I was living in Torino, Italy, when Bush's war on Iraq broke out, trying rather desperately to finish a collection of short stories I'd started years before. Each day, though, as the U.S. moved closer to attacking a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11, I realized that my fictional stories' relevance was draining away. They were stories started when I was a depressed reporter at Variety, or feeling frustrated as a new wife in a landscape not of my choosing, or, in the wake of my father's death. These stories were work-shopped beyond recognition at an overpriced mountain retreat for wanna-be writers, though deemed somewhat promising by a few charitable scribes at the literati's conference of choice, Bread Loaf. The problem was, however, that I no longer believed these stories had any value, so how could I expect anyone else to care?
Wanting to more immediately apply my talents and experience to some effort aimed at ridding America of its despot-in-chief, I returned to the States and a job with the activist progressive publisher, Chelsea Green....
I was just one of many of novices who turned to activism in response to Bush's war. I look back with not a small amount of awe at what's been accomplished, and am beyond happy each time I see a progressive activist or journalist on television, or see their books hitting the bestseller lists.
My personal trajectory is quite similar. At the beginning of the decade, I was starting the Ph.D. program in English at Temple University, fresh off finishing an MA in creative writing (poetry) and English. However, the series of disastrous Republican power-grabs, especially stealing the 2000 election and the extremely reactionary national response to the attacks of 9/11, pushed me in a decidedly different direction. The stuff I was doing just didn't seem engaged enough--it didn't feel real and responsive enough to the hard-right clusterf*ck that had seized control of our most powerful media, governmental and economic institutions.
I wasn't too bad at what I did, but I thought my chances of landing a tenure track job at a four-year university were minimal. And, even if I did land a job, I wondered why thousands of the country's most highly educated, highly creative, and extremely smart progressives were expending their talents competing for a handful of jobs like that every year. It smacked to me of a broad, generational waste of progressive energy, and probably partly responsible for why the right had seized so much power. What the hell were we all doing with ourselves? So, I took myself out of the business, and began working for unions and blogging full-time.
I don't think that Jennifer and I were lone examples, either. This decade seems to have brought on a broad shift in the leftist aesthetic in America. Although the dates are not exact, the shift I sense is from an inward-looking, confessional, disengaged, self-reflexive aesthetic of depression of the previous decade, toward an outward-looking, highly engaged, self-creating, activism-oriented, reality based aesthetic of determination. The newfound popularity of the political documentary, and the declining popularity of self-reflexive, retro-cool films in the style of Quentin Tarantino is but one cultural example of this. The vast increase in electoral related activism is another, more obvious example. It is possible that I am just talking out of my butt on this one, and describing a personal shift in aesthetic rather than something more broadly based. Still, I think that the rise of a more pluralistic America, combined with the vastly reduced cost of information brought on by recent technological developments, and topped off with a truly reactionary regime seizing power in America against the wishes of the American populace, really did change our cultural predilections quite profoundly.
Jennifer argues that we have lost something as progressives in this shift, and that we need to find a way to re-incorporate the fictional narrative back into our lives. While I admit that this is a sense I have often had during my five years in professional politics, I also don't think that there is any going back at this point. Some really bad shit happened--bad shit that will stay with us all and make the future difficult for a long time to come. I don't think that there is any returning to the old aesthetic until our problems of war, unsustainable and corporatized economics have been truly mitigated, and that the forces waging a war of civilizations have suffered multiple, severe setbacks. The self-reflexive, fictional, depressed aesthetic just doesn't seem relevant anymore, or at least right now. We are way past Kurt Cobain at this point. The rise of a non-fictional, engaged aesthetic probably coincides with the rise of the long, global emergency. Until that emergency has been either downgraded or deemed hopeless, I don't expect the inward-looking, the disengaged-cool, and the fictional to come back anytime soon. There is no way to ignore reality anymore, and that which shows us a way out of our problems will be very similar to that which is beautiful for a long time to come.