The Black Iron Prison

Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary. Anna Moschovakis, ©2000

The Happiness that Exploded

In “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America,” an essay from his 1976 collection Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, Tom Wolfe recounts one of his early rhetorical triumphs over the nay-saying nabobs of the American left. It seems that at a 1965 Princeton conference, he lost it when Günter Grass, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul Krassner started babbling about the specter of fascism in America: “Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: ‘My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a . . . Happiness Explosion!’” According to Wolfe, a curious form of envy was the likeliest explanation for the “ghastly delight” intellectuals of the period took in depicting the land of the free as a gilded cage. “The European intellectuals have a real wasteland? Well, we have a psychological wasteland. They have real fascism? Well, we have social fascism,” etc., he ventriloquizes with glee.

But Ginsberg, et al., were just a warm-up exercise for Wolfe, who immediately proceeded to dismiss a more intellectually pedigreed challenge: Herbert Marcuse’s then-influential theory of “repressive tolerance.” The former Frankfurt School theorist had warned of creeping, indirect totalitarianism in the United States. No longer did social domination rest upon authoritarian violence; rather, it depended on the individual’s propensity to identify with and internalize the worldview of those in power. “This was an insidious system,” snorts Wolfe, “through which the government granted meaningless personal freedoms in order to narcotize the pain of class repression, which only socialism could cure. Beautiful! Well-nigh flawless!”

Three decades later, Wolfe was still at it. In the 150th anniversary issue of Harper’s, published not long before 9/11, he berated citizens of the “most powerful, prosperous, and popular nation of all time” for failing to celebrate the imperial glory of America: “an El Dorado where the average working man [had] the political freedom, the personal freedom, the money, and the free time to fulfill his potential in any way he saw fit.” If Marcuse was no longer au courant, Wolfe found another European intellectual kook to mock. These days, he wrote, we were asked to believe that “the powers that be manipulate, with poisonous efficiency, the very language we speak in order to imprison us in an invisible panopticon, to use . . . Michel Foucault’s term.” Foucault and his ilk were standing in the way of the greatest celebration ever! Just ask those regular folks, who, according to Wolfe’s Harper’s manifesto, voice their opposition to the snarkiness of intellectuals “at night, over cigarettes . . . muttering, grousing, grousing, muttering . . . all the while doubting their own common sense,” which tells them there is no cause for alarm whatsoever, that America is really OK.

But in the wake of 9/11, a number of left-leaning intellectuals—particularly, though not exclusively, those who approved of the US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq—have articulated a similar message of American OKness. Much like Wolfe, born-again liberals have repudiated those thinkers who ever dared suggest our country might somehow be, as the poet Heine put it (of America, in the early 1830s), a “monstrous prison of freedom” in which “invisible chains” weigh far more heavily upon unwitting inmates than visible ones ever did.

Richard Wolin’s The Seduction of Unreason is a newly published treatise and tract investigating postmodernism’s debt to proto-fascist ideas and attitudes. Along the way Wolin, a contributor to the New Republic and Dissent and the author of a study of Walter Benjamin, takes pains to make scathing remarks about an impressive variety of indirect-domination claims. These include: Marcuse’s diagnosis of a one-dimensional society, T. W. Adorno’s vision of a totally administered world, Foucault’s argument that forces of governmentality have become adept at “inscribing” us in the clutches of power-knowledge, Jacques Derrida’s concerns about the hegemonic force of the dominant discourse, and what Wolin calls Jean Baudrillard’s verdict on the impossibility of progressive historical change.

Wolin rejects all such insidious-system claims not simply because they are “overtly cynical and empirically untenable,” he writes, but because if the workings of power do persist in defiance of even the best-intentioned efforts to disrupt them, then “the emancipatory hopes of the vast majority of men and women seem consigned in advance to frustration and disappointment.” To regard the Enlightenment’s vision of the future with skepticism, cynicism, irony, or contempt is to be left, he says, “dazed and disoriented—morally and politically defenseless.” Wolin’s argument against indirect-domination claims is in effect an inversion of Wolfe’s. Because social inequality and class injustice have at last been overcome, according to Wolfe, we should stop imagining that America is an invisible-prison state. Wolin’s point is that we should stop imagining that America is an invisible-prison state because those same problems have yet to be overcome.

We should always be nervous when ideological enemies agree on anything. Wolin’s book points out how disturbing it is that arguments once the prerogative of the counterrevolutionary right should have attained a new lease on life among the postmodernist left. I propose that glib denunciations of indirect-domination claims tossed off with equal aplomb by reactionaries like Wolfe and progressives like Wolin are just as troubling. In fact, it wasn’t ivory-tower leftists and poststructuralists who dreamed up indirect-domination theory—it was thinkers closer to the ground, outsider intellectuals with bizarre, unclassifiable politics. There exists what some might call a Secret History of Invisible-Prison Theory, one that reached its rhetorical apotheosis so far not in the scholarly writings of Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault, or Baudrillard, but in the outré poetry of Baudelaire and the pulp science fiction of Philip K. Dick. This history begins, according to my own research, in the early 19th century. Let’s take a look.

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