Essays

This page is a collection of links to of some of my essays around the web. I plan on updating it periodically, so feel free to check in here from time to time.

The Player Kings: On Shakespeare’s Henriad. From The Los Angeles Review of Books. This essay looks at the politics of the Henriad, a series of four history plays: Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II, and Henry V. “By connecting the artifice of politics to the artifice of the theater, the Henriad helps us become more aware of how politics actually functions, and more attuned to how much the performative side of leadership can obscure.”

On Bureaucracy and the Left. From The Los Angeles Review of Books. This piece centers on David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, and explores what a left-wing critique of bureaucracy might look like—and why it is important to develop one. “After all, no one likes the DMV — and no one wants to belong to the political party of the DMV either.”

Don’t Settle: The Journalist in the Shadow of the Commercial Web. From The Los Angeles Review of Books. Finalist, 2016 Mirror Awards, for Best Commentary. This piece takes a look at the practice of journalism, and the risks of “settling down” in the face of economic pressures. Along the way it looks at the work of Renata Adler, Janet Malcolm, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others. “Content is not conversation. And ultimately it is conversation that a democratic society needs.”

Citizen Thiel. From The Los Angeles Review of Books. The fourth essay in my series about the commercial web. This one looks at Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, zeroing in on the way monopoly power distorts both cultural work and society as a whole: “Ultimately, the democratic insistence on individual dignity is more appealing, and more optimistic, than the aristocratic exaltation of individual power.”

The Art of Critique: Victor Serge’s Midnight in the Century. From The Los Angeles Review of Books. My third essay about Serge’s work (scroll down for links to the others). This one focuses on his novel Midnight in the Century, and uses it to illuminate the difference between the literature of political protest and the literature of political critique: “Protest is valuable. But it is far more powerful when it is backed by a critique.”

Aristocrats of “Merit.” From The Los Angeles Review of Books. The third essay in my series about the commercial web. This one explores the idea of hyper-meritocracy, especially as its articulated in Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over :”Precisely because he is writing a simplified introduction to hyper-meritocracy — and because he never questions its justness — Cowen offers a very clear picture of the assumptions, ideologies, and worldview that underlay it.”

Different Voices. From The Los Angeles Review of Books. The second in my series about the commercial web. This time, I look at the concept of digital cosmopolitanism, especially as its laid out in Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire: “Structured wandering can help the familiar come in contact with the foreign, reminding us that our own experience is limited.”

Contemplation vs Consumption: Making Sense of the Commercial Web. From The Los Angles Review of Books. A look at the commercial web, through the prism of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: “When you look at culture and media from this point of view — asking not about how art, writing, and music are distributed but who holds cultural power — there has been a lot less ‘disruption’ in the digital era than is often supposed.”

Getting to “No”: Snowball’s Chance, Animal Farm, and “Exemplary Truth”, From The Los Angeles Review of Books. A look back at George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm, through the prism of John Reed’s parody Snowball’s Chance: “Essentially, Orwell’s late, dystopian works — Animal Farm and 1984 — are the beginning of a conversation, not its end.”

The Ends Commands the Means: Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. From The Los Angeles Review of Books. A look at the life and career of Victor Serge, who participated in almost every major Left Wing struggle of the early twentieth century, from the French anarchist movement, to the Bolsheviks, to the French resistance against the Nazis. He was also an early critic of Stalin and the first person to label the USSR a “totalitarian state.” In many ways, Serge’s anarchist-inflected politics anticipated contemporary movements like Occupy. “While Serge certainly wasn’t the ‘original Occupier,’ he did help create the intellectual space out of which Occupy — and, more importantly, Occupy’s offshoots — was born.”

Close, But Only Close: David Shields and Literature’s Redemptive Ambivalence. From Bookslut. As readers of the old blog know, I’ve long been fascinated by David Shields, in part due to his ambivalence about literature itself.  As Shields himself has put it, “Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this — which is what makes it essential.”

A Calm Place to Think: On Reading the Classics. From The Millions. “I suppose my anxiety about turning the classics into a checklist stems from my realization that ‘art’ exists only through collaboration between the artist/creator/writer and an audience; that it’s not the work that should aspire to contemplation, but myself. And that, as a reader, that means I need to be willing to work hard. To approach the performance of reading with every bit as much seriousness and effort as I expect the writer to approach the performance of writing.”

“More Real to Us”: The Art of Susan Sontag. From Bookslut. As I explain in the piece, “Susan Sontag is the writer who first taught me that a critical essay could be every bit as valuable as a work of fiction.” What makes Sontag compelling as an essayist is not just her ideas, but her voice.  Truly great criticism offers us a window into how someone else sees the world. Sontag understood that better than any other American critic from the last few decades.

Three Lives: The Rise, the Fall, and the Attempted Rise of Stefan Zweig. From Bookslut. “Most literary revivals fail.” And sometimes that’s for a good reason. I enjoy reading Zweig’s work, but the deeper into his catalog I go, the more clear it is why he will probably never return to the kind of prominence he enjoyed in his lifetime (at one time, Zweig was among the most popular literary writers in the world).

Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age. From The Millions. “More and more, I read in pieces. So do you.” Fragmentary writing is the style of writing that best embodies our current era. As I explain in the piece, “We all read online, and the rise of smartphones, tablets, and e-readers means we will be doing so even more. This means we will all be spending ever more time reading with a medium that encourages distracted, fragmented reading. Fragmentary writing — work that accumulates fragments of text and presents them in a way that encourages introspection and contemplation — seems like a logical response to that experience.”

Celebrating St. Crispin’s Day. From The Millions. An appreciation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, through the prism of the play’s most famous scene, the St. Crispin’s Day Speech (also known as the “band of brothers” speech).

“What Party?”: Victor Serge’s Turn to Fiction. From Bookslut. My first look at the work of Victor Serge, this piece pays special attention to his fiction. “This is Serge’s great contribution — he is unique in his ability to tease out the dual nature of people as individuals in the most libertarian sense and as members of a wider community.”

Through the Past, Starkly: Looking at Music, Side 2. From The Brooklyn Rail. A look at punk rock and New York’s 1970s art scene, through the prism of the Museum of Modern Art’s Looking At Music, Side 2 exhibit.

One Response to Essays

  1. Pingback: My Back Pages | Guy's Library

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