The irony of the op-ed’s depressing reemergence is that everything is an op-ed now. The op-edization of all writing should have rendered its traditional purveyors redundant. Why read a Times columnist when you can read the same opinion delivered with more style and energy almost anywhere else? But even as internet writers refine and defend and reiterate their opinions—an archipelago of converging takes—so-called traditional outlets have consolidated their influence.
The Intellectual Situation
The constant document checks on buses and trains, whose racialized criteria are evident in cell phone videos, build on the methods of Joe Arpaio to paint crosshairs on people of color regardless of documentation status. Digging up decades-old legal troubles—once a practice cited with horror by anticommunist critics of Stalinism—grows more popular as a deportation technique. More such disruptive innovations are undoubtedly forthcoming.
Why does writing well about atrocity matter? Because the history of the world, a history that is morally unimaginable without atrocity, needs to be written, rewritten, well written. To know what really happened, to know what it really felt like, we need more sentences that are capable of opening readers to events so horrible that the senses and the memory close down; sentences that open multiple perspectives on those atrocities, even if they seem to allow for only one perspective — sentences that do all this without losing their hold on logic and grammar and, for that matter, their rhythm
Fiction and Drama
Curt reached over and patted her head as if she were a dog and said he was “very flattered” and “very fond” of her, but he didn’t tell her he loved her, too. Instead, he reminded her that he was “married” and she was “young” and his “employee” so it was “complicated,” which somehow confirmed for Anna that she was just a body to him, always had been, and always would be. Therefore, she was a nobody. Therefore, it didn’t matter what happened to her. No one cared, least of all Anna.
Four billion years ago, amino acid molecules set loose by a dying star gathered into macromolecules, matter having a tendency to become more complex. Who asked it to? During the next half billion years, macromolecules evolved into living cells, first without nuclei, then into cells that could reproduce. One minute you’re matter and the next, poof, you’re alive! Has that ever happened to you? You need soup and the right temperature, things your grandmother would know about, but she hasn’t evolved yet. It’s all guesswork in the dark, the serious, falling-in-love dark. These cells develop DNA, a long molecule that encodes all the information an organism needs to survive. Then they go on a rampage. They do not take no for an answer. This is not some ex-boyfriend who keeps calling or Jessica Walters in Play Misty for Me, who has one date with Clint Eastwood and tries to kill his girlfriend. These cells print themselves like money.
OK, I’m not really a maintenance worker. I’m an artist. But I interviewed a lot of maintenance workers for this piece! Just kidding; I didn’t interview any. I’m just improvising; I took some classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Just kidding! I’m not even an artist. I’m actually a reperformer hired by an artist for a reenactment of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art. Just kidding. It’s not even art. I’m a scab! Nonunion labor cleverly disguised as an art project; “David Levine” is a legal fiction. KIDDING! Actually I am art, I’m animatronic and extremely expensive. Actually I’m a hologram; I’m made of light. Actually I’m made of space. Actually I’m made of worms. Actually I’m an actor, transposéd from the theater to “the space of the gallery.” I work a lot with affect.
Just past the sliding doors in a Rite Aid in Manhattan about 2 AM, Mike WiLL Made-It’s producer tag and the familiar melancholy two-tone of Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type” announces that soon Swae Lee’s Floydian vamp on the trap sound will remind you of what you don’t need to hear: “I ain’t living right.” The bored cashier there to assist you with self-checkout murmurs the chorus lightly tapping at her side as she assists you: “I make my own money, so I spend it how I like.” Among other things, it’s clear there has never been a music this well suited for the rich and bored. This being a great democracy, everyone gets to pretend they, too, are rich and bored when they’re not working, and even sometimes, discreetly, when they are.
Shock therapy was a rough ride. One day in 1992, if a family anecdote is to be believed, my uncle Stanisław, a mechanical designer at Agromet, formerly the country’s largest state-owned producer of agricultural machines and now suddenly bankrupt, called my aunt Hanna to let her know of an opportunity to buy a refrigerator. When she expressed interest and asked for details, he told her he was talking about his own fridge: it was completely empty and he had no use for it anymore.
When I arrived at the cremation ground, a dry patch of land surrounded by verdant fields, the maid’s grandson was sitting on a low-hanging branch. He had remained there until dawn, watching my father’s body burn slowly and keeping the vultures away. Now he watched me as I took a stick and sieved through the ash, discovering a layer of pale gray powder first, and then some of my father’s nails.
This post-Wonka kids’ movie about future video-game competition in dystopian cyberspace contains every pop 1980s reference imaginable, including “Blue Monday,” and stuffs them by the handful into a recycling bag like cans worth five cents each. The movie is cynical and manipulative because the ’80s it exploits means nothing to Spielberg. He uses items from that decade because he noticed that’s what kids are into, even though the movie takes place three decades from now. To Spielberg, the digitized fodder of Ready Player One is not truly classic, and can therefore be further trivialized for any reason. If money can be squeezed out of it from an undiscerning audience of nerds, so it should be and must be. Here, Spielberg has truly become Disney.
Wars increasingly take place within cities, so architecture becomes an important source of evidence, revealing the various forces—political, environmental, social—that act on it. Architecture functions as the remnant, what’s left when the dust has settled; or architecture can be the weapon, the means by which violence is enacted. Eyal Weizman likes to talk about architecture and the built environment as a kind of “slow violence.”
The stakes are high for economics and for policy. Piketty’s empirical observation of steady returns to the abstract total capital stock poses an existential problem for the discipline, as it contradicts one of its most ubiquitously taught maxims: that price varies inversely with quantity. It is the trout in Thoreau’s milk, evidence that the savings-returns story of the distribution of economic growth—which posits that social wealth grows when people invest their private savings for profit—might not be as predictable as we expected.
Seemingly insincere, jokey phrases flip and become the nexus of an argument. Concomitance carries weight. A border of an image can be like the border of a nation-state; tension accumulates at an edge. For an image, the tension lies in the difference between the logics created within the picture plane and outside it. For nation-states, it is often the same—tension between colliding desires, incompatible ways of understanding, communicating, and seeing.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I am less of an optimist, which is why I have spent my life actively trying to bend the arc in a positive direction. But recognizing that I am a biased evaluator of my life’s work, I will submit it to the judgment of history.