Liberalism, Libertarianism, and the Illiberal Security State

Henry Farrell’s thorough levelling of Sean Wilentz’s charge against Snowden, Assange, Greenwald and their ilk–that they are driven by a suspiciously libertarian animosity to the liberal state–put me in mind of a thought that’s been rattling around my noggin for a while, which is this: the actually-existing, so-called liberal state is impossible to justify on the mundane liberal terms most intellectuals claim to accept. But this is generally overlooked, and I blame libertarianism. Not really. I blame confused liberals. Libertarianism has only antagonized them into confusion.

Libertarianism, as it’s generally taught and understood, isn’t a philosophy of government so much as an argument against the possibility of legitimate government. Libertarians tend to reject standard justifications of political authority. Liberals, who wish to defend the possibility of a legitimate state, have become accustomed to rebutting such libertarian arguments. Of course, it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false, and a legitimate liberal state is possible. That’s really silly. Yet I feel like I’m running into this sort of reasoning all the time. There’s something about the libertarian-liberal dialectic that leads liberals to confuse the identification of the illegitimate, illiberal practices of the actually-existing state with the libertarian argument against the very possibility of legitimate state.

I guess it’s not so hard to see what that something might be. The existence of unacceptably illiberal practices of actual “liberal” states raises a perfectly good question about whether it is realistic to expect states to refrain from these practices, or whether there’s something in the basic logic of the state that tends inevitably toward the abuse of power. Simply admitting that this is a good question seems to play rhetorically into the hands of libertarians, something the champions of the possibility of the good state are loath to do.

But liberals ought to be able to stand their ground better than this. It is a little puzzling to me how seldom one hears liberals argue that standard policies of state secrecy, as they are actually implemented, run afoul of standard democratic theories of legitimacy in a very straightforward way. Or maybe it’s not so puzzling.

Liberals and socialists often accuse libertarians, not without justice, of acting as unwitting apologists for plutocracy. Many free-marketeers do have a bad habit of confusing our unjustifiably rigged political economy with a very different laissez faire ideal, and their defenses of the actually-existing “free enterprise system” really do redound to the benefit of those the system is rigged to enrich. Likewise, liberals do have a bad habit of confusing actual, nominally liberal states with a very different liberal ideal, and their defenses of the actual “liberal state” do tend to redound to the benefit of the insidiously illiberal segments of the state that cannot be justified or accounted for on almost any standard liberal theory of legitimacy. The point being that too many “liberals” are really conservative apologists for the status quo political order, just as too many “libertarians” are really conservative apologists for the status quo economic order.

One thing we have learned from the Wikileaks and Snowden controversies is that the defense of the illiberal activities of the actually-existing state cuts across superficial partisan lines, and that the dominant political philosophy of both American parties is a venerable ideology of realpolitik imperial supremacy that deploys the rhetoric of liberalism as pacifying propaganda and recasts the completely mundane application of basic liberal-democratic principles–the kind at work in the activities of Wikileaks and Snowden–as irresponsibly adolescent, anarchical, and even libertarian (eww!) challenges to the very idea of the liberal state. “Liberal” apologists for the actually-existing criminal state spook actual liberals from the practice of actual liberalism by insinuating darkly that any doubts about the liberal legitimacy of the security state probably make you a loathsome, possibly racist Paultard. In any case, that’s the thrust of Wilentz’s TNR piece.

However, the fact is, mundane liberalism is flatly incompatible with the security state as we know it. That anyone spurred to action against the illiberal security state by the democratic jusificatory ethos of mundane liberalism has come to seem a little “libertarian,” and may even therefore confess some personal “libertarian” sympathies, suggests to me a problem with “liberalism” as it is embodied in actual political discourse and practice. It suggests that liberalism is effectively a corrupt form of statist institutional conservatism, and that the democratic justificatory ethos of mundane liberalism has somehow survived within the ethos of “libertarianism,” even if, as an explicit doctrinal matter, libertarians are generally hostile to the ideas of democracy and the legitimate liberal state. It’s nice that libertarians have kept liberalism alive, but it would be even nicer if it were possible for liberals to espouse liberalism without therefore being confused for libertarians.

Narrative Persona in Nonfiction

In the narratology literature, there is a debate about the utility of Wayne Booth’s idea of the “implied author.” The implied author is supposed to be a sort of construction of the author created by the inferences readers make about the choices manifest in the text. The implied author is neither the flesh-and-blood author of the text, nor the narrator of the story or essay, but a kind of spectral intermediate figure.

Now, some critics of the idea of the implied author admit that it does sort of makes sense if we’re talking about a text that is produced collaboratively. If several writers successfully coordinate on an authorial sensibility in order to write a stylistically unified text together, readers will sense a single intelligence behind it. That unified intelligence might be understood as the implied author. But if the implied author makes sense when thinking about teams of authors, then it makes sense when thinking about solo authors as well. The unity of the self is a product of cooperation between distinct stages of a person over time, and novels typically take good long while to write. If readers sense a single intelligence behind a novel, that’s a matter of successful intra-personal coordination not really so different from the inter-personal coordination of successful collaborators. One does tend to feel simpatico with one’s own past selves–there is a certain natural chemistry that makes helps maintain unity of voice. But that’s by no means guaranteed. Desk drawers and hard drives are littered the world over with novels aborted due to irreconcilable artistic differences between separate phases of a putatively single self.

As it has developed “nonfiction,” as a genre is a cue to readers about how to construct the author’s relationship to the narrator. In nonfiction, the distinction between the narrator and implied author typically collapses. In fiction we don’t as a matter of convention infer that the sensibility of the narrator is the sensibility of the author, only that the author is the sort of person interested in this sort of narrator. In nonfiction, however, we read straight from the narrator to the implied author–the narrator is the implied author–but this is naive, and the naivete of conflating the nonfiction narrator with the implied author has little to do with most extant controversies over TRUTH in nonfiction. I think it has more to do with naivete over the very idea of persona/personality and its relationship to authorship as a form of performance.

Focusing on performance, I think, helps us keep from getting unduly metaphysical about the nature of personal identity. Think about live-action “nonfiction” performers–people who perform as themselves, under their own in-real-life names. Comedians are great examples.

Comedians spend a lot of time and effort perfecting their “shtick”–their stage persona, the “character” they do in their set. But there’s often a large space between this performed public persona and the private person. Louis CK, the TV show, is a show about this, among other things. It is a show about what it would be be like were Louis CK’s stage persona an actual person in the world. But a fun part of the show is that while the “offstage” Louis of the show is actually the fictionalized onstage persona of the actual Louis CK–we never do get to see IRL Louis, a guy who stars in a show about his sadsack stage persona. Yet we are shown Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock playing themselves in a way that points to the complicated gaps and continuities between their private personalities and stage personas.

Same for rappers. Eminem is a great example. People are fascinated with Kanye West because he refuses to mark a discontinuity between his private and performative persona. When rock stars make up names–Ziggy Stardust, Sasha Fierce–they signal a discontinuity in persona. But what about those, like Kanye, who won’t? Do we believe we’re in touch with the “real” guy beneath the performance because the real guy and the persona share a name? We don’t.

Okay. Well, writing is a form of performance. And writers do this, too, just like comedians and rappers–they create personae, and these personae write, which is to say, perform books. The sensibility of a book is the sensibility of the IRL writer’s authorial persona. That’s what an “implied author” is–a performed persona of the author. Young writers spend a lot of time talking about discovering their “voice.” In the semi-therapeutic lore of the academic creative-writing community, this is a matter of self-discovery. Maybe it is. But it’s actually more interesting than that. I’d say it’s more a matter of self-invention–of creating an authorial persona that enables effective performance. It’s just like a stand-up experimenting with and finally arriving at a version of herself that connects with, that “clicks” with, audiences. Odds are, this isn’t going to be who you really are. It’s going to be a character you made up out of pieces of yourself and people you know and characters in movies and writers you like. You may come to think this persona is who you really are–especially if you have some success with it. But it’s not. You aren’t really anyone, exactly.

That’s why settling on an authorial persons is so hard. Actual people rarely have the kind of coherence of personality that is necessary for an effectively forceful individual performance. As Irving Goffman taught us, in everyday life, self-presentation varies according the sorts of situations and roles we find ourselves inhabiting. Our strategies of self-presentation–our various everyday personae–don’t naturally add up to anything with stability or integrity. “Finding a voice” as a writer is a matter of settling on a strategy of self-presentation that works as performance. This is as true for the memoirist or newspaper columnist as it is for the novelist.

Indeed, because of the naive convention of collapsing the space between the nonfiction narrator and the implied author, authorial persona is in some ways more important for the nonfiction writer than for the fiction writer. A writer working within the conventional genre expectations of contemporary nonfiction is faced with the unfortunate fact that characterization of the first-person nonfiction narrator is understood as the characterization of the authorial persona. So the nonfiction author must be prepared to integrate into her authorial persona her characterization of her narrator, and vice versa. A nonfiction author who wishes to take some creative liberties in constructing the sensibility of her narrator is, in effect, constructing a stage persona shading toward the Sasha Fierce/Ziggy Stardust end of the spectrum. But the naive conventions of contemporary nonfiction don’t allow for this sort of separation between the IRL writerly person and her authorial persona–or for any sophistication at all, really, about strategies of authorial self-presentation. And that’s why Tom Wolfe actually wears ridiculous white suits.

To give a nonfiction narrator a name distinct from the author–to announce that this true story will be narrated by Sasha Fierce or Slim Shady–would be to acknowledge the inherently performative aspect of authorship, to acknowledge the ever-present gap between authorial persona and the author of that persona. It would tell the reader what the reader already knows when reading fiction: that the authors create narrators; that narrative is art and not confessional free-association. But this is not to be done. Nonfiction in our moment is marked not by a demand for truth or facts–the terms of the D’Agata wars notwithstanding–but by a neo-Romantic obsession with sincerity, with the elimination of irony, with emotional truth unfiltered by the calculating guile of performance. Our reality hunger is sated in no small part by a strange insistence that the nonfiction narrator be the implied and actual author. And this amounts to an insistence that nonfiction authors pretend not to have a refined and practiced authorial persona by performing one consistent with the prevailing but necessarily temporary conventions of naturalism in literary self-presentation.

Assorted Links

1. Chris Hedges on Moby Dick – Good, but not good enough.

2. Is Nabokov’s poetry bad? – I’m undecided.

3. Jack Kirby vs. Alex Toth – IMO: Toth’s formally, technically far superior; Kirby’s daemonic Romantic genius unsurpassed.

4. Profile of Renata Adler –  Need to finish Speedboat.

5. Richard Ford on driving around with his parents looking at houses – I truly love RF, but why?

6. James Salter isn’t sexist – Wouldn’t that be an incredible thing for a man his age?


sort of interesting post (co-working space! Stickk!) by a fellow named Herbert Lui the point of which is

As Ira Glass so famously put it, the best way to refine your craft is to create a huge volume of work. Not to create the most perfect piece you can, but to create many pieces of work.

This strikes me as correct, incorrect, and boring. That practice makes perfect is not news. But perfect is unlikely to be made unless one practices toward it. It’s not possible to do or make something really well without a huge investment of time and energy, and most of that has to be spent on what amount to mundane excercises. Writing thousands of blog posts is good practice for writing generally, and I believe it has improved my prose. Yet this sort of thing is not good practice for refining one’s writing unless one tries to write with increasing refinement. Otherwise, one develops ingrained habits of shittiness. Perhaps the greatest hazard of journalism is that one accedes sooner or later to the norm of clarity, to the debased idea that the aim of style is efficient communication. The perfection of prose lies in the music, energy, and intelligence of expression, and one doesn’t approach it by hammering out volumes of airplane magazine writing.

That said, one can’t write oustanding stories or outstanding books  just by polishing sentences, or fixating on any other single element of the larger craft. One must write stories and books, and the more of them one writes, the better they’ll get. But, duh.

Stuck in "Stoner"

Ian McEwan praises John Williams’ Stoner on BBC Radio 4. He is not alone. Stoner, first published in 1965, recently hit the top of the Dutch bestseller list. A number of critics and writers have fawned over the revived minor classic, but so far I don’t get it.  

On my second attempt, I’ve made it about halfway in, and I’m stalled. Protagonist and narrator both are inexplicably anhedonic and uncommunicative. William Stoner, we’re told, has been transformed by literature, but he never seems to have any specific thoughts about it, and it fails bafflingly to illuminate his many encounters with failing love, emotional abandonment, and death. If he ever actually draws from the trove of cultural riches that has elevated him from bumpkin to professor, the plodding, yeoman-like, close-third narrator keeps it from us. Perhaps there is a good reason for this. One senses that the readers’ sympathy is meant to lie with Stoner, but his total incuriousity about his wife’s malaise is monstrously callous. His reticent passivity more and more seems like aggressive dereliction. The book is emotionally monotone, its dolefulness dunning. I aim to try to slog through, on the strength of the recent wave of enthusiasm, and because I liked Butcher’s Crossing, but I’m not very happy about it.

Will report back, maybe.

Ted Gioia on the Rise of the Fragmented Novel

The most interesting thing internet today:

The beauty of the new fragmented novel is that writers can have it both ways. These books pay deference to complexity, that deity of the lit critic, but they are also marked by an intense devotion to plot, pacing and other elements of traditional craft. Highbrow and lowbrow elements are pleasingly blurred. Experimentation proves that it is compatible with accessibility.

I am attracted to these books—and I suspect others are as well—because of their skill in serving such conflicting masters, and without obvious compromises.

This especially caught my interest:

The fragmented novel has gone through three phases in modern times. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio (1919) exemplifies the early attempts to take a series of short stories and turn them into a novel. A. E. van Vogt gave this approach a name—he called it the “fix-up” and he built his own reputation on repackaging his pulp fiction short stories into books that resembled, more or less, science fiction novels.

Van Vogt’s motivation was primarily financial. “A novel would sell whereas the individual stories seldom did,” he explained to an interviewer. “Hence, the great thought came; and the fix-up novels began.” The obvious advantage was that van Vogt could sell the same piece of writing twice. As for those who attacked him for peddling secondhand goods in his novels, the author countered: “I could only shake my head over these people; to me, they were obviously dilettantes who didn’t understand the economics of writing science fiction.”

Van Vogt’s fix-up could hardly be more relevant to the MFA economy. It’s easier to sell a novel than a collection of short stories, and a book has become almost de rigeur for a tenure-track fiction gig. However, a pre-book fiction MFA or PhD without a healthy handful of well-placed stories on his or her CV is probably going to struggle in the contest for on-ramp fellowships and visiting gigs. I reckon that’s why a good few of the fiction students at Houston are working on a “novel-in-stories,” and I know it has a lot to do with my own tortured deliberation about whether to plan my novel with a modular structure that allows for a fair number of free-standing pieces. But then there’s also the fact that workshops emphasize the short story, and that I think affects how you come to think of a “chapter.” The short story tends to develop more musically than narratively, initially “incidental” elements picking up thematic density and coalescing eventually in a moment of illumination or realization or lyrical grace. This leads to a much more definite, resolute sense of closure than the episodic chapter ending, and tends to kill rather than boost narrative momentum. Yet the  story form really does seem like it ought to be able to function as a chapter-like unit in a cohesive larger work. If the traditional movement of the story conflicts with the needs of the long, linear narrative, one solution is to give up on linearity, or at least to give up on the idea that a chapter is like a leg of a relay…

Anyway… read the Gioia essay and get to work on 57 [!]  linked essays, each about a different “fragmented” novel.

This High-Voltage Blog Post Obliterates Distinctions Between Characters

In the midst of this account of the notional LARB/NYRB beef around Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Marc Tracy writes:

Purely as a reader, I am with Seidel and the NYRB—I stopped reading The Flamethrowers a third of the way through, because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters.

Exactly why I can’t finish anything by Martin Amis! (Kidding. It’s only tough to finish ladybooks.)

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Dan Kois’ subtweeting efforts:

I stopped eating this sandwich because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters

— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013


I had to stop drinking Diet Coke because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters

— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013


I had to stop subtweeting like an asshole because I felt that my high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters

— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013


I know what I’m writing on every workshop story next semester!

I’m generally more interested in high-voltage narration than distinctions between characters, but I haven’t actually found Kushner’s narration especially high-voltage–thought it was sort of understated, actually. I’ve stalled because I stall in absolutely everything that doesn’t cater in a hyper-focused way to that day’s whimsical narrow interest. So far, it’s pretty great. Really fresh.

William Boyd's Taxonomy of the Short Story

From this 2004 Guardian piece. Pared-down and lightly rearranged…

1 The event-plot story … The stereotype of the event-plot story is the “twist-in-the-tail” famously developed by O Henry but also used widely in genre stories – ghost stories (WW Jacobs, for example) and the detective story (Conan Doyle). I would say that today its contrivances make it look very dated, though Roald Dahl made something of a mark with a macabre variation on the theme, and it is also a staple of yarn-spinners such as Jeffrey Archer.

2 The Chekhovian story …  The revolution that Chekhov set in train – and which reverberates still today – was not to abandon plot, but to make the plot of his stories like the plot of our lives: random, mysterious, run-of-the-mill, abrupt, chaotic, fiercely cruel, meaningless. … I would say that the Chekhovian point of view is to look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and refuse to make a judgment. To refuse to condemn and refuse to celebrate. To record the actions of human beings as they are and to leave them to speak for themselves (insofar as they can) without manipulation, censure or praise. …

3 The ‘Modernist’ story … Hemingway’s most obvious revolutionary contribution to the short story was his style: pared down, laconic, unafraid to repeat the most common adjectives rather than reach for a synonym. But his other great donation was a purposeful opacity. … You know there are hidden meanings here and it is the inaccessibility of the subtext that makes the story so memorable. Wilful obscurity in the short story works: over the length of a novel it can be very tiresome. This idea of modernist obscurity overlaps with the next category.

4 The cryptic/ludic story Here the story presents its baffling surface more overtly as a kind of challenge to the reader … In these stories there is a meaning to be discovered and deciphered … A Nabokov story, such as “Spring at Fialta”, is meant to be unravelled by the attentive reader – and it may take several goes – but the spirit behind its teasing is fundamentally generous: dig deep and you will discover more, is the implied message. …

5 The mini-novel story In a way it is something of a hybrid – half novel, half short story – trying to achieve in a few dozen pages what the novel achieves in a few hundred: a large cast of characters, lots of realistic detail. … These stories tend to be very long, almost becoming novellas, but their ambition is clear. They eschew ellipsis and allusion for an aggregation of solid fact, as if the story wants to say, “See: you don’t need 400 pages to paint a portrait of society.”

6 The poetic/mythic story … the poetic/mythic story seems to wish to get as far away from the realistic novel as possible. … This is the short story-quasi-poem and it can range from stream-of-consciousness to the impenetrably gnomic.

7 The biographical story … the short story deliberately borrowing and replicating the properties of non-fiction: of history, of reportage, of the memoir. … [A] variation is to introduce the fictive into the lives of real people. …  A very valid definition of biography is that it is “a fiction conceived within the bounds of the observable facts”. The biographical story plays with this paradox and in so doing attempts to have its cake and eat it, to capture the strengths of fiction and the non-fictional account simultaneously.

Seems good enough, for a start. Pair with this 2006 Boyd piece on the history of the short story. The commenter is right about Washington Irving.

Gabriel Roth's Winsome Book Trailer

The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth from Ryan Junell on Vimeo.

Self-conscious awkwardness about self-promotion as self-promotional strategy. Does this make you more or less likely to want to read Roth’s book (which I was already looking forward to)? Though I completely share this self-effacing impulse, I think there’s a reason swag sells, why Kanye is more Norman Mailer than David Foster Wallace.

How to Do Things With Wars

We turn our attention here to a buzzing philosophical activity in post-war England, and primarily among Oxfords young dons, animated by Austin, but including a number of older and already influential colleagues like Gilbert Ryle, editor of Mind. Here, Oxford seemed to be cutting a way for itself, leaving Russell and his Cambridge colleagues — including their celebrated darling Wittgenstein — behind and out.[1] With Germanys defeat in WWII, an entire page in history was felt to have been turned. During the war, Austin had been recruited to set up, and ended up heading, the “order of battle” section of what became SHAEF the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force under Eisenhower. The section was responsible for collecting and analysing information from a variety of sources, including the top-secret Enigma at Bletchley Park, but also through the developing art of aerial reconnaissance which later became satellite imaging and human intelligence from the resistance across Europe, in support of the war effort generally and to prepare for the D-Day landing.It is said that when the German army surrendered at Frankfurt, Austin was the only person amongst the Allies who knew where all of the German army was actually located.[2] Returning to do philosophy at Oxford from this high-level Intelligence posting, it was natural for the young Austin to try applying this very special war experience in his resumed philosophical investigations. He set himself the task again, as he preferred it, and had found more effective during the war, through team-work of demystifying philosophical concepts in a somewhat parallel way, one imagines, to the manner he employed as scattered data e.g., pictures or separate pieces of information e.g., a train movement were painstakingly put to work in order to interpret the data being gathered — very much a bottom-up, piece-by-piece approach to finding out what these meant.


via When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame.