First, I'm psyched that the Baffler is back. Because of my own interests, I was particularly excited to read Walter Benn Michaels's essay, "The Unusable Past." Maybe it's my geeky fandom of Cormac McCarthy, my continung classroom confrontation with Beloved, or my hagiographic vision of William Faulkner, but I have to say, I was disappointed in Michael's critique. There's a lot there that I applaud. I think he is especially on point with his portrayal of Ayelet Waldman's description of her experiences at the Obama inauguration. I also agree with the second half of his essay which, as one comment on the on-line version of the essay argued, echoes an earlier critique of the novel as an essential technology of individualism (I, however, still like Jameson's "Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism"). I'm not convinced, however, of his criticism of historical fiction:
When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history back in 1989, he did so with mixed feelings. The good news, he thought, was the ideological triumph of free markets and of the political arrangement most suited to them. 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.
With respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism has been something of a disaster. The past 25 years have been a sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have indeed been committed to nothing more than 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.
Of course, Fukuyama thought that we’d enjoy flattering ourselves by hearing about the great triumphs of our history. And the extraordinary (and otherwise inexplicable) popularity of admiring biographies of the Founding Fathers suggests he wasn’t entirely wrong. But what our novelists have realized is that accounts of the truly horrible things done by and to our ancestors are even more flattering—what we readers really like is to disapprove of other people’s bad behavior. In other words, the denunciation of crimes we haven’t committed is even more gratifying than the celebration of virtues we don’t have.
Thus, even though books about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans are sad almost by definition, it’s also true that the logic that produces them and makes them so attractive is profoundly optimistic. Why? Because trying to overcome, say, the lingering inequities of slave labor (a characteristic injustice of the past) doesn’t involve trying to overcome the burgeoning inequities of free labor (a characteristic injustice of the present). It 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 when A Mercy reminds us again), we’re being told that what ails us is lingering racism—not out- of-control 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 quite there yet.I agree that the fascination with biographies of the founders (to which I would add our love affair with Dorris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Steven Ambrose, Ken Burns, et al. as a whole) is certainly part of this neoliberal attempt to allow us to feel good about the present using a triumphalist story about the past. For a brilliant example of this, see the historian of slavery Walter Johnson's critique of George W. Bush in Common-Place. That said, there's no way I would include good historical fiction such as Blood Meridian and Beloved (to which I'd add another Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom) in this critique. To say these writers pose the past as a thing overcome is just simply wrong. As both excavations of the past and allegories for the present, Blood Meridian and Beloved explain to us that we are in no way at the end of history. And yes, now's the time for the ubiquitous Faulkner quote: "The past is never dead," Faulkner wrote, "It isn't even past." Just because they fail to front the inequities of global capitalism in the 21st century doesn't mean they exhibit a Whiggish view of history. Far from it. I think Michaels relies too heavily on what reads, for me, as an orthodox Marxism where race and gender (and time, for that matter) exist as epiphenomena rather than as simultaneously constitutive elements of the culture of capitalism that he wants to critique.
Finally, though elements of ideology (which Michaels finds lacking in contemporary fiction) are less explicit in Beloved, neither it nor Blood Meridian ignore it. What is McCarthy's Judge if not the nineteenth-century's Romantic "ideology in action"? His monologues are explicit excursions into philosophy and combined with the book's plot, demonstrate the logical links and consequences of science and empire in the service of market expansion.
Maybe what I actually take issue with in this piece is not Michaels's interpretation of Morrison or McCarthy, but rather his read of class, ideology, and the institutions that make up the present world system. In other words, his critique reads like orthodox Marxism: unless you're addressing -- explicitly, and flat out -- issues of "class" then all you're doing is useless identity politics. But in a world where we know that "class analysis" is more than just straight-up relations to the means of production, race and gender matter. More importantly, what is class in America these days? I'm still not sure. But what I do know is that a reliance on an old and static understanding of these terms doesn't seem to explain much about our world. In the meantime, I think I'm going to read A Mercy.