In my time in and around radical politics, Francis Fukayama has always been the archetypal picture of an almost threatening level of stasis. His 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man posited that history had effectively ended: debates over ideology, different forms of government, and social organization had come to its conclusion since liberal democracy and global capitalism had won the order of the day. If history is defined by increasing moments of change, our progression had slowed to a crawl.
This was never accepted by the radical left, but it put us out of step with the rest of the liberal order that saw compromise, reform, and technocratic fine tuning as the solution to massive social problems. This neoliberal perspective erased (or denied) the growing divide between rich and poor, the continued experience of BIPOC poverty and experiences of violence, the exploitation of the Global South, falling real wages, accelerating climate change, basically all actual metrics that showed we were far from a post-historical age. I graduated college in 2008 amidst the largest financial meltdown in the U.S. since the Great Depression, so it could be said that I re-entered not just history, but the global experience of history, while also entering adulthood.
Since then the left has had its largest “return to history: in decades as well: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the new growth of the labor movement, the Women’s March, rise of the Democratic Socialists of America and Bernie Sanders, the fight for LGBT rights, prison abolition, mutual aid groups, and other movements, all of which have reclaimed the idea that we can radically shake the world. At the same time, the far-right exploded back into international prominence, making nationalism, that is national borders and ethnic identities, a reality that had not been surpassed. Fukayama was even forced to revise his thesis with After the End of History, a requiem for the idea that if it happens after history, history had not ended after all.
This contention is at the heart of Ari Brostoff’s fabulous new book Missing Time, a collection of five essays published during the Trump years and looking at the themes of political subjectivity, identity, and changing Jewish politics. In pieces that unpack the attraction that young people had to Bernie Sanders, the way that Jewish establishment discourse on “continuity” reflects problematic ethnic assumptions, and how the hit television show The X-Files operated in Brostoff’s young life, we get dropped into the author’s grappling attempts to understand the radically shifting experiences taking place around them. By looking at classic, but often forgotten, works like Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism and Phillip Roth’s Operation Shylock, Brostoff uses the contradictions in those books as a way of analyzing their own family and political history, both in relationship to Israel and the history of American socialism (which has its own kind of historical continuity).
What especially stands out about Brostoff’s work is the thankful ability to let the subjects breathe, to allow essays about older literature the kind of space to carve out a potentially relatable observation with the readers. Rarely will editors allow this kind of word count devoted to seemingly arcane inspirations, but when given the length it deserves we discover that Brostoff had found something with crushing relevancy to the moment. Part of this is a testament both to N+1 and Jewish Currents, where most of these essays originated, who trust that the literary essay has something to say that cannot be reduced to 1,500 words and a pithy photo caption.
Missing Time sets Brostoff off as one of the great contemporary essayists writing at the intersection of literary criticism and political prose. I interviewed Brostoff about Missing Time, how it approaches our collective “return” to political agency, how the X-Files plays (or doesn’t play) in the era of “fake news,” and how Jewish politics is being fractured by the people it claims to represent.
Shane Burley: So how did your book Missing Time come together, and what were the themes that bound these essays together?
Ari Brostoff: It came together in a very unplanned way. I wrote the first couple of n+1 essays and then had a conversation at some point with Mark Krotov, one of the editors there, about putting together some kind of collection, and we ended up stringing together those pieces and some others I'd written elsewhere, and then a final piece on Vivian Gornick. It wasn't really clear to me what would unite them until I was writing the introduction while the Trump presidency was ending. Then it became clear in retrospect that the book was about the ruptures of that period, what came to look like a period in U.S. history, and about a personal experience of taking in those ruptures.Somebody told me the other day that it was the only book about the Trump era that they could imagine enjoying right now, which is the best compliment I can imagine getting. I don't want to read another Trump take either, and I did feel a certain horror that I was going to be packaging it that way. I was a little nervous that it would wind up next to, like, Timothy Snyder on the shelves, just by entering that conversation. I hope it doesn't. Trump himself is actually a peripheral character in the book, which is really more about the left during that period of time. In the end it’s really about the experience of encountering an unfamiliar level of change, more than anything else.
SB: I had a similar experience with my last book, which was a collection of essays and a few new ones. Someone had to sort of tell me what the theme was, or more than that, what my underlying themes were in general. Which was about this feeling of apocalypse over the past several years. And you pick up a counter-narrative within that about the re-emergence of time, or the return of us to time. This was a feeling I really had when I started organizing more seriously in the mid-2000s, where everything was so rear facing, there was so much talk about history and so little talk about our role in the present. And that really started to shift after the financial collapse and the growth of housing organizing, Occupy Wall Street, new labor organizing. Is there this sense that your essays were about re-situating us in the process of history, or in the significance of our own time? What were the factors that re-inserted us into time? Is it just Trump, or are there other factors involved as well?
AB: Trump was the mascot for the larger shifts going on: The entry into a period marked by a kind of inevitable tilt toward the collapse of environmental systems, the contestation of the post-cold war neoliberal global order, unendurable immiseration. Those contradictions were just building and I think that the difference Trump made was just the sense of freefall. Of the total unpredictability of how that was going to play out day to day in the U.S.One thing I talked about in the book’s introduction is that there was a lot of debate on the left, throughout Trump's administration but particularly after the attempted coup just before he left office, about whether Trump marked a significant shift at all. One faction of the left was adamant that he did not, and that saying otherwise was a sign of false consciousness. Others said two things can be true at once: There can be a rising fascist threat and it can also be the case that Trump's policies are not taking us in a dramatically different direction than Hilary's would have. I say in the book that I found that conversation really tiresome. It just felt like a symptom of being stuck in a particular kind of conversation that wasn't registering in a fuller way what the rupture actually was, or a suppressed panic about not knowing what kind of time we're living in.
SB: I understand the argument that Trump is basically the continuity of neoliberalism, but I think it misunderstands the subjectivity of rupture. And I think part of this process is where we accept our own subjectivity. I'm in Portland, which had well over a hundred nights of protests in Portland. I was down there one night when molotov cocktails were hurtled at police, sort of creating this wall of fire that spread across the road (and hitting a few reporters). And there was some chatter I heard from some people that this crowd, of Portland leftists, was not the demographic of people who were most likely to be hit by police violence in their everyday lives. But it also felt like these protest experiences that these people were now having were episodes of police violence in their own right. So it wasn't that these protesters were out here fighting the police because they were just outraged at what had happened to other people, they were pushing back on the police because of their own traumatization.I think you capture some of this in the book, the process by which a new generation of the left went from fighting for other people and their experiences of subjugation to fighting for ourselves. This seems to have happened, obviously through the Trump years, but really since the economic collapse in 2007-2008 that threw a lot of younger adults into crisis. That also inspired a certain amount of optimism because amidst the sort of instability that existed we have the ability take some agency over it, or feel like we have the ability to actually do something about it.
AB: Totally, I think that's right. For me the beginning of that shift in subjectivity was the Occupy movement, which I was exactly the right age for. It was the first time I was able to take myself seriously as a political subject, which felt amazing, though I also probably fell into some bad habits of flattening differences between my own position and those who were considerably more disenfranchised, or just not having the language for thinking about difference and solidarity together. I’ve been doing a lot of tenant organizing in the past couple years, and that’s probably done more than anything to help me practice that language. The thing about tenant organizing that I think is so powerful is that it literally starts with where you live, and immediately brings up the questions of who you live together with and what you and your neighbors want that to look like. So that was really key for me personally, but everybody will have their own moments to point to—t's ultimately a question of how to have a mass movement.
SB: While I want to avoid flattening experiences inside of the working class since there clearly are privileged sectors of the working class in comparison to others, there is also this experience of us all being pressed together. For example, a graduate student, who used to be thought of as an entrance to a stable and privileged type of profession, but now there is no direct line to a sustainable income or life. So, in some sense, it has sort of brought more people across different demographics into a shared experience of economic precarity. What role do you think Bernie had in all of these changes?
AB: I think he was a great catalyst for that. Our generation of leftists was really defamiliarized by Bernie, who was coming out of such a different world, arriving on the scene and saying, "This is what I'm seeing. You're all being fucked over by the same forces." His attempts to use contemporary versions of identity-based language around that were sometimes inadequate and cringey, but he brought a kind of authenticity to what he had to say. It was helpful to have someone who could kind of speak in that prophetic universalizing voice and clearly meant it. Whatever its inadequacies in any number of directions, it was just so clear to so many people that it was delivered in good faith. That was really powerful.
SB: Your X-Files essay may be my favorite because I was such an X-Files stan when growing up. When thinking back to the X-Files two things come up. One, it was a sort of latent political consciousness as a young person, so I wonder if you see your experience of the X-Files as a sort of latent political formation. And, second, I just wonder how we view the X-Files now in light of the mass adoption of conspiracy theories. For example, the plot of the first X-Files movie is that the government uses FEMA camps to mass infect the populace with a virus. That kind of story just simply would not play in a neutral way with audiences today.
AB: To your first question, about latent political consciousness, that’s a lot of what I was trying to figure out in that piece. I had a kind of precocious interest in cultural politics and ideology when I was a kid—like that essay is kind of rooted in the experience of being a sixth grader looking around and seeing a 1960s revival in middle school fashion where we all wanted to wear polyester shirts and bellbottoms, and wondering what it all meant, thinking it had something to do with the New Left even though I didn’t really know what that was.I was really awkward and didn't know how to make friends, and I thought very earnestly that if I could solve these mysteries, it would be helpful. So in a naive and sort of pretentious way I really did look for political content all around me, and I definitely saw it in The X-Files, in which subcultures were taken very seriously.At the time it felt very aberrant and weird to have those kinds of questions as a suburban kid growing up in a largely apolitical environment. It’s different today, I think: One thing that has become clear in the past few years is that there’s nothing unnatural about young kids getting politicized, it happens all the time when they have access to political ideas. I would imagine that the kind of questions that I was asking were the kind of questions that kids are asking in greater numbers and at younger ages now because that's the world we live in. Which is really cool and something I'm really excited about.Going back to your second question, about conspiracy, I think that is something that makes The X-Files very much a show of the ’90s. The show wades through all of these conspiracy theories, but none of them really have a political impact; they're sort of static.
SB: They use a lot of the Patriot movement mythology of the time, but they work really hard to not let it be openly tied to any particular political current.
AB: Yeah, it's all a little metaphysical. If the deep state exists, it exists in the same way aliens exist. Which is to say it is just kind of . . . out there. It is not being produced by forces that are themselves being contested. No one's going to take it down. Mulder might discover its existence, but he is this lone embattled figure. You can't do anything about it, other than maybe expose it. So there's a certain level of flatness to it. It's almost the way that time works in a sitcom. You don't really get the sense that at the end of the show the state will fall. It won't.And I think that is a problem the show contended with when they brought it back in 2017, which I talk about at the end of that piece in the book, because at that point they had to figure out what to do with the fact that a lunatic who fomented deep state conspiracy theories was president. And that Fox, the network The X-Files was on, had also—via Fox News—become the media apparatus behind those very theories. So the show had to do something with that. and they made it a problem for Mulder: The people who share his beliefs about the state are becoming these right-wing megalomaniacs. I don't know that the show handles this well on the level of television, but it does acknowledge the problem.
SB: There's a certain sense in the X-Files that the myth arc and the "monster of the week" episodes both present the world as vast, overwhelming, and out of our control since they never can actually fix these problems that are revealed to them. But one of the defining features of conspiracy theories today is that you can, or you must, intervene in some way to stop it (as well as the fact that they are presented as being non-ideological while being heavily ideological in reality).
AB: Exactly. And again, Mulder is such a lone figure and there’s no sense that he’s really trying to get anyone on his side. Far from trying to lead a movement, he’s not even convinced he can convince Scully. He exists as a permanently fringe figure. It’s a very sexy archetype and I loved it, but it’s not revolutionary by any stretch.
SB: In your piece on Jeffrey Epstein you get into the issues behind the concept of “Jewish continuity” and its relationship to Jewish civic organizational life. If I was to go to my non-Jewish friends and say something like I was concerned over Jewish birth rates they would look at me like I'm from another planet, and they should. It would be a bizarre thing to say. But as you point out in your essay, Epstein had eugenic fantasies of his own that owe some shared DNA with the way many Jewish civic organizations talk about Jewish continuity. How do these organizations talk about continuity and particularism and what are the long-term ramifications of that?
AB: In the period leading up to the creation of the Birthright program [which sends Jewish young adults on a free trip to Israel] and once it had become such an incredibly successful program, I think Jewish establishment organizations did a very good job of naturalizing the idea that young liberal American Jews would feel invested in Jewish birthrates or having a Jewish majority in the State of Israel. And that the way to be true to “your people” is to do whatever the arbiters of these large faceless organizations tell you to think. Because liberalism is so notoriously squishy in what it can be squared with, this really worked for a lot of people and for some people it still does. The fissures are much more apparent now, but it's not going to fall apart on its own because those kinds of contradictions are sustained by liberalism.
SB: It seems like not only are young Jews building up an opposition to the establishment organizations that came before and a new vision for Judaism and Jewishness, but they are also building up a sort of counter establishment of organizations and a new path for Jewish civic life.
AB: I think that it's increasingly clear that if you're geographically in places where counter-institutions exist in a real way or you're on the Internet in a certain way, there is real Jewish life happening that has really broken with those establishment Jewish institutions. In the early 2000s things were in this very classic kind of neoliberal situation where those institutions were trying to rebrand Judaism for young people in a way that could be read as transgressive. So, for example, bringing more queer Jews into establishment spaces, or—to keep going with the Birthright example—sponsoring trips for Jews with questions about Palestine, without ever actually saying the word Palestine. But if you crossed any lines, saying you were going to build solidarity elsewhere, that was the difference between being roped onto the bus and being kicked off the bus.This one reason BDS has been such a flashpoint, by the way: When young Jews targeted by these programs express support for BDS, they are refusing to play this game. And it is just much clearer now that you can cross that line and still find a Jewish community, and it won't just be five people. There are a lot of us. This may be something I'm quietly registering in the book: I think my own flawed personality structure is such that I was maybe never going to get in that deep with real on-the-ground left movement-building when the left was in the place of just being five people in a room. It’s like how it took me a long time to change my gender, I had to see a lot of other people do it first.
SB: I also understand not wanting to be the builder all the time, which is super taxing and involving when sometimes you just want to participate.
AB: I think about this all the time, now that I'm a person who tries to recruit other people into movement work. And that means I am seeing from the other side what people's blockages are, why people resist certain kinds of joining even when they really do believe in it. Getting involved with any project of social transformation in any meaningful way takes up so much time and radically reconfigures your life and sense of relationship to work, pleasure, and other people. There was this moment I had where I was fairly early in doing tenant organizing and I kept thinking that I was going to get to the point where the project would end. And then the friend who was acting as my unofficial organizing mentor was like, "Ari, it's never going to end." And I was like, “Oh shit, that's terrible, I have chosen an extra-curricular that has changed my life and now I guess Il have to do it for the rest of my life?” Obviously people take breaks, people burn out—who knows how long I’ll actually last. But aspirationally, there's no end.I think you can say the same thing with the Jewish counter-establishment tradition. Once you open up that node for people—once you tell people Jewish life doesn’t have to be monopolized by wealthy Zionist oafs, you actually be a Jew in community and do a totally different thing—that might change your subjectivity and yes it also might take up a huge amount of time. So with any of that stuff, I think that is both the lure and the barrier to entry: “Oh my God, I have to build that?”