Juliana Spahr, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment

Du Bois's Telegram: Literary Resistance and State ContainmentDu Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment by Juliana Spahr

The first thing to be said about this book is that it is brave. Poet and critic Juliana Spahr does not make her startling argument in general, nor does she make it in unreadably dense jargon that could only be followed by academic insiders. She mounts her case in plain language and names names—generally names of the venerated dead or the celebrated living. It’s a good use of academic tenure.

Spahr takes her title from a telegram sent by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1956 to the Congress of Black Writers and Artists, from which he had been uninvited partially at the behest of Richard Wright, who was seeking to avoid communist exploitation of the event. Du Bois writes:

Any Negro-American who travels abroad today must either not discuss race conditions in the United States or say the sort of thing which our state Department wishes the world to believe. The government especially objects to me because I am a socialist and because I believe in peace with Communist states like the Soviet Union and their right to exist in security.

The thesis of Spahr’s short study is that the U.S. government’s attempt to circumvent literary radicalism continues to shape American literature today. While everyone knows by now of the state’s midcentury meddling in the promotion of modernist American arts and letters, as disclosed most notably in Frances Stonor Saunders’s Cultural Cold War, too few people have pursued the argument into the present. Spahr does, and she comes to two conclusions.

First, the CIA and FBI are no longer involved in either promoting liberal or harassing radical writers to the extent that they were in the 1950s and ’60s. But the interpenetration of private and state money to champion non-commercial literature in academe and to retain writers as professors means that we have had since the 1970s a literature that is de-radicalized in both aesthetic form and political content.

Her most pointed phrase in this analysis, encompassing writers from Maya Angelou and James Baldwin to Rita Dove and Richard Blanco, is “state-sponsored multiculturalism.” Through the patronage of the government or of private foundations tied to traditional elites, America produces a non-radical picture of its own diversity for mollifying consumption both at home and abroad.

Second, Spahr concludes that politically and/or formally radical work does still appear: she gives as her main example a body of multilingual poetry written around the turn of the 21st century, most of it contesting xenophobia and some of it even linked to sovereignty movements. But the sequestration of serious, non-commercial literature within academe means that such radical writing cannot circulate publicly among those who would be its natural constituencies and thus cannot have any radical political effects. It is poetry read only by poetry professors. (I have a Ph.D. in English and have heard of exactly one of the books she discusses.)

Together the grant-giving foundations and the MFA- and tenure-dispensing universities have eliminated both the independent coteries we associate with modernism and the autonomous publishing linked to radical political and social movements. Using as one example an explicitly anti-racist program to help budding black writers, Cave Canem, Spahr writes with acid understatement:

But there is a decidedly different rhetoric and relation to the institution that defines organizations like Cave Canem than, say, something like the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. When Baraka wrote about revolutionary theater he wrote, “The Revolutionary Theatre must Accuse and Attack anything that can be accused and attacked” and “We want actual explosions and actual brutality.” Cave Canem, in contradistinction, talks about their commitment to “the professional growth of African-American poets.”

Neither the milieu that produced Gertrude Stein nor that which produced Amiri Baraka exists any longer. While work of their merit or radicalism may still appear (Spahr mentions Claudia Rankine, who repays her with a back-cover blurb), the structural conditions disfavor its wide dissemination or social effect.

Spahr shows that the history of how this elimination happened encompasses even the later work of Stein herself, which was conscripted into the cultural Cold War along with the rest of modernism; the early work of James Baldwin, whose first essays were published in CIA-affiliated journals; and even—perhaps her most striking claim—much of early Anglophone African literature, whose writers (she names Wole Soyinka and Dennis Brutus) had western intelligence ties or anti-communist affiliations.

In short, we have been living in the Matrix, precisely when we thought we were most touching the real of either language as disclosed by experimental poets or of American society as observed by multiculturalist writers:

Because I learned so much that I know about literature from higher education (and I am not alone in this), what I learned is a State Department version of what matters.

As she herself admits, Spahr has built her thesis by synthesizing research in separate areas by scholars with disparate concerns, the point being to tell a single, coherent story about events usually discussed apart from one another, such as the CIA’s meddling in the construction of postcolonial English-language African literature or the professionalization via academe of American poetry in the second half of the 20th century.

The general reader, without expertise in all of the relevant fields, must take Spahr’s synthesis on trust. I can only say that her narrative feels true to me, i.e., I recognize the literary/academic world I inhabit in her picture. Her tone, too, which might have been much more cutting or polemical, but which is rather circumspect (sometimes to a fault), inspires confidence. For that reason, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand why today’s American literature often feels so safe, bland, tame, platitudinous, or, if dissident, out of touch, even where it claims to be most radical.

On the other hand, this book, like all the books it criticizes, has an agenda. Also like all the books it criticizes, it dissimulates its own condition of production. While I agree with Spahr’s enumeration of the problems with contemporary literature, I dissent from her sometimes only implied solution. I moreover think that she deliberately confuses an issue central to her argument for troubling reasons.

Let me take the latter point first: Spahr uses the term “autonomy” throughout the book. She acknowledges that this is an extremely complicated concept in literary studies, but goes to on to explain that she will use it in a simple way. She gives a basic definition that anyone would agree with:

A literature is autonomous when it is free from outside interference, from the market, from the government.

Then, a few lines later, she qualifies this definition in a way that would have some of the writers she discusses (not least Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin) rolling in their graves:

I do not consider the moments when writers decide to align their works with various popular movements a restriction on autonomy. (I do not, thus, presume that “autonomy” means freedom from politics, even though it is often used to mean this.)

This dubious argumentative move gets her out of a difficulty that, in my view, she really needs to confront. Spahr is nowhere more convincing than when she argues that the slow death of independent small presses and little magazines have robbed American literature of energy and originality. But she does not propose any attempt, by itself, to revivify these institutions outside the university. What does she suggest we do instead? Here is how the book’s penultimate paragraph begins:

Revolution though. There is some historical precedence that it is revolution that frees cultural production from the institutions that constantly work to contain it.

Now I don’t object to this conclusion on intellectual grounds. It is entailed by Spahr’s premises, which reflect Marxist orthodoxy: base determines superstructure (in “the last instance” anyway, as Engels said). If this is the case, then literature, being heteronomous in relation to state interference and private capital, can’t reform itself, but will only be reformed with the renovation of these institutions. Since Spahr is concerned with the elimination of race and class hierarchies, the renovation will take necessarily take the form of a violent insurrection by the oppressed.

Spahr recognizes, even if she keeps it vague in a book published by Harvard UP, that her theory terminates not in a classroom or in a poem but on one side or the other of a gun. (Recently, her friend and collaborator Joshua Clover almost found the limit of academic freedom when he kept this part of the theory somewhat less vague.)

But this implied endorsement of armed struggle raises two questions for me. First, why is Spahr so seemingly certain that she will be on the right side of the revolution, or, indeed, of the gun? There is, to borrow her phrase, “some historical precedence” to believe that revolutionaries will not spare even theoretically radical poets and professors. Furthermore, if Spahr is serious about her implicit communism, she might agree with its historical position toward modernism: hostility and dismissal, coupled with the conviction that revolutionary art should speak in clear language to the people it proposes to organize.

She avoids this fusty Lukacsianism by pretending that there is no third option between Cave Canem’s stultifying professionalization and Baraka’s alarming brutality, even though modernism, or autonomous art in the old-fashioned sense, just is this third option: the recreation of reality in imagination and language by minds unaffiliated to constraining, still less to axiomatically violent, organizations. Which Baldwin was correct to say, even if he said it at the CIA’s expense:

Let us say, then, that truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted. This is the prime concern, the frame of reference; it is not to be confused with a devotion to Humanity, which is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause; and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty. (“Everybody’s Protest Novel”)

Literature, to be autonomous, must be autonomous from politics. This does not mean that writers lack political beliefs or that their works lack political implications, which is a straw-man argument no sensible person would make. It means instead that writers should be free of organized political interference in the production and dissemination of their work, whether that interference is organized by left, right, or center.

(And given what I am about to say about organized leftism, I should disclose right now that I neither have nor want any ties to organized liberalism or conservatism, unless having registered as a Democrat almost 20 years ago counts, and I hardly think it does.)

Spahr is right to call the United States to account for betraying this ideal in the name of supporting it when it used the CIA, the FBI, and other state institutions to promote and suppress various artists and artworks. Yet her calculated muddling of “autonomy” misleads the reader into thinking that literature after “revolution” will be truly free.

Finally, I have to ask a last, uncomfortable question: if the state and academia are really so hostile to revolutionary ideas, how is it that Spahr is a tenured professor and that Harvard UP has published her book? How is it that I sat through graduate-school seminar-room defenses of Mao and Stalin at a public university and had to make a case for artistic autonomy (again, in the old-fashioned sense) very carefully and in the face of no little hostility? How is it, as I once found in material distributed to college faculty for racial-sensitivity training, that the holding of “liberal views” was listed as evidence of white supremacy? Spahr’s book may answer the question of who pays for liberal multiculturalism and why, but it leads me to wonder in turn: who pays for academic communism and why?

Her mischievous wordplay around “autonomy” aside, though, Spahr’s bravery should be contagious. Let me be as clear as I can about my beliefs, then, even to the point of vulgarity. I am as autonomous an artist as I am able to be in the circumstances, and if you’d like to start supporting autonomous literature, I even have a suggestion of where you might begin.

But more seriously, I am not a communist. I do not believe that armed struggle offers a way out of American society’s present dilemmas. I do not believe there is a physically violent solution to intellectual and spiritual crises. Separatist social movements and revolutionary political parties uniting theory and praxis? “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I affirm Stephen Dedalus’s pacifist epiphany in Ulysses: (He taps his brow.) But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king.” I affirm, too, the conclusion of Middlemarch, which suggests that “the growing good of the world” is made possible only through the “incalculably diffusive” works and days of individuals. I believe that there will be no general freedom until each of us understands these insights. Does that mean we have to wait? I suspect it does, perhaps forever, but stillness might, on principle, be superior to violence. In the meantime, we could do worse than to read Du Bois’s Telegram.

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