestinian whose relationship to the land is basically metaphorical’.In After the Last Sky, his meditation on the photographs of Jean Mohr, he explored the most intimate aspects of Palestinian lives, from hospitality to sports to home décor. The tiniest detail – the placing of a picture frame, the defiant posture of a child – provoked a torrent of insight from Said. Yet when confronted with images of Palestinian farmers – tending their flocks, working the fields – the specificity suddenly evaporated. Which crops were being cultivated? What was the state of the soil? The availability of water? Nothing was forthcoming. ‘I continue to perceive a population of poor, suffering, occasionally colourful peasants, unchanging and collective,’ Said confessed. This perception was ‘mythic’, he acknowledged – yet it remained.
If farming was another world for Said, those who devoted their lives to matters like air and water pollution appear to have inhabited another planet. Speaking to his colleague Rob Nixon, he once described environmentalism as ‘the indulgence of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause’. But the environmental challenges of the Middle East are impossible to ignore for anyone immersed, as Said was, in its geopolitics. This is a region intensely vulnerable to heat and water stress, to sea-level rise and to desertification. A recent paper in Nature Climate Change predicts that, unless we radically lower emissions and lower them fast, large parts of the Middle East will likely ‘experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans’ by the end of this century. And that’s about as blunt as climate scientists get. Yet environmental issues in the region still tend to be treated as afterthoughts, or luxury causes. The reason is not ignorance, or indifference. It’s just bandwidth. Climate change is a grave threat but the most frightening impacts are in the medium term. And in the short term, there are always far more pressing threats to contend with: military occupation, air assault, systemic discrimination, embargo. Nothing can compete with that – nor should it attempt to try.
There are other reasons why environmentalism might have looked like a bourgeois playground to Said. The Israeli state has long coated its nation-building project in a green veneer – it was a key part of the Zionist ‘back to the land’ pioneer ethos. And in this context trees, specifically, have been among the most potent weapons of land grabbing and occupation. It’s not only the countless olive and pistachio trees that have been uprooted to make way for settlements and Israeli-only roads. It’s also the sprawling pine and eucalyptus forests that have been planted over those orchards, as well as over Palestinian villages, most notoriously by the Jewish National Fund, which, under its slogan ‘Turning the Desert Green’, boasts of having planted 250 million trees in Israel since 1901, many of them non-native to the region. In publicity materials, the JNF bills itself as just another green NGO, concerned with forest and water management, parks and recreation. It also happens to be the largest private landowner in the state of Israel, and despite a number of complicated legal challenges, it still refuses to lease or sell land to non-Jews.
I grew up in a Jewish community where every occasion – births and deaths, Mother’s Day, bar mitzvahs – was marked with the proud purchase of a JNF tree in the person’s honour. It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to understand that those feel-good faraway conifers, certificates for which papered the walls of my Montreal elementary school, were not benign – not just something to plant and later hug. In fact these trees are among the most glaring symbols of Israel’s system of official discrimination – the one that must be dismantled if peaceful co-existence is to become possible.
The JNF is an extreme and recent example of what some call ‘green colonialism’. But the phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it unique to Israel. There is a long and painful history in the Americas of beautiful pieces of wilderness being turned into conservation parks – and then that designation being used to prevent Indigenous people from accessing their ancestral territories to hunt and fish, or simply to live. It has happened again and again. A contemporary version of this phenomenon is the carbon offset. Indigenous people from Brazil to Uganda are finding that some of the most aggressive land grabbing is being done by conservation organisations. A forest is suddenly rebranded a carbon offset and is put off-limits to its traditional inhabitants. As a result, the carbon offset market has created a whole new class of ‘green’ human rights abuses, with farmers and Indigenous people being physically attacked by park rangers or private security when they try to access these lands. Said’s comment about tree-huggers should be seen in this context.
And there is more. In the last year of Said’s life, Israel’s so-called ‘separation barrier’ was going up, seizing huge swathes of the West Bank, cutting Palestinian workers off from their jobs, farmers from their fields, patients from hospitals – and brutally dividing families. There was no shortage of reasons to oppose the wall on human rights grounds. Yet at the time, some of the loudest dissenting voices among Israeli Jews were not focused on any of that. Yehudit Naot, Israel’s then environment minister, was more worried about a report informing her that ‘The separation fence … is harmful to the landscape, the flora and fauna, the ecological corridors and the drainage of the creeks.’ ‘I certainly don’t want to stop or delay the building of the fence,’ she said, but ‘I am disturbed by the environmental damage involved.’ As the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti later observed, Naot’s ‘ministry and the National Parks Protection Authority mounted diligent rescue efforts to save an affected reserve of irises by moving it to an alternative reserve. They’ve also created tiny passages [through the wall] for animals.’
Perhaps this puts the cynicism about the green movement in context. People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles. And yet there is so much of Said’s intellectual legacy that both illuminates and clarifies the underlying causes of the global ecological crisis, so much that points to ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don’t ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty and systemic racism and first ‘save the world’ – but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected, and how the solutions could be too. In short, Said may have had no time for tree-huggers, but tree-huggers must urgently make time for Said – and for a great many other anti-imperialist, postcolonial thinkers – because without that knowledge, there is no way to understand how we ended up in this dangerous place, or to grasp the transformations required to get us out. So what follows are some thoughts – by no means complete – about what we can learn from reading Said in a warming world.
He was and remains among our most achingly eloquent theorists of exile and homesickness – but Said’s homesickness, he always made clear, was for a home that had been so radically altered that it no longer really existed. His position was complex: he fiercely defended the right to return, but never claimed that home was fixed. What mattered was the principle of respect for all human rights equally and the need for restorative justice to inform our actions and policies. This perspective is deeply relevant in our time of eroding coastlines, of nations disappearing beneath rising seas, of the coral reefs that sustain entire cultures being bleached white, of a balmy Arctic. This is because the state of longing for a radically altered homeland – a home that may not even exist any longer – is something that is being rapidly, and tragically, globalised. In March, two major peer-reviewed studies warned that sea-level rise could happen significantly faster than previously believed. One of the authors of the first study was James Hansen – perhaps the most respected climate scientist in the world. He warned that, on our current emissions trajectory, we face the ‘loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s large cities and all their history’ – and not in thousands of years from now but as soon as this century. If we don’t demand radical change we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists.
Said helps us imagine what that might look like as well. He helped to popularise the Arabic word sumud (‘to stay put, to hold on’): that steadfast refusal to leave one’s land despite the most desperate eviction attempts and even when surrounded by continuous danger. It’s a word most associated with places like Hebron and Gaza, but it could be applied equally today to residents of coastal Louisiana who have raised their homes up on stilts so that they don’t have to evacuate, or to Pacific Islanders whose slogan is ‘We are not drowning. We are fighting.’ In countries like the Marshall Islands and Fiji and Tuvalu, they know that so much sea-level rise is inevitable that their countries likely have no future. But they refuse just to concern themselves with the logistics of relocation, and wouldn’t even if there were safer countries willing to open their borders – a very big if, since climate refugees aren’t currently recognised under international law. Instead they are actively resisting: blockading Australian coal ships with traditional outrigger canoes, disrupting international climate negotiations with their inconvenient presence, demanding far more aggressive climate action. If there is anything worth celebrating in the Paris Agreement signed in April – and sadly, there isn’t enough – it has come about because of this kind of principled action: climatesumud.
But this only scratches of the surface of what we can learn from reading Said in a warming world. He was, of course, a giant in the study of ‘othering’ – what is described inOrientalism as ‘disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region’. And once the other has been firmly established, the ground is softened for any transgression: violent expulsion, land theft, occupation, invasion. Because the whole point of othering is that the other doesn’t have the same rights, the same humanity, as those making the distinction. What does this have to do with climate change? Perhaps everything.
We have dangerously warmed our world already, and our governments still refuse to take the actions necessary to halt the trend. There was a time when many had the right to claim ignorance. But for the past three decades, since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created and climate negotiations began, this refusal to lower emissions has been accompanied with full awareness of the dangers. And this kind of recklessness would have been functionally impossible without institutional racism, even if only latent. It would have been impossible without Orientalism, without all the potent tools on offer that allow the powerful to discount the lives of the less powerful. These tools – of ranking the relative value of humans – are what allow the writing off of entire nations and ancient cultures. And they are what allowed for the digging up of all that carbon to begin with.
Fossil fuels aren’t the sole driver of climate change – there is industrial agriculture, and deforestation – but they are the biggest. And the thing about fossil fuels is that they are so inherently dirty and toxic that they require sacrificial people and places: people whose lungs and bodies can be sacrificed to work in the coal mines, people whose lands and water can be sacrificed to open-pit mining and oil spills. As recently as the 1970s, scientists advising the US government openly referred to certain parts of the country being designated ‘national sacrifice areas’. Think of the mountains of Appalachia, blasted off for coal mining – because so-called ‘mountain top removal’ coal mining is cheaper than digging holes underground. There must be theories of othering to justify sacrificing an entire geography – theories about the people who lived there being so poor and backward that their lives and culture don’t deserve protection. After all, if you are a ‘hillbilly’, who cares about your hills? Turning all that coal into electricity required another layer of othering too: this time for the urban neighbourhoods next door to the power plants and refineries. In North America, these are overwhelmingly communities of colour, black and Latino, forced to carry the toxic burden of our collective addiction to fossil fuels, with markedly higher rates of respiratory illnesses and cancers. It was in fights against this kind of ‘environmental racism’ that the climate justice movement was born.
Fossil fuel sacrifice zones dot the globe. Take the Niger Delta, poisoned with an Exxon Valdez-worth of spilled oil every year, a process Ken Saro-Wiwa, before he was murdered by his government, called ‘ecological genocide’. The executions of community leaders, he said, were ‘all for Shell’. In my country, Canada, the decision to dig up the Alberta tar sands – a particularly heavy form of oil – has required the shredding of treaties with First Nations, treaties signed with the British Crown that guaranteed Indigenous peoples the right to continue to hunt, fish and live traditionally on their ancestral lands. It required it because these rights are meaningless when the land is desecrated, when the rivers are polluted and the moose and fish are riddled with tumours. And it gets worse: Fort McMurray – the town at the centre of the tar sands boom, where many of the workers live and where much of the money is spent – is currently in an infernal blaze. It’s that hot and that dry. And this has something to do with what is being mined there.
Even without such dramatic events, this kind of resource extraction is a form of violence, because it does so much damage to the land and water that it brings about the end of a way of life, a death of cultures that are inseparable from the land. Severing Indigenous people’s connection to their culture used to be state policy in Canada – imposed through the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families to boarding schools where their language and cultural practices were banned, and where physical and sexual abuse were rampant. A recent truth and reconciliation report called it ‘cultural genocide’. The trauma associated with these layers of forced separation – from land, from culture, from family – is directly linked to the epidemic of despair ravaging so many First Nations communities today. On a single Saturday night in April, in the community of Attawapiskat – population 2000 – 11 people tried to take their own lives. Meanwhile, DeBeers runs a diamond mine on the community’s traditional territory; like all extractive projects, it had promised hope and opportunity. ‘Why don’t the people just leave?’, the politicians and pundits ask. But many do. And that departure is linked, in part, to the thousands of Indigenous women in Canada who have been murdered or gone missing, often in big cities. Press reports rarely make the connection between violence against women and violence against the land – often to extract fossil fuels – but it exists. Every new government comes to power promising a new era of respect for Indigenous rights. They don’t deliver, because Indigenous rights, as defined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, include the right to refuse extractive projects – even when those projects fuel national economic growth. And that’s a problem because growth is our religion, our way of life. So even Canada’s hunky and charming new prime minister is bound and determined to build new tar sands pipelines, against the express wishes of Indigenous communities who don’t want to risk their water, or participate in the further destabilising of the climate.
Fossil fuels require sacrifice zones: they always have. And you can’t have a system built on sacrificial places and sacrificial people unless intellectual theories that justify their sacrifice exist and persist: from Manifest Destiny to Terra Nullius to Orientalism, from backward hillbillies to backward Indians. We often hear climate change blamed on ‘human nature’, on the inherent greed and short-sightedness of our species. Or we are told we have altered the earth so much and on such a planetary scale that we are now living in the Anthropocene – the age of humans. These ways of explaining our current circumstances have a very specific, if unspoken meaning: that humans are a single type, that human nature can be essentialised to the traits that created this crisis. In this way, the systems that certain humans created, and other humans powerfully resisted, are completely let off the hook. Capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy – those sorts of system. Diagnoses like this erase the very existence of human systems that organised life differently: systems that insist that humans must think seven generations in the future; must be not only good citizens but also good ancestors; must take no more than they need and give back to the land in order to protect and augment the cycles of regeneration. These systems existed and still exist, but they are erased every time we say that the climate crisis is a crisis of ‘human nature’ and that we are living in the ‘age of man’. And they come under very real attack when megaprojects are built, like the Gualcarque hydroelectric dams in Honduras, a project which, among other things, took the life of the land defender Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in March.
Some people insist that it doesn’t have to be this bad. We can clean up resource extraction, we don’t need to do it the way it’s been done in Honduras and the Niger Delta and the Alberta tar sands. Except that we are running out of cheap and easy ways to get at fossil fuels, which is why we have seen the rise of fracking and tar sands extraction in the first place. This, in turn, is starting to challenge the original Faustian pact of the industrial age: that the heaviest risks would be outsourced, offloaded, onto the other – the periphery abroad and inside our own nations. It’s something that is becoming less and less possible. Fracking is threatening some of the most picturesque parts of Britain as the sacrifice zone expands, swallowing up all kinds of places that imagined themselves safe. So this isn’t just about gasping at how ugly the tar sands are. It’s about acknowledging that there is no clean, safe, non-toxic way to run an economy powered by fossil fuels. There never was.
There is an avalanche of evidence that there is no peaceful way either. The trouble is structural. Fossil fuels, unlike renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, are not widely distributed but highly concentrated in very specific locations, and those locations have a bad habit of being in other people’s countries. Particularly that most potent and precious of fossil fuels: oil. This is why the project of Orientalism, of othering Arab and Muslim people, has been the silent partner of our oil dependence from the start – and inextricable, therefore, from the blowback that is climate change. If nations and peoples are regarded as other – exotic, primitive, bloodthirsty, as Said documented in the 1970s – it is far easier to wage wars and stage coups when they get the crazy idea that they should control their own oil in their own interests. In 1953 it was the British-US collaboration to overthrow the democratically elected government of Muhammad Mossadegh after he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). In 2003, exactly fifty years later, it was another UK-US co-production – the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. The reverberations from each intervention continue to jolt our world, as do the reverberations from the successful burning of all that oil. The Middle East is now squeezed in the pincer of violence caused by fossil fuels, on the one hand, and the impact of burning those fossil fuels on the other.
In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report. ‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough. And now certain patterns have become quite clear: first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict.
Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought. And the same capacity for dehumanising the other that justified the bombs and drones is now being trained on these migrants, casting their need for security as a threat to ours, their desperate flight as some sort of invading army. Tactics refined on the West Bank and in other occupation zones are now making their way to North America and Europe. In selling his wall on the border with Mexico, Donald Trump likes to say: ‘Ask Israel, the wall works.’ Camps are bulldozed in Calais, thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean, and the Australian government detains survivors of wars and despotic regimes in camps on the remote islands of Nauru and Manus. Conditions are so desperate on Nauru that last month an Iranian migrant died after setting himself on fire to try to draw the world’s attention. Another migrant – a 21-year-old woman from Somalia – set herself on fire a few days later. Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, warns that Australians ‘cannot be misty-eyed about this’ and ‘have to be very clear and determined in our national purpose’. It’s worth bearing Nauru in mind the next time a columnist in a Murdoch paper declares, as Katie Hopkins did last year, that it’s time for Britain ‘to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.’ In another bit of symbolism Nauru is one of the Pacific Islands very vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its residents, after seeing their homes turned into prisons for others, will very possibly have to migrate themselves. Tomorrow’s climate refugees have been recruited into service as today’s prison guards.
We need to understand that what is happening on Nauru, and what is happening to it, are expressions of the same logic. A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat. When that happens, theories of human hierarchy – that we must take care of our own first – will be marshalled to rationalise these monstrous decisions. We are making this rationalisation already, if only implicitly. Although climate change will ultimately be an existential threat to all of humanity, in the short term we know that it does discriminate, hitting the poor first and worst, whether they are abandoned on the rooftops of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or whether they are among the 36 million who according to the UN are facing hunger due to drought in Southern and East Africa.
This is an emergency, a present emergency, not a future one, but we aren’t acting like it. The Paris Agreement commits to keeping warming below 2°c. It’s a target that is beyond reckless. When it was unveiled in Copenhagen in 2009, the African delegates called it ‘a death sentence’. The slogan of several low-lying island nations is ‘1.5 to stay alive’. At the last minute, a clause was added to the Paris Agreement that says countries will pursue ‘efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°c’. Not only is this non-binding but it is a lie: we are making no such efforts. The governments that made this promise are now pushing for more fracking and more tar sands development – which are utterly incompatible with 2°c, let alone 1.5°c. This is happening because the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries in the world think they are going to be OK, that someone else is going to eat the biggest risks, that even when climate change turns up on their doorstep, they will be taken care of.
When they’re wrong things get even uglier. We had a vivid glimpse into that future when the floodwaters rose in England last December and January, inundating 16,000 homes. These communities weren’t only dealing with the wettest December on record. They were also coping with the fact that the government has waged a relentless attack on the public agencies, and the local councils, that are on the front lines of flood defence. So understandably, there were many who wanted to change the subject away from that failure. Why, they asked, is Britain spending so much money on refugees and foreign aid when it should be taking care of its own? ‘Never mind foreign aid,’ we read in the Daily Mail. ‘What about national aid?’ ‘Why,’ aTelegraph editorial demanded, ‘should British taxpayers continue to pay for flood defences abroad when the money is needed here?’ I don’t know – maybe because Britain invented the coal-burning steam engine and has been burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale longer than any nation on Earth? But I digress. The point is that this could have been a moment to understand that we are all affected by climate change, and must take action together and in solidarity with one another. It wasn’t, because climate change isn’t just about things getting hotter and wetter: under our current economic and political model, it’s about things getting meaner and uglier.
The most important lesson to take from all this is that there is no way to confront the climate crisis as a technocratic problem, in isolation. It must be seen in the context of austerity and privatisation, of colonialism and militarism, and of the various systems of othering needed to sustain them all. The connections and intersections between them are glaring, and yet so often resistance to them is highly compartmentalised. The anti-austerity people rarely talk about climate change, the climate change people rarely talk about war or occupation. We rarely make the connection between the guns that take black lives on the streets of US cities and in police custody and the much larger forces that annihilate so many black lives on arid land and in precarious boats around the world.
Overcoming these disconnections – strengthening the threads tying together our various issues and movements – is, I would argue, the most pressing task of anyone concerned with social and economic justice. It is the only way to build a counterpower sufficiently robust to win against the forces protecting the highly profitable but increasingly untenable status quo. Climate change acts as an accelerant to many of our social ills – inequality, wars, racism – but it can also be an accelerant for the opposite, for the forces working for economic and social justice and against militarism. Indeed the climate crisis – by presenting our species with an existential threat and putting us on a firm and unyielding science-based deadline – might just be the catalyst we need to knit together a great many powerful movements, bound together by a belief in the inherent worth and value of all people and united by a rejection of the sacrifice zone mentality, whether it applies to peoples or places. We face so many overlapping and intersecting crises that we can’t afford to fix them one at a time. We need integrated solutions, solutions that radically bring down emissions, while creating huge numbers of good, unionised jobs and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been most abused and excluded under the current extractive economy.
Said died the year Iraq was invaded, living to see its libraries and museums looted, its oil ministry faithfully guarded. Amid these outrages, he found hope in the global anti-war movement, as well as in new forms of grassroots communication opened up by technology; he noted ‘the existence of alternative communities across the globe, informed by alternative news sources, and keenly aware of the environmental, human rights and libertarian impulses that bind us together in this tiny planet’. His vision even had a place for tree-huggers. I was reminded of those words recently while I was reading up on England’s floods. Amid all the scapegoating and finger-pointing, I came across a post by a man called Liam Cox. He was upset by the way some in the media were using the disaster to rev up anti-foreigner sentiment, and he said so:
I live in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, one of the worst affected areas hit by the floods. It’s shit, everything has gotten really wet. However … I’m alive. I’m safe. My family are safe. We don’t live in fear. I’m free. There aren’t bullets flying about. There aren’t bombs going off. I’m not being forced to flee my home and I’m not being shunned by the richest country in the world or criticised by its residents.
All you morons vomiting your xenophobia … about how money should only be spent ‘on our own’ need to look at yourselves closely in the mirror. I request you ask yourselves a very important question … Am I a decent and honourable human being? Because home isn’t just the UK, home is everywhere on this planet.
I think that makes for a very fine last word.


A beleaguered Britain takes comfort in nostalgia for empire | Aeon Ideas

A beleaguered Britain takes comfort in nostalgia for empire | Aeon Ideas

Idea sized royal museum greenwich 11833679286 73f249719e o


Thanks for All Those Minutes, Morley Safer

The '60 Minutes' correspondent is remembered for his sparkle and humanity

On a flight back from New Orleans Sunday night, I was in luck. The plane was equipped with live television so I could watch the 60 Minutes special about Morley Safer, one of television’s greatest storytellers.
Morley Safer: A Reporter’s Life aired just a few days after Safer formally retired following an astonishing 52 years at CBS News — 46 of them with 60 Minutes. He was the news magazine’s longest-serving correspondent.
It felt like an obituary. But I refused to believe one of my heroes in journalism — one of the most distinctive writers on television — was seriously ill and, I suspected, dying since the special didn’t include any fresh interviews.
With his death, we lose a highly unique voice, but mostly we lose the richness of personality who was not afraid to go wide and deep.
— '60 Minutes' Producer Ruth Streeter
Sadly, my suspicions were born out. Morley Safer died at his home in New York today. He was 84.
What a life he packed into those 84 years.

A Great Sparkle

The Canadian-born journalist brought the intensity of the Vietnam War battlefield directly and uncomfortably into America’s living room; took us for a ride on the Orient Express; and got up close and personal with the likes of comedian Jackie Gleason, actress Helen Mirren and Vogue’s Editor Anna Wintour.
“Morley always looked for the humor, the human side in every story — what makes us human — greatness, courage, audacity but he also understood weakness, vanity and power and arrogance and despotism, ego and narcissism,” says longtime 60 Minutes Producer Ruth Streeter, who worked with Safer on the profiles of Mirren and Wintour. “He understood the human character and human soul. Some people are rich and deep in a narrow way, but Morley had a range across all things. Most of all what set him apart is that he was like Shakespeare in the sense of understanding people in a nonjudgmental way. Morley had a great sparkle.”
Steven Reiner, an associate professor of journalism at Stony Brook University, worked with Safer at 60 Minutesfor more than a decade beginning in 1996 on profiles of the late neurologist, author Oliver Sacks and conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas, and traveling with him to the kingdom of Bhutan, thought to be the happiest place on Earth. What stands out, Reiner says, is Morley’s “inimitable persona, his style, his affect, his extraordinarily quirky, unpredictable and brilliant wit, his sense of the absurd, playfulness, irony. He was a wonderful artist, pen and ink.  Morley had a lot of passions — racecar driving in the country — a very full and rich life outside of 60 Minutes. I don’t think 60 Minutes ever became his identity per se the way it was for others.  But the great irony is he survived Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Bob Simon and founding executive producer Don Hewitt.”
Safer, Reiner says, “could be tender, but he was also tough as nails. The toughness must have developed in Vietnam. A fierce defender of his work, Morley would fight for a story in the screening room with Don Hewitt, down to the semicolon.”
Perhaps more than any other trait, it was Safer’s writing that set him apart. “Morley was an essayist, a phenomenal writer,” says Streeter. “With his death, we lose a highly unique voice, but mostly we lose the richness of personality who was not afraid to go wide and deep. The world intrigued Morley, so it was always fun to go on the adventure with him. Always.”

Growing Up With Morley Safer

If the boomers felt like they grew up with Morley Safer it’s because they did. Safer’s career with CBS began in 1964 with his reports from Vietnam, not long after that awful weekend in November 1963 when everything seemed to change — when as a nine-year-old I was shocked to watch Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. Just six years years later, Safer joined 60 Minutes in its third season.
It was near the beginning of the Safer special Sunday night when I let out a belly laugh that probably carried several rows in front and behind me on the flight home. Little did I know that Safer and I had at least one thing in common: an office that, shall we say was well lived in, though it’s fair to say Safer did me one better. Along with the books, old newspapers and piles of old scripts, 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager described Safer’s office as a marked contrast to the impeccably dressed globe-trotting correspondent with the polka dot tie, Tattersall shirt and pocket square. “They found a piece of cake behind his desk from like 20 years ago,” Fager said, “and a couple of dead mice.”
Reiner remembers when they recarpeted the 60 Minutes offices, and had to move the furniture out of everyone’s office. But they couldn’t do it in Morley’s office because he wouldn’t clear the piles from his desk. They gave up and just cut out the carpet around his desk.
“My image of Morley is sitting at his desk with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, swiveling back and forth from his typewriter,” Reiner recalls, “just thinking for 10, 15, 20 seconds and then coming up with a turn of phrase that might take me a week and even then I wouldn’t get close.  He was just amazing.”
Safer eventually transitioned to the computer, of course. A few days ago, he  tweeted: “It’s been a wonderful run” and thanked “the millions of people who have been loyal to our 60 Minutes broadcast.”
No, Morley, thank you.

LeRoy Nieman Pulled Together a Dream Band for His Epic Portrait of Jazz Greats | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

LeRoy Nieman Pulled Together a Dream Band for His Epic Portrait of Jazz Greats | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

Beautiful Nowheres: ‘No Man’s Sky’ and the 500th Anniversary of ‘Utopia’ : Longreads Blog

Beautiful Nowheres: ‘No Man’s Sky’ and the 500th Anniversary of ‘Utopia’ : Longreads Blog

Image courtesy of Hello Games / No Man's Sky

Art, Books and Criticism



The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski 
University of Chicago Press
Published October, 2015 
ISBN 9780226294032
Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth by A. O. Scott 
Jonathan Cape
Published March, 2016 
ISBN 9781910702550
The Art of Reading by Damon Young 
Melbourne University Press
Published March, 2016 
ISBN 9780522867602

Many years ago, back when I was a fresh-faced postgraduate student, I was invited to lunch at the home of my aunt and uncle. It was, I seem to recall, a pleasant spring afternoon. Warm yellow sunlight was falling through the dining-room window across a well-furnished table, where I was seated beside my aunt, who spent much of the meal quizzing me about the thesis I was in the middle of writing on the work of James Joyce.
Everything was proceeding quite amiably, until I happened to declare my admiration for Molly Bloom’s celebrated soliloquy in Ulysses. Expressing myself no doubt with a certain callow enthusiasm, I began to describe the extraordinary labour that went into its composition, mentioning in passing that it was written entirely without punctuation – motivated as I was at that time by the belief that this remarkable fact was not widely known, or at any rate was not as widely known as it should be. It was at this point that another of our dining companions, an acquaintance of my uncle’s, a flushed and corpulent fellow with a pronounced squint, who had apparently made vast sums building shopping centres or something, and who signalled his good fortune by driving around in an expensive sports car, the prestigious make of which now escapes me, but which I can report was indeed red – anyway, it was at this point that my uncle’s rather well-lubricated guest leaned slowly into the sunlight, granting everyone a distinct view of the minor Pollock of exploded capillaries that bloomed across his empurpled proboscis, scanned the table with a single bleary bloodshot eye, and said in a loud and scornful voice:
What’s … the use … of that …?
Suffice to say, the afternoon began to go downhill. A frank exchange of views ensued, during which it transpired that our dining companion held eminently practical opinions on all manner of topics. These included a general disdain for the various academic disciplines that fall under the rubric ‘humanities’, an unshakeable belief in the virtues of trickle-down economics, and a strong disinclination to educate poor people.
If we can place to one side what I think it is fair to describe as the boorish manners of my interlocutor, and overlook for the time being his wretched politics and incorrigible philistinism, it is worth acknowledging the validity of his question. Assuming (as I do) that he was not simply voicing his newly discovered contempt for the avant-garde aesthetics of high modernism, but that his intention was to cast doubt upon the entire literary-critical enterprise, it must be conceded that the problem of ‘use’ is one that critics have long struggled to address.
In Uses of Literature (2008), Rita Felski suggests four possible answers: recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock. A. O. Scott weds an ironically utilitarian title, Better Living Through Criticism, to a subtitle that evokes the traditional justifications of art, pleasure, beauty and truth. In The Art of Reading, philosopher Damon Young finds an explanation in the cultivation of virtues, devoting chapters to curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice. All of these answers might seem worthy enough, but they can also be taken as illustrative of the problem. We are in a realm of abstract nouns and subjective responses, dubious moralising and epistemological uncertainty, affect rather than effect.
The problem becomes particularly acute in an academic context. To the extent that there is currently a ‘legitimation crisis’ in literary studies, as Felski contends at the beginning of The Limits of Critique, this is merely the latest manifestation of a perpetual legitimation crisis that has been part of the discipline from the beginning. When the study of modern literature was granted an institutional foothold in the late-nineteenth century, it was met with widespread scepticism about its validity. Even Matthew Arnold – that famous champion of literary education and the godfather of the so-called ‘social mission of English criticism’ – expressed concern that it may not prove substantial enough to be viable as an independent discipline.
There is a sense in which the subsequent history of academic literary criticism (or ‘theory’, if you prefer) is one of self-justification. Each new movement or school of thought is advancing an implicit – and very often explicit – rationale for its existence; each makes its own claim to methodological, empirical or philosophical rigour. Although in practice there has always been a significant overlap between academic and public criticism, literary theorists within the academy are frequently at pains to differentiate their work, intellectually and formally, from the supposedly impressionistic and belletristic writing that is associated with criticism in the public sphere. And if there is one thing that the past century of theorising can be said to have demonstrated with some conclusiveness, it is that there are many ways to approach literature that render irrelevant the question of whether or not one finds it aesthetically pleasing. You can systematise it like Northrop Frye, interpret it as a locus of ideology and power like Michel Foucault, deconstruct it to expose the metaphysical foundations of Western thought like Jacques Derrida, or run it through a computer like Franco Moretti.
The obvious but far from straightforward counter-argument to such dispassionate approaches is to insist that literary works are aesthetic objects, that they exist to be read and appreciated, and that the experience of reading an individual work is therefore an intrinsic part of its meaning. This is, broadly speaking, the idea that Felski pursues in Uses of Literature and The Limits of Critique. She argues that an allegiance to what she calls ‘critique’ is the defining feature of much contemporary literary theory, in that the assumption of its intellectual virtue is held in common across competing schools of thought. The term, as Felski defines it, denotes something more specific than mere criticism or interpretation. Taking her cue from Paul Ricoeur’s phrase ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’, she proposes that critique can be understood as a pervasive mode of suspicious thinking, in which the text is assumed to be concealing deeper meanings and therefore needs to have its illusions, unconscious biases and politically nefarious implications exposed and demystified. ‘Contemporary critics,’ she observes in Uses of Literature, ‘pride themselves on their power to disenchant, to mercilessly direct laser-sharp beams of critique at every imaginable object.’
Critique is thus a display of intellectual mastery – one that can seem to be synonymous with thinking itself, since a choice between being critical and being uncritical is clearly no choice at all. But it also generates a kind of paradoxical metadiscourse, what Felski calls ‘an antinormative normativity: skepticism as dogma’. It leads to a compulsive focus on ‘second-level observation, in which we reflect on the frameworks that form and inform our understanding’. Most significantly, critique manifests itself in the pervasive tendency to interpret texts as products of their historical, sociological and linguistic contexts. The singularity and the affective properties of individual works are, as a consequence, either ignored or marginalised or treated as symptomatic. Near the end of Uses of Literature, Felski defines the issue in this way:
Thanks to the institutional entrenchment of negative aesthetics, a spectrum of reader responses has been ruled out of court in literary theory, deemed shamefully naive at best, and rationalist, reactionary, or totalizing at worst. Shifting the grounds of debate requires a single-minded clarification of the caliber and qualities of such responses, as they play themselves out in the relations between individual acts of reading and a broader social field.
The Limits of Critique, which Felski acknowledges is part of a wider renewal of interest in some age-old problems of aesthetics, is an attempt to put this ground-shifting project into action. It sets out to
de-essentialize the practice of suspicious reading by disinvesting it of presumptions of inherent rigor or intrinsic radicalism – thereby freeing up literary studies to embrace a wider range of affective styles and modes of argument.
Felski’s position is delicately balanced, and perhaps a little precarious. She is a Professor of English  at the University of Virginia and a respected feminist literary theorist, a product of the academic culture of critique she is calling into question. ‘As a critic schooled in suspicious reading,’ she observes near the end of The Limits of Critique, ‘I am hardly immune to its charms.’ Her stance does not involve a wholesale rejection of fin de siècle literary theory, though she does emerge as a firm opponent of the Foucauldian and New Historicist strands of contemporary thought which favour ‘diagnosis rather than dialogue’. Nor is she attempting to critique ‘critique’, even though a good deal of her argument is organised around her shrewd analysis of the way in which suspicious reading can itself be understood as a distinct rhetorical mode that relies on its own set of defining tropes and metaphors. What she does suggest is that literary studies
sorely needs alternatives to what I’ve dubbed elsewhere ‘ideological’ and ‘theological’ styles of criticism: a reduction of texts into political tools or instruments, on the one hand, and a cult of reverence for their sheer ineffability, on the other.
Anyone who has spent some time in a library hanging around in the vicinity of the low 800s will know that, for all their variety and intricacy, methodological arguments about the interpretation of literature invariably organise themselves around a small number of seemingly unavoidable conflicts, which are constantly being reinvented and given different weight by different schools of thought. Critics, observes Felski, are caught between
dichotomies of text versus context, word versus world, internalist versus externalist explanations of works of art. Literary studies seem destined to swing between these two ends of the pendulum, with opposing sides rehashing the same arguments.
This inevitability, I think, explains the odd sense of déjà vu that is generated by many of the ideas and expressed concerns in The Limits of Critique andBetter Living Through Criticism. It would also seem to explain the curious intersection of their arguments, even though these two books address completely different audiences and start from more or less antithetical positions.
Felski assumes she is speaking to her academic peers. This defines the parameters of her book, which does not stray outside the milieu of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century literary theory. That’s fair enough, but it does mean that The Limits of Critique is likely to seem rather insular to anyone who is not part of that milieu. Felski proceeds, for the purposes of her argument, as if it can be taken for granted that no critic outside the theoretical bubble of the past few decades had anything of importance to say on the subject of aesthetics, as if pretty much everything prior to the rise of what she describes at one point as ‘Theory with a capital T’ can be safely assumed to be intellectually beyond the pale. The ‘postcritical reading’ that Felski advocates (she is suitably apologetic about proposing yet another technical term with the prefix ‘post-’) is in this sense a thoroughly institutional concept – a post-theoretical concept, if not exactly an anti-theoretical one. She defines it in opposition to the ossified clichés of recent theory, which she sets out in a droll list. Postcritical reading, she states, embraces
pragmatic and experimental modes of engagement that are not prefortified by general theories. The role of the term ‘postcritical’, then, is neither to prescribe the forms that reading should take nor dictate the attitudes critics must adopt; it is to steer us away from the kinds of arguments we know how to conduct in our sleep. These are some of the things postcritical reading will decline to do: subject a text to interrogation; diagnose hidden anxieties; demote recognition to yet another form of misrecognition; lament our incarceration in the prison-house of language; demonstrate that resistance is just another form of containment; read a text as a metacommentary on the undecidability of meaning; score points by showing that its categories are socially constructed; brood over the gap that separates word from world.
One of the noteworthy features of this attempt to reorient contemporary literary theory is that, viewed from the outside, Felski seems to be proposing something entirely unremarkable. She battles her way to the affirmation of an idea that many if not all non-academic readers would take for granted. This is thrown into particular relief when The Limits of Critique is read alongside Better Living Through Criticism. As a practising public critic, A. O. Scott occupies a very different cultural space. He is chief film reviewer for theNew York Times and a former book reviewer for Slate and the New York Review of Books. In Better Living Through Criticism, he offers the essay in defence of his craft that every professional critic is probably destined to write at some stage. Where Felski offers a cautious and carefully qualified argument for re-admitting subjective responses into academic discourse, Scott assumes that the fundamental problem he faces as a critic is how to defend his judgements against the charge that they are no more than personal opinions. When he defines criticism as ‘the transformation of awe into understanding’, he takes the essential subjectivity of the critic’s impressions as his inevitable starting point.
Scott’s argument is thus grounded in aesthetics. His frame of reference is at once broader and looser than Felski’s. He draws on the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Walter Pater and Susan Sontag, among many others, to propose not only that criticism should be understood as ‘the defence of art’, but that criticism is itself an art. This is not an original idea, as he acknowledges. One of his epigraphs is from Oscar Wilde’s essay ‘The Critic as Artist’, the dialogue form of which Scott replicates in a series of short staged conversations with himself (he claims at one point that these dialogues, which are the book’s weakest feature, are actually a homage to David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, but this would appear to be a feeble attempt at a self-deprecating joke). These dialogues alternate with more substantial chapters, in which he argues that criticism is ‘not parasitic, but primary’. Criticism can be understood as an art, he proposes, because art is itself a form of criticism: these two creative activities both spring from the same fundamental impulse, the same instinctive responsiveness to beauty (which can be taken to mean anything that one finds appealing or stimulating or fascinating), and the corresponding desires to dissect, comprehend and express. ‘The fundamental critical process,’ he states ‘– the hinge that conjoins the twin activities of creation and analysis – may reside in the basic activity of loving demystification.’
Two significant points follow from Scott’s understanding of criticism. The first is that once we accept the seemingly uncontroversial proposition that art can make us think and feel things, then it acquires a transformative potential. He moves smoothly from a discussion of ‘The Artist is Present’, a work by the performance artist Marina Abramović that regularly moved its audience to tears, to a ten-page reflection on Rilke’s sonnet ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ – a work of art that also happens to be a work of art criticism – which concludes with an imperative: ‘You must change your life’. In this sense, Scott’s title is not entirely facetious: he suggests that art (and by extension criticism) can and does change the world because it demonstrably affects and influences people, in a way that can be both profound and intimate. ‘To say that something changed your life,’ he observes, ‘is also to say that it exceeded your available categories of experience.’
The second point is that criticism is a social act. It is not necessarily a metadiscourse, even if the major part of its function is analysis; its demystifications are a way of bringing inchoate responses and contextual implications to a degree of explicitness, thus making them transmissible. The element of pragmatism that Felski tentatively advocates is in fact axiomatic, since the job of the critic, as Scott understands it, is to resist the idea ‘that thought is the enemy of experience’. Criticism is not the same as ‘critique’, in that Scott does not understand his critical practice as requiring either personal or cultural detachment. Criticism involves a direct negotiation with the concrete reality of the work, the observer’s inevitably subjective responses, and an immediate cultural environment. It is an intervention, the aim of which is to establish an understanding of the art within the context of that specific environment and, in a sense, against its potentially distorting pressures.
These points have moralising implications and thus need to be approached with an appropriate degree of caution. This explains one of the oddities of Felski’s rhetoric. She shares with Scott a fondness for the common tactic of setting out opposed extremes and then positioning herself somewhere on the sensible middle ground. She argues that we must move beyond the ‘schematic opposition of critical detachment and amateur enthusiasm’. Yet on several occasions she also expresses an anxiety that opening the door to affirming subjective responses to literary works, even a tiny crack, will lead to the return of ‘the bogeyman in the closet’. She worries that the slightest concession to aestheticism will lead to the rise of a ‘retrograde religion of art’ akin to that advocated by Harold Bloom – that it will ‘allow a thousand Blooms to flower’ (as she wittily phrases it). ‘Once we start talking about the power of art to make us think and feel differently,’ she frets, ‘can the language of eternal transcendence and the timeless canon be far behind?’
The question is rhetorical, of course, but the answer is ‘no’ – that does not follow at all, at least not inevitably. As Scott’s measured and lucid arguments demonstrate, this is pretty clearly a false dichotomy. That art makes us think and feel things makes it immediate and worldly, not transcendent and timeless. Though the arguments in Better Living Through Criticism are for the most part quite conventional, and none of them will come as a surprise to anyone who keeps an eye on the perpetually simmering debates about the state of the critical culture, the book is nevertheless a welcome demonstration of the point that the value of art is not to be found in some timeless essence, but in the act of engaging with it – that is, it is an ongoing and interactive process, a function of the nature and quality of the critical discourse. There is, certainly, an important distinction to be made between critical detachment and amateur enthusiasm, but to see the opposition as schematic or absolute is to confuse rhetoric with reality.
This is the crucial point that both Felski and Scott seek to negotiate in their different ways. The pragmatic element of critical practice means that it inevitably has a performative dimension. That is how individual acts of criticism distinguish themselves, how they stake their claims to authority, how they define their sense of purpose. ‘One difference between criticism and critique is, surely, rhetorical or performative,’ notes Felski, drawing a provisional line in the sand between academic and non-academic discourse – ‘that is to say, the distinction is realized and enforced in the speaker’s choice of words.’ As a consequence, a critic’s language is always strategic, a matter of adapting to contexts and audiences, as much language-oriented literary theory would insist, but is it never merely strategic. It is also fundamental: a direct reflection of principles and attitudes. The issue of what is at stake when we talk about art and literature cannot be separated from the issue of how we choose to talk about them – the mode of argument, the critical lexicon, the implicit assumptions that are made about the audience’s knowledge, intelligence and receptiveness.
And this is where Felski’s wariness is justified, if somewhat misdirected. Her desire to swing the pendulum away from the determining implications of ‘context’ and toward an open-ended engagement with ‘text’ (one of her chapter titles is ‘Context Stinks!’) is tempered by her awareness that, in fact, context matters a great deal and can never be ignored or dismissed. Assumptions and received meanings will always attach themselves to particular artifacts and modes of address. There is always a danger when writing ingenuously about art and culture for an author simply to replicate those assumptions, to become deferential to a work’s symbolic capital rather than its substantive meaning, to lose sight of the imperative to demonstrate its meaningfulness and its wider cultural significance. The real and far more destructive bogeyman, who is not only out of the closet but rampaging unchecked across the cultural landscape, is ‘criticism’ that resorts to weightless expressions of personal preference and treats books as accessories whose sole purpose is to enhance the first-person singular. This is a point that would appear to be lost on Young, whose book nevertheless bears it out in an unhappy way. I say ‘unhappy’ partly because I think The Art of Readingis a poor book, in the sense that it is meretricious and ill-written, but also because its meretricious qualities are the result of its adopting a stance toward culture that explicitly combines the utilitarian, the instructional and the confessional.
Despite its title, The Art of Reading contains very little in the way of actual reading. In his introduction, Young declares that literary criticism is ‘fundamental’ – but then he doesn’t bother doing any. Though he does claim that careful attention to the subtleties of the written word can deepen a reader’s appreciation and generate insight, he makes no effort to demonstrate this fact. He undertakes no formal analysis. There is no close or sustained engagement with the works of the many famous novelists and poets whose names are scattered throughout. Young does not propose an aesthetics of poetry or prose that might begin to account for the ways in which texts are structured and patterned, nor does he try to explain how or why we might find them affecting.
This is partly because The Art of Reading, unlike The Limits of Critique andBetter Living Through Criticism, is the work of a philosopher rather than a literary critic. And it is not really intended as a work of criticism, as such; it is, rather, a pop-philosophy-meets-self-help book, in which the author styles himself as a combined bibliophile, bibliomemoirist and bibliotherapist. This most contemporary of marketing niches (I hesitate to elevate it to the status of a ‘genre’) is generally assumed to have been pioneered by Alain de Botton, whose whimsical How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) established the formula and spawned a host of imitators. The basic idea, which seems benign enough, is to offer some elementary life advice and unchallenging moral lessons – patience is a virtue, moderation in all things, try to get a decent walk in occasionally – but dress them up in quotes from Great Authors and Important Thinkers to give them a veneer of intellectual respectability.
Scott parodies this utilitarian co-option of culture in the title of Better Living Through Criticism. Young embraces it wholeheartedly. The Art of Reading tries to balance intellection and accessibility, playfulness and profundity, reflection and instruction. It is organised around a select group of ‘virtues’ taken from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which are examined in a series of short essays. Each chapter applies a categorical virtue to the act of reading; each develops an ethical argument about how we should read (with curiosity, patience, justice, and so on), but also reflects on the ambiguities and subtleties of those virtues. For the latter task, Young leans primarily on the work of canonical philosophers – Sartre, Pascal, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche – whose views are taken up in a magpie-like fashion and sketched in the book’s most cogent passages, often interleaved with anecdotes about their lives and personal foibles (if that’s not too coy a word to describe Heidegger’s Nazism). He all but ignores the highly relevant history of literary theorising that concerns Felski – there are ‘nods’ to Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and Bakhtin, but no serious consideration of their ideas – and he displays little interest in the wider history of public criticism and aesthetics that exercises Scott. He does, however, make a show of illustrating his arguments by citing the work of a number of prominent modern writers.
The experiences reading affords are in this way treated as opportunities for self-reflection and, by extension, personal growth or enhancement. This improving dimension is underscored by the author’s accounts of his formative experiences with books. The chapter on ‘Temperance’, for example, is framed by the story of Young binge-reading trashy Star Trekfiction, only to be pulled out of his intellectual death-spiral by a bracing dose of A. J. Ayer’s logical positivism. Similarly, the chapter on ‘Courage’ includes a three-page discussion of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, in which Young makes little attempt to say anything of substance about the poem itself, but instead gives us an autobiographical morality tale about encountering Eliot’s work for the first time as a high-school student and arrogantly dismissing it. This was because he was a rebellious teenager, who secretly had a ‘fear of commitment’ and was hiding his weakness and vulnerability behind a mask of bravado and bluster. Only later, when he arrived at university, was he ‘brave’ enough to admit that, deep down, he was himself a timid Prufrock; only then was he able to read the poem and (courageously) ‘observe myself in the light of its glow’.
Some readers may find the idea of Young as an example of the hesitant lacking-in-confidence Prufrockian archetype a little hard to square, but of greater significance is his characteristic mode of argument. The Art of Reading, particularly when Young moves away from his favoured philosophers and begins to speak of the work of creative writers, skates on a thin ice of personal testimony, casual assertion and glib summation. The shortness of the chapters means that their ideas are often underdeveloped, but they are also maddeningly unfocussed. Young skips blithely from one example to the next, plucking names from the air in such a cavalier fashion that one suspects the book may have been composed with undue haste. He seems to have a particular weakness for argumentum ad verecundiam. Pithy observations from notable authors are quoted, but a good proportion of the book’s many fleeting references serve no purpose other than to add a sprinkle of sciolistic glitter to otherwise unremarkable observations. ‘We are born in what the poet Horace called in media res,’ Young writes: ‘in the middle of things.’ I’m pretty sure everyone else calls it that too.
But it is the terms in which authors are discussed that are most telling. Even those writers who are granted a few pages of attention tend to be glossed in superficial and cloying ways: Borges, who serves as Young’s model of curious reader, is a ‘bibliophile extraordinaire’; Henry James, whose notoriously turgid prose is presented as a opportunity to reap the rewards of patient reading, is ‘arguably the king of circumlocution’. And when Young does venture to say something about the work of the authors whose names he is fond of dropping, his language frequently devolves into undergraduate waffle. Alexander Pope’s poetry is described as ‘charismatic in its rhythm, rhyme and humour’. Virginia Woolf’s essays are ‘elegant in imagery and rhythmic in composition’ and she is said to have been ‘driven by an abiding desire for excellence in prose, composition, acuity’. Ulysses is celebrated as a challenging work that has spurred the author to read with justice, patience, curiosity and bravery, only to be summed up with these hollow and graceless lines:
Joyce refuses to identify with any one mode of prose, and constantly displays his craft. Ulysses, despite its unity of ideas, themes and structure, is a fragmented work, confronting the reader with varying impressions in varied languages. What makes Ulysses particularly impressive is that he achieves this while also offering a very human story.
These moments of vague hand-waving, which as critical assessments hover somewhere between the commonplace and the vacuous, might be excused if Young went on to explain what he means by imprecise terms like ‘charismatic’, ‘excellence’, ‘rhythmic in composition’ and ‘very human story’ (to say nothing of the concepts of ‘charismatic rhythm’ and ‘excellence in acuity’). But with few exceptions that is about as deep as he is prepared to go. Among the scores of authors mentioned in The Art of Reading, few are granted more than a line or a short paragraph. As such, the appearance of their names amounts to little more than a ritual genuflection before the altar of literary greatness.
This gestural language, essentially a pseudo-critical shorthand that affects to be qualitative and deferential without being in any way precise or substantive, is endemic in much writing about literature in the public sphere. It is, at least in part, a symptom of a culture of reviewing that has become subservient to the demands of the marketplace and is to some degree mandated by the narrow constraints of that form. But the frequency with which Young has recourse to this kind of empty incidental praise exposes its profoundly problematic quality. In his introduction, he quotes with approval reviewer Geordie Williamson describing the critic standing in a relation of ‘eloquent obeisance’ before the greater literary talent. This oleaginous phrase goes to the very heart of the conceptual difficulty with The Art of Reading. Approaching a writer’s work in a spirit of ‘obeisance’, however great the writer and however eloquent the critic, is a recipe for fatuity. If criticism – a category into which we can place all attempts to articulate the meaning and purpose of art – is to be of any value it must be democratic, a discourse of equals. This can only occur when neither superiority nor deference are assumed. And in fact no deference to artistic greatness or condescension toward an uninformed audience is ever either justified or required. Art, however one defines that term, is something human-created, something held in common, and is always comprehensible as such. Its value is never self-evident or fixed. Whatever form it takes, it is always discussable.
On this point, it is significant that the familiar pejorative characterisations of critics, which Young alludes to in passing and Scott examines at some length – parasite, snob, scold, killjoy, and so forth – portray them as interlopers or disturbers of a supposedly natural cultural order: they are either placing themselves between artist and audience, or attaching their disreputable selves to artists in order to appropriate a portion of their aristocratic glory, or elevating themselves above both artist and audience by acting as arbiters of taste.
That critics stumble into these caricatures, and sometimes even embrace them, does not necessarily make them accurate or inevitable. And this, I think, is the most valuable aspect of Scott’s argument in Better Living Through Criticism. His insistence that criticism is an art does not simply affirm the idea that criticism is fundamental and embrace its element of pragmatism; it also acknowledges the commonality and accessibility of culture and cultural discussion. And it recognises that this democratic understanding is betrayed most comprehensively when we do not criticise, when we act as if value and status are established or fixed. The problem is not with qualitative judgements or the notion of a hierarchy of cultural value per se; it is with the presumption of hierarchy. Scott tells the story of incurring the wrath of Samuel L. Jackson after he wrote a negative review of the blockbuster action film The Avengers (2012). He points out that the terms in which the actor denounced him for his presumptuous intellectualising evoked a double standard: Jackson was attempting to place the film ‘simultaneously beneath criticism (“a piece of bullshit pop culture”) and beyond it (“a fucking great movie”)’. But in fact it was Jackson’s attempt to deny the legitimacy of a critical response that was the true act of presumption, the true expression of cultural snobbery, because it consigned the audience – of which Scott is a representative member – to the role of unthinking, voiceless, passive consumers.
Anyone who discusses art in public walks a difficult line. No one needs to be told how to read a book or watch a film or admire a painting by some egghead who (to quote James Joyce) ‘has to get his hat on with a shoehorn’. Scott argues, with reference to the work of film critic Robert Warshaw, that the critic is ‘not a high priest of high culture, nor yet a sociologist parsing, at arm’s length, the pleasures of the lower orders, but rather an entirely typical, even generic citizen’. He goes on to observe:
The idea of critical authority and the ideal of common knowledge are not in competition, but are rather the antithetical expressions of a single impulse toward comprehensive judgement, toward an integral aesthetic experience, the achievement of which would eliminate the need for critics altogether.
Since there is no such thing as a typical or generic citizen, and since the ideals of comprehensive judgement and integral aesthetic experience are practical impossibilities, it follows that the tension between critical authority and common knowledge can never be resolved, even if they are, in principle, not in competition. It also follows that the need for intelligent critical discussion will never be eliminated. Anyone who writes about art must therefore navigate a treacherous and shifting cultural terrain, and this is a question of practice rather than theory.
We all know that art is a means of self-fashioning and that it functions as a marker of social status. The practical difficulty critics face is how to forge a plain-spoken critical language that will not sacrifice complexity in the name of accessibility, a language that talks neither up nor down, a language that can entice and generate interest without replicating regressive cultural assumptions. Because of the inevitable element of subjectivity, the line between argument and assertion in such instances is never as clear as one might hope, which means it is an occupational hazard for critics that, as values shift, they can find themselves on the wrong side of that line. Wilde’s aestheticism, Scott points out, has at its core a democratic insight into the universal availability of aesthetic experiences, yet it also lends itself to unpalatable expressions of elitism. A similar point might be made about Matthew Arnold, whose name has become synonymous with literary snobbery (and who was certainly a snob by contemporary standards), even though the explicitly stated social objective of his idea of ‘culture’ was to dissolve class distinctions through a process of cultural enfranchisement. This is an abiding danger for critics when they venture to make a positive case for certain kinds of cultural value – a danger that may well be manageable only by degrees. If they misjudge their tone or vocabulary or the intelligence of their audience, they can start speaking as if they are members of a priestly caste, as if they are in some sense dispensers of cultural knowledge, promoters of objective standards of excellence, guardians of literary reputations, peddlers of status and pretence.
This is the trap into which Young falls again and again, largely because he embraces the moralism and the instructional dimension that are implicit in the book’s subject, presenting his ethical approach to the act of reading as a way of ministering to our secular souls. If there were any doubt that, on some level, he is conceiving of his readers as innocents in dire need of his learned wisdom, this is banished in the final section of The Art of Reading, in which he provides a list of references, but takes the opportunity to say a few words about each book and give a few personal recommendations. The condescension that radiates from these pages is quite breathtaking. They are, predictably, full of ‘eloquent obeisance’: Nabokov is lauded for his ‘masterful prose’; an Alan Bennett novella is ‘quietly brilliant’; Edith Wharton writes ‘paragraphs I can drink without becoming full’. (Scott devotes a few amusing pages in Better Living Through Criticism to mocking this sort of language.) But the more revealing aspect is the frequency with which Young’s assessments move beyond mere superficiality to arrive at a kind of comprehensive pointlessness. Moby-Dick, he informs us, is ‘one of the most extraordinary novels in English’. Isaiah Berlin was ‘one of the most clear and charismatic voices of modern liberalism’. Proust’s On Reading is ‘typically Proustian’. (Who knew?) Young also includes helpful information, such as the fact that editions of Dickens and Austen are plentiful, and that many libraries have back-issues of the Paris Review.
At this point, one is compelled to ask in all seriousness: who is this book for? The imagined audience would seem to be eager yet bizarrely ignorant readers, who are perhaps interested in the ideas of Sartre and Heidegger, yet who somehow might not know about either Moby-Dick or Isaiah Berlin, and who are presumed to be unfamiliar with the purpose of a library.
There is a two-handed gesture taking place at such moments. They are a way of talking-up and talking-down simultaneously. The overt show of deference to Great Writers is presented as a transmission of cultural knowledge to lesser-read mortals. Describing Proust as Proustian and pointing out that Woolf did not, as a rule, strive to write badly – these are merely the moments when the presumption of the exercise short-circuits itself. They are the logical endpoint of co-opting cultural prestige to lay claim to authority. It’s like wearing an ‘I’ve read Proust’ badge and it is every bit as gauche. (Describing Isaiah Berlin as ‘charismatic’ is merely weird.) In Better Living Through Criticism, Scott remarks at one point that when someone describes something as ‘pretentious’ it often means they have not understood it and are unwilling to try. But some things really are pretentious, and in the case ofThe Art of Reading, which cannot be accused of being difficult to understand, this can be taken as a literal description: the book is trading on a form of cultural pretence.
This is not to suggest that Young’s essays do not have their moments of insight, or that his professed admiration for Borges and Nabokov is insincere, or that he is some kind of unreconstructed Leavisite with an allegiance to high culture and a disdain for low or populist cultural forms. Quite the contrary. He makes a point of discussing the children’s books and graphic novels that have meant something to him. But this, too, gives the game away:
By waving aside the curtains between high and low culture, Heidegger and superheroes, I display my rejection of academic stuffiness. I reveal youthfulness and mainstream relevance, and invest in the symbolic capital of the hip intellectual. A casual geek among university staff, and highfaluting philosopher among lay nerds, I seek singularity in each subculture. Alongside this Zizek move, I reveal the universal aspirations of philosophy; the confidence to cross the borders of genres, disciplines, epochs, without concern for my academic passport.
Simply to observe that these lines are self-regarding would be to underestimate their significance. Clearly, there is irony here. The author is displaying his self-awareness, acknowledging that his motives are impure, confessing to his ‘need for recognition’ in a way that seeks to disarm criticism by pre-empting it. But the most telling feature of this self-characterisation, in a book that begins and ends with the author surveying his own bookshelves with evident satisfaction, is its knowing appropriation of symbolic capital in the service of that recognition.
Readers can make their own judgements about the extent to which a middle-aged man’s interest in superheroes makes him seem hip, youthful and mainstream. It cannot pass unnoticed, however, that at this stage of human history the complete list of people who might be rankled by the idea of someone reading comic books alongside canonical philosophers consists of Harold Bloom and Cynthia Ozick, both of whom are in their late eighties, and maybe a few of Rupert Murdoch’s more insane columnists. For everyone else the interaction between high and low culture has become entirely commonplace: if anything, it is the prevailing orthodoxy. Yet in presenting his disregard for cultural hierarchies as it were somehow radical and singular, Young also presents us with a succinct example of what happens when cultural forms are treated as markers of identity and status, when their potential meaning is subjugated to the enhancing demands of the rapacious ‘I’. We are left with the spectacle of culture drained of its substantive content, stripped of its intellectual value, such that its only remaining social function to project an image. Heidegger and superheroes alike are reduced to hollow signifiers. It doesn’t matter what they have to say; what matters is how they make the author appear. What we encounter in these lines is the antithesis of criticism, the antithesis of reading; what we encounter is culture being used.
Young, Scott and Felski all seek to address the difficult problem of how to articulate a positive case for art and literature, how to talk about these things as if they actually matter. That they do so with varying degrees of success is perhaps less significant than the fact that the issues they raise all circle back to the fundamental and immediate question of the interaction between critical practice and cultural context. As a professional critic, Scott is particularly conscious of the environment into which he is arguing and the tensions this creates, and one of the most valuable aspects of Better Living Through Criticism is the clarity with which he addresses these issues. We live, he observes, in a ‘modern, flattened-out, notionally egalitarian world’. As a result, culture ‘lives almost entirely under the rubric of consumption’. The collapse of the old hierarchy between high and low culture, which has been driven in no small part by the inexorable rise of consumerism, is a reflection of this notional egalitarianism:
The world is no longer divided into aristocrats and peasants, priests and laymen, or even into distinct traditions. We are all consumers. A miracle cure for aesthetic headaches has been found. You can do what you want. You can take it or leave it.
The idea that the world is no longer divided into aristocrats and peasants in a material sense is, of course, ridiculous (but also beyond the scope of this essay). Yet Scott is right to recognise that we are now, theoretically at least, culturally enfranchised, enjoying largely unfettered access to the best and worst of human creativity. This is all for the good, but it creates its own special set of problems for professional criticism and the kind of language we use when we talk about art. Among the most inexorable features of our one-eyed, materialistic, consumerist culture are its powers of co-option and trivialisation. The difficulty for contemporary critics is not only, as Scott remarks at one point, to avoid becoming caught in the grinding gears of promotion, but how to speak substantially about the works before them without retreating into an undesirable and self-defeating aestheticism, without simply banking the symbolic capital of those works, and without succumbing to the assumptions of a cultural environment in which the persistent question is ‘what’s the use of that?’
In his final chapter, Scott turns to the example of the hack Jasper Milvain from George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street (1891), who is ‘a careerist and a fool’ and who ‘thinks first and foremost of the markets’. He then makes the countering point:
Metrics can be applied to circulation – copies sold, advertising rates, page views – but everyone who actually reads knows that the essence of written discourse is qualitative. The nature of the content can hardly be, to the writer or a reader, an incidental detail; it’s the whole point of the enterprise. The reason Jasper Milvain strikes us as comically callow – and also a little creepy – is that he is so completely and vocally indifferent to this basic fact.
The Gradgrindism if our consumerist culture is as much of a problem within the walls of the academy as it is outside them. Felski argues that ‘at a certain point, the practice of skeptical regress becomes intellectually uninteresting as well as counterproductive, especially in the light of the current erosion of public support for the humanities’. She states that she is ‘motivated by a desire to articulate a positive vision for humanistic thought in the face of growing skepticism about its value’. That is a worthy and very large ambition, not least because we are well beyond mere skepticism about its value and now face a pervasive ideology that is openly hostile to the idea that anything without an immediate personal benefit could possibly be worthwhile. The kind of criticism that might begin to realise Felski’s ambition would certainly require the pragmatism that she advocates; it is not something to be predetermined – though it is perhaps of some relevance on this point that Odysseus defeats the Cyclops by becoming ‘nobody’. Whatever form it takes, it can’t be all about enhancing the dreaded ‘I’.