Tag Archives: Jill Lepore

Politics of ruin

Every dystopia is a history of the future. What are the consequences of a literature, even a pulp literature, of political desperation? “It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias,” Atwood wrote in the nineteen-eighties. “Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.” But what was really happening then was that the genre and its readers were sorting themselves out by political preference, following the same path—to the same ideological bunkers—as families, friends, neighborhoods, and the news. In the first year of Obama’s Presidency, Americans bought half a million copies of “Atlas Shrugged.” In the first month of the Administration of Donald (“American carnage”) Trump, during which Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts, “1984” jumped to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. (Steve Bannon is a particular fan of a 1973 French novel called “The Camp of the Saints,” in which Europe is overrun by dark-skinned immigrants.) The duel of dystopias is nothing so much as yet another place poisoned by polarized politics, a proxy war of imaginary worlds.

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

–Jill Lepore, A Golden Age of Dystopian Fiction

Blind to continuity, it makes a very poor prophet

Upon the occasion, this morning, of reading two fascinating articles from the New Yorker.

“Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

The upstarts who work at startups don’t often stay at any one place for very long. (Three out of four startups fail. More than nine out of ten never earn a return.) They work a year here, a few months there—zany hours everywhere. They wear jeans and sneakers and ride scooters and share offices and sprawl on couches like Great Danes. Their coffee machines look like dollhouse-size factories.

They are told that they should be reckless and ruthless. Their investors, if they’re like Josh Linkner, tell them that the world is a terrifying place, moving at a devastating pace. “Today I run a venture capital firm and back the next generation of innovators who are, as I was throughout my earlier career, dead-focused on eating your lunch,” Linkner writes. His job appears to be to convince a generation of people who want to do good and do well to learn, instead, remorselessness. Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. If you start a business and it succeeds, Linkner advises, sell it and take the cash. Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.”

—Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine” (June 23, 2014)

“Members of medieval guilds typically progressed in rank from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman—distinctions still used by some trade associations today. Prime Produce will also incorporate three tiers, but based on levels of commitment, rather than on experience and proficiency. As a rite of passage, new members will each receive a pair of slippers to wear while inside the space—a “differentiating mechanism,” Chavez said, between members and visitors.


Thus far, at least, Prime Produce’s membership has considerable ethnic, gender, and occupational diversity. And rather than making political deals, it will seek leverage in the pooling and collective management of resources, in the synergy of the members’ slippers and their ambitions for good works. Despite various delays and hitches, no one has yet dropped out. “The ingredient that plays a central role in all this is trust,” Qinza Najm, an artist who plans to work in the basement studio, told me.

Before the afternoon in Hell’s Kitchen was up, another master-member, Marcos Salazar, joined everyone on the roof. He was taller than the others, his attire less laid-back. Salazar is a consultant and life coach who works with people on cultivating “purpose-driven careers, businesses, and lives.” He also organizes events for social entrepreneurs in the city, and plans to hold some at the Prime Produce space when it’s ready.

“I’ve heard a lot about guilds,” he said.

But when I asked about the slippers, he shrugged and looked at the founders uneasily. They smiled. They hadn’t told him about that part yet.”

—Nathan Schneider, “The New Guilded Age” (October 12, 2015)

Keep in mind that I stumbled across Lepore’s article because some New Yorker intern probably wrote an algorithm that cross-references keywords and tags to summon “related stories” for the reader’s (that is, my) benefit. That said, it is fascinating that the medieval model of the guild is being invoked as a conscious resistance against the vagaries of innovation… while being the place where innovators can gather and be innovative. It also does not escape my notice that the chaotic dispersal of hierarchical class status that we call capitalism is being met with a “differentiating mechanism” that is no less hierarchical, but anointed in a patina of structural stability. Is this (algorithmically-produced) connection an example of the durability and continued relevance of older forms of social organization? An example of the old disrupting the new? A reminder that even the most residual structures of feeling may be repurposed as emergent by the dominant hegemony? Is the New Yorker ironically commenting, via its digital tech coding, on the circular nature of free enterprise? Or am I, by virtue of allowing myself to be guided to these connections by the household gods of the New Yorker’s web platform, the snake swallowing its own tail, being worn as an ornamental bracelet by the hermetic spirit of cultural commentary?