Deep Thoughts, with Teddy Adorno

From Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (trans. Rodney Livingstone), Towards a New Manifesto (London: Verso, 2011), 39.

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Burden of Truth

In the blog written by jab23 they posit that, “In being perpetually petrified, an element of Marcher’s Beast is fear of success and happiness” in regards to the dilemma of James’s protagonist (“Fear of Happiness”). They go on to relate this fear to an “inability to act on his own behalf for his own desires” and use the example of Marcher “[a]t Bartram’s grave” where he “stood for an hour, powerless to turn away. And yet powerless to penetrate the darkness of death” (“Fear…”). jab23 says this latter statement also “illustrate[s] his refusal to overcome his inabilities” (“Fear…”). So though Marcher is in-able to “act on his own desires,” even when he comes to realize this while at Bartram’s grave, he refuses to overcome this inactivity and we are to believe that this may be out of a “fear of success and happiness.” jab23 goes on to use a question from Halberstam, “What kinds of reward can failure offer us?” in order to ask what Marcher’s reward is for this inactivity, and they assert that it is in fact the realization of his “fear of success and happiness” (Halberstam 3). Ultimately, while Marcher was staring into Bartram’s headstone thinking of the past, his epiphany is that he is “powerless” to achieving success or happiness, paralyzed of their prospect. The reward of his failure: a crippling realization of his crippling fear.

After reading vanessatshionyi’s blog titled “Masochistic Passivity,” I came across a quote by writer Jamaica Kincaid who said that Americans “…are inevitably looking for a happy ending” and “find difficulty very hard to take” (132). I think this sentiment rings true with the image of Marcher at Bartram’s grave in mind. He clearly isn’t taking things well, and is coming to terms with his search for a happy ending and then finding fear of happiness. In light of another quote by Kinkaid, Marcher found truth, and as the writer says of this reward that “truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite” (132). I then ask, is the opposite of happiness the fear of happiness then, a truth? I think that the fear of not being happy drives people to pursue happiness in a less prejudicial manner—something that looks like Ehrenreich’s form of optimism, the indiscriminate “mass delusion.” But do those living in fear of happiness reject optimism and adopt negativity and then subsequently aren’t deluded? Are negative thinkers then, sharper and using their fear more discernibly? Are they like Kinkaid says, more predisposed to truth in warding off false optimism?

vanessatshionyi states that they think “Kincaid and Ehrenreich question whether putting on the facade of happiness allows us to actually ask critical questions of our society. Kincaid and Ehrenreich use masochistic passivity to ask those critical questions of their society.” Once again, with Marcher’s epiphany in mind, I think that the term “masochistic passivity” fits very well—in fact I think he could be the poster boy for that term. Taking each of those words and applying them separately we can see that James’s protagonist is certainly tortured and very passive. Marcher is haunted by this beast, this burden, but he is very passively pursuing its presence—constantly treading the usual routines and leaving many decision up to Bartram as to what to do with it. In many ways Marcher, in leaving control up to Bartram, is avoiding the typified male gender role of being in charge. According to vanessatshionyi, “Masochistic passivity rejects the normative roles that patriarchal society places upon its members”—a description that I think encompasses Marcher and Bartram’s particular relationship. Bartram acts as more of a mother to Marcher, than he acts as a father to her.

Marcher may not be optimistic throughout James’s novel, but he also doesn’t really ask critical questions of himself until the end. All along I think he was massively deluded by this idea of a beast. So is he treading a fine line between positive and negative thinking until he finds then the “opposite of happiness”? I think that there are times in which Marcher and Bartram are “putting on the facade of happiness” by performing the occasional “normative roles” in public, but not in private where their relationship resembles more of a “masochistic passivity.” In regards to vanessatshionyi’s claim that “Kincaid and Ehrenreich question whether putting on the facade of happiness allows us to actually ask critical questions of our society” I would posit that James with “The Beast in the Jungle” is doing much the same.

Inverted class protrusion

In the chapter that we read from Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, there were several intertextual connections that I made with both her work and Halberstam’s chapter (from The Queer Art of Failure), and Laurent Cantet’s movie Time Out and Halberstam’s chapter. Among the connections I made were Berlant’s mentions of optimism and the “good life” to Halberstam’s mentions of “mass delusion.” Early in the chapter Berlant says of Laurent Cantet’s films “[the stories] witness the blow to traditional props for optimism about life-building that had sustained the aspirationally upwardly mobile, and pay attention to how different kinds of people catch up to their new situation” (192). Furthermore, the films posit—on the subject of living life— “that there are no guarantees that the life one intends can or will be built” and that Time Out’s protagonist, Vincent, has “postoptimistic response[s]” to the thought of “good-life fantasies”(192, 200). Berlant goes on to describe Cantet’s characters as living in an “impasse,” a transitional place in the present that is “barring the reproduction of inherited fantasies of what it means to want to add up to something—that story of the good life” (201). The painstaking restlessness that fatigues Vincent throughout the movie seems to me to be a reaction of disillusionment from the deflective optimism that creates these good life fantasies.

This deflective optimism of Berlant’s good life fantasies is the place where I draw a parallel to “mass delusion.” Halberstam uses Barbara Ehrenreich’s explanation of the term as “positive thinking…that emerges out of…a desire to believe that success happens to good people and failure is just a consequence of a bad attitude rather than structural conditions” (3). According to Ehrenreich those people effected by mass delusion are under the false pretenses that, “If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure” (3). Halberstam’s application of low theory though seeks to “to explore alternatives and to look for a way out of the usual traps and impasses of binary formulations” possibly of those rendered in mass delusion (2).

During the comforting loneliness of life away from his family,Vincent slowly becomes aware of the flaws of positive thinking (via other people’s reliance and expectations of his performance of success) in the isolation of the impasse—he attempts a sort of erasure of himself on the road. Scenes of him driving remind me of Halberstam’s mention of the ways in which low theory works to provide “more creative..ways of being in the world” (2). By keeping his family and especially his wife at in the dark, while in Geneva, he is “losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing” (2). Vincent’s family are a reminder of his heteronormative success—they are the “reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” that Halberstam speaks of (2). As long as he isn’t answering to them directly, face to face, he is allowed to keep his mind off of living up to those good life fantasies, and able to lose his way into another kind of opportunity, a queer one at that.

Vincent embarks on shady business deals with friends and in these scenes takes on the negative affect of cunning. Both with these friends and his wife and family Vincent acts as an optimist, buying into other people’s fantasies of the good life, their mass delusion—of who he is, a well meaning, generous good-guy who possesses his father’s much remarked on enthusiasm. But in scenes when he is then released from this visage and able to indulge in his isolation it is just as Halberstam describes as his “opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” (3). The facial expression of Vincent is able to wear its disappointment, disillusionment and despair again, because he needn’t hide his failure(s) from anyone. While wading in his impasse, Vincent meets his surrogate, Jean-Michel, who shares his experience and his dispassion for the delusion of others’ good lives. It seems then, that Vincent is—as Halberstam said, in regards to the negative thinker, “Relieved of the obligation to keep smiling” in front of another and with the help of negative thinking—able to “use the experience of failure to confront the gross inequalities of everyday life” (4). As the viewer finds out though, this is a relationship that comes to pass and Vincent must return to that inner liminal space of which others hope he does not return to for good.

Irreverent Capital/Organic-Queer Intellect

   Halberstam proposes failure as a way to “search for different ways of being in the world and being in relation to one another than those prescribed by the liberal and consumer subject” (2). They use use the word “queer” in relation to those who identify outside of heteronormative context, but also people who may identify themselves outside of capitalist contexts (alternative political formations ), as well. Halberstam states that “[f]ailing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” and offers that “failure is a style” and that it maybe “easier in the long run and offer different rewards” (3). The feminist theorist goes on to say that the means of failure for the queer demographic is an alternative to America’s fixation on positive thinking—what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “a mass delusion” (3). The ideology of failure is relevant to queer demographics because it offers escape from the “mass delusion” of dreaming about capitalist success—what Halberstam refers to as “reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation”  (2, 3). One of the plights of minorities and queers is living up to privileged society’s expectations of this type of success. These populations are not as predisposed to the same interpretations of success, neither are they readily equipped with the same kind of wealth, health and acceptance in our society because America’s capitalist tendencies are to produce failures by punishing them as outsiders to that success.

 

For instance, the systemic treatment of impoverished black males in America is to criminalize them for making the ‘wrong’ choices of drug dealing, robbing, ect. Yet these activities become instinctual—as a means of survival—for many black males who aren’t given the chances or resources for traditional success (college, opportunity, 9-to-5 careers) because they are products of their disenfranchised environments—environments they did not choose to be born into. Their resistance to positive thinking is very apparent, and for justified reasons. As an alternative to this life of dysfunction, the common trope for these males is to find success on their own terms—often times rising from criminal activity to music or sports (more traditional forms of success). The stereotype of the dope dealer turned into emcee (or athlete) is both hated and loved by fascinated Americans. By adhering to the criminal element in order to pull themselves up from poverty and using the dope game (originally pushed into their communities by white demographics) to do it—they have learned to buck the capitalist system, and usually end up learning the ropes of entrepreneurship along the way—making them rich both from illegal and then legal money. They are scrutinized by mainstream Americans for being immoral, unjust and arrogant in their subversive tactics towards success. I believe they are criticized mostly because people are offended by the fact that these ‘thugs’ re-defined success by being deviant, bold and uncompromising enough to reject the tenets of White America’s visions of success—and “search for different ways of being in the world and being in relation to one another than those prescribed by the liberal and consumer subject” (2).

 

Let’s not forget too, the hypocritical views of their detractors who should remember America’s long history of immigrant or fringe ethnicities who banded together as organized crime in order to pull their own up from the gutters—a culture that been accepted and glorified in popular culture for decades. This truly illustrates the hegemony of capitalism. Halberstam references hegemony through theorist, Stuart Hall’s interpretation which reads “a dominant group achieves power not through coercion but through the interlocking system of ideas which persuades people of the rightness of any given set of often contradictory ideas and perspectives” (17). As an example, the common American upholds the image of the Italian mafias who pushed drugs into ghettos (on the low), but then they reject the image of the Black ‘gangstas’ who excel in pushing those drugs in order to make better opportunities for themselves (and others) so that they can leave (and often times put money back into) those ghettos. We immortalize the majority for their subversion and condemn the minority for their subversion. These hypocritical perspectives are commonplace among our society because, as Halberstam point out, “we spend far less time thinking about counter-hegemony than about hegemony” (17). The author also posit that our academic institutions are practicing forms of “traditional” learning—which mimic similar hierarchies established with social class—thus creating a “tension between intellectuals who participate in the construction of the hegemonic…and the intellectuals who work with others…to sort through the contradictions of capitalism and to illuminate the oppressive forms of governance that have infiltrated everyday life” (17).

 

So Halberstam is ultimately speaking of knowledge production that serves the reproduction of capitalism and hegemony versus critical knowledge which questions and offers ways to restructure capitalism for the good of the people. Personally, I think that our University offers a bit of both of these types of education. This course specifically (as with many English/Writing courses I’ve taken) is a testament to the latter—thankfully. I’m sure if I were to take some business courses at PSU I would also find the more traditional methods of learning, too.