Ben Lerner’s Theater of Dissent
Early in Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator and aspiring poet, Adam Gordon, expresses his desire for “language becoming the experience it described,” even as he doubts that such an experience of language, and art more generally, is possible at all.1 That skepticism takes its most pronounced form in the opening scene when Adam describes a museum goer in front of Rogier van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross at the Prado Museum in Madrid. The man, he notes, “broke suddenly into tears, convulsively catching his breath.” Watching him, Adam worries “that [he] was incapable of having a profound experience of art” and has “trouble believing that anyone had” (LAS, 8). Adam is skeptical not only that this man’s tears are a response to a “profound experience” of art, but that any man’s tears could be.
The Topeka School is both a prequel to Leaving the Atocha Station and a spiritual successor. Set primarily in Kansas in 1997, poetry is still very much in Adam’s future. He has, however, taken his first steps down that path as both the most fluid free-style rapper amongst his affluent white friends and, more importantly to the novel, as a gifted speech and debate competitor expected by many to win it all at nationals in his senior year of high school. Written by an older Adam who lives in Brooklyn with his partner and daughters, The Topeka School looks back on the twilight of the Clinton era for an explanation of his (our) present. Perhaps unsurprisingly for Lerner, the novel locates that explanation in what Adam describes as a “genealogy” of political speech.
The primary figure for this genealogy is “glossolalia,” which emerges first in the novel in a speech and debate technique called “the spread.” When the novel begins, Adam, very much an extemporaneous debater of his time, has nearly mastered the spread, which relies on the speaker achieving “nearly unintelligible speed, pitch and volume.”2 The idea is to “make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time” (TS, 22). The technique was controversial (it has since, I understand, fallen out of favor) because many believed it detached what were intended to be policy debates from the real world, as each argument carries through a series of logical fallacies to an endgame that leads to either fascism or, more often, the total collapse of the global order—and not in the good way. The spread is, in effect, “drivel,” and the point of piling argument on top of logical fallacy on top of hyperbole is to make the argument incomprehensible: “the last thing one was supposed to do with those thousands of words was comprehend them,” Adam explains (TS, 24). The spread is less a way to appeal to the listener’s interests—to convince him or her of a position one way or the other—than it is a way to create an experience for the listener, who is free to decide the outcome of the argument because it is, in effect, meaningless, as logical fallacies and witticisms delivered at lightning speed replace anything approaching disagreement. Ultimately, the goal of the spread, Adam says, is to make “referential meaning dissolve” (TS, 25). In the disconnect between the force of the argument and its meaning, the spread becomes the extracurricular equivalent of so much political speech: “even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, [and] algorithmic trading … Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives” in much the same way that “their politicians went on speaking slowly, slowly about values utterly disconnected from their policies” with speech that is by turns disorienting, confusing, or, potentially, exciting (TS, 24). Suggesting almost simultaneously that the last thing one is supposed to do with language is to comprehend it and that the effectiveness of the spread rests in the listener’s experience of it, Lerner posits a language that exists at what Walter Benn Michaels has described as the “conjunction of the meaningless and the linguistic” in a way that fundamentally “alters our sense of what meaning is.”3
The disconnect between comprehension and experience, when imagined as an aesthetic point, is reframed in The Topeka School as the disconnect between “referential meaning” and “pure form.” Almost as quickly as Adam describes the political harm of the spread, he describes it in terms much more attractive to the aspiring poet. In one particularly successful round, Adam “began to feel less like he was delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him, that the rhythm and intonation of his presentation were beginning to dictate its content, that he no longer had to organize his arguments so much as let them flow through him” (TS, 25). While in the throes of debate-fueled ecstasy Adam achieves a kind of Pentecostal glossolalia as the power of the spread compels him. Here again, the effect of this is to divorce the words from their meaning: although “the language coursing through him was about the supposedly catastrophic effects of ending the government’s Stingray surveillance program … he was nevertheless more in the realm of poetry,” where words can become “pure form” (TS, 25). So, when he says he is “seized … by an experience of prosody” (TS, 25) he means that prosody, like the spread—like glossolalia—bypasses meaning altogether, and is imagined as something that happens to and through the listener (and, in this case, the speaker) rather than as something that one would “comprehend.”
Here, both political speech and art are imagined as a kind of glossolalia, which is, depending on one’s favor with the divine, either the breath of god that communicates through pure force or, for the fallen, pure babble—at one point the novel suggests as much when it describes babble as “glossolalia without divinity” (TS, 47). The point either way is that because glossolalia sits at the “conjunction of the meaningless and the linguistic” referential meaning dissolves into “pure form.” And so too the idea that what we do with language is “comprehend” it dissolves into a belief that what we do instead is experience it. Put this way, glossolalia is a way of reimagining in language what Adam witnesses—or worries he witnesses—in front of The Descent from the Cross in Leaving the Atocha Station. It becomes a way of imagining in language the privatization and atomization that occurs when the meaning of the work of art dissolves into pure experience.
The spread is thus both a way of reproducing in speech the man’s experience in front of The Descent from the Cross and a way of yoking a particular view of art—one that caters to the experience of the spectator or reader—to a certain, toxic strand of right-wing political speech that has found its apotheosis in Donald Trump. The politics of the spread—of experience—is also, paradoxically, the political horizon of the novel, whose liberalism hinges on gestural demonstration at ICE offices in New York. It is there that Adam Gordon feels as though he has finally found his way to a “public slowly learning how to speak again, in the middle of the spread” (TS, 282). If only it were only the fictional Adam Gordon who believes ICE demonstrations and protests might be enough to rise and meet the crisis represented by a Trump presidency, but it is precisely this theatrical dissent that very real critics have found so attractive about—or lacking in—the novel. There is a misguided sense, I mean, that the feeling of rising to meet the moment—the experience of dissent—is itself a kind of politics that is something other than a way of reproducing the politics of the status quo.
At the close of Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam incidentally and briefly participates in the large spontaneous vigils that occurred after the bombing of the Atocha Station on March 11, 2004. Rather than joining the crowd, he keeps to its margins, consumed by jealousy that the protestors were both more handsome and more committed than he. Thoroughly “annihilated” by his personal and political failures, he retreats to his small apartment. By the closing moments of The Topeka School, that jealousy and embarrassment has been attenuated somewhat: Adam, now an adult living in New York City with his partner and daughters, attends a protest at ICE offices. Almost immediately upon arrival, however, Adam begins having second thoughts at the prospect of “exposing [his daughter] to such intensity” (TS, 278). Whatever her anxiety, Adam admits that his own anxiety, and embarrassment, at least matches hers when he confesses near the final lines of the book that “It embarrassed [him]” to participate in such a demonstration at all. Perhaps despite himself, he experiences that demonstration differently from his experience in Spain, as he wonders in the final line of the novel what it might mean to become “part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again” (TS, 282). There is a certain sense, then, that Adam, in imagining he has risen to the political moment, thinks he has overcome (or is beginning to overcome) the glossolalia that defined his youth.
Telling the history of his high school self is part of that. Indeed, in one particularly important metafictional turn, the adult Adam interjects as the narrator on a scene of his younger self and his debate coach, Peter Evanson, arguing in a classroom, ostensibly for debate prep. Evanson, Adam says, is “a master of what would come to be called ‘trolling,’” and he is also a master of the spread: “Evanson could spread him while speaking at conversational speed,” again suggesting the spread has less to do with meaning than with producing an (in this case, disorienting) experience for the listener (TS, 143). Eventually, Lerner tells us, Evanson would put this skill to nefarious purposes as “a key architect of the … right-wing” policies that would become an “important model for the Trump administration” (TS, 143). Adam, by contrast, will protest these very policies and instead write a “genealogy of his speech, its theaters and extremes” (TS, 143). That “genealogy” is, of course, The Topeka School.
This metafictional turn might position Adam’s political awakening as a kind of redemption, one that would also be an aesthetic triumph for the work of art that defeats or suspends the appeal to the beholder or reader precisely because it repudiates the aesthetics of the spread. It would refuse, that is, a commitment to “language becoming the experience it described” (LAS, 26). But seeing it that way depends on seeing Adam’s hesitating politics as a triumph when, at best, they represent, as Jon Baskin has recently put it, a “stutter-step toward political participation.”4 In Baskin’s view, Adam’s politics are actually a symptom of what he calls, borrowing Lerner’s formulation, the “hatred of literature,” by which he means the “hatred,” or refusal, of art that “takes aesthetic experience seriously, and that appreciates the emotions inspired by an artwork as fully as, and constitutive of, its politics.” To abandon aesthetic experience, Baskin argues, is effectively to abandon the idea that “art’s highest potential” is to “provide experiences that [undermine] the prevailing hierarchy of values in modern societies.” So, although “the swerve from painting to politics is supposed to indicate something about the historical period covered by Lerner’s books, from the ironic detachment of the end-of-history Nineties to the post-Occupy political fervor of the 2010s,” in fact, what results is a kind of theater of aesthetic and political posturing. For Baskin, in other words, while there is a lot of “talk” about art and politics in both Leaving the Atocha Station and The Topeka School, it’s hard to see what the stakes of either are when “art and politics have become alternating figures in an abstract and largely stakes-free moral melodrama.”
Politically speaking, Baskin rightly suggests the limits of The Topeka School. It is hard to see how a “public” rising to the political moment by “learning to speak again” is a politics worth celebrating, as Lerner presents it. The scene at ICE offices—and Adam’s trepidation—is a familiar one since Trump’s election in 2016. As far-right domestic policies—from travel bans, to mass deportations and internment—have gained, if not broad support, tacit acceptance, they have been met with a liberal “resistance” that, while vociferous, has failed to produce a legible set of alternatives and seems far more at home in what has been described on nonsite.org as the “theater of dissent.” Guided by a “semi-spiritual belief that the right recipe of symbolism, passion, and powerful visuals” will become the “spark that will set the prairie on fire,” the article argues that the ritualized dissent of demonstrations, like those depicted in The Topeka School, have all but evacuated legible politics from political action. If the political horizon of these demonstrations rests on the hope that “the person targeted … will ‘do the right thing’ if confronted,” it is hard to see, at this moment in history, what the stakes of these theatrical protests are.5
Aesthetically speaking, however, Baskin wants to argue that Lerner’s prose is bound to “‘the human world with its inflexible laws and logic’” because of The Topeka School’s refusal of aesthetic experience, not because of its embrace of it. In a more totalizing sense, however, Lerner seems to embrace aesthetic experience in The Topeka School by appealing to the reader in a way he has not in his previous novels. Where Lerner’s previous novels are “ironic, formally experimental, [and] skeptical of their narrators while deeply enmeshed in their particular way of seeing the world,” notes Jordan Kisner, The Topeka School retains the formal features of those previous novels while jettisoning much of the irony.6 In doing so, it remains “enmeshed” in the narrator’s particular way of seeing the world and is far less skeptical of it than was previously the case.
In other words, where Lerner’s previous novels have used their metafictional turns to distance the novel from their narrators, The Topeka School is far more comfortable inhabiting the world of Adam Gordon. For example, Nicholas Brown notes that although in 10:04 the narrator’s politics are deeply unattractive from the standpoint of the Left, that point of view is “relativized by the form of the novel” and that ironized distance is crucial to the politics of the novel.7 So the point becomes to see those politics as a kind of ineffectual liberalism. By contrast, the genealogy of speech traced in The Topeka School is a narrative of personal growth—one in which Adam moves from being “enthralled” and “imprisoned” by rhetoric to being part of a public that, under Trump’s presidency, has learned to speak. Far from relativizing or attenuating the narrator’s viewpoint, then, the novel leans into it. And it is not hard to see how, considering the conclusions of each of those novels: while it is almost inconceivable to imagine that Leaving the Atocha Station endorses Adam’s response to the vigils, insofar as The Topeka School ends with Adam coming of age as part of the resistance, it produces a political finale that roughly 80 million Biden supporters would find attractive. The genealogy traced in the novel is a way of deepening its appeal to the reader, of selling its liberal readers their politics back to them in the form of a redemptive political arc.
While Baskin laments Lerner’s distrust of any “profound experience” of art and criticizes his resistance to the politics Baskin sees in aesthetic experience, most critics have reveled in just how “profound” an experience reading The Topeka School is. Garth Risk Hallberg, writing in The New York Times, notes that many of Lerner’s generation have “recognized themselves” in Lerner’s prose, precisely because Adam’s desire for (or skepticism toward) the possibility of a “profound experience of art” reflects their own. And, like Baskin, Hallberg sees the questions inaugurated in Atocha Station take on a more explicitly political dimension in The Topeka School: what might have once been “written off as cosmopolitan neurosis” is now “a symptom of a national crisis of belief.”8 Unlike Baskin, who finds this pivot to be part of Lerner’s “stakes-free melodrama,” Hallberg describes it as “profound.” William Egginton also finds the work, if not a “profound” experience, an “absorbing” one of “intoxicating honesty.”9 This honesty, he writes, is the novel’s “greatest gift,” because it opens the possibility of identification—of “recognizing the failures of oneself” and of “one’s country”—in Lerner’s “potent literary brew.” It is as though, for Egginton, the very openness and intimacy of the novel produce its politics of “honesty” and “personal connections” that might, in his view, “be the most potent tool we have for … saving the country.”
What Baskin views as an ineffectual “stutter-step toward political participation,” Hallberg suggests might “spread its readers beyond their borders,” and Egginton sees as a great leap in the direction of “saving the country.” Crucially, then, although these critics differ about whether or not Lerner’s novels are aesthetically and politically successful, they agree that “aesthetic experience” and the “emotions inspired” by The Topeka School are constitutive of its politics. This, then, is the crux of The Topeka School. Although the novel seems to maintain a career-long skepticism on Lerner’s part toward aesthetic experience, suggesting via the spread-as-prosody that it is, at a minimum, compatible with the dog-whistle politics of the far-right, in reality it endorses a vision of aesthetics that is entirely compatible with the spread by valorizing the aesthetic experience of the reader, just as Adam’s political experience is valorized in the closing moments of the novel. In other words, not only does The Topeka School thematically emphasize experience over meaning, it is itself animated by a similar appeal to the reader.
Ultimately, Baskin is right that The Topeka School cannot help but valorize the “inflexible laws” and “lawlike relations that govern our political and social lives,” not because it refuses to take aesthetic experience as constitutive of its politics, but because it accepts experience as its aesthetic and political horizon. This is the biggest difference between The Topeka School and Lerner’s previous works, especially 10:04, the final lines of which similarly appeal to collectivity: “I know it’s hard to understand / I am with you, and I know how it is.”10 Jennifer Ashton has noted that the lines, presented in the novel as poetry, are particularly powerful because of the way the novel collapses the difference between the first person and the second person plural: “What we’re seeing can be understood to be in the second person plural even if the pronouns are first person singular, because the difference between you and me … no longer matters. The sentence that we’re looking at, we’re looking at together.” In other words, Ashton argues that the novel insists on a shared way of reading the lines by insisting that the work of art, in this case a novel, “has become something we can look at together” and is “not a matter of your experience or mine.” That is, if what we see is a structure, say, of police violence and the carceral maintenance of inequality or surplus populations, “we are looking together at the same thing.”11 The point is not that different people won’t have different experiences of those structures or feelings when they encounter them, but that those experiences and feelings are not determinative of a politics that would restructure or abolish them. Here again, Ashton helps frame the difference: if what we see is experience, as in the case of The Topeka School, “it can only be yours or mine or someone else’s. We can’t see, much less feel, the same thing.”12 But, if what we see is a structure, our experience of it is, if not irrelevant, subsumed within it. The contrast between this and Adam’s embrace of the spread is, in other words, a contrast between two ways for accounting for the politics of the work of art. Where 10:04 raises the question of experience as a point to be overcome, The Topeka School imagines itself as the occasion for experience. We might say, then, that what it really means to be part of a public learning to speak again is to insist on seeing and addressing structures collectively—something that the appeal to aesthetic experience inscribed in the form of The Topeka School denies, despite its evocation of a newly found “tiny public.”
It is this kind of atomized, subjective politics that is at the heart of so much of neoliberal politics—from moralizing Twitter rants and activist book clubs to the politics of resistance and the election of Joe Biden to the presidency. At its core, the politics of dissent have been reduced to a theater of experience—a performative gesture that does relatively little to imagine any real collective action. Here I am not, of course, drawing an equivalency between protesting ICE and supporting it; but I am suggesting that it is not so hard to protest ICE and elect a President who previously served under the “Deporter in Chief.” It’s not hard to see that as a country America broadly supported the Black Lives Matter movement and voted for someone who has for his entire political career been a boon for the carceral state.
So on one hand, for those on the neoliberal left, the Black Lives Matter protests are little more than a “sentiment” that is “essentially a militant expression of racial liberalism,” as Cedric Johnson puts it, which elides “more fulsome political interventions.”13 This is Adolph Reed’s point as well, when he argues that much of the movement is the “left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines.”14 As Johnson argues, these expressions of racial solidarity “are not a threat but rather a bulwark to the neoliberal project that has obliterated” the very things that, to some, are precisely the point of organizing: namely, the dismantling of those organizations, like the carceral state, that enforce inequality with organizations designed to eliminate inequality. In other words, it’s as easy for Amazon or Walmart to support the movement as it is for Lerner’s well-meaning liberals to organize a rally at ICE offices. And it is just as hard to imagine either camp—whatever their intentions—dismantling those state institutions that prop up militarized policing and use it “to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working-class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.”15
I do not mean to suggest here that the problem is protesting as such. Nor do I mean to suggest that what we ought to be doing with our political bandwidth is policing the protests we should be attending. The problem instead is that Adam, like so much of “the resistance” and so many like-minded critics, believes that attending the protest is itself a politics, or in some way constitutes a political awakening. What matters, in this view, is the experience of being part of a public “learning to speak.” But insofar as the politics of protest is reducible to political feeling, Adam Gordon has reproduced rather than overcome the glossolalia of his youth. Only this time as a liberal.
On the other hand, many activists, some of whom have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, are demanding far more radical changes, including the end of the carceral police state. In this more compelling view, the recent protests have been the occasion for organizing against those organizations—from the carceral system to the Democratic party and its wealthy benefactors—that have done little or nothing to address the structures that drive inequality, mass incarceration, and police violence. Where previous protests have tended to focus on criminal prosecution of individual police officers and enforcing accountability—demands that have ultimately reinforced the “few bad apples” narrative—some of last summer’s protests have taken up annihilating the carceral system in a much more serious way, even if the successes so far have been relatively minor and qualified. And although these recent calls are not, in themselves, new—for decades organizations have been pursuing decarceration and the dismantling of the police state—it is nonetheless the case that “the demands to defund and dismantle reflect a growing consensus about the failures of neoliberalism, the contradictions of capitalism, and the violence of white supremacy.”16 At least some of the demands to emerge out of these the protests are, in other words, demands to end not just horizontal inequality, but vertical inequality as well.
That said, if things are going to be different next time around, it won’t be because of the numbers in the streets alone, but because those numbers have found new avenues and theaters for their voices to be heard. And that demands political action in “theaters and extremes,” to appropriate Lerner’s phrase, that can only happen through coercion and appropriation of political power from Democrats who think squabbling over reductions to a federal policing budget that amount to, as Johnson notes, mere “technical reforms” counts as real change—not least because those same Democrats, supported by the neoliberal left, have rallied behind Joe Biden by opposing “Medicare for All, free higher education, and the expansion of other public goods.” By opposing, that is, the structural change that might have a lasting impact on reducing police violence. Johnson, then, is surely right when he suggests that the decarceration demands of some activists represent a relatively narrow band of what falls under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement, but it represents a politically important one nonetheless if what the Left wants is the seizure of power from both the Right and the neoliberal Left.
That is because so much of what counts as “dissent” for so many—theatrical protests, sloganeering, and readily sharable social media content—are entirely compatible with the upward wealth redistribution that has guided the neoliberal project from its outset. Though demoralizing in one sense, this is nonetheless a way of returning to the twofold question running throughout this essay over the “stakes-free melodrama,” not only of an art that refuses the experience of the reader or beholder, but of a criticism that embraces it. Politically speaking, it means recognizing that the carceral system is a feature of the very structures that many who support the current Black Lives Matters protests—from Amazon to the Democratic Party to the anti-statist Left—maintain, perhaps despite themselves. And furthermore, it means seeking avenues of action that are not easily assimilable into those structures.
Aesthetically speaking, it means recognizing the limits of art to bring about those changes. No work of art is likely to do the work of dismantling the carceral state for us, but the work of art that asserts its irreducibility to the “inflexible laws” of the political status quo, and our experiences of it, might provide a new way of seeing or imagining it together. No doubt, the assertion that the work of art is compelling precisely by declaring its autonomy from the world will invite the claim that I am insisting on a stakes-free criticism and art. To which I can only say, a work of art derives its power not from providing “experiences that [undermine] the prevailing hierarchy of values in modern society” but from being an alternative to it. And if the work of art is powerless to remake how society is organized, we are not.