Invisible Suburbs, ed. Josh Lukin
. . .

Josh Lukin, August 18 1968 - July 25 2019

... a man of infinite patience and compassion, awesome learning, immense honesty, and almost grating humility, he represents to me the peak of what a scholar can be.
- from "Acknowledgments" in "A Literature of Suspicion: Critiques of 1950s Ideals in the American Roman Noir," a dissertation by Joshua Benjamin Lukin, 2003

Dick Macksey was the role model Josh mentioned most often to me, with H. Bruce Franklin a close second. I suppose what makes us think of someone as a "role model" or a "mentor" rather than simply "admirable" is validation-by-example of an ethos we would like to share once we've been assured that it's possible. And for those who succeed, descriptions of one's role model can conveniently be repurposed by others as a self-portrait.

Josh successfully lived as if the greatest of scholarly virtues, the primary impetus and guide which could not be sacrificed to convenience or time, was generosity. I'm told there are few higher-education jobs more draining than repeated first-year composition classes in an un-Ivied urban university, but year after year he gave his all to students. Almost half the longer pieces in his publications CV consist of interviews with non-canonical authors (and Josh Lukin was the Ernest Haller of interviewers). One of his two book credits comes from editing a collection of next-to-forgotten work from a writer better known as a mathematician; for the other, he edited a collection of essays about undercelebrated writings from an undercelebrated age. If he'd only labored over some first-time-into-English translations, he would have bullseyed every bullet point on the "Valuable Scholarly Work Which Will Not Advance Your Career" slide.

The virtue of "generosity" covers a wide and sometimes conflicting range, and its expressions are shaped by opportunity and need. (To put it more bluntly, Josh Lukin could not have reached into his shelves and handed anyone a first edition copy of Tristram Shandy although he could and did provide a year's worth of very welcome Donald Westlake recommendations.) In Josh's scholarly home turf of American studies (most often non-mainstream fiction, most often mid-20th-century), his characteristic expression turned away from both a Hermeneutics of Suspicion directed at naive-yet-safely-canonical Literature and the quietist or martial celebration of received wisdom, to demonstrate a Hermeneutics of Recovery and Acknowledgment which let suspicious Literature handle the Suspicion.

More broadly, he worked (and played) to break through the gated solipsism of those who conform to the hegemony du jour and the solitary confinement of those whose experiences or very existence have been denied:

But the taking of sides is not always the point: some of [Chandler] Davis's stories and essays rely on poetic force to evoke the understanding that to put it in propositional form “This state of feeling, or sequence of feelings, is possible and even common.’ A criterion for artistry and for radicalism in such a tactic is whether the statement is necessary and unusual: the pedagogy of feeling to which we are subjected every day by the clichéd and conservative discourse around us does not need more literature to reinforce it. Andrea Hairston has written, “Repetition is meaning. What we hear endlessly, goes without saying—is learned.” We need the tools to unlearn it, or to find affirmation of what we rarely hear validated; but we aren’t blessed with authoritative guides or methods for determining where poetic truth appears, or what manifestations of poetically shared feeling “further our understanding of ourselves and our society.” We must fall back upon our own rational faculties and our own moral imagination, with curiosity and compassion fueling our drive to connect with others.
- "Afterword: Alternatives to Reverence" from It Walks in Beautry
What artists, educators, performers, and historians can do for such movements is establish connections and continuities. If the hegemonic discourse reproduces itself by telling people with dissenting ideas that they are ridiculous, unhip, criminal, isolated, or mad, then any indication that they might be reasonable, aware, just, sane, and possessed of views that are shared by other people or were validated in other eras can help to build courage and conviction. Documenting what happens when shame is used as a mode of social control, when men are limited to a small repertoire of stereotypical roles, and when class is conflated with personal worth, the Literature of Suspicion can tell a receptive reader that a life such as his has been noticed or that her own suspicions that the dominant order's claims are false have been shared.
- "A Literature of Suspicion: Critiques of 1950s Ideals in the American Roman Noir"
Although I will in the remainder of this essay speak of having recognized familiar experiences in literature, I actually tend to feel that the text has recognized me rather than the reverse. And in being so recognized, I get, paradoxically, assured that responding, or having responded, with shame (or indeed with other intense affects) to past or ongoing experiences may not in fact be shameful.
- "Science Fiction, Affect, and Crip Self-Invention Or, How Philip K. Dick Made Me Disabled"

To my suggestion that Josh go public with his particularly acute critique of a then-trendy bit of poisonous rhetoric:

But right now, getting X *more* talked-about seems to me to be as desirable as a fistula (Asking Delany for his thoughts on the guy was a strategy for getting more Delanyan thinking into the world, not more reflections on X per se). You know me --I wunna call attention to as-yet insufficiently celebrated scholarship (among which I count Hoberek's book) or promote the creation of critical work that circumnavigates the Usual Cliches. Or, you know, get more sleep.
- correspondence, 2005
What's at stake here for me is that I would kind of like to say "These authors I have interviewed provide us with tools to rebut, or see through, or assert our dignity in the face of, or ignore, the toxic fantasies of X, Y, and Z" 'cause one is supposed to have a theory as to what theme holds one's work together. I hope my argument ends up having advantages beyond the fact that I know about irony. I'll have to engage Landy's "Nation of Bovarys," I guess; but surely we all see our own insufficiencies and plunge into bovarysm in order to escape the condemnation which, deep in our consciousness, we are the first and perhaps the only ones to make.
- correspondence, 2011

* * *

Present-day curators of American higher education in America set high value on "generosity" among the donor class but otherwise maybe not so much, and the freshly doctorated Josh Lukin duly became a contingent employee with a teaching load which discouraged extended research, writing, or publisher stalking. Chronically short on time, and showing caution appropriate to the academic precariat (as well as caution appropriate to the reader of Patricia Highsmith), Josh reduced his weblog to un-Waybackable ash long ago, and kept his Facebook account on lockdown more often than not. His latter-day academic publications include book reviews, reference-book entries, and a few historically-informed pedagogically-slanted close readings. All of them excellent jobs; all of them informative, convincing, and true to his own values. At least one of the reference entries has won an impressive citation list in its own right.

But such material requires some fading-into-the-background, and few hold much of Lukin's distinctive voice.

Most obviously (and understandably) missing are the puns. Josh perceived a world of whirling nimbuses of potential pun, where a quiver of displacement might at any moment discharge a cackling flash too loud and bright to ignore.

Then there was his affection for a mostly-vanished mode of mid-century secular American Jewishness; in one phone conversation with Josh, I would hear more Yiddish than from my year in Brooklyn. Like other drops from approved diction into "down home" idioms, it played a tutoyer role, and as such sometimes made a guest appearance in his interviews.

Most crucially, his academic publications muted the unique virtue of his wit, which somehow contrived to be engagingly genial even when furious or despairing. When he stung, he left a sting worth attending. You might gather some notion from his Chandler Davis afterword, and "Science Fiction, Affect, and Crip Self-Invention," and, less formally, from his Aqueduct Press self-bio. Although his dissertation is officially unpublished and (like virtually all contemporary literary-studies dissertations) modularized for easy cannibalization, and has in fact been partly cannibalized, it also coheres and builds, which makes me suspect that extended Lukin may be the best Lukin.

For that reason, I've kept close and frustrated track of the book-length projects he's mentioned over the years: a collection of his "interviews with feminist authors"; "Noir Recognitions, a study of identity in the 1950s novels of Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and Philip Dick"; and, most intriguingly, "an unpublished draft of a memoir (Urgency: Growing Up with Crohn’s Disease)." Maybe someday, someday... well, a fan-boy can dream, can't he?

* * *

The Josh Lukin I knew was deeper, wider, and funnier than the academically-published Dr. Joshua B. Lukin, but still not quite Josh complet. I know from hearsay that he, like me, loved to eat, loved face-to-face conversation, and exhibited a disconcerting tendency to burst into song (myself in chants which echo Michael Hordern's, Josh [I imagine] in a Melchiorisch heldentenor accompanied by Segovian guitar). But residing 2800 miles apart and on very different career tracks, we (and Ann Keefer, his partner in all things) met only once in the flesh (being flesh, we of course immediately dined), and the late hours of our phone calls discouraged outbursts which might startle sleepy cats.

Still, it was Josh Lukin enough to fill a satisfying portion of my life. Long after the bulk of free-and-direct discourse retreated from the spooky public sphere into Mark'n'Jack's ClickLike Clubhouse, he continued to engage with an uncredentialed unknown non-academic who (true to form) could not conceivably advance anyone's career a whit. For sixteen years, through mutually inflicted bafflements, bruisings, and boosts, he was my most reliable correspondent, and for sixteen years he instigated my most extended and educational phone calls, punctuated by his signature placeholder, "What, can, I, say...," intoned with the delighted perplexity of a sated gourmet faced by another platter of amuse-bouches. Despite being given the advantage of a four-hour time difference, I'm such an early-rising geezer I sometimes found myself unable to even take notes during the last part of these calls, and wished I'd asked permission to record them for later listening.

(Timmi Duchamp maintained an even longer and closer epistolary/telephonic friendship. I wonder how many more of us are out there?)

Josh always suffered from greater or even-greater health problems, and they worsened this year, interfering not only with his work but with his and Ann's preparations to relocate. In mid-July he phoned to tell me that diagnostic progress had finally been made and a biopsy had been scheduled, and he figured I might be able to say something more than "We will keep you in our thoughts and prayers." I did so; he did so; we enjoyed ourselves but grew fatigued, as a sleepy old guy and a mortally ill guy will. Before we hung up I asked him to phone me again next week with the results of his biopsy, then thoughtlessly added, "We'll be thinking of you." I quickly apologized for violating our contract, at which he just as quickly chortled, "Like Oscar Wilde said, heh, the only thing worse than being thought about is not being thought about."

I didn't hear back from him the next week but wasn't surprised no matter what course of treatment he was prescribed, he and Ann would also be busy with their move.

Early on Sunday morning, July 28, I saw an obituary for Richard Macksey in the Washington Post, and sent a short email to Josh expressing condolences and asking about the biopsy. Late on Sunday night, I realized it had been a while since I checked on Facebook inhabitants, briefly logged in, and found that Josh had died two nights before.

He would've mocked my sentimentality with relish (with mustard, even), but Josh meant the world to me I know he did because the ground beneath me vanished when I read the news and free-fall makes me clingy. I hope this Sondheim number is sardonic enough to pass muster (and the mustard) with his memory.

. . .

The Price of Admissions

Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon; translated by Michael Lucey
Sketch for a Self-Analysis by Pierre Bourdieu; translated by Richard Nice
The Bachelors' Ball: The Crisis of Peasant Society in Béarn by Pierre Bourdieu;
translated by Richard Nice

I came to Sketch for a Self-Analysis via

now, why would anyone feel compelled to begin in such a fashion? Do I presume that you (assuming you exist at all) care much, much more about me than you do about Pierre Bourdieu? Do I consider my trivial consumer decisions a "STORY THAT MUST BE TOLD!"?

Partly, I guess, I want to limit the implied context of the particular experience being described, so as to deny any pretense of authority drawn from a broader, less private context.

Of course that excuse-making dragged us even further from the point not yet at hand. As friends have sometimes informed me, apologizing at length for the nuisance of one's existence merely compounds the crime. Vanishing from view while signaling lack-of-authority (vice-signaling?) poses a knotty formal problem. Maybe that's why collage offers such a satisfying approach to the lyric-discursive.

Not for the particular experience I'd like to describe, however, and so, passing by that garbage strewn over the front yard, here we are (assuming you're here).

I came to Sketch for a Self-Analysis via references in Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon, which I came to because it had been recommended by someone somewhere at some time and I'd gotten that far down the recommendations list. By the time I reach an item I usually retain no memory as to why it's there, but a few pages of Eribon were enough to tell me it earned its place due to his status as what we call hereabouts a "first gen student" or elsewhereabouts a "class traitor."

Eribon's earlier book, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, described the process of claiming identification with a label previously only applied as (and for) punishment how one might escape from a familial world of violent intolerance to an affinity-based world of volition while still carrying tools and scars (not always distinguishable) from the Bad Times.

In contrast, Returning to Reims attempts to re-claim (or at least acknowledge) identification with what he'd escaped: the racist, homophobic, unschooled, barely-scraping-by world of his childhood and adolescence. The phrase "coming out of the class closet" toddles easily to mind, but the two processes differed wildly in costs and rewards: by the end of this outing Eribon may have become able to see his mother and drop the posh accent more often, but he's not going to stop reading books and start working seventy hours a week at a precarious chain of shitty service jobs, pausing occasionally to be assaulted by drunks. His "return" sanely doesn't entail reimprisonment.

The book is fine, it achieves its intentions with reviewer-friendly smoothness. Unantagonizing; unrevelatory. Except, for me, in revealing two unsuspected bits about Pierre Bourdieu.

First, that Bourdieu was another issue of less-than-higher-educated stock: in his case, the agricultural peasantry of Béarn; in Eribon's, the factory workers of Reims. I'd presumed a securer home base for Bourdieu: I'd taken offense at his character-type of The Oblate the character-type who, under a pound of pancake makeup and a flattering pink spotlight, finally got its big break as John Williams's insipid Stoner and surmised it the product of snobbery along the long lines which stretch from Byron and Arnold to Yeats and Woolf. I should have recognized the extra tincture of venom in Bourdieu's portrait for what it was.

Secondly, and of more immediate interest, that Bourdieu's final book took himself as subject despite his loathing of autobiography. You see, for two years now I've struggled with a project whose goal sounds awfully autobiographical even though the idea of an autobiography sounds awful to me. Even the Henry Adams gambit sounds awful to me. Did Bourdieu find a swipeable way around that dilemma?

* * *

Sadly for both of us, Bourdieu did not. He put up a brave front, that's certain enough. "I do not intend to indulge in the genre of autobiography" opens the text; "This is not an autobiography" headlines the back cover. But as Jesse Carlson wrote in a well-judged review:

Bourdieu’s intention is to be both unconventional and genuine. It does not take an unusually exercised critic to note that such a claim could not be, for the genre of autobiography, any more conventional.

His most strenuous attempts to avoid the "personal" translate as interminable "professional" grousing: humble-brags, catalogued slights, the grossly preferential treatment given name after name I've never heard of none of which sits comfortably with Bourdieu's unacknowledged but thoroughly evident fame and power. The most successful pages of the book are instead the most straightforwardly autobiographical, and they come close to providing a Unified Bourdieu Theory.1

Unlike Eribon, young Bourdieu wasn't driven to upward mobility by desperation: he and his father clearly loved each other; he even uses the phrase "childhood paradise." Offered the chance of a definitive break with his past, he chose near the beginning of his career to instead re-declare (in his own mind) allegiance with it albeit a resentful allegiance, which granted him assured pride in his own down-to-earth hands-on no-fucking-round "sociological" fieldwork while somehow continuing to envy blowhards who engaged in the type of "philosophical" showboating that makes him sick. Even his notoriously ugly prose style begins to look deliberate, an attenuated version of that familiar counteroffensive against prejudice, the hyper-confirmation of stereotype: camping it up; shucking and jiving; the sub-Gomer yokel gawking at skyscrapers; the droning engineer and clumsy peasant. As a position, it's incoherent, but as a flavor mix I recognize good old home cooking.

The conflict itself manifested well before he found a way to more-or-less resolve it. Like Eribon, Bourdieu exhibited behavior which would be called "biting the hand that feeds you" by those who consider us dogs:

Perhaps because I loved it too much, the ambiguous alma mater provoked a violent and constant revolt, springing from debt and disappointment, which manifested itself in a whole series of crises, particularly at the time of examinations or in situations of academic solemnity, [...] which, by triggering the unease provoked by the tacitly imperative expectation of the signs of submission (what Spinoza called obsequium, the pure respect for institutional forms that institutions demand above all else, of which people say, in reproachful tones, that ‘it costs nothing’ and which costs me an infinite amount), bring out my hankering for dissidence, the temptation to spoil the game. And how can I not include in that series the refusal to submit to the unthinkable rite of the submission of a thesis, which I justified to myself with Kafka’s axiom: ‘Do not present yourself before a court whose verdict you do not recognize’? [...]

It is not the only time in my life when I have had the sense of being constrained by a greater force to do something that cost me dearly and the need for which was felt only by me.

Given this two-out-of-two sample population, and the sample population I've seen elsewhere, I wonder why Bourdieu's portrait of the oblate wasn't evil-twinned by a portrait of the smart-kid-bad-student, eager to sabotage himself so long as he can bring a bit of the institution down with him. Like his self-conscious burial of grand theses and celebrity critiques in footnotes or parenthetical remarks, it seems more an assertion of control than of humility. He is the boy that can enjoy invisibility.

Until this book, that is. The honest self-effacing work of interviews and number-crunching find no justification in a "self-analysis," or even a "self-socioanalysis." Bereft of that protective armor, Sketch is an unhappy, unsatisfied work, missing steps and lumbering under the weight of Bourdieu's discomfort. The mood brightens only when it memorializes the three ethnographic studies, published across three decades, of Bourdieu's home province, the Béarn.

Their personal associations triggered his characteristic guardedness "which led me to refuse to this day any republication of texts whose appearance in scholarly journals with small circulation protected them against malicious or voyeuristic readings" but at the end of his life he must have reconsidered, because they were collected and published as his next-to-final book, The Bachelors' Ball.

* * *

And yes, after l'emmerdement of the Sketch, The Bachelors' Ball comes as blessed relief. In the initial, novella-length 1962 article, you sense his simultaneous embrace of habitus-past and habitus-future, bringing the fiancé back home for one triumphant final visit with the folks before emigration it almost bounces (in a thudding Bourdieu sort of bounce) with energetic engagement.

Like most of the ethnography I've read, it's also melancholic: acknowledging the rigidity of the old ways; mourning the loss of the old ways. But in this setting at least, Bourdieu seems glad to be unhappy. For someone you adore, it's a pleasure to be sad.

The quietly criminal pleasure of self-exposure by proxy is familiar enough from, oh, pretty much all types of writing? The bruise-kneading comfort a displaced person draws from ethnographic situating of that dissed place is a more specialized thing, but not unheard of or (in this case) unviewed.

The solidarity between inhabitants of the same neighbourhood was also expressed at the time of collective labours houdjère (from houdja, to hoe) and liguère, the hoeing and binding of the vines in the course of which the groups of workers alternated their singing from one hillside to the other, pélère, the slaughter and processing of the pig, ...

I find no evidence that Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Eustache ever met or even heard of each other, which just goes to show. Both spent childhood in rural areas: Eustache's Pessac is 120 miles north of Bourdieu's Béarn. Both were uprooted at pubescence and replanted in hostile ground: Bourdieu at age eleven to a boarding school in the nearest "big city" (Pau, population about 40,000 at that time), Eustache at age twelve to his not-noticeably-maternal mother and her lover in Narbonne. And both revisited their lost Edens early in their chosen careers and returned again a decade later: Bourdieu with the papers of The Bachelors' Ball, Eustache with the short films La Rosière de Pessac of 1968 and La Rosière de Pessac of 1979.

Like Eribon and Bourdieu, Eustache was a bright kid raised in anti-academic surroundings; unlike them he received no scholarship: Eustache was forced out of school at age 14 and never returned. He was never gifted the luxury of bourgeois arriviste guilt; instead he took lateral class mobility into low-budget-libertine bohemia.

In conclusion Jean Eustache was an unhappy man who made unhappy movies. Funny as hell sometimes, but with the humor of a miserable fuck.

You read a one-line summary of a one-hour cinéma vérité documentary devoted entirely to showing a communal hog slaughter followed by sausagemaking, in a chilly bleak landscape, with human speech represented by grunts in an unknown and unsubtitled dialect, and you'd anticipate the usual ghastliness but more so.

Certainly the hog looks aghast. And yet Le Cochon strikes me as by far the least miserable of Eustache's credits I might even call it comforted.

I used to think that was another sign of Eustache's perversity. Now it seems only-to-be-expected. The comfort, like the concept and the homecoming, might originate with co-director Jean-Michel Barjol. Nevertheless its survival means Eustache felt able to share it.

* * *

Having established "your" interest in my trivial consumer decisions and producer obstacles, "you'll" be fascinated to learn that I've struggled to write about Jean Eustache for twenty-five years, and that to one extent or another all of Eustache's work is autobiographical.

But I don't want to swipe his gambit, either. Too many suicides.

1   Not that close, though. A centrally-placed pimple-sized singularity interrupts Bourdieu's Sketch:

But I cannot not say it here — all these reasons are in part only the relay and rationalization of a deeper reason or cause: a very cruel unhappiness which brought the irremediable into the childhood paradise of my life and which, since the 1950s, has weighed on every moment of my existence, [...] This means to say that, without ever being mendacious, the descriptions and explanations that I have so far given remain inaccurate and partial inasmuch as all my behaviours [...] were overdetermined (or subtended) by the inner desolation of solitary grief: [...] And what I have said here of the causes or reasons of each of the experiences described, such as my Algerian adventures or my scientific enthusiasm, also masks the subterranean impulse and the secret intention that were the hidden face of a double life.

If this tease of a confession had been written before 1930 or so, it would be easy to decode as homosexuality or masturbation. It may refer to his six years in boarding school, although Bourdieu waits another twenty pages before describing them and never makes the connection explicit. As is, what it most clearly conveys is the desire to hide his heart and eat it too.

. . .

Hot Poetry Flash!

Having gummed a false mustache over his mountain-man beard, our acquaintance Anselm Dovetonsils slipped past the doorman at Moe's Books last night, only to be ejected when caught filching from Norman Fischer:

The letters -- by which I mean characters --

. . .

The Death Wish in American Publicity Material

Part 13 in an Occasional Series

From the back of a junk mail envelope:

AAA Insurance: Outsmart Life (TM)

For once the odds are on our side.

. . .

Vice Ethics

Some while back, I spent a few weeks' quota of spare time ("scholar" being, as we know, derived from the Greek for "leisure") mournfully analyzing a book which attempted to champion a cause dear to my heart by sandwiching overblown or easily debunked historical claims between mopes about problems like the impossibility of publishing literary criticism outside academic journals. After talking it over with a friend I decided not to post my review because, hey, the author had suffered enough already.

Above everything else, the question which blanketed the book and finally stifled any wisp of high spirits was "How can a classroom teach students to take pleasure in literature?" But ooh, ooh, pick me, I know this one!— like most of us know it, from experience.

If by "teaching" one means "grading debt-imprisoned students on the intensity of their faked orgasms," the desired results are indeed unlikely. From the standpoint (or cowerpoint) of students who don't immediately feel the funk (or fake the jouissance), such pleasure sharing is more accurately described as bullying, public shaming, or extortion. I guess it would count as training for "the real world," but honestly, most undergrads receive sufficient training outside the English department.

As with all such corruptions of youth, the most effective approach is to openly exemplify and (by implication) permit the possibility of finding pleasure in odd ways. Some onlookers will sooner or later be led to admit a corresponding unsuspected or repressed perversion of their own; most will simply consider you odd. That's fine. You can make a talking mule drink but you can't make it like the flavor.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .