Thursday, April 23, 2020

On Pynchon and Monk for International Book Day

For International Book Day, April 23, 2020, Cary Loren of The Book Beat asked me to do a kind of "Desert Island" thing. I focused on the one book and the one record that I couldn't live without. I want to thank Cary for the opportunity. It was fun. To everyone else, support your local bookstore.

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Because of my writing and research, I don’t get to read much fiction. This even though I have long had the suspicion that I might be smarter if I did. Fiction seems to get at truths that are more deeply felt than the social science I need to read in order to keep up. One exception is Thomas Pynchon. I pretty much read everything he puts out, ridiculously long or thankfully short. I bought the Penguin edition of 1984, published in 2003 to mark George Orwell’s centennial, simply because Pynchon wrote the introduction. (I have to say, though, that in that case I prefer Orwell’s nonfiction, particularly his essays and the classics The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia.) 

Pynchon’s masterwork, of course, is his third novel Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have read a number of times since first encountering it in the mid-1970s. Gravity’s Rainbow is for me one of the essential American novels, on the order of The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and Beloved. (To that list I would now add The Overstory by Richard Powers.) Novels that for me come at crucial times in American history, books that seem to capture the spirit of the nation at a turning point, for better or worse. 

If On the Road (which Pynchon cites as a Great American Novel) can be said to mark the birth of postwar counterculture, then Gravity’s Rainbow may be read as heralding its demise. Gravity’s Rainbow registers the rise of the military-industrial complex, which emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, and it presages the ultimate defeat of the Romantic imaginary that was the counterculture's wellspring. (That defeat is more directly addressed in Vineland, which not coincidently is set in 1984, the year Ronald Reagan was reelected, as well as Inherent Vice, the psychedelic-noir whose main character, the drug-addled Doc Sporto, stumbles through the beach communities of LA oblivious to the fact that the sun is setting on the hippie Elysium.) Gravity’s Rainbow is not an uplifting book, but as the critic Richard Poirier wrote, it “caught the inward movements of our time.” It’s a book I can’t imagine not ever having read or living on without.

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I have a fairly respectable record collection -- close to 3000 titles combining vinyl and CDs, covering a broad spectrum of genres. But if I had to pick one record that I couldn’t live without, it would have to be Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser, first released in 1967 on Columbia. It’s one of the first jazz records I ever heard, having checked it out from the Roseville Public Library when I was in junior high and studying with Motown baritone sax player Lanny Austin at Detroit Wayne Music Studio, located at the time on Gratiot near Seven Mile. 

The vinyl pressing I currently play has been in my collection for nearly five decades, since I was a freshman in college. It still sounds great even if it’s showing a few signs of wear. (There is a certain element of the sound that’s attributable to the upgrades in my playback system over the years. While I’m still using the same Pioneer turntable from the 1970s, I’m pushing the sound through a McIntosh tube preamp/solid state amp hook-up to power Mirage bipolar speaker towers at 150 watts a channel at 6 ohms. But that just makes it all the easier to appreciate the performances, which continue to satisfy.)

While signing with Columbia offered Monk a broader audience and a mainstream imprimatur, that catalog, especially the later recordings of which Straight, No Chaser is among the last, was for decades underappreciated. Part of it may have been that for more than a decade Monk worked with the same sax player, Charlie Rouse, whose fame never reached that of Monk’s earlier collaborators -- Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, all of whom went on to legendary solo careers. There is also the fact that much of the catalog reworks compositions Monk recorded during his heyday as the High Priest of Bop. Then there’s the fact that Rouse tended to play sharp, which may have annoyed some of the more “refined” listeners. But to my ear, every one of the tracks on Straight, No Chaser is about as perfect as they can be. In addition to the title track, there’s the homage to Duke Ellington, “I Didn’t Know About You,” and the stunning stride-inflected solo rendition of Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.”

In the years since that first listening, I’ve acquired most of the Columbia catalog either on vinyl or CD, as well as recordings from the earliest days on Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside to the last ones made in the early 1970s and released on Black Lion before Monk stop performing publicly. But Straight, No Chaser is still the one I go to the most.

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For a more in-depth and wackier reflection on Gravity's Rainbow, go to my blogpost on it.

You can also check out my review of Robin D.G. Kelly's biography of Monk at PopMatters.com.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The New Economics of True Wealth: A Review of Plenitude by Juliet B. Schor

Before founding The New School online publication Public Seminar, sociologist Jeffrey C. Goldfarb put out a precursor titled Deliberately Considered. Through Jeff, who was my dissertation advisor, I have contributed to both publications. In thinking about recent reporting on how one of the unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the clearing up of the atmosphere, I recalled Juliet Schor addressing the issue in her 2010 book Plentitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.  I reviewed that book for Deliberately Considered and discovered that I had never published it on my own blog. I'm doing that now. Certain aspects of the argument are indeed prescient. In particular, the way in which community has been foregrounded in the recent pandemic points to how we might enjoy ourselves and each other more by settling for less.
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“Austerity” is a watchword in the media these days in both domestic and international economic news. The recent downturn, the story goes, has meant that governments can no longer sustain entitlement obligations or take on any more debt. So too must citizens reduce their expectations and assume more personal responsibility, accepting less in return.
In her book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, economist and sociologist Juliet B. Schor presents a different narrative, one that suggests the current environment is an opportunity to live a more satisfactory, which is to say richer, life. She offers a solution to the “work-and-spend” dilemma of modern consumerism she initially described in her 1992 bestseller The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and continued in the follow up The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need of 1999. Her thesis rests on four principles: freeing up time by reducing work hours outside the home, shifting that free time to more self-provisioning, developing low cost, low impact but high satisfaction consumption, and reinvesting in community and other forms of social capital.

Why “Business As Usual” No Longer Works

One of Schor’s main assertions is that we must find another way to define wealth and well-being because, in a phrase, there is no alternative. The supposedly endless cycle of material expansion that fueled economic growth as part of what historian Lizabeth Cohen calls the “consumers’ republic” of the postwar era has been exhausted in America at least. Double-digit unemployment, evaporating home equity, and eroding pension balances have taken the gloss off the consumer spending that accounted for between two-thirds and 70 percent of the US economy in recent years.
But more than that, business as usual (or as Schor refers to it “BAU”) has run into another, less malleable barrier: the environment. Mainstream economics has by and large failed to account for the environmental effects (so-called externalities) of growth, a charge many progressives will no doubt find familiar. In particular, Schor debunks the Environmental Kuznets Curve that projects a bell-shaped ratio of economics to environment, that poor nations pollute until they reach a certain level of wealth, which they then use to buy ecological amelioration. The math has never worked in reality, Schor asserts, as every scientifically accepted measure of environmental degradation continues to rise, threatening impending disaster.
Whether anyone not already attuned to Schor’s sensibility will be persuaded by “Plenitude” is debatable. Going back to the Progressive Era, “the good life” in America has been defined by the potential of an unlimited horizon of material comfort, a central ideological construct of modernity that is still hegemonic despite the strains of recent contradictions. Even those who embrace choices such as conscientious consumption of both the green and blue varieties may not be able to picture themselves canning vegetables and living in DIY yurts, two of Schor’s examples of the new economics of plenitude (which seem like very old-fashioned economics to me).
Indeed, the fundamentals of plenitude are largely compatible with austerity. Working less and therefore spending less seem to go hand in hand in either scenario, and we must take it on faith that because they are of our own choosing we will somehow enjoy them more. Of the four principles, the reactivation of community seems to be the most compelling. And to give Schor her due, many of the tactics of plenitude she describes are being practiced in local communities, such as Detroit and other inner cities, that have been abandoned by consumer society and left to their own devices. In that regard, “plenitude” may be in store for us all.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

To the Vector the Spoils



Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? is a sequel to McKenzie Wark’s highly regarded 2004 book A Hacker Manifesto. Like its predecessor, Capital Is Dead surveys the mental, social, and physical environment in which the means of economic accumulation and thus power have radically shifted, in which value no longer resides in owning the means of production but in controlling flows of information. Wark picks up the narrative begun in A Hacker Manifesto in which conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie has been superseded by the domination of the hacker (creators of new concepts and connections) by the vectoralist (so named for their control of the networks through which information flows in space and time). The latter not only capture the physical output of the former’s labor, but appropriate their very being, as well. And it isn’t just workers who are being subordinated, it’s traditional industrialists, too—Facebook has a market value of some $550 billion, nearly 10 times that of General Motors, with a fraction of the employees and virtually none of the infrastructure.

Coming a decade and a half after A Hacker Manifesto, in a brave new world dominated by platforms such as Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb, and marked by anxiety in the Age of the Anthropocene, Capital Is Dead eschews digital utopianism for a sense of urgency that recognizes things have gotten serious. An important part of the book is its critique of what Wark terms ‘genteel’ Marxism, the truly academic ruminations, emerging out of the 1970s with the failure of the New Left, of often-tenured ‘radicals’ ensconced in university comparative literature, philosophy, and cultural studies departments, or what she has time and again referred to as ‘hypo-critical theory’. Instead, Wark offers ‘four cheers for vulgarity’ (the vulgar always goes a step too far) that originates not just from below but from ‘below the below’. Here Wark follows John Bellamy Foster, who in Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature and other books, argues that the error of Western Marxism of the genteel variety has been its focus on dialectics to the detriment of consideration of the material. Like Foster, Wark retrieves the lineage of left materialists, such as mid-20th-century biologist Joseph Needham and contemporary science and technology scholar Donna Haraway, who have embraced the science that critical theorists have rejected. This work is summarily recounted in Capital Is Dead but gone into greater depth in Wark’s earlier book, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene.

A major question is that of the book’s title: In what way can we say that capital is dead, especially in light of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the aftermath of which British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism? Wark’s answer is to engage in a thought experiment in which she reviews the various modifiers that have been appended to the word capitalism—‘disaster’, ‘neoliberal’, ‘postfordist’, ‘necro’, ‘communicative’, ‘surveillance’, ‘platform’, et. al—terms that take capitalism as an eternal concept, or perhaps more accurately as a kind of undead. (In fact, ‘zombie’ is yet another modifier appended to the concept of capitalism in recent times.) Wark takes a flamethrower to these ideas through a reading of Marx that burns away the metaphors of phantasmagorical fetishes, such as the commodity form, the spectacle, and false consciousness, that have occupied much critical theory to date in order to get down to what is generally referred to as the ‘base’, although not the one typically taken as situated in the economic means of production but instead the one at the root of what Marx in the less-often read Volume III of Capital refers to as the ‘irreparable rift’ in what he terms ‘the universal metabolism’ of nature.

The ‘metabolic rift’, as it’s come to be known among ecotheorists, is Marx’s premise that humankind’s original disruption, to use the term in its contemporary business sense, is the extraction of the Earth’s organic and inorganic resources for circulation in closed systems that don’t reconnect with their point of origin, AKA the linear economy of make, use, dispose. The metabolic rift widened with the agricultural revolutions of 19th century that drove the need for artificial fertilizers to forestall soil depletion. Advances in agricultural productivity at the time also released cadres of labor to fuel the growth of industrialization and urbanization, further widening the rift. For Wark, the metabolic rift from feudal agriculture to capitalist manufacturing has now entered a third phase: vectoralist information, the privatization of codes and data of every form, including genetic. The distinction Wark makes of the vectoralist class vs. the capitalist is its power not to actually own anything but to simply extract enormous profit from various flows of value. (Think of platforms such as Uber, Airbnb, or TaskRabbit where the majority of costs are carried by the users on both sides of the equation or Facebook, where users entertain one another and the data derived are then sold to advertisers.)

Wark employs a rhetorical style in Capital is Dead that is clean and direct, belying the erudition upon which it is grounded and in contrast to the aphoristic approach of A Hacker Manifesto. Indeed, Wark notes that Capital is Dead is ‘summing up or maybe concluding things that I have been working on for a long time’. Her forthcoming book Reverse Cowgirl strikes out in a new direction in the form of an autoethnography of the evolution of her identity as a transgender woman. (Full disclosure: Wark served on my dissertation committee when I completed my PhD from the New School for Social Research.)

When it first came out, a number of reviewers of A Hacker Manifesto (myself included) questioned the dialectic of hacker and vectoralist as potentially obfuscating capitalist relationships that continued to hold sway, if perhaps in a different register. With Capital is Dead, Wark firmly establishes the usefulness of those terms to describe a truly new, more pernicious apparatus of exploitation. Yet I’m still not sure this new relationship means that capital is dead. The tech industry, self-avowedly capitalist to its core, operates on ‘progressive ephemeralization’, a concept originally expressed in R. Buckminister Fuller’s book Nine Chains to the Moon, first published in 1938, where he notes technology’s ability to do ‘more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing’, a fulfillment of the Communist Manifesto where capitalism’s revolutionary power to wash away all things in its relentless search for profit is summed up in the famous phrase: ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

Be that as it may, things do seem to be different now and for a great many they are demonstrably worse. Whatever one calls it, Wark’s attempt to think outside of orthodoxy, to transform the language by which we understand our current moment, commands our attention.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ode to Joy

Recently, artist Mary Fortuna published an album of photographs on Facebook of the retirement party held in 2006 for long-time Detroit News art critic Joy Hakanson Colby. At the time, Nick Sousanis, known these days as author of the award-winning graphic novel Unflattening, ran an online publication called thedetroiter.com. (Since defunct and its content taken offline and archived.) He asked me to write an essay in honor of Joy for thedetroiter.com, which he posted in full on Mary's thread. I had forgotten about it and reading it now 13 years later, it holds up pretty well. I reproduce it here for the record.

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I was honored to be one of the 200 or so members of the Detroit art community who celebrated Joy Hakanson Colby on July 11 at Lola's in Harmony Park, marking her retirement from The Detroit News after serving as art critic there for 60 years. The depth of Colby's impact on the Detroit art scene was evidenced by the mere fact of who showed up to offer her best wishes as she embarks on the next chapter in her life. The gathering was "completely 'A' list" as former Cranbrook sculptor-in-residence Michael Hall put it, as he made a sweeping gesture with his hand from a perch at the crowded bar.

Colby herself was the epitome of the artworld doyenne, accepting the tribute being lavished upon her with an aura of serenity worthy of the Dalai Lama. Dressed in an oriental-style silk jacket of saffron (the Buddhist color of spiritual tranquility), black slacks, and black flats, and a large white flower pinned to her left shoulder, she looked every bit the aesthetic sage as she peered owlishly at well-wishers through her signature oversize-lens glasses. She was unruffled even when Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal, who started off the speeches, cloddishly said not once but several times that he wasn't mentioned in a recent Metro Times article Colby wrote looking back on her remarkable career. (In fact, there’s a whole paragraph on Beal’s directorship.)

The evening was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was wonderful to have the feeling of community one rarely gets in Detroit these days. Seeing Bob Wilbert, John Piet, Stephen Goodfellow, Tyree Guyton, Niagara, et. al. in the same room was a happily surreal experience of Motor City artworlds colliding. Add to that collectors Gil and Lila Silverman, Frank and Shirley Piku, and Marc Schwartz, plus the blast-from-the-past of erstwhile Xochipilli Gallery Director Mary Wright coming out of hiding to take her place alongside one-time Birmingham neighbors Ray Fleming, Susanne Hilberry, and Corrine Lemberg. Then there was the younger set, DetroitArtsBlogger Ann Gordon and Metro Times Arts Editor Rebecca Mazzei. Also significant was the presence of people like Lester Johnson, Gilda Snowden, and Anita Bates, a testament to Colby's leadership, with her coverage of artists of color, in working to heal the near mortal wound racism has inflicted on Detroit.

And yet on the other hand, there was the underlying anxiety over an era coming to an end and what that might portend for those left in the bleak aftermath. (And that's before factoring in that Dick Cheney still runs the country.) In the last paragraph of her Metro Times article, Colby grimly, but no doubt accurately, observes that no one is ever again likely to have the opportunity to do what she's done during her time covering the art scene in Detroit. The Detroit News has a listing on JournalismJobs.com soliciting for a "fine arts writer," but that person will cover classical music, theater, dance, and opera in addition to the visual arts. Setting aside the implicit elitism built into that beat (something Colby herself certainly wouldn't countenance), it means that there won't be the kind of in-depth coverage of the art scene as in years gone by.

This is indeed a tragedy. I remember being a teenager in a working-class suburb of Detroit, picking up my family's copy of The News one Sunday, and seeing a huge spread about a group of artists who lived and worked someplace near downtown called the Cass Corridor. Through adolescent eyes I got a glimpse of the fact that art wasn't necessarily something old and fragile to be preserved in some musty museum and worshipped from behind a velvet rope. It was something the people in those photos, who lived in my very own town, actually did, probably even as I was sitting there reading about them. Even more important, it was something that I—traumatized as I was by having seen Fredrick Edwin Church's Cotapaxi a few years earlier and thinking I could never paint like that and should just give up now—could see myself doing. What are the chances of that happening to some other budding young talent with the flimsy "lifestyle" section of today's paper, filled as it is with celebrity gossip and reviews of video games?

To be fair, this isn't just Detroit's problem. All around the country, newspapers are cutting back local coverage of the visual arts, of all of the arts for that matter, in pursuit of higher profits squeezed from cost-cutting measures that include spreading newsroom staff (known to bean counters as "full-time equivalents" or FTEs) as thinly as possible. It's simply more economical to own a chain of newspapers and drop articles from around the network into the various "newsholes" (those pesky empty spaces between the ads). That's also why cultural commodities like CDs and DVDs, TV programs, and movies, which are nationally distributed, are more likely to be covered than local art shows. All the same, it's ironic because local art shows are something local media by default have an exclusive on—it's damned unlikely anyone is coming from New York or LA to review Douglas Semivan's upcoming show at Madonna University in Livonia, no matter how good it might be.

It's also important to recognize that the way media are consumed has changed. It's no secret that newspaper circulation has been declining for years, hence the decision to cut staff in an effort to outpace diminishing advertising and subscription revenues. It's also true that the readership demographics of most newspapers are increasingly skewing upward. Although there were a few youngsters at the Colby soiree, most of the people were of the "getting-long-in-the-tooth" persuasion, including me. I'm sure the same holds for the larger community that knows Colby's writing. More and more, younger people are turning to alternative media, like the Internet, to get the information they need. That's not something to be bemoaned so much as accepted and acted upon. (That said I wish to hell someone would show me how to make money at it.)

That's where something like TheDetroiter.com comes in. Right now, it's where the most in-depth coverage of the Detroit art scene is to be found. It's where our community, beleaguered as it is, seems to be converging. While it's entirely fitting that we look back in appreciation at what Joy Colby has done (and it's a lot to be sure), it's just as essential that we look to the future. The best way to honor Colby's legacy is to keep working at that which she so obviously cares about and to move the cause forward by any and all means at hand. And I bet if you were to ask her, she'd be the first to agree.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Robert Bielat, In Memorium

The artist and my friend Robert Bielat died unexpectedly on December 13, 2018 at age 69. At the time of his death, he was preparing for a spring show at AtomArt in Ferndale. His partner Veronica decided to continue with the exhibition as a tribute. His friend and fellow foundry rat Todd Erickson cast several unfinished pieces for inclusion in the exhibition. (Had Bielat lived there certainly would have been more!) Veronica asked me to write an essay for the exhibition, which I was honored to do. Below is the text of that essay. Check out the exhibition, which runs until May 24.

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Robert Bielat was an artist’s artist, a sobriquet generally applied to creative producers whose work is brilliant but idiosyncratic, deeply compelling in a way that is obvious to other members of the tribe, but not necessarily so to the market or to the arbiters of “good” taste. Bielat (which is the way he always addressed himself to me) was definitely brilliant and definitely idiosyncratic, as anyone who knew him would readily attest. He is an artist whose work I continually returned to over the years. In reviewing my archive in preparation for this essay, I note the first appearance of Bielat in my writing in a review I wrote of the “Detroit Bronze” exhibition at the Michigan Gallery in the September 1986 New Art Examiner; the most recent was a profile for Sculpture magazine in May 2007. In between were catalog essays, features, and reviews. The total number of words I have devoted to Bielat is certainly among the most for a single artist. Yet I always seemed to find something new to say, another way into the work that is more a reflection of its fecundity than my ability to discuss it.

A Bielat exhibition was typically packed to the gills with work, another reflection of his seemingly boundless creativity and in no small measure an acknowledgment of his perceived need to get as many of his ideas out into the world as possible in the brief time he had to be a sentient part of it. (Bielat’s work is truly the embodiment of the adage: “Ars longa; vita brevis.”) Be that as it may, there are certain themes that run through his oeuvre, and I hope in the next few words to identify some of them.

The most obvious and central is the Romantic notion of the will-to-art, a self-determined, intuitive, and autopoetic approach to creative production whereby Bielat absorbed his experience of the world around him and reprocessed it into an expressive vision that was uniquely his own. Bielat possessed an advanced degree in art, but his work seemed to be completely sui generis, as if appearing out of nowhere fully formed, a result of its own conditions of being, and as if it had always been there.

This last thought brings up the notion of time in Bielat’s work. Specifically, the phenomenological concept of “sedimentation”—that the past is embedded in the present and that the present is the procrustean bed of the future—is both physically and metaphorically manifest in the work. This is evident in Bielat’s use of the castoff in many works over the years, synecdoches of past presents gone to seed. I have often invoked critic Roberta Smith’s observation, made in reference to Robert Rauschenberg, of “bringing the refuse of life into the refuge of art” in discussing Bielat’s work, especially as a register of Detroit’s postindustrial condition, which he experienced firsthand. In the later work, time takes on a more world-historical character, particularly in such work as the “Sentinels” series, several of which reference ancient mythologies and epic themes, and more recently with the use of bronze that has been patinated to evoke a connection with millennia of human creation, again fueled by a recognition of existential finitude. Time registers in other works in the buildup of surface textures—the burnt-away traces of duct tape and aluminum foil used to hold sculptural elements together prior to being packed into the mold—left as a residue of the casting process.

Bielat’s recent re-adoption of bronze manifests another important element in his work, namely, its materiality. Bielat always asserted the primacy of the thing in his production, whether it be the collection of objects, old and new, that he integrated into his sculptures, or the metals he used in casting. His approach to ceramics, as well, reflected an engagement with the material limits of the medium—stressing the clay, piling on the glaze, leaving sections of bisqueware visible. This attention to materiality is sometimes not so obvious, again, in scorched traces of bindings and other fugitive materials, such as cardboard facings, as they evaporated under the intense heat of molten metal filling the voids they left in the mold.

The multifaceted ways in which Bielat worked his materials suggests one last aspect of his aesthetic to which I want to draw attention, namely, his concern for craft. (Bielat completed his undergraduate studies at what is now College for Creative Studies when it was the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, whose “maker” aesthetic has maintained its influence throughout his work.) There was always a certain way that Bielat approached his work, not just in his concern for materials, but in how he insisted on maintaining the visibility of the steps taken in its making, for example, the fastenings of the components of an assemblage and the flash along the edges of a cast element. Bielat always worked directly, eschewing preparatory sketches or studies. He maintained a phenomenological dialog with his work, responding as much to its internal dictatesmaking adjustments along the wayas exercising control over its development. This sensibility aligned with that of the Arts and Crafts movement, regardless of how seemingly far afield the work drifted from traditional techniques.

In 1987, I wrote a catalog essay for Bielat in which I quoted philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of The Phenomenology of Perception, a book that continues to influence artists to this day, and which is appropriate to reconsider at this time:
What one too deliberately seeks, one does not find; and he who on the contrary has in his meditative life known how to tap its spontaneous source never lacks for ideas and value.
Bielat lived that principle, as an artist and as a human being. The work is his testament.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Medium is (is not) the Message: Marshall McLuhan and His Legacy

On March 19, 2019, I gave a talk in the Valade Family Gallery on the campus of College for Creative Studies in conjunction with the exhibition "Feedback 4: Marshall McLuhan and the Arts." I used a quote from avant-garde filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas as a preface: "The film critic should not explain what a movie is all about, surely an impossible task; he should help to create the right attitude for looking at movies." Similarly, my talk was not about the show, but about McLuhan as a jumping off point for subsequent developments in media theory, which would be useful in looking at the work on view. Below is the text of my talk, slightly edited for publication. Also, several of the original images have been replaced due to copyright. I want to thank the CCS Communications Design Department, and in particular Professors Doug Kisor and Susan LaPorte, for the opportunity.

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Marshall McLuhan and me in the Valade Family Gallery at CCS (Photo: Matt Raupp).
“The Medium is the Message” is perhaps one of the best known aphorisms of Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan. Among his most influential books include: Gutenberg Galaxy, a study of the influence of moveable-type printing on culture and human consciousness; Understanding Media, a more comprehensive study of the ways in which various media, especially the electronic, affect society; and The Medium is the Message, an inventory, as its subtitle suggests, of the effects of different media on the human sensorium, co-authored with graphic designer Quentin Fiore.

Media, McLuhan holds, are not just technologies that humans invent but the means by which humanity is itself reinvented. Emerging in the early 1960s, McLuhan’s understanding of media, and more particularly the condition of mediation, contrasts with most mainstream theories up to that point. (An exception was Harold Innis, a professor of political economy at University of Toronto whose books Empire and Communication and The Bias of Communication, influenced McLuhan early on.)

A good example of then mainstream thought is Harold Laswell’s famous model of communication from 1948, which understands the process of mediation with the formula: “WHO says WHAT in WHICH CHANNEL to WHOM to WHAT EFFECT?” Theories in this vein are also known as Hypodermic Models, which view the process of mediation as proceeding in one direction, from the encoder of message through the medium of communication to the receiver with the content essentially injected into the mind of the intended recipient. The Hypodermic Model sees media as transparent, i.e., a membrane to be looked through to the content,with the message being affected by the “noise” a medium might embody to distort the sender’s “true” message.This perspective often sees mass media, in particular, as a tool of indoctrination, an apparatus for, to use Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's term, "manufacturing consent,” in modern liberal democracies as well as in authoritarian regimes.

This perspective goes back to the Greeks, particularly to Plato who in The Allegory of the Cave denigrates mimesis as an imperfect representation of the Truth of the Ideal Forms and also in Phaedrus where he quotes Socrates as being critical of writing as an interruption of the direct communication of soul-to-soul intercourse. (The irony is that we know this because Plato wrote it down.)
MediaTetrad.svg
McLuhan's Tetrad of Media Analysis (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Where traditional theory sees media as transparent, McLuhan sees it as what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book Remediation: Understanding New Media term “hypermediated,” which is to say, a process of “looking at” vs. “looking through.” McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media Analysis proposes a multifaceted perspective that looks at what a medium (1) “enhances,” for example, a music video adds a visual narrative (sometimes for the better, sometimes not) to the performance of a song; (2) what it “reverses,” for example, painting’s reversal into its condition of flatness in the face of photography’s capture of the real; (3) what it “retrieves,” for example, radio’s recovery of the spoken word vis-a-vis print, and (4) what it “obsolesces,” the hypertext’s deconstruction of print’s linear flow.
Deer Hunt, Neolithic Wall Painting, c. 5750 BCE (Photo: Klaus Peter Simon CC BY-SA 3.0)
We first see the effect of mediation in what McLuhan’s student Walter Ong terms the transition from orality to literacy. In oral cultures, communication is direct between those present at the time. Orality seeks to preserve and reproduce existing meaning through repetition and mnemonic devices. We see this in the epics poems handed down through the millennia and among the griots of Africa. This zis encoded in visual culture, as well. In the above example from Neolithic Era, before the invention of writing, space is undifferentiated and time is static. Literacy on the other hand separates the originator of a thought from its receiver in space and time, promoting a distinct understanding of individual interior subjectivity.
Cunieform, c. 3500-3200 BCE (Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrisen
CC BY-SA 3.0)
The invention of writing changes that. This is an example of cuneiform, one the earliest known examples of writing developed in the 4th Millennium BCE in Sumer in Mesopotamia. Cuneiform started out as a system of accounting prior to being adapted to communication more generally. Similarly, McLuhan recognized computers as not just counting machines but as communication tools that would have profound effects on society and human consciousness.
Victory Steele of Naram Sin, c. 2250 BCE (Photo: Rama
CC BY-SA 3.0)
We can see the introduction of narrative into visual culture early on. Not long after the introduction of cuneiform, The Presentation to the Innana, (also known as the Warka Vase), 3200-3000 BCE, tells a story, literally from the ground up, of agricultural surplus being grown, harvested, and offered up to the Sumerian goddess Inanna. The sequential segments of the object further introduces the horizon line to delineate space, a technique also evident in the later Victory Steele of Naram Sin, c. 2250 BCE, depicting the King of Akkad leading his troops to victory over the Lullubi mountain people.
Meister des Marchel de Boucicart, page from a French Book of Hours, 1410-1415 (Public Domain).
We see a similar transition from manuscript to print, from the unique, private expression of the individual hand to the stirrings of mass communication.
Page from the Gutenberg Bible, The Epistle of St. Jerome, 1453-1455 (Public Domain).
McLuhan marks the origin of modernity with the development of moveable-type printing, calling the book the “first commodity.” Print enables the broad dissemination of information across large distances. In addition to being the first inklings of what we now call consumer culture, print had other profound social, cultural, and political implications. In Understanding Media, McLuhan identifies print as the founder of the modern nation-state. Prior to print there was no standard grammar or spelling. National languages are standardized under print as are the geographic boundaries under which they are understood. Print gives rise to what Benedict Anderson terms “the imagined community” of nationalism under which individuals think of themselves as a people bound by a common sense of identity even though they have no direct contact with one another.

Print additionally ushers in the vernacular. Prior to the invention of print and the standardization of language, official communications in Europe were conducted in Latin with “the masses” essentially left out of the loop. The formation of national imagined communities using the vernacular further gives rise to notions of a universally literate public and eventually with the Enlightenment the idea of the form of national self-governance called democracy.

There’s another aspect of media evolution that is relevant to the discussion, which Bolter and Grusin term “remediation.” McLuhan notes that the content of one medium is always another medium. For example, the content of writing is speech. Bolter and Grusin refine that idea to posit that as media emerge, they begin by capturing previous media. So in the case of print, the first iterations of typography, as seen for example in the Gutenberg Bible, sought to mimic uncial manuscript; other manual processes, such as hand-illuminated pages, were also remediated in published books. Narrative cinema begins by remediating the novel and indeed the Library of Congress continues to organize film studies under the heading of literature.
Albrecht Durer, St Jerome in His Study, 1513, engraving/Nadar, The Sewers of Paris, 1864-1865, photograph (Public Domain).
Bolter and Grusin use as one of their primary examples of remediation the transition in visual art in the 19th century with the invention of photography. As Bolter and Grusin, as well as the art historian Erwin Panofsky, note, media transparency as a representational form, i.e., “looking through” the picture plane vs. “looking at” at it, has its origins in Western culture in the Renaissance with the development of linear and atmospheric perspective. Before the development of these techniques, representation was, to use Bolter and Grusin’s terminology, “hypermediated,” that is, imbued with the awareness of form as a material construction, as opposed to the “immediacy” of media transparency. That photography remediates Renaissance perspective can be readily seen by comparing Albrecht Durer's St. Jerome in His Study, 1513, with Nadar's mid-19th-century images of the Paris sewers where the perspective is quite similar.

From this perspective, the Late Gothic is not a more “primitive” form of representation vis-à-vis the Renaissance, but one with a different set of concerns. The culmination of representational transparency in painting is arguably Impressionism, in which the artist is rendered as a conduit for recording the instant of pure perception, the threshold between subject and object. Photography makes a more radical claim to immediacy via the insertion of a mechanical apparatus between the observer and the observed, removing any trace of the hand, which cannot be completely eradicated in drawing or painting. (Of course, there is a conundrum in that notion as a "representation" the medium is always already at once removed from the "real.")
Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, mixed media (Image courtesy: PabloPicasso.org).
It is around this moment historically that painting begins its turn back to hypermediation, resulting in Cubism and the invention of collage. And it is Cubism that subsequently provides McLuhan’s initial insight that the medium is the message. (It is interesting to note that immediacy continues to hold sway in Hollywood’s fetish for special effects and in new media in areas such as virtual reality and immersive environments.) This idea in media theory has its parallel in art history in the argument that it is photography’s superior claim as “an imprint off the real” that frees painting to explore its more formalist conditions. There is cause for questioning this argument in looking at photography at the end of the 19th century, which has its moment of remediating Beaux Arts aesthetics (see for example the portraiture of Julia Margaret Cameron and the still lives of Roger Fenton) whereas much painting of the Impressionists actually presages the street photography of several decades later. This can be seen, for example, in Edgar Degas's Place de la Concorde, 1875, with its dynamic composition of one figure entering the picture plane on the left and another walking out it on the right, the two separated by a triangle of empty space thrusting down between them, pushing the classic pyramid organization of figures off center.

One of the more fruitful extrapolations of McLuhan is the mediology of French theorist Regis Debray, which studies the transmission of meaning in culture through language and images. In his book Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms (Verso, 1996), Debray sees cultural transmission as operating within “mediaspheres,” epochal shifts in the organization of culture, and indeed being itself, in the wake of innovations in communications technology. Prior to the invention of writing, culture was transmitted within the mnemonosphere, the sphere of oral culture, as described by Ong. This was followed by the logosphere, which emerges after writing. The graphosphere emerges after print, and finally there is the videosphere, which emerges with the audiovisual (by which Debray means primarily television). Debray organizes these last three spheres under three regimes: the idol, art, and the individual, which respectively cast the image as a being, the image as a thing, and the image as a perception.

A comparison I find particularly illuminating, as it were, for Debray is sources of light: the spiritual (from within), the solar (from without), and the electric (from within), the last reaffirming McLuhan’s notion of electronic media as extensions of the nervous system. Again we see this in visual art.
Cover of the Codex Aureus of Sankt Emmeram, 870 (Public Domain).
The medieval cover of the Codex Aureus of Sankt Emmeram, 870, from the logosphere is a prime example of hypermediation.
Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde, 1875, oil on canvas (Public Domain).
Edgar Degas's Place de la Concorde, 1875, comes from the graphosphere. Note the dynamism of the composition and the immediacy of its representation, again particularly in relation to photography of the period.
Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1963, combine painting (Image: Sharon Mollerus CC-BY-2.0).
Robert Rauschenberg's combine paintings from the videosphere are good examples of hypermediation and what we would term “remix” culture today. One wonders if the current intellectual property rights regime were in effect then would there have been anything such thing as Pop art.

Another application of McLuhan is Joshua Meyrowitz’s study No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, which adds sociologist Ervin Goffman’s dramaturgical theory, the fact that social life is like a theatrical performance, into the mix. Meyrowitz takes Goffman’s notion of “frontstage” and “backstage,” that relations in public are stage-managed as a result of practices that have been rehearsed in private, and flips them, arguing that television as a communications medium brings things that have typically constituted the backstage into public view and vice versa. Television further breaks down barriers of place, bringing the far off into the living room and presenting the domestic for mass consumption. Television, Meyrowitz notes, is a “secret-exposing machine.”

While rejecting McLuhan’s technological determinism ( i.e., the theory that technological change is the prime mover in the development of social structure and cultural values), Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies theorist Raymond Williams does note the profound effect television as a technological and cultural form has had on daily life.

Principal among them is the concept of “flow,” the way in which television programming serves to organize one’s time, from the morning newscast and daily weather and traffic report as we prepare for our day, the daytime programming geared to the stay-at-home to the unwind of the evening news and the respite of so-called “prime time” entertainment at night. The television is a constant presence in the home. Even when it is not on, we have the sense that something is happening in there. We often turn on the television with no plan of what to watch specifically, but rather simply to see what is on. When watching any program there is always an awareness that there may be something else to see. (Jerry Seinfeld has a quip that men don't watch television to see what is on, they watch it to see what else is on.)

The invention of VCRs, DVDs, DVRs, and now on-demand and online viewing have radically disrupted the old model of televisual flow. Time-shifting has emerged to both customize and atomize the consumption of visual content and the way we experience space and time.

Hypertext (Image: Andrea Riverac CC: BY-SA 3.0)
The binary digit, and the communication technologies that have been built upon it, have greatly impacted the practice of everyday life. One media effect is the development of hypertext, which on the one hand connects an astounding array of archives and individuals across the globe, what Pierre Levy terms “the collective intelligence in cyberspace” and others term “the hive mind,” and on the other hand deconstructs narrative flow of the printed text as understood by McLuhan and those who have worked in his shadow.
One of the key effects of print, according to McLuhan, is the division of labor in society, or what sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “organic solidarity,” the fact that social relations are like different organs of the body, each performing a particular function that cannot stand on its own but is necessary to the functioning of the whole. Sociologists term this “differentiation.” Digital technology is contributing to a new condition of “de-differentiation,” or what media scholar Henry Jenkins terms “convergence culture.” That is, media and social roles are collapsing back together.

We see this, of course, in smart devices that enable us to manage a whole host of communications, entertainment, and other life functions from a single mechanism. In the corporate sector this is evidenced by so-called “flat” organizational structures where layers of management have been removed, to be replaced by information technology systems of oversight, and authority pushed down to lower levels.

Another example is the collapsing of work and leisure—we are connected to our devices 24/7 and are thus always on call. The second largest shopping day of the year is “Cyber Monday,” where consumers complete holiday shopping left over from Black Friday online, typically from the workplace. Then there is the “prosumer,” the melding of producer and consumer in social media platforms such as Facebook, Snap Chat, and the like, where individuals are entertaining themselves and their friends in the form of “user-generated content,” all the while providing data intelligence to advertisers and other elements of surveillance society to be harvested for profit and power.

McLuhan foresaw this process of convergence in what he termed the “global village,” or what globalization theorist Manfred Steger terms “the global imaginary” (after Benedict Anderson’s notion of the imagined community writ large, facilitated by the proliferation of electronic communications technology at the planetary level).

By virtue of an integrated communications network, a foreshadowing of the internet, McLuhan foresaw a contraction of global relationships as far-flung parts of globe came into more frequent and closer contact with one another, either physically or virtually. Positive interpretations of this suggest the prospects for a new age of cooperation in the evolution of humankind and the planet. On the other hand, McLuhan also understood the potential of global communications to put stress on notions of the nation-state and local identities. As McLuhan is often quoted as saying: “The global village absolutely ensures maximal disagreement on all points.” Steger and others have since noted what Samuel Huntington terms “the clash of civilizations” in negotiating what constitutes a global imaginary.

This begs the question: “Where does that leave us?” McLuhan continues to be relevant to the conversation. The inaugural issue of Wired, for example, was dedicated to McLuhan. In a 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, McLuhan expanded upon his observations on the global village thus: “The global-village conditions being forged by the electric technology stimulate more discontinuity and diversity and division than the old mechanical, standardized society; in fact, the global village makes maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable" (emphasis added).

It is in exploring the possibilities of the latter part of that statement that cultural producers (i.e., artists, designers, and other creatives) have both the opportunity and responsibility to act as thought leaders and productive citizens, to map out imaginary futures and then set out to realize them, using their best knowledge of media technologies and effects, for the greater good.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Can Democracy Work? A Disputed Question

'Can democracy work?' is a question whose answer in the affirmative seems less and less certain these days. On one hand is the rise of authoritarianism. In a recent segment of his HBO show 'Last Week Tonight', John Oliver expressed concern over the trend, citing the obvious, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Chinese President-for-Life Xi Jinping, but also Hungary's Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, and far-right politician Jair Balsanaro, the new President of Brazil. On another, and equally disconcerting to Oliver, is the fact that many of
these authoritarian regimes have ironically gained power by being duly elected by their constituents. The United States is not in a league with the aforementioned examples, although it's not for lack of trying by the current incumbent executive, AKA 'Individual 1', and his cronies. Taking up the question literally is historian of ideas and Professor of Politics at the New School for Social Research James Miller, whose latest book endeavors, as its subtitle suggests, to give a history of democracy from ancient to modern times.

The idea of democracy has its origins some 500 years before the common era in the Greek city-state of Athens. Indeed, the terms we use for democratic politics come to us from the ancient Greeks, from dēmokratía, rule by the people, and politiká, affairs of the city. Every citizen was expected to directly participate in the political life of Athens; they were not elected but chosen by lottery, providing equal opportunity for all to serve. Assemblies of citizens, which took place at least 40 times a year, were open to all and ordinary citizens held public office and served on juries. And yet, even then democracy was a contested idea.

Perhaps most famous was the critique of Plato, who in the Republic held that democracy necessarily degenerates into tyranny due to the susceptibility of public opinion to false beliefs, exemplified in the Allegory of the Cave where shadows cast by a fire on the wall are mistaken for reality. The model of good government was instead aristocracy, led by a philosopher-king who ruled with reason and wisdom, guided by knowledge of the Ideal Forms. Plato was joined by his near contemporary, the classical historian Thucydides, who blamed the defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) on the manipulation of the citizens by demagogues (from the Greek dēmagōgos, leader of the people) who persuaded them to blindly march down the road to perdition.

Moreover, the definition of citizenship in the Athenian polis (city) was restricted to adult males who had completed military training; slaves, including those who had been freed, women, and foreign residents were excluded. Citizens could also be disenfranchised as a penalty for certain crimes and failure to pay debts to the state. And not unlike the United States today, the elite sought over time to restrict citizenship further, in the case of Ancient Greece to only those descended from citizens on both sides. According to John Thorley's Athenian Democracy (Routledge, 2004), at best the category of citizens accounted for no more than 30 percent of the total population.

For the next two millennia, the notion of self-rule as exemplified by the Athenian democracy lay dormant, generally considered inferior to either monarchy or aristocracy. The Renaissance saw the embrace of the republican model, first described by the ancient historian of the rise of Rome, Polybius (c. 200-188 BCE), as a system of checks and balances that merged monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with the last constituting an unstable element that while useful in guarding against the abuses of the first two was liable, much as Plato and Thucydides feared, to devolve into mob rule. It wasn't until the mid-eighteenth century that democracy as a form of political governance began to be re-embraced and developed into that which we recognize today.

Contrary to the adherents of American exceptionalism, Miller picks up democracy's story not with the United States in 1776 but with the French Revolution a decade and a half later. A key figure here is the 'dreamer of democracy', as Miller once characterized him in a book of that title, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, particularly as he retooled the concept of sovereignty from the divine right of monarchs to the 'General Will' of a people. Another important figure of the period is the political theorist and mathematician, the Marquis de Condorcet, who drafted the first modern democratic constitution, which was never implemented as he was forced into hiding in the wake of the Jacobin uprising that culminated in the Reign of Terror. (Condorcet was arrested as he attempted to flee Paris, imprisoned, and died under circumstances that continue to be the subject of speculation.) And of course, there's Maximilien de Robespierre, who as a member of the Committee of Public Safety argued for the execution of King Louis XVI, as well as a speedy and abundant use of the guillotine as a tool for purifying the body politic and to which he himself ultimately fell victim.

A reading of The Federalist Papers reveals the deep skepticism with which the American Founding Fathers held the notion of pure democracy, advocating instead for a system of checks and balances along the lines conceived by Polybius. The three branches of government effectively mirror Polybius's republic with the executive mirroring the monarchy, the judiciary the aristocracy, and the legislative the democracy. Even in the last instance, however, the bicameral structure of the legislative branch additionally checks the democratic impulse with the Senate reinscribing a measure of aristocratic restraint over the potential unruliness of the House of Representatives. The Electoral College further foils majority rule. The exception was Thomas Paine, who in the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense argued for a unicameral legislature subject to robust citizen oversight via a broad definition of the franchise and frequent elections, a rash suggestion quickly refuted by future President John Adams in his riposte Thoughts on Government. Even so, throughout the nineteenth century, the idea of democracy continued to expand in the United States and elsewhere in the West.

Thomas Jefferson arguably introduced the term democracy, if not entirely the fact of it, into the American political lexicon under the auspices of the Democratic-Republican Party, which defeated the Federalists in the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson's political ideal was hardly that of Rousseau, Condorcet, and Robespierre, though, with its commitment more to the republican side of his party's name than the democratic. The democratic aspiration expanded with the rise of Andrew Jackson to the Presidency in 1828 in the wake of the factionalizing of the Democratic-Republicans, along with the expansion of the franchise to a majority of adult white males, as opposed to being restricted only to property holders. Ironically, Jacksonian democracy at the same time promoted a strong executive at the expense of the legislative branch and to a lesser extent the judiciary, a case of the populist demagoguery critics of pure democracy have so often decried.

Other instances of attempts at proliferation of democratic reform over the 19th century include Chartism in Britain, the working-class movement that sought expansion of the franchise to all males over the age of 21 and other egalitarian initiatives, and the Paris Commune of 1871, the short-lived radical government that ruled the city in the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. As Miller notes, both failed to achieve their immediate goals, but particularly on the left they became models of pure democratic societies to come and in fact foreshadowed reforms that expanded suffrage and solidified the modern political parties under which most forms of national self-governance continue to operate.

A major issue Miller seeks to address is democracy's ostensible relationship to liberalism, which has its origins in the Age of Enlightenment. Against tyranny and superstition (which is to say monarchy and the Church), the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought to place equality and reason at the center of human affairs. In particular, the so-called Father of Liberalism, the British philosopher John Locke, held that each man (sic) has a natural right to life, liberty, and property, the last notion of which Jefferson elided into the pursuit of happiness. As a political and moral philosophy, liberalism advocates the freedom of individuals to self-determination. From this, Locke developed the radical idea that government is a social contract that requires the consent of the governed in order to be legitimate. In practice, liberal democracy has proven to be a fraught concept.

In his Social Contract, Rousseau asserts that direct democracy exercised in a small city-state is the environment in which freedom can best flourish. Yet the modern democracies that have arisen in the last two centuries in the industrialized West have been large-scale enterprises administered perforce through vast bureaucracies. Over time, these systems have tended to follow early 20th-century Italian sociologist Robert Michels's 'iron law of oligarchy', that complex organizations, including nation-states, eventually evolve (devolve?) into being run by a small leadership class. (Later in life, Michels embraced Fascism as a charismatic counterpoint to bureaucratic oligarchy. Be that as it may, a sustained reading of Gore Vidal, not to mention sociologist C. Wright Mills, suggests the veracity of Michels's theory in the case of America at least.) In the penultimate chapter of Can Democracy Work?, Miller cites 28th President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, American journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman, and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter as acknowledging democratic 'sovereignty' as more a matter of consent than participation. Even the notion of consent has increasingly diminished as dramatically rising inequality and economic wealth concentration, along with the political influence it buys, threatens the very foundation upon which the modern democratic project has been erected.

Running throughout Can Democracy Work? are personal asides from Miller about his educational development from childhood to college and beyond, which some readers may find distracting. As a fellow, if somewhat younger, Boomer, I found them compelling as a kind of autoethnography of Miller's evolution from a 1960s campus radical and card-carrying member of Students for a Democratic Society to tenured professor who, wistfully perhaps, continues to hold out hope for the democratic impulse, if in far more measured form; it's a coming-of-age story for a generation of Americans whose ideals of social, economic, and political progress foundered on the rocks of brute capitalist power. (Full disclosure: Miller was my thesis advisor in the New School Liberal Studies MA program.) In fact, Can Democracy Work? is best read alongside Miller's study of the New Left, Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (Harvard, 1987), particularly in light of last year's 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention in which antiwar protesters were confronted by Windy City police and National Guard in full riot gear, a fiasco from which the party has arguably never fully recovered, and marking the onset of the crisis of democratic liberalism that continues to this day. (Boomer disenchantment runs throughout another of Miller's books, the award-wining Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 [Simon & Schuster, 1999], drawing upon his three-decade career as a pop music journalist for Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and elsewhere.)

Taking a cue from the examples of the Chartists and the Paris Commune, whose egalitarian aspirations failed in the short term but heralded the expansion of democratic practice over the long run, Miller ends both Can Democracy Work? and Democracy is in the Streets on a more positive note, acknowledging the propensity of the idea of democracy to persist against all odds. It's an example of the motto often attributed to Italian Marxist and legendary jailbird Antonio Gramsci, to wit: 'I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.' In these seemingly dark times, that works well enough for me.

* * *

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our Times by James Miller. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018. 320 pages. $27.00. This review crossposted at PopMatters.com.