Against Compromise

Rachel Greenwald Smith, On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal

Graywolf Press, 232pp, $16.00, ISBN 9781644450604

reviewed by Ruby Hamilton

Compromise is an often-understated term in the late Lauren Berlant’s writing about ‘cruel optimism’, defined in their words as ‘a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic’. Indeed, compromise is cruel optimism rendered as an agreement: it means accepting, even desiring, something that is, by definition, a diminished version of what you want. So why are we drawn towards making them?

In William Finnegan’s 2004 New Yorker profile of the future president, Obama cleverly frames legislative compromise as a kind of aesthetic judgment. He does so by appealing to harmony, to the satisfying and pleasurable logic of finding common ground. ‘A good compromise . . . like a good sentence or a good piece of music’ is something that nobody can dispute; and Third Way politics, a fairytale of Goldilocks and the Golden Mean, settling at the ‘just right’ centre. After all, what could be more gratifying than meeting in the middle? What could make more sense?

In On Compromise, a book that should be titled Against Compromise, Rachel Greenwald Smith not only challenges this liberal framing of what constitutes ‘a good compromise’, but the very notion that compromise could ever be ‘good’. She sets this up carefully, in case her critique of centre-left thinking is confused with that of her right-wing adversaries, by distinguishing between compromise as an unfortunate but necessary ‘means to an end’ and compromise as an ‘end’ in itself. It is this second form of compromise, where it is less of a process and more of a general value — ‘an affect, an attitude, a moral ideal’ — that troubles Smith. Across twelve short essays that run the gamut of American politics and art, from the 2017 Women’s March to the history of Poetry magazine, MFAs to Guns N’ Roses, David Foster Wallace to the far right, she deconstructs its appeal. There is a certain level of personal idiosyncrasy to these chosen topics, but their disparateness is also part and parcel of Smith’s project, which welcomes the conflict, dissent, and disjunction that is smoothed over during compromise.

A picture thus emerges of compromise as a dangerous ideal that trades duplicitously in faux-realities and faux-necessities. The compromiser is somebody who values moderation over excess, incrementalism over upheaval; they stake claim to the political virtues of expediency, reason, and resourcefulness, while portraying ideological purity and the demand for serious structural change as comparatively irrational. Compromise, with a capital C, is a weary parental figure listing off the platitudes of liberal pragmatism: ‘this is how the world works’ or ‘well, life’s unfair’. These are ways of naturalising compromise, of ascribing ontological certainty to an outcome that has not yet been tested by appealing to vague notions of maturity and experience. The biographical hooks of Smith’s book — from her teenage years in an indie band to her Riot Grrrl phase — implicitly call to mind the accusations of youthful naivety that are frequently leveraged against more radical politics.

By reconfiguring compromise as an ideal, Smith is able to unpack its construction. Her subtitle names it ‘an American ideal’, and her reference points all follow suit, but this argument is resonant for the British Left. Here is the cruel optimism of voting based on a nebulous sense of ‘electability’, only to lose the election anyway, laid bare; a compromise mentality that is so entrenched that the mileage in Keir Starmer’s statesman-like image is treated as self-evident, even as he stalls. This is not to say that the appeal of compromise is entirely reducible to a certain aesthetic or formal cachet, but that Smith is particularly adept when she grounds her wider critique of compromise in the efficacy of its cosmetic appeal.

The best essays in On Compromise are therefore those that foreground art, not politics. Smith coins the term ‘compromise aesthetics’ to describe the literary turn towards ‘formally experimental yet digestible’ works, that she dates to the ’90s and for which David Foster Wallace is the poster boy. In his own words, the nearly one hundred pages of endnotes in Infinite Jest were ‘a compromise’ between ‘how difficult you make it for the reader and how seductive it is for the reader so the reader’s willing to do it’. While Smith is sympathetic to the material constraints that made this capitulation to the marketplace appealing, she notes that any compromise between experimentalism and marketability is of benefit to the cultural status quo and to the detriment of art. For once this concession is made, truly experimental or oppositional art seems unpalatable and therefore unpublishable. It is exactly this cautiousness that shows Smith’s thinking at its most compelling: when compromise is revealed to be a battlefield on which land is lost, not gained.

When compromise is associated with aesthetic ideals of balance and harmony, any oppositional gesture seems out of proportion: immoderate, unpopular, irrational, naïve. Smith highlights this complex construction of compromise as a moral and aesthetic ideal in a remarkable chapter that somehow strings together Obama’s idea of a ‘good compromise’ with the ‘unassailable likeability’ of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (an album that is conveniently sublimated into atmospheric background detail in Finnegan’s profile, despite Davis’s career-long interest in the aesthetics of disjunction) and the group singalong to ‘Tiny Dancer’ in the film Almost Famous (a song that bizarrely became a Trump rally favourite). Each of these seemingly unrelated subjects exploits, or has been exploited in service of advancing, a utopian belief in togetherness and unity, sutured by a ‘regressive nostalgic power’ that is ultimately conservative. This is the crux of Smith’s argument: compromise is a rhetorically and affectively constructed ideal that purports to a universal appeal that it does not, cannot, satisfy.

Buying into compromise as an idealised end in itself negates taking a principled ideological stance and gives credence to the otherwise ludicrous idea that all political positions are of the same merit. ‘Equality of access,’ Smith cautions, ‘does not mean that each position is treated as if it has the same inherent worth’. Indeed, not all positions are equally weighted: some stances — anti-racist or pro-trans rights, for example — cannot afford to be compromised, and when they are framed as extreme or unreasonable or out of balance, it is the weighing scale that is broken.

Ruby Hamilton recently completed an MSt in English at the University of Oxford. She writes in her spare time.