Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: self-annihilation, strikes, skepticism, and more.

The editors

December 13, 2022

Escaping eastward: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” This idea, called anti-mimesis, opens Oscar Wilde’s classic gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. A recent article in MutualArt magazine discusses Wilde’s application of anti-mimesis to the rising popularity of ukiyo-e art in nineteenth-century Europe. Ukiyo-e, a Japanese genre of woodblock printing which includes the famous “Great Wave,” focused on dreamy and often sensual subject matter, such as landscapes and beautiful courtesans. But Wilde argued that this art did not mirror Japan and its culture. Rather, its popularity in both the West and East reflected the viewers’ desire to escape a structured, moralizing reality, whether Christian or Buddhist. “If you desire to see a Japanese effect,” wrote Wilde, you don’t need to go to Tokyo: “you will stay at home and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists.” It is not a different reality you seek, but no reality at all.

A critic’s critic: Every writer, George Scialabba claims, faces the choice of whether “to tilt at the state and capital or ignore them,” and they must choose the former if we are to have any hope of solving the crises of our day. In his new collection of essays Only a Voice, which is now available for pre-order, the award-winning literary critic examines what he calls a rift between modernity’s promise of progress and the reality of our present. To do so, he studies a diverse group of thinkers including Edward Said, D. H. Lawrence, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ellen Willis, and Noam Chomsky. Scialabba, a contributing editor of the magazine The Baffler, has authored frequent book reviews and the essay collection What Are Intellectuals Good For? on twentieth-century public intellectuals ranging from Allan Bloom to Christopher Lasch. Only a Voice is expected on August 15, 2023.

How the White House blocked a rail strike: For months, the twelve major rail unions have been in negotiations for higher wages, and most importantly, paid sick days, which rail workers didn’t have during the COVID-19 pandemic. But last week, the Biden administration blocked what would have been the most significant labor action in decades: a strike by railroad workers in the midst of the holiday season. President Joe Biden signed a bill into law making the planned strike illegal and forcing workers to concede their most powerful negotiation tool. Transportation reporter Esther Fung discusses the series of events on The Wall Street Journal’s podcast The Journal, interviewing a railroad signalman about the significance of the failed strike and the future of rail workers in its aftermath.

Reflecting on skepticism: In the Winter 2023 edition of Critical Inquiry, a leading humanities journal published by the University of Chicago Press, film scholar Kate Rennebohm reflects on the legacy of skepticism in film. Hollywood’s noirish canon is filled with male protagonists who have their naivety challenged and replaced with cynical world-weariness (think Jake Gittes in 1972’s Chinatown). But what about characters who begin from a place of skepticism? Using Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out as her focus, Rennebohm puts forward a new concept: “enforced skepticism.” When the world doesn’t give you the luxury of naivety, you have no choice—you’re forced—but to approach life with a skeptic’s eye. With enforced skepticism, Rennebohm argues that Get Out, and perhaps other recent works of black filmmaking, have turned the conventions of white Hollywood on their heads.