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Purpose, Pleasure, and Blowing Up Pipelines

Osita Nwanevu
9 min read
Purpose, Pleasure, and Blowing Up Pipelines
Photo by Nikita Tikhomirov on Unsplash

Hey all,

There’ll be a politics post later this week and another sooner on The French Dispatch, which I enjoyed, but today I thought I’d share a few pieces I’ve been thinking about recently that seem to rhyme thematically. Let’s hop to it.

Culture & Politics

B.D. McClay, whose writing I’ve featured here previously, has another good essay out ⁠— this time on the politics of pleasure, or, more specifically, our tendency to insist that a politics of pleasure exists in the first place. Her entry point is a recent interview The New Yorker ran with Rebecca Solnit, who just published a new book, Orwell’s Roses, on Orwell’s love of gardening. “What interests me is Solnit’s pose in the interview: first, that you’re judged as unserious if you spend time on non-political projects; second, that those non-political projects are in some sense political after all,” she writes. “I would like to suggest a corrective here: these stances are dumb.”

As a fan of both cream puffs and champagne (though perhaps not together) I would rather not have them reframed as Doing The Work. If I’m indulging in these pleasures, I’m not doing any work! I am enjoying myself. There are, of course, political aspects to these delicious products: where and how they are made, what resources they require, who can access them and who can’t. (Similarly, Solnit mentions the farms in Colombia in which many of the roses available to purchase are grown — undoubtedly political.)
But beauty and pleasure are justification enough, almost all of the time. It’s really fine for something to be nothing but beautiful. My dog is an exquisite animal and caring for him gives me joy every day, but neither I nor anybody else derive any political benefit from so doing. That’s fine. It’s enough that I’m alive, and he’s alive, and that we make each other happy. If somebody came along with a calculator and explained to me how I could donate whatever I spend on him in time and money to a worthier cause, the response wouldn’t be to describe my dog ownership as a political action. Instead I would laugh.
To the extent that I have a theory of why other people don’t just laugh, it goes something like this: some substantive minority of people in general view the political value of an act as its ultimate, determinative value. Thus other things they might enjoy or value need to be reconfigured to have political value, or to be in plausible proximity to something that has such value, because otherwise they will feel judged about it and that would be bad. So if you believe you’d be spending your life more worthily blowing up pipelines, but instead write blog posts or work for a hedge fund or have tenure at a university, then you can either live with the self-knowledge that you aren’t willing to live up to your beliefs past a certain level, or you can declare the pursuit of your own comfort to be on the same spectrum of value. I choose these particular jobs for a reason. You only start to justify the political necessity of your own comfort to strangers if you know there’s something a little ridiculous about it.

Relatedly, the poet Alice Gribbin recently wrote on one of the political cases increasingly offered for the production and enjoyment of art ⁠— creative work, it’s often said, deepens our capacity for empathy when we engage with or experience it. I’ve written previously ⁠— in a Twitter thread that’s inaccessible at the moment, sorry ⁠— on why I think empathy’s an insufficient basis for a just politics. Here, Gribbin offers an argument against prioritizing empathy in art that would hold even if empathy were as politically important as people are given to suggesting it is:

The empath and the activist regard art fundamentally as a delivery system for messages and awarenesses. They believe that the output of an artwork, its effect on audiences, can be controlled and predetermined. According to both frameworks, we should be goal-oriented in our thoughts and feelings when visiting a gallery or opening a book. Our responses matter to the world. The well-being of society is at stake.
This results-based management of aesthetic experience inevitably treats as superfluous all but a sliver of the responses in an individual that great art enlivens. Unruly imagination, with its proclivity for the carnal and macabre, the empath shuns. Personal connection is all: On this basis alone are a work’s formal and material qualities interesting. Awe, for the empath, is a feeling of intense connection between her and the artist or the artist’s subject. Cleaved from its etymology, awe is no longer an experience of dread and reverence, a response to the majestic or uncanny. Such elements in art are beside the point.
So too are entire works that do not elicit empathy for their characters, subject, or maker. The empathy racket treats as automatically canonical any art that memorializes certain historical events, art as documentary, and art of witness, whatever its quality or degree of originality. Those forces inexplicable to the human, which great art from Hellenistic sculpture to the Jodhpur-Marwar court paintings to Modernist poetry has concerned itself with—forces unconscious, spiritual, natural, chthonic—do not interest the empath.

As Gribbin writes, there are plenty of other things art can do for us, and the narrow focus on empathetic connection she argues against can leave readers and viewers blind to other properties worth valuing — to a work’s “material, technical, and formal reality; to its allusions and influences or use of archetypes; about its historical context and significance within the development of the medium; to their own minds, spirits, and senses.”

The kind of myopic goal-orientation Gribbin’s talking about is less a special burden we’ve placed upon artists than a feature of contemporary existence, really. Whether we intend to or not, we’re all speaking to everybody about everything now ⁠— or at least those of us who are writers are ⁠— and that context collapse keeps many of us ever-vigilant about sending “the right message” and communicating in “productive,” non-alienating ways. I won’t be writing at length about it again, but I do think complaints about “cancel culture,” at their most sincere, are partially about trying to escape that often genuinely unsettling reality.

It can’t be done. The alternative approach, the less cowardly one, is to stand for what we believe in and the art we make or care about ⁠without collapsing into hysterics about having to do so — while remaining ever open, of course, to reexamining our own convictions. But the doubts that push us to introspection shouldn’t come from assessments of what kind of art or writing is obviously useful or profitable in the moment. Truth, beauty, and most of what we do in their name should justify themselves in our eyes.

But they don’t; this is an ideal the political writing economy in particular is poorly built to sustain. And the writers I respect the most are the ones who openly wrestle with our profession’s formal and substantive constraints. Jamelle Bouie, for instance, tweeted out that piece I featured on the Articles of Confederation with a joke that he might not bother framing a column around a clicky “news hook” one day.

One of the other expectations often foisted upon political writers is a sense that the pundit has a responsibility to offer hope or, more concretely, a specific program for solving the problems they identify. But hope isn’t a kind of punctuation or a rhetorical bookend ⁠— it has to be created, often by grim, determined political actors with few illusions about the odds they face. If we want to help or become the agents of historical progress, we ought to be arming them and ourselves with knowledge ⁠— rendered with as little varnish as we can manage.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the greatest and most misunderstood political writers of our age, has always understood this. He’s the writer who taught it to me. And he’s just written the preface to a new edition of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land that suggests Judt taught it to him:

I had taken the idea of race in American life as my field of study. That road necessarily led to Europe, where the idea of race was invented. But as much as the contents of Postwar ultimately influenced me, it was Tony’s style that left a mark. I was then a writer in my mid-30s, experiencing a period of novel stability and unlikely prominence. I found the former a better fit than the latter. I began to take note of the unique pressures that the world puts on “prominent” Black writers—specifically the demand that one write in a way that necessarily and explicitly provides “hope.” In its benevolent manifestation, the request originated in the very real inspiration that people took from the Black struggle in America. Less honorably, the demand for “hope” was little more than a demand to bleach the past. Benevolent or not, it somehow felt wrong to write with the intent of authoring a morality play in which the forces of good necessarily triumph. I didn’t quite know why I felt that way. I didn’t really know why quotes about the “arc of the universe” and the sense that good and right ultimately prevail repulsed me so. For me, the answers were in the pages of Postwar.
I had never read so merciless a book. Tony had no use for pieties—no tolerance for invocations of a “Good War” or the “Greatest Generation.” Power reigns in Postwar, often in brutal ways. Tony writes of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust returning to Poland only to be asked, “Why have you come back?” He introduced me to intellectuals, such as François Furet, forced to reckon not just with Stalin’s crimes but with a discrediting of a “Grand Narrative” of history itself. “All the lives lost, and resources wasted in transforming societies under state direction,” Tony writes of this reckoning, were “just what their critics had always said they were: loss, waste, failure and crime.” Early in Postwar, Tony quotes the observations of a journalist covering the ethnic cleansings that characterized postwar Europe. The journalist self-satisfyingly claims that history will “exact a terrible retribution.” But, Tony tells us, history “exacted no such retribution.” No righteous, God-ordained price was to be paid for this crime against humanity. The arc of history did not magically bend. It was bent, even broken, by those with power.
I can’t tell you how liberating I found all of this. By the time I’d encountered Tony, I was already fairly convinced that there was darkness in this world, and that darkness often triumphed. Now I was freed to say so. It is perhaps odd to find intellectual liberation in such grim work. All I can say is that the work was never so much grim to me as it was illuminating. It answered the gnawing question of why evil was so resilient, and why it was so difficult to bring forth a more egalitarian world. Postwar might have been grim, but it did not despair. It was a ruthless accounting of the depths to which men might sink, and thus a necessary precondition of a vision of the future that did not depend on slogans and fairy tales—that is to say, a true and durable hope.

Still, visions of the future don’t arise inevitably from visions of the bleak present; the notion that a better world is possible is cold comfort to many readers who’ve been given ample reason to doubt whether they’ll ever see it come into being. In Gawker last week, Dan Brooks took on what he calls “The Joe Manchin Trolley Problem” and the radical choices the severity of the climate crisis have encouraged some to idly contemplate, including blowing up fossil fuel infrastructure:

I don’t want to mow the lawn and shop for groceries while permanently trapped in a moral dilemma whose two options are (A) to passively condemn my child and all future children to lives of misery or (B) to become some kind of political-historical assassin. Those are impossibly high stakes, and they render individual experience meaningless relative to the news in a way that I suspect feels a lot like paranoid psychosis or some other variety of losing one’s mind. And this is what makes the trolley problem a metaphor not just for the climate situation but also for modern living, insofar as some unknown force keeps tying people to the tracks and some other, also unknown but possibly colluding force keeps sending trolleys at them, yet somehow it is up to you to operate the switch. And meanwhile, although we seem to be living through a moment of decision that will shape the lives of generations and potentially extinguish the very possibility of life on this planet, the people we have elected to address such crises go on brokering coal and arguing about the filibuster and generally behaving as though the only truly important question facing society is how we can keep doing everything the same way we always have.
This brings us to the never-mentioned but by far most popular solution to the trolley problem: walking out of the switchyard and, as the sounds of crashing metal and smearing surgeon fade behind us, shaking our collective heads and saying someone ought to shut that place down. Realistically, that is my plan. And who could blame me? Nobody, except possibly my son, who will inherit a world dessicated by my gut feeling that behaving normally was more real and important than what, admittedly, pretty much everyone agreed was about to happen.

This is the thing about the blinkered expectations we have of writing and art and everything else these days ⁠— anxieties about whether, how much, and why we should enjoy ourselves, or write, or do anything that we do seem like natural responses to a collapsing sociopolitical order. As meaningful political change through formal channels slips further out of reach, and as the prospect and risks of more radical change start rattling uncomfortably in the back of our minds, we take on a desperate faith in the political potential of art and the other things we do and consume. I don’t like it. But I get it. That’s a kind of empathy, I suppose.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Good night.