In 2004, a few days after the reelection of George W. Bush, which came as a shock since the exit polls on election day showed John Kerry winning, I put up a post on the ur-version of this blog that urged my fellow bloggers (and everyone else) to fight the despair the election had clearly induced and continue the important task of writing and reading. In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, which is not just shocking but for many of us quite literally unbelievable, I confess I am having a harder time working up a similar exhortation to cultivate our literary gardens even in the face of existential horror. I believe in the surpassing value of literature, but there are times when it is appropriately put aside to confront real-world threats to oneself and others, threats that among other things put in danger the very possibility that writing and reading might matter in the first place. If this is not such a time, I don't know when it could arise.
In reading that earlier post again, I am probably most struck not by my contention that literary work continues to be important under trying circumstances but my analysis of the then-present circumstances in the so-called "red states," a term that was just becoming fashionable to describe the states that reliably vote Republican in Presidential elections. "I was born and raised in a red county in a red state--a rural Missouri county of a pretty thoroughly lower-middle/working-class sort," I wrote. Of the folks living there I said: "They're really quite mild and unassuming in most respects. When I go back there to visit, I don't expect any of them to come after me with torches because I'm a liberal. I think it's really misguided to call them fascists and morons, words I have seen used in some places to describe these red-staters." Given that the new solidarity among such people even in the blue states seems to have elected Donald Trump, I am now hard-pressed to understand my naivete in ascribing such good intentions to people so reckless, my willingness to assume they were "quite mild and unassuming" beneath their hateful voting habits. In 2004 it had been quite a while since I had spent much extended time in my home town, so I must conclude that my childhood perceptions of the place were still encouraging illusions about it. Suffice it to say those illusions have now been dispelled.
Certainly I no longer believe that many of those living in places like my home town can be "talked into voting for a more inclusive agenda." This realization actually set in considerably before the results of this year's election, as I contemplated the posts and comments made on Facebook by high school classmates and other residents of the area in which I grew up. The disregard for appeals to facts and reasoned argument is sufficiently deep-rooted that I have sadly concluded no application of the rhetorical skills book culture can engender will avail. Still, I would reassert one point that I made in that 2004 post: "It may be true that in large quarters of Bushworld [now Trumpworld] books don't count for much, but it seems to me that we give in to the very attitude toward books and reading we deplore when we also declare in the wake of political disillusionment that we don't care much about them, either." So now I must reconcile my recognition that concrete political action--refusal to live in Trumpworld--is right now the most important priority with my continuing commitment to the relevance of literature--to a mode of literary writing that indeed some might consider especially removed from the sphere of political relevance,
Surely it is the case that what is variously identified as "postmodern," "experimental," or "innovative" writing is frequently regarded as self-indulgent, detached from real-world concerns (although certainly some postmodernists, such as Don DeLillo, quite consistently "engage" with contemporary reality). Such writing is "experimental" in its questioning of received forms and its attempt to refresh or remake those forms. Considering the potentially perilous times just ahead of us, many people no doubt find this sort of formally adventurous work an unjustifiable luxury, perhaps even a dereliction of duty for writers otherwise opposed to Trump and the dreadful policies he pursues. But, echoing my previous comment, if I believed in the worthiness of this kind of writing prior to the ascension of Donald Trump, that conviction was not very well-grounded if I abandon it after his election.
Likely there will be many calls for poets and novelists to produce something like agitprop--protest literature--or to write fiction and poetry clearly intended to critique the powers that be and expose the harm their actions are inflicting. Many writers will likely heed this call. Such is probably inevitable under the circumstances, and most of this sort of writing will be well-intended and mostly unobjectionable, although it is not likely that it will do much to fulfill its intentions--most of its readers will be among those who already agree with the critique, since I doubt many Republican politicians or Trump supporters will even know these works exist. Perhaps this protest literature will have the positive effect of reinforcing the resistance to Trump among its most responsive readers, however.
Nevertheless, formally adventurous writing, like all truly challenging art, remains itself "subversive" in the way it provides its own kind of resistance. It resists the notion that artistic forms in their received configuration can represent human reality so fully that those forms offer unequivocal truth, but also that those forms can't be reshaped and transformed so as to make the pursuit of the truth about human beings and their ways of accounting for themselves a plausible ambition. It resists reduction to pure discourse, to just another way of making an argument or asserting a point of view, which in an era of increasingly simplistic political rhetoric must still count for something. Most importantly, it resists the temptation to certainty, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) disclosing the contingency not just of our beliefs and actions but as well the very medium such writing uses to depict those beliefs and actions. All of these manifestations of resistance surely provide the greatest long-term value art and literature can claim, but is it worth it to sacrifice them in the hope that turning art into a mode of political rhetoric might provide some short-term satisfaction?
Finally I must conclude that in the current circumstances actual, concrete resistance, not literary resistance, is what is necessary, not because literature lacks relevance or importance right now but because that is what is most likely to materially affect the dreadful situation in which we find ourselves. I would enthusiastically participate in acts of physical resistance such as demonstrations, rallies, strikes, etc. (this action by Tom LeClair is exemplary) and it does seem to me that enough of this kind of protest, prolonged and resolute, would at the least rattle the powers that be, and might convince them that their policies won't be tolerated by a large portion of the population. Still, other acts of defiance, acts that do draw on the skills those of who have spent our time with books have acquired, are also in order. Surely our way with words have enhanced our powers of mockery and satire, so that we could subject Trump and his minions to the ridicule and disdain they so richly deserve. Given Trump's aversion to being portrayed unsympathetically, this might have some cumulative effect. It would require above all that we always call things by their proper names. Trump's government is a government inspired and licensed by fascism, sadism, and white supremacy. At a time when we are supposedly "post-truth," we need to insist on the truth as much as our language allows us to know it.