Signs of the Times

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I recently finished reading Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood. The book was published in 2012 to the very mixed reviews that seem to be the common response to Wolfe’s work nowadays. Many reviewers criticised both the novel’s style and its content. At the level of style, issues such as Wolfe’s love of exclamation marks and his frequent use of onomatopoetic language did not play well with reviewers. At the level of content, many chided Wolfe’s shallow characters and a portrayal of Miami with few truly revealing or surprising moments. My impression is that these criticisms bypass some important merits of Wolfe’s work.

Since the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe has completed a new novel about every ten years. Each of these novels offers a satirical portrayal of current cultural trends in the USA, with broader implications for other Western societies. With the exception of I am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe has revealed himself to be an acute observer of the signs of the times. I am Charlotte Simmons was a disappointment because it never quite managed to capture the contemporary spirit of academic life. Wolfe’s Dupont University simply did not resemble any university I know, and its staff and students seemed oblivious to many of the key concerns of their real-life counterparts today. This is not so in the case of Back to Blood. While the novel’s title highlights its analysis of ethnic tensions and rivalries, the text offers a much broader diagnosis of life in the early 2010s.

To be sure, ethnic tensions do play a very major role and drive the book’s plot in important ways. This already becomes quite clear in the prologue. Here, the reader meets two members of Miami’s WASP elite and witnesses their clash with some of the city’s Latino residents. Trying to park their car in the parking lot of an upscale restaurant, newspaper editor Edward T. Topping IV and his wife Mac come across a pair of Latina teenagers blocking their path. The girls provoke Ed’s sexual imagination and his wife’s outrage. A few moments later, they encounter another Latina, who mobilises her luxury sports car’s full speed to edge into Mac’s desired parking space moments before Mac. Again, Ed mostly takes note of the young woman’s body and attire, while Mac provokes a war of words. The war of words deteriorates into racist insults, and Mac is told that “we een Mee-ah-mee now”, where English-speaking WASPS like her are a minority. The narrative continues along these lines, as members of the city’s various ethnic groups find themselves pitted against one another and the city’s ethnic fault lines are laid bare. Wolfe might be accused of perpetuating clichés with scenes such as the one I have just sketched. Doing so would, I believe, amount to a misreading of his intentions, however. By playing on clichés in constructing his scenes, Wolfe manages to satirically unpack the ways in which America’s various cultural groups imagine one another.

Likewise, his characters are always mainly social types – signs of the times whose shallowness describes a key cultural trend not only in the USA. All members of Wolfe’s cast are, in one way or another, obsessively concerned about their image. There is a Haitian university professor who would like to be French, a psychiatrist “porn doctor” who is keen to be a celebrity, a Russian oligarch who sells the city of Miami fake works of art to be hailed as a philanthropist, and so forth. Your brand is all that matters and all there is. Wolfe’s Miami is a world of showmen, conmen, and those who need to learn how to become better showmen or show-women in order to get by. He portrays the contemporary Western world’s obsession with branding and image very loudly and in rich detail. One of the novel’s perhaps best constructed chapters takes the reader to an event at the Miami Basel art fair, at which billionaires are given preferred access to works of art to “see it, like it, buy it”. Here, we meet characters such as A.A., an in-the-know “art adviser” who uses her (loudly) professed knowledge of contemporary art to do down others, advise the billionaires on where to spend their billions, and rake in big commissions in the process. Here, the characters attend parties hosted by organisations such as “Status”, “the new magazine that had become very hot by ranking people in every area of life you could imagine”. Wolfe’s characterisation of an image and status-obsessed society is trenchant and provocative. This is just why Back to Blood works so well as a satirical diagnosis of the signs of our times.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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