Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Increasing the Real Life in Ourselves: Some Reflections on Norman Mailer's Politics of State

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Increasing the Real Life in Ourselves: Some Reflections on Norman Mailer's Politics of State

Article excerpt

IN THE SPRING OF 1969 NORMAN MAILER, fresh from his triumphant receipt of the Pulitzer Prize for The Armies of the Night, created a media sensation by announcing his entry into the Democratic Primary for the Mayoralty of New York City. The headline-grabbing centrepiece of his campaign was a call for the radical decentralization of political power culminating in the establishment of the city of New York as the fifty-first state of the Union. Mailer's case for city statehood rested on two main grounds. (1) The first was fiduciary: the fact that New York City existed, he argued, in a relationship of economic peonage to the state of New York meant that it lacked resources sufficient to reverse the continuing collapse of its civic foundations everywhere apparent in widespread urban decay, a stagnant transport system, intensifying pollution, rising crime, deteriorating standards of public education and an accelerating housing crisis. No respite was possible from this pestilential scenario, Mailer melodramatically declared, while the city stood in relation to the federal government "like a sharecropper who lives forever in debt at the company store." (2) Mailer's second argument in support of the decentralisation of political authority was at once more radical and provocative in its conviction that any solution to the civic malaise afflicting New York City first requires the liberation of "life" itself from its subjection to any form of "abstract" or "impersonal" power:

The face of the solution may reside in the notion that the left has
been absolutely right on some critical problems of our time and the
conservatives have been absolutely correct about one enormous
matter--which is that the federal government has no business whatever
in local affairs. The style of New York has shifted since the Second
World War (along with the rest of the American cities) from a scene of
local neighborhoods and personalities to a large dull impersonal style
of life which deadens us with its architecture, its highways, its
abstract welfare, and its bureaucratic reflex to look for government
solutions which come into the city from without (and do not work). So
the old confidence that the problems of our life were roughly equal to
our abilities has been lost. Our authority has been handed over to the
federal power. We expect our economic solutions, our habitats, yes,
even our entertainments, to derive from that remote abstract power,
remote as the other end of a television tube. We are like wards in an
orphan asylum. The shaping of the style of our lives is removed from
us--we pay for huge military adventures and social experiments so
separated from our direct control that we do not even know where to
begin to look to criticize the lack of our power to criticize the lack
of our power to criticize. We cannot--the words are now a cliche, the
life has gone out of them--we cannot forge our destiny. So our
condition is spiritless. We wait for abstract impersonal powers to save
us, we despise the abstractness of those powers, we loathe ourselves
for our own apathy. Orphans. (3)

Mailer's own political solution to the "spiritless" condition of life in New York City appeared in a policy programme called "Power to the Neighborhoods." The basic tenet of "Power to the Neighborhoods," Mailer explained, was "that any neighbourhood could constitute itself on any principle, whether spiritual, emotional, economical, ideological or idealistic." (4) What Mailer and his running mate, the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, dared the city's inhabitants to imagine was the reinvention of politics as a radical experiment in self-government in which each neighborhood or community would be afforded the opportunity to take control of its own civic affairs and shape its own way of life. A "neighborhood" in Mailer's sense of the term is not simply a geographical location but rather a zone of becoming irreducible to the undifferentiated unity of the state where we might fashion a style of life in the image of our own desire. …

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