Monday, December 21, 2009

Devin's Picks

Whatever the rules for choosing one's favorite books of the year, the first is probably not to begin with self-reflexive commentary. Nevertheless, I want to start by explaining how my choices were made. I usually try to keep up on recent literature in both fiction and philosophy, but this year I was largely constrained by sacrificing my desire to read widely in order to complete my dissertation. This means that I basically missed the stand-out titles this year, and they remain unread on my bookshelf for next year. This includes The Signature of All Things, The Enemy of All, the Second manifeste pour la philosophie, and about 100 books that aren't as recent. Of the books I did read, I've excluded those that we've already reviewed (they get plenty of attention here) and tried to narrow the rest (including 2008 titles that appeared in paperback in 2009) down to only a few. Minimalism is the order of the day today. In 2010 it will be otherwise.

Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009)
In The Invention of the Jewish People (the original Hebrew title could be more literally translated as 'When and how were the Jewish people invented?') Shlomo Sand argues that the Jewish 'people' is not a nation long ago forced into exile by the Romans but, like other nations, a creation of the 19th century. In large part, Sand's book is a challenge to the accepted historiography of Israel, which has remained untouched by the recent work on nationalism, which include Benedict Anderson's classic Imagined Communities and the work of Ernest Gellner. Instead of assuming the uniqueness of Jewish history, he shows how the idea of a unique people created the Jewish people as a nation exiled from a homeland, even if many of these people are descended from North African, Mediterranean and Khazar converts. Were his book only an academic affair it would not have generated such a controversy (many of the reviews of his book are posted on his website; I highly recommend Gabriel Piterberg's in the New Left Review). Many of his negative reviewers are willing to grant much of the historiographical side of his argument (in the sense that "we've known all along about these converts, nevertheless...") in the same way that Americans are willing to acknowledge the history of the institution of slavery (or the genocide carried out on Native Americans): without contemporary political consequences such as reparations.

However, Sand's concluding chapter argues that the future of Israel is dependent on redefining what it means to be an Israeli. As he notes, Israel is an "ethnocracy with liberal features-- that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil-egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly ficticious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation" (307). His solution is to redefine Israel as a territorial state that includes all of its citizens regardless of their ethnos. As Piterberg points out, "The demand that a modern state be a normally territorial nation-state is, of course, not at all radical or dramatic, but in the context of Israeli and American Zionism, it is heresy." And yet counter-hegemonic texts wager that hegemony can be changed. As Sand writes, "I don't think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change, it searches for different books."

Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American (Picador, 2008)
Hustvedt is a remarkable writer, able to capture the sense of loss that comes with the death of a close relative or friend. In The Sorrows of an American, the narrative follows Erik Davidsen as he discovers a mysterious incident in his recently deceased father's life, which he attempts to solve. Through the use of her own father's journals, Hustvedt tells both the story of Erik and his father, which stretches from New York City to rural Minnesota. Along the way Erik comes to grips with his own urban solitude and his memories of life long forgotten in the bustle of the big apple.


Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (Penguin, 2009)
Pynchon's latest follows Doc Sportello, a private investigator and connoisseur of mind-altering substances, as he pursues the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend and a powerful developer from the Los Angeles area. It all seems to turn around a mysterious group and ship that share the name Golden Fang, and we just might figure it out if Doc could just lay off the drugs. Both a send up and tribute to an era that saw the higher ideals of the 60s give way to the power-hungry cynicism of the neo-liberalism/neo-conservatism (amongst the same people no less), Inherent Vice combines humor and paranoia in a way unique to Pynchon.

Ronald Aronson, Living Without God (Counterpoint, 2008)
If you only read one book, published in the last few years, about atheism, I recommend Living without God. I will admit that it isn't one of the controversial texts of the New Atheists, such as Dawkins, Dennett or Hitchens, but it's much more compelling. Like Sartre, from whom Aronson derives much of the philosophical framework for this book, Aronson emphasizes human freedom to show how atheists and secularists can live morally and politically within our complex world. What Aronson shares with Sartre on the idea that this freedom should give us courage to act (in fact, what is Being and Nothingness, if not a distended manual on courage?). Compared to the New Atheists, Aronson is much more politically astute (being a student of Marcuse can do that to you) and attuned to the idea that for atheism and secularism to be convincing as a way to live (and not just a lifestyle, wearing the shirt, all that…), it has to inspire some sense of courage and hope that is not just personal but collective.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

2009 in Books

We're going to break with tradition this week and post the material planned for the Sunday Review on Saturday, so that you have all weekend to look over the material: 2009 in book reviews. We've already dealt with our exceptional essays of 2009, not to mention some bookcase eye-candy, now it's time to consider our raison d'être.

Paul Mason, Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed (2009)
by Devin Zane Shaw
The first review for the site, and written in haste for this reason. In retrospect, I should have been a bit more effuse with praise for this book, which allows us to view the financial crisis from the kind of sharp and critical perspective that we have come to expect from Verso.

Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film (2005)
by Sean Moreland
Sean writes that "Deleuze and Horror Film represents a welcome departure from the re-circulated Psycho-analyses and incessant generic re-situations which continue to dominate theoretical approaches to horror film. This makes it recommended reading for both critics and aficionados of horror cinema, and students and scholars of Deleuzian philosophy."

The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (2009)
by Matt McLennan
Matt writes that the "book is a fascinating read. Not just because it's an urgent, honest, somewhat compelling call for DIY change, but because it's quintessentially French in its radicalness."

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (1991)
by Jason Smith
Jason, following Lefebvre, "argues that urban designs developed in the epoch of capitalism hinder the functioning of a more egalitarian world model. Lefebvre asserts that wholly new spatial coding would be necessary for the implementation of a socialist utopia."

Guy Debord, Panegyric: Volumes 1 & 2 (2004)
by Devin Zane Shaw
"The two volume Panegyric presents both a literary and pictorial representation of Guy Debord’s life, the first providing a brief literary account, while the second is comprised of “iconographical evidence,” which, according to Debord, was to “illustrate and comment on the essential” already found in the first volume."

Hugo Chavez Presents Simon Bolivar: The Bolivarian Revolution (2009)
by Matt McLennan
"As for Chavez presents Bolivar, this should be required reading for anyone with a remote interest in American politics."

Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence (2000)
by Jason Smith
"While a confluence of technologies coupled with new forms of economic behavior became available to Europeans, New World resources, stolen from native Americans, abolished the land constraints experienced in Europe."

Roberto Bolano, The Skating Rink (2009)
by Devin Zane Shaw
"Bolano tells a tale of small town intrigue, surrounding Remo Moran, Gaspar Heredia, and Enric Rosquelles. The story takes place in a town near Barcelona called Z, whose rhythm corresponds to the tourist season, and is told, alternately by these three, the first a businessman, the second a writer and drifter (whose story is modeled somewhat on Bolano's life) and the third a civil servant. The story converges on their interest in a young woman named Nuria Marti, who is an ice skater."

Alberto Gualandi, Lyotard (1999)
by Matt McLennan
Matt writes that "Alberto Gualandi, in my view, does an admirable job where many others have failed. He reads Lyotard against the ancient distinction between the philosopher and the sophist, ultimately concluding that Lyotard occupies an ambiguous position between - or rather, that he shows how the distinction is perhaps drawn a bit too neatly in the history of philosophy. This reading, fleshed out by Gualandi, helps ease the reader into the strangeness and originality of Lyotard's corpus."

Cathrine Hall, Civilising Subjects (2002)
by Jason Smith
"Within this framework [Hall] asserts that binaries of savagery verses civilization were set up as cultural productions to keep the two, the pole and the periphery, apart from one another. She concludes of this stratagem that theorists of colonialism need to disrupt this binary and to produce more elaborate, cross-cutting ways of thinking about the processes of colonial exploitation."

Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005)
by Jason Smith
"Though it’s not official the job of an academic to right wrongs or prevent tragedies, perhaps this work can aid in the prevention of such carnage in the future. What else is knowledge for if not to change the trajectory of humanity?"

Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009)
by Matt McLennan
"Slavoj Zizek's new book examines the current world financial crisis and attempts to delineate a coherent Leftist response. The book is relatively accessible, and readers frustrated by his unruly and largely redundant previous effort In Defense of Lost Causes will find Zizek back in top critical form."

Waltraud Ernst, Mad Tales from the Raj: the European Insane in British India, 1800 – 1858 (1991)
by Jason Smith
"Ernst sums her goal in writing this work as a twofold endeavor to elucidate the relationship of the mental asylum to colonialism and to develop a theoretical framework in which to understand mental health in its socio-political context."

Walter Benjamin, On Hashish (2006)
by Devin Zane Shaw
"Typically, one’s journals never face the scrutiny of broad readership, but apparently hashish should not be left to specialists. As such, On Hashish takes the form of a light-hearted chapter in what is often considered as Benjamin’s pensive, and terminally tragic, biography."

Natacha Merrit, Digital Diaries (2000)
by Matt McLennan
"Now, having been awash in constantly updated, rotated and manipulated facebook vanity pictures for more than two years, the book tells me something different. I see Merritt as a relatively high-tech, arty and more explicit version of what millions of other 21-year-olds (and to be sure, some 30 and 40 year olds) are also doing; inserting their glossy pouts or bored, carefully poised expressions into every place and event they photograph."

Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto (2008)
by Devin Zane Shaw
Linebaugh's latest book "follows the use and abuse of the Magna Carta, and the practical erasure of its companion-charter, the Charter of the Forests, from their declaration in 13th century England to our contemporary times. The two charters address what may be artificially divided into formal rights and economic justice. I say 'artificially' because Linebaugh's entire argument-- and a forceful and correct one at that-- is that what we now call formal rights cannot be guaranteed without the accompanying rights of economic justice, the latter of which require transforming the relationships between people and the means of production."

Terrence Kissack, Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States 1895-1917 (2009)
by Matt McLennan
As Matt writes, Free Comrades "not only serves as a good introduction to the American movement and its major figures, but also drives home the following, in my opinion important points: First, the anarchists were the first to offer a thoroughgoing public critique of homophobia and a defence, if often ambiguous and troubled, of queer desires and lifestyles; second, anarchist politics of homosexuality were rooted in a revolutionary political movement and a devastating critique of marriage."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States 1895-1917

(AK Press, 2009)

Terrence Kissack's doctoral dissertation in American history serves as the basis for this book, which offers a concise exploration of sex-radicalism in turn-of-the-century anarchism. I found it to be a welcome addition to my collection of books on anarchism. It not only serves as a good introduction to the American movement and its major figures, but also drives home the following, in my opinion important points: First, the anarchists were the first to offer a thoroughgoing public critique of homophobia and a defence, if often ambiguous and troubled, of queer desires and lifestyles; second, anarchist politics of homosexuality were rooted in a revolutionary political movement and a devastating critique of marriage.


These points are important, since contemporary queer activism is overwhelmingly liberal/reformist/lifestylist in character. While the gay marriage debate rages, few remember that the politics of homosexuality used to strike at the roots of conventional kinship systems and social mores; fewer still try to carry such a radical critique forward (Judith Butler being an important exception; see Undoing Gender). Kissack's text reminds us of this, and shows us that there is a neglected way to approach homosexuality: as part of a fundamental transformation of society. Queer friendly capitalism and civil rights were simply not on the agenda for homosexuality's earliest exponents, who viewed the defence of homosexuality as an important part of a larger anti-capitalist, anti-statist social movement.


Kissack is thorough, and highlights certain largely forgotten connections (e.g. a chapter on queer readings of Walt Whitman). The style of the text is dry, suffering a bit from the dissertational perogative to say everything four times to ensure it's absolutely clear. Unfortunately, Kissack's text is also slightly marred by what I like to call "the usual AK typo treatment". AK would do well to get some more thorough copy editors. Apart from that, good on you Terrence.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

2009 in Essays

We're at the point where we are going to start wrapping up 2009. We're going to start with our best essays. Each produced a spike in our readership, so if you've missed any of them, I recommend catching up.

The Personal is Still Political: The Status of Women in Philosophy
by Josh Kurdys, November 12
I highly recommend Josh's response to a spate of articles and blogs on the status of women in philosophy. This includes discussion on the philosophical canon and on current professional practice. Click to find out why
The absence of women from philosophy classrooms and the professoriate is already a political issue that many current members of the profession have ignored, promoted, misrepresented or resisted.

RIP Claude Lévi-Strauss
by Matthew R. McLennan, November 3
Matt's personal reflection on the meaning of the work of Lévi-Strauss, which makes me regret that I've put off reading it for so long. Read it and find out why, as Matt writes,
My own experience with his texts and ideas as an undergraduate was immensely gratifying; I got the impression that at bottom, he wished to include the whole variety of ways of human being in the same family.

The Politics of Student Debt

by Devin Zane Shaw, October 14
A gentle reminder as the Fall semester ends and the Winter (or, for you in warmer climates, the Spring) Semester nears. As you might expect from my writing, I conclude that
this situation is political: the transformation of the university to a semi-private and pro-business institution, insofar as it emaciates the schools and faculties that encourage the cultivation of critical thinking skills, has a definite bias toward the neo-liberal status quo.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bookcase Eye Candy

I don't think there's enough space for this in our place. Nevertheless:



And there's more where that came from: "11 of the coolest bookcases."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

All That and Don Delillo

After a short interlude, the Notes Taken returned to its business this week: book reviews, first, with Matt reviewing Natacha Merrit's Digital Diaries, followed by Devin's review of Peter Linebaugh's The Magna Carta Manifesto. We also found a choice quote from Nigerian poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey, and Devin finished out the week by rewriting the course description for the course he is teaching in January. We know it's late, but he didn't find out until Thursday.

Not our busiest week, but we've been doing lots of reading:
  • An excerpt from David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King.
  • And, also from the New Yorker, "Midnight in Dostoevsky" by Don Delillo.
  • The contention over the estate of Stieg Larsson continues. Don't know who Larsson is yet? He was a left-wing journalist who wrote, in his spare time, a crime-novel series called Millenium. Just as he was about to see the books published, he died, leaving no will, and apparently not aware that his common-law partner Eva Gabrielsson would receive nothing. The moral and economic rights to Larsson's work reverted to his father and brother, who apparently aren't sharing. Sharing what? Let's see:
An amicable settlement might have been possible in the beginning. But the situation was instantly complicated by publication of Larsson's first book in the summer of 2005 and its runaway success. In Sweden alone, 3.5 million copies of his novels have been sold, about one for every three people. Worldwide sales exceed 20 million in 41 countries.
  • Stephanie McMillian, at Counterpunch, calls out Jared Diamond for shilling for large corporations. Here's an example:
The motivations for these companies to reign in their destruction of the world are, without exception, self-serving and purely concerned with the bottom line. It costs too much to clean up oil spills, retrofit factories, and crush angry natives. Diamond’s sympathies are 100% in line with this, and his only desire seems to be to assist these corporations in their accumulation of profit. “We should reward companies that work to keep the planet healthy,” he urges. He doesn’t express the slightest concern for the well-being of the natural world itself or for the living beings who comprise it.

He talks about the challenges that Coca-Cola faces in finding acceptable sources of water, and tries to convince us that “Hence Coca-Cola’s survival compels it to be deeply concerned with problems of water scarcity, energy, climate change and agriculture.” But the obvious point remains unsaid: Coke is not a necessity. It is in fact harmful to those who drink it. We don’t NEED to solve the problem of how Coca-Cola obtains water, or provide incentives for them to do it less destructively, because they could just fucking stop making it. Now there’s a simple solution.
  • Kirkus Reviews shuts down. It was a trade journal on book reviews for librarians; you might know it from the occasional citation on Amazon.
  • And, 200 Waldenbooks stores are shutting down, which has brought some attention to the industry practice of trashing books after ripping of their front cover (the front cover is returned to the publisher for credit).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The New Course Description

The new, emboldened doctor has a new course description for his class entitled 'Great Philosophers':

It is a good question, in the year 2010, to ask why we should talk about ‘Great’ philosophers. A title such as this seems to indicate a set of essential qualities of both greatness and what it takes to be a philosopher. To our more skeptical eyes, a decade after the turn of the 21st century, it seems to be an anachronism. Do not the ‘Great’ philosophers overlap with a particular image of society that is overly white, European, bourgeois, and imperial? Have not the very promises of philosophy or even civilization been used to oppress those excluded? Minorities? The colonialized? The poor? Women?

And yet, is there not a promise in some of the ideas that continuously reappear in the history of philosophy that make it worth learning, appropriating, and even worth fighting for? Does not philosophy diagnose our situation with concepts such as modern alienation, or provide arguments for understanding the relationship between the self and society? Does it not affirm, in the face of oppression, the possibilities of subjectivity and political agency, freedom, and liberation?

This class is an investigation into this contradiction at the heart of the history of philosophy: while it has often reinforced the prejudices of the ruling elite, or of society, it has also offered the promise of a better, more egalitarian, world. While we will not resolve this contradiction, in reading the ‘canon,’ –which includes Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Rousseau– along with its critics –including Marx, Engels, de Beauvoir and Césaire– we will discover some of the conceptual tools that will allow us to think critically about what it means to do philosophy.

In a Greener World

Straight to the point, from Naomi Klein's "Copenhagen: Where Africa Took on Obama" (in The Nation):
The highlight of my first day at COP15 was a conversation with the extraordinary Nigerian poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International. [...]

The solution for Bassey is not carbon trading or sinks but "serious emissions cuts at the source. Leave the oil in the ground, leave the coal in the hole, leave the tar sands in the land."
Change that first line to "oil in the soil" and Bassey's got something...and I recommend you read the rest.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Peter Linebaugh's Magna Carta Manifesto

I find it difficult to read a book by Peter Linebaugh without it conjuring the memories of doing my Master's Degree at the University of Toledo. Not that I did my MA in Toledo's history department; I did it in philosophy. But in the two years I lived in Toledo I got to know many of his graduate students; a few of us held a weekly reading group focused on the Grundrisse and Capital, and eventually through this group, as we became good friends, I met Peter, who, I recall, teased me mercilessly about working (at the time) on Heidegger and Jean-Luc Nancy. Attribute it to being a philosophy grad at a history party (in this case a barbecue at his place). Not that it was all fun and games; I also recall a fairly intensive discussion with him on the merits of Foucault for historical study.

No matter the personal details, working through Marx with his students and reading the work of Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (the co-authored Many-Headed Hydra, and Rediker's Villains of All Nations and The Slave Ship) re-introduced me to 'history from below.' Years before I had already read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, but it was through the more recent work of Linebaugh (who was a student of E.P. Thompson), Rediker and company that I could see how well the approach was flourishing. Even if it is hard to reconcile this approach of the history from below with the 'history of ideas' approach to philosophy, I still find both useful for animating the questions I ask of my own work and the work of the students whom I teach.

Linebaugh's latest book is The Magna Carta Manifesto, which follows the use and abuse of the Magna Carta, and the practical erasure of its companion-charter, the Charter of the Forests, from their declaration in 13th century England to our contemporary times. The two charters address what may be artificially divided into formal rights and economic justice. I say 'artificially' because Linebaugh's entire argument-- and a forceful and correct one at that-- is that what we now call formal rights cannot be guaranteed without the accompanying rights of economic justice, the latter of which require transforming the relationships between people and the means of production.

Linebaugh follows the history of Magna Carta as it is by turns interpreted as a testimony to the 'superiority' of Anglo-Saxon heritage by the ruling class, and as it returns in social struggle as the "emergency brake on accelerating state despotism." He shows that the power of the Magna Carta is at its strongest when it is utilized to curb despotism, and that this power is not derived from an exegetical fetishism of hallowed documents, but through the struggle of the oppressed.

This struggle, in the Magna Carta Manifesto, has a specific name: commoning, taken in a verbal sense-- a practice or activity-- and not in a substantive sense. The emphasis on commoning is underlined by Linebaugh's attention to that other charter, the Charter of the Forests. That this document has been forgotten over time is no overstatement. It is to Linebaugh's great credit that he revives the material aspect of these charters by showing that when the king's power was curtailed that this included documenting the rights of the peasants to commoning. That is, people had right to the forest to provide for their livelihood, not as individuals, but as a community. The book focuses less on the actual charter (which fell out of legal and intellectual debates after the 17th century) in order to underline the fact that the expansion of imperialism relied (and still relies) on destroying, in each successive conquest, the commoning of those colonialized.

The importance of showing the predominance of commoning before capitalist imperialism is to show that a world outside of the commodity form is neither 'primative,' nor lost somewhere in the 'state of nature,' nor utopian. Up until recently, it was still a well-recognized practice. The memory of commoning, which Linebaugh also excavates, can be traced in various locations until sometime in the late 19th century (when in terms of land), and in terms of 'ideas', I would say is alive and well today in recent uses of the internet to establish intellectual commons (including calls for net neutrality, shareware, and the reduction of the duration of intellectual property rights and patents). For Linebaugh it is time to put the end to two "intellectual tics" that have hampered discussions of the commons:
One goes back to the 1790s and arose against the romantic movement; the other developed against the communist movement of the twentieth century. The first scorned utopia and the second denounced totalitarianism; one became the condescending term for all that is foolish, the other the pompous designation for all that is hideous. Yet under the circumstances of actually existing commons, they were irrelevant (273).
While Linebaugh emphasizes the character of commoning as 'local' and the fact that it "expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature" (279), I would also stress the intellectual character of these relationships. This aspect is already prepared in The Magna Carta Manifesto when he discusses the British expropriation of local knowledge of flora of fauna in the colonization of India, or when he notes the false conception that corn, tomatoes or the forest were the 'bounty of nature' when they were products of Native American culture (244). This theft is not of yesteryear, it continues to this day as multinational corporations patent customary knowledge stolen from the Global South. The fight against intellectual theft is just as important to anti-capitalist struggle as the redistribution of land and practices oriented toward sustainable ecology. At a time when both sustainability and self-determination remain precarious, the Magna Carta Manifesto is a sharp reminder that guarantees of civil rights are only as strong as guarantees of economic justice.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Natacha Merrit's "Digital Diaries"


Way back at the turn of the century when this collection of erotic photography came out, Natcha Merrit was possibly on to something. Her book comprises several photo shoots, essays and interviews which are intended to convey a raw, emergent sexuality employing the immediacy, and arguably the high-tech squalor, of new digital media. The book first caught my attention in 2006, but it was only this past weekend, when I found it on hyper-reduced clearance in Toronto, that I bought my own copy and gave it a proper peruse. I've chosen to review it here because taking a glance at it three years later, I was overwhelmed with questions concerning what my friends studying Walter Benjamin might call "aura loss".

Merrit, who was 21 at the time of this publication (2000), is conventionally attractive; so are most of her friends and sexual partners featured in the book. What differentiates her work from run of the mill erotica are the photographic techniques employed; largely "arm's length" shots which result in very partial, gritty, up-close depictions of the bodies and sex acts involved. She employs a variety of digital cameras, and the differences and effects are telling; a representative photo jars the viewer with a conventional worm's eye view pose revealing a small strip of Merrit's razor-burned pubic area. The mantra is one of rawness, immediacy, the blurring of the lines between photographer and photographed, and the feel of something young, new, and unapologetic.

Even three years ago, seeing this for the first time on the book store shelves, I couldn't help but see what it wanted me to see. Now, having been awash in constantly updated, rotated and manipulated facebook vanity pictures for more than two years, the book tells me something different. I see Merritt as a relatively high-tech, arty and more explicit version of what millions of other 21-year-olds (and to be sure, some 30 and 40 year olds) are also doing; inserting their glossy pouts or bored, carefully poised expressions into every place and event they photograph. (Seriously facebook people, why do you continue to confuse "sexy" with "bored/miserable"?) What might have been a radical jesture at the time has, perhaps, been recuperated in sanitized form by mass culture. But I would suggest, further, that this recuperation was made all too easy by Merrit herself. What do we learn about the raw, emergent sexuality that she documents? Precisely that beautiful people can stage, record and market their own slightly kinky, slightly experimental erotic experiences. There is little challenge here to how we convey beauty or sexual desire; the impression is often that the only thing to have changed is the technology and the camera angles.

All of this is not to say that Merritt's photos are uninteresting. I'd go so far as to call some of them exquisite. But the aura of raw, renegade youth has to a significant extent bled into a general photographic culture of narcissism.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday Slacking

It's true. We've been slacking off at the end of the semester. These things happen (and watching the first season of Mad Men hasn't helped...). You might want to catch up on your climate change news, adventures in Memphis, or even procrastinating. With the dissertation out of the way, though, I will have more time to return to the craft.

I highly recommend reading a review of Carol Slenicka's biography on Raymond Carver and a volume of his collected stories. I've been giving the NYT Book Review a bit of grief lately, for reasons that I hope to explain soon, but this piece really took me by surprise. To get the full experience, I recommend not looking at the author of the review, and when you get to page three, you are going to be pretty astounded. Most of the review focuses on how Gordon Lish edited the life out of many of Carver's stories, a sentiment that I have shared and ranted about to friends. So much that I would rather have people start with Cathedral rather than What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

I suppose all of us writers hate editing...but this is too much:
Sklenicka’s account of the changes in Carver’s third book of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981), is meticulous and heartbreaking. There were, she says, three versions: A, B and C. Version A was the manuscript Car­ver submitted. It was titled “So Much Water So Close to Home.” B was the manuscript Lish initially sent back. He changed the name of the story “Beginners” to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and that became the new title of the book. Although Carver was disturbed by this, he nonetheless signed a binding (and unagented) contract in 1980. Soon after, Version C — the version most readers know — arrived on Carver’s desk. The differences between B and C “astounded” him. “He had urged Lish to take a pencil to the stories,” Skle­nicka writes. “He had not expected . . . a meat cleaver.” Unsure of himself, Carver was only three years into sobriety after two decades of heavy drinking; his correspondence with Lish over the wholesale changes to his work alternated between groveling (“you are a wonder, a genius”) and outright begging for a return to Version B. It did no good. According to Tess Gallagher, Lish refused by telephone to restore the earlier version, and if Carver understood nothing else, he understood that Lish held the “power of publication access.”
Might I also suggest a few other pieces:
  • John Oakes on his new business, OR Books, which he founded with Colin Robinson, who has worked with New Press and my old favorite Verso. OR is responsible for Going Rouge, a collection of articles on that gov'nor of Alaska.
  • The illustrious Sean Moreland, victim of computer trouble and poet extraordinaire, (with a few of my other friends, Jamie Bradley and Christine McNair) has been recently published in experiment-o.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Canada and Copenhagen

As you probably know, the UN Climate Change Conference begins next week, and you probably already know that it has been greeted with a pretty strong air of skepticism, especially because there is so much money changing hands to prevent any kind of meaningful action against climate change. What you probably don't know, unless you are a high level news consumer, is that Canada-- by that I mean the Canadian government, which is a minority government run by the conservatives-- is actively working to sabotage international measures to reduce carbon emissions.

Most people have a fairly to strongly positive view of Canada (here, unlike my other references, I am not talking about the Conservative government), and in many ways that is justified. But this positive view of Canada has masked all that the current government has done to prevent meaningful environmental protections in the name of 'jobs' (which means Harper's friends' jobs at the top of the corporate ladder).* The Copenhagen summit has brought forth some negative press, which means people are starting to notice how Canada's support of the tar sands is the wrong way toward the future. Instead of leading the effort in green technology, the conservative government seems to think turning the country into a petro-state with a single export economy is a great idea.

George Monbiot has summarized Canada's actions in his article "The Most Urgent Threat to World Peace is...Canada." Why the title? There have been several reports that global catastrophe in the 21st century will be driven by climate change. Canada has already ignored its obligations to the Kyoto treaty, but it gets worse. As Monbiot writes,
After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations from striking a successor agreement. At the end of 2007 it single-handedly blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding targets for industrialised nations. After the climate talks in Poland in December 2008, it won the Fossil of the Year award, presented by environmental groups to the country which had done most to disrupt the talks. The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world’s 60 richest nations, was published in the same month. Saudi Arabia came 60th. Canada came 59th.
I don't often associate Canada with Saudi Arabia, because the latter certainly isn't a good neighbor. In fact, Canada's old friends aren't so sure they like who the big C has been hanging out with. At the recent Commonwealth summit (I swear, I am not used to this British empire talk) a proposal was introduced to exclude Canada from the Commonwealth.
In the past, the Commonwealth has suspended Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and South Africa for electoral or human rights reasons. Now, The World Development Movement, the Polaris Institute in Canada and Greenpeace have called for Canada to be suspended from the Commonwealth over its climate change policies, the Guardian reports. [...]

"If the Commonwealth is serious about holding its members to account, then threatening the lives of millions of people in developing countries should lead to the suspension of Canada's membership immediately," says Saleemul Huq, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change according to the newspaper.

Canada's greenhouse gas emissions are among the world's highest, and the country will not meet the cut required under the Kyoto protocol: by 2007 its emissions were 34% above its reduction target.
As an American I must drive my Canadian friends crazy because I continue to insist that the Conservatives are working hard on demolishing all the things that make Canada a decent place to live. The environment is one of these things. But if I sound too critical, let's take an op-ed from the Globe and Mail, no Marxist smarty-pants paper. Here's Jeffrey Simpson, who concludes,
The world has sized up the Harperites, studied their policies, noted the Prime Minister's lack of commitment, observed the government's exit ramps and is awaiting another shabby Canadian performance marked by spin at home and lack of substance abroad.
For those of you who take Monbiot or myself to be too strident, Simpson acknowledges that other countries haven't taken climate change and carbon reduction seriously either, but he doesn't allow that to get in the way of the hypocrisy of Harper's team. The difference between the US, China, Brazil and Harper's government, is that the Canadian public can confront or change the latter.


The lone footnote:

*Let's be fair though: petrodollars are so strong that the Liberals would pocket, rather than counter, such a currency.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

More About Memphis

Another fellow traveler from the Sartre conference has posted a blog entry about his time in Memphis, and it almost feels like he and I visited different cities. Here's the reason: I spent most of my time either at panels (including his paper) or thinking about defending my dissertation, because I had just found out about the tentative date for the defense right before I left for Memphis. So I envy the apparently two-three hour span he spent wandering around the city between conference events, because he really had a chance to let the city lull in his experience, whereas I was pretty much running around the whole time. I recommend reading his piece here. I took in some of the sights, and I can picture them in his description. I just wish I would have had a clearer head to take them in.

He describes in great detail the sense of disorientation that the National Civil Rights Museum can produce:
I heard my mind say: "What an odd place for a shitty motel." But instantly, of course it hit me. Of course I knew that they'd preserved the facade of the motel Martin Luther King Jr. was staying at when he was murdered. And of course I'd seen that very motel countless times before. Of course I knew exactly where he'd been standing when he was shot without having to see the large memorial wreath hanging from the wrought iron balustrade.

My mind had been thinking it had seen countless motels just like that one before. I have no idea how many motels I've stayed in just like that.
The author goes on to describe the fact that we often view history as something detached from our own world (think of most of Washington D.C.'s 'founding father' architecture here), which explains some of the cognitive dissonance the facade of the Lorraine Motel produces. But it's a striking reminder that history is made in precisely many of these countless places, not in buildings with Doric columns.

Yet what struck me was that for many in the South at the time, 1968 may have been the high tide of historical opportunity, whereas today something like the Lorraine Motel facade/NCR Museum might be less the site of what has been accomplished than it is a reminder of how much remains to be done.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Chain Factor

I was going to write something today for the blog, but then my friend Michele sent me this online game: Chain Factor.

Tom first originally introduced me to the game when I was in Portland in 2008, and I played it while nursing a hangover. I didn't think about it again until recently when I was trying to avoid working on a paper for a conference.

Click at your own risk.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Post-thesis Sunday

Unlike the last few Sundays, I will say that, here at The Notes Taken, not much has been happening. Our contributors are graduate students or professors, and the end of November is the beginning of the end of the semester. For myself, the last two weeks included a conference in Memphis, trying to write an abstract for a conference in June, and my thesis defense.

Regarding the defense, it's still too close for me to get some perspective on it. I plan to write about the process once the final draft has been submitted to the Faculty, which I project to be around December 9, if not earlier, because I passed with no revisions, only corrections of grammatical errors, etc. I would like to say, however, that a friend of mine, who also started the same semester as myself (Fall 2004), successfully defended his thesis on Friday. So I would like to send out a congratulations to Robbie Moser.

Though things on the blog were brief this week during upcoming week I will be working on several pieces, including one about how not to write a book review, taking as my focus one published in the NY Times.

If you have some spare time, I suggest checking out the geography of a recession, and also John Richardson's "Bacon Agonistes" in the New York Review of Books, especially if you would like to know why, as Richardson writes,
Setting twentieth-century kinkmeisters against Renaissance masters has evidently paid off, and attracted a vast new public into museums they might not have otherwise visited.
Now's also a good time to catch up on all our posts in November; thus far we've published 29 (including this one) in 29 days.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Benjamin's Writings on Hashish

I've been trying to work up an abstract on Walter Benjamin for the CPA meeting in June for a panel on German philosophy with two friends. With all that has been going on lately, I haven't really had a chance to do so, which is complicated by the nature of Benjamin's work, being quite diverse and yet singular. So I've posted this piece for some motivation (it's due on Monday), and for all of those who have been nice enough to visit the site on the recommendation of The Tao of Stieb. This review was originally published in De Philosophia, Volume 19, number 2, page 124.

The recent interest in this translation of Walter Benjamin’s texts on hashish seems to indicate that the general reading public maintains a greater interest in drug-literature than philosophy. Or, perhaps, this book forms the comical obverse of the proliferation of volumes such as On Belief, On Authenticity, et cetera. Typically, one’s journals never face the scrutiny of broad readership, but apparently hashish should not be left to specialists. As such, On Hashish takes the form of a light-hearted chapter in what is often considered as Benjamin’s pensive, and terminally tragic, biography.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is composed of Benjamin’s protocols of drug experimentation. Some are written by him, while others are composed by either the doctors administering the dose, or Benjamin’s friends. The second part of the book compiles several completed texts, along with excerpts from other texts and letters with passages on intoxication. Despite Benjamin’s repeated complaints concerning dosage, the protocols are nothing like the libertarian hedonism of say William S. Burroughs. Benjamin’s interest in hashish and opium had a basis in both literature– especially Baudelaire’s Paradis artificiels (144)– and his philosophical-political preoccupations, which fall somewhere between the Frankfurt School and Bataille’s Collège de Sociologie.

What is notable in Benjamin’s texts is the refusal to give intoxicated experience a mystical status. Instead, as in the excerpts from his essay “Surrealism,” intoxication provides the possibility of what he calls “profane illumination,” a materialist anthropology. However, in a properly dialectical twist, the immediate experience of intoxication is overtaken by the concepts which allow us to find the surprises of intoxication in the everyday world. Thus, “the most passionate investigation of hashish intoxication will not teach us half so much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic) as the profane illumination of thinking will teach us about hashish intoxication (133-134).” This dialectical approach is much more apparent in the finished texts, while the protocols record the brief hallucinations, non sequiturs, erratic behaviors (for instance, Benjamin– apparently sober– “offers a light when J picks up a wafer”) and fleeting lucidity.

The bulk of the finished texts are comprised of two stories: “Myslovice–Braunschweig–Marseilles” and “Hashish in Marseilles.” Both draw heavily on the fourth protocol, dated Saturday, September 29, 1928. A Freudian knows that the true story is in repetition: first, we encounter a rather literary set of notes (the protocol); second, a version published in 1930 which Benjamin ascribes to a fictional character; and finally, a ‘memoir’ version published in 1932. Between the slips and displacements, the reader is left to reflect upon questions of narrative, intoxication, and identity; if, of course, these reflections have not been interrupted with bursts of laughter…

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thesis Defense


Here it is (update: don't forget my posts--here and here-- on Schelling's work):

Ph.D. Philosophy; Thesis Defense

Devin Zane Shaw: Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art

Thursday, November 26th, 2009 at 9:00 a.m. in Room DMS 3105, Desmarais Hall (55 Laurier East)

Thesis Supervisor: Dr. Jeffrey Reid

External Examiner: Dr. Frederick Beiser (Syracuse University)

Internal Examiners (in alphabetical order): Dr. Denis Dumas, Dr. Douglas Moggach, Dr. Sonia Sikka

President: Dr. Hilliard Aronovitch

Bienvenue à tous Welcome to all

Thoughts on the Sartre Conference

I can't say I saw too much of Memphis (mainly the neighborhood at Cooper/Young, Beale Street and the National Civil Rights Museum), but I can say that I saw a lot of good papers at the most recent North American Sartre Society meeting, and that I met a lot of good people.

Before going, I was struck by how the conference was organized: the papers were held on the University of Memphis campus, but there was also a performance of Sartre's No Exit at the Brooks Museum on Thursday night and the keynote addresses and dinner at the Civil Rights Museum. For most conference organizers, multiple destinations over a city as large as Memphis, pose a lot of logistical problems, but the NASS organizers pulled it off admirably.

The conference was an excellent time. The staged reading of No Exit was so strong that it was easy to forget that the actors were holding their scripts through parts. I would reference the director, but her name is not in the schedule, which is too bad: she deserves a lot of credit for her work.

The plenary session on the anniversary of the Critique de la raison dialectique, including talks by Robert Bernasconi, Ronald Aronson, and Thomas Flynn, was thought provoking, and during the question period, Flynn's quick wit carried the day. The panel on Aronson's Living without God was also a high point, with contributions from Adrian van den Hoven, Ron Santoni, and Matt Eshleman. To list all the people I met and all the good conversations I had would be a bit much, but I can note that Bill Martin convinced me that I should be reading the later Althusser, which I already knew, but was just trying to put off. Needless to say, when I returned home I ordered a copy.

Most importantly, the conference motivated me to keep working on Sartre and the questions and problems that I find in his work, that it is worth taking up a new project and seeing where it goes, and (almost) wherever it goes, the next Sartre society meeting will be willing to listen. The organizers, primarily (to my knowledge) Christine Daigle and Jonathan Judaken, deserve praise for their efforts to make the conference both welcoming and worthwhile.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sunday and David Foster Wallace


November has seen a lot of literary-philosophical in-review action here at The Notes Taken (with pieces, this week, on colonialism and more colonialism, California, Zizek's latest, travel reading, and Maoism in Nepal) which I have been enjoying from afar as a mere fly on the wall (one of the perverse ironies of teaching literature being the lack of time it allows for actually reading new books). For the last two weeks I've been going through David Foster Wallace's illimitable, inimitable magnum opus, Infinite Jest, with my American lit Honours seminar class at Nipissing U., and so but my review this week explores some of the highlights of D.F.W.'s web presence.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank to Marc Pritchard, Devin Shaw and Khalia Scott, whose recommendations finally motivated me to read Infinite Jest back in 2007, an unforgettable and life-altering experience that, while it nearly prevented me from completing my doctoral thesis on Brockden Brown and Poe, induced a number of nights of near-sleepless, blink-eyed over-poring, and left me with an over-powering urge to make unintelligibly pseudo-Hegelian declarations about the end and overcoming of postmodern fiction, was eminently worth the danger. I'd also like to thank diligent Nipissing students Leila Dunn, Jennifer Bennison, Kyla Morin and Shawn Fetterley for sharing some of these links, as well as their own thoughts on the novel (which I felt like Gerhardt Schtitt for assigning to undergrads, but which has made at least some converted Infinite Jesters.)

Here is the David Foster Wallace Wiki, which features links to many of the best web entries on Wallace, which (aside from the Lipsky article) I won't reproduce here - a great resource for anybody reading (which is to say by default both working on and playing with) the novel. It also features spoiler-free, page-by-page annotations to the novel.

Here is David Lipsky's moving and highly insightful account of Wallace's life and writing for Rolling Stone.

Here are a number of links to audio interviews with David Foster Wallace, including an interview with Michael Silverblatt recorded just after the publication of Infinite Jest, where Wallace discusses the importance of fractals and other elements that influenced the novel's evolving structure, and Silverblatt's commentary on learning of Wallace's death.

Here is the Harper's (shortened) version of Wallace's essay "Tense Present," which appears in its gloriously prolix full-length form in the collection Consider the Lobster.

Speaking of lobsters, here is an extract from that book's titular essay, used by a website on vegetarianism. It also includes a little biographical information on Wallace (who was not, as he confesses in "Consider the Lobster," himself a vegetarian, although he couldn't quell his ethical qualms about eating meat.)

Here is the online version of the full article, as published in Gourmet magazine (I find the juxtaposition of these two venues too delicious to pass up.)

Here is a brief meditation for The Atlantic by D.F.W. on terrorism

Here is a recently post-I.J. interview with Wallace by Valerie Stivers (her account of her nervousness prior to meeting him, esp. her musing about what H.I.D. may have been hidden by his photo-pervasive bandanna, is hilarious)

Here is a New Yorker article on Wallace's struggles writing his last (and soon to be posthumously published, although unfinished) novel, The Pale King

Here is a New York Times obituary of Wallace and review of his writing.

Here is a Wall Street Journal article that summarizes Wallace's Kenyon commencement speech (which was formerly available online, but has since been copyright-tightened due to the publication of the quasi-koan-like, over-spaced edition, which you can buy here, if you are so inclined, paying for one to two sentences per page and dooming countless trees).
http://www.amazon.com/dp/0316068225/ref%3Dasc_df_0316068225911777/%3Ftag%3Daskcomel-20%26creative%3D380333%26creativeASIN%3D0316068225%26linkCode%3Dasn
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122178211966454607.html

Here is "Infinitely Sad," Troy Patterson's retrospective article on Wallace, which explores Wallace's ambivalence toward literary Narcissism.

Here is a useful collection of links to critical responses, most of them early, to Infinite Jest.

Here is a glossary of terms from the book, each linked to its definition and etymology on answers.com (not as thorough as DFW's beloved OED, but it's a start)

Here is a link with some excerpts from Robert Bell and William Dowling's A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest (which I have not yet read - the book, I mean, not the excerpts).

Here is a link to the Infinite Summer forum, a product of the e-collective reading of the novel that went on during the summer of 2009, a project which is beautifully apropos of the novel's preoccupation with isolation and the quest for community,

Here is a link to Gerry Canavan's blog, with an in-process discussion of irony, consumerism, and Johnny's Gentle's Reaganesque presidency in the novel (on that note, I just realized during my re-read that Chretien (aka "J.J.J.C.") is still the Prime Minister - err, I mean the "Secretary of State" of Canada during the novel, Wallace's prescience perhaps lacking the pessimism necessary to foresee our current P.M., with whom Pres. Gentle would no doubt get along rather smashingly.)

Finally, here is a chatroom-convo from 1996 in which "dfw" (either the author, or a clever impostor) makes some tantalizing observations about I.J. (and some funny typos, too).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marx, Lenin, Mao, Nepal?

The recent political struggle in Nepal has taken a course that, ideologically, couldn't seem less possible in the 21st century: there the Maoist party (now called the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist) took up armed struggle in 1996 against the repression of Nepal's government, and in the last few years has brought down the monarchy and restored parliamentary democracy. Despite this, social struggle in Nepal has not drawn the same kind of attention that the Bolivarian Revolution has. There are few books about the subject, and even articles that are not ideologically loaded against the struggle are difficult to find (for the non-expert). For books, after some research, I chose Li Onesto's Dispatches from the People's War in Nepal (Pluto, 2004), which is written with much sympathy for the struggle, but not without some criticism.

Obviously, that book's story ends five years ago. For more recent developments, I recommend reading Gary Leupp's article "The Andolan in Kathmandu and the Revolution to Follow" (in Counterpunch), about the more recent political struggle in Nepal. By 2005, the Maoist party controlled 80 percent of the country, and, as Leupp summarizes,
agreed to the 2006 Comprehensive Agreement with the political parties whereby they would all jointly work to bring down the king, restoring parliamentary democracy, while the Maoists would lay down their arms under UN supervision, ending the war. A key provision of the Agreement was that the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army be integrated into the Nepali Army (formerly the Royal Nepali Army).The Maoists also demanded the convening of a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution, and the proclamation of a republic. They won these demands, and in the April 2008 elections for the assembly, won 38% of the vote, twice the number of the next party.
To say that is was a surprise to many Western commentators that the Maoist party-- which, incidentally, is not on good terms with post-Maoist China-- won an election after setting down its arms would be an understatement.

However, when the Nepali army refused to integrate, the Maoists quit the government and returned to extra-parliamentary tactics with the goal of forcing the integration of the military. The basic idea behind this move is that without an integrated military, there is no possibility of true "civilian supremacy," because the military is not neutralized as a political force. According to Leupp, the UN Mission in Nepal, with very little ideological interest in doing so, has found that the government is at fault. Leupp concludes,
the Maoists who now boast they have all Kathmandu behind them can say much of the world as represented by the UN secretary general agrees with their goal of “civilian supremacy,” and that the 22-party coalition with the UML and Congress at its head, linked to the Army, India and ultimately U.S. imperialism is the isolated, marginalized force.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Imperial Projects in Peripheral Madness



Foucault has asserted that a great confinement took place in Europe, with the proliferation of the asylum, during the early modern period. Waltraud Ernst’s Mad Tales from the Raj: the European Insane in British India, 1800 – 1858, published by Routledge in 1991, investigates the role of the Asylum in India and attempts to ascertain whether this can be said of its propagation there. She seeks to understand the relationship of the institution to the colonial project in the British Empire. She was originally trained as a cultural psychologist and now teaches and researches the history of western medicine during the modern period. In this book she uses her knowledge of psychology to investigate some of the treatment strategies of the European soldiers put in the care of the mental health professionals in India. This book spreads itself awfully thin in terms of the treatment of several topics, especially given how petite it is, less than 200 pages, yet to her credit Ernst accomplishes this feat.

Ernst sums her goal in writing this work as a twofold endeavor to elucidate the relationship of the mental asylum to colonialism and to develop a theoretical framework in which to understand mental health in its socio-political context. While there is no doubt that Ernst successfully tells a good story as to the loci of the European insane within the European colonial context. Additionally she seeks to examine the role the clinic had on the treatment of the insane as well. A lot of references are made to Foucault, where Ernst is quick to accuse him of playing fast and loose with the historical record. She furthermore indicates that asylums were not anywhere near the Panopticons that one is made to believe in reading Foucault. She also gives passing glances to the notion that the clinics played a role in the establishing of colonial domination, instead argumentatively favoring the idea that the clinics were established as a last ditch effort to save European face in the colonial context.Europeans, she discovered, did not want their own seen by Indians as susceptible to insanity and were quick to either remove them back to Europe or else hide them in the clinics established in India. Which doesn't undermine arguments about colonial legitimacy. There is definitely more room to expand in this analysis.

While the work mobilizes a lot of primary material, very little thick analysis is proffered. Instead the book fills a void in a dearth of knowledge about the introduction of the treatment of mental health in India. She excellently gives a sweeping overview of the half century this book covers but much remains to be done on several levels. While she couldn’t have been expected to expound on every detail of the multiple topics this book stretches across, it nonetheless argues its topics lucidly and with quite a bit of humor.

First as Tragedy, then as Farce


Slavoj Zizek's new book (Verso, 2009) examines the current world financial crisis and attempts to delineate a coherent Leftist response. The book is relatively accessible, and readers frustrated by his unruly and largely redundant previous effort In Defense of Lost Causes will find Zizek back in top critical form.

The current crisis is read in light of a comment of Marx's, to the effect that historical events must occur twice: first as tragedy, then as farce. September 11, 2001 (treated previously by Zizek in the engaging Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Verso 2002) was the tragic moment showing the naive utopianism of the Fukuyamean/Clintonite "happy 90's"; the bailout of banks and manufacturers by Congress is its farcical repitition (farcical because, among other things, it answers this naive utopianism with the spectacle of failed millionaires being put on a kind of welfare). As always, Zizek zeroes in on the counter-intuitive features of his historical conjuncture - the populist Right is after the wrong targets, the liberal Left is shoring up the big companies - with a view to unmasking their ideological core.

The second half of the book concerns the "communist hypothesis" (Badiou's term) in the present conjuncture. The communist hypothesis, discussed by Badiou in recent texts, is the hypothesis that communism is the right political solution (accepting, of course, that attempts to work it out have hitherto failed). Zizek bets on this hypothesis; he emphasizes however that whereas both Actually Existing Socialism and contemporary liberal capitalism belie an utopian core, his communism is not guilty of a happy Hegelianism that would count history on its side. Rather, Zizek maintains that the Left should assume a coming social / environmental / biogenetic catastrophe, and work backwards to how it might have been stopped. In short, Zizek sees the task of the Left as stopping history in its tracks by communist means and for communist aims. One sees again his affinity for Lenin, who it will be recalled was a voluntarist, strategic reader of Hegel.

Some of the prescriptive vagueness of In Defense of Lost Causes is repeated here, but I believe that Zizek gives the outline of what could prove a compelling philosophical argument for a communist response. He lives up to his reputation for weaving philosophy, pop culture, politics and psychoanalysis into an engaging whole; ultimately, however, the philosophical meat of his arguments is to be sought in earlier texts (now on Verso as "The Essential Zizek").

Travel Reading


Traveling imposes its own kind of reading schedule, being that there are numerous external limitations to what one can plan on reading: the size of one's luggage or carry on bag, the size of the books, the time of the flight, layovers, etc. Each has their own specific challenge. I find that if I fly early in the morning, or red-eye, novels are probably the best, but no James Joyce or David Foster Wallace. Nabokov works sometimes (I read Laughter in the Dark on a red-eye), so does Michel Houellebecq (just read one though; my friend Mark reports that he's crossed parts of The Possibility of an Island and Whatever, because he read them on the round-trip from Ottawa to Glasgow for a conference) but I've probably read more Vonnegut novels on airplanes than I have any other author. That includes parts of Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, Timequake, and maybe also parts of A Man without a Country. For my morning flight to Memphis, I've decided to try Jailbird. It's not that my decision is based on ease. It's based on organization: Vonnegut's short chapters and sections make for a good read when there are constant interruptions to one's attention span.

I'm also taking Zizek's First as Tragedy, Then as Farce for my flight back (in the afternoon), and Michael Lowy's Fire Alarm (on Walter Benjamin), so that I can try, unrealistically, to work a bit on an abstract about Benjamin's concept of history.

And then, of course, there's the whole Sartre conference...which is why I'm going in the first place.

Tomorrow, I will have a post up about Nepal, thanks to Blogspot's ability to schedule the publication ahead of time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

California Inaction

For my friends in the Central Valley, or who are from there, Mother Jones has published an article by Josh Harkinson called "The New Dust Bowl." It focuses on the plight of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants, who are some of the least protected when an economy collapses:
The sudden collapse of the Central Valley's economy illustrates how climate change can push a fragile region over the edge. Already vulnerable from rampant housing speculation and a dependence on industrial agriculture, the valley never prepared for a prolonged spate of bad weather. In 2008, local bankruptcy filings jumped 74 percent—from about 15,300 to 27,000—a rate of increase twice the national average. Three of the valley's counties were among the nation's six worst for foreclosures, with nearly 85,000 houses lost. The drought is expected to dry up a billion dollars in income and 35,000 jobs, adding to a statewide unemployment rate that recently hit 11.9 percent—the highest since the eve of World War II.
I'm not sure this is the most appropriate place to bring it up, but there's not much the state can do about this, due to its greatly restricted budgetary process (For its effects on the CSU system see here, although it has been noted elsewhere that there have been cuts even during 'good years'). Part of the blame rests on Prop. 13 (see Paul Krugman's take) and various other measures that have screwed up the discretionary power of Sacramento, which while that can be a good thing sometimes, has largely contributed to a political 'culture' of passing the blame around to other people.

Of course, the Governator can't really deal with these problems, being that neither Democrats nor his own party take him seriously. So, aside from a statewide garage sale, and appeals to the federal government, what have his people been up to? From the Wall Street Journal:
As of July 2009, California's budget shortfall was 49.3% of its general funds. States have considered drastic options to fill such gaps.

"I looked as hard as I could at how states could declare bankruptcy," said Michael Genest, director of the California Department of Finance who is stepping down at the end of the year. "I literally looked at the federal constitution to see if there was a way for states to return to territory status."

Territory status for one of the world's largest economies? Now that's true California politics inaction.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Imperial Brutality Revisited



The magnitude of the atrocities committed by British colonists in Kenya against the Kikuyu and other groups, in the form of dozens of internee camps and many more villages that had undergone ‘villagization,’ is shocking. Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, published in 2005 by Henry Holt and Company, delineates the tragic and underrepresented narrative of hundreds of thousands of tortured Kenyans. The task undertaken in this work was massive. Elkins tells the story of how British colonialists systematically tortured an entire population of people. Both in the camps and the villages in Kenya, the British Colonial Office waged a campaign of terror for nearly a decade.

Telling the story of such atrocities isn’t a small task. The British colonists cordoned off of an entire people, methodically used of their labor for state and other projects, aimed at psychologically reprogramming those within the camps, and routinely tortured and raped or murdered at will. Imperial Reckoning starts from what Elkins believes to be the roots of the conflict. She tells of the coming of Europeans to Kenya, their settlement, and various missionary activities. She then discusses the problem of scarcity of land and the reserves created by the settlers and the colonial government. European white racism prevailed and laws were enacted with increasing regularity, which marginalized and unfairly treated non-whites. Among these laws were the often discussed ‘pass laws’ used throughout much of the British colonies. In response to these injustices the Kikuyu and other groups banded together and sought justice, often through peaceful channels, and less often militant groups formed which carried out acts of violence on colonial and loyalist agents. In response to the resistance to the unfair rule established by the European settlers, the colonial government began increasingly to hunt down and capture or kill Kikuyu, eventually establishing a monstrous machine of forced labor and torture.

These events are not often spoken of publicly in Kenya itself, nor are these crimes known to most of the world. Elkins wrote that neither official apologies nor reconciliation of any kind existed in Kenya at the time her book was published. A former Mau Mau adherent and object of Britain’s Gulag wrote “I despise them . . . this will only change when everyone knows what happened to us. Maybe then there will be some peace once our people are able to mourn in public.” Though it’s not official the job of an academic to right wrongs or prevent tragedies, perhaps this work can aid in the prevention of such carnage in the future. What else is knowledge for if not to change the trajectory of humanity?

Since the publication of this book Kenya has taken steps to establish Truth and Reconciliation Committees but Amnesty International and other international human rights groups have criticized the bills proffered by the Kenyan government. These groups claim that these committees would simply absolve the criminals of their crimes, among other things. The debate on how to move forward is still underway. But beyond simply prosecuting the wrong doers remains the material reality. The vast majority of Kenyan resources are in the hands of European colonists and their progeny. This book could not be expected to have as it’s scope both the historical recording of this awful chapter and be expected to outline the appropriate means of redressing colonial violence. But Elkins does an incredible job of evoking the spirit of empathy in her reader by carefully describing the gruesome details of this epoch. At the bare minimum this book opens up a channel for dialogue.