What is remarkable about today’s oligarchy is not its ruthlessness but its pettiness and purposelessness. An all-consuming megalomania might at least produce some great art as a side-effect. But this collection of mediocrities cannot even do that. Their political activities—whether pushing for a slightly lower tax rate or throwing money at a self-serving brand of faux progressivism—are too small-minded to be anything other than embarrassing. This class has no idea what to do with its wealth, much less the power that results from it. It can only withdraw and extract, socially and economically, while the political justifications for its existence melt away.
Harman claims that the bedrock of OOO, and indeed of all philosophy, is aesthetic. That’s why a book directly addressing issues of art and art criticism is so fundamental to the OOO project. As he writes in a preliminary note in Art and Objects, what Harman means by aesthetics is “namely, the study of the surprisingly loose relationship between objects and their own qualities.… By art I mean the construction of entities or situations reliably equipped to produce beauty, meaning an explicit tension between hidden real objects and their palpable sensual qualities.”
This tension arises from the fundamental autonomy of objects. I’m reminded of the Simone Weil quote about an ugly girl looking in the mirror and realizing instantly that she’s more than she sees. Or the Pound quote that nothing suggests itself. Objects, according to OOO, are always “absent,” and we approach them only obliquely and with the knowledge of the tension that arises between them and their qualities. So what Harman’s latest book is, in fact, is a premodern (his phrase, via Bruno Latour) reclamation of aesthetic formalism. It’s an argument that art exists and engages in relationships with other objects, but that what makes those relationships possible is the fundamental autonomy of the art itself.
A cave like this is so removed from us in terms of time, and yet the discovery of human hand prints on some of the parts of the cave is yet another indication of our connection with the past. This embodiment is imperfect because it’s clear from the print that whomever decided to do this had a crooked pinky finger. As we watch this, we’re communicating with this distant nameless person, and yet we are palpably aware of the hand’s imposition but also invitation to see.
Retired Army officer and Boston University history professor Andrew Bacevich has a dual identity. Most obviously, he’s a semirenowned writer who commands bipartisan respect for speaking frank truths to an aloof political establishment. He critiques the military without slandering it, and he questions the wisdom of liberal culture without demeaning anyone. This generosity of spirit has given Bacevich access to media outlets across the ideological spectrum. He’s written for both the New Republic and the American Conservative. He’s also a small-c conservative Catholic whose name has been mentioned as a potential secretary of defense nominee in a Bernie Sanders administration, a suggestion Bacevich himself humbly brushed off with, “I doubt that. ... I’m 72 and have other things on my plate.”
But there’s another aspect to Bacevich’s public persona: He is our most insightful commentator on the American character. Past books, such as The New American Militarism and America’s War for the Greater Middle East, are simultaneously policy critiques and dissections of the failures of American culture more broadly. In this sense, Bacevich has more in common with the historian and critic Christopher Lasch than with other military commentators; his ambitions are merely concealed behind the approachability of his subject matter. And his latest book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, is no exception.
This emerging world is far removed from the democratic capitalism that dominated the era after World War II. Rather than encouraging and accommodating families, today’s oligarchs promote a largely childless college campus environment, where they even pay female workers to freeze their eggs. Traditionally companies liked employees with families. Not so much in the brave new tech world, which demands long hours and little time off for such things as raising children.
As for the rest of the population, the prospects are even bleaker. In the tech hub of San Francisco, the middle-class family is almost extinct. The city has lost thirty-one thousand home-owning families over the past decade. It leads the state in economic inequality. The evidence of massive inequality, pervasive homelessness, and social dysfunction fills the streets.
Silicon Valley, located in the suburbs south of the city, has also become profoundly less egalitarian. It is increasingly divided between an entrenched ultra-wealthy class and a dependent poor class, working largely in the service industries. By 2015, some seventy-six thousand millionaires and billionaires called Santa Clara and San Mateo counties home, while many in the area struggle to feed their families and pay their bills each month. Nearly 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s residents rely on public or private assistance.
Wired magazine’s Antonio García Martínez describes the contemporary Valley as “feudalism with better marketing.” In Martínez’s view, a plutocratic elite of venture capitalists and company founders sit above the still-affluent cadre of skilled professionals—well paid, but living only ordinary middle-class lives, given taxes and high prices. Below them lies a vast population of gig workers, whom Martínez compares with sharecroppers in the South. And at the very bottom lies an untouchable class of homeless, those addicted to drugs, and criminals.
Martínez describes a society that, as in the Middle Ages, is “highly stratified, with little social mobility.” High prices make it all but impossible for anyone except the very affluent to own their homes. Workers in the gig economy, much less the “untouchables,” have little chance to improve their lot but struggle to barely pay their rent, or are forced to sleep in their cars, on friend’s couches, or commute long distances from the outlying periphery.
Many years ago I spent a summer in Paris and I got to know an Italian motorcycle cop also staying in the pensione where I was. I took French classes at the Alliance Francaise; he was enjoying a few weeks of vacation. We grabbed an ice cream after dinner and visited a museum now and then, both of us trying to converse with waiters and clerks in our bumbling French. One evening, after an exchange with a supercilious Parisian bartender, he pulled me aside and growled, “These French, they think they’re so superior . . . 2,000 years ago while we were building the Colosseum and writing The Aeneid, they were living in caves and”—at this point he raised his right hand, rubbed his thumb against his fingertips, and scrunched his face in disdain—“eating with their fingers!”
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor