Friday, August 05, 2016

The Real Redneck

The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

The return to the soil, to nature, is a recurring preoccupation of the civilized. Whenever a society reaches a state of high development it seems a repeating pattern that a segment of the population begins to yearn for the good ol’ days of yore. Ironically, even the ancients knew this temptation. Recall Cicero’s lament: “O the times! O the morals!” But even the Greeks reached a point when they began to dream wistfully for a golden age that never was.

This dream is perhaps most beautifully realized by the reinvention of pastoral poetry in the third century CE. The product of the fertile mind of Theocritus, it was devised as an entertainment for the court of the Ptolemies of Egypt, arguably the most sophisticated society in the western world for its time, and home to its greatest library, that of Alexandria. Theocritus wrote of his native Sicily, of singing shepherds and the love stories of goatherds, of silver streams and green pastures that give us the images we associate with the word "idyllic," a word derived from the name of this new form of literature: the idyll.

By the start of the French Revolution, this form of aristocratic playacting had reached strange absurdities. At Versailles, Marie Antoinette and her lady friends dressed in peasant clothes and pretended to be milkmaids in a miniature reproduction of a peasant village, beating Walt Disney by about two centuries in turning the troubles of the poor into theme-park entertainment for the idle few.

Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had begun to put pen to paper. Rousseau, born to the liberty of the Swiss, made talk of liberty and the brotherhood of man popular among the aristocratic class who, in practice, believed it not at all. An accomplished amateur botanist in addition to being a philosopher, Rousseau taught that man in his primitive state was pure but, after the rise of civilization, like Adam and Eve and their loss of innocence, there had been a fall from grace. An idea that we shouldn't be surprised took root in a mind that had sprung from Calvinist Geneva. In consequence, we must “get back to nature” if salvation was to be had. This was at least the reductionist take-away from a deceivingly simple thinker.

Such revolutionary ideas were enthusiastically adopted by a bored aristocracy happy to entertain any new novelty that could distract them from the tedium of existence, and give a new rationale to their seemingly childish preoccupations. Despite this popularity with literate society, however, the state sensed the obvious danger in his ideas for traditional authority, and Rousseau fled France as an exile like Cain with his mark. Yet his influence remained, and after the revolution, this desire to return to the perceived authenticity of the natural world carried over into the next century as the driving force of the romantic movement in art and literature.

And it has been with us ever since. Bound by a growing nationalism, first in France, then through the rest of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s armies, the life of the humble peasant became the source of every nation’s purity and pride. Peasant songs were collected, studied, and emulated, and the Brothers Grimm began the serious study of the common folktale for the first time. Thus, contrary to American myths of exceptionalism, the United States was not the first people to admire the rugged individuality of the lonely woodsman and the solid humility of the lowly farmer.

What is exceptional in America’s case is the persistence of this view and its unsevered link to authenticity and individuality in the American mind made toxic by partisan politics. For in addition to the myth of exceptionalism, Americans also suffer from the illusion of a classless society. Class indicates a state of affairs in which one’s success or failure in life is not entirely within one’s power to change, a thought that must be banished in a society that views all outcomes as the result of the individual’s will and hard work. This self-image plays well with the tropes of the cowboy, the mountain man, and the gunslinger, which, for our purposes here, can all be conveniently set beneath the catchall term “redneck.”

At this moment in US politics, it is perhaps more important than ever to revisit and seek to better understand the deep ironies and contradictions involved in this phenomenon. For instance, how is it that an identity so tied to the poor and rural life is just as often found among the middle class, and in well developed middle-class neighborhoods at that? Because the term redneck is less about the ideal of country life than a projection of a perceived lost age of white dominance. An ideal the wealthy are happy to sell. An excellent example of what I mean can be found in the very popular Duck Dynasty franchise. Although the patriarch may be true to his roots, it is well known by now that the rest of the clan is, as one clever critic dubbed them, “hillbillies in drag.” Rather than sons of the soil, these rednecks need never labor again, have in fact done little by the typical definition of labor all their lives.

But this matters little, the bourgeoisie has always taken its cues from the upper class they so hunger to join. Just witness the contradiction in their relationship to higher education. Redneck culture is at its heart deeply anti-intellectual and suspicious of all perceived academic authority. Yet, few redneck parents, above all those from a middle-class background, would be ashamed if their child acquired an ivy league diploma, a college credential being an important outward sign of economic status. The real redneck is self-sufficient and needs no fancy book learnin’.

Of course, this is not to say that background and social context has nothing to do with taking up the redneck mantle as a title of pride, that it is not something genuine to the individual's experience. We are highly susceptible to the influences of childhood. It is only natural that one would come to associate grandma's apple pie and fishing trips with daddy with the feelings of warmth and security we might equate with a particular worldview and lifestyle in later life. It is just that, sometimes, we are thirsty but drink from a well that is unknowingly poisoned. Many excellent people are attracted to the shadow of the idea without a knowledge of its origins, of seeing the thing itself in the light of day.

We see now that the obsession with the pastoral ideal was and is almost exclusively but the distraction of the wealthy and those who would be wealthy. The distinction then is one between need and want. The true redneck, the redneck of history and historic myth, was forced out of necessity to farm and hunt to live. Today most family-owned farms are being bought up by agribusiness, and most people hunt less due to fear of starvation than as a sign of one’s class, as it was for the fox-hunting aristocrats of old. After all, hunting equipment, hunting licenses, as well as the pure leisure simply to run around in the woods pretending to be Daniel Boone, are all outward signs of middle-class prosperity. If the true redneck is one who is happy without modern electronics, cares nothing for the internal combustion engine, and has no deep desire for indoor plumbing or personal hygiene, then clearly Ted Kaczynski stands crazy head and shoulders above the rest.

The redneck has little to do with the rustic. No self-described redneck would be without the pleasures of materialism and technology. They will be happy to talk at length to you about the joys of the simple life on their Chinese manufactured smartphone while driving to town in their gas-guzzling oversized pickup truck to purchase the newest state-of-the-art video game from the local Walmart. By comparison, the often-maligned “dirty hippie” who lives in a co-op and grows his own food is closer to the backwoods ideal than even the dirtiest mud-caked redneck on his all-terrain vehicle. Thus, it is not so much traditional values or independence from state control that they hold dear. Rather, they are quite content with the state so long as the state reflects their own economic interests over the interests of society as a whole. As Trump has demonstrated, they are happy to accept a brand of authoritarianism that allows for the economic prosperity of the few at the expense of the many rural poor who they, if they followed the logic of their own thinking, should idealize.

Instead, the redneck we see is just the label of yet another product for the white middle class to consume, albeit one with strong emotional resonances. And it is those emotional connections that Republicans have tapped into for decades and made disastrous use of. Through propaganda and psychological manipulation, they have created a leviathan whose force they sought to harness for their own political ends, but the beast has now appeared to be turning on its masters, and the outcome may leave us all longing for a golden age that has passed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Please Patronize Me

 The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

A rather rotund man hunches over a walking stick disdainfully in the reception room of an obviously powerful and busy Grand Signor. The man is but one of many individuals crowded together uncomfortably, some attempting to pass the time as entertainingly as possible, others patiently waiting their turn to be called for an audience. At the end of a great hall a door is open slightly, and we catch a small glimpse of the noble personage as a client stoops in a low bow before entering into his master’s presence.

This scene is depicted in a rather overdone painting by Edward Matthew Ward. It is one of those historical set pieces that were very popular with the Victorians, meant to illicit a chuckle or teach a lesson, sometimes both. In this one we have the recreation of a famous moment from the life of Samuel Johnson. According to Johnson, in an attempt to garner financial support for his proposed dictionary of the English language, he was one day kept waiting by his patron Lord Chesterfield too long, and when finally heard treated with a perceived indifference. The incident was the cause behind the composition of a letter today hailed as a declaration of independence for the modern author. In it Johnson famously asks: “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?” However, as usual, the facts of history are far more grey than they at first appear. Chesterfield’s involvement in the plan was always minimal at best, and the project as a whole was from the first proposed and financed by London publishers. Johnson’s outburst is more one of childish resentment at a perceived slight than a declaration of anything more profound. Nevertheless, this image of authorial liberation misleadingly remains.

In truth Johnson’s fiery missal merely represents a transition between the educated aristocratic world of thoughtful discernment and the new world of mass production for mass gains. In other words, Johnson only exchanged one master for another of less discriminating taste. The costs of such a transition are still in evidence today.

Since classical antiquity the client/patron relationship had had a special status as the only respectable option for the artist who sought financial independence. Ideally, the arrangement was like a friendship. The Roman poet Virgil was treated by his social and economic superior Maecenas as one of the family, and was never made to feel like a beggar at the door. Unfortunately, the opposite was more often to be the case, as the satirist Juvenal infamously outlined the daily itinerary of the poor client in Satire V:
"First of all be sure of this—that when bidden to dinner, you receive payment in full for all your past services. A meal is the return which your grand friendship yields you; the great man scores it against you, and though it come but seldom, he scores it against you all the same… For [the master] a delicate loaf is reserved, white as snow, and kneaded of the finest flour. Be sure to keep your hands off it: take no liberties with the breadbasket! If you are presumptuous enough to take a piece, there will be someone to bid you put it down: " What, Sir Impudence? Will you please fill yourself from your proper tray, and learn the colour of your own bread?" "What?" you ask, "was it for this that I would so often leave my wife's side on a spring morning and hurry up the chilly Esquiline when the spring skies were rattling down the pitiless hail, and the rain was pouring in streams off my cloak ?"… And so you all sit in dumb silence, your bread clutched, untasted, and ready for action. In treating you thus, the great man shows his wisdom. If you can endure such things, you deserve them…."
As bad as this may appear, it is to our discredit if we fail to see how little has changed in two thousand years. The modern writer or artist is still as much in need of letters of introduction as in the past if any hope is to be had of success in the larger world. Today however, the minimum number of those letters are three—M.F. A. But these come at a far higher cost than the bit of bowing and scraping expected of previous generations. Today one is less a name than a number, while as a student you must compete against an army of worthy applicants. In addition, even should you succeed in acquiring your degree, you may spend a lifetime in paying it off. Even Johnson was not expected to reimburse Lord Chesterfield for his contribution.

This returns us to the competitive nature of this new system of patronage. As I said, one must not only pay for a letter of introduction, one must also have friends in high places. For, as it has seemingly almost always been, it is less skill and talent that makes a man than his friends. Once the proper credentials are acquired and, quite frequently while still attaining them, the artist is forced to hobnob and network, to debase herself in a manner even more deplorable than Juvenal ever dared imagine, in large measure because at least Juvenal’s client knew he was debasing himself. The modern bootlicker is not burdened with any such self-knowledge; instead he or she is simply “playing the game.”

This has become the primary method of seeking patronage but in our digital age, it is no longer the only one. Now, with the help of websites such as the aptly named Patreon or Go Fund Me, one can request money for one’s projects from perhaps millions of strangers. In some instances one need not even have a project, as “cyberbegging” has entered the lexicon as a new phenomenon. If you have trouble paying the rent or need a little extra gas money, there’s no shame in asking.

Finally, what does this say to us about the state of culture today? It has certainly become more democratic. The artist is no longer the personal adornment of a single patron’s ego, a servant to his whims and obliged to flatter his desires such as with the Medicis. But, even in the past this was rarely the case among the greatest. The patrons of a Johnson or a Beethoven at the very least only required a mention from time to time, very often as the dedicatee of a new symphony or an epic poem. More importantly, by commissioning work from an artist, a patron of high taste and education could direct the artist’s talents where they may never have been applied on the artist's own initiative. Pope Julius gave Raphael the Papal apartments to decorate, and Michelangelo the Sistine, two projects of unsurpassed genius that have come to define an entire age.

On the other hand, today's artist has not one patron but perhaps thousands, and each often expects far more for their money than a humble admission of thanks. The artist is no longer the private adornment of the aristocrat, a servant whose works were meant to display the taste of the patron, if not the wealth to afford it. Now he is viewed as the personal possession of a thousand enthusiastic persons. One only need recall Beatlemania and its often silly, and sometimes obsessively dangerous (and in one case deadly) excesses, to see what I mean.

Yet above all what has been lost is that quality of educated discernment. Remember, artists were patronized precisely because they were perceived to have cachet, or social capital, which was the special province of the privileged class to recognize and reward. An artist achieved fame through a benefactor, but it was the benefactor who basked in the reflected glory of the artist’s accomplishments, a reflection too of the patron’s high taste and discrimination that perceived the potential.

What Dr. Johnson forgot when he stamped out discourteously from Lord Chesterfield’s study that day, and what we have forgotten through equal impatience and the infinite dilution of quality by quantity, is that good taste, like good manners, can never be a property of a mob. The days when the artist was forced to bow to one master are irrevocably lost. Art, or what we now call art, is now the servant to a multitude, and in such a sea how much glory has been drowned we can never know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Genre of Despair

The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

The quotation above from H. P. Lovecraft is perhaps symptomatic of a larger trend in the public consciousness. We have seen the horrors of reality, the apocalypse is nigh, so let us sink into forgetting and thoughtlessness before the end. Popular entertainment has always been a way of forgetting one’s troubles, and in the literary world, popular entertainment most often comes under the heading of genre fiction.

It has been lamented for some time that serious literary fiction is on the wane. Whereas just a few generations before, a Hemingway or Fitzgerald were household names even in subliterate households, few with a similar level of education today could tell you who Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace might be. Such a decline is often attributed to literary fiction no longer speaking to ordinary human concerns. This is an odd argument, considering that few of the novels of Hemingway or Fitzgerald would be said to mirror the daily life of the average person. Yet, they still have a semblance to reality. This cannot be said of genre fiction, however, which if anything rebels against the substance of real life.

Lovecraft, whose intent was to emulate anything other than real life, developed a philosophical worldview he termed Cosmic Horror—a worldview in which the centuries-old anthropocentric universe was overturned in light of recent scientific discovery and replaced with the revelation of our collective inconsequence. Humanity, which long saw itself the measure of all things, was uncovered for the less-than-divine thing it is. Mankind, it appears, was but the byproduct or mistake of greater alien forces that had come to this world long before us and would soon return, like the second advent of Christ but with even less pleasant consequences.

But Lovecraft is not a special case, for escapism is at the heart of all genre fiction. Literary fiction is hard, it requires effort to appreciate fully. It does not allow us to disappear passively into a narrative because literature gives us tools with which to deal with life. Genre fiction, on the other hand, is above all an escape from life. It is then no surprise that this medium has always been complementary to conservative thought. We have but to mention Lovecraft again and recall his xenophobia and horrifying racist comments to understand the allure of escaping reality to such individuals. But horror is not alone. Dystopian tales help destroy the notion of progress. Fantasy, a term that says it all, allows readers to return to a postulated golden age, and an idealized human nature. Even science fiction is not immune. One only need examine the social and political views of M. R. James, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, or Orson Scott Card to see a well-established pattern.

Of course, this is not to deny that such fiction cannot be art. If the author creates an entirely new genre such as Lovecraft did, if it shows original elaboration on a theme or presents an intensely personal vision, the limitations of genre can be overcome. The mere imitators who come after—and these make up the bulk of what goes by the name genre fiction today—typically represent a degeneration of the original. Like a copy of a copy, they become merely pastiches of the genuine article they seek to emulate.

It is also important to remember that escapism is not an entirely bad thing. However, it often appears that escapism is the only thing at the present moment that such entertainment is expected to provide. This would appear to indicate a society deeply disinterested, even passionately opposed, to reality. Is it possible such a development is reflective of a deeper despair in the society at large? Perhaps reality has become something too hard to endure without an opiate for the masses.

At the end of the Roman Empire, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus reflected upon the general decline of culture in his age:

"[H]ouses which were formerly celebrated for the serious cultivation of becoming studies, are now filled with … ridiculous amusements … reechoing with the sound of vocal music and the tinkle of flutes and lyres. Lastly, instead of a philosopher, you find a singer … and the libraries closed for ever, like so many graves." [1]

With libraries closing throughout the country and humanities departments losing more of their funding every day, it’s as if Ammianus was talking about us.

The fall of Rome coincided with the rise of Christianity, a religion that put an emphasis upon the life to come when we will shed our material selves for a perfect spiritual self. This idea is echoed in St. Augustine’s City of God, which argued that the spiritual city will inevitably win out over the city of man since man’s city is temporary whereas the city of God is eternal. The desire to escape what seemed to be a hopeless and dying world was the impetus for Christianity's rise. Are we repeating the same pattern again? For the early Christians, a mood of despair gave rise by an accident of history to productive action. Our modern passion for escape and diversion, by contrast, shows no sign of evolving to meet reality. A nascent theology of hope for the dispossessed became the glue of social cohesion for that era we call the dark ages. If we should have another dark age (and there are many who argue that with growing ecological disasters and another economic collapse just around the bend we may live to see one), it seems unlikely that the adventures ofHarry Potter or Game of Thrones will be enough to pull us through to the light.