Benjamin Kunkel is having a moment. New York magazine has called him a “Marxist public intellectual.” This caused steam to shoot out of the ears of Gawker, who can’t get over the fact that a “Marxist public intellectual” went to a fancy-pants liberal arts college and has a pied-a-terre in Manhattan.
Personally, I think any writer not residing in Brooklyn should get points for not living that cliché. And memo to Gawker: ressentiment is not a class analysis. Who ever said Marxists had to wear hair shirts under their duffel coats? It’s a classic tactic of reaction to hate on the mildly well off so that the actual power and wealth might escape any scrutiny.
The best snark about Kunkel the “Marxist public intellectual” by far comes from that reactionary toad Breitbart (dead, I know, but someone has reanimated it). Its a gem:
“Marxism is navel gazing while masturbating while riding a unicorn.”
How is any of that a bad thing?
Unicorns are rare mystical beasts, possibly with magic properties. As for navel-gazing: “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Plato has Socrates say. On the other hand, the unlived life is hardly worth examining, so at the very least navel-gazers should pleasure themselves with the occasional hand-job.
All three of these activities together would be the sort of lifestyle even Oscar Wilde would be hard pressed to aspire beyond. It would take skill, concentration – but also relaxation – not to mention terrific coordination, to navel gaze while masturbating while riding a unicorn. The soul of man and woman under socialism would clearly benefit from equestrian masturbation as a path to individuation.
Marxists generally get a terrible press. The term ‘Marxist’ connotes angry ill-dressed white guys who don’t do well in mixed company. They seem to seek each other out for the express purpose of not making friends, but having arguments about who looked sideways at Trotsky in 1923.
Either that, or they will be bending your ear about how, to understand the always-imminent “crisis,” you have to spend the next six years of your life learning value form analysis. Memo to certain Marxists: the political usefulness of a method of analysis is inversely proportional to the time it takes to explain.
So while it may be all in a day’s work for a troll like Breitbart to come up with Marxism for unicorns, we should thank his website for giving us more fun-loving Marxoids such a vivid image of all we hold dear: knowledge, pleasure and adventure. Unicorns of the world unite! You have everything to gain from imagination!
I wonder if this image would stand up to even a little more interpretive pressure. On twitter, nativebuddha suggested that unicorns, navel-gazing and masturbation actually belong together, “because all three are uncommodifiably free.”
Now, in one sense the opposite seems the case. There’s no end to self-help books and therapies on the self-knowing market. A whole media genre – porn – is there to help those who want a quick orgasm without troubling another human about it. Not to mention the Hitachi Magic Wand. As for unicorns, in the market for kitsch tchotchkes, they are second only to cats.
But in another sense, nativebuddha’s remark is quite astute. The very desperation of these marketing ploys revolves around the irreducible fact that hand jobs are free. So too is enlightenment. No product need really intervene to achieve one, or the other, or both. As for unicorns, perhaps they are the mark of what the surrealists called the marvelous. The unicorn is the ever-present possibility that everyday life will yield what is both joyous and unexpected.
So it seems to be a good thing that there is a “Marxist public intellectual” among us again. So thank you, Benjamin Kunkel, for the unicorns. What prompted all this publicity is a book of his critical essays, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis. I have not read the book – yet. But I have admired his occasional essays, here and there. Its about time we had a sharp, thoughtful, critical prose stylist who could break out of the little magazine ghetto, as lovely as it is.
Kunkel is also the author Indecision: A Novel. When it came out, nine years ago or so, it seemed to be part of that passel of novels by young or youngish men that featured a certain kind of central character. After feminism, how are men to write novels? Neither heroes nor anti-heroes seem appropriate – the latter suck as much air out of the room as the former. The solution which Kunkel and others hit on is the male character as neither hero nor antihero but as nonentity.
These nonentities were usually a bit flabby or chubby. They were asexual, premature ejaculators, or just pathetically incompetent in the sack. They were often educated and even smart, but kack-handed at the actual trade of everyday life.
It was a bit of a dead-end strategy. It usually transpired that the limited knowledge and engagement with the world of the character simply masked a lack of any such knowledge or engagement on the part of the writer. It was a short-term tactic to keep in circulation a kind of white-boy fiction the world really no longer needs.
Kunkel’s Indecision is different. He takes his nonentity male character out of his self-same suburban enclave and plonks him down in Latin America. Indecision reveals the lack of historical grounding of American character in negative, through a confrontation with worlds that operate of their own necessities – and rather more pressing ones than the domestic crises of the nonentity’s home life-world. Indecision opens the novel again to historical thought, or at least to its absence.
It used to be the case that there was a wide spectrum of American public intellectuals, from left to right, from up to down, who could muster some sort of historical thought and express it in English prose which connected to the everyday life of the times. They tended to have one thing in common: formative training as Trotskyists.
American public life seems strangely poor in historical thought lately, and the petering out of this line is not the least of its causes. Perhaps in the absence of actual Communists, bourgeois literary life has no need of former Trotskyists. Perhaps the Trotskyists retreated too far into their duffel coats and footnotes.
Let’s hope Kunkel is a sign of the return of such an historical consciousness. Certainly the little magazine he co-founded, N+1, took as its project the revival of a line of public writing that has its roots in Partisan Review and Dissent, what I am here – very broadly – characterizing as the Trotskyist tendency in public writing. (Actual Trotskyists will no double grumble).
Of course there’s actually quite a bit of sharp historical writing about, but the game is really about throwing one of the party up out of the little magazine world into the next tier of circulation. Those whose lottery ticket did not get punched will no doubt resent Kunkel his apparent good fortune. There will be snark and other beasts of ressentiment, of which one’s fellow writers are never in short supply.
But personally, I’m hoping the new book does well. Let’s have a whole herd of unicorns.