Quite recently yet another of Jasper Becker's indispensable dispatches from China appeared in his newspaper, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. "Every year," Becker reported, "about 10,000 of China's five million coal miners meet gruesome deaths underground." He went on to explain that censorship limits news of industrial accidents, but that conditions have certainly gotten worse in the past two decades, during China's breakneck effort at economic growth.
You have to pause a bit to let the impact of this statistic set in, especially after realizing that it does not include deaths from other industrial accidents, including factory fires, explosions and collapsing buildings, only a fraction making it into the pages of the Morning Post. Chinese workingmen and -women are dying at a higher rate than their counterparts in Victorian England or turn-of-the-century America, and, until now, the world has been paying little attention. By contrast, when an explosion at a coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia, killed 361 coal miners in 1907, the single largest such accident in our history, the disaster attracted national coverage.
You won't see much of Jasper Becker's kind of reporting in the American mainstream press. Over the past decade or so, American journalists, along with their ideological elder brothers at The Economist, have focused on the booming Chinese coastal cities, glorifying young entrepreneurial yuppies with cell phones and marveling at the construction burst of shopping plazas, office towers and upscale housing.
Slightly more conscientious reporters may mention, in passing, sweatshops and pollution, but they imply that these are the unfortunate and temporary byproducts of "economic reform," a phrase normally presented without the quotation marks, suggesting a self-evident good instead of a controversial set of economic policies. This uncritical attitude, best described as "market fundamentalism," has taken over much of the US media. Even Paul Krugman, currently the economic columnist at the New York Times and someone smart enough to know better, wrote an article back in 1997 titled "In Praise of Cheap Labor."
Jasper Becker is different. He is British-born but fluent in Chinese, and he has spent the past ten years in China, most recently for the Morning Post, skeptically tramping into areas of the country and listening to people most other Western journalists disregard. His years of work (some of it is also available on the Internet, at www.scmp.com) provide two tremendous services. First, he introduces us to Chinese people we would never otherwise meet. Second, he raises profound doubts about a core belief of market fundamentalism: that Chinese suffering today will be justified by a developed nirvana in the future.
Becker is not inspired by any nostalgia for the now-departed Maoist era; his last book, Hungry Ghosts (1998), was a powerful account of how the Great Helmsman's arrogance and the undemocratic Chinese Communist system caused more than 30 million people to die in a man-made famine during the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61).
In The Chinese, Becker continues to care about the impact of economic policy on the lives of ordinary people. His book's very structure proves his determination to look beyond the minority of the newly prosperous, the people the Western market fundamentalists and investors find most photogenic. He starts at the bottom, in a village in the Guangxi region with some of the poorest of the 1 billion peasants, and then slowly moves up through the increasingly stratified Chinese society. Local officials shadow and harass him on his visits to the rural poor, who he says "probably constitute the largest unenfranchised group in the world." He goes on: "Forbidden openly to organize themselves to defend their interests against either the central state or local despots, they form secret underground armies, cults and millenarian sects as they have done throughout history. The state seems involved in a continual battle to crush them, and from time to time faint reports of this repression...reach the outside world." He speculates, "Given the chance, peasants would quickly organize themselves into associations or even political parties but at present that seems a remote prospect."
Becker also writes about the several hundred million migrant workers, third-class citizens who flock into the cities for low-paid, dirty work and who have no permanent right to stay or to bring their families, a state of affairs that would be depressingly familiar to black southern Africans. He visits the collapsing old industrial cities of the northeast, with their millions of angry, sullen unemployed. Becker profiles Chinese intellectuals, demoralized by repression after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and the consequent "depoliticization of so many aspects of life." He explains: "Censors searching for subversive messages have examined everything from slogans on T-shirts to poetry magazines. The propaganda machinery has returned to its traditions." His grim conclusion is that "intellectuals have tried but generally failed to find some independent space within the system."
Becker describes the Communist Party, with its 58 million members, as a privileged minority in a country that now has nearly 1.3 billion people, but he estimates that "the real size of the ruling elite, from county magistrates upwards, is thought to be no more than 4 million." Only toward the end of his quest does he reach what he calls "the apex of the pyramid, the tiny group of self-selecting rulers."
Becker is extraordinarily cautious and measured. He points out that many of the precise-sounding government statistics, including the glowing economic growth figures, are either exaggerated or "simply made up to suit the propaganda needs of the day." Still, his years of experience crisscrossing the giant country have earned him the right to make certain observations, some of which may surprise even experienced China watchers:
§ Inequality in China is widening dramatically. Becker reminds us that the average annual peasant income in China is still only $240, a figure that has actually fallen in the past few years. The growing gap is distorting the Chinese economy; Becker points out that "much of the considerable investment in new housing was aimed at the very top end of the market despite a pressing need for low-cost housing."
§ Health and education for most Chinese are deteriorating. This discovery is perhaps Becker's most alarming. The decline is a disheartening contrast with the Maoist era, which despite its crimes and excesses brought significant progress. Becker even speculates that the Falun Gong religious cult, which continues to suffer vicious state repression, attracts adherents partly because "its leader, Li Hongzhi, promised his followers that if they adopted his system of exercise they need never take medicines or go to [the] hospital for treatment."
§ China today is governed by a kind of lawless authoritarianism. Local party bureaucrats, most apparently drained of any revolutionary idealism, wield unchecked power, arbitrarily imposing hundreds of different kinds of taxes on the rural poor. Quite logically, corruption flourishes.
At the upper levels, "princelings," the offspring of high party officials, commandeer what was once state property for personal gain and, in league with foreign (often overseas Chinese) investors, dominate vast segments of the economy, accompanied by corruption on a grand scale. Becker reports one particularly ominous development; some of the elite--you cannot call them "new" because many are the actual biological heirs of the old rulers--seem to be stashing billions outside China, a variant of Latin American- or African-style rapacity.
Such capital flight is a dangerous break with the East Asian pattern. In places like South Korea and Taiwan, the new industrialists did prosper, but they were required to keep the gains inside their countries, to reinvest in productive growth. Also, in neither place did the expanding economy widen inequality.
§ China's success at exporting from its coastal enclaves may be exaggerated. The inhuman conditions in these sweatshops are slowly becoming known, thanks to courageous Chinese activists and to solidarity movements overseas, but it may still be a surprise to learn that for the mostly female workers "talking is usually forbidden. To go to the toilet or drink a glass of water requires a permission card. Sexual harassment is common and punishments can involve beating, confinement or cancellation of wages."
Becker once again provides a fresh look, by raising serious doubts about the purely economic benefit of all this repression. He points out that the export zones are subsidized by the rest of the economy and that some of the apparent growth is in fact a speculative bubble (the kind of feverish phenomenon that Internet investors in the West have just painfully learned about).
§ China's security apparatus is actually expanding. Becker's revelation comes as something of a surprise, because the surface of Chinese life looks more relaxed after the monochrome, bleak thought control of the Mao Zedong period. But as Columbia University scholar Andrew Nathan explains in his valuable introduction to the recently published Tiananmen Papers, "To be sure, [the regime] has diminished the range of social activities it purports to control in comparison to the totalitarian ambitions of its Maoist years. It...no longer aspires to change human nature. It has learned that many arenas of freedom are unthreatening to the monopoly of political power."
So even though people in Beijing and Shanghai now wear Western-style jeans and running shoes, Becker points out that repression continues; arrests--not just political--are arbitrary, torture is routine and the death penalty is applied more frequently. Bill Clinton's 1998 state visit and China's accession to the World Trade Organization were supposed to be liberalizing influences. The market fundamentalists who insist that increased trade somehow automatically improves human rights have some explaining to do.
§ China is--for now--not a strong military threat to Taiwan, despite Beijing's bellicose threats. Contrary to the alarms of Western conservatives, Becker contends that the Chinese Navy could not--yet--mount an invasion across the Taiwan Strait, adding that "Chinese pilots cannot even fly in bad weather because their radar screens are unreliable."
§ Environmental degradation is perhaps the worst threat to China. The water table in the north is dropping; The Chinese includes a photograph of a forlorn figure trying to pump from a shallow pool in what is left of the Yellow River. China's water and air are polluted, and deforestation and loss of topsoil continue. Much of this is no surprise, thanks in large measure to the pioneering work of the scientist Vaclav Smil. Becker stresses that the environmental catastrophe is linked to China's lack of genuine democracy: "Since almost everything the state says is untrue, and most information is kept secret, there is no real trust or co-operation between its officials and the rest of the population."
Becker points out humorously that even Chinese weathermen have lied: "In 1999 it emerged that meteorologists had for fifty years been under orders never to report that the temperature had risen above 37 degrees centigrade (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), although why no one would explain. Perhaps such an admission was seen as discrediting the Party."
China's environmental failure illustrates one of Becker's most important conclusions: Human rights, democracy and government accountability are not luxuries, worthy ideals to be set aside until economic growth is achieved. In fact, genuine, broad-based, environmentally friendly growth will not happen until there is respect for human rights. Spasmodic government exhortations will not reduce corruption at either high or local levels, but a vigorous free press, freedom to speak out and genuine multiparty elections are the only hope. Continuing government lying will not heal the environment, but independent ecology movements can help, as they have already demonstrated in neighboring Taiwan.
Becker is cautious about the prospects for change. He does recognize that "some foreign and domestic observers have predicted that such an explosive mixture of corruption, poverty and unemployment in China must one day result in a rural revolt. Perhaps." But he also points out that the Chinese bureaucratic state can trace its ancestry continuously back to the first Emperor in the third century BC, making it "probably the oldest functioning organization in the world," one that has been "exercising a tighter grip over its subjects than any other comparable government in the last two millennia."
The market fundamentalists of course assume that change will come as the automatic consequence of economic growth. They have done little to help this evolutionary process along. The great Chinese democratic dissident Wei Jingsheng, released in 1997 after eighteen years in Chinese prison camps, sits in exile in the United States, just about ignored by the mainstream media. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a household word at a similar stage in his career.
Market fundamentalists disregard China's terrible level of industrial accidents and the decline in health and education. They are uncomfortable about Chinese sweatshops, air and water pollution, and corruption, but they justify these ills as an inevitable part of growth, looking back with a kind of misty glow at Dickens's England and post-Civil War America for reassurance that "we" came through the hard times, and so will the Chinese. Jasper Becker's remarkable book ought to raise crushing doubts.
But let us just imagine for a moment that the market fundamentalists are right. Their point of view is still immoral. They are implicitly suggesting that some people, those who gain from the unjust international economic order, have the right to impose suffering on other people, in the name of some ultimate goal. No one asked those 10,000 Chinese coal miners who died last year, men and certainly at least some women, whether they wanted to sacrifice for a greater future. No one allowed them to vote for people who might have protected their rights; no one permitted them to form independent labor unions. Apparently, globalization does not yet mean that members of America's United Mine Workers and other overseas unions can openly visit their Chinese colleagues and share their experience in fighting for safer workplaces. But at least, thanks to Jasper Becker, we are becoming aware that the Chinese miners exist, so they are no longer dying in total silence.
When, halfway through Hamlet, the prince proclaims that the purpose of playing is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature," the players listen. As have generation after generation of theater artists returning to the play, and the character, to seek a reflection of their own age. "Hamlet is played everywhere, all the time," writes theater visionary Peter Brook. "As a tramp, as a peasant, as a woman, as a hobo, as a business man, as a movie star, as a clown, even as a marionette. It's inexhaustible, limitless. Every decade offers us a new interpretation."
Take the past decade, for example, during which there has been a veritable parade of distinctive Danish princes across the English-speaking stage: In London, there was the sensitive Daniel Day Lewis at the Royal National Theatre (1989); the dark and dazzling Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida (1995); the nightshirted Mark Rylance at the Globe (2000); in New York, the erudite Kevin Kline (1990) and the stalwart Liev Schreiber (1999), both at the New York Shakespeare Festival. On film, there was the intense Mel Gibson (1990) and the charismatic Kenneth Branagh (1996). To name only a select few.
But there is something special about the recent "rash of Hamlets," as acclaimed British actor Simon Russell Beale calls the three princes in this, the "true millennium" year. Something arresting. He's referring to Brook's The Tragedy of Hamlet, with Adrian Lester, now playing at Brook's celebrated Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris but due to come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. He's also referring to his own Hamlet, directed by John Caird, currently at the Royal National Theatre in London but also set to sail to the United States this spring. And then there is the film Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, recently playing on both London and American screens. Three startling productions, that provide us with the rare opportunity to rediscover the play and the prince anew. And each one accomplishes this in a markedly different way.
"It is only by forgetting Shakespeare that we can begin to find him," writes Brook, theater director and theorist. Brook is a master at making us forget the classics and experience them anew. He's been reimagining them his entire career, with his innovative A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, as well as with the operas Pelléas et Mélisande, Carmen and Don Giovanni. In the case of Hamlet, it's a play he's been exploring for almost half a century, beginning with his traditional rendering in 1953 with Paul Scofield; next, with a deconstructed "Theater of Cruelty" version during the sixties in collaboration with Charles Marowitz; and decades later, in 1995, with Qui est là? ("Who is there?"), a theater étude, named after the opening line of Hamlet, at his International Center for Theatrical Creation in Paris. Brook explored how the play might have been approached by a number of noted theater theorists, including Stanislavsky, Brecht, Meierhold, Artaud and Gordon Craig. "It was really about the mystery of the theater, and where theater comes from," explains Bruce Myers, one of the permanent members of Brook's multinational troupe.
From this journey, Brook arrives today at The Tragedy of Hamlet, the name he gives his challenging new chamber play. (It's performed in English to preserve the poetry, as Brook explains in recent interviews.) Still, if you've cut your theatrical teeth on the traditional Hamlet, you too will be wondering "Who's there?" along with Horatio, who now speaks the opening line of Brook's boldly deconstructed version. The regular retinue of more than twenty-five characters in the court of Elsinore has been radically reduced by Brook and his collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, to thirteen, played by a tight troupe of eight actors. Gone are Fortinbras, Marcellus, Osric, among others; gone, the opening sentinels' scene; gone, the salutatory Claudius/Gertrude scene; gone, Laertes's leave-taking scene with Polonius's famous fatherly advice (Laertes appears, eventually, to exact his revenge, but almost at the play's end); gone, "The Murder of Gonzago" (in its place is a scene in ancient Greek). And there's not only deconstruction but also reconfiguration.
Where is "To be or not to be"?! (I panicked, but it turns up later in this revised text.) Act V closes with a speech from Act I: "But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad..." And the very last words of the play reprise the first: "Who's there?", articulated again by Horatio as the corpses strewn across the stage slowly rise to their feet and face us. Under Brook's direction, this Hamlet, now playing at two hours twenty in contrast to the traditional four, cuts straight to the chase. So pared, so spare, so severe it is, that at first you'll think you're watching Ibsen or Albee. Yet, halfway through, it happens magically, just as Brook intends it to. You're seeing the play. You're rediscovering Hamlet anew.
So "though this be madness, yet there is method in't." Brook's method, of course. All the familiar features are there--the essentially empty stage (save only a floor covering, with a few brightly colored cushions and a table or two), designed by Chloé Obolensky, an exposed, crumbling theater wall, a familiar instrument stand (Toshi Tsuchitori stands off to the side, a range of primitive instruments at his fingertips). No props, save a pair of skulls and a bamboo pole. Bare, spare, elemental, the Brook theatrical vocabulary. "The joy of creating from very little," as Bruce Myers puts it. The result? A pure, clear, crystalline new play, The Tragedy of Hamlet.
"We pared it down for the French audiences, for clarity's sake. So that they'd understand it," says Myers, who doubles deftly as Polonius and the gravedigger. "We went straight to the heart of the play." At that heart, of course, is Hamlet himself, and as portrayed by the charismatic young British actor Adrian Lester, he's as vibrant as the orange-colored carpet beneath his swift, slippered feet, upon which he commands center stage. Dressed in black pull-ons and tunic, the lithe, dreadlocked Lester is a supple Hamlet, dazzling in his range from philosophical to physical, from preppy to pantheresque, from petulant to powerful, from witty to weepy to warrior-like. "A notion of character deadens character," said Lester in an interview about the rehearsal process. "So I live in the moment." And it shows. He's poetry in motion, morphing from one body image to another, now mincing in gait and words, now crouching, snarling, feigning madness to Polonius & Co. And no matter what his stance, what his guise, Lester's is the rare Hamlet who is, above all, in control. Of himself and of the play.
Brook's celebrated company of English, Caribbean, Indian and Asian actors clearly underscores the universality of this theatrical event, most notably Jeffrey Kissoon, who doubles as a stately Claudius and Ghost, Natasha Parry as a dignified Gertrude, and Shantala Shivalingappa as a delicate Ophelia. Ultimately, with its multi-national cast, its minimal mise en scène and text, and its metatheatrical stylistics, Brook's could just as soon be called The Ritual of Hamlet--reimagining a myth, restating it, celebrating the ceremony of theater and its power to move, enlighten, startle us from our complacent conceptions.
Lester's is not the only Hamlet to take the stage in this season of revelations. Across the channel, at London's Royal National Theatre, the versatile, award-winning actor Simon Russell Beale has defied casting conventions and claimed the prince for his own. Short and stocky, Beale was acclaimed for his recent Iago as well as for other character roles at the Royal National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "The readiness is all" for his startling interpretation, which defies the tradition of sleeker, self-obsessed Hamlets in decades past. "'Am I capable of doing it?!' I asked myself," he told me in an interview. "Can I inhabit him?" His recent Evening Standard Award for Best Actor is the answer. "It was a big surprise for me," Beale said, of the role. "He's a sweet prince."
In contrast to the somberness of Tim Hatley's severe steel setting ("Denmark's a prison," and that's what's on the deep, dark Lyttelton stage, dimly lit by church chandeliers and scored by solemn sacred music), Beale's luminous, human Hamlet is a beacon of light. Playing against the grim world he's given, he's radiant with intelligence, clarity, wit and charm. And more: He's gentle, warm, magnanimous, affectionate, playful, light on his stockinged feet (he fairly leaps with joy when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear). Sensitive, sincere, vulnerable, too. "Hamlet's greatest strength is his sense of humor and irony," Beale continues. "And his sense that he isn't competent, that he can't do it [meaning, take revenge]." This Hamlet is full of surprises: His "get thee to a nunnery" to Ophelia is articulated with tenderness and care; he spends the entire closet scene consoling Gertrude instead of assaulting her, as it is traditionally played. Humane, compassionate, real. A rare, lovable prince, indeed.
Beale is supported by a distinguished RNT cast, featuring a compassionate Gertrude in Sara Kestelman and Denis Quilley, who doubles as a rambunctious Polonius and a delightful gravedigger. Under John Caird's astute direction, there is a rare and heart-stopping moment when both his parents (mother and ghost-father) flank Hamlet, a hand caressing each cheek, and you see straight into the heart of this family tragedy.
And still, there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in (our) philosophy. Michael Almereyda's ingenious film adaptation shows us the infinite possibilities for future Hamlets, still maintaining (though again reducing) the poetry while setting it in a contemporary forest of steel and glass on Park Avenue. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark Corporation, and Ethan Hawke, the son of the slain CEO, is called home from college to set it right. Hawke's hip Hamlet, in ski cap and shades, sees his world through a digicam. As he wanders through the Blockbuster Video's action aisles, taping his own "to be or not to be," we catch a vivid glimpse, in his lens, of millennial man hopelessly alienated by technology and a menacing, monolithic corporate culture. The all-star cast is hip, too, with Kyle MacLachlan as a cunning Claudius and Diane Venora as a stunning Gertrude, driving around town in a black stretch limo (Venora once played Hamlet herself at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the 1980s). Bill Murray's Polonius is droll, Liev Schreiber's Laertes is affecting, Sam Shepard's ghost is beguiling and the ubiquitous Julia Stiles, as Ophelia, drowns sensationally in the Guggenheim Museum pool. It's a slick, spectacular Hamlet, with a proud, vulnerable pop-culture prince at its epicenter.
Comparisons? Similarities are more illuminating. Both stage versions eliminate Fortinbras completely, forsaking the political for the metaphysical world of Hamlet (the film cleverly announces Fortinbras's arrival on CNN). Neither the plays nor the film adopts the Oedipal interpretation so popular in the past century. Above all, none of these three millennial Hamlets is mad. Lester may be unpredictable; Beale may be ironic; Hawke may be angry. But they are all clearheaded, charismatic, capable of action. Hampered by grief, perhaps. Despair. Frustration. But not by inertia. "I want to be sane," declares Beale. "I want to die standing up." A stunning similarity to Adrian Lester's Hamlet, who sinks slowly to his knees but never fully drops, and dies seated, erect. A choice both stage actors mention with pride. "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!"
At the end of our interview, Russell Beale remarked with pleasure that the actor Paul Rhys had just been to see his performance; so have Michael Bennington and Ralph Fiennes. "There's a community of Hamlets," he smiled. New ones will join this community, along with Hamlets of the past (Gielgud, Guinness, Olivier, Burton, David Warner, Ben Kingsley, Derek Jacobi). For, as Brook explains, "we are in front of something which we cannot ever finally understand." The magnificent mystery of Hamlet. And yet, says Brook, "we can always rediscover this play, make it live again, embark anew to seek out its truth."
Meanwhile, Beale's Hamlet is to tour Boston, Phoenix and Minneapolis this spring while Brook/Lester's arrives at BAM. Angela Winkler's Hamlet (from Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus) tours Europe. Sam West's begins at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford this summer. And so on. "Who's there?"
Jason Epstein's Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future is the third memoir of a major American life in book publishing to reach print in less than two years. It is at once a sign that the guard is changing and a recognition that the business has already changed. It is also, in the case of the 72-year-old Epstein, an opportunity to gaze into the crystal ball to predict the changes to be, something he has been rather good at during the course of his long career.
Simon & Schuster's Michael Korda got the triumvirate rolling in 1999 with Another Life, gossipy and entertaining and novelistic, like the books Korda often publishes. The New Press's André Schiffrin--famously ousted from Random House's Pantheon Books, the once independent imprint his father started--followed suit more recently with The Business of Books, the kind of polemic he has sometimes featured on his list [see Daniel Simon, "Keepers of the Word," December 25, 2000].
It's not surprising, then, that the tone pervading Epstein's memoir--which began with a series of lectures he gave at the New York Public Library, formed two essays in The New York Review of Books and was coaxed into a book by Norton president Drake McFeely--is cool and elegant and full of the gravitas of a man who wanted to be a great writer and instead ended up publishing many such, Morrison and Mailer and Doctorow among them.
He arrived at Random House in 1958, having deemed it time to leave Doubleday when he was prevented from publishing Lolita there. While at Doubleday he had founded Anchor Books and with it the trade paperback format in America. He retired as Random's editorial director in 1998, and during the four decades in between started the Library of America, a unified series of reprints of great American literature; The Reader's Catalog, a kind of print precursor to Amazon; and The New York Review of Books. He had a reputation as a brilliant editor but went beyond that to envisage change and make it happen, and in the process made himself into a pillar of the New York intellectual establishment.
"If I have any regrets, I can't think what they are," he declared during an interview recently, sipping homemade espresso at his large kitchen table in an opulent downtown apartment that could double as the upscale set for one of Woody Allen's Manhattan tales. He still edits authors he's been associated with but now does it from home. He prefers to be based there rather than in the Random corporate offices, wishes to put space between himself and an "increasingly distressed industry" mired in "severe structural problems." Prominent among them are a chain-driven bookselling system that favors "brand name" authors and often returns other new books to their publishers after only a few weeks on the shelves, before the titles have a chance to establish themselves; and a bestseller-driven system of high royalty advances that often do not earn back the money invested, a system that ratchets up unrealistically high sales expectations for new titles overall, and in so doing makes it increasingly difficult to publish certain kinds of books.
One-third of the way through his slim text, Epstein writes that his career has demonstrated an "ambivalence toward innovation." Ambivalence also pervades this elegiac book. Perhaps it is inevitable when a man looks back to his youth and forward to a future in which he will not play a major part, even if he is hopeful about that future. Perhaps, too, it is inevitable when confronting the distress signals of an industry he has spent his life in and clearly loves. Epstein shares his visions of a publishing future liberated electronically, but that future harks back to a deep-seated nostalgia, a longing for what was. His book seems to predict that technology in the form of the Internet will restore to the book business a certain lost rightness from the past.
His first chapter, like Dickens's Christmas tale, moves back and forth among past, present and future in an attempt to limn the larger changes of the past fifty years and what may yet unfold. The rest of the book is chronologically structured. It follows Epstein's career and the transformation of publishing from primarily small-scale, owner-operated enterprises rooted in the 1920s "golden age" of Liveright and Knopf to the "media empires" of today, which are forced to operate within an "overconcentrated," "undifferentiated" and fatally "rigid" bookselling structure. Now, he says, "there can't be Liverights or Cerfs because the context is so different. Roger Straus is the very last of them," and even he has sold his company to the German firm von Holtzbrinck.
Publishing must return to being "a much smaller business again," Epstein is convinced. "It has to, it's a craft and can't be industrialized any more than writing can. It's about to undergo a huge structural shift and there's nothing the conglomerates can do about it. The marketplace has shifted out from under them: the system of big money bestsellers defeats the possibility of building a sustained backlist. And without a sustained backlist, publishing cannot function in the long term. Providentially, just as the industry was falling into terminal decadence, electronic publishing has come along."
Epstein is in no way predicting the demise of print. Rather, his future is predicated on a kind of universal electronic Reader's Catalog, "much like Amazon" but far beyond it, "multilingual, multinational, and responsibly annotated. People will access it on their computers at home, in the office, and in kiosks like ATMs. It will be possible to browse those books, and downloading technology will eventually solve the problem of making it possible to buy those books. They won't exist in print until they're actually bought.
"There is no room on the Internet for middlemen, who sell the same product as their competitors, competing on the basis of price and service, and in so doing eat up their margins." Epstein is of course speaking of the Amazons and B&N.coms of today. "I think Amazon can't be here that much longer," says the man who sat at this same kitchen table doling out advice to its CEO, Jeff Bezos, a few years back.
As for brick-and-mortar stores, "the chains aren't tenable, either. They never were. The superstores have become what the old mall stores were. There are far too many of them, Waldens with coffee bars, and they will shrink. Stores run by people who love running bookstores will arise spontaneously like mushrooms and find a way to stay in business once the chains begin to recede."
And the conglomerate publishers? "I think they can show some financial progress for some years by cutting costs and cutting out redundancies, but eventually they'll find themselves with expensive traditional facilities that are increasingly irrelevant. They'll have to offload many functions on to specialist firms. In the end, they in turn will look for a buyer if they can find one. They should have noticed that the previous owners were all too happy to sell."
Meanwhile, authors will have found a way to bypass their publishers by going directly to the web. People will start independent authors' websites. Books will be much cheaper. Authors will have a much larger share of the revenue.
Stephen King has already gained notoriety in trying to do so. But the spectacular starting bang of Riding the Bullet, done in conjunction with his publisher, Simon & Schuster, attenuated when he tried to serialize online a novel, The Plant, on his own. A downturn in paying customers for the later chapters led King to abandon the project. Asked about this, Epstein insists, "It's like the days of the early cars that ran off the road into the mud. People said cars would never work. Well, one of these days e-publishing will work."
Of other experiments now being tried Epstein is openly dismissive, and he sees a kind of Darwinian process filtering chaff from grain. Mighty Words and similar online publishers "don't know what a book is," he contends. "But people know what a book is. Human beings are designed to distinguish value, and in my opinion that problem will take care of itself."
He disregards the tremors that have gone through the publishing houses ever since B&N.com announced it was getting into the business of publishing books. Barnes & Noble Digital was formed the first week in January to compete with the new electronic subsidiaries of traditional publishers, which are bringing out digital versions of new titles readable on PCs or dedicated devices, as well as original works specifically created for electronic distribution. In addition, they are digitizing backlist and out-of-print books that can be reprinted in very small quantities in a process known as print-on-demand."It's yet another premature entry," says Epstein. "B&N's publishing experience is limited to a remainder operation. That's entirely different from bringing out original works."
While Epstein criticizes the proverbial naysayers' laughing at those early cars stuck in the mud, at the same time he cautions, "I don't think an author who has worked hard to create something of value will want to risk it in the electronic format at this point." He says bookstores will wind up selling new titles at much lower prices than is now the case, $10 or so, but "can't figure out" how that will be done in the black. His predictions are compelling, but they are also much too vague--for instance, he sets out no time frame or actual mechanics for what he believes will transpire.
The bloat of the superstores is something publishers have worried about for years, almost from their rollout. This holiday season's flat sales at the three biggest chains; the margin-slashing of Amazon; and the re-energizing of the independent stores through a marketing program called Booksense, which includes web-based retailing, all serve to illustrate Epstein's points. Borders went so far as to put itself on the block, but found no willing takers. Recent murmurs about B&N's CEO Len Riggio entertaining a buyout offer from media conglomerate Gemstar-TV Guide International, which has aggressively entered the e-book technology market, did not result in a deal but also were more than simple gossip.
The past twenty years have seen the RCAs, MCAs, Advance Publications and the like learn their lessons and abandon book publishing, as Epstein has noted. Other conglomerates have already tried to offload their publishing components and in time will try again. But it also can't be ignored that companies like the German-based Bertelsmann (which acquired Bantam, Doubleday Dell and Random House and consolidated them) and von Holtzbrinck (which has bought Holt, St. Martin's and Farrar, Straus & Giroux) have their roots in the book business itself. They are therefore not as likely to exit the scene as Epstein would have us believe.
Undoubtedly, many of Epstein's electronic dreams are prescient and will one day come to pass. The companies that first turn them into reality, though, will likely be turning out works in the professional, scholarly, reference and educational sectors rather than in the trade world he knows so well. But although the Internet will change book publishing profoundly and in ways even Jason Epstein can't predict, other forces are at work as well and shouldn't be ignored.
A couple of years ago a brilliant and rich entrepreneur who also happens to be a profoundly bookish man devised a model, not unlike Epstein's nostalgic vision, of devolved companies publishing real books that share a central financial source. It is called the Perseus Group. It is still in its early days, far too soon to know whether it will last. But Epstein's longing for a more civilized, human-scale publishing business is shared by many. The Internet may help bring it about, but it won't do everything.
The following debate is adapted from a forum--put together by Basic Books and held in New York City some weeks ago. Participating were: John Donatich, who moderated and is publisher of Basic Books; Russell Jacoby, who teaches at UCLA and is the author of The End of Utopia and The Last Intellectuals; Jean Bethke Elshtain, who has served as a board member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, teaches at the University of Chicago and is the author of Women and War, Democracy on Trial and a forthcoming intellectual biography of Jane Addams; Stephen Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University and author of, among other works, The Culture of Disbelief, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Integrity, Civility and, most recently, God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics; Herbert Gans, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and author of numerous works, including Popular Culture and High Culture, The War Against the Poor and The Levittowners; Steven Johnson, acclaimed as one of the most influential people in cyberworld by Newsweek and New York magazines, co-founder of Feedmag.com, the award-winning online magazine, and author of the books Interface Culture and the forthcoming Emergence; and Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for The Nation and Vanity Fair, whose books include the bestselling No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. For Basic, he will be writing the forthcoming On the Contrary: Letters to a Young Radical.
John Donatich: As we try to puzzle out the future of the public intellectual, it's hard not to poke a little fun at ourselves, because the issue is that serious. The very words "future of the public intellectual" seem to have a kind of nostalgia built into them, in that we only worry over the future of something that seems endangered, something we have been privileged to live with and are terrified to bury.
In preparing for this event, I might as well admit that I've been worried about making the slip, "the future of the public ineffectual." But I think that malapropism would be central to what we'll be talking about. It seems to me that there is a central conflict regarding American intellectual work. How does it reconcile itself with the venerable tradition of American anti-intellectualism? What does a country built on headstrong individualism and the myth of self-reliance do with its people convinced that they know best? At Basic Books' fiftieth anniversary, it's a good time to look at a publishing company born in midcentury New York City, a time and place that thrived on the idea of the public intellectual. In our first decades, we published Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Michael Walzer, Christopher Lasch, Herb Gans, Paul Starr, Robert Jay Lifton--and these names came fresh on the heels of Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Erik Erikson and Clifford Geertz.
What did these writers have in common except the self-defined right to worry the world and to believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between the private world of the thinker and the public world he or she wishes to address? That the age of great public intellectuals in America has passed has in fact become a cliché. There are many well-reviewed reasons for this. Scholars and thinkers have retreated to the academy. Self-doubt has become the very compass point of contemporary inquiry. Scholarship seems to start with an autobiographical or confessional orientation. The notion that every question has a noble answer or that there are reliable structures of ideology to believe in wholeheartedly has become, at best, quaint.
Some believe that the once-relied-upon audience of learned readers has disappeared, giving way to a generation desensitized to complex argumentation by television and the Internet. The movie Dumb and Dumber grosses dozens of millions of dollars at the box office, while what's left of bohemian culture celebrates free-market economics. Selling out has more to do with ticket grosses than the antimaterialist who stands apart from society.
How do we reconcile ambition and virtue, expertise and accessibility, multicultural sensitivity and the urge toward unified theory? Most important, how do we reconcile the fact that disagreement is a main catalyst of progress? How do we battle the gravitation toward happy consensus that paralyzes our national debate? A new generation of public intellectuals waits to be mobilized. What will it look like? That is what our distinguished panelists will discuss.
Russell Jacoby has been useful in defining the role of the public intellectual in the past half-century, especially in the context of the academy. Can you, Russell, define for us a sort of historical context for the public intellectual--what kind of talent, courage and/or political motivation it takes for someone to be of the academy but to have his or her back turned to it, ready to speak to an audience greater than one's peers?
Russell Jacoby: A book of mine that preceded The Last Intellectuals was on the history of psychoanalysis. And one of the things I was struck by when I wrote it was that even though psychoanalysis prospered in the United States, something was missing--that is, the sort of great refugee intellectuals, the Erik Eriksons, the Bruno Bettelheims, the Erich Fromms, were not being reproduced. As a field it prospered, but it became medicalized and professionalized. And I was struck by both the success of this field and the absence of public voices of the Eriksons and Bettelheims and Fromms. And from there I began to consider this as a sort of generational question in American history. Where were the new intellectuals? And I put the stress on public intellectuals, because obviously a kind of professional and technical intelligentsia prospered in America, but as far as I could see the public intellectuals were becoming somewhat invisible.
They were invisible because, in some ways, they had become academics, professors locked in the university. And I used a kind of generational account, looking at the 1900s, taking the Edmund Wilsons, the Lewis Mumfords. What became of them, and who were their successors? And I had a tough time finding them.
In some sense it was a story of my generation, the generation that ended up in the university and was more concerned with--well, what?--finding recommendations than with writing public interventions. And to this day, the worst thing you can say about someone in an academic meeting or when you're discussing tenure promotion is, "Oh, his work is kind of journalistic." Meaning, it's readable. It's journalistic, it's superficial. There's an equation between profundity and originality.
My argument was that, in fact, these generations of public intellectuals have diminished over time. For good reasons. The urban habitats, the cheap rents, have disappeared--as well as the jobs themselves. So the transitional generation, the New York intellectuals, ends up in the university. I mention Daniel Bell as a test case. When he was getting tenure, they turned to him and said, "What did you do your dissertation on?" And he said, "I never did a dissertation." And they said, "Oh, we'll call that collection of essays you did a dissertation." But you couldn't do that now. Those of that generation started off as independent intellectuals writing for small magazines and ended up as professors. The next generation started off as professors, wrote differently and thought differently.
So my argument and one of the working titles of my book was, in fact, "The Decline of the Public Intellectuals." And here I am at a panel on "The Future of Public Intellectuals." Even at the time I was writing, some editors said, "Well, decline, that's a little depressing. Could you sort of make a more upbeat version?" So I said, "I have a new book called The Rise of American Intellectuals," and was told, "Well, that sounds much better, that's something we can sell." But I was really taking a generational approach, which in fact, is on the decline. And it caused intense controversy, mainly for my contemporaries, who always said, "What about me? I'm a public intellectual. What about my friends?" In some sense the argument is ongoing. I'm happy to be wrong, if there are new public intellectuals emerging. But I tend to think that the university and professionalization does absorb and suck away too much talent, and that there are too few who are bucking the trends.
Donatich: Maybe the term "public intellectual" begs the question, "who is the public that is being addressed by these intellectuals?" Which participant in this conversation is invisible, the public or the intellectual?
Jean Bethke Elshtain: I mused in print at one point that the problem with being a public intellectual is that as time goes on, one may become more and more public and less and less intellectual. Perhaps I should have said that a hazard of the vocation of the public intellectual lies in that direction. I didn't exactly mean less academically respectable, but rather something more or less along these lines: less reflective, less inclined to question one's own judgments, less likely to embed a conviction in its appropriate context with all the nuance intact. It is the task of the public intellectual as I understand that vocation to keep the nuances alive. A public intellectual is not a paid publicist, not a spinner, not in the pocket of a narrowly defined purpose. It is, of course the temptation, another one, of the public intellectual to cozy up to that which he or she should be evaluating critically. I think perhaps, too many White House dinners can blunt the edge of criticism.
A way I like to put it is that when you're thinking about models for this activity, you might put it this way: Sartre or Camus? An intellectual who is willing to look the other way, indeed, shamefully, explain away the existence of slave-labor camps, the gulags, in the service of a grand world-historic purpose or, by contrast, an intellectual who told the truth about such atrocities, knowing that he would be denounced, isolated, pronounced an ally of the CIA and capitalistic oppressors out to grind the faces of the poor.
There are times when a public intellectual must say "neither/nor," as did Camus. Neither the socialism of the gallows, in his memorable phrase, nor a capitalist order riddled with inequalities and shamed by the continuing existence, in his era, the era of which I speak, of legally sanctioned segregation. At the same time, this neither/nor did not create a world of moral equivalence. Camus was clear about this. In one regime, one order, one scheme of things, one could protest, one could organize to fight inequities, and in the other one wound up disappeared or dead.
Let me mention just one issue that I took on several times when I alternated a column called "Hard Questions" for The New Republic. I'm referring to the question of genetic engineering, genetic enhancement, the race toward a norm of human perfection to be achieved through manipulation of the very stuff of life. How do you deal with an issue like this? Here, it seems to me, the task of the public intellectual in this society at this time--because we're not fighting the issues that were fought in the mid-twentieth century--is to join others in creating a space within which such matters can be articulated publicly and debated critically.
At present, the way the issue is parsed by the media goes like this: The techno-enthusiasts announce that we're one step closer to genetic utopia. The New York Times calls up its three biological ethicists to comment. Perhaps one or two religious leaders are asked to wring their hands a little bit--anyone who's really a naysayer with qualms about eugenics, because that is the direction in which we are heading, is called a Luddite. Case closed, and every day we come closer to a society in which, even as we intone multiculturalism as a kind of mantra, we are narrowing the definition of what is normatively human as a biological ideal. That's happening even as we speak; that is, we're in real danger of reducing the person to his or her genotype, but if you say that, you're an alarmist--so that's what I am.
This leads me to the following question: Who has authority to pronounce on what issue, as the critical issues change from era to era? In our time and place, scientists, technology experts and dot-com millionaires seem to be the automatic authorities on everything. And everybody else is playing catch-up.
So the public intellectual needs, it seems to me, to puncture the myth-makers of any era, including his own, whether it's those who promise that utopia is just around the corner if we see the total victory of free markets worldwide, or communism worldwide or positive genetic enhancement worldwide, or mouse-maneuvering democracy worldwide, or any other run-amok enthusiasm. Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers. Reinhold Niebuhr was one such when he decided that he could no longer hold with his former compatriots of the Social Gospel movement, given what he took to be their dangerous naïveté about the rise of fascism in Europe. He was widely derided as a man who once thought total social transformation in the direction of world peace was possible, but who had become strangely determined to take a walk on the morbid side by reminding Americans of the existence of evil in the world. On this one, Niebuhr was clearly right.
When we're looking around for who should get the blame for the declining complexity of public debate, we tend to round up the usual suspects. Politicians usually get attacked, and the media. Certainly these usual suspects bear some responsibility for the thinning out of the public intellectual debate. But I want to lift up two other candidates here, two trends that put the role of public intellectuals and the very existence of publics in the John Dewey sense at risk. The first is the triumph of the therapeutic culture, with its celebration of a self that views the world solely through the prism of the self, and much of the time a pretty "icky" self at that. It's a quivering sentimental self that gets uncomfortable very quickly, because this self has to feel good about itself all the time. Such selves do not make arguments, they validate one another.
A second factor is the decline of our two great political parties. At one point the parties acted not just as big fundraising machines, not just as entities to mobilize voters but as real institutions of political and civic education. There are lots of reasons why the parties have been transformed and why they no longer play that role, but the results are a decline in civic education, a thinning out of political identification and depoliticization, more generally.
I'm struck by what one wag called the herd of independent minds; by the fact that what too often passes for intellectual discussion is a process of trying to suit up everybody in a team jersey so we know just who should be cheered and who booed. It seems to me that any public intellectual worth his or her salt must resist this sort of thing, even at the risk of making lots of people uncomfortable.
Donatich: Stephen, can you talk about the thinning out of political identity? Who might be responsible for either thickening or thinning the blood of political discourse? What would you say, now that we're talking about the fragmentation of separate constituencies and belief systems, is the role of religion and faith in public life?
Stephen Carter: You know that in the academy the really bad word is "popularizer"-- a mere popularizer, not someone who is original, which of course means obscure, or someone who is "deeply theorized," which is the other phrase. And to be deeply theorized, you understand, in academic terms today, means to be incapable of uttering a word such as "poor." No one is poor. The word, the phrase now, as some of you may know, is "restricted access to capital markets." That's deeply theorized, you see. And some of us just say poor, and that makes us popularizers.
A few years ago someone who was really quite angry about one of my books--and I have a habit of making people angry when I write books--wrote a review in which he challenged a statement of mine asserting that the intellectual should be in pursuit of truth without regard to whether that leaves members of any particular political movement uncomfortable. He responded that this was a 12-year-old nerd's vision of serious intellectual endeavor.
And ever since then I thought that I would like to write a book, or at least an essay, titled something like Diary of an Intellectual Nerd, because I like that idea of being somewhat like a 12-year-old. A certain naïveté, not so much about great ideas and particularly not about political movements but about thought itself, about truth itself. And I think one of the reasons, if the craft of being intellectual in the sense of the scholar who speaks to a large public is in decline, is cynicism. Because there's no sense that there are truths and ideas to be pursued. There are only truths and ideas to be used and crafted and made into their most useful and appropriate form. Everyone is thought to be after something, everyone is thought to have some particular goal in mind, independent of the goal that he or she happens to articulate. And so, a person may write a book or an article and make an argument, and people wonder, they stand up in the audience and they say, "So, are you running for office, or are you looking for some high position?" There's always some thought that you must be after something else.
One of the reasons, ideally, you'd think you would find a lot of serious intellectual endeavor on university campuses is precisely because people have tenure and therefore, in theory, need not worry about trying to do something else. But on many, many campuses you have, in my judgment, relatively little serious intellectual endeavor in the sense of genuinely original thinking, because even there, people are worried about which camp they will be thought to be in.
You can scarcely read a lot of scholarship today without first having to wade through several chapters of laying out the ground in the sense of apologizing in advance to all the constituencies that may be offended, lest one be thought in the other camp. That kind of intellectual activity is not only dangerous, it's unworthy in an important sense, it's not worthy of the great traditions of intellectual thought.
There's a tendency sometimes to have an uneasy equation that there is serious intellectual activity over here, and religion over there, and these are, in some sense, at war. That people of deep faith are plainly anti-intellectual and serious intellectuals are plainly antireligious bigots--they're two very serious stereotypes held by very large numbers of people. I'm quite unembarrassed and enthusiastic about identifying myself as a Christian and also as an intellectual, and I don't think there's any necessary war between those two, although I must say, being in an academic environment, it's very easy to think that there is.
I was asked by a journalist a few years ago why was it that I was comfortable identifying myself, and often did, as a black scholar or an African-American scholar and hardly ever identified myself as a Christian scholar. And surely the reason is, there are certain prejudices on campus suggesting that is not a possible thing to be or, at least, not a particularly useful combination of labels.
And yet, I think that the tradition of the contribution to a public-intellectual life by those making explicitly religious arguments has been an important and overlooked one, and I go back for my model, well past Niebuhr, into the nineteenth century. For example, if you looked at some of the great preachers of the abolitionist movement, one thing that is quite striking about them is, of course, that they were speaking in an era when it was commonly assumed that people could be quite weighty in their theology and quite weighty in their intellectual power. And when you read many of the sermons of that era, many of the books and pamphlets, you quickly gain a sense of the intellectual power of those who were pressing their public arguments in explicitly Christian terms.
Nowadays we have a historical tendency to think, "Oh, well, it's natural they spoke that way then, because the nation was less religiously diverse and more Christian." Actually, the opposite was probably true, as historians now think--the nation is probably less religiously diverse now than it was 150, 175 years ago, when religions were being founded really quite swiftly. And most of those swiftly founded religions in the 1820s to the 1830s have died, but many of them had followers in great number before they did.
America's sense of itself as a so-called Christian nation, as they used to say in the nineteenth century, didn't really grow strong until the 1850s or 1860s. So you have to imagine the abolitionist preachers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, preaching in a world in which it could be anything but certain that those who were listening to them were necessarily co-religionists.
In this century too, we have great intellectual preachers who also spoke across religious lines. Martin Luther King is perhaps the most famous of them, even though sometimes, people try to make a straitjacket intellectual of him by insisting, with no evidence whatsoever, that he actually was simply making secular moral arguments, and that religion was kind of a smokescreen. If you study his public ministry and look at his speeches, which were really sermons, as a group, you easily discern that that's not true.
And yet, the religiosity of his language gave it part of its power, including the power to cross denominational lines, to cross the lines between one tradition and another, and to cross lines between religion and nonreligion. For the religiously moved public intellectual, the fact is that there are some arguments that simply lose their power or are drained of their passion when they're translated into a merely secular mode. The greatness of King's public oratory was largely a result of its religiosity and its ability to touch that place in the human heart where we know right from wrong; it would not have been as powerful, as compelling, had it lacked that religious quality.
Now, I'm not being ahistorical, I'm not saying, "Oh, therefore the civil rights movement would not have happened or we would still have racial segregation today"--that's not the point of my argument. The point is that his religiosity did not detract from his intellectual power; rather, it enhanced it. This is not to say, of course, that everyone who makes a religious argument in public life is speaking from some powerful intellectual base. But it does suggest we should be wary of the prejudices that assume they can't be making serious arguments until they are translated into some other form that some may find more palatable. In fact, one of my great fears about the place we are in our democracy is that, religion aside, we have lost the ability to express and argue about great ideas.
Donatich: Professor Carter has made a career out of illustrating the effect and protecting the right of religious conviction in public thought. Herbert Gans, on the other hand, is a self-pronounced, enthusiastic atheist. As a social scientist who has taught several generations of students, how does a public intellectual balance the professional need for abstract theory and yet remain relevant, contribute some practical utility to the public discourse?
Herbert Gans: I'm so old that the word "discourse" hadn't been invented yet! I am struck by the pessimism of this panel. But I also notice that most of the names of past public intellectuals--and I knew some of them--were, during their lifetime, people who said, "Nobody's listening to me." Erich Fromm, for example, whom I knew only slightly and through his colleagues, was sitting in Mexico fighting with psychoanalysts who didn't think politics belonged in the dialogue. Lewis Mumford was a teacher of mine, and he certainly felt isolated from the public, except on architecture, because he worked for The New Yorker.
So it seems to me it's just the opposite: that the public intellectual is alive and well, though perhaps few are of the magnitude of the names mentioned. If I did a study, I'd have to define what an intellectual is, and I notice nobody on the panel has taken that one on. And I won't either. The public intellectuals that exist now may not be as famous, but in fact there are lots of them. And I think at least on my campus, public intellectuals are becoming celebrities. Some of them throw stones and get themselves in trouble for a few minutes and then it passes. But I think that really is happening, and if celebrities can exist, their numbers will increase.
One of the reasons the number is increasing is that public intellectuals are really pundits. They're the pundits of the educated classes, the pundits of the highbrow and the upper-middlebrow populations, if you will. And the moment you say they're pundits, then you can start comparing them to other pundits, of which we have lots. And there are middlebrow pundits and there are lower-brow pundits, there are serious pundits, there are not-so-serious pundits.
Some of the columnists in the newspapers and the tabloid press who are not journalists with a PhD are public intellectuals. There are pundits who are satirical commentators, there are a significant number of people who get their political news from Leno and Letterman. And, of course, the pollsters don't really understand this, because what Leno and Letterman supply is a satirical take on the news.
Most public intellectuals function as quote-suppliers to legitimize the media. Two or three times a week, I get called by journalists and asked whether I will deliver myself of a sociological quote to accompany his or her article, to legitimate, in a sense, the generalizations that journalists make and have to make, because they've got two-hour deadlines. Which means that while there are few public intellectuals who are self-selected, most of us get selected anyway. You know, if no journalist calls for a quote, then I'm not a public intellectual; I just sit there writing my books and teaching classes.
I did a book on the news media and hung out at Newsweek and the other magazines. And at Newsweek, they had something they called an island, right in the main editorial room. On the island were names of people who would now be called public intellectuals, the people whom Newsweek quoted. And the rules were--and this is a bit like Survivor--every so often people would be kicked off the island. Because the editors thought, and probably rightly, that we as readers were going to get tired of this group of public intellectuals. So a new group was brought in to provide the quotes. And then they were kicked off.
The public intellectuals come in two types, however. First there are the ones that everyone has been talking about, the generalists, the pundits, as I think of them; and second are the disciplinary public intellectuals. The public sociologists, the public economists, the public humanists--public, plus a discipline. And these are the people who apply the ideas from their own disciplines to a general topic. And again, to some extent, this is what I do when I'm a quote-supplier, and I'm sure my fellow panelists are all functioning as quote-suppliers too.
But the disciplinary public intellectuals show that their disciplinary insights and their skills can add something original to the public debate. That, in other words, social scientists and humanists can indeed grapple with the issues and the problems of the real world. The disciplinary public intellectuals, like other public intellectuals, have to write in clear English. This is a rarity in the academy, unfortunately--which makes disciplinary public intellectuals especially useful. And they demonstrate the public usefulness of their disciplines, which is important in one sense, because we all live off public funds, directly or indirectly, and we need to be able to account every so often that we're doing something useful for taxpayers. I cannot imagine there are very many legislators in this country who would consider an article in an academic journal as proof that we're doing something useful or proof that we're entitled to some share of the public budget.
Disciplinary public intellectuals are useful in another way, too: They are beloved by their employers, because they get these employers publicity. My university has a professionally run clipping service, and every time Columbia University is mentioned, somebody clips and files the story. And so every time somebody quotes me I say, "Be sure to mention Columbia University," because I want to make my employers happy, even though I do have tenure. Because, if they get publicity, they think they're getting prestige, and if they get prestige, that may help them get students or grant money.
There are a number of hypotheses on this; I'm not sure any of them are true-- whether quote-supplying provides prestige, or prestige helps to get good students, whether good students help to get grant money. There is a spiral here that may crash. But meanwhile, they think that if we're getting them publicity, we're being useful. And, of course, public social scientists and those in the humanities are, in some respects, in short supply, in part because their colleagues stigmatize them as popularizers. (They don't call them journalists, which is a dirty word in the ivory tower.)
It's also fair to say that in the newsrooms, "academic" is a dirty word. If you've ever paid attention, journalists always cite "the professor," and it doesn't matter who it is, and it doesn't even matter if they're friends of the professor. But it's always "the professor," which is a marvelous way of dehumanizing us professors. So there's this love/hate relationship between journalists and academics that's at work here. All of which means, yes, of course, it does take a bit of courage to be a public intellectual or a disciplinary public intellectual. If you turn your back on the mainstream of the academy, that's the way you get a knife in your back, at times.
Donatich: Steven Johnson has used the web and Internet energetically and metaphorically. How will the Internet change public dialogue? What are the opportunities of public conversation that this new world presents?
Steven Johnson: One of the problems with the dot-com-millionaire phenomenon--which may, in fact, be starting to fall behind us--is that it really distracted a huge amount of attention from a lot of other very interesting and maybe more laudable things that were happening online. There was kind of a news vacuum that sucked everything toward stories about the 25-year-old guy who just made $50 million, and we lost sight of some of the other really progressive and important things that were happening because of the rise of the web.
I'm of a generation that came of age at precisely that point that Russell Jacoby talked about and wrote about, during the late eighties, when the academy was very much dominated by ideas from France and other places, where there was a lot of jargon and specialization, and it was the heyday of poststructuralism and deconstruction in the humanities. Which leads me to sometimes jokingly, sometimes not, describe myself as a "recovering semiotics major."
I think that I came to the web and to starting Feed, and to writing the book that I wrote about the Internet culture and interface culture, as a kind of a refugee from conversations like one in the academy, when I was a graduate student, in which a classmate asked the visiting Derrida a ten- or fifteen-minute, convoluted Derridean question on his work and the very possibility of even asking a question. And after a long pause, Derrida had to admit, "I'm sorry, I do not understand the question."
The web gave me an unlikely kind of home in that there were ideas and there were new critical paradigms that had been opened up to me from the academic world. But it was clear that you couldn't write about that world, you couldn't write using those tools with that kind of language and do anything useful. And it was very hard to imagine a life within the university system that was not going to inevitably push me toward conversations like that with Derrida.
So the good news, I think, is that my experience is not unique. In fact, there's been a great renaissance in the last five years of the kind of free-floating intellectual that had long been rumored to be on his or her last legs. It's a group shaped by ideas that have come out of the academy but is not limited to that. And I think in terms of publications like Feed--to pat myself on the back--Hermenaut and Suck are all good examples of a lively new form of public intellectualism that is not academic in tone.
The sensibility of that group is very freethinking--not particularly interested in doctrinaire political views, very eclectic in taste, very interested in the mix of high and low culture, much more conversational in tone--funny, even. Funny is an interesting component here. I mean, these new writers are funny in a way, you know, Adorno was never very funny. And they're very attentive to technology changes, maybe as interested in technology and changes in the medium as they are in intellectual fashions. If there's a role model that really stands out, it's somebody like Walter Benjamin for this generation. You know, a sense of an interest that puts together groups of things you wouldn't necessarily expect to see put together in the same essay.
How does the web figure into all of this? Why did these people show up on the web? I think one of the things that started happening--actually, this is just starting to happen--is that in addition to these new publications, you're starting to see something on the web that is very unique to it. The ability to center your intellectual life in all of its different appearances in your own "presence" online, on the home page, so that you can actually have the equivalent of an author bio. Except that it's dynamically updated all the time, and there are links to everything you're doing everywhere. I think we've only just begun to exploit it--of combating the problem with the free-floating intellectual, which is that you're floating all over the place and you don't necessarily have a home, and your ideas are appearing in lots of different venues and speaking to lots of different audiences.
The web gives you a way of rounding all those diverse kinds of experiences and ideas--and linking to them. Because, of course, the web is finally all about linking--in a way that I think nothing has done quite as well before it. And it also involves a commitment to real engagement with your audience that perhaps public intellectuals have talked a lot about in the past, but maybe not lived up to as much as they could have.
Some of this is found in the new formats that are available online in terms of how public dialogue can happen. I'm sure many of you have read these and many of you may have actually participated in them, but I'm a great advocate for this kind of long-format, multiparticipant discussion thread that goes on over two or three weeks. Not a real-time live chat, which is a disaster in terms of quality of discourse, which inevitably devolves into the "What are you wearing" kind of intellectual questions. But rather, the conversations with four or five people where each person has a day or half a day to think up their responses, and then write in 500- to 1,000-word posts. We've done those since we started at Feed. Slate does a wonderful job with them. And it's a fantastic forum. It's very engaged, it's very responsible, it's very dialogic and yet also lively in a conversational way. But, because of the back and forth, you actually can get to places that you sometimes couldn't get in a stand-alone 10,000-word essay.
Donatich: Professor Gans, if you had trouble with the word "discourse," I'm wondering what you'll do with "dialogic."
Johnson: I said I was recovering! That's the kind of thing that should be happening, and it seems to me that in five or ten years we'll see more and more of people who are in this kind of space, having pages that are devoted to themselves and carrying on these conversations all the time with people who are coming by and engaging with them. And I think that is certainly a force for good. The other side is just the economics of being able to publish either your own work or a small magazine. I mean, we started Feed with two people. We were two people for two years before we started growing a little bit. And the story that I always tell about those early days is that we put out the magazine and invited a lot of our friends and some people we just knew professionally to contribute. About three months, I guess, after Feed launched, Wired came out with a review of it. And they had this one slightly snippy line that said, "It's good to see the East Coast literary establishment finally get online." Which is very funny, to be publishing this thing out of our respective apartments. I had this moment where I was looking around my bedroom for the East Coast literary establishment--you open the closet door, and "Oh, Norman Mailer is in there. 'Hey, how's it going!'" And so there can be a kind of Potemkin Village quality online. But I think the village is thriving right now.
Donatich: Christopher Hitchens, short of taking on what a public intellectual might or might not be, will you say something about the manners or even the mannerisms of the public intellectual and why disagreement is important to our progress?
Christopher Hitchens: I've increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it's constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated. If only because all these processes are actually undertaken by the elite and leave us all, finally, voting in the passive voice and believing that we're using our own opinions or concepts when in fact they have been imposed upon us.
I think that "populism" has become probably the main tactical discourse, if you will, the main tactical weapon, the main vernacular of elitism. Certainly the most successful elitist in American culture now, American politics particularly, is the most successful inventor or manipulator, or leader of populism. And I think that does leave a great deal of room in the public square for intellectuals to stand up, who are not afraid to be thought of as, say, snobbish, to pick a word at random. Certainly at a time when the precious term "irony"--precious to me, at any rate--has been reduced to a form of anomie or sarcasm. A little bit of snobbery, a little bit of discrimination, to use another word that's fallen into disrepute, is very much in order. And I'm grateful to Professor Carter for this much, at least, that he drew attention to language. And particularly to be aware of euphemism. After all, this is a time when if you can be told you're a healer, you've probably won the highest cultural award the society can offer, where anything that can be said to be unifying is better than anything that can be described as divisive. Blush if you will, ladies and gentlemen, I'm sure at times you too have applauded some hack who says he's against or she's against the politics of division. As if politics wasn't division by definition.
The New York Times, which I'm sure some of you at least get, if you don't read, will regularly regale you in this way--check and see if you can confirm this. This will be in a news story, by the way, not a news analysis. About my hometown in Washington, for example, "recently there was an unpleasant outbreak of partisanship on Capitol Hill, but order seems to have been restored, and common sense, and bi-partisanship, is again regained. I've paraphrased only slightly. Well, what is this in translation? "For a while back there it looked as if there'd be a two-party system. But, thank God, the one-party system has kicked back in."
Now, the New York Times would indignantly repudiate--I'm coming back to this, actually--the idea that it stood for a one-party system or mentality, but so it does. And its language reveals it. So look to the language. And that is, in fact, one of the most essential jobs of anyone describing themselves as an intellectual.
Against this, we have, of course, the special place reserved for the person who doesn't terribly want to be a part of it, doesn't feel all that bipartisan, who isn't in an inclusive mood. Look at the terms that are used for this kind of a person: gadfly, maverick and, sometimes, bad boy. Also bad girl, but quite often bad boy, for some reason. Loose cannon, contrarian, angry young man.
These are not hate words, by any means, nor are they exactly insulting, but there's no question, is there, that they are fantastically and essentially condescending. They're patronizing terms. They are telling us, affectionately enough, that pluralism, of course, is big enough, capacious enough, tolerant enough to have room for its critics.
The great consensus, after all, probably needs a few jesters here and there, and they can and should be patted upon the head, unless they become actually inconvenient or awkward or, worst of all--the accusation I have myself been most eager to avoid--humorless. One must be funny, wouldn't you say? Look to the language again. Take the emaciated and paltry manner and prose in which a very tentative challenge to the one-party system, or if you prefer, the two-party one, has been received. I'm alluding to the campaign by Ralph Nader.
The New York Times published two long editorials, lead editorials, very neatly inverting the usual Voltairean cliché. These editorials say: We don't particularly disagree with what Ralph Nader says, but we violently disagree with his right to say it. I've read the editorials--you can look them up. I've held them up to the light, looked at them upside down, inside out, backwards--that's what they say. This guy has no right to be running, because the electorate is entitled to a clear choice between the two people we told you were the candidates in the first place.
I find this absolutely extraordinary. When you're told you must pick one of the available ones; "We've got you some candidates, what more do you want? We got you two, so you have a choice. Each of them has got some issues. We've got some issues for you as well. You've got to pick." A few people say, "Well, I don't feel like it, and what choice did I have in the choice?" You're told, "Consider the alternatives." The first usage of that phrase, as far as I know, was by George Bernard Shaw, when asked what he felt like on his 90th birthday. And he said, "Considering the alternatives...." You can see the relevance of it. But in this case you're being told, in effect, that it would be death to consider the alternatives.
Now, to "consider the alternatives" might be a definition of the critical mind or the alive intelligence. That's what the alive intelligence and the critical mind exist to do: to consider, tease out and find alternatives. It's a very striking fact about the current degeneration of language, that that very term, those very words are used in order to prevent, to negate, consideration of alternatives. So, be aware. Fight it every day, when you read gunk in the paper, when you hear it from your professors, from your teachers, from your pundits. Develop that kind of resistance.
The word "intellectual" is of uncertain provenance, but there's no question when it became a word in public use. It was a term of abuse used by those who thought that Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was guilty in 1898 to describe those who thought that he was probably innocent. It was a word used particularly by those who said that whether Captain Dreyfus was innocent or not, that wasn't really the point. The point was, would France remain an orderly, Christian, organic, loyal society? Compared to that, the guilt or innocence of Captain Dreyfus was irrelevant. They weren't saying he was necessarily guilty, they were saying, "Those who say he is innocent are not our friends. These are people who are rootless, who have no faith, who are unsound, in effect." I don't think it should ever probably lose that connotation. And fortunately, like a lot of other words that were originally insults--I could stipulate "Impressionist," which was originally a term of abuse, or "suffragette" or "Tory," as well as a number of other such terms--there was a tendency to adopt them in reaction to the abuse and to boast of them, and say, "Well, all right, you call me a suffragette, I'll be a suffragette. As a matter of fact, I'll be an Impressionist."
I think it would be a very sad thing if the word "intellectual" lost its sense that there was something basically malcontent, unsound and untrustworthy about the person who was claiming the high honor of the title. In politics, the public is the agora, not the academy. The public element is the struggle for opinion. It's certainly not the party system or any other form whereby loyalty can be claimed of you or you can be conscripted.
I would propose for the moment two tasks for the public intellectual, and these, again, would involve a confrontation with our slipshod use of language. The first, I think, in direct opposition to Professor Carter, is to replace the rubbishy and discredited notions of faith with scrutiny, by looking for a new language that can bring us up to the point where we can discuss shattering new discoveries about, first, the cosmos, in the work of Stephen Hawking, and the discoveries of the Hubble telescope--the external world--and, second, no less shattering, the discovery about our human, internal nature that has begun to be revealed to us by the unraveling of the chains of DNA.
At last, it's at least thinkable that we might have a sense of where we are, in what I won't call creation. And what our real nature is. And what do we do? We have President Clinton and the other figures in the Human Genome Project appear before us on the day that the DNA string was finally traced out to its end, and we're told in their voices and particularly the wonderful lip-biting voice of the President, "Now we have the dictionary which God used when he was inventing us." Nothing could be more pathetic than that. This is a time when one page, one paragraph, of Hawking is more awe-inspiring, to say nothing of being more instructive, than the whole of Genesis and the whole of Ezekiel. Yet we're still used to babble. For example, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx says, quite rightly, I think, "When people are trying to learn a new language, it's natural for them to translate it back into the one they already know." Yes, that's true. But they must also transcend the one they already know.
So I think the onus is on us to find a language that moves us beyond faith, because faith is the negation of the intellect, faith supplies belief in preference to inquiry and belief, in place of skepticism, in place of the dialectic, in favor of the disorder and anxiety and struggle that is required in order to claim that the mind has any place in these things at all.
I would say that because the intellectual has some responsibility, so to speak, for those who have no voice, that a very high task to adopt now would be to set oneself and to attempt to set others, utterly and contemptuously and critically and furiously, against the now almost daily practice in the United States of human sacrifice. By which I mean, the sacrifice, the immolation of men and women on death row in the system of capital punishment. Something that has become an international as well as a national disgrace. Something that shames and besmirches the entire United States, something that is performed by the professionalized elite in the name of an assumed public opinion. In other words, something that melds the worst of elitism and the absolute foulest of populism.
People used to say, until quite recently, using the words of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, the play that gave us the patronizing term "angry young man"--well, "there are no good, brave causes anymore." There's nothing really worth witnessing or worth fighting for, or getting angry, or being boring, or being humorless about. I disagree and am quite ready to be angry and boring and humorless. These are exactly the sacrifices that I think ought to be exacted from oneself. Let nobody say there are no great tasks and high issues to be confronted. The real question will be whether we can spread the word so that arguments and debates like this need not be held just in settings like these but would be the common property of anyone with an inquiring mind. And then, we would be able to look at each other and ourselves and say, "Well, then perhaps the intellectual is no longer an elitist."
A review of Sol LeWitt's Autobiography.
Steven Soderbergh's Traffic—for all its flaws—illustrates how the United States' is deluding itself in its crusade against drugs.
A review of Looking Backward 2000–1887, by Edward Bellamy.
We're sorry, but we do not have permission to present this article on our website. It is an excerpt from Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (Metropolitan). © 2000 by Eduardo Galeano. Translation © 2000 by Mark Fried.
Let's cut to the chase on Ken Burns's Jazz, which rolled out on PBS January 8, by invoking Wallace Stevens.
1) Is it entertaining TV? Mostly, in PBS fashion.
2) Does it leave out people and places and whole periods and genres
normally considered vital parts of jazz history? Yes.
3) Does it need more editing? Yes.
4) Does Louis Armstrong claim 40 percent of its nineteen hours? Yes.
5) Does post-1960s jazz claim 10 percent? Yes.
6) Does it tell an informed and informative story? Usually.
7) Does it identify the 500-odd pieces of jazz that serve as its soundtrack? Rarely.
8) Does it have rare and evocative pictures and film footage? Absolutely.
9) Is it good history? It's made-for-PBS history.
10) Will it satisfy jazz fans and musicians and critics? Seems like it already hasn't, and it hasn't even aired yet.
11) Will it save the jazz industry? That depends: CDs labeled Ken Burns's Jazz are bullish.
12) Will it make jazz a part of mainstream American culture again? Not likely, but it may help make it an official part of American popular history.
13) Is it part of the transition jazz has been making for three decades into the academic world? You bet.
Now let's dolly back and try to tell the story.
The numbers have to come first. The ten-episode, nineteen-hour series was six years in the making, and it sprawls: seventy-five talking heads, thousands of still photos and pieces of film, some 500 pieces of music and so on. Costing some $13 million, about a third of it from General Motors, it's the biggest documentary that's been done about jazz.
And yet a lot of jazz musicians and critics and fans, in print and on the web, have been complaining that it's too constrictive. It's easy to see why. It's certainly not comprehensive. For Burns and collaborator Geoffrey Ward, history unfolds in the textures of individual lives. (Ward won the Francis Parkman prize for A First-Class Temperament, one volume of his biography of FDR.) Jazz for them is the story of a few great men (and the odd woman) who changed the way Americans, then the world, hear and think and act. Chief among them: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There are places of honor for the likes of James Reese Europe and Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. This sort of survey is easier to sustain until about 1929, because jazz musicians were few (though not as few or as limited to New Orleans, Chicago and New York as the series implies). But Burns & Co. can tell a credible story of jazz's first decades using a handful of pioneers.
One reason for the noise is that this overlaps the story of jazz according to the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a flashpoint in the jazz world. JALC teaches that jazz is a clear-cut genealogy of a few outstanding figures, and it excludes many important artists, especially after 1960, often for ideological reasons. The basic plot for both: Taking its building blocks from slave music, marching bands, blues, the church, European dance and classical music, jazz began life as a mongrel in New Orleans, came up the river to Chicago, met up (via Armstrong) with New York proto-swing bands and Harlem stride pianists and exploded, drawing young white players into a black-developed music. This is true enough, though it ultimately means ignoring uncomfortable parallel developments (Red Allen and Armstrong) or scenes (between-the-wars LA jazz) or entire genres (Latin jazz, European jazz). But schematic history can be good TV, and Burns, like earlier PBS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, makes long, long movies that depend on strong, heavily delineated characters and themes to keep them from dissipating.
His story's heart is Armstrong. Its head is Ellington. And its soul is the Jazz Age and the Swing Era.
In episode five, "Swing: Pure Pleasure (1935-1937)," writer Albert Murray declares, "Jazz is primarily dance music." Though that hasn't been true for nearly half the music's history, it's clear he's speaking for Burns: Three episodes, nearly six hours, discuss the big-band era, when jazz underpinned popular music, lifted Depression-era spirits, saved the record industry and dominated that new omnipresent technology, radio. Nevertheless, as the often-intrusive talking heads tell us, from Ellington on down the musicians knew the difference between the business and the music; stage shtick and chart slots were as important then as now. This is a bittersweet Golden Age of speakeasies, hoods, the Great Depression, squealing bobby-soxers, lynchings, jitterbugging, novelty tunes and early moves toward racial integration. It is described as a time of "adult sensibility" and is the series' gravitational center.
The great-man schematic creates escalating difficulty for the plotting starting with episode seven, which begins with Charlie Parker and spends nearly as much time on Satchmo as it does on bebop. By the mid-1940s, the musicians had multiplied and moved on--out of Harlem and swing time. And so jazz dissolves into hundreds of musicians searching for different sounds, styles, approaches, languages, multimedia formats. The last forty years of Jazz are a choppy and unreliable ride; a lot disappears, and what's left can be telegraphic or confusing and look exactly like JALC speaking.
Burns says post-1960s jazz is too controversial even in the jazz world to be history. Maybe he should have ended, then, with John Coltrane; Baseball, after all, stopped at 1970. For in less than two hours, faces from Charles Mingus's to Sonny Rollins's flash across the screen between inevitable reprises of Duke and Satchmo. Miles Davis's push into fusion shrinks to his alleged desperation for teen fans. Ornette Coleman is dismissed. Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea don't appear. The 1970s and 1980s are a quick-blur artistic wilderness until the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the film's senior creative consultant and prime talking head. And there, after a brief survey of new stars (Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman) and a recapitulation of key figures and themes, it ends.
The signal irony: If Burns had cut the final episode and billed this as Jazz: The First 50 Years, more of the discussion might be where it belongs--on the movie.
Until pretty recently nobody thought enough of jazz to point a movie camera in its general direction for very long. There are snatches of footage of Armstrong, Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and the like from the early days. By the mid-1930s the popular swing bands cropped up in films and then in "soundies." But the video record of what fans like to call America's greatest art form is sporadic and discouraging.
This problem plays to Burns's strengths: He loves having his staff dig up old photos (for this, they turned up millions), and he loves working stills to make them kinetic. He pans across and slowly zooms in and out of a single shot to give it a movielike temporal depth. In one vignette about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where drummer Chick Webb held court and introduced Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s, Burns intercuts shots of separate white and black dancers to hammer home the voiceover's point about its integrated patrons--a first in America. He assembles a deft mix of photos and film to re-create the stage-fright-to-triumph of Benny Goodman's 1938 "Sing Sing Sing" concert at Carnegie Hall.
The series boasts tours de force. The evocative segment called "The Road" strings out a head-turning daisy chain of wondrous footage: bands on trains and buses and touring cars, chugging 500 miles a day, six days a week, making whoopee and changing tires, riding high onstage and coping with breakdowns and prejudice offstage. The recently deceased bass and photography great Milt Hinton recalls how at band stops his wife would head into town to look for black homes where the musicians could eat and stay, how musicians were people of prestige in the community. Readings from journals and newspapers and diaries sample big-band life's dizzying ups and downs, while the film rolls from impromptu baseball games to a couple of female jazz fans puffing fake reefers while hugging the sign of a town named Gage.
And in the background rolls out more jazz by far than 99 percent of America has heard. Much of the time, it's as snippets in the background when one after another talking head pops up. The heads are duly identified time after time. The tunes aren't, unless they're keyed to a biographical or sociological set piece. Why not flash a subtitle to tell the audience what's playing?
Because jazz is the soundtrack for this series as much as or more than it is its subject. To put it another way, this isn't really a movie about jazz history. Think of Burns as PBS's Oliver Stone. Like the Civil War and baseball, jazz for Burns and Ward is a lens to focus on basic questions: Who are Americans, and how do they manage to get along--or not? And their central query concerns race.
So they film jazz as the tale of black redemption in and of America, a narrative of conversion and triumph whose shape recalls St. Augustine and Dante. From the days of slavery through the humiliations of Jim Crow and minstrelsy to the assertive freedom of the blues and jazz, Burns's movie resounds with the apocalyptic ring of apotheosis, as it examines a few crucial candidates for cultural sainthood. For it wants both to carve jazz greats into the American pantheon and to underline jazz's pivotal centrality to twentieth-century America as an affirmation of African-American creativity and endurance.
This, coupled with Marsalis's camera-savvy polish as a spokesman as well as his insistent championing of jazz education over the years, explains why a filmmaker like Burns would feel drawn to JALC's version of jazz history. (Actually, Dan Morgenstern, the respected head of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, was the film's senior historical consultant and vetted the script; there were twenty-three consultants in all, so until the final episode there are inevitable points of similarity, but not identity, with Lincoln Center's tale.) But dramatic necessity also helps explain why some characters, like Armstrong and Ellington, are the story's recurrent focus.
Swing, you might guess, is a buzzword in this series, and you'd be right, even though the film itself doesn't swing much. The earnestness that suffuses PBS cultural products won't let it float for long. At times, the music's lilting ease and fire contrast vividly with its deliberate, self-conscious pace. That's exacerbated by Burns's seventy-five talking heads: Watching can be like sitting through a course team-taught by the UN.
Besides Marsalis, Burns's other main soloist is writer Gary Giddins, and Giddins swings: His wide-ranging erudition rides his love for jazz easily. Other commentators--Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Artie Shaw, Gerald Early, James Lincoln Collier, Dave Brubeck--give good camera and consistent historical edutainment. But too many proffer vague impressions, clichéd memories, breathless interpretations and warmed-over anecdotes. They could easily have been edited or edited out. Then there are periodic pileups. In episode seven Joya Sherrill, Mercedes Ellington (Duke's granddaughter) and a few others repeat that Duke and Billy Strayhorn were a rare and wonderful match. In episode five, the same two dancers appear twice with virtually the same observations about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.
Sometimes the anecdotes are fun or fabulous, sometimes they're bad history. Take Jon Hendricks, who in episode four retails the disproven mythic origin of Armstrong's scatting (sheet music fell off his stand at a recording session). Or director Bertrand Tavernier, who gushes about Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli introducing the guitar-violin combo to jazz, though they themselves would have fingered Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Ballplayer Buck O'Neil rambles good-naturedly about Billie Holiday giving listeners "the greatest moments" and "the saddest moments," demonstrating how a tighter edit could have sliced out the lapses into vacuity.
Marsalis's starring role has several sides. He delivers very effective musical glosses and explanations, polished by years of shows and clinics with adults, teens and kids. His knowledge of and passion for the jazz he loves, and his conviction that it represents American life in full, are infectious, if sometimes hyperbolic. But when he holds forth about Ellington and Armstrong and the semilegendary Buddy Bolden as if he knew them intimately, it's TV, not history.
History can be light-fingered instead of heavy-handed, and Jazz could use more humor, more of the "light" Marsalis ascribes to the best jazz musicians. It has some fabulous vignettes from Crouch, the third-ranked talking head. Except for the last two hours, Crouch swings. In one priceless bit he mimics pre-Armstrong pop vocalists and then Armstrong himself, and asks why anyone would want to revert. "That would be a bad choice," he deadpans. Anybody who makes that choice, he adds, should be deported--count a beat--"to somewhere." Another beat. "Maybe Pluto." It's impossible to disagree, especially when you're laughing.
To some extent, Burns has himself to blame for the unjoyful noise in the jazz world. In conversation, he tends, rightly, to underplay his work's ambitions. It's not the history of jazz, he says. Viewers will get to know a handful of musicians, meet another dozen or two and brush past a few dozen more. He can't possibly compete with books like Giddins's Visions of Jazz or jazz histories like those of Ted Gioia or Marshall Stearns; he's made a movie that tells an educational story for a mass audience. This is reasonable, accurate and no small feat. And, in fact, the movie is steeped with rich human detail of the sort most music historians rarely touch on. But the PR bombast trumpets him as jazz's Joan of Arc, and once he's on-message he can't stop selling. Jazz, like academia, is small and marginal with plenty of defensive, combative types; "the music" is a secular religion. Burns's perceived power inevitably lights the territorial fuses.
As it happens, the jazz industry, now down to about 1 percent of US music sales once you exclude Kenny G and his clones, looks like a Victorian maiden lashed to the tracks awaiting her hero. Burns's movie is a mantra, as record labels crunch despairing numbers and weed out personnel and artists after the latest wave of megamergers and Internet terrors. For his well-designed five-CD companion set (subtitled The Story of America's Music), the filmmaker brokered a deal between Sony and Verve (Universal), bitter corporate rivals, then brought in other labels; all are hoping for sales like the companion book's, which had a first printing of 250,000. This is mind-blowing if you're a jazz-label head used to dealing in niche sales (Marsalis himself rarely moves more than 10,000 CDs) and waiting for the next guillotine stroke.
Potential audience numbers get tossed around fervently: 40 million viewers for Baseball and The Civil War, and Jazz will probably draw less, but... It fascinates me that few of the film's critics address that. Why not consider an America where 20 million more people--or 3 million, or however many finally watch--know something, anything, about Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis and a few others? Where, if they survive the overstatements, talking heads and pacing, they learn some hidden history?
Am I a Pollyanna? Maybe. Reality check: This is a made-for-TV movie. But I too think race is America's central issue, even more multifaceted in the twenty-first century. What holds this joint's pasted seams together, beyond the Founding Documents, is the frequently intangible glue called culture. TV is a major place American culture gets made. Can anyone measure what it meant to have Bill Cosby playing an upper-middle-class dad-next-door for a generation? What it means now that there are black and Hispanic and Asian and gay and you-name-'em channels filling cable and satellite TV? Can anyone guess what it might mean in five years to have Jazz, whatever its warts, playing over and over to a country as terminally divided and in search of itself as this one?
These are not delusions of grandeur about the power of jazz or Ken Burns. They are possibilities written in the history of jazz in America. Take Burns's vignette about Charlie Black, a white Texas teen who saw Armstrong perform in the 1930s. It changed his life. He joined the NAACP's legal team working on what became Brown v. Board of Education. The sociology of jazz is full of such stories. And they are very real.
For instance, no one with a brain disputes that jazz was initially an African-American creation. But as Marsalis, Giddins, Crouch, Murray and Early point out over and over, jazz was welcoming, inclusive, open. It replaced minstrelsy with a cultural site where all Americans could participate, speak to one another, override or ignore or challenge or slide by the society's fixations on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Black Americans (and other ethnic outsiders) could use it to enter mainstream society, white Americans could flee to it from mainstream society, and the transactions created a flux and flow that powered American cultural syntheses.
Jazz, the theme goes, represents America at its best--the dream of America. In the Depression, as Early reminds us, it rivaled MGM musicals in lifting the country's spirits. Of course, since jazz is a human activity, it also reflects the deepest divisions as well as the ideals at America's core. Race, sex, money, power, capitalism, creative freedom, the interaction of the individual and the group--these are all questions embedded in jazz history. They're the questions Burns and Ward are truly interested in. At its best, Jazz gets us interested in them too.
Burns admits he never listened to jazz until he started considering it as a subject. Ward became an Armstrong fan at age 10, when he was hospitalized with polio. Jazz is lucky they're interested in it.
Right now, jazz's commercial future is murky. The major labels are mostly wreckage. Marsalis, who used to get $1 million a year to make niche-market records in the hope that they would turn into catalogue gold, doesn't have a label; neither does Redman. High-profile jazz promoters are hemorrhaging. The Knitting Factory is reportedly in the hole for $2 million, after luring a big entertainment firm to take a stake, opening a club in LA and losing its annual jazz-festival sponsor. The Blue Note chain is said to be spurting red ink from expansions into Las Vegas and midtown Manhattan. Nor are jazz's nonprofit arms thriving. The Thelonious Monk Institute, so closely aligned with the Clinton/Gore Administration that its head was reportedly hoping for an ambassadorship if Al won, is looking pale. And the long-dormant board of Jazz at Lincoln Center has just fired executive director Rob Gibson in a swirl of intrigue: changed door locks and computer codes, fired and rehired personnel, amid persistent rumors of financial malfeasance, bullying and drug abuse.
Jazz has been on a commercial slide since the 1970s, when it racked up 10 percent of retail music sales. At the same time, it began entering the groves of academe. Today most jazz musicians are trained at schools; jazz history is laced through American studies and music curriculums.
This process has already fundamentally changed jazz itself and its relation to American culture, though how isn't always clear at first. As a colleague reminded me recently, in the jazz heydays celebrated by Burns's Jazz, musicians fashioned their own idiosyncratic solutions to musical problems, drawing on oral tradition (which varied considerably) and their own ingenuity and needs. This meant finding individual creative solutions to problems--how to finger this note or sequence, how to get that timbre, how to connect those chord changes. Now, a professor distributes computer analyses of famous solos, templates for solutions that are shared by hundreds and thousands of students. This has a paradoxical effect: It raises the general level of and standardizes jazz training, but it also tends to vitiate the individuality traditionally at the music's heart. This is why older musicians routinely complain that younger schooled players all sound alike. On the other hand, they're well suited for jazz repertory programs like JALC.
That is part of jazz's changing contemporary dynamics. So is Ken Burns's Jazz.