The Rise Of The Non-Fictional Aesthetic

by: Chris Bowers

Thu Jul 31, 2008 at 19:30

In describing her move away from the literary world to the political one, I think that Jennifer Nix captures a zeitgeist of this decade with which many progressives can identify (more in the extended entry):
Chris Bowers :: The Rise Of The Non-Fictional Aesthetic
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.  

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Shorter (4.00 / 2)

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.

"From ennui to enraged to engaged"

And for me, the disaster of the Bush presidency got me interested in US politics.  

Thinking about what you wrote, I don't find Seinfeld nearly as funny as I used to and I wonder if this is why.

The first time I saw Seinfeld (4.00 / 1)
I didn't like it because I didn't like people like that and I came across them all the time in Philly. I remember in the late 80's becoming so bored with design in local South Street stores as opposed to the arty thrift folk look the hippies brought to The Street.

[ Parent ]
Early Dis-Adapter (0.00 / 0)
I got bored with Seinfeld after about three seasons.  And discovered it--via my sister--just about one season before it became wildly popular.  So about two years of being in synch with the zeitgeist on it.

Desperate Housewives is aging much better, I think.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
"You're not supposed to like the characters" (0.00 / 0)
This is what I kept thinking in my head whenever I heard someone try to cast their friends as one of the characters from Seinfeld.  More than the silliness of the show itself, that's what I found the most frustrating.

I can't say the show doesn't hold up, because for a 30 minutes sitcom it was technically audacious, but its content hasn't aged particularly well.

Although, as a counterpoint, Curb Your Enthusiasm is also a comedy of (bad) manners, but seems to hold up better.  My theory is that it's because the show dwells on social contracts that have meaning (allowable period to send a wedding gift, preventing a Jew from being baptized, even "Stop and Chat"s), as opposed to something contrived like "double dipping".

[ Parent ]
OF COURSE You're Supposed To Like The Characters (0.00 / 0)
If you didn't, you'd change channels.  It's very well written because you like them even though they do despicable things.  You care about them in spite of themselves, and this sets up all sorts of tensions that contribute to the success of the show.  But those tensions simply run out of room to expand beyond a certain point.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Perhaps a better way of putting it (0.00 / 0)
Is "You're not supposed to want to be these characters".  The conversations I'd hear from people casting their friends into Seinfeld would include themselves as well.  In other words, people would proudly identify themselves with Jerry, Elaine, George or Kramer.

All sitcoms run out of room to describe their tensions at a certain point (hence, "Jumping The Shark").  What bugged me about Seinfeld was that, although the tensions are clearly meaningless outside of the show itself (which I believe was the show's intent), fans of the show insisted on making them meaningful in the real world, essentially negating an important aspect of the show.

I probably shouldn't have let it bug me so much; it's a great example of how art is a synthesis of creator and observer.  In fact, consider this:  By tempting the narcissism of its viewers, maybe the show actually does us a huge service by exposing it through discussions about the show, and I was reacting to seeing something in people that I didn't want to see.  That's as far away from introspective as one can get, perhaps making Seinfeld an exception to pre-Bush media, rather than an example of it.

[ Parent ]
Awesome post. (4.00 / 1)
Really well said.

But I wonder... It seems like one natural response to these trying times would indeed be to move towards a non-fiction aesthetic. But another natural respnose would be for fiction to become more politically engaged. And I don't think I'm seeing that. (Though I have to admit, I'm reading the very excellent Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson, right now, and it is a major exception to this rule.)

Thoughts, anyone? Is fiction more politically engaged these days than it was in the '80s or '90s?

Fiction hasn't been really socially engaged (0.00 / 0)
Since the 1920s and 30s.

And socially engaged fiction at that time was often poor fiction. Except Nathanael West. Read Miss Lonelyhearts-- there  is a good allegory of political suffering.  

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
Do You Read Any Black Authors??? (4.00 / 1)
I just find that an utterly astonishing statement from someone living in the land of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Walter Mosely, Chip Delaney, Octavia Butler, etc., etc., etc.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Clarification (0.00 / 0)
Yes, Paul. I have read most of those. I guess I was thinking of someone like explicitly political like Dos Passos, where as Toni Morrison whose work certainly has political implications.

I had not meant to disregard authors like the ones you mention, but I don't think Morrison sees her work as a vehicle for change where authors of the time period I mentioned thought fiction could have explicit results.  

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
Midcentury folks ... (0.00 / 0)
... like Ralph Ellison and Flannery O'Connor believed that there was no model of ethically/politically engaged literature native to the 20th century--i.e., neither of them thought that the twenties and thirties were anything to write home about.  Instead, both looked back to an author whom they thought of as late-Victorian, and whom we now think of as a totally disengaged figure, a recluse and a solipsist: Henry James.  It seems the supposed golden age of political literature is always six to eight decades ago .......

[ Parent ]
John Berger has always written with (0.00 / 0)
a political aesthetic and lived his life in the same mode. Cutting hay with peasants in France etc. His art history anti-academic perception is utterly revealing. He champions outsider art. And yet when he writes about Hals, for instance, he opens your eyes and mind.

[ Parent ]
The confessional mode ... (4.00 / 3)
... is still the genre du jour.  Think of how the convention of the "confession booth" is the only way that characters are developed on most reality TV shows.  The implication is that our "true" self is something outside of social engagement.  Our "true" self is something that happens when it's just you and the camera/priest/shrink/police interrogator, thoroughly isolated from the larger world.

Even the more politically engaged fiction in the last few years (at least the stuff that immediately comes to my mind) seems to be taking refuge in alternative history (see Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, about the presidency of isolationist-populist Charles Lindbergh over reluctant warrior FDR) or a kind of earnest sentimentality that becomes an end in itself (see Dave Eggers' What is the What, about the first Sudanese genocide).

And political films?  I haven't seen anything (besides documentaries, of course) that made me feel urgent political feelings in a long, long time.  Although a recent return to "Network" left me thunderstruck--it was meant as dystopic surrealism, and now it just looks like social realism.  It's enough to make a grown man cry.

[ Parent ]
Perhaps non-fiction can have better narrative (4.00 / 2)
The thing that struck me most about Nixonland are the narrative threads that run through the book.  It isn't personal, and it isn't very polemical at all; Perlstein seems to step out of the way and let the facts tell the story.

Of course, that's not exactly true:  Perlstein puts the facts together in a way to tell a story.  So while the book is non-fiction, the art of storytelling is quite prominent.

[ Parent ]
Yes but (4.00 / 2)
I think literature--true literature--is about seeing the world as a complex place, through multiple pairs of eyes, and empathizing with characters of all types.

I still need that place to recharge.

Some good progressive fiction...
The Corrections J. Franzen
My Year of Meats Ruth Ozeki
Waking the Dead -Scott Spencer
The Satanic Verses- Rushdie
1984 - Orwell (had to include it)

But I agree as well. I used to believe art and literature trumped politics. Now I would take one good fucking piece of progressive legislation on civil liberties, Iraq, or global warming over another Faulkner book any day.  

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

Holy frak (4.00 / 1)
"I used to believe art and literature trumped politics. Now I would take one good fucking piece of progressive legislation on civil liberties, Iraq, or global warming over another Faulkner book any day."

Christ, I know exactly what you mean. That really is it, precisely. And I love Faulkner.  

[ Parent ]
As I Lay Dying (0.00 / 0)
Doesn't get better than that.  

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
Yes, But... (4.00 / 2)
Fiction is still relevant.  It's just that certain sorts of fictions have lost their juice.  This is certainly true of our most popular fictions--tv, movies and music lyrics.

For example, the right has "24", which they take to be an instruction manual.  And we have any number of cautionary tales about the inevitable blurring of good and evil, even when confronting the most heinous evil, from the Law and Order franchise to Buffy, Angel, Firefly and (soon!) Dollhouse.  Not to mention Harry Potter.  Three Kings. Pan's Labyrinth. The examples of vital progressive fictions are all around us.  It's just that the examples I've cited are, for the most part, not specifically "literary" fictions.

What can I say?  There just aren't that many George Orwells or Aldous Huxleys hanging around.

I think it really just boils down to felt need. Answer the need of the moment, and when the muse calls for something more, you will be ready.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

Two words: Battlestar Galactica (4.00 / 1)

Political SciFi at its best.  

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
Well, For TV (0.00 / 0)
In novels, Octavia Butler is still pretty damn hard to beat.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Yes very true. I am very sorry she is gone. (0.00 / 0)

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
As far as answering "felt need," (0.00 / 0)
Grace Paley certainly balanced an incredible commitment to both activism and fiction.  

[ Parent ]
Then try John Berger (0.00 / 0)
his fiction and non-fiction.

[ Parent ]
I don't know (0.00 / 0)
The "felt need" seems to point to non-fiction. And I think that says something very important.  

[ Parent ]
I Agree That It Does Now For Most People (0.00 / 0)
and that's why I think it's right to follow that path.

But when you've got an astonishing piece of fiction like Pan's Labyrinth, for example, you can see that fiction still has it's place.  It's just that if you haven't been writing that sort of fiction, then non-fiction is the obvious answer, and the right one.  That was what I was meant by "felt need."

It's not dictated by anything outside of you, it's dictated by your response to what's outside of you.  And it's following (or, even, just to start with, finding) that autonomous voice that is key to everything else.  Compared to that, the question of genres--fiction, non-fiction, blogging, documentary film-making, whatever--is relatively trivial, and will sort itself out.

Find truth first.  All else will follow.  It's always the case, but it's not always so in-your-face as it has been of late.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
To be honest (4.00 / 1)
I never liked fiction, or narrative, that much. Which is probably why I focused on poetry, history and theory. I still never read novels. That isn't a new development

There will always be exceptions. Especially when describing a broad historical trend out of my butt. Such narratives never work, because they are always generalizations. It is the same way that "red states" and "blue states" don't work, because 43% of the electorate was either a blue voter in a red state, or a red voter in a blue state. It is dangerous to generalize like this.

In truth, I think that the change is more connected to self-publishing than to any actual aesthetic change. That is, once the gatekeepers were done away with, or at least reduced in power via the self-publishing internet, a more popular aesthetic of reality rose to the surface, even though it had always been there all along. And that is the real change. It would have happened even if there wasn't a stolen election, or 9/11, or whatever. More people are just finally being allowed to speak up on their own, and the gatekeepers can't control the aesthetic as they once did. What we are seeing now was always there, just hidden.

[ Parent ]
I Agree, But That Seems Like A Whole Different Story (0.00 / 0)
I, too, was much more drawn to other forms than linear fictional narratives, so I can sympathize a good deal.

As for your other point, I think the political internet is quite different than it would have been otherwise.  I was there in the late 1990s, and the change has been head-spinningly dramatic.

The lowering of barriers would have lead to an explosion of self-expression anyway, as we see in the wide range of cultural, personal and avocational blogging, You Tube, MySpace, etc.  But the particular explosion of the left blogosphere I think has it's own particular story, which your diary addresses.  That wouldn't have just happened on its own.  Something would have happened, but not this, not with this intensity, sense of urgency and necessity.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
The best contemporary fulfillment of "felt need" (4.00 / 2)
Is, IMHO, The Colbert Report.

In a way, it's a rejoinder to the Bob and Ray response to why they didn't make jokes about Watergate: "How would we make it funnier?".  Colbert makes the news of the day funnier by simply reporting it.

While the show doesn't have a narrative in the way a novel or sit-com would, Colbert's character is well-developed enough that he can fulfill a narrative within the show during any particular segment:  We know "Colbert" will be selfish and narcissistic; even his Wrist Strong campaign only started when he hurt his wrist.  Though thinking about it, sometimes "Colbert" will actually be Colbert, making fun of something rather than using something to make fun of "Colbert" (I hope that makes sense, but it's kind of late).  Either way, something the show finds absurd will be mocked, and we'll have a narrative arc, finishing with a "moral" to our "story" (i.e., the segment).

[ Parent ]
Word (4.00 / 2)
I had a BFA from a pretty hard to get into conservatory and was hanging around Brooklyn doing performance art, paying my rent w/part-time web development.

Post-9/11 things started changing, a new urgency in the creative work, and a dawning realization that while narratives in general are and will likely always be dominant forces in human events, the contemporary art world in particular was pretty impotent.

Ditto that for protest.

Ergo, politix.

I think the point about narratives remains salient though: the kinds of ideas and ideals that can only be driven through fantasies and fiction will remain powerful and vital sources. Being reality-based is all well and good, but being transcendent is important too from time to time. We cede the territory of fiction at our own peril.

Me | My Work | Future Majority

Ah but performance art can be (0.00 / 0)
so political. I consider it guerilla art if done with that in mind and you can do it anywhere.

I was in the St. Louis Grayhound Terminal once waiting for a connection to Indiana that wasn't going to come in time for my appointment so I decided to go back home. Meanwhile the place was packed with buses that were derailed, late, broken and just plain lost. And the kids were playing these violent video games - I remember innocent pinball.

So one of these games had an airport scenario with hooded terrorists shooting at passengers. Imagine! Training kids to participate in that (after 9-11). So I started talking out loud.

Well these children are being trained to be terrorists and mommies and daddies are paying for it. Just look. They are going to see how to hunt down passengers in an airport or bus terminal and kill them!

Then some guy from New York City joined me with even more outrageous remarks and so I zinged back.  We had great fun, our audience was sitting like stones pretending they didn't hear any of it but that didn't intimidate us. We kept on for quite awhile expounding our political views and interpreting the psychological impact of what these kids were doing at the video games.

Actually you can do it anywhere. I sometimes do it at the supermarket when they have a jar out to collect nickels and pennies for some kid in intensive care. I say, "If Gore had been elected we would have health care by now and this child would be taken care of, just the same as if she/he lived in France or Germany."

Silence and pretense that they don't hear. But they do.

And magic marker on those jars on the counters asking for pennies and nickels for some poor child. I write Vote Universal Health Care Next Time.

[ Parent ]
¡Viva Boal! (4.00 / 1)

Invisible Theater has worked to help drive social change in Brazil, and it's also a hell of a lot of fun. However, not so effective in the US where mass media is dominant. Drop in the bucket, etc.

Something like this organized on a mass scale would be interesting. Would be possible through the internets. Hmmmm....

Me | My Work | Future Majority

[ Parent ]
When you suggested the internet (0.00 / 0)
my image was people all over in public places wearing Obama and McCain masks doing debates by taking their quotes and juxtaposing them and handouts with the dialogue and the sources.


[ Parent ]
we're not all kurt cobains (0.00 / 0)
As a fiction writer, creative writing teacher and founder/editor of a fiction-centered independent press, I also read Jennifer's essay with much interest--I've often watched Jennifer's career, and that of other activist friends, with a certain amount of awe and envy for what they are doing and accomplishing in the world on a real-life, practical level.  Indeed, sometimes living in a world of literature and stories-in-progress (my students'; the writers I publish; my own) can make me feel disconnected from the world of, political protests, and certainly the political movers and shakers most of us only read about on the internet or see on TV, etc.  Throw into the mix that I also have three young children, and about the most practical activism I have managed to fit into my life during the Bush regime has been one day canvasing for John Kerry in the rain in Milwaukee (and some piddly donations, on a writer's income, to his and Barack's campaigns.)  I appreciate and applaud anyone who actually commits to making activism and political involvement her/his life's work, for any period of time whatsoever.  There are times when literature can wait.

That all said, it seems absurdly apolitical and ahistorical (and very insularly American) to equate the creation of literature or any kind of art solely with a Kurt Cobain, slacker-hipster navel gazing.  Really?  What about writers like Havel, Kundera, etc., who have grappled with politics and fiction/drama throughout the world and throughout history--some of whom have paid hefty prices for the truth of their words?  Isn't one of the main ways we learn about the past through the art forms created during different historical eras?  And it would be incorrect, too, to claim that American writers are somehow more apolitical than writers elsewhere, or don't engage political topics in their work.  Writers from Faulkner to Toni Morrison have engaged some of the central moral dilemmas of American history and made them come alive for many people to whom they would have been merely dry facts reported in a textbook.  While there will always be writers (and other artists) who become "celebrities" of sorts due to their personal problems or a fad they helped launch, ala Cobain (some of whom, like Cobain, also have talent, and others of whom have none), these cults of personality don't indicate that "artists" as a whole are nothing but a self-referential, navel-gazing lot who have nothing to say about or contribute to society.  Many fiction writers are also activists.  Many  writers are not activists at the time, but later write about a period in which they lived in a way that enables many people to learn about and from that period in an intensely personal way.  And some writers (fewer now than in the past, I would venture) may lead lives of extreme isolation and disengagement from the larger world, but still manage to contribute work to the world that sustains others in times of great peril.

Our times are indeed sucky right now.  We are at a precipice of environmental and economic disaster that may or may not have already teetered too far over the brink for us to truly ever return to our former "innocence."  But this current calamity is not the first precipice the world has ever teetered upon, it is not the first type of innocence humanity will have lost, and it will not be the last.  People who lived through World War II, through witch hunts, through plagues, through the Great Depression, also felt hopeless and lost.  Many no doubt abandoned art (or never had access to it to begin with, in those times), but others have written with eloquent passion about those times in ways that have contributed to something as real if as corny as the human "soul."  No individual writer has any guarantee that s/he will be so lucky or so gifted as to make such a contribution.  But just as any activist strikes again and again at what seems a brick wall of hopelessness, in the attempt to accomplish even the smallest change, so writers (many, many writers) endeavor to capture something real about the human condition and the nature of the world that will enrich and inform, and will help create a dialogue and sustain it, long after that writer's death.

I feel guilt about not being more of an activist.  But my guilt is at not being more of an activist while ALSO being a fiction writer--at not making other sacrifices in my life that would enable me to do both.  I don't feel guilty for writing fiction, or for reading it.  I have learned, as Jennifer so beautifully put it, as much from the literature that informed my life as from many real life experiences.

If anyone needs proof of the importance of literature, you need only look at the fact that in many totalitarian and oppressive regimes, artists/writers are thrown in prison alongside activists, and sometimes even put to death for their words, and books of fiction are among the first that are banned.  Americans forgetting the importance of literature are only making it easier for the Right to demonize all forms of intellectualism, as well as trivialize the truths told in fiction.

Literature (0.00 / 0)
I didn't mean to say that literature was dead. Just that the popular aesthetic dominating it had shifted.

Art is only defined by the institutions in which is it produced and disseminated. Those are also changing, but mostly because of the internet, not because of politics.

All I meant to say was that the popular aesthetic had shifted, not unlike the way historical periods are often defined in literature. Art isn't dead--it is just different. And that is all I hoped to imply with this piece.  

[ Parent ]
7 years ago i read nothing but music blogs and magazines (4.00 / 3)
and i was all about my music

fucking bush.

Yeah. He has ruined my retirement (4.00 / 1)
And my looks. Eight years of contempt and despising my government now shows on my face permanently. When you are older it happens faster.

[ Parent ]
Oh yeah (4.00 / 1)
I miss that. And I really know what you mean. There was a time when I thought I could turn away, and focus on other stuff. Bush is the best object lesson in critical and aesthetic theory, ever. If what you still do matters even with Bush, then you might have something. Otherwise, it was just something less important.  

[ Parent ]
Now there is a statement I never thought I'd hear... (4.00 / 1)
Bush is the best object lesson in critical and aesthetic theory, ever

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

[ Parent ]
Also (4.00 / 1)
6 years ago the newly-installed editor of Rolling Stone said they'd be cutting all news/politics reporting because "the kids weren't interested."

That changed too.

Me | My Work | Future Majority

[ Parent ]
thanks for raising this (4.00 / 1)
At heart, I essentially agree with what Jennifer's saying about the necessity of fiction to nourish the soul.  I also think there are large tracts of truth in this post :)  I think it can be taken a bit further and I would modify some points.

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.

"Fiction" (in the sense of building narratives) and "Analysis" (in the sense of attempting to comprehend the outside world) are intertwined in me, and I wonder to what extent in other people as well.  I think the shift you're describing took place, but it's not just a shift in activities but in discourse as well--in other words that the mindset you're describing pervaded not just what jobs and activities people do, what kind of fiction they consume, but in how they think and how they do what they do.  For example, the activism that I was part of in the late 1990s (anti-sweatshop) was fundamentally inward looking - it was consumer rights essentially - sympathetic consumer rights, but not aware of the actual power dynamics that were operating and full of stories and narratives from "saving" people to "evil" corporations.  Essentially, it took the feeling of threat and later "offness" of the Bush Administration--and the chain of events that that set in place to place an emphasis on groundedness, on practicality, on what is often described as "reality."  And in the blogging world, the sheer development of easy and essentially free (setting aside labour costs and opportunity costs) social communication helped lead from the inward to the social.

What is of relevance here though, is that the neocons and others took the idea of the absence of truth, relativism, and other ideas to such an extreme level - basically, they coopted postmodernism for their own ends - that they forced us to demand a discourse that privileged "truth."  They made us understand that if you say everything is fluid and competitive, that evolution and creationism are both theories, you can run into serious problems.

Which is to say, I don't think we've escaped the "inward looking" sensibility altogether because we collectively shared it and still do :)  And moreover, there are still ways in which American progressives are often blind to many power dynamics (notably global)- due to lack of exposure and cloistering of mentalities, socially constructed yes, but there is not enough of an attempt to escape it to the extent possible.  There are many, many instances in which I wonder at the accuracy of "reality" in "reality-based community" :)    But I also wonder what "reality" means to people - have they simply returned to a black/white notion of truth, rather than something that understands the truth is out there, but there are varying degrees to which we can understand it.

As a result the response to rightwing postmodernism or whatever you want to call it ALSO runs into serious problems, because if we lose understanding that we are STILL constructing stories, we STILL have perspectives - the core points of the attempt to dismantle ideas of truth that existed before Foucault et al - we still err - albeit in a more progressive way - in thinking that because we are justifying what we say in the name of "reality", because we value the correspondence of perspectives to the things they're describing, that in fact means we're accurately apprehending them and that there is no subjectivity in play at all.  This, then, can ALSO lend itself to privileging particular perspectives (and thereby the interests of the people who hold them).

All of which is to say, we can't quite escape, but we can do our best to grapple and struggle with the difficult realities, rather than succumbing to the temptation of saying "just because everything's not relative, that means I have a grasp of the truth, which is a singular entity."  Or as it was put more succinctly, when substantively meant, "think globally, act locally."  There is still a role for imagination IN politics - whether we choose to recognize we're employing it or not.

Again, perhaps my own personal struggle rather than any one else's.  The lack of clarity in my own writing here is telling too (and apologies for it...but here's why)- it's difficult to articulate some of these issues because they blend yourself as a subject and an object - a task I haven't quite mastered yet, but is worth attempting to do.

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.

I've recently been noticing in film prior inklings of the sensibilities that now drive a lot of what I'm interested in - films like The Matrix trilogy, Fight Club, and other works that laid the ground work in fiction for what later transferred to the realm of nonfiction.  I also note that the politics has sharpened - the Wachowski Brothers' politics of V for Vendetta are far more radical than they were in the Matrix trilogy (except perhaps the first one).  So perhaps this shift is not as much of a break as much of the gradual development in reaction to the culture of naked bull$hitting by power that took over after 1994 (first reaching ascendancy in the Clinton impeachment farce--but to which the entire political and media class contributed).  It was complacency, sheer and simple--and I mean that not as a deep-seated critique of individual Americans, but as a description of what social and economic forces and machiavellian actions by Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton conspired to produce.  Every politician lies in content, and misrepresents themselves in form to meet social expectations, but it's unlikely to the extent to which these people did it.

Anyway, again thanks - really thought provoking post.

very interesting post (0.00 / 0)
certainly a lot of food for thought.

One observation I do have: the societies where great fiction was created--Elizabethan England for instance, with its great playwrights, of whom Shakespeare is the greatest--were capable of grappling with the issues they faced in fiction.

The ability of a society to withstand the sight of itself accurately embodied in a work of art is a measure of its health. Healthy people can look at themselves in the mirror and not instinctively flinch away.

Note that by an accurate portrayal I do not necessarily mean a "realistic" portrayal, or one that is explicitly engaged in addressing social and political themes. Shakespeare's plays were not realistic, but highly stylized and symbolic, set in times long past and peopled with mythical characters. But somehow they represented the problems and conflicts of the time, and indeed, of all times.

America is a nation in profound denial. Much of our fictional output is sheer escapism and fantasy--and no doubt, that's what most fiction is in any time or place. But America seems to be an extreme case, due to the fact that everything in this country, even vital necessities like food and water, is viewed as a pure commodity, to be sold for maximum profit, no matter how absolutely crucial it may be to everyday life.

Our most popular entertainments are comic-book movies, empty spectacles that have nothing to do with our real problems. We cannot stand to look at ourselves in the mirror. There is nothing more fearful to America than to see ourselves as we are. And so we turn to works of fiction that glorify our self-image while glossing over our weaknesses.

After the coming crisis hits us, and if we manage to resolve the grave issues we face today, we may well see the return of works of art that do honestly address the conflicts of our time, without necessarily being "realistic".

Don't be so dismissive of "comic-book movies" (0.00 / 0)
Our most popular entertainments are comic-book movies, empty spectacles that have nothing to do with our real problems.

While I sympathize with this statement in a general way, The Dark Knight Returns is #1 in the box office, and most certainly dwells on what we're doing to ourselves as a country.  The Joker's understanding of human nature is keen enough to almost make him the anti-hero of the film.

And, in both support and opposition to your position, a Warner exec recently watched a rough cut of Watchmen, based on the graphic novel from 1987, and said, "This makes Superman look stupid."

Incidentally, having just reread the book, I think it holds up pretty well, and I don't agree with sentiments I've read that the Cold War scenario makes the book seem dated; we still live in fear, and groups of powerful people, like Nixon and his cronies in the book, try to maintain power over us indefinitely.  If anything, the final chapter is even more chilling, and causes me to ask questions about why the reactions in the book's world were so different from ours, or better yet, what other paths our country could have taken.  If the film version gets even one tenth of the book's ideas onto the screen, it will provoke some very lively discussions.

[ Parent ]
the Dark Knight exemplifies this tendency (0.00 / 0)
in many ways it is an accurate reflection of our vacuous spiritual and moral state.

A friend of mine had a remarkably penetrating interpretation of the movie: Batman and Joker are both psychopaths. The difference is that Batman internalizes his pathology, sublimating it into a desire for order, while Joker externalizes it, spreading chaos everywhere he goes.

These two are locked in a symbiotic relationship.

Batman needs the Joker--the ultimate nihilist, a criminal who can never be fathomed and who can never be brought under the iron rule of the law.

And Joker needs Batman--the ultimate authoritarian, a vigilante who never flags in his quest to bring everything into complete and total order.

Batman has so many chances to kill the Joker, and vice versa. Neither of them does so because they're having too much fun. Each finds in the other his reason for existing.

The people of Gotham are reduced to mere spectators in Batman and Joker's grand game. They don't have to accept any moral responsibility at any point in the movie. Batman takes on Two-Face's guilt, in a shining example of the Platonic lie--the guardian of the city nobly deceiving the people.

In this way the people of Gotham never have to acknowledge their own role in the carnage and lawlessness. They can merely continue believing naively in the shining myth of Harvey Dent, the golden protector of Gotham. And instead of having to reflect on how a good man can be brought low, and on what that means for their own lives, they can simply pour their hatred and anger into Batman--the perfect vessel for all the unpleasant shit about themselves that they don't want to look at.

In the first movie, Batman was more like Bush--a vigilante (Bush usurped the presidency) coming in and using morally questionable tactics to "clean up" the city by brutalizing criminals. In the second movie, Batman was more like Obama--a blank screen on whom we can project anything we wish, who will nonetheless take care of all our problems and secretly do what it takes to protect us from the boogeyman of the Joker, while allowing us to wash our hands of any responsibility.

It's very systematic.

So in this sense it is an accurate reflection of America. But it is not a reflection that challenges us by exposing our dark side, but rather is slanted to validate our self-image.

[ Parent ]
The "good guys" aren't always the ones that challenge us (0.00 / 0)
The Joker, speaking to Harvey Dent:

Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds!

How many movies in recent memory have so explicitly stated that the rules are tipped in the favor of the powerful?  Certainly, there's other parts of the movie that seem to favor authoritarianism, but it's definitely not (just) a popcorn movie.  Soma, this ain't.

Also, you state:

The people of Gotham are reduced to mere spectators in Batman and Joker's grand game. They don't have to accept any moral responsibility at any point in the movie.

The ferry scene explicitly confronts that question, though clearly there are narrative constraints on how the scene will end.

[ Parent ]
I might have to disagree (0.00 / 0)
I'm a progressive, but I really don't want progressivism to colonize the literature I read. I respect others who feel differently, but I don't think that we should spread the notion that if you're a progressive, the ideology has to permeate your life so completely that even your literature must be full of it.

We can be progressives and also many other things. In fact, I think that there is an opposite danger in the progressive movement: With the internet, it's so easy for us to saturate our free time with reading and commenting on political things that this becomes the only sort of thinking we able to do. We become what Nietzche calls "the inverse cripples" - one-dimensional people who lost all but one of their functions.

And if that's what we've become, we'll also be terrible progressives, because effective progressivism requires an understanding of many different things. I want to scream, for example, at how badly most progressives understand science, and yet are so quick to offer (harebrained) remedies to our energy crisis. They evaluate these according to a political litmus test inherited from the progressive movement. No wonder everyone else who sees this thinks we're morons. Regarding many of these important issues, most of us are!

The worst thing we can do to progressivism is to isolate progressives even further inside "the movement."  Progressives need to get tenured positions, we need to become scientists, we need to become executives, and parents and connoisseurs of culture (not just progressive culture), and everything else. Maybe we should also be spending less time in the choir, preaching and being preached to. What good does that do?

Disagree with your disagreement (0.00 / 0)
I think you misunderstand what Chris is saying. He's not telling you to engage in political activism at the expense of other interests. He's not saying that the only relevant fiction today is fiction that is "colonized" with progressive thought. He's merely pointing out that "the popular aesthetic" of literary pursuits has changed. When he witnessed this country's descent into hell it changed his perceptions about the relevancy of an "inward-looking, confessional, disengaged, self-reflexive aesthetic of depression" that seemed to dominate the creative mindset of the 90's. I'm not sure how much I agree with him (even though I have to confess I see a similar transformation in my own career trajectory), but let's at least be clear about what his point is.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
I saw something different (0.00 / 0)
The entry said:

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 proposed remedy was to transition to a literature that incorporates political nature of our times, because the rest is somehow "irrelevant." Concretely, the remedy is to "put the books of progressives ... on the bestseller list" and to ignore the "inward-looking" works of Cobain, Terrantino and presumably everyone else whose fiction isn't dripping with the issues that we discuss on our blogs.

I think I understood that right, didn't I?

Let's start with the ridiculous myopia of thinking that politics looms larger in our times than in others. Try telling that to my grandmother, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WWI, or her daughter, born under Nazi occupation, or me, born in a totalitarian regime in which my political blog postings would land me in jail. Are you seriously saying that this is a more political time and that the "inward looking" art of the previous generations is no longer relevant? I'm sorry. That's absurd. Look at the following line:

The rise of a non-fictional, engaged aesthetic probably coincides with the rise of the long, global emergency.

Can the author possibly think that these times are more dangerous than, say, 1938 or 1962? What's different now is that there is much less at stake in politics than at any time in the 20th century. There is, at the same time, the rise of a self-appointed political pundit class who think that the world should revolve around their hobby (and in some cases profession).

I don't want to say that the issues on which they comment aren't important, but they are in no way more important than the issues faced by their progressive predecessors, who often risked prison, death and worse to do similar work. So anyway, these previous generations had plenty of time for "introspective" artists like Tolkien, Klimt, Hitchcock, Shakespeare, Zappa and many others. They are what collectively gave us culture. And culture is a necessity, not a luxury, even for a progressive who really wants to make a difference. If you study the dissident movements of Europe and South America, you'll see that it is a profound understanding of these pillars of culture that gave the movements their power, perspective and insight.

The previous generations of progressives didn't hide from introspective explorations of the human spirit. They were animated by them. The author may be right that this interest is waning on the left, and in him personally, but if that's right I think it's is all to the detriment of the progressive movement. Insofar as it's representative, postings like this make it clear that the movement is losing its perspective about history as well as culture. That will not help us gain a better perspective on politics.

[ Parent ]
Sure, explorations of the human spirit still matter (0.00 / 0)
but I think you're taking the diary way out of context. Nazi Germany? 1938? 1962? I don't see any evidence at all that Chris is comparing his experiences to other historical times other than to what immediately preceded his current outlook. If he is to be criticized for anything it is his relative short-sightedness in describing that previous aesthetic as somehow "old". But that's just semantics. And I don't get how you interpreted a diary that is clearly an observation about a personal experience to be somehow proposing a "remedy." He's not proposing a remedy for anything because he's not even talking about a problem.

You accuse Chris of losing "perspective," but the only perspective he can be guilty of losing is that his personal experience is not really indicative of a trend in the general literary scene toward a "non-fiction  aesthetic" but is just mere navel gazing. But you don't argue that point.

What is clear from your criticism of this diary, and also many other comments in this thread, is that many people are unnerved when the sacred ground of literature is challenged by calls for political relevancy. For instance, if I were to have written a diary on this topic, I would have talked about how my personal experiences of being a business consultant in the 90's became acutely irrelevant to me after Bush took office and started ruining the country. My response was to take my business skills and use them to help nonprofit activist organizations. I'm sure such a diary would receive kudos and scant criticism on Open Left. But because Chris wrote about how his search for relevancy took him away from an "art for art's sake" pursuit, he gets castigated.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
If you re-read the posting and my comments... (0.00 / 0)
... you'll notice that the author said "The rise of a non-fictional, engaged aesthetic probably coincides with the rise of the long, global emergency."

I'm saying that whatever we call our political situation, it's not a "long global emergency" by any reasonable standard of comparison. Every era has global problems, but compared to previous eras, we live in times of gravy. So for anyone to think that the increase in the seriousness of our problems drained away our pull to introspective literature, as was clearly claimed by the author, is clearly dumb.

Recent emergencies were far worse. And yet, progressives in those times didn't develop some ennui with "introspective" literature. I have some familiarity with progressive movements throughout the 20th, and found that they, more than anyone else, kept alive the flame of the so-called "introspective" literature. Look at the books being consumed by the Partisannes in Vichy France, or the dissidents of Poland, Hugary or Czechoslovakia. It's some pretty heady and introspective stuff! If present-day progressives are moving away from it, it's not because times are bad. They aren't (again: by historical standards). It has a different reason. I'm not a sociologist, and because I'm opposed to people talking out of their ass, I won't speculate what the real reason for this change of preferences would be. (It does make me uneasy though, again because of history: In Europe, there were two movements that also confessed a lack of patience for "introspective" literature: The Third Reich and Soviet Communism. Whatever our reasons are, let's they're better than theirs!)

I do suspect that the phenomenon is real. But one thing that's beyond doubt is that the new reading preferences of the Internet Left are not caused by an worstening of the circumstances for progressivism. Because that clearly false claim was made in the original posting, I thought it would be useful to the debate to point it out, to help us discover what is true.

[ Parent ]
ooh, there was a typo (0.00 / 0)
I meant to say:
So to think that the increase in the seriousness of our problems drained away our pull to introspective literature, as was clearly claimed by the author, is clearly dumb.

The way it was before sounded like a personal attack, which I did not intend. I'm sure Chris Bowers is a clever gentleman, but he is mistaken on this point, I suspect.

[ Parent ]
Another example of what you're talking about (0.00 / 0)
Garrison Keillor at He's integrated his MidWestern narrative blend of sentimentality, humility, restraint, and quirky individualism with a biting, satirical commentary on conservatism and the Bush administration. What prevents so many more young creative minds from following their progressive souls into more activist pursuits is the corporate stranglehold on the labor market. This is brilliantly exposed in the book The Trap.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

Cooperative Village (0.00 / 0)
Called "anarchically funny" and "a blast of light in a dark time," Cooperative Village is a ferociously comic novel which tells the tale of an ordinary American who becomes bound for "enemy combatant status"-and possible deportation to the Federal Detention Center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba-when her library card goes astray. An important contribution to Bush-era protest literature, this delightfully over-the-top tale of life, love and liberty in lower Manhattan is set in the last undiscovered demimonde of the Lower East Side-the eponymous Cooperative Village, a pressure-cooker cluster of 1950's co-op apartment towers roiling with a dizzying social stew of laptop-wielding hipsters, stroller-pushing moms, and Messiah-Mobile-cruising Hasids, all sharing space with those feisty in-your-face octogenarians: the original Cooperators. A mixture of "uninhibited comedy and vehement politics," Cooperative Village is a cauterizing satire of governmental dysfunction, illegality and inattention to basic human needs, fundamental civil rights and constitutionally guaranteed American liberties. Madeson also offers a prescriptive humanist road map, and as one character summarizes, "appreciation for the dream of cooperative living we're trying to keep alive for all New Yorkers and progressive people everywhere."  

On Restoring the Democracy of Language (4.00 / 1)
Aleksandar Hemon just sent me this comment to include here. He's the author of The Lazarus Project, which I wrote about in my HuffPost piece Chris mentions above. Jen Nix

"If it is true that eight years of crimes and depredation that have been inflicted upon the largely complicit, patriotic and complacent American populace lead to a greater need for "reality" than the ascendence of Reality TV fits into the picture perfectly. People on the left (and all over the place) are so disgusted with the ineffectuality of artifice that they had no choice but to turn to Project Runway or Big Brother, those beacons of non-fictional aesthetic.

Or take the great success of the confessional memoir: Give us reality, fuck fiction! shouted the masses enraged with lies of the Bush administration and Edward P. Jones and Junot Diaz and proceeded to gobble up the gritty realism of A Million Little Pieces, which no one could ever accuse of Cobain-like self-indulgent navel-gazing.

Here is my guess: at the times of great societal changes there is a breakdown of reality-based aesthetics and a move toward the liberating properties of imagination. Witness the Romantics, or Russian art around the time of the Revolution, or Czech literature around 1968. Inversely, the powers-to-be insist on the unimpeachable value of self-evident reality. Scores of Eastern European writers were persecuted because, the accusation was, they had no respect for the reality constructed and maintained by the oppressive regimes. That is to say, they did not believe the lies and proposed different ways to interpret reality or, often, attacked its alleged self-evident qualities.

The Bush administration's attitude has always been that they can construct  most outrageous realities and then sell them as self-evident, much like Project Runway. That is what Karl Rove's famous remark dismissing journalists as a "reality-based community" referred to. Rove was--and still is--a reality creator, not a reality-interpreter. They have also taken over our language--I cannot say the word "freedom" any longer without retching, and  "the war on terror" gives me hives. I cannot stand "freedom" and "the American people"--put me on the terror-watch list right now! The ascendence of "reality-based" aesthetic is not a form of resistance to the ideological and human atrocities orchestrated by the Bush regime. On the contrary, it is a symptom of the pressure against civic engagement which requires imagination and sovereignty of the mind. Citizens read books about other people. Subjects flip through channels and read about people like themselves because they cannot imagine a life different from this one. They cannot see that it does not have to be this way, that this is not the only available reality.

Which is all to say that if you want to organize a demonstration or establish a third political party or influence a legislation, reading a novel, let alone writing it, is not the way to go. But if you want to regain the sovereignty of your imagination and the right to resist the imposition of self-evident realities, if you want to restore the democracy of language, then you would be well advised to skip watching reality TV and read some novels. Say Jose Saramango's Blindness, which tells you a lot about the breakdown of a civic society, or Edward P. Jones's The Known World which tells you how the crime at the heart of a society corrupts everyone in it, or Junot Diaz's The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Way, which tells you how one carries history inside one's body. And once you have read these books, you go and kick some lying, oppressive, reactionary ass."

Fascinating Threat (0.00 / 0)
I have to say that threads like this are part of the reason I read this blog.  There is space for the politics wonk with open box thinking and intellectual creativity that is rare these days.  

As someone who has an MA in creative writing and who occasionally publishes science fiction stories, who started out in my Ph.D. (in English and Education) interested in the agency of individuals and got interested in collective action and increasingly pissed off along the way, this discussion reverberated with my experience.  

As for the shift in the aesthetic, I have two thoughts.

First, I am increasingly convinced that it is illuminating (if not entirely accurate) to think of three main branches of progressivism.  First there is administrative progressivism: the "people" are too screwed up and ignorant to rule, so let us experts rule and take care of all you boneheads.  

Second, there are the democratic progressives, focused on how we can create the right kind of practices and institutions that would bring common "folk" up to "our" level and allow a truly democratic society.  

Finally, there are the "personalist" progressives with their roots in romanticism who are focused on cultural change and on releasing the imagination of unique individuals.  

The key difference between all three of these groups is one of focus.  The administrative folks focus on the outcome, the democrats focus on the process, and the personalists focus on the imagination.  The democrats see the middle class as the key model for the person of the future, and the personalists see the middle class as trapped in the "machine" of bureaucracy, even as they draw from other strands of middle class culture.  There are other odd overlaps.

Personalism emerged most strongly at two moments of apparent prosperity (1920s and 1960s), where it didn't seem like we needed to care much about the "social question"--e.g., what do do about poor people, since there wouldn't be any poor people soon.  The personalists are most interested in aesthetics, and is usually satisfied with pretty vague visions of an organic communal society.    

Democratic progressivism, in contrast, is focused on this same "social question," and much less interested in aesthetics.  

How the pomos fit into all of this, I'm not sure--which may screw up the whole schematic.

I had a second point, but I forgot it.  

Anyway, I may disagree with the last comment. A focus on the aesthetic seems to emerge at those times when (1) people seem fairly hopeless in a pragmatic sense and (2) when it seems like the social problem will probably take care of itself, so the real problem is about "us", how crappy the lives of the priveleged middle class are.

The pomos were obsessed, in part, by the idea that they were oppressed but didn't know it--what I've called "pastoral" domination, elsewhere.  They were constantly seeking oppression in places where it seemed like you weren't oppressed.

The only people who are oppressed and don't notice it are the middle class.

I talk about this in some detail in an article called "Rethinking Domination and Resistance: Challenging Postmodernism", if anyone is interested:

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)


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