Just a heads-up: beginning Tuesday we’ll have four class meetings on Frank Norris’s strange novel Vandover and the Brute. My passionate hope is that everybody’ll have that reading completed (including appendices) by Thursday 3/29 if not by Tuesday 3/27. In the meantime I want you all thinking about “the duality of man”– as Sgt. Joker would phrase it. Consider yourself: are you good or bad? What would the EVIL version of yourself look like? Would such a strange doppelgänger— your Dark Twin— simply intensify your own worst traits?
The character of Vandover embodies some of the most disturbing cultural anxieties of the fin-de-siècle (end of the century) era. Among these fears is the eugenicist paranoia that Western Civilization necessarily saps natural vitality, generating cohort after cohort of neurasthenic degenerates. Pay close attention: we have arrived at the moment when a naturalist version of the Gothic has entered the labyrinth of Race– that ultimate social fiction.
This is interesting: the overlap of culturally specific modes of racial formation and market ideology. One long-term, very damaging effect of the American War in Iraq emerged from efforts to impose a peculiarly USAmerican version of the Nation as a polity paradoxically riven by racio-ethnic allegiances. The paradigm for this political dispensation is pretty clearly a mildly regulated market– ex. quotas are intended to fulfill a representative function without actually having any influence on matters of justice and equality. This, in essence, is what the US means when it bombs people in the interests of Freedom.
Removing Saddam was just a byproduct of another objective: dismantling the Iraqi state and its institutions. That state was replaced with a dysfunctional and corrupt semi-state. We were still filming in Baghdad when L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced the formation of the so-called Governing Council in July 2003. The names of its members were each followed by their sect and ethnicity. Many of the Iraqis we spoke to on that day were upset with the institutionalization of an ethno-sectarian quota system. Ethnic and sectarian tensions already existed, but their translation into political currency was toxic. Those unsavory characters on the governing council, most of whom were allies of the United States from the preceding decade, went on to loot the country, making it one of the most corrupt in the world.
I’m thinking of teaching The Clansman by Thomas Dixon next semester. Dixon was a white supremacist, an admirer of the Confederacy, and a staunch supporter of Jim Crow. The Clansman, the second installment of a trilogy about the post-Civil War South, became the basis of one of the most influential films in cinema history, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The novel is replete with racist invective and celebrates the KKK. It is also a historically significant text that provides insight into the ideology of white supremacy and the political uses of the genre of historical romance. Do you think this kind of fiction belongs in the classroom? Would you be interested in reading such a book in one of your courses? If you have any thoughts on this matter please share them, either in the comments field of this post or via email. I appreciate your feedback.
Great essay by Briahna Joy Gray:
Identity is, at best, a loose proxy for a person’s political commitments, and individual identity groups contain incredibly diverse perspectives. Failure to recognize that fact can result in dangerous consequences: it can lead us to support policies contrary to the best interests of a community simply because of optics, and it can turn us into a “firewall” to lean on, rather than a constituency to be won.
Even worse, because the optics are improved, it can actually become harder to combat the harm posed by in-group bad actors: a black-run police force can be just as harmful to a black community as one headed by whites, but the optics of equal representation can obscure the reality of systemic racism.
Jacobin Magazine and Verso Books are producing a series of weekly podcasts over the course of March that address chapters from one of our required texts, The ABCs of Socialism. Nivedita Majumdar’s remarks are significant for a number of reasons, though in a US context one insight here might be that capitalist identity politics is a core element of the defense of socioeconomic inequality (see also Touré F. Reed’s Why Liberals Separate Race from Class or Nancy Fraser’s article “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism” on the course information page).