Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Michaels, Walter Benn. "Going Boom." BOOK FORUM (February / March 2009).

When, in 1989, Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history, he did so with mixed feelings. The good news, he thought, was that the ideological supremacy of free markets and of the political arrangement most suited to them (liberal democracy) had been established—even communists were talking about the importance of being competitive in the marketplace. The bad news was that without “the worldwide ideological struggle” between capitalism and socialism to inspire us, we were in for “a very sad time.” “In the post-historical period,” he wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The end of history would be good for markets, bad for art. Right now, of course, it’s not so clear how the good-for-markets thing is working out. But it’s still true that we don’t have any socialists—unless, like Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, you count Barack (“I love the market”) Obama. If things get really bad, however, that might begin to change. What if there turned out to be more truth to the conservatives’ outlandish accusations than to the liberals’ indignant denials? What if what we’re seeing now is not just the end of a boom but the beginning of a new period of “ideological struggle”? If good for markets was bad for art, will bad for markets be good for art? For it does seem fairly clear that, with respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism hasn’t been so great. The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have been committed to historical caretaking. It’s no accident that Toni Morrison’s Beloved was proclaimed the best work of American fiction over the period by the New York Times or that prominent also-rans included Blood Meridian, Underworld, and The Plot Against America. Even younger writers like Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead have rushed to take up the burden of the past. And it’s not hard to see why. For although it’s true that books about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans, are more or less definitionally sad, it’s also true that the logic by which they are produced and that makes them so attractive is an optimistic one. Why? Because trying to overcome, say, the lingering effects of slavery doesn’t involve criticizing the primacy of markets; it just involves making sure that everyone has equal access to them. So when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism (and, in case we start to forget, A Mercy reminds us again), we’re effectively being told that our problem is lingering racism—not burgeoning capitalism. And when Morrison wins the Nobel Prize and Obama becomes president, we’re being reassured that we are headed in the right direction, even if we’re not there yet. But as the current economic catastrophe has the great merit of demonstrating, we are not headed in the right direction. People are losing their health care, their houses, and now their jobs for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with bad things that happened in the past (done to and by our ancestors) and everything to do with bad things happening right now (done to and by us). Indeed, the only relevant past here is the very recent one: the one in which the triumph of markets that Fukuyama announced took place, and during which things got not better but worse. . . . Read the rest here: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/015_05/3274.

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