Reviews

Breaking the Binary of Flawed Narratives

A review of Curtis White's new book, "Living in a World that Can't be Fixed."

Curtis White states that our current system “of governmental, economic, social and familial discipline that so often compels us to do the wrong thing” is fundamentally broken, and that “to hope that this system can be fixed is delusional. But to be hopeless is to die to our own innermost feelings of concern for others and for a world of living things that seems every day a little closer to fatality.” As headlines scream in our eyes with every swipe, things can appear increasingly hopeless. But in Living In a World That Can’t Be Fixed, White offers wide-ranging analysis drawing on past countercultural movements in an effort to spark hope – and, of course, change.

In White’s eyes, “counterculture is civil disobedience as a way of life,” both “impertinent and improvisational.” This is best seen through the lens of art. White focuses on Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow and its depiction of refugees resettling as a means of illuminating the capitalist system which White thinks can never be toppled. Through Weiwei’s  film, we see an upending of universal desire, the “maintenance of the pleasure of being well.” Mass migrations will only increase with time, he says, as climate change saps us of resources and precipitates genocides.  There might be enough to go around if equitably sourced, but an underlying problem with capitalism as it stands is that “we think only our +1 matters and that having to live equitably with others is an intolerable limit on our own individual projects.” But through Weiwei’s filmic project, “art destroys the world as it is and replaces it with something that is utterly other.” In other words, by continuing to probe, to discuss, we may be able to avert crises and advance happiness, “when we feel free to live in curiosity and confidence in human community.”

But this perpetual probing and reinvention can be seen as a problem in and of itself, a function of privilege. The Trump election and the ongoing Brexit mess can be seen as examples of “the violence of looking away,” of ignoring the other side and their needs and desires. And even probing can yield trouble. White states that “capitalism has always been in the business of trying to rid itself of its dependence on labor, which is to say, its dependence on people.” As an example, he points to the current system of polarization, in which the right puts an emphasis on self-reliance and the bootstrap narrative, and the left emphasizes the importance of technology – even if “cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are increasingly suspect for the wasteful use of electricity in cryptocurrency ‘mining,’ thus driving forward the climate crisis that virtual money is supposed to protect them from.” The result of this binary is that “one side takes away work while the other refuses to offer the jobless any aid besides a part-time minimum wage job at Burger King.” When neither binary side feels heard, “voting becomes an expression of the desire for revenge against a world that has humiliated (workers) intellectually, economically, sexually, racially.”

The passage about technology is especially relevant when put in the context of Andrew Yang’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. His platform of a guaranteed basic income of $1000 a month for everyone in the United States is not without appeal. But what if it works? About guaranteed basic income, White states that the result would be predictable: “oligarchs take the profits through prodigious monopoly rents; robots do the work; the world is awash in cheap consumer goods; and we superseded humans have the privilege of paying for those goods with free money.” In this light, it doesn’t seem as appealing. There’s a connection between Yang’s message and mainstream art like Black Panther, in which “the elevation of billionaires as liberators is the guiltiest of the film’s guilty pleasures. “

White discusses Black Panther as an example of a film that appears progressive at first glance, but reinforces dominant cultural messages, in which “you can have a revolt as long as in all of the important ways it reflects the values of the dominant culture.” As an alternative, or perhaps an antidote, we should create counterculture that is impertinent –“unrestrained by the dominant notions of what is appropriate” – and improvisational. White states “we think that we are better people if we conform to the expectations of religion, capitalism, two party politics and commercial art. But we do not make ourselves better, we make ourselves stupider.” By breaking the binary, we’re going against the violence of looking away, the binary, the privilege. Because what’s the alternative? In an absolutely chilling passage after his discussion of technology and the binary it presents, White posits “given this antipathy to humans, do you think in their heart or hearts the oligarchs care if climate change brings about a human population crash? Or is that merely the ultimate term of Wall Street’s mantra ‘when there’s blood in the street, there’s money to be made?’” The thought that the powers-that-be don’t care about us is terrifying – and increasingly easy to imagine.

Breaking from the binary, then, requires creating new narratives that destroy the dominant ones and their values. White points to the inception of San Francisco’s gay community, who were “creating was not just a safe space for gays to be who they were but a new form of democratic action, an improvisatory democracy beyond democracy.”

Other examples exist, to be sure. But White states that “the critic’s job is to bring readers to a point where they are free of certain factual errors about what is real or true or necessary, and where they are free to make their own way foreward through an openness to possibility.” This is to say that “there is no best way to live and knowing that may be the best way to live” – that the many faces of impertinent improvisation is the best way foreward, the best way to fight through the dominant assumptions. The alternative is “to be hopeless,” which “is to die to our own innermost feelings of concern for others and for a world of living things that seems every day a little closer to fatality.” Curits White’s Living In A World That Can’t Be Fixed is simultaneously thorny, thoughtful, and resonant.

NONFICTION
Living in a World that Can’t be Fixed
By Curtis White
Melville House
Published Nov. 5, 2019

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