Sunday, June 29, 2008
'The Shape of Things To Come: On ‘Literary Thinking and the New Left’
Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 06/29/08 at 03:28 PM
on The Valve
X-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes
What follows may appear to be a discussion of the 1960s in America; it is not. Reading through Sean McCann and Michael Szalay’s indispensable essay “Do You Believe in Magic?“, cited and quoted by Scott Kaufman here and here (with follow-up in the comments by Sean), it is clear that more than the Sixties, McCann and Szalay are out to expose “a cherished and ultimately comforting folklore” that still commands respect today: the idea that “the analysis of [symbolic or cultural] forms itself constitutes significant political action, or that the ability to affect culture is, independent of other means, also therefore politically efficacious,” and that “to provide, as [C. Wright] Mills put it, ‘alternative definitions of reality’ could itself be the most radically political of acts.” McCann and Szalay identify this idea with almost the entire canon of postmodern thought, from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to Jean-Francois Lyotard and Susan Sontag.
McCann and Szalay’s essay splits down the middle. On the one hand, it is a legitimate attack on currents of fuzzy thinking and complacent libertarianism within the New Left and academia. On the other, it is part of a contemporary movement that seeks to deride what the Sixties accomplished, which was reviving society-wide conversation about the relationship of politics to the rest of life.
For my own part, this is the right occasion to explain what I believe “the analysis of symbolic or cultural forms” can accomplish, including through the academic work of scholars and teachers of literature. I hope it will become clear how I understand the political implications of what McCann and Szalay call “self-realization”—deliberately (and justly) echoing the wretched tide of self-help manuals—but which one might also call “self-fashioning.” I also hope to clarify the charges of defeatism that I leveled in my post “Look Back In Anger,” and to explore what alternatives exist: the shape of things to come.