Goddess of the Market: "Trash."

Jmaurone's picture
Submitted by Jmaurone on Thu, 2009-10-08 06:00

Now that I've got your attention Evil , my review, as published on Amazon.com.

The publication of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns is perfectly timed to capitalize on the growing popularity of Ayn Rand in light of the recent economic developments that are predicted in Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. This book also benefits from the distinction of being the first Rand biography written with access to archival material not available to previous biographers. It's no coincidence, then, that the two points of interest about this book, the personal and the political, intersect, but that is to the book's detriment. In trying to be both a biography and a discussion of Rand's influence on politics, it fails to be effective at either.

The intro claims that the focus is on "Rand's contributions as a political philosopher, for it is here that she has exerted her greatest influence," and that "the story of Ayn Rand is also the story of libertarian, conservatism, and Objectivism, the three schools of thought that intersected most prominently with her life." Yes, there is quite a bit of discussion about Rand's involvement with political campaigns and the relationships with the likes of Isabel Paterson, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises, but little of significance is revealed to those already familiar with these matters. The claim about the book's focus is undercut by Burns' overemphasis on the personal aspects of Rand, to the detriment of the discussion of the ideas. This is not primarily a book about Rand's political influence or influences, but about Rand herself, with the politics serving as a backdrop. And the publishers know where the money is: in the juicy gossip. (Witness the tag line on the inside dust jacket: "Worshipped by her fans, denounced by her enemies, and forever shadowed by controversy...".) That's why this book is of greater interest to "insiders," but for far more personal reasons than the current Atlas-like state of the world...

Given the controversy surrounding Ayn Rand, a reader looking for an unbiased, non-partisan review might take comfort in Burns' insistence that she is "less concerned with judgement than with analysis," a choice that Burns says that Rand would "certainly condemn." Burns claims that she approaches Rand as a "student and a critic of American thought." But Burns' comment about Rand's "condemnation" foreshadows what's to come...Burns continues: "This book seeks to excavate a hidden Rand, one far more complex and contradictory than the public persona suggests." Already problematic for those expecting an in-depth analysis of Rand's influence on politics, this is where the problems begin for the "insiders" of the Objectivist persuasion in the battle over Rand the person.

There is hype around this book for its "unprecedented access to original, unedited journals." For those coming to learn about Ayn Rand via the current news headlines, this will probably mean little, especially since that material is not presented directly in the book, and because they are unlikely to be familiar with the material that was controversially edited. For insiders, however, this book is, for better or for worse, destined to be compared to James Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, which relied on Rand's unpublished diary entries. Valliant's book was criticized for the intrusion of the author's comments on those published excerpts, marring the experience of reading the evidence independently. But at least in the case of PARC, the excerpts are there to read. In the case of Goddess of the Market, the opposite is true; if Valliant's commentaries get in the way, then the criticism must apply doubly to Burns' book, where the reader does not see the unedited material themselves, only Burns' personal interpretation.

The problem of the "analysis" over "judgement" claim is apparent in the author's constant use of negative adjectives regarding Rand throughout the book, best exemplified by the claim on page 235: "There seems to two Objectivisms: one that genuinely supported intellectual exchange, engagement, and discourse, and one that was as dogmatic, narrow-minded and stifling as Rand's harshest critics alleged." This is very similar to the claims made by both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden. Burns does little to explain her opinions, a flaw compounded by the promotion of having access to unedited, archival material, which, at this point, comes to function as a crutch for the author to use as an argument of authority. Speaking of such arguments, Burns supplements the archival material with testimonies of various people from Rand's life. Sometimes, due to the writing style, those testimonies are intermingled with the author's narrative, making it difficult to determine where the quote ends and the author's voice interjects. The source material is selectively quoted and filtered through the author's voice. The footnotes to these quotes add little for the reader to verify on their own. (It should be said, as well, that the judgement of quotes that can be verified and used to portray a negative Rand often come down to a matter of one's personal values; what Burns or her interviewed participants might consider negative, another might consider a virtue, i.e., Rand's legendary non-compromising anger.)

These problems work against the celebration of the use of unedited material; given the battle over Rand's legacy (which, for the longest time, has been based on "he-said, she-said" testimony) and the claims on both sides of the Randian schism that this book will settle the score in their respective favor, the reader might expect some kind of "silver bullet" to clear up any doubts. This book does little service to either side of the schism. To her credit, whatever the basis for her negative opinions towards Rand, they are her own, and she acknowledges virtue and flaw in people on both sides. And, Burns, as an "outsider" to the Randian circle, is not responsible for the appropriation of her book for use in the insider schisms. Burns is certainly entitled to her opinions, but she probably would have been better served by not making the claim that she did in the intro. And Burns, by the promotion of the access to unedited material, put herself in the situation of carrying the responsibility of being the first biographer with access to that material, and carries the burden of having to explain her negative interpretations of Ayn Rand's ideas, even if independent of the schism. (In other words, "Who is Jennifer Burns?") Ultimately, despite the hype, all we have is another voice added to the din of claims and counter-claims.

What, then, for those interested in the case of the "real" Ayn Rand? For those who weren't there, we must think like computer programmers, in "if-then" logic. "If" what x says is true, then we have to deal with that scenario. If what "y" says is true, then we deal with that scenario. If "x" is right here, but "y" is right there, then we deal with that scenario. That's all it will ever be for most of us. After the publication of the Branden memoirs and the Valliant book, we are presented with more questions than answers, and the possibility that while Rand may have been ill-served by the former, she may not have been fully vindicated by the latter. With the failure of Goddess of the Market to live up to the hype promised by access to "unedited" material, readers of this and subsequent biographies must deal with such "filtered" material, both hostile and celebratory, by putting themselves in the position of "philosophical detectives," not only sorting out the fact from opinion and hearsay regarding Rand, but dealing with the premises of the biographer as well. For those independent of "schism" politics, and without first-hand evidence/experience, or verifiable documents/information (such as personal access to the archives), the best advice about this book is the same as Burns' own advice about the Branden memoir and the edited Journals of Ayn Rand: use with caution.

Compare and contract

Jmaurone's picture

This is my response to comments on my amazon.com review.

[[ASIN:0253221498 Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown (Profiles in Popular Music)]]
For those interested in what I expected from GODDESS OF THE MARKET (and for those tempted to take my reviews to mean I am a "Randroid"), I would contrast Burn's attempt with RUSH, ROCK MUSIC, AND THE MIDDLE CLASS: DREAMING IN MIDDLETOWN, by Chris McDonald. McDonald's thesis is similar; by analyzing the critiques of suburban life in the lyrics, he placess the music of Rush, with its Randian and libertarian/individualistic influences in the context of class and culture. There is a meaty section on Rand/Objectivism, as her philosophy plays a significant part in the discussion. Unlike Burn's book, this one succeeds in its mission because the author remains objective towards his subject, without hiding where he agrees or disagrees (which he states clearly.) His point-of-view does not clash with his sources, his own opinions are clearly distinct from the quotes of his interviewees, hostile or negative. Like Burns, McDonald does not claim to be a philosopher or an Objectivist, but rather a musicologist. His understanding of Objectivism may be questioned; that said, McDonald doesn't overstep his limitations. His arguments are well-formed, his tone respectful of the subject matter, without getting bogged down in biographical flaws of either Rush or Rand, letting the ideas speak for themselves. More importantly, I'd say that the book lets the readers THINK for themselves; when it is critical, it is so without insulting or using derogatory adjectives to describe the matter (unlike Burns), preferring to present both sides, state the author's case, but gives the reader space to think. While I disagree with some of his assessments, his book succeeds in placing the subject matter in its context, and I would even suggest that McDonald raises some interesting points about the "varieties " of individualism that may startle some Rush fans (and maybe a few self-proclaimed Objectivists.)

Just sayin'.

Jmaurone's picture

For those who give a damn about what we're blatherin' about. Smiling

You flatter me, Joe.

Ted Keer's picture

I hope you aren't accusing me of being the author of my own words.

Duly noted

Jmaurone's picture

If I am disappointed you can be sure I will say so.

Ted Keer's picture

Joe, you do know I have never defended any form of faith. I simply don't countenance sloppy attacks on false idols. And surely there are actually religious people who are more strident in their support for religions. As to whether I am its best defender, well, that makes me sound like a competent defense attorney for a guilty man.

I won't be reading Burns til I get her from the library. If I am disappointed you can be sure I will say so.

Peikoff is refreshing when he criticizes people who feel compelled to make up their own idioms "galt damn" rather than use common expressions like "god bless."

What's weird?

Jmaurone's picture

Ted: " I find the desire to find an enemy in Burns ("she's not an Objectivist, you know!") a bit weird. "

"And, of course, Galt be praised, it's not like any Objectivists do anything to make Objectivism seem like a religion. No, it's only unbelievers that we have to blame for people coming to that conclusion."

This, coming from one who rejects "the mystical, but embrace the spiritual, and (at the risk of being misundertsood) would be as happy to call myself a pantheist as an atheist." But it's not weird, coming from the person most known to come to the defense of religion on Objectivist forums. Smiling

As for those admirers who DO make Objectivism seem like a religion: "God save me from my followers."

one word two senses

Ted Keer's picture

Somehow I doubt Burns meant "dogmatic written statement of faith" when she used the word scripture. I might be wrong, but I think it's entirely possible she meant something like "inspirational mythology (the fiction) and exegesis (the non-fiction)." I find the desire to find an enemy in Burns ("she's not an Objectivist, you know!") a bit weird. And if we want to find an enemy, then we can interpret her words in the most hostile possible manner.

And, of course, Galt be praised, it's not like any Objectivists do anything to make Objectivism seem like a religion. No, it's only unbelievers that we have to blame for people coming to that conclusion.

"Goddess" and "scripture?"

Ptgymatic's picture

When Burns responds to Rand's specific reclamation of the emotions of exaltation by calling Rand's writings "scripture," she is very far off understanding the point. That "Rand intended her books to be a sort of scripture," is a malicious misinterpretation, is as false as possible.

Rather than give Burns credit for understanding Rand's positive view of proper emotions, we ought to realize that the purpose of mentioning emotions of exaltation at all is to prepare the reader to accept that abominable characterization about scripture--the same old claim that Objectivism is not philosophy, but cult.

And what about that claim? Other than preferring that people not sneer at one, what does it matter that the public, or various groups characterize Objectivism as a cult? Well, the harm done by that bit of propaganda is that it disenfranchises the ideas, the arguments, the system, and the vision of Objectivism. It keeps people from learning about it, and it keeps its opponents from having to address it, and answer it. This is the final resort of those who trade on lies--to silence the truth.

That Objectivism is a cult, that it was intended as a sort of scripture (with Rand as its "Goddess,") that it is atheistic, that it is not philosophy at all, that it is anarchistic, that it is sophomoric, etc. are all ways to silence ideas that liberals, progressives, religionists, socialists, totalitarians, altruists, nihilists, etc. cannot face, admit, or answer.

So, the battle over Rand's personality, I now think, has larger ramifications than the petty flea-biting of individuals. It is a war on her ideas. The objective is not, however, to defend, in our turn, Rand's personality. It is, rather, to insist that her ideas are the point. But it is not, either, to insist that her ideas are the point despite her "flawed" personality. Detractors of her person and life should be exposed as opponents of her ideas. The principal way to do that is to show the inadequacy of their charges to reflect on her as the particular individual she was.


Still conventional

Jmaurone's picture

Ellen, you're wrong, I did read that passage. You're right, it does acknowledge Rand's appropriation and inversion. But my own interpretation is that the author knows this, but doesn't "get it"; I find that hers is STILL a conventional view, despite her awareness. And I still think the title is, while right for Burns' thesis, wrong from an Objectivist point-of-view.

I have to add, I'm used to the closing statements in books on Rand that were similar in tone to Burns', which come off as back-handed compliments. ("She was a genius," anyone?).

The last paragraph of the text

Ellen Stuttle's picture

I see you haven't read the whole book, Joe.

Here is the last paragraph:

pp. 285-86

In a 1968 introduction to The Fountainhead, Rand was forthright about the religious energies that pulsed through her work. She described the book's Nietzschean roots and registered both her disagreement with the German philosopher and her desire to convey his exalted sense of life in her novel. Rand argued, "Religion's monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life." According to Rand, the primary emotions that religion had usurped were exaltation, worship, reverence, and a sense of the sacred. She maintained that these emotions were not supernatural in origin, but were "the entire emotional realm of man's dedication to a moral ideal." It was these emotions she wanted to stir with The Fountainhead, "without the self-abasement required by religious definitions." Rand intended her books to be a sort of scripture, and for all her emphasis on reason it is the emotional and psychological sides of her novels that make them timeless. Reports of Ayn Rand's death are greatly exaggerated. For many years to come she is likely to remain what she has always been, a fertile touchstone of the American imagination.

There again, as in two other places cited thus far, a divergence between Burns' view and Objectivism's on the relationship of reason and emotion appears. But give the woman a bit of slack and take note of the rest of the paragraph. Do you think this is so far off understanding Rand's view on the emotions "usurped" by religion?

I think that the choice of the word "Goddess" in the title couldn't be better. I much like it.


Conventional Title

Jmaurone's picture

Linz. "Burns is probably conventional."

That's what bugged me about the title (and was my first "red flag." Of course, in keeping with the "excavation of the hidden Rand", it's consistent with Burn's conclusion. Despite Rand's own appropriation of religious concepts, the "conventional" response fails to realize the inversion of those concepts, and can only see someone like Rand in the context of a "goddess" ( whether positively or negatively.) Just as Rand rejected the term "Randism" as offensive, so to is the term "goddess" in this context...ESPECIALLY in the context of "the market," the last place you want to hear about mystic connotations.

Incidentally, it's one more point against too-strong an association of Objectivism with the likes of Glenn Beck; with his claim that the failure of America is "ungodliness," we don't need the Right appropriating her as a replacement god...I wonder if that was the initial attraction...

Exactly ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

(It should be said, as well, that the judgement of quotes that can be verified and used to portray a negative Rand often come down to a matter of one's personal values; what Burns or her interviewed participants might consider negative, another might consider a virtue, i.e., Rand's legendary non-compromising anger.)

Burns is probably conventional. Many of her interviewees are probably conventional. None of them is likely to be a passionate valuer. Prof. Campbell can take comfort from the fact that as we speak, he and his fellow-sardonic-anti-valuers still rule the world. Rand challenges their reign, which is why they seek obsessively to diminish her.

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