Benjamin Kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel’s play about global warming, Buzz, was published in 2014.

Short Cuts: The Amazon Burning

Benjamin Kunkel, 12 September 2019

He​ who laughs hasn’t heard the news, Brecht wrote, probably in 1939. Eighty years later, the words could serve as the motto of the eco-tourist, to be pronounced in sardonic tones of knowing guilt. Having suppressed your flugsham (‘flying shame’) – the Swedish coinage alludes to the unconscionable quantities of carbon that each passenger on a long-distance flight is...

The Capitalocene: The Anthropocene

Benjamin Kunkel, 2 March 2017

The outsized role of human societies in determining the complexion of earthly existence will persist long after the capitalist mode of production has expired. Ecologically, you might say, the Anthropocene is here to stay, but just how it unfolds over coming generations will be decided by whether, politically, it remains the Capitalocene (‘privileging the endless accumulation of capital’, as Jason Moore puts it) or becomes for the first time a properly political Anthropocene, in which the interests of humanity as a whole chart our ecological course.

Capitalist societies today exhibit ‘an arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes’ as bad as or worse than in the 1930s, when Keynes declared this one of ‘the outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live’. (The other – not unrelated – was the failure to achieve full employment.) Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is an intelligent, ambitious and above all informative treatment of the problem. This accounts for much of the unusual excitement surrounding a lengthy, often dry economic tract. But there’s something else to the ‘Piketty bubble’.

The Basic Couple: Norman Rush

Benjamin Kunkel, 24 October 2013

When Virginia Woolf said of Middlemarch that it was among the few English novels ‘for grown-up people’, she didn’t explain what she meant. It’s clear that the novel looks back critically (and forgivingly) at the moral youthfulness that lands Dorothea in a marriage to an older man whose scholarly seriousness is uncompromised by wit or sexual charm; but Woolf seems to...

Just don’t think about it: Boris Groys

Benjamin Kunkel, 8 August 2013

Marxism has thrived as a way of thinking about art and literature, especially at times – the 1920s or the 1990s – when Marxist economic and political thinking has gone into retreat. The headwaters of the stream lie in The German Ideology (1846), where it seems an oversight that Marx and Engels don’t name art and literature, as they do religion, metaphysics and morality, as...

Most analysts divide postwar capitalism into two periods. The first extends from the late 1940s into the 1970s. The end of the second appears to have been announced by the crisis – at first a ‘financial’ crisis, now often a ‘debt’ crisis – that broke out in 2008. The precise boundary between the postwar eras gets drawn differently depending on which feature of the terrain is emphasised. In terms of overall growth rates, it was with the recession of 1973-74 that the surge after the Second World War gave way to deceleration across the wealthy world.

Why can’t he be loved? Houellebecq

Benjamin Kunkel, 20 October 2011

Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory tells the story, from the standpoint of a future art history, of a canonical artist of the early 21st century, a Frenchman with the curiously American-sounding name Jed Martin. Such a backward-gazing Künstlerroman invites comparison with the trajectory of the author himself. And Houellebecq also includes a character bearing his own...

How Much Is Too Much? Marx’s Return

Benjamin Kunkel, 3 February 2011

The deepest economic crisis in eighty years prompted a shallow revival of Marxism. During the panicky period between the failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the official end of the American recession in the summer of 2009, several mainstream journals, displaying a less than sincere mixture of broadmindedness and chagrin, hailed Marx as a neglected seer of capitalist crisis. The trendspotting Foreign Policy led the way, with a cover story on Marx for its Next Big Thing issue, enticing readers with a promise of star treatment: ‘Lights. Camera. Action. Das Kapital. Now.’

Into the Big Tent: Fredric Jameson

Benjamin Kunkel, 22 April 2010

The best of Jameson’s work has felt mind-blowing in the way of LSD or mushrooms: here before you is the world you’d always known you were living in, but apprehended as if for the first time in the freshness of its beauty and horror. One of the trippier as well as more affecting passages in Valences of the Dialectic is a sort of aria on the condition of living, through global capitalism, in a totally man-made world, one in which even the weather patterns and the geological age (the Anthropocene, it was recently declared) are human productions.

Lingering and Loitering: Javier Marías

Benjamin Kunkel, 3 December 2009

In one of literary history’s great instances of the pot calling the kettle black, Henry James complained of ‘the absence of spontaneity, the excess of reflection’ in George Eliot’s work. To other readers, of course, the proportion that Eliot – or even late James – sets up between narrative spontaneity (or action and event), on the one hand, and reflection...

Men in White: Another Ian McEwan!

Benjamin Kunkel, 17 July 2008

‘Netherland’ is an ambiguous word. It evokes, of course, the Netherlands inhabited by the Dutch, one of whom, Hans van den Broek, tells this story of a few late years spent in that New World city founded almost four hundred years ago on Manhattan Island as New Amsterdam, in what was then the territory of New Netherland. But ‘netherland’ could also mean any faraway place, as in those ‘nether regions’ of the city where Hans’s teammates from the Staten Island Cricket Club spend their nights. (Hans spends his nights in Chelsea, a Manhattan neighbourhood hardly described in this book, notable for a high concentration of well-built gay men, new condominiums, art galleries, bank branches and large home-furnishing outlets.) ‘Netherland’ also has sinister overtones of Never Never Land, and sounds like a euphemism for Hades.

In the Sonora: Roberto Bolaño

Benjamin Kunkel, 6 September 2007

Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago de Chile in 1953, moved with his family to Mexico City at the age of 15, and was inspired by the election of Salvador Allende to return to his native country five years later. In his short story ‘Dance Card’, which accords with the known facts of his life and does not present itself as fiction, Bolaño indicates that he hardly distinguished as a young man – if he ever did – between his politics and his love of poetry: ‘I reached Chile in August 1973. I wanted to help build socialism. The first book of poems I bought was Parra’s Obra Gruesa (Construction Work).’ He then bought another book by Nicanor Parra, the anti-rhetorical Chilean poet whose work Bolaño preferred to that of the more celebrated Pablo Neruda – a preference, it seems clear, for Parra’s plain-spokenness over Neruda’s florid multiplication of metaphor – and, in his telling, this was practically all the work towards socialism Bolaño accomplished before his arrest, following Pinochet’s coup of September 1973, as a ‘foreign terrorist’.

Letter

Not since …

8 April 2010

Eric Hobsbawm suggests that there has been nothing to compare with the spread of Communist states after 1917 ‘since the triumphal expansion of Islam in the seventh century’ (LRB, 8 April). Is this quite true? Starting in 1438, the Incas radiated out from Cusco – on foot, as they had no horses – conveying a distinctive language, religion and tributary system. By the early 1490s...

Pfired! Benjamin Kunkel

Daniel Soar, 5 January 2006

When in doubt, toss a coin. If you really can’t decide which alternative is preferable, if everything seems equal and you don’t care a damn, it can’t matter what you settle on....

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