“”Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.
— Heinrich Heine, Almansor
Aside from a seemingly mirthless commitment to self-righteous acts of spectacular failure, the single greatest defect of what we charitably call the contemporary political “left” is a pathological determination to convince the right, that everyone of its mile wide inch deep caricatures of the “left” are correct.
We place “left” in quotes for two reasons. First to make it clear that we do not accept the assertion by so-called leftists, that they are in charge of defining who is and isn’t a leftist, and secondly to make it clear that the non-left, including but not limited to conservatives, liberals, reactionaries and fascists, are all just as guilty of painting with a broad rhetorical brush.
This occurred to us today after reading a live wire of self-harm, trying to pass itself off as both journalism and a thoughtful consideration of the ill effects that “male dominated literature” has had in provoking misongonystic violence, and the ongoing subjugation of women.
The cartoon (as distinct from actual journalism or a thoughtful essay) appears in today’s Guardian confirming yet again that The Guardian is not just a rag, and not just a guttersnipe pretending to be a news media outlet, but that it is utterly without self-awareness, and has either no editorial vision, or that its editorial vision is committed to making the “left” such a caricature of every right wing cliché about the left, that no criticism will be necessary because like a (faux) journalistic suicide bomber, The Guardian has already done the job of destroying itself.
The piece in question is entitled, Are literary classics behind the Incel Movement. It is written by, Erin Spampinato, who is described as, “a writer, scholar and observer. She is currently writing about depictions of sexual violence in literature and culture (from George Eliot to SVU).”
We shall leave for later the insult to journalism inherent in trying to create distinctions between writer, and observer and scholar and observer, as well as leave aside the insult to logic and intelligence inherent in the suggestion that observer is a type of professional designation.
We begin instead with the idea that The Guardian is a hypocrisy factory and that it is producing hypocrisy on an industrial scale, and that this in turn is an outright betrayal of the left.
Had a conservative rag of standing equal to The Guardian produced or “curated” (as The Guardian phrases its reproduction and dissemination of this cartoon by Spampinato) such low rent faux scholarship, they (The Guardian) would have screamed misogyny, and patriarchy, if not fascism.
Consider the photo used with the article – a sort of Clockwork Orange meets Catcher in the Rye menace that if used by some alt right hit piece and featuring carictures of Muslims, or Jews or Black Americans, or a homosexual, or some other demographic prone to abuse by the powers that be, or used to being caractured by a thoughtless autopilot systemic violence, The Guardian would have positioned itself at the front of the pack braying for justice.
The very title is itself inflammatory and not just in a, well opinion pieces are allowed leeway to be inflammatory manner but in the exact Molotov cocktail manner of the traditionally violent manner of the extreme right. The combination of the image of a predatory, psychopathic looking male, with the title suggests not consideration, or inquiry, but a merging of misandrist and tabloid provocation on par with hooked nose Jews wearing yarmulkes, emblazoned with Stars of David and dollar signs. It is not any different than a “lazy Mexican” or a Willy Horton, and as such it establishes the fact that The Guardian is as guilty of gross exaggerations in the service of its political agenda, as Breitbart or The Sun. Which is not to suggest The Guardian should not have an agenda, political or otherwise, but that it should not pretend that it is objective, and that it would never stoop to the sleazy tactics of those it disdains.
Then we come to the style of the article. This is distinct from the content to which we shall come (in full writerly HAZMAT) shortly.
The style, which if one were to be charitable, would be described as a diatribe or a polemic, pretends to be scholarly and inquisitive, but is in fact written in the manner one associates with the sort of hysterical denunciations in pseudo-scientific “journals” read by thugs in leather, who believe discipline is a martial national virtue.
For example consider the title of the piece:
“Incels aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture – they are the product of the American literary canon that has long glorified male sexual frustration.”
Imagine, if you will, that the line read:
“Jews aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture – they are the product of the…”
“Homosexuals aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture – they are the product of the…”
The technical term is of course, reductio ad absurdum – the narrowing of the assertion to such a degree that, in the deliberate elision of any other facts (both supporting and contradicting) that the point if not the entire piece, is transformed into both the punchline of, and the set-up to a bad joke.
First one must address the idea that “Incel” a term coined by someone with a web page, is to be taken at face value and thus as a technically accepted description, of what may or may not be a demographic in a given society. We point this out because of course there is a reason, if not dozens of reasons, that terms used to designate entire segments of a given culture are best handled not only by experts, but with the same care one would, in theory, handle plutonium or live explosives. In the wrong hands, they go from curiosities to dangerous if not terminally lethal cudgels with which one class destroys another. This is not to say “Incels” don’t exist but to say we should not go from comment to sociologically accepted fact with the same speed with which we change channels.
And then consider the content and the “idea” that there are cadres of potential misogynist terrorists lurking in assorted basements, surrounded by well-thumbed and no doubt stained copies of The Great Gatsby, The Witches of Eastwick, Hamlet, Portnoy’s Complaint and The Sun Also Rises.
Now try imaging a gang of Islamic Jihadists sitting in a bunker or a cave, surrounded by videos of The West Wing, The O.C., ER, and Numbers.
To successfully imagine either scenario would require, to borrow a phrase, a near criminal lack of imagination and an overabundance of matter-of-fact naivete. Though to be fair it’s easier to imagine Jihadists with pornography videos, than living in hermetically chaste bubbles, but it’s a long way from Stormy Daniels to The Sun Also Rises.
That misogyny is real, that there are misogynists is true and that many misogynists are violent is undeniable.
But “Incel” is a term utterly devoid of rigor or qualifications and is being deployed by the media with the same care as a bottle of Ebola, that is being tossed from computer to computer. In fact this deliberate disregard for the impact of the word is identical to the disregard that misogynists use when creating rancid categories, that serve not only to define women as objects or chattel, but by their very use act as linguistic barbed wire that serves as a barrier between women (or any group the oppressor deems a threat) and freedom.
Thus “Incel” in conjunction with an inflammatory image and the assertion of fact without evidence is itself an act of violence and attempted subjugation. It is not presented as a question, either by the author or by the “cuator, The Guardian*, but instead is thrown into the cultural bloodstream as a factual toxin.
Then consider the dangerous absurdity of a statement like this: “the American literary canon that has long glorified male sexual frustration.”
The first problem of course is arriving at a working definition of “American” as in, at what point do close textual analysis of “American” literature begin and where do non-American influences end. For example, what do we make of Faulkner’s connection to Dostoyevsky or European Modernism? What do we make of Joyce’s influence on Henry Roth and John Dos Passos? Or the impact Dos Pasos had on Doblin? Conversely what do we make of the impact of Americans (Pound, Stein, Mina Loy and Sylvia Beach, etc) on European culture? What shall we say about the Upanishads and Whitman and Whitman and the Upanishads and Blake and Allen Ginsberg?
Further, notice that Spampanato doesn’t mention, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison or Richard Right all of whom long ago rightly entered the American canon, and hardly fall into a category (however loosely defined) of misogynists whose work provokes violence.
Feel free to make your own list but the point, rather obviously, is that experts both laugh and cringe when amateurs like Spampinato hold forth. The absence of rigor is though not just down to the author’s lack of intellect and training*(2) but speaks again directly to the gutter standards of The Guardian – which then engages regularly in polemics about the collapse of standards in journalism and public discourse. While it’s true that, per Italo Calvino in his essay, Exactitude, it is correct that one could trace the origins of the linguistic plague afflicting the contemporary culture to the voracious media, the collapse in educational standards and the banality of commercial media in general, the fact is that one of the greatest sources of this illness is the Liberal Hypocrisy Factory. The our shit don’t stink mentality has reached a fever pitch and The Guardian is one of the chief examples. Add in the New York Times (currently going through a bipolar episode of turning its Op Ed page over to a string of second rate conservatives to achieve balance with its regular cast of second rate liberals) and The New Yorker (which bellows about the evils of conservative orthodoxy then uses the language of conservative orthodoxy to call for the banishing of artists of whom it suddenly no longer approves) and you have a liberal Yahtzee. Needless to say (though for the dunces in the liberal camp it surely must be spelled out) the right is no better, though they are least consistent in their hatred and contempt and tend to have little pretense about it. The distinction being that the conservatives start off by telling you they hate you, where as the liberals start off by bullshitting you with an invitation to tea, followed by a kind of industrial scale attempt at gaslighting, and if that fails you will be subjected to the usual Orwellian methods of doublespeak and ultimately enforced silence, exile or both.
All of which then produces statements like Spampinato’s that are both so precise, and so uselessly vague, that while they create an impulse to dismissive laughter, are in fact dangerous and deserve a precision linguistic version of a surgical strike.
And so back to the American literary canon which is per Spampinato, diseased.
It is certainly true that students in America have been far more likely to be asked to read Scot Fitzgerald and Hemingway, than Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin, or are more likely to read Salinger than Toni Morrison (though we’re not sure that’s true anymore or has been for some time) but the “American literary canon” is such a baggy suit that reducing it to three or ten writers is not only useless, but dangerously deceptive.
More importantly aside from the insult it gives to literature (American or otherwise) it is also an insult to the left (again) precisely because it detaches the ill effects of systemic misogyny from the umbrella of capitalism, which in America is the ground zero for the nation’s ills. You can’t have a corrupt education system without a corrupt socio-political system that is best described as an economic thunderdome or economic gulag. And though we must fight the urge to vomit as we type these words, the fact is that Spampinato and The Guardian are playing right into the hands of Gruppenfuhrer Steve Bannon.
The argument that “Incels” and their acts of violence or even acts of terrorism are down to books is not just idiotic in the manner of conservatives who claim that mass shootings are the product of video games and Hollywood, but it is dangerous in the manner laid out by Bannon when he says, go right on yelling about identity politics because the more you do that, the more of the disenfranchised alienated white working class is converted to fascism.
This is no idle matter but a deadly serious issue of survival. Misogyny is real and violence, both inside a home and public violence that rises to the level of terrorism are catastrophes. But the root cause is not books and saying so is not just the gift that keeps on giving to thugs like Bannon, it is the bedrock of fascists who burn books and end, of course, by burning people.
Spampinato however is not done. She continues by pouring fuel on the pyre, adding a list of authors and in some cases specific works that should, she claims, be viewed as dangerous because they cause violence. This of course is the true dark heart of the matter – that The Guardian is lending its credibility (such as it is) to the idea that ideas are dangerous and some ideas are so dangerous that, ultimately they should be banned. That this same vile rhetoric is regularly attacked by The Guardian we have addressed, but consider here that Spampinato offers as an example of this bacillus, a set of classics:
“Think of the literature you read in high school. One source of Hamlet’s insanity, those around him find it natural to assume, is his sexual frustration with Ophelia. Multiple characters in the play scheme to bring the two together, hoping that if she puts out he’ll calm the fuck down and not kill everyone. The plots of a number of other “classic” novels, from Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities to The Great Gatsby, are driven by a (white) male character’s frustrated desire with a remote woman.”
Well, she’s right, one source of Hamlet’s insanity is Ophelia. But, she’s right about that in the same way that she would be right if she said one source of Ahab’s frustration is that he keeps getting splinters from his wooden leg and that he finds fishing is often excruciatingly boring.
She is also correct that multiple characters scheme to get Hamlet and Ophelia to, as they say these days, hook-up but, that is as correct a summation of the play as saying Anna Karenina is a sociological study of train schedules in 19th century Europe.
And she’s right that the other characters hope getting Hamlet laid will calm him the fuck down, except she leaves out that at the same time they are plotting to kill him, which he is aware of and one might assume is part of what’s making him a little bit edgy.
Again the impulse is to laugh at both Spampinato’s freshman level attempt at a con and The Guardian’s attempt to sneak one passed the goalkeeper, but while ridiculous it must be taken seriously as a spur to the defense of morality and freedom and intellectual honesty, and we can’t ignore the righteous need to say that they (Spampinato and The Guardian) sound like a pair of fascists, and that that sound is precisely like the cliché of the left wing fascist deployed by the right.
Hamlet of course is not only concerned with getting laid (and take note that when he asks to lay his head in Ophelia’s lap, he tells her – and the audience – that he shall avoid “country matters” – in other words, gentleman that he is, he shall not go down on her though he is in the neighborhood) but is also concerned with the fact that he’s been visited by a ghost, who claims to be the shade of his father, who then claims that he’s been murdered by his brother who did it (among other reasons) to get laid by his sister-in-law, Hamlet’s mother.
Oy. Talk about a complicated family drama.
But, aside from all of that, he’s also concerned about life and death, the possibilities of an invasion, being murdered by a pair of knuckleheaded hitmen, his erstwhile lover’s brother, and an uncle who has more in common with Stalin or a mafia don than one would think at first blush.
But let’s toss all of that aside and focus on the idea (such as it is) that Hamlet is an example of men using the ars poetic as a cudgel and a pair of cuffs with which to subjugate women.
Right and so then we can consider the other alleged bacillus, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which she says is driven by “a (white) male character’s frustrated desire with a remote woman.”
Well (again) she’s correct in the same sense that War and Peace is about bad weather, To the Lighthouse is about time management, and that Kind of Blue is about what you can do with a trumpet and a pair of saxophones.
One could make the case that Gatsby is about anti-Semitism, and about capitalism, and one could also make the case that it’s about romanticism, and illusions, and decadence, that it is a mash-up of a hardboiled murder mystery and an Austen novel, and self-destruction, and patriarchy, and sexism, and the humor of social expectations, and one could make the case that it’s about Fitzgerald trying to get laid by Zelda, and that it’s also about the clash between the city mouse and the country mouse and the vast zeitgeist of the American Midwest and its eternal war with the city states of the American East Coast, and one could make the case that it is about the end of the 19th century and the emergence of the 20th; of the clash between the modern and the pre-modern, that it’s about the ruling class and the working class and about mass media, and the emancipation of women, and the attempts to continue subjugating them, and that it is about sex, and that it is about memory and time, and the nature of consciousness and Fitzgerald’s response to Henri Bergson, and the nature of history and colonization, and the idea that to borrow a phrase and an idea, it is about the idea that there is no record of civilization that is not also a record of barbarism.
But the idea that it is about any one of those things either to the exclusion of all else, or that it is about only the abuse of women by men, is not only catastrophically stupid, it is also catastrophically dangerous. It is not any different than saying you are going to curate a show of deviant art for the express purpose of ginning up hatred for the people of whom you do not approve. It is, the bedrock of fascist ideology and thus, it is absolute toxic bullshit.
Spampinato though in the manner of someone too stupid by half (to invert the Britishism, too clever by half) is not done. It is well worth noting that she does not actually stoop to provide any examples from Gatsby or Hamlet – one assumes because she is neither trained in advanced textual analysis, and because she (no doubt rightly) assumes the majority of her readers not only aren’t either, but also don’t care because the essential nature of cults (and authoritarian regimes are in the end, all cults) is unquestioning belief in satetments devoid of the substance derived from weighing the evidence.
Thus, Spampinato and The Guardian line up and execute, the usual suspects – Roth, Nabokov, Updike and Hemingway among others. And while we have made our contempt for Roth quite clear, we are at pains to emphasize that under no circumstances would we advocate banning his books or in anyway suggesting that his books are dangerous, because they provoke violence and terrorism (which of course in turn is a not very sly way on Spampinato’s part of suggesting that they should be banned because she infers that they cause violence).
But the only writer for whom she bothers to offer examples is Tim O’Brien and his book, The Things They Carried.
The novel (or to be accurate, collection of interconnected short stories deployed in a metafictional form) is about an army unit in Vietnam, and thus it is about a hundred other things. Or to return to Calvino, consider his review of Roberto Calasso book, The Ruins of Karsh. This book, writes Calvino, is about two things. First it is about the ancient city of Karsh. And secondly, it is about, everything else.
But, per Spampinato, O’Brien’s book is about misogyny and nowhere in her comments does she mention that the book is primarily set in Vietnam during the war. This is the equivalent of saying The Metamorphosis is about the perils of being an exterminator while failing to mention what exactly happens to poor Gregor. Spampinato even adds that she picks on O’Brien’s book because she loves it – and then demonstrates this affection by barfing on it.
She offers one example, of a male character in frustration, imagining kidnapping and rape, and then bondage, and uses that to indict several centuries worth of literature. And while it’s certainly an example of someone fantasizing about rape and kidnapping, and bondage, it is so devoid of context that it could be an example of anything the critic (sic) chooses.
Were Spampinato to chose say, Mishima or “Pauline Reage” she would be on firmer ground, except that neither are American and in the case of “Reage” it was written by a woman. On the other hand she could have also chosen Anne Rice and her pseudo-anonymous sex-bondage fables but then again, she’s a woman and while not part of the official canon, is probably more widely read than Fitzgerald or Roth. But while one can quibble and disagree about the categories, the fact is that precisely because one can legitimately argue about the categories Spampinato’s argument falls apart. Add in the neo-fascist view that books cause violence which then suggests that books should be banned, and that the books to be banned should be selected by a misandrist neo-fascist, and the argument doesn’t just fall apart, it bursts into flames long before it reaches cruising altitude.
At least among the small corner of the world where people can engage in critical thinking.
Spampinato and The Guardian can not be taken seriously, but they can be seriously taken as an example of a pernicious threat to standards of criticism, journalism and the dangers inherent in allowing the anti-establishment and progressive cause to be hijacked by smug self-righteous piratical half-wits.
We are reminded in the end of Bertolt Brecht’s view about Germany – (which we paraphrase) – Oh Germany, whoever hears your song laughs, who hears you coming, reaches for their knife.
For a look at the fire and brimstone, see the following:
*The Guardian does offer a limp alternative by adding a sub headline that quietly asks if the premise is true.
*2 We note that the author, Erin Spampinato is a Phd candidate in English at CUNY and at Writing Fellow at Queens College. We therefore amend our comment to say that she has in fact received training in close textual analysis, but either the training was defective or she is a poor scholar, or both. Either way making sweeping claims about works of literature without offering even the barest of contextualized details, is unacceptable in a graduate student unless you’re a graduate student at Mao’s School for literary Censorship.
Note: The article also (rightly) attacks noted reactionary, neo-fascist and populist Youtube goon, Jordan Peterson. A search of this blog will provide several pieces that details the depth of our contempt for Peterson and his followers. We would add that Spampinato’s not so subtle call for banning books plays right into the demagoguery of Peterson and his fire and brimstone assaults on everything he doesn’t like.