There is no such thing as the non-tribal state. When postmodern Man boasts of having gone through the process of ‘de-tribalisation’ to become a ‘citizen of the world’, he fails to notice that induction into a different tribe is unavoidable. The new allegiances are diced along axes other than ethnicity or dependence on one cultural patrimony or another. The willing, de-tribalised outcast immediately becomes an ‘antifascist’, a ‘feminist’, a radical free-marketeer, a ‘gender-bender’, a no-borders anarchist, a human rights advocate, an inner-city cosmopolitan, or a ‘chardonnay socialist’. Or any or all of them. It is the music of these spheres that dislodged him in the first place. The new abstract categories are no less tribes than the pseudo-religious cults that shore-up membership by vilifying outsiders and freezing all relations with them. Dialogue between xenophile beneficiaries of different cultures is endlessly fascinating, but Postmodern Man — whatever his flag of convenience — has no conversation at all.
The American writer, Tom Wolfe, is described in today’s article as an ethnologist of postmodern tribes — a profession that began in earnest in 1970 with the publication of Radical Chic.
Interview by Alexandre Devecchio
Published in French 29th December 2017
Political correctness has become a weapon of the dominant classes
INTERVIEW : Tom Wolfe — the ‘Balzac’ of New York — examines the America of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein for Le Figaro Magazine. At eighty-six, the inventor of ‘the new journalism’ has lost nothing of his verve, and continues to heap all the conformity of his times onto the ‘bonfire of the vanities’.
He’s one of the most important living writers. Perhaps the greatest contemporary ‘French’ writer, as so much of his work is shot through with themes from Zola and Balzac. The author [Balzac] of Illusions perdues [Lost Illusions] had taken it upon himself to identify the ‘social species’ of his time, much as [Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de] Buffon had identified zoological species. He wanted to “write the history forgotten by so many historians — that of social mores” — and “compete against the civil order”.
Just as Balzac was “the secretary to society”, so Tom Wolfe, inventor of the ‘new journalism’, is secretary to his own times, the ethnologist of postmodern tribes: the acid-dropping psychedelics (Acid Test, 1968); the Park Avenue socialists (Radical Chic, 1970); the astronauts (The Right Stuff, 1979); the golden boys of Wall Street (The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987); the decadent students of the great universities (I Am Charlotte Simmons, 2004); the Latino immigrants of Florida (Bloody Miami, 2013) etc.
His habitual white suit is a diversionary ploy, a means of deflecting comment away from his art and himself. Wolfe has always preferred facts and flowing description to psychology or analysis. But at eighty-six years of age, the reactionary dandy no longer has anything to lose, and leaves no subject untouched.
On the telephone, in a voice of studied detachment and malice, he pokes fun at the social mores of progressive America and unmasks its hypocrisy. The phenomenon that is #BalanceTonPorc [#ReportYourPig] — and its consequences — could become, according to Wolfe, “the biggest farce of the 21st century”.
In his latest book, Tom Wolfe appears to take a sideways step. In it, he deconstructs the evolutionary theories of Darwin. However, The Kingdom of Speech [published in France by Robert Laffont as Le Règne du langage] is in no way a scientific treatise. Through the figure of Darwin, that established eminence who well knew how to cast his theory as dogma, Wolfe continues to observe the “human comedy”.
Le Figaro : In your last book, The Kingdom of Speech, you explain that the essence of the human animal is language. Please elaborate.
Tom Wolfe : One essential difference separates humans and animals, a line of demarcation as steep and immovable as a geological fault: words! Language has given to “the human animal” much more than an ingenious tool of communication. It is in reality an innovation comparable to the atomic bomb! Speech was the very first invention, the first artefact, the first example of a terrestrial creature, Man, taking a natural phenomenon — sound, as it happened — and transforming it into something entirely novel and fabricated by him: sequences of tones that carried codes, which took the name of “words”.
❝Only language allows Man to question his own existence, to grasp it or to renounce it.❞
Not only is language a tool, it is the first tool, the one that makes all the others possible, from the most rudimentary mattock to the first weapons, up to the wheel and the space rocket. Without it, there would be no dance, no music, not even the humming of a refrain, the beating of drums, no rhythm of any kind or cue for clapping hands. In short, it is language, and it alone, that has conferred on ‘the human animal’ the power to conquer every piece of terra firma on the planet, and to devour half the consumable resources of the ocean. But this exploitation of the terrestrial globe is only a minor consequence of the power of speech: its principal achievement is to have created the ego, the consciousness of self. Only language allows Man to question his own existence, to grasp it or to renounce it.
No animal thinks about committing suicide or massacring its own kind on a vast scale. Only speech allows us to interrogate ourselves, and to render the planet uninhabitable — just like that — in thirty or forty minutes of nuclear madness. It alone allows Man to conjure up religions and the gods to flesh them out. Right up to our time — and more so today — words leaving the mouth of Mahomet in the 7th century have continued to galvanise and control the life of 35% of the world’s population. For a millennium and a half, the words of Jesus have exercised the same influence over a comparable portion of humanity, before losing some of their resonance in Europe during the course of the second half of the 20th century.
Your book deconstructs Darwin….
In the Kingdom of Speech, I contrast the figure of Charles Darwin with that of Alfred Wallace. The first was the archetypal gentleman, well set up in 19th century British high society. The second, on the contrary, was a man of action who came from a modest background: the type of autodidact whom the aristocracy of the time nick-named “bug-catchers”. However, Wallace was the first, before Darwin, to defend the theory of natural selection. But for want of higher birth, he was never credited with the paternity of this discovery, the author of On The Origin of Species taking all the honours.
If Wallace was the first to defend a theory of evolution, he was also the first to question it — by asking himself how Man had been able to conceive of numbers, arithmetic, geometrical forms; or again, imagine a moral code and ethical imperatives, feel the pleasure of music or the visual arts. By the end of his life, he had concluded that none of these sublime attributes, inseparable from humanity, bore any relation to natural selection.
How does your vision of the world differ from that of the creationists?
The creationists discount any notion of geological and biological evolution, because they see in God the sole creator of life. This is not my position. I can only demonstrate the limits of the theory of evolution and acknowledge the failure of research to determine the origin of language. My only conclusion is that it is language that separates the human from the beast.
For the rest, I have no answers, and I propose no alternative account or theory. Nobody can claim to narrate the true history of creation. Darwin’s On The Origin of Species is merely a scientific version of Genesis. Darwin fell into the trap of cosmogony: the compulsive need to develop an unattainable ‘Theory of Everything’, a concept or a description that would miraculously organise every piece of the universe into one clear and precise system.
Since the appearance of one of your earlier books, Radical Chic (published in French as Le Gauchisme de Park Avenue), you have lambasted political correctness, cultural gauchisme, and the tyranny of minorities. Is the election of Donald Trump a consequence of political correctness?
In my writings [on this subject], which began in June, 1970, in the New Yorker Magazine, I described a soirée organised the preceding 14th January by the composer Leonard Bernstein in his New York duplex of thirteen rooms, with terrace. The purpose of the event was to raise funds for the Black Panthers. The hosts had taken care to engage white domestics to avoid ruffling the feathers of the Panthers.
Political correctness, which I nick-name PC for ‘police citoyenne‘ [‘citizen police’], was born from the Marxist idea that everything that separates human beings socially must be banished, in order to avoid one social group dominating another. It turned out, ironically, that political correctness became a weapon in the hands of the ‘dominant classes’, a notion of behaviour that was well-fashioned to conceal their ‘social dominance’ and sooth their consciences.
❝People must now consider what they say. It’s getting worse and worse, particularly in the universities.❞
Little by little, political correctness has even become a marker for this ‘domination’ — and an instrument of social control — a way of identifying “rednecks” in order to censure them and render illegitimate their view of the world, all in the name of morality. People must now consider what they say. It’s getting worse and worse, particularly in the universities. Trump’s strength lies without doubt in his having disposed of this leaden weight. For example, very wealthy people generally keep their heads down, while he boasts about it. I imagine that a good part of the electorate actually prefers that to the hypocrisy of political conformists.
Throughout your work, social status is the principal key to your understanding of the world. Are Trump’s voters those who lack or no longer possess social status, or whose social status is held in contempt?
In Radical Chic, I charted the emergence of what we might call today the “caviar Left” or “limousine progressivism”, that is, a Left that is largely emancipated from all empathy with the American working class. A Left that adores contemporary art, identifies itself with exotic causes and the suffering of minorities, but despises the “rednecks” of Ohio.
Some Americans had the feeling that the Democratic Party was so quick off the mark to seduce the various minorities, that it ended up neglecting a still greater part of the population: namely, the very same working-class part of the population that had always been the backbone of the Democratic Party. During that election, the democratic aristocracy took the party into coalition with the minorities, and excluded from its concerns the white working class. And Donald Trump had merely to stoop in order to pick up all of those voters and rally them to his candidacy.
What strikes you about the Weinstein affair and the #ReportYourPig campaign?
Nobody has taken the trouble to define correctly the term “sexual aggression”. It’s a catch-all category that goes all the way from attempted rape to straightforward attraction. All the excesses stem from this confusion. I’m torn between the citizen’s dread, and the novelist’s amusement with this marvellous human comedy. If it continues, it could become the biggest farce of the 21st century. In the local press, again this morning in the New York Post and the New York Times, these affairs are page-one headlines. Today, absolutely any man who pays no matter what kind of attention to no matter which woman, for example in his place of work, becomes a ‘predator’.
❝Nobody is talking about those women in the workplace — and there are many of them — who take great pleasure in meeting male colleagues whom they find attractive.❞
Since this affair, I hear all around me men saying to young women with whom they associate, “I shouldn’t be seen with you here or there”, or “we work in the same firm, and I’m in a senior position, so it could look bad”. Men now start to worry if they find certain women attractive. This is how we find ourselves in opposition to natural laws of attraction, which we now have to ignore.
Nobody is talking about those women in the workplace — and there are many of them — who take great pleasure in meeting male colleagues whom they find attractive. Men whom they would otherwise not have the chance to meet. I don’t think the world has changed so much that we can now announce to it that, suddenly, women no longer have any desire to attract the attention of men.
In truth, nothing has really changed, except that women now possess a powerful instrument of intimidation that was unavailable to them before. They can now slap down men whose attention is too intense or whom they judge too coarse, shift aside a professional rival, or take revenge on a ‘too boorish’ lover. To charge someone with sexual aggression, it seems nowadays, requires only the woman’s word, and there are already calls for an inversion of the law, which would oblige the suspect to prove his innocence.
You are the inventor of “the new journalism”, which is close to literature in form, but which rests also on detailed enquiry and verification of the facts reported. In times of digital technology and instant communication, is this kind of journalism dead?
In those days, the offices of the Herald were located in Times Square. To ask people questions, all you had to do was to descend onto the street. I used what I call the man-from-Mars technique. I would arrive and say, “What you’re doing looks interesting! As for me, I’ve just arrived from Mars and know nothing. Tell me, what’s that?”. Nowadays, many journalists never leave the office. They assemble their articles by surfing the web. Nevertheless, there is no alternative: you have to get out! When young writers or journalists ask my advice, which is rarely, I always say to them, “leave!”.
In the end, what is the new journalism, actually? I always thought that it was simply a writing technique for non-fiction subjects that used all the methods normally associated with the writing of fiction. For me, one of the principles of the new journalism is to write scene by scene, as for a scenario. The future of this genre depends on the young people who take it up. But they read everything online these days. And when you read online, if for no other reason than that you’re looking at a brightly lit screen, you have a lot of trouble reading long format texts.
Once the eight-hundred-words mark is reached, you begin to tire, and that invites journalists to shorten their articles. People are reading faster and faster, and that forces the author to drop a lot of techniques that could lend an article unparalleled power. It’s becoming more difficult to talk about the details nowadays: the décor, the way people dress — all that takes a lot of space. There will no longer be many authors or journalists whom one could truly call ‘pens’.
Style demands hard labour. Today, the accent is on whatever works. This is how journalists are trained. Already in my day, we were asked to write short pieces because the newspapers feared the competition of television. That didn’t stop the new journalism from being a success. I believe it could work, including in digital formats. Did you know that all of Zola’s books are still available in English everywhere in the United States? They’re being reprinted all the time…. ◼︎