Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror by William Sloane

(New York: NYRB Classics, 2015)

A quick scan of William Sloane's biography reveals that he contributed more to the literary world as an editor and publisher than as a novelist. Sloane's only two novels, recently collected by NYRB Classics as The Rim of Morning, were To Walk the Night (1937) and The Edge of Running Water (1939). The latter was adapted into a Boris Karloff movie, The Devil Commands (1941). Both are genre-blending narratives which borrow elements of horror, hardboiled mystery, and science-fiction (then a burgeoning genre in its own right). The novels stand out not so much by their narratives - which today seem rather formulaic and too obvious, even if at the time they were inventively reworking the existing formulae. They stand out rather on account of their not inconsiderable literary qualities. Sloane's novels are a perfect storm of pulp sensibility and overall good writing. To this end, NYRB Classics did well to secure Stephen King's short introduction to the text. King nicely puts the novels in literary context, for instance playing them off against the acknowledged giant of 1930s American horror, H.P. Lovecraft. As King drives home, Sloane captures much of the same horror as Lovecraft - horror of a "cosmic" type - without the oft-tortured prose.

To Walk the Night is a mystery centred on a grisly unexplained death, blending themes of alien minds, advanced physics and psychic projection. Unquestionably the greatest aspect of the book is the self-construction of its narrator, the protagonist's best friend, as a drunken Oedipal mess. The novel is many things, but most of all a character study. Sloane is something of a psychologist, which is precisely what makes him a literary writer (see Iris Murdoch on this point, for example in The Sovereignty of Good). For its part, The Edge of Running Water is a "mad scientist" story set in rural Maine. An electrophysicist, with the help of a shady medium, constructs a dangerous and terrifying machine to communicate with his dead wife (the film adaptation inexplicably - though predictably - adds a mentally disabled manservant to the mix). Here again, the narrator is an outsider looking in - a former colleague from the university who was once also in love with the dead woman. He now sets his eyes on her recently grown-up younger sister (to whom he was once an "uncle" - here Electra resonates more than Oedipus). With its blend of mystery, love interest and rural American gothic, The Edge of Running Water reads precisely like an old movie. This explains its swift adaptation but it also, to my mind, makes it the more pleasurable of the two novels by a long shot.

The payoffs of the two narratives are unfortunately slight. To a jaded 21st Century reader like me, there is no great mystery in Sloane's horror/sci-fi mysteries. The pleasures of reading them lie elsewhere - certainly in the aforementioned quality of the writing and the neat genre-blending, but also in the theme of cosmic horror itself. As Devin has mentioned here on the blog, a new cosmic pessimism is in vogue in philosophy, and its purveyors (such as Thacker) have made the connection to horror explicit. What Sloane offers up is above all the chilling possibility (and historically recurrent philosophical theme) that everyday reality is an ephemeral gloss on a limitless, meaningless chaos. His books channel the strange, the unthinkable. But they do it through the eyes, and the limited understanding, of the middle-class professional who would like very much to get on with the business of his love interests etc. To this extent, Sloane does not plumb very deep when he suggests great depths - doing more with less. Put this book on your reading list if you'd like a few good cosmic chills. Keep looking if you want to go deeper.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sartre Society Wrap

Today's my first full day back from the North American Sartre Society. Lately, since Storm Heter specifically asked me about this, the blog writing process proceeds as follows:
  1. Brainstorm. In this case: good conference, good people.
  2. Read material for teaching. Why did I put this off until today?
  3. Three weeks later.
So I'll write this now. I don't promise any literary quality. Notice how most of these sentences are structured as subject/verb/predicate. Only the second using any recursion?

As it turns out, the Sartre Society meetings are my favorite conferences. The papers that I attended were great, and ranged over a diverse set of topics. For a field that probably seems to outsiders to be fairly narrow, the papers ranged from politics and critical race theory to the meaning of groove, and in many ways Sartre himself formed the background point of reference but not always the immediate focus. I moderated the panel on jazz, and only one panelist made an explicit reference to Sartre.

If you're interested in tweets and pictures, we even tried the hashtag thing, #SartreSociety2015, which was temporarly derailed my comments about our attempt to absorb the nightlife in Bethlehem.

Finally, I left feeling motivated to reread Sartre and write more. I also with a strong idea of what my next Sartre Society paper would be about. My paper started like this:
This talk is the first part of a larger project that is currently entitled Negative Philosophy: Extinction, Humanism, and Animal Rights. While I cannot outline the entire project, I can indicate how today’s talk fits within the whole project.
[The talk was dedicated to a response to the thesis of extinction as defined by Eugene Thacker, who himself picks it up from Ray Brassier, who in a sense picks it up from Lyotard, Nietzsche, et cetera. Sartre also maintains that there is no ultimate--transcendent, teleological, ontotheological--meaning, but does not embrace (and for good reason) the pessimist aesthetic or the mysticism that Thacker endorses.]
In the second chapter, I will argue that Existentialism is a Humanism is a performative text, in which Sartre nihilates the anthropocentrism and human triumphalism present in traditional accounts—such as those of Pico della Mirandolla and Feuerbach—of humanism. The final chapter asks whether or not it is possible for a nihilist or pessimist to defend animal rights, and I will contend that it is possible to hold a position that sounds like a nihilistic Tom Regan.
Most of the questions I got during later, informal discussions had to do with the part about a nihilistic Tom Regan. People wanted to know what the hell that meant. Given that I also want to know, I'll be writing that up for 2016.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Schedule for NASS 2015

The final schedule is now available for the North American Sartre Society meeting happening this weekend. It is available here. I'll be giving a talk during the first session on Friday (2:00–3:45), and then I'll be moderating this panel:

Perhaps I'll gain a better picture of whatever it is that my friend Storm Heter has been working on. I know it has something to do with authenticity and aesthetics, and, at least at one point, it discusses Jean-Michel Basquiat. That is probably where our last face-to-face discussion had left off. Since then he's tweeted tantalizing clues:

From what I can tell, he takes his coffee black, but I want to know about the rest of it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Poster for NASS 2015

Here's the poster for the upcoming Sartre Society meeting. The organizers are still finalizing the schedule, but last I looked I'm giving a talk on an existentialist response to Eugene Thacker's cosmic pessimism and Ray Brassier's nihilism on Friday afternoon. It looks like I'll be name-dropping Bataille, Beauvoir, and Nietzsche along the way.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Books Received: Egalitarian Moments

Last time we were on the phone, I discovered that even my own mother didn't know the book would be available soon, so I must have been remiss in mentioning it: Egalitarian Moments is available on November 5th, 2015. I've received, in three separate shipments, my author's copies. One of those I'll be exchanging for Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy. The others, with the exception of my copy, I'm open to exchanging for other recently published, prohibitively expensive titles.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Available Now: Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy

Matt McLennan's first book, on Badiou and Lyotard, is now available in hardcover.

I said "first book" because Matt and I are planning on co-authoring and completing a book entitled "A Hermeneutics of Emancipation: A Critical Introduction to Miguel Abensour" within the next few years. I also hear that he's got some other project on the go as well.

We'll be swapping our recent books during reading week, so I hope to be able to say something about Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy either on the blog or in actual review form sometime soon. From what I know about Matt's work, his argumentation style is both merciless and sympathetic. I'm not quite sure how he does it, but it makes for good reading.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's Out of My Hands

I got word today that Egalitarian Moments has gone to press. It's completely out of my hands now. But this post isn't so much about EM as it is about another book. One of the other long-time contributors to the blog also has a book coming out, and I don't think he's used this space for shameless self-promotion (yet). So, I'll tell you that Matt McLennan's first book, Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy: Badiou's Dispute with Lyotard will also be published by Bloomsbury this fall. Here is the blurb:
Alain Badiou's work in philosophy, though daunting, has gained a receptive and steadily growing Anglophone readership. What is not well known is the extent to which Badiou's positions, vis-à-vis ontology, ethics, politics and the very meaning of philosophy, were hammered out in dispute with the late Jean-François Lyotard. Matthew R. McLennan's Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy is the first work to pose the question of the relation between Lyotard and Badiou, and in so doing constitutes a significant intervention in the field of contemporary European philosophy by revisiting one of its most influential and controversial forefathers.
Badiou himself has underscored the importance of Lyotard for his own project; might the recent resurgence of interest in Lyotard be tied in some way to Badiou's comments? Or deeper still: might not Badiou's philosophical Platonism beg an encounter with philosophy's other, the figure of the sophist that Lyotard played so often and so ably? Posing pertinent questions and opening new discursive channels in the literature on these two major figures this book is of interest to those studying philosophy, rhetoric, literary theory, cultural and media studies.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Voluntary Servitude (Continued)

As a follow up to the previous post: the course on the history of social and political philosophy also gives me a chance to catch up on some secondary literature that I've been meaning to read:
  • George Caffentzis, Clipped Coins, Abused Words, Civil Government: John Locke's Philosophy of Money (Autonomedia, 1989).
  • Quentin Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge, 2008).
  • Frédéric Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire (Verso, 2014).
  • David Munnich, L'art de l'amitié: Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la servitude volontaire (Sens et Tonka, 2012).
  • Bruce Campbell, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor (St. Martin's Press, 2002)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Teaching Voluntary Servitude

In Fall 2015, I'll be teaching PHIL 3330A: Topics in History of Social and Political Philosophy, at Carleton University. The purpose of the course is, loosely speaking, to familiarize students with political thought from the early modern period to the 19th century, while covering some of the big names in political theory, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Probably J.S. Mill, too, but he didn't make the cut for reasons that may or may not become clear below.

My first impulse was to arrange the readings as a debate about the valences and vagaries of consensus and dissensus, but I opted not to, since that distinction seemed to look backwards at a project I'd just completed. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I would prefer to teach without knowing the theoretical trajectory of the course in advance.

I chose, then, to use the course as a chance to investigate some of Miguel Abensour's work on what La Boétie calls voluntary servitude. It forms part of a larger project on Abensour's critico-utopian philosophy. If you happen to be familiar with Abensour's only book translated into English, and are somewhat surprised by this, he was involved in bringing a critical edition of Le discours de la servitude volontaire to press in 1976 (reissued by Payot & Rivages in 2002), which includes essays by Abensour and Marcel Gauchet (before they became enemies), Claude Lefort, and Pierre Clastres. He's revisited La Boétie's "contr'un" in more recent work, and that will, in part, guide the readings for the course.

Here's the course description:

According to prominent accounts of the topic, the goal of political philosophy is to elaborate the conditions that make it possible to protect individual liberties and distribute goods fairly. The history that tracks the development of this task of political philosophy leads from John Locke to John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Without necessarily disputing the democratic ideal of this approach, we will study another persistent problem in social and political philosophy: the concern that social institutions emerge not from procedures of consensus and well-reasoned debate, but as forms of voluntary servitude. We will examine this other tradition of philosophical inquiry—which includes La Boétie, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx—in order to consider the following questions:
  • What is voluntary servitude?
  • Is it significant that democratic institutions might have arisen from institutions originally dedicated to policing society?
  • Are there forms of democracy that do not involve voluntary servitude?
And the readings:
  • John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980). ISBN: 978-0-915144-86-0. 
  • Etienne de la Boétie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Trans. James B. Atkinson and David Sices (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-60384-839-8.
  • Miguel Abensour, “Is There a Proper Way To Use the Voluntary Servitude Hypothesis?” Journal of Political Ideologies, 16/3 (2011), 329–348.
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Revised Student Edition. Ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). ISBN: 9780521567978. 
  • Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Second Edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001). ISBN: 978-0-87220-607-6. 
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses. Ed. Susan Dunn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). ISBN: 9780300091410. 
  • G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Ed. Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Preface (pp. 20–23); §182–208; §230–249.
  • Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990). ISBN: 9780140445688.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What's Next?

In the last two weeks, I've completed two major writing projects. The first task was copy-editing Egalitarian Moments. Rereading the text reminded me that I should get more efficient at following up on suggestions that I make in the footnotes, but that I don't pursue in the text itself--those claims preceded by the caveat that pursuing such a claim is beyond the scope of the present study.

Which takes me to the second project, that I haven't really discussed on the blog (though I haven't really discussed much at all this calendar year): a chapter for a forthcoming volume on Rethinking German Idealism, edited by Joseph Carew and Sean McGrath. In Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art, I suggest, on page 54, that in the Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, Schelling denies that humans have any moral obligation to animals. My contribution to Carew's and McGrath's volume focuses on Schelling's anthropocentrism as an impediment to the recent renaissance in studies concerning his nature-philosophy.

It's an important article to me, not just because it bridges my work on Schelling with some of the material on animal rights that I teach, but also because it's the first time I've completed an extensive essay on Schelling that either (1) concerns a topic beyond the scope of his philosophy of art or work on mythology*, and (2) that tackles, with some detail, the Human Freedom essay, which has always been (for me) a difficult text to work with. More specifically, a difficult text to write about from a standpoint that traverses the text instead of becoming absorbed in it. Elaborating a critique of Schelling's anthropocentrism allowed me to extricate a critical standpoint from Schelling's dense (and rigorous) argument.

Finally, from a different angle, completing these projects means that I don't have any outstanding deadlines to meet. I've got some ideas for the next book, but for now, I'll be looking at different avenues for bringing them to fruition.

*There are a few that I've started but I've left for whatever might be the 21st century equivalent of the gnawing criticism of mice.