Mark Danner

Unacknowledged legislators read culture like a text

WHEN historians look back at the interregnum of reason that followed the events of 9/11, and cast about for examples of just how unsettling it was when the firm ground of democracy turned marshy underfoot, they will surely mention two curious facts: in the early years of the 21st century, liberal America got its news from a satirical television program and its moral compass from a fortnightly journal of book reviews.

Of course, satire grows out of bullshit like a lotus from mud. The main responsibility of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show is to be shovel-ready when a fresh batch of cant and hypocrisy is dumped. The program’s many virtues were necessarily reactive, wedded to the moment; the laughter it inspired during the decade of Bush and bin Laden was the therapeutic whistle from a pressure valve.

At the same time, The New York Review of Books had the task of convincing us that America remained the nation responsible for the invention of human liberty.

My time as a book reviewer has fallen mainly during these years. Any sense I have of what criticism can do has been coloured by their political and cultural fallout.

It is often assumed that literary criticism is divorced from worldly matters. Books pages have generally been regarded as slowly decaying repositories of bland commentary, what Elizabeth Hardwick called “flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity”. But the NYRB’s example shows that literary criticism has virtues and uses beyond the gently literary.

“What is difficult,” Mark Danner writes in The Logic of Terror, a NYRB essay from June 2004, “is separating what we now know from what we have long known but have mostly refused to admit.”

Danner is referring in this instance to acts of torture undertaken by the US and its clients. But the statement also helps to explain why so many media organs charged with holding our leaders to account ceded their authority in those years, and why an almost unillustrated, closely typed magazine devoted mainly to literary matters did not.

The past 10 years have been a vivid tutorial in the truth of Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “the medium is the message”. The rise of 24/7 pay-TV and the concomitant decline of traditional network news has fragmented the old collective audience.

Today disparate groups receive the same news, but filtered through a different angle of the political prism. Web commentary has split these primary colours into a thousand graded hues.

Pay-TV’s news portals, with their split screens and flashing banderols, were custom-engineered to broadcast information in the form of images (ideal for global business-class nomads, yawning at muted screens in hotel rooms from Seattle to Beijing). They fostered a comforting sense that information was being imparted without sharpening focus in a way that would oblige viewers’ full attention.

Of course, the danger for a medium in thrall to the visual is that it eventually succumbs to pure aestheticism. Pay-TV’s talking heads soon morphed into suited pro wrestlers throwing arguments like elbows. The rituals of combat became more important than the subject debated and the final effect was to reduce discussion on many issues to empty theatre.

Which is why, despite coming after months of US congressional hearings, a period of daily leaks from victims and perpetrators to the media and ubiquitous quasi-pornographic images from Abu Ghraib prison, Danner’s 2004 essay still packs such a punch.

George Orwell once wrote that it is a constant struggle just to see what is going on in front of our noses. When Danner baldly states, “Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, officials of the US, at various locations around the world, from Bagram in Afghanistan to Guantanamo in Cuba to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, have been torturing prisoners”, that is just what he manages to do.

Danner’s essays, collected in Black Inc’s 2010 collection Stripping Bare the Body, bring readers into uncomfortable proximity to events from the war on terror and hold them there. The careful massing of details allows him to zoom from individual brushstroke to broad canvas without losing perspective, while the rhetorical plainness of his prose reinforces a sense of ethical proportion. Aside from the odd, singular image, a visual distillation of the argument to hand, Danner uses words only to paint the picture of what was being done in the name of ordinary citizens in democracies throughout the West.

His pieces may proceed in obedience to the necessity of meeting evidentiary burdens of proof, but his language grants itself a margin for personal passion.

For me, at least, what Danner practised here was literary criticism. He applied his critical skills as a close reader and his stylistic energies as a writer to examining texts and images in the public realm; he brings to light those things hidden in plain sight.

In doing so he joins the company of writers such as William Hazlitt, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Virginia Woolf, Orwell and Christopher Hitchens – a line of unacknowledged legislators who read their respective cultures as they would a text – as well as James “Jesus” Angleton, the CIA chief who studied literary criticism at Yale University during the height of practical criticism (which placed emphasis on

the recognition of patterns in texts) and used his knowledge to establish the field of counter-intelligence.

It is possible to disagree with the positions held by Danner on torture, or by Jonathan Raban on the surveillance society, or by Joan Didion on domestic politics in the US. But what is undeniable is that the pages of The New York Review of Books (and indeed the books pages of newspapers and magazines across the world) have become, during the past 10 years, a powerfully effective means of interrogating the larger political claims of the day.

In a world characterised by a hyperabundance of media sources, where entire bandwidths are filled with a ceaseless flow of chatter and governments drown real information in large-scale data dumps, it is the sceptical, nimble-minded, old-fashioned literary critic, trained to tease narrative grain from word chaff, who is best situated to pluck something like the truth from the excessive signification of the digital realm.

Orwell, who believed that the two most important motives for writing were aesthetic enthusiasm and political purpose, would no doubt say that the enduring merit of criticism of the kind practised by Danner lies in its brilliant merger of the two.

Geordie Williamson is chief literary critic of The Australian and winner of this year’s Pascall Prize for criticism.