Author Interview: Roy Scranton
The author of War Porn on war literature today, our social reality, and the contract of fiction
“Myths survive for only as long as they are enacted by those who accept them,” John Gray writes in The Silence of Animals, “[they] are not eternal archetypes frozen somewhere out of time. They are more like snatches of music that play in the mind.”
To author Roy Scranton, “we make our myths.” It is a simple, axiomatic statement, but a crucial reminder in a contemporary moment where, to quote a wise friend, “to convince is to state the truth,” and where certain convictions seem increasingly cheap.
The myths I’m talking about, and the myths that appear to loom large in Scranton’s writing, are the ones we are perhaps too comfortably avoiding — the ones about civilization’s progress, endless economic accumulation, and the function of violence as a sustainable means to perpetuate it all.
In 2015, City Lights Books published Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a book-length expansion of an essay written by Roy Scranton for The Stone, an online philosophy series for The New York Times, co-founded by philosopher Simon Critchley. Within the deceptively slim volume, Scranton soberly lays out the crises facing “our carbon-fueled global capitalist civilization,” a system engaged in a “suicidal burnout.” “The odds of that civilization surviving,” he argues, “are negligible.”
For Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “There is something cathartic about [Scranton’s] refusal to shy away from the full scope of our predicament”:
He is not asking us to do anything. He has no political agenda. He is pessimistic about grassroots activism and holds out little hope for international agreements. He doubts that renewable energy is even theoretically capable of replacing carbon-based energy. If he has an “ask,” it’s not for a carbon tax or a humbler lifestyle; it’s that we make an effort to save what we can of our cultural heritage, to salvage the hard-won wisdom of the dead, from the Greeks to the Buddha, from the Torah to the Federalist Papers.
Scranton’s debut novel, War Porn, is out this month from Soho Press. It examines the American invasion and occupation of Iraq through interwoven narratives — a group of barbecuing civilians in Utah with differing psychological distance from warfare (a section titled “strange hells”), the slow terror wrought upon Iraqis (titled “the fall”), the necessarily dissociating life of a grunt (“your leader will control your fire”). Breaking these narratives up are sections each titled “babylon” — prose poems of redacted text: military lexicon, the sanitized babble of war reportage, translations of the Koran. In a review at The Intercept, Eliott Colla writes that “Scranton has produced a literary work that doesn’t just describe the outrages of the war, but punches them into the American gut.” Tom A. Peter at The New Republic suggests that, “in War Porn, Scranton has found a way for America to move beyond the hero cult we’ve built around our military. Without any moralizing, he offers an undeniably courageous book that depicts war as a corrosive force that corrupts everyone it touches.”
Perhaps the gap between the myths currently ‘playing in our mind’ and the unvarnished truth cannot be entirely closed, but as a journalist, poet, essayist, novelist, and veteran, Scranton’s work critically functions as an approach to the gap itself, and a chance to ‘interrupt’ myth’s continual, ever-updating transmissions.
I spoke with Roy Scranton about War Porn, his nonfiction work, and more, below. He reads at Literati Bookstore August 22nd, at 7pm.
Q: Your dissertation is entitled The Trauma Hero and the Lost War: World War II, American Literature, and the politics of Trauma, 1945–1975. And you’ve edited a collection of “short stories from the Long War,” Fire and Forget, featuring the recent work of veterans like Phil Klay, Gavin Kovite, and others. What do you find distinct about the wartime literature of today versus the literature of the post-war period, and are there any similarities?
The biggest difference between war literature today and post-Vietnam or post-World War II war literature is simply the fact that today comes after yesterday. Writers working in the genre have to deal not only with Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane, and not only with Hemingway and Dos Passos, but with everything that came after, from Martha Gellhorn to Joan Didion to Yusef Komunyakaa to Tim O’Brien, and also with the increasing diversity of American culture. Weirdly, war literature has today become a kind of bastion of very traditional male whiteness — much of it is atavistic in that way — despite the real diversity of the American armed forces.
Q: War Porn is a novel of the Iraq War, but a critical narrative thread within it examines what one might call the military-civilian gap. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times entitled “Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence,” you suggest that the real military-civilian gap is not “that veterans know something civilians don’t understand or can’t imagine,” but is the gulf “between the fantasy of American heroism and the reality of what the American military does, between the myth of violence and the truth of war. The real gap is between our subconscious belief that righteous violence can redeem us, even ennoble us, and the chastening truth that violence debases and corrupts.”
At the Democratic National Convention, Gen. John Allen, to familiar chants of “USA,” gave a speech that rehearsed the narrative promise of a triumphant — and active — military, and though the particular chauvinism of his speech seemed to surprise the pundits, this rhetorical frame for warfare appears indispensable to both our political campaigns and, as you suggest, our cultural conventions. Was it your intention with War Porn to craft a literature that questions these myths? Is this a principle you feel should drive literary work today?
My intention with War Porn was to explore the relationship between fantasy and reality, how there is at once an unbridgeable gap between the two, and no gap at all: after all, they create each other. I take as an epigraph two lines from Wallace Stevens, one of our great poets of the imagination: “Soldier, there is a war between the mind / And sky, between thought and day and night.” Those lines, for me, set up the central conflict of the novel, which is the war between our fantasies and our reality. Matt and Dahlia and Mel in Utah all have their fantasies of war, what the war is and means, as do the soldiers, Aaron and Wilson. As do, in their own way, the Iraqis we meet in “The Fall.” None of them have privileged access to reality: what is real is the conflict and confluence of their perspectives.
I wouldn’t want to say what I think literary work today should be, because what I want most from literature myself, as a reader, is to be surprised, enlightened, and delighted, to see something new, to learn something, to be dazzled by fresh beauty. There are no rules for creating such things. But I do believe that the novel itself, as a form, has a unique capacity to put multiple consciousnesses, multiple discourses, multiple realities into a kind of aesthetic and conceptual tension, and I think that anybody working at the highest levels of the form would necessarily be working with that capacity.
Q: Your work in nonfiction, particularly the captivating book-length essay Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, seems as well to advocate for a transcendence over, or at least a reckoning with, myths about human progress. In the outset of Learning To Die you state that “progressivist belief in the infinite perfectibility of the human animal depends significantly on carbon-fueled Capitalism’s promises of infinite economic growth. Accepting our limits means coming to terms with our innate violence and our inescapable mortality.”
Geographer David Harvey seems to expand on these limits when he, in a recent interview, wonders whether “every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image of itself,” adding that “much of the Left right now, being very autonomous and anarchical, is actually reinforcing the endgame of neoliberalism.”
It seems that much of our practices of political resistance in some way serve, as you mention, an economy dependent on carbon consumption and, as Harvey illustrates, mirror the strategies of flexible accumulation, such that, for Harvey, “the uprisings we see […] are not about the labor process: they are about the politics of daily life.” One such “uprising” about the politics of daily life might be the People’s Climate March, which you participated in and describe in Learning to Die as “little more than an orgy of democratic emotion.”
Whereas Harvey asks if there is “a way to organize that is not a mirror image,” you seem to suggest that there appears no way out of what you call “a system of cultural technology that is silently burning up masses of carbon while shunting activist outrage into impotent feedback loops.” One might presume this to mean that we are stuck, immutably, with carbon-fueled Capitalism. Even before the fascinating suggestions the book proposes towards the end — those of “interrupting social circuits of fear and reaction, looking deep into the face of death, and cultivating our rich stocks of human cultural technology,” re-orienting ourselves “away from the continual press of the present” and engaging in localized, humanistic projects of acceptance, memorial and remembrance — perhaps many people, Harvey included, are not yet willing to refrain from an, even if ineffective, political project of resistance, nor its goals of reforming or overthrowing the extant economic order. I wonder if you’ve found any pushback on this particular (potential) split from peers or readers on the Left? As well, what do you make of the viability of a project of anthropocenic acceptance, since the book’s publication?
We are born into and grow into a world and a set of thoughts not of our making. As Marx put it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” We can’t ever see the backs of our heads, just like we can’t ever get to the bottom of the ways in which we’re always already shaped by the social reality we’re thrown into. The good news, though, is that just as much as we can’t escape our social reality, that social reality can never quite fully stitch up the totality of existence: within ourselves, between ourselves, at the margins and in pockets and shadowed nooks, we are always producing new reality that doesn’t quite fit the global capitalist tapestry.
That, I think, is one of the virtues of interruption over reaction, as I talk about it in Learning to Die: Interruption suspends the process by which we constantly weave our social reality around us, thereby opening up a space for something different. Reaction, on the other hand, engages and fuels that process. Clintonian neoliberalism produces Trumpist neofascism which reinforces Clintonian false consensus which reinforces the rage of those who feel like they’ve been abandoned by their own country, and on and on. For one instance. Interruption for me is something like Adorno’s negative dialectics, but also something zen. We cannot escape contradiction and causation, but in the awareness of contradiction and causation, we might for a moment understand how contradiction is no contradiction, and causation no causation.
When I talk about Learning to Die, some people think that when I say acceptance I’m telling them we need to give up on our work. It’s difficult to explain sometimes, because many people on the left are focused on whoever they perceive to be their enemy, “bad guys” like the Koch Brothers or Exxon, they’re locked into a moral struggle in which they’ve cast themselves as heroes. But I’m not saying that we should give up on our work. I’m saying that we should do our work in the full awareness of its inevitable failure. We should choose how to do our work, and even what work to do, in full awareness that there will be no judgment day, no salvation, no happy ending.
Q: Near the end Learning to Die you argue that “the fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself.” Did you view the composition of War Porn at the outset as a kind of implementation of the memorial practices you outline in Learning to Die? I suppose one’s critical work will find a way into one’s creative work, but I wonder if you framed the process of War Porn strictly as “novel-writing,” or if you frame all of your writing, in general, as part of the same project?
War Porn was written long before Learning to Die, but I don’t see storytelling and thought as separate processes. There are different contracts we make with our audiences: With War Porn, the contract is that this is fiction, even if it’s based in reality. With Learning to Die, the contract is that my claims are based on evidence, even if there are moments where the imagination helps shape the presentation. In all my work, I’m trying to do justice to the multiplicity of reality.
Q: What are you reading right now? What do you wish people were writing right now?
I’m reading Valerie Sayers’s novel The Powers. She’s a colleague of mine at Notre Dame, where I just joined the faculty, and The Powers is a gripping novel about Catholic anti-war activists and Joe DiMaggio in 1941. I’m also reading Felix Bernstein’s Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry. Stuff I’m teaching for class. I’m reading some stuff about the history of American intervention in the Middle East for an article I’m writing. I recently read Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, about the New Deal, World War II, and the way Jim Crow Southern Democrats were key to Roosevelt’s success in dealing with both.
I wish Nathanael West was writing a novel about Silicon Valley. I wish James Baldwin was writing about the Black Lives Matter movement. I wish George Eliot was writing about the Syrian Civil War. I wish Mary McCarthy was writing about the Hillary Clinton campaign. I wish H.L. Mencken was writing about the war on terror. I wish Carl Sagan was writing about climate change. I wish Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop and Louis Zukofsky were still writing poems.