The Shape of Things To Come: On ‘Literary Thinking and the New Left’

(x-posted to The Valve)

What follows may appear to be a discussion of the 1960s in America; it is not. Reading through Sean McCann and Michael Szalay’s indispensable essay “Do You Believe in Magic?“, cited and quoted by Scott Kaufman here and here (with follow-up in the comments by Sean), it is clear that more than the Sixties, McCann and Szalay are out to expose “a cherished and ultimately comforting folklore” that still commands respect today: the idea that “the analysis of [symbolic or cultural] forms itself constitutes significant political action, or that the ability to affect culture is, independent of other means, also therefore politically efficacious,” and that “to provide, as [C. Wright] Mills put it, ‘alternative definitions of reality’ could itself be the most radically political of acts.” McCann and Szalay identify this idea with almost the entire canon of postmodern thought, from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to Jean-Francois Lyotard and Susan Sontag.

McCann and Szalay’s essay splits down the middle. On the one hand, it is a legitimate attack on currents of fuzzy thinking and complacent libertarianism within the New Left and academia. On the other, it is part of a contemporary movement that seeks to deride what the Sixties accomplished, which was reviving society-wide conversation about the relationship of politics to the rest of life.

For my own part, this is the right occasion to explain what I believe “the analysis of symbolic or cultural forms” can accomplish, including through the academic work of scholars and teachers of literature. I hope it will become clear how I understand the political implications of what McCann and Szalay call “self-realization” — deliberately (and justly) echoing the wretched tide of self-help manuals — but which one might also call “self-fashioning.” I also hope to clarify the charges of defeatism that I leveled in my post “Look Back In Anger,” and to explore what alternatives exist: the shape of things to come.


While McCann and Szalay criticize academics who believe in the political efficacy of their symbolic labors, I would argue that most scholars working on culture now invoke “the political” in bad faith, with little hope of creating real change, out of a desire to seem compassionate and politically involved to hiring committees and their peers. The proof is in the pessimism: the message is that political change is impossible, even if an awareness of injustice is still praiseworthy. This idea has become so dominant that when even the most influential thinkers depart from it, their departures are unpersuasive to their devoted readers. Gayatri Spivak recently asserted that Derrida’s anti-imperialist, anti-American stance in the first essay of his late book Rogues actually violates the deconstructionist stricture of the “double bind,” the inescapable ambiguity of intentional action, including political action. Jodi Dean, in her post “Et tu, Zizek?“, wrote in bitter disappointment about Zizek’s own attempt to put forward an ideal of “inclusion”:

With this emphasis on inclusion, Zizek joins the ranks of the liberals, deconstructionists, and multiculturalists he’s been attacking for nearly 20 years. He repeats the key word of of democratic theory: inclusion. What really matters is making sure that everyone is included, that every voice is heard, that everyone is part of the process. Please. It’s the ultimate child’s version of politics: they aren’t letting me play!

Thus, “the political” has become both a stifling, prerequisite focus for literary readings and an absurdity. As a mode of critical discourse, it is marked by an oscillation between admissions of powerlessness (“there is no escape from late capitalism”) and moments of earnest polemic (“Democracy must be inclusive!”) that come off as lapses of rigor and do not reach whatever audience might benefit from them.

Some critical theorists try to avoid sounding corny or naïve by exiling their political optimism to a purely theoretical or ineffable realm, a move McCann and Szalay lampoon as “The art of the impossible.” To take one example, in uncomplicatedly’s excellent new post there is a description of the queer theory version of this:

This was particularly true of the queer theorists, at least two of whom focused on queer reading practice as something that draws on textual possibilities rather than textual actualities to move toward an imagined utopian future that is acknowledged as imagined, and yet still must be imagined.

Notice that this programmatic thesis still never moves beyond the imaginative act: it truly is magical thinking to believe that simply imagining something will eventually bring it about. It reads like a parody of Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll imagine I’m getting somewhere.”

One alternative to buzzwords, magical thinking, and sheer resignation is to look for the answer outside of literature. On its face, nothing could be more sensible: why turn to literature rather than political activism for political change? As a transition from culture to politics, McCann and Szalay favorably invoke “the notion that plays, poems, movies, and novels might change the world because they might lead to action in other more directly political contexts.” According to them, this was precisely what was lost when the focus shifted to “care of the self.” (As I will discuss later, there is an analogy here with the argument Walter Benn Michaels made in Against Diversity, where he accused American intellectuals of preserving oppressive class inequalities by focusing on the distractions of culture and heritage.)

Therefore, in order to accept McCann and Szalay’s argument, you have to accept two foundational claims. First, you have to distinguish between the analysis of symbolic or cultural forms (criticism, critical theory), and the symbolic or cultural forms themselves (e.g. plays, poems, movies, and novels). Second, you have to accept the opposition between “care of the self” and direct political action, which as a result acquires the sense of “caring for others.”

In response to both claims, I want to invoke the Derridean idea that “there is nothing outside the text.” Rather than a plurality of different contexts — the personal, the political, the critical, the literary — there is a single (though not unified or homogeneous) political and cultural moment in which individuals make their way. The distinction between analysis of cultural and symbolic forms, which is not politically significant, and the forms themselves, which are, does not hold up. To think otherwise, you would have to believe that writers like Herbert Marcuse, Norman Mailer, and C. Wright Mills, who McCann and Szalay hold partly responsible for setting the agenda of the New Left, were not exerting their influence through “analysis of cultural and symbolic forms.” In fact, all we get of them is analysis: Mailer analyzing the Yippies, Mills analyzing “the cultural apparatus,” Marcuse analyzing the American political situation. To the extent that McCann and Szalay are trying to immunize us against the New Left’s alibis for action, they are also trying to produce critical work of political significance. Whether or not you agree with Marcuse, Mills and the rest, there is no question that what they thought about culture and art ended up mattering just as much as the things themselves. In some cases, the analysis mattered more than the original. It is doubtful that conceptual clusters like “the Dionysian” would have assumed such importance in the 1960s without Nietzsche’s original analysis in The Birth of Tragedy and its reception among philosophers and artists, including within American universities.


The second claim, about the difference between self-fashioning and political action, is more challenging and serious. Much of what McCann and Szalay write is beyond dispute. John Lennon’s angry “You better free your mind instead” can stand as well as anything for the disembodied project of turning on to a set of anti-Establishment higher truths instead of working for concrete reforms. It is very troubling that Jean-Francois Lyotard praises “temporary contracts” in his book The Postmodern Condition as though he does not know or does not care that temporary hiring has become an incredibly successful way of denying workers adequate wages, benefits, and representation. Finally, much more work should be done along lines McCann and Szalay suggest where they point out the relationship between the myth of the self-made American professional and the “magic” of the self. This is handled quite literally in recent films, serials, and books about magical heroes (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, etc.), most of which have a depressing “lesson” to teach about professional responsibility and the obligation to excel.

Granting all of that, in order to accept McCann and Szalay’s argument, you have to define direct political action and distinguish it from the symbolic. They never do this, but perhaps we can use as a guide the following lines from Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s book Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture:

From the standpoint of social justice, the big gains that have been achieved in our society over the past half-century have all come from measured reform within the system. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement have both achieved tangible gains in the welfare of disadvantaged groups, while the social safety net provided by the welfare state has vastly improved the conditions of all citizens. But these gains have not been achieved by “unplugging” people from the web of illusions that governs their lives. They have been achieved through the laborious process of democratic political action—through people making arguments, conducting studies, assembling coalitions and legislating change. We would like to see more of this. Less fun perhaps, but potentially much more useful.

McCann and Szalay also mention feminism as among the “instances of highly significant political action during the sixties,” so perhaps it is worth starting there in our consideration of this split between “democratic political action” and self-fashioning/symbolic action. All along, feminists have taken on the tasks Heath and Potter endorse: making arguments, conducting studies, assembling coalitions and legislating change. However, they have also done the other kinds of work that McCann and Szalay associate with Michel Foucault and other postmodernists. Looking all the way back to 1949, when Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, she found it necessary to devote fully one-fifth of that enormous and seminal volume to “Myths,” including countercurrent readings of literary works by Breton, Stendhal, D. H. Lawrence, and others. The rest of the book is concerned with the formative years and adult situation of women, and leads to the final section, entitled “Liberation,” where de Beauvoir writes like this:

Sometimes [the modern woman] gives up her independence entirely and becomes no more than an amoureuse; more often she essays a compromise; but idolatrous love, the love that means abdication, is devastating; it occupies every thought, every moment, it is obsessing, tyrannical.
If she meets with professional disappointments, the woman passionately seeks refuge in her love; then her frustrations are expressed in scenes and disappointments at her lover’s expense. […] Thus the independent woman of today is torn between her professional interests and the problems of her sexual life; it is difficult for her to strike a balance between the two; if she does, it is at the price of concessions, sacrifices, acrobatics, which require her to be in a constant state of tension. Here, rather than in physiological data, must be sought the reason for the nervousness and the frailty often observed in her. (730-731)

Plainly, de Beauvoir is speaking here about care of the self, or rather the lack of care that follows from an impossible situation. She is articulating a set of problems that have complicated solutions, some of which are concrete, such as maternity leave, and some of which are not, such as overcoming in both genders a set of expectations about how “women in love” ought to behave. The either/or of political action or self-concern does not make sense here.

Fast-forwarding to the present, it is again impossible to draw any distinction between the selves of persons involved in the contemporary feminist movement, and the nuts-and-bolts political organizing and lobbying that feminist organizations perform. The feminist email lists, newsletters, blog networks and other print media that exist combine tactical organizing drives with conversations about what it is like to be a woman in Western society, and what it is like to be a feminist. They also function as support networks for survivors of sexual assault, people making difficult personal choices (e.g. becoming transgender), and others. These functions are integrated with each other; in terms of a given person’s interaction with the feminist movement, they can become involved with it for any one of many different reasons, find what they are specifically looking for, and then end up participating in the other work the community is doing.


In response to this glance at feminism, one might protest that feminism, like the civil rights and gay rights movements, combines political organizing with personal concerns because it is bound up with the matter of identity: women experience certain things, above all oppression, in their daily lives because they were born women. According to this theory, the New Left has been relatively good at securing what we might call “equal rights under capitalism” for women, homosexuals, African-Americans, and the like, while continuing to be totally unsuccessful at altering the class structure. In fact, capitalism has encouraged people to become obsessed with the rights and experiences that pertain to their particular identities, since this prevents them from conceiving of broader alliances.

This is basically the argument that Walter Benn Michaels made in The Trouble With Diversity. It is also related to the argument that Kenneth Warren makes in So Black and Blue, where he suggests that the racism that originally made Invisible Man so compelling is no longer enough of a pandemic to justify the novel’s structure and argument. In other words, books about racism, such as Invisible Man, are becoming something of a historical curiosity thanks to the gains of the civil rights movement and etc. Thus Michaels: race is less of a real problem than it is a distraction from class.

I won’t attempt to touch the issue of whether the historical need for a book like Invisible Man or an ideological cluster like feminism has passed, except to say that very few people involved in social justice movements outside academia would agree with these literary critics. I will, however, point out that the success of these movements depended greatly on the symbolic construction or appropriation of apparently “inborn” identities. It is very easy to point out how tricky and unreliable a category like “femaleness” or “blackness” is; we now have a word, essentialism, for wrongly projecting certain qualities of person or appearance onto a given social group. Nonetheless, because blackness was a marker of inferiority in American culture, it could be transformed into the symbol of a great injustice. Because women experienced a certain kind of patriarchal oppression, they could organize. Identification is thus not a peculiar side effect of political organizing. It is the very condition of possibility for political movements. Universality, which must always remain something of an empty category, has to be realized dialectically through its relationship with the concrete formations of solidarity — the movement from the specificity of personal experience to the awareness that, for example, men can be feminists, or that there is an analogy between oppression based on race and oppression based on sexual orientation.

An excellent example of the political power of symbolic identifications — a positive example, rather than the obvious-but-still-relevant negative example of Nazism — is the environmental movement. The huge sea change in American attitudes towards the environment had to do with a shift in identity categories: at the movement’s peak, 70% of Americans identified themselves as “environmentalists.” This meant that they developed a certain picture of a healthily functioning world in which human beings are caretakers who receive physical health and spiritual nourishment from unspoiled wildernesses and functioning ecosystems. Furthermore, they saw this effort as a collective enterprise, involving everybody who lived “on Earth,” now understood (roughly speaking) as a sort of shared dwelling. We have by now spent so many decades around such artifacts as pictures of the little earth taken from space that we have forgotten how they gradually came to predominate over other space pictures, especially pictures of astronauts and the American flag taken on the moon. Support for the protection of endangered species was hugely dependent on the imaginative investment in a rapport with other living things based on the model of pet ownership — not only winsome pictures of cute wild animals, but also the difference between new, ecological fictions (like the young adult books My Side of the Mountain, The Sign of the Beaver, or The Island of the Blue Dolphins) and older “zoo” fictions, such as The Swiss Family Robinson. The environmental movement was a movement of laws, recycling drives, and petitions. It was (and is) also a symbolic project meant to create new identifications and identity categories through which “self-realization” could come to mean realizing in daily practice, and perhaps through a newly created vocation like “environmental law,” one’s responsibility to a fragile Earth.


Through their readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, several texts by Toni Morrison, and Don DeLillo’s The Names, McCann and Szalay try to enumerate and connect various threads in the counterculture. They discover a strange merging of spirituality, especially LeGuin’s Taoism, with modern versions of Dada. They correctly point out the Dadaist emphasis on “babbling” as a form of “purer” speech (DeLillo), as well as the counterculture interest in spontaneity and spectacle, which Heath and Potter link to Guy Debord and the Situationists. Existing side by side with the idea that we should “let things be,” abandoning our rational impulse to order and “correct” reality through government, is the idea that we should act spontaneously and provocatively in order to be ourselves and awaken others. McCann and Szalay weave the magic of babbling or incantatory speech, the magic of Taoist nonaction, and the magic of spontaneous behavior together with New Age paganism and the Yippies’ levitation of the Pentagon. So much of what passed for radicalism in the Sixties was incompetent and impractical that McCann and Szalay are often on firm ground, dispatching their antagonists with ease. It is absurd for progressives to think of the Right as a source of libertarian allies, as William Domhoff did, or to proclaim that radical politics has to proceed without an agenda and without organized strategy, as Tom Hayden did. It is frustrating to see “mystery” invoked as a way around imagining what forms political change ought to take.

At certain points, the trouble with the essay is that it grants too much authority to figures who were visible but not necessarily central to the counterculture and the New Left. For example, while many people have heard of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, they were not leaders of the New Left; rather, they just occasionally commanded media attention for their incoherent attempts at performative satire. From the standpoint of the enormous anti-war movement and other social justice movements, they were marginal and a joke.

In other cases, the essay tries to collapse the distinction between literature and polemic, at the expense of more complex, less literal interpretations. For example, The Crying of Lot 49 gets reduced at one point to an “anarchist complaint against the state monopoly on the mail.” While it is true that the novel partly concerns an alternative postal system used by an underground movement, the implications of this system (called W.A.S.T.E. and carried through the trash) have more to do with interest in alternative communities and ideas than with some plan to privatize shipping. For example, the W.A.S.T.E. system is highly resonant in the present moment, when a totalitarian country like China can work in partnership with corporations like Google to regulate how 20% of the world’s population uses the Internet.

In Toni Morrison’s book Sula, Morrison writes about the hope that keeps poor African-Americans “convinced that some magic ‘government’ was going to lift them up.” McCann and Szalay comment that “It says a good deal about Morrison’s perspective that in an oeuvre where ghosts and omens are ordinary, government and the other mundane modes of protecting one’s interests appear magical.” In fact, the quotation only says a good deal about Morrison’s characters, for whom, as for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the world is still haunted (or “enchanted,” to use Charles Taylor’s term). These are people who do not have friendly or frequent contact with government officials, and who understand that at present the government only rarely works on their behalf. While in theory the government could protect their interests, in practice it does not, and since they don’t understand its workings, their hopeless hope in it really is, for them, a sort of superstition. It is hard to understand why this should be characterized as irrationality on Morrison’s part, when it is in fact a cry of protest against a condition of ignorance and neglect.

The treatment of Ken Kesey brings up another difficulty: writers are simply not consistent in their meanings or value systems. It is true that both One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion have unsettling features. Cuckoo’s Nest casts African-Americans and one powerful woman (Nurse Ratched) as villains. This evidence of racism and misogyny, while deplorable, does not make Cuckoo’s Nest identical to Sometimes A Great Notion, which (as McCann and Szalay point out) is an awful, baggy paean to American business against all odds (and labor unions) that could have been written by Ayn Rand. One cannot simply read Notion back into Cuckoo’s Nest and make Cuckoo’s Nest into “a thinly veiled assault on the New Deal.” (Notice how Pynchon is treated in an absolutely literal fashion, while Kesey is turned into a massively indirect but specific allegorist.) The New Deal was not primarily concerned with founding mental health institutions, and the novel’s anti-institutional message is clearly applicable to private institutions and the corporate exercise of power.

But the biggest problem with “Do You Believe In Magic?” is that it will not truck with the fuzzy, expansive, holistic thinking that constitutes our symbolic identities. It will not examine the way that somewhat unrelated things, such as the environmental movement, the feminist movement, the decriminalization of narcotics, and the anti-consumerist movement become connected in people’s minds as part of an arbitrary but coherent set of beliefs about themselves-in-the-world (Martin Heidegger’s “Being-in-the-world”). In fact, we are all quite familiar with the political implications of a fuzzy ideological Weltanschauung, since we are easily able to distinguish the politics of the Quakers or the Unitarians from the politics of most Southern Baptist or Mormon churches, or the general political differences between reform and conservative Jewish congregations. But we have less experience with secular narratives, and tend to take them less seriously.

The fact is that everywhere the counterculture has lost ground, the result has been disturbing, reactionary regression. For example, the gradual decline of the myth of the “natural” man and woman, wearing loose clothing or none at all, has been accompanied by the ferocious retrenchment of dress codes, school uniforms, and the consumerist renascence of endless discourse about high fashion as well as the invention of “metrosexuality.” The body itself has been colonized by gym culture and plastic surgery, which is to say that it has also been permeated by consumer anxieties. The height of the backlash against “free love” coincided with calls for teaching abstinence in schools, the revitalization of the anti-abortion movement, and the sudden visibility of patriarchal chastity vows. Manufactured hysteria about new synthetic drugs, particularly MDMA (“ecstasy”), helped to shut down for years any serious discussion about decriminalization. With gas prices being what they currently are, after years of reckless over-consumption by Americans driving SUVs, it is nauseating to think of Trey Parker and Matt Stone congratulating themselves for their South Park parody of smug San Franciscans in hybrid cars.

The same goes for counterculture paranoia and resistance to over-planning. The biggest planners in America are not government officials, but rather corporations like the Irvine Corporation, which enforce segregation by class and ethnicity through planned communities, gated communities, toll roads, and shopping districts. The countercultural spirit of a work like The Death and Life of Great American Cities is utterly relevant to conversations about spontaneity and “letting things be,” in the sense of the organic evolution of integrated, dense, functional urban communities as opposed to barricaded suburbs. When George Bush and Colin Powell announced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as well as ties to al-Qaeda, the people who immediately and sensibly disbelieved them were on the Left, drawing their skepticism from a general mistrust of government hawks. Libertarians and moderate conservatives, for all their vaunted, cranky independence of mind, took a very long time to reach the conclusion that these particular pieces of information were faulty. Countercultural ideas about self-expression and self-realization are bulwarks against the right-wing drive to falsify learning and exacerbate inequality by making standardized tests and graduation benchmarks more important in American classrooms than individualized instruction and self-directed work (as well as more important than conversations about increasing funding for education).

Thus, while the large ideological syntheses of the counterculture have to be taken with a grain of salt, particularly its bombastic Freudian opposition between Life/Love and Death/Fascism, the cultural artifacts of the Sixties did express something with implications for almost every major social and political issue of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The New Deal was as much an effort to stave off more radical political reforms as it was an earnest attempt to break with 1920s laissez-faire policies; as Roosevelt himself said at the 1932 Democratic Convention, “the failure of Republican leaders to solve our troubles may degenerate into unreasoning radicalism.” Thus it is not surprising that the miseries of the Cold War and then the justifications for invading Vietnam all took place under Democratic leadership: ameliorating the Depression was a strategy of containment, and so was re-taking Saigon. Intuitively, the New Left understood that New Deal progressivism — which becomes, by default, the gold standard for McCann and Szalay — was a tenuous compromise between popular and corporate interests in a time of crisis, not a first step on the path towards realizing lasting equality and justice. “Magic” was, of course, the New Age umbrella term for recycled superstitions, but it was also a metaphor for the holistic way that politics happens in the lives of individuals and societies. Their opinions about a whole number of different issues were formed and changed by a process that might begin with one issue, one conversation, one protest march: qualitative leaps are as real and politically significant as gradual change. The New Deal itself was one such leap, following as it did Coolidge and Hoover’s refusal to take an activist approach to regulating and stimulating the economy.

The smallest incidents of our lives, the most mundane habits of thought and practice, are preparation for the unexpected moments when we have to commit ourselves openly, amidst controversy. In that sense Martin Heidegger’s whole early life as a young existentialist philosopher prepared him for the rise of the Nazi party, and the moment when he would publicly endorse Hitler and put himself to work for fascism. It was also preparation for his decision to cut himself off from the world, to distance himself from his humiliating collaboration, and to write against modernity from the shelter of his hut in the Black Forest. Gandhi’s experiences and resolutions as a young student in England, and then as a young barrister in South Africa, were preparation not only for the Indian struggle for independence, but also made inevitable his positions before and after the Partition. But it remains mysterious to us, as artists of ourselves, what exactly the consequences of that perpetual making will be. We do not pick up Invisible Man with the intention of voting against a new anti-immigration law, nor do we study medicine in order to support stem cell research, but that is what happens. Our political lives are mediated by the communities to which we belong, the culture we seek out, and the concept of ourselves we care to uphold.

McCann and Szalay are deeply critical of the turn towards professionalism as the ultimate meaning of self-fashioning, but in fact they leave academics with very few options besides the supposedly apolitical practice of cultural criticism. In the Sixties, a large number of people tried to forge a culture that would address the political issues of the day through a set of broad concepts, such as individual freedom, intellectual curiosity, expressive spontaneity, equality of persons, harmony with nature, syncretic religious practice, and non-hierarchical communities of mutual aid. Concrete political positions and collective action would flow from these general principles. This effort was something of a failure. The threat of the Vietnam War and the draft were essential to the efficacy of the New Left, and the end of the war saw the dismantlement of the progressive effort to promote a comprehensive radicalism. But that is only to say that the work remains unfinished. We are still called to articulate a way of living justly in the world, and to constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage.