Blog Post

The Sound of Liberty

In his reply to my recent blog post, Joel Burges raises an important question: does the new imaginative thinking about history I find in recent literature and cinema also mean a "return to liberalism"?

He goes on to question the shift I refer to—away from Geschichtsphilosophie and utopia, from the big to the small (though by no means the trivial)—asking “Is your project an essentially liberal project, committed to reforms rather than revolutions, small acts rather than grand gestures? [....] Are you tracing a new liberalism in literary culture after '89?” The answer to the question of whether my project is essentially liberal is a clear Yes. But the adjective needs explanation, and my way of making sense of my intuitions regarding this “new liberalism” and what it may mean involves turning to recent cinema and literature. The kind of cultural criticism I wish to pursue should allow us, I hope, to explore what democratic, capitalist liberalism means after 1989—that is, after the demise of European communism and with it of what calls the “major utopias” of the last two centuries. By that ‘demise’ I mean the obsolecense of dreams about bringing about an utterly new form of humanity; of the grand futural fantasies that resulted in horrific bloodshed and a decrease in human freedom rather than the reverse. Reflecting on liberalism, prompting us to think-through what it may mean today, means also for contemporary literature and culture, I believe, to also consider some of the main political crossroads of the recent two decades: 9/11, Iraq or the debate regarding global warming.

To go back to Joel’s question, there is another sense in which I think of my project as liberal. I suggest that we should not confine our consideration of a novel or a movie—be it of ‘high’ or ‘popular’ culture—solelyto its role in promoting or preventing a utopian tomorrow, for its ‘value’ vis-à-vis what Joel describes (and I agree) for a Jamesonian desire to reveal the logic of late capitalism. In other words, I think one can watch a movie and consider the issues it raises or read a novel and reflect on the ethical and political dilemmas it addresses without restricting the discussion to their role in enabling late capitalism’s survival or ultimate decline.

But what does it mean to ‘think-through’ democratic, capitalist liberalism after 1989? It may mean, for example, to ask what liberty consists of today. Or, to raise questions regarding capitalist-democracy’s practices from the standpoint of decreasing human suffering (as Dickens and Orwell did in their day), that is, without positing the Untergang of the System as an ultimate, or even coherent good. Think Avatar, for example.

Official Avatar Movie

This immensely successful Hollywood epic is a thrilling presentation of digital technology and visual effects driven—I assume—both by James Cameron’s artistic aspirations and the industry’s desire for mega bucks. Yet, at the same time the movie also offers an (admittedly crude) comment on the consequences of an aspect of the American conception of liberty, specifically of an utterly unregulated free market economy. The profit-driven RDA corporation, which invades the Na’vi’s planet, is a thinly veiled metaphor for the consequences of contemporary laissez-faire capitalism. The avatar operator, Dr. Grace Augustine is, indeed, the most recent incarnation of Victor Frankenstein—a cipher of the modern, capitalist-liberal zeal to unleash (and consume) the ‘primordial powers’ of the natural world. Dr. Grace echoes anxieties regarding the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, which Goethe immortalized in his Faust. Her trepidations regarding what the freedom to explore and exploit Pandora means are a medium through which we may reflect on the economy, society and culture of our ‘post 1989’ world. The film abounds with clear references to 9/11 (the Na’vi escaping the collapsing Hometree),  the Iraq War (the RDA’s execs speak in the Bush-Cheney idiom of Shock and Awe), and planet Earth’s slow death. James Cameron’s spectacle, in short, is both entertainment and a reflection on what freedom might mean in today’s world.

For another case, consider the far more subtle Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (2009, quoted parenthetically). Ishiguro NocturnesThe two stories that provide this clever work with its frame, “Crooners” and “Cellists,” take place in today’s Venice. The decaying, tourist-ridden city is here the incarnation of consumerist travel. Venice, the book suggests, has devolved into a mere background of the Prada shops one could just as well find in LA, while at the same time, however, serving as the site of an encounter between the world prior to and post-1989 (10). In the stories we find two young musicians, who grew up under communism, cross paths with what I will have to call (for lack of a better idiom) the spirit of American liberty. In “Crooners,” for instance, the young Janeck from Warsaw suddenly discovers in the San Marco café Tony Gardner, a faded balladeer of the Dean Martin or Andy Williams type. For the Western tourists, the aging man is not worth a second glance, but for Janeck and his mother, who lived in “one of those communist countries” (7, 16), the singer is “an important figure” (12): “back in the communist days” (5) his schmaltzy tunes were echoes of the free world for those trapped behind the Iron Curtain. However, it is important to emphasize that Ishiguro’s story is by no means a naïve, syrupy celebration of some kind of abstract freedom supposedly emanating from Ronald Reagan’s America during the Cold War. Janeck clearly realizes that the entertainer of his childhood memories was in essence a projection screen for a fantasy about the Free World entertained by those living behind the Iron Curtain. But Janeck also knows that that projection was, nevertheless, significant in the striving for freedom.

Similarly, Ishiguro’s final story, “Cellists,” is an exploration of the very elusive conception of freedom that the shabby figure of Gardner invokes. Here we encounter the cellist Tibor from Hungary who first arrived in Venice in the early nineties, during the “summer we first started noticing Russians,” moving around like “new kids” with their “odd” clothes. (191) It was during that summer of new beginnings that Tibor encountered Eloise McCormack, a woman from Portland, Oregon who introduces herself as a distinguished cellist. While Tibor is defined by his origins—growing up and learning music “in the former Eastern Block, behind the Iron Curtain” (196) under the guidance of the cruel Oleg Petrovic (198), McCormack is driven by her untroubled confidence that she, as a virtuoso (204), can vastly improve his playing. Indeed, as they sit together—Tibor playing and McCormack commenting on his art—“’A garden’” Tibor had “’not yet entered’” opened up for him: “’A garden I’d never seen before.’” (202)

The garden, I wish to suggest, is a metaphor—just like Gardner the crooner—for liberty. Liberty with all its real and imaginary shine, with its blessings and numerous contradictions. After all, Tibor’s American teacher is a fake. McCormack instructs Tibor to rethink his playing without being able to play the cello at all. When he discovers this stunning fact, however, Tibor does not turn his back on his mentor. He remains with her perhaps because he senses that, despite the deceit, she nevertheless does have access to that garden. The garden Tibor discovered is that in which music is freely played, unrestrained and untamed. Her garden is indeed the unruly, American garden in which others like Tony Gardner, Cole Porter or Sarah Vaughan create their unique art (the two make an appearance in “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” the second story in the book).

In no way does Ishiguro’s book simply revel in capitalist liberalism of the American vein. He just explores its potential pitfalls and consequences: without expressing any desire to dismantle it or to maintain it, the book pays attention to liberalism’s tunes, sounds, and characters. His stories puzzle over liberalism’s disorderly, at times pathetic, nature (as in “Nocturnes,” the fourth story).

Back to Joel question: “Are you tracing a new liberalism in literary culture after '89?”  I argue that works like those I mention here and others recommend to us to broaden our discussion of modernity and of liberalism, past the coordinates of Jamesonian politics (whose legitimacy and relevance, by the way, are not put in question, only its absoluteness). This approach may imply developing new concepts and ideas regarding what we may do when we read contemporary fiction (something I explore in my forthcoming book). What these concepts may actually be, however, should remain the topic of future posts.